Stranger In Your Own Home Town

A personal essay on what it is like to be gay in America.

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute... The principle requires liberty of taste and pursuit; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong."
--John Stuart Mill On Liberty

Why This Essay?

As a gay rights activist of some experience, I have encountered a recurring problem.

The problem that I keep facing is that I can't seem to describe to a heterosexual what it is actually like to be gay.

To explain: most Americans have never lived, indeed, never even visited a foreign culture, a place where they are not neccessarily liked or accepted, nor a place where they don't fit. Because of this, they seem to have no real way of relating to the experience of being different in a fundamental way.

So this essay is to hopefully give the curious heterosexual a tiny bit of insight into what it is like to be gay in a culture that rejects homosexuality. And hopefully, lead to a bit of understanding.

The Nature Of The Experience From An Early Age

First of all, I have to explain that being gay isn't simply some choice one makes about who to come home to after work, and who you kiss on the cheek when you arrive. Being gay isn't a choice one consciously (or unconsciously) makes about who one wishes to bed down with.

Rather, being gay is much, much more fundamental. Being gay is a deep, basic, even intrinsic part of personal identity. It is something that is so fundamental, so deeply rooted, that most of us gays knew very early on, even as preschoolers, that there was something fundamentally different about us, even from an age so young that sexuality is a complete unknown. For me, it is among the earliest memories I have -- as a four-year old -- that somehow I was very, very different from the other boys in the neighborhood.

Of course, I didn't know what it was at that age, but it didn't take long to find out. By the time I was eight, I found myself being transfixed by pictures of cowboys and Indians. The cowboys didn't matter, but there was something deeply magical about those young, strong, barechested Indians with their streaming long black hair flying in the wind as they rode their horses across the prairie that transfixed me. I fantasized about being by their side, part of the tribe, and being told stories of the ways of the warriors.

And now, here I was, at age eight, with very strong feelings already, that I could tell no one about. I had figured out already that my deep fascination for older men, particularly for men of a group that in those days was much maligned, was not OK with the rest of the world. I had heard about homosexuality, and knew that it meant men who loved other men but not women, and I wondered if this meant me. I loved my Indian men. The fantasies were powerful and I knew it meant more than just fantasizing about being pals. It meant much more, and I knew it. So I wondered, did being gay mean the feelings I had?

With the stirrings of adolescence, and the increased knowledge that increased exposure to the world brought me, it became apparent that the answer to my question was yes. I was gay. And soon I found myself stirred in new ways, and by other handsome men. It wasn't just my Indians any more. Yet I had heard from the pulpit of the Mormon church I attended, that being gay was evil, corrupt, a desecration of God's gloriously created manhood. You should never choose homosexuality, I was told, because it would lead to your certain destruction.

But I had done nothing wrong. I hadn't chosen anything.

Surely, all this evil corruption of being gay didn't apply to me, simply because I didn't choose it. It just happened, and I couldn't stop it.

But if it was wrong, then I had to try to stop it, and not to allow myself to feel these feelings, because if I allowed them, it was somehow like choosing it, and that meant I was destined for hell. So I was determined to stop it.

As my adolescence began to flower, I noticed I was developing what is now called the "swish." My walk was somewhat exagerated, my speech was starting to become ever so slightly lispy, and I noticed myself occasionally carrying my hands in a limp-wristed fashon. This was really bad news. In fact, it was genuinely frightening.

I could see that anyone behaving in such a fashon at school got a really hard time. Not just a hard time, but got beaten up quite regularly. The anti-gay epithets flew, and anyone suspected of being gay got a lot of really rough treatment. I was determined not to let this happen to me. So I went to work on it. I worked very hard to eliminate any trace of swish from my walk, from the way I carried myself, and from the way I talked.

It took years of hard, determined effort. I watched myself very carefully all the time. It was a constant struggle, from dawn to dusk, every day for years on end. It wasn't till I was in high school that I felt genuinely able to "pass" successfully.

But there was one problem that couldn't be successfully overcome. That was of course, dating. It wasn't that I found women unnattractive; they were, but just not particularly fascinating. I certainly didn't want to spend what little money I had on a woman I had no real interest in. My crushes were on men, not women, and the thought of spending the evening pretending to be interested in a girl I wasn't interested in was downright repulsive.

