Please read the words of this post carefully, because there’s a tricky question at the end.
I’m coming out of the closet again. In 2004, I told my coming out story in a newspaper column called “Soulfully Gay,” the discovery of Integral spirituality by a 34-year-old gay man. But my coming out story is probably not what you think it is, even if you’ve read the book inspired by the newspaper column, Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007).
Here’s something you don’t know about Soulfully Gay
So far as I know, not a single person has ever noticed and remarked on one of my book’s odd facts: in the course of a 314-page spiritual autobiography, you will not find a single sentence in which I say exactly that I am gay or homosexual. (I think once I let the words “my homosexuality” skate by, which I didn’t think was a big deal.)
Nobody noticed. Readers just kind of make up their own story by bringing in tons of assumptions, but the plain words just aren’t on the page. The words “I’m gay” or “I’m homosexual” or their most common variations are simply not there. They weren’t true to my inner voice, and I could not speak them into the words of the page, preferring to always find expressions that did ring true, such as talking about “same-sex desires.”
I don’t even say that I’m gay in the book’s coming out story. I talk about “labels” instead, as in an essay that starts like this:
When I was 20 years old, I first put a label on my sexuality. Actually, I was spared the chore of coming out to my mom, because a university librarian outed me.
I had secretly known that I was different from most other boys since I was in junior high school. To explore my sexuality, I had checked out books on the topic at the university. Unfortunately, I returned a few books a day late.
The university’s library system was very efficient. They immediately printed out an overdue notice and sent it to my permanent address on file. My mother opened the letter from the library, saw the titles of the books, and mailed the notice to me. My process of “coming out” had begun!
At different times of my life, I have worn various labels for my sexuality. Since coming out, I have used labels including bisexual, gay, and queer. I am a man more attracted to men than to women, so the gay label works just fine for me most of the time.
What I didn’t mention is that the books that I checked out from the library were on male bisexuality (which, incidentally, has recently been proven to exist by pioneering scientists!) I didn’t think of my omission as hiding anything. It just felt like an unnecessary distraction in the context. You see, I wrote elsewhere in the book:
By my senior year of college, I grew comfortable expressing my sexuality. I came out of the closet and had my first sexual experiences. I struggled with picking a single label and deemed myself too inexperienced to know for sure what to call myself. I chose the bisexual label, deciding that it was best to keep my options open…
You can’t expect a memoir written by a 34 year-old man to be fully transparent. I didn’t want to call the book “Soulfully Gay-Identified Person with a Not Insignificant Degree of Fluid Bisexual Expression.”
In my 30s, I was highly invested in remaining identified as gay and was nowhere ready to start contemplating what alternatives might be out there. And yet, my sexuality was always more complex than anything that I wanted to reduce to one label. I just wasn’t always ready or able to act on the full spectrum of Eros within my potential.
The bisexual closet
Honestly, a good part of my early bi identity was transitional — it was a way of easing into greater comfort with the predominant same-sex orientation of my desires, a way of making the news easier on my family (or so I thought), a way of denial. But it wasn’t an act. The desires and attractions were real, and I never in my life believed for a minute that I was a total Kinsey 6.
What I didn’t say in Soulfully Gay – a fact that I had my convoluted reasons for temporarily choosing to keep private — is that I continued to identify as a bisexual man until 1994, the year that I tested positive for HIV and was told that I might have as little as two years to live. In part, I was afraid if I got more specific, my readers would judge the book wasn’t “gay enough.”
Even if my intimate experiences with women were slight, straight and bisexual pornography gave me an outlet for unwrapping the gift of Eros, peeling back layer after layer in an effort to find release and joy. (And I’m far from the only gay-identified man I know with a preference for straight porn, but that’s a topic for another day.)
As a younger man, I felt possessed of the luxury to explore, experiment, create and re-create an original model for sexual expression that defied the conventions of our culture. I felt free to dream and fantasize about all manner of intimate acts, feelings, and relationships. I looked forward to a life of experimenting until I might find just the right love combination and a community of friends supportive of my lifestyle.
