If you work with teenagers, you know their slang is constantly evolving. Words and phrases come and go. New slang usually starts small, being used by a few people, and then it spreads until it seems like everyone is saying it all the time. Eventually the people who started it get bored with it because it’s no longer an inside joke and too mainstream to be cool anymore, so they abandon it in favor of something new, and the cycle starts all over. I’ve seen quite a few come and go over the years. They’re good while they last.
No matter how many have come and gone, teenagers are still throwing out “gay” and “fag” left and right. They’re kind of ingrained in teen culture, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going anywhere. I’ve never used those words because I never felt comfortable doing so, but I never really noticed other people using them until I came out. When I came out, I was like hypersensitive to everything like that. When kids would say it around me, I would call it out. They would explain that the words don’t mean anything and they don’t mean it like that, and it’s just a habit, etc. etc. I would explain how they have to be careful of everyone around them and how even if they don’t mean anything to them, they could be negatively affecting their closeted gay peers, making them feel like they need to hide their sexual orientation because it’s undesirable and negative, less manly, etc.
They kind of got it, as much as straight teens can get something like that, so they tried to cut back. They still say it all the time, but they catch themselves afterward or call each other out. Over time, they developed a new slang: “That’s how you know.” Whenever someone does something dumb or whatever, and they would usually just say, “That’s so gay” or “You fag,” they now say, “That’s how you know,” meaning “That’s how you know you/ they are gay.” It’s essentially they same thing, calling each other gay with a negative connotation, just in a more creative way without actually saying “gay” and “fag.” I kind of just have to laugh, there’s nothing I can do about it. They get the overall concept, but they’re teenagers, and boys will be boys.
Beneath the creative new slang code, there’s an interesting concept. That’s how you know you/ they are gay. Overall, it still sucks to think that being gay is still always associated with something negative/ uncool with teens, even if they don’t actually think gay people or being gay is really uncool or whatever. They use it so randomly that it really has nothing to do with anything gay at all, but just stuff that is generally out of the cool, mainstream, masculine norm. They laugh about my little Volvo car and say, “That’s how you know.” If someone loses at a video game or makes a mistake in sports, they say, “That’s how you know.” Sometimes it’s legitimately hilarious.
But how do you know? How do you really know you’re gay? How did I go 26 years without knowing? Like everything, it’s pretty complex but also pretty simple. It’s super hard to explain, but I’ll try my best.
I’ll start with this: everyone only knows their own experience. It is literally impossible to really put yourself in someone else’s shoes and know what they think, feel, and experience; we can never fully see anything from anyone else’s point of view. We can all look at grass and we can all say we see the color green, but what if my green is your red, and your red is my green? No matter how precise we can get with our description of the visual we experience when we look at that grass, we can only describe it through our own understanding, and we can only understand someone else’s description of their experience through our own understanding of reality. Of course, science can show us that different colors reflect light with different wave lengths, causing universal consistencies, but science can’t go into my eyes or your eyes and tell us what colors we experience through those different wave lengths. We just have to trust, or have faith, that we all see the same color when we look at grass. I’m pretty sure we do.
Does that make sense? There is literally no way for someone who’s not straight to know exactly what straight people feel, understand and experience, and there is literally no way for someone who is straight to know exactly what it’s like to not be straight.
When I hear women talk about feminism and the struggles they face from simply not being male in a predominately patriarchal society, there is no way I can fully get where they’re coming from, because that’s not my experience, and I’ve never even had to think about it. When I see black people post about their frustration regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, I can’t really relate because I’m not black, and although I’m somewhat of a racial minority, I’ve never really felt like the color of my skin has been factor in my life. When I read about transgender people and their journeys, I can’t even begin to fathom what that experience must be like, because I’ve never had that experience. Human empathy enables us to accept what we can’t fully understand due to the limitations of our personal experience, but it always has been and always will be impossible for us to walk in someone else’s shoes and completely “get” where they’re coming from.
All that to say, when it comes to the idea of “That’s how you know,” it is very, very difficult for many reasons. I can only speak from my experience because that’s all I know, but it is pretty similar to pretty much every other gay man and especially every other gay Christian man I’ve been able to hear from or read about.
No matter what age people are when they come out, you’ll pretty much always hear them say something like, “I knew when I was five.” Then it’s like, “Ok, well why did you come out when you were 45 with a wife and kids?” It’s super hard to explain, and no matter how hard I try, straight people can’t fully get it because they’ve never even had to think about any of this; they have no context. For me, it’s not that I can look back over my life and pinpoint a time or age when I could say I knew I was gay, but it’s more like once I figured it out and accepted it at 26, I could look back over my life and realize like I was gay my whole life, and everything I did, thought, felt and experienced was just slightly outside the “norm” because I was gay my whole life.
If you’re straight and reading this, struggling to understand, it might feel similar to what a gay person experiences, but I’m not sure. When you’re five, you have no context. At that age, you may be able to feel or notice that something about you is different, but you don’t know about sexuality in general, and you definitely don’t know what it means to be gay, especially if you don’t know anyone who’s gay. Kids kind of live in their own world and do whatever they want, until they learn what’s socially acceptable and unacceptable. Like if a little kid is overweight, they will be perfectly content and have no idea that there’s anything wrong with that until they start getting teased about it, or a relative makes some kind of comment about it. Then they develop an insecurity and a complex, and that can stay with them for a long time, until they properly address it and work through it.
I’ll try to be as honest as I can here, because that’s what this blog is about. I’m hoping this will help not only the gay person out there trying to figure stuff out but also the straight people out there making a genuine effort to understand.
In my context, it was very hard to figure it out. I can’t be sure because I only know my own experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m just like less sexually driven than most people, and maybe especially less than most men. Like, it’s not really a thing for me, but it is, because it’s a thing for everyone. To be honest, even though coming to terms with sexual orientation and coming out and all that has a lot to do with sex, sex is more of just like a concept to me than anything else. When I hear how high school guys constantly talk about sex, I can’t really relate, because I obviously don’t feel like that about girls like they do, but also just because I don’t really feel like that in general. I always just assumed that I didn’t feel like that about girls because I was so religious and I didn’t want to go there in my mind. Maybe if I was more sexually driven in general, I could have figured it out sooner, but I don’t know. I’m just saying for me, that was probably a factor for why it took so long.
The first time I heard gay men talking about other men the way I’ve always heard straight men talking about women was at Pride last June. I went out to dinner with a friend who is straight but knows a lot of gay people, and when I heard gay men kind of doing the whole locker room talk thing it was a huge eye opener for me, even after I had been out for several months. When everything kind of clicked there it was one of those “That’s how you know” moments. The first time I was at a gay club and Whitney Houston’s I wanna Dance with Somebody came on was another “That’s how you know” moments. I thought I was the only guy who knew all the words and dance moves to that song, so I couldn’t help but lol when I saw all the gay men freak out and run to the dance floor to lip sync every word perfectly and bust out all the dance moves from the music video. If you’re a straight man, you’ve probably never seen that video. That’s how you know.
Let’s see, some life experiences. When I was in first grade I had a good friend, and we were pretty close. I remember one day on the way to lunch our teacher led us double file to the lunch room, and my friend and I were walking side by side. We were holding hands, and I don’t think either of us even realized it until someone behind us pointed it out and made a big deal out of it and the other boys started laughing. Of course we stopped immediately and never did it again because we found out the hard way that it was socially unacceptable. I only recently remembered that event and looked the kid up. Turns out he’s gay. We had no idea when we were kids, but on some level we did. Straight boys don’t hold each others’ hands on the way to lunch, but you don’t know that when you’re that young and not straight. It’s not until you figure it out at 26 and are able to look back over your life that stuff like that makes sense and you’re like “Yeah, I guess that’s how you know.”
Ok, a couple more honest moments. At either my first or second summer camp, one of the pastors shared a story about how his dad had been a pastor and fell into sin and started living the gay lifestyle and left their family, and how it ruined everyone’s life and all that, and how that’s another reason why homosexuality is the most destructive sin and so on. In typical Pentecostal fashion, the last night is always the Holy Spirit night, when everyone gets worked up and there’s a huge emotional push to confess your deepest, dark sin and whatever. It’s real, and that’s all good stuff, so I’m not hating on that, even though I see it from a more developed perspective at this point. Everyone was supposed to write down the thing they couldn’t even speak about, the thing they could only share with God, and throw it on the altar to symbolize giving it up to God and trusting that it had been redeemed, etc. I can remember and admit now that at 15 or 16 I almost wrote down something about being gay, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t even write it on an anonymous piece of paper at that point. When you’re in counseling at 26, memorable milestones like that kind of help you get to the point where you’re like, “Yeah, that’s how you know.” Straight guys don’t do that, right, straight guys?
If you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ve seen me mention that my college had an ex-gay speaker in chapel every year. After he came my second year, I worked up the courage to tell my roommate that I was “struggling with homosexuality.” Of course he didn’t know what to do or say, so he just said we could always talk about it if I needed to. Then he asked me not to look at him in a gay way. We never talked about it again, until I went to his second son’s first birthday this last summer. Most people within the conservative Evangelical context have little to no understanding or education regarding sexuality in general, so their understanding of homosexuality is way off base. It’s out of sight and out of mind, so of course they don’t know what to do or say. Since that was my context as well of course I didn’t know what to do or say with myself, so that’s another reason it took so long.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Wow, it kind of sounds like you knew.” I get that, but the weird thing is, even after all that, I still did not know. It’s a complex combination of subconscious repression caused by social rejection, a lack of education- and worse- mis-education within the Evangelical context, and the inability to understand anyone else’s experience. Because I have always only known my own experience, I have never been able to compare and contrast what I think, feel, experience and understand with what a straight man thinks, feels, experiences and understands. How could I possibly know what being gay is if I didn’t know what being straight is? Does that make sense? Like, you can’t know that you’re not something if you don’t know what it’s like to be or not be that thing.
From what I understand, straight men are just straight, and sexuality is never a thing for them because it’s just not a thing. When a straight man experiences everything he hears his straight friends talking about, and everything in society supports what he desires as not just normal but ideal, he doesn’t have to think twice about it. It definitely makes sense that straight Christians make the argument that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is unnatural, because there is no doubt that that is their experience. I can definitely tell you that heterosexuality is not natural for me because that has never been my experience. Straight men are often repulsed by the idea of gay sex and would say something like, “I wouldn’t have sex with a man for a million dollars.” To be honest, I would probably have sex with a woman for a million dollars, but the idea in general is repulsive to me in the same way. A lot of gay people figure out they’re gay through sexual experimentation. It’s probably a combination of the principals, like if you’re a guy hooking up with a guy, there’s a reason for that, and if you like it and want to do it more, there’s a reason for that, too. For some people that’s what it takes, but that’s not my experience either. That’s probably another factor in why it took so long.
Ok, another way to look at it. You know how you can often tell gay people are gay? Like there are little things and noticeable things, but kind of like if you feel that or suspect it, it pretty much always ends up being true. If I had a super gay voice or was