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“I knew I was gay when I was 5 years old.”
Submitted by Darren Stehle
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known, but for the longest time it wasn’t a feeling of pride.
Until I was 19 (in 1984), and for almost 15 years, I felt a combination of fear, guilt, shame, unrequited desire, silence, isolation, and otherness.
I was five years old when I went to a girl’s house to play.
I don’t remember whether she was from school or one of the kids in the neighbourhood. Through my little boy’s eyes, her house seemed like a mansion. The basement was massive, and I was overwhelmed by the number of closed doors down the long, dim hallway. I followed her into a playroom filled with toys. I remember wanting to play with the dollhouse more than anything.
Something about that moment made me self-conscious and left a mark on my psyche.
My grade 2 teacher’s name was Miss Hickey.
I remember her name because she clearly cared about me and I could see her compassion when she looked me in the eyes. I was learning dyslexic and had severe ADHD. She spent time with me after class, helping me practice my alphabet and slowly learning how to overcome my struggle to master writing individual letters.
What I liked most about grade 2 was Ted.
He sat one or two rows in front of me and often, when I passed behind his desk, I would poke him. He was a little chubby, but I had a crush on him. His reaction to me, and that of the other boys and girls, also made me self-conscious.
For many years, I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling.
By grade 7, a couple of the bullies did. Sitting at the back of the class in a portable, one of the “bad boys” pulled out his penis to show the girl beside him. Since I was to his left, I couldn’t help but notice all the pubic hair and this pride and comfort whipping it out. He knew I’d look, didn’t care, and used that against me.
When I started high school, I had hopes for a new kind of freedom and starting fresh.
I wasn’t an excellent student. I had a terrible time focussing and paying attention, still ADHD, but not as bad as it was in childhood. Self-conscious and insecure, I didn’t make many friends. I was the classic loner sitting at the very edge of a cafeteria table, eating his lunch, head down and alone.
In grade 10 gym class, I saw Ted again.
There was a small room in the gym filled with Universal exercise equipment. Ted had worked out in the gym over the summer and in my eyes he was a muscled Adonis. My knees felt weak looking at him, and I would jerk off many a night thinking about him.
When I was 16, I began to question my Catholic beliefs.
What was being taught in the church at the time didn’t encourage my dignity as a human being. I had finally learned the language. I privately called myself bisexual — a protective mechanism to avoid accepting the truth of my coming faggotry.
Around the same time, I endured a negative, triggering experience in confession with a priest.
To my face, he criticized my cousin, who had left the Dominican priesthood due to a nervous breakdown. This felt like the highest form of hypocrisy for a Christian. A priest, someone I went for solace and guidance, spoke ill of someone he knew and someone I cared about. His harsh words made me question the validity of the church’s teaching, and it became quickly clear I could no longer believe in god.
I left the Catholic Church and became agnostic.
I suppose I was sitting on the fence about everything – neither straight nor gay, neither a believer nor a non-believer.
In grade 12 I tried dating two different girls.
One was at my high school, and she was part of the New Wave crowd, to which I belonged. Tara was sweet on me and I couldn’t help but enjoy her affections. We slow-danced at one of the school dances. With our bodies pressed close, I knew I couldn’t date her anymore.
The other girl I met at a friend’s house party.
I was drunk as she laid on top of me on the couch in the basement, with others coupling up and playing the same game. She groped and rubbed against my raging hard-on. I don’t know how I didn’t shoot a load in my pants. My hormones were driving my body, but my mind was considering doing what she was doing to me with one of the boys in the same room.
That night of grinding didn’t go any farther.
A week later, I had dinner with her family, but soon after I knew I had to end the sham before I did something I’d regret. I told her something nice to make her feel good about herself and not implicate me as a homosexual. My best friend, Kevin, told me what he’d heard her say sometime after I broke it off. Apparently, I was one of the nicest guys she had ever gone out with who didn’t try to take advantage of her.
Isn’t that exactly how a thoughtful homosexual treats a woman?
I finally came out to my closest friends in the summer after high school.
Everyone was accepting and supportive. But it was a bittersweet summer. Nothing would’ve been better if I could’ve been out and accepted during high school.
Coming out is a lifelong process.
I don’t know how times I’ve had to come out in different ways or to different people since high school. From my grandmother dying of breast cancer, to my mentor and graduate advisor at university, or indirectly through my parents who had to come out as parents of a gay son.
There will always be a tiny part of me that lives in the closet.
A part of me that knows I no longer need to be in the closet. For 15 formative years, I was programmed not to accept myself, that I was somehow unacceptably different. That’s an indelible scar that can only be honoured for what it is and diminished through the self-forgiveness of having never done anything wrong for being gay.
But thankfully, the strong, proud queer in me often stands up and roars,
“Fuck the closet! Be who you are without compromising your identity or authenticity. And fuck anyone else who dares tell you otherwise!”
As a queer thought leader, neuro-coach, writer, and podcaster, Darren Stehle helps LGBTQ+ creators and change-makers develop their self-mastery and go from confusion to making an impactful difference in the world. Subscribe to DarrenStehle.com and listen to the ThinkQueerlyPodcast.