But I knew I wasn't supposed to feel this way. If I could just control my thoughts somehow, I could end my fascination with the other boys I found myself having crushes on. I could make myself be attracted to women. But how? There weren't any guidebooks on that, and I certainly couldn't go to anyone to ask for help. So I struggled with the problem, silently and alone, avoiding dating. I never attended a single prom, all through middle school and high school. Never once took a girl out on a date, never even wanted to. But with my men, the fascination grew in spite of determined efforts to stop it, and I longed and ached for just once, to be able to take one of my men in my arms and give him a long, tender embrace. Maybe even a kiss.

I couldn't suppress these feelings, no matter how hard I tried. And the world around me wasted no time in making sure I was condemning myself for not being like other men.

The cure for homosexuality is marriage to a woman, the Mormon church preached. After years of living alone, wanting to have someone to share my life with, I made a valiant effort. Found myself a willing partner. She was in love with me. Wanted to marry me. I wanted to marry her. I wanted what everyone else has; a family to come home to that was like everone else's.

But when I made love to that woman, sweet as she was, sexy as she was, I found myself fantasizing about making love to a man. That was my clue. I called off the relationship. It was obvious to me that it wouldn't work in the long term.

The Daily Experience

Some heterosexuals claim that they have no problem with homosexuals as long as they don't "recruit." Such people simply announce to the world their ignorance of homosexuality, and in a variety of ways.

The main way is that heterosexuals, who live in a heterosexual world, and have no other frame of reference, have no idea at all of how relentlessly the heterosexual community tries to recruit gay men. Listen to five minutes of pop-music radio, and you'll hear it. Pick up a magazine and look at the ads for clothing, and you'll see it. Watch TV for just a few minutes, and it will become obvious to you. How cool, how sweet, how wonderful it is, to be young, sexy and heterosexually desirous of the opposite sex.

Another way that heterosexuals are proclaiming their ignorance is in that they fail to understand that gays are born, not made. In spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, mostly coming from religious organizations with some serious doctrinal axes to grind, homosexuality as experienced by most gay male Americans is not much unlike my own experience outlined here . Most of us are at least dimly aware of our homosexuality or at least bisexuality from a young age. We don't consciously choose to be gay any more than a heterosexual consciously makes that choice. The feelings happen, and can't be controlled by anyone, any more than I was able to.

The notion that someone would consciously choose to go through the hell most of us go through, is patently ludicrous, but nevertheless, the idea is popular, because it implies that there is a moral choice being made, and thereby justifies the bigotry of the bigot, because the bigot can assume that the 'pervert' has chosen his 'perversion.' Nothing could be further from the truth. But, then, truth seldom has relevance to bigots.

The Gay Person In Public Life

Imagine being threatened with a jail term for simply wanting to be loving to another person. Or being threatened with a loss of employment for simply saying who your life partner is. Or being thrown out of a restaurant, because you hold hands with the person you love. Or being denied the right to rent an apartment, because the landlord doesn't approve of your life partner Or imagine being summoned to the hospital because your partner is gravely ill, and being denied access to his bedside. Or if your partner dies, not even being allowed to attend the funeral.

All these problems, and many more are the daily problems confronting gay persons in America. Heterosexuals seldom, if ever experience these problems because the world is organized to cater to heterosexuality. So the fact that basic civil rights are being violated here, never enters the mind. It never enters the mind of heterosexuals, because the violations that gay people routinely endure are completely outside the experience of heterosexuals.

So it is therefore quite natural that an unthinking heterosexual would accept that gays, in pushing for the same rights he already enjoys, would accept the propaganda that the gays must be asking for special rights. It is natural for him to assume that gays already enjoy the legal protections he does. Is this not a society based on equality before the law? If America stands for anything, doesn't it stand for equality?