But when I faced the prospect of an AIDS diagnosis and knew little hope of living past my 30th birthday, I exchanged my open-ended dreams for compromise. All I felt I had the right to hope for was a slim shot at good enough love and good enough sex before my expiration date. I didn’t care if I had two chances at a date on Saturday night; I just wanted one. (And as a practical matter, until 2007, I refused to date sero-discordant partners almost without exception, and the odds of finding a compatible HIV+ female were very long.)
As a newly HIV+ gay-identified man in Chicago in the 1990s, I learned about biphobia. In my experience, the gay male subculture had little tolerance for bi men, who were perceived as hopeless closet cases with internalized homophobia and deep-seated repressions. There were some gays who fetishized bisexual or straight men. But date one of them? Bi men could not be trusted in any kind of relationship, according to the stereotype, because of course the minute they found the right woman they’d split.
Remembering forgotten dreams, awakening repressed desires
Like quite a few HIV positive people of my generation, I went through a long period of living without a future, never planning or setting goals, only to slowly watch a fatal illness turn into a chronic manageable condition. We gave up our dreams, only to realize later that they might have merely been postponed, if we took them up again to live them out.
Some gay men even sold their houses and life insurance policies to travel around the world until their last penny was gone … only to face the disappointment that they were still alive. In my case, for several years I let go of the dream of finishing my Master’s degree and Doctorate at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, stopped writing, and skated through life on a pipe and a prayer.
In 2007, I found for the first time an effective HIV treatment regimen for my highly drug resistant strain of HIV. A combination of four anti-retroviral drugs that I must take without fail twice every day keeps the virus undetectable in my bloodstream and pushes my T-cell count (CD4/immune helper cells) high enough to live a relatively normal life. I do have significant health challenges, but overall I’m doing well, thank God.
Looking back, I see that I wore the bi label for four years and the gay label for 16 years. They’ve been useful in various stages of my development. They have helped to connect me to others, find people like me, make it easier to communicate my interests and desires, and give me a way of simplifying the messiness of life. They helped me to construct frameworks of meaning about the topic most eluding rational discourse: sex.
Today I still have very much the same erotic and affectional attractions and tastes in a general way as I’ve had for a couple of decades. I love men. And every passing month, I grow more clear about what is working about that beautifully and how I’ve allowed a “gay identity” to put me in a box that might restrict my openness to Eros.
In recent years, I have increasingly sensed that I don’t feel particularly gay (but please don’t tell the most extreme of the postmodern queer theorists or they will scream bloody murder that I’m going into cahoots with the “ex-gay” fundamentalist fanatics). In an All Quadrants, All Levels matrix, I can locate “gay” in certain specific developmental regions and intersections of personal and culture interaction, and these locations just aren’t the places where I spend most of my time hanging out.
I am aware of greater fluidity and openness and desire for connecting and enjoying and learning at an entirely new level. I want to touch a partner without any preconception that I know what he or she will feel like, smell like, taste like. With no expectations of how I might be aroused or not aroused. I just want to be present and human with another human, and see how that fits.
I want to come out of the closet again today. Consciousness evolves … Embodiment evolves … The erotic imagination evolves … Never in my life have I inhabited my body in the way I do today, alive in its gross desires and repressions, awake in its flowing and blocked subtle forces, and aware or asleep in its apprehension of Fullness and Emptiness.
What do you do when you’ve outgrown your meaning-making constructions for integrating your sexuality and spirituality, even years after you thought you’d found a matrix that helped you to put it all together? Having sex in the old ways that I’ve become safely familiar with for twenty years just leaves me limp mentally, emotionally, and sometimes in other ways. It’s a connection with Eros for sure, but Eros behind a blindfold.
Here’s the tricky question: What am I coming out as today?
In the blog post you just read, did you ever read me say, “I’m bisexual” or variations thereof? I didn’t think so.
Tongue in cheek, today I’d like to come out as a virgin.
To Be Continued…
Note: You can find Joe Perez's new writings on WE Spirituality.