While it may be natural for a heterosexual to think that way, the fact is that the law actually either by intent or by omission does, in fact, discriminate against us in many ways, including, but certainly not limited to those outlined above. The vast majority of gay men and lesbians (including myself) would be ecstatic at the thought of simply being protected by and treated by the law in precisely the same ways that heterosexuals already are. This is why we are pushing so hard for gay marriage. In literally hundreds of ways, it is the key to our achieving the same rights that heterosexuals are and always have taken as their constitutional rights. The vast majority of us want nothing more than what heterosexuals already have. So why must we be denied it?

Why Is Society So Homophobic?

The causes and consequencees of homophobia have been delineated elsewhere at this site, so I won't go into them here, but I feel it is neccessary to say a word or two about why the homophobia that permeates this society exists.

In a word, the problem as I see it, essentially is conservative (usually Christian) religion. Specifically, it is the religionists who totally ignore words of Jesus that occupy the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew, and focus in on something that Jesus isn't recorded as having ever said a word about: homosexual sex.

Presuming that the bible can be interpreted literally, these religionists have focused on the handful of scriptural references to homosexual sex and have concluded that God must surely hate some of the people he himself is supposed to have created. Well, as is usually the case with simple answers to complex questions, they're wrong.

It turns out that the scriptural references to homosexual sex in Leviticus, the most oft-quoted proscriptions, are really referring, according to Biblical scholars, to temple prostitution in Babylon, which was a common practice at the time. In fact, the whole purpose of Leviticus was to tell the Jews, just then returning from Babylonian exile, how they were to behave that made them different than the Babylonians. Why else, for example, would God make it a serious offense to wear clothing woven from a blend of different kinds of fibers? Or get all hyper about eating food prepared by a woman who happens to be having her period? It is because these practices were common among the Babylonians, and the author of Leviticus was intent on instructing the Jews not to engage in such practices, so as to distinguish themselves from the hated Babylonians.

The reality is that homosexual sex was a fairly common practice among both the Jews and non-Jews of the period, and no one thought much about it. It was engaging in homosexual sex with temple prostitutes that was so frowned upon. Because temple prostitution itself was frowned upon.

Of course, there are non-Christian religions that have a problem with homosexual sex, but the fact is that nearly all of them have picked up this trait as a result of contact with Christian missionaries during the Age of Empire. Those which have remained relatively pure generally do not have a problem with gay sex, and some, such as Saku Gakkai, the principal Buddhist sect in Hawaii, are even strong proponents of gay marriage.

How Can Society Be Made More Gay Friendly?

Well, of course, most of the answer has to come from the gay community itself. What I mean by this, of course, is that gay people, if they want to be treated fairly, have to come out of the closet and live lives in the open with the courage to be themselves, no matter what, and demand that they be treated fairly.

What heterosexuals can do is to come to understand that there is a need for more fairness in how gay people are treated in this society. Also, they need to recognize that their experience of this culture is not at all a gay person's experience of it, and that by making changes in how they view homosexuals, that they and all of society can benefit.

In terms of political activism, Americans need to work to understand that all of American culture pays a price when homophobia is considered an acceptable prejudice. That kind of acceptance of a moral wrong is a cancer that is growing on the integrity of American society. Let's cut that cancer out. And make America the kind of culture and society that its founders envisioned: one where life, liberty and the persuit of happiness are allowed to all of its citizens.


Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from by pursuing the links here. Your transaction will be secure):

A Place at the Table by Bruce Bawer is the best explanation by a gay person of the homosexual experience written for a heterosexual audience I have yet seen. While not always a fan of Bruce's other books, I nevertheless feel this one is a classic.

Stranger At The Gate by Mel White is his autobiography, and the story of his struggle to overcome his sexuality, and how futile it eventually proved to be, and how he finally found happiness only by accepting his homosexuality. Mel White was a ghost writer and film producer for many famous evangelists, including Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and many others.

Loving Someone Gay by Don Clark, Ph.D. is a loving, sensitive guide for those attempting to understand their own homosexuality or the homosexuality of a loved one. A classic, it has never been out of print since it was first published a decade ago.

Homophobia: How We All Pay The Price is Warren Blumenfeld's analysis of this problem and why everyone concerned with the decline of civility in America needs to be concerned about it.

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Copyright © 1997, 2000, Scott Bidstrup.
Revised 2/15/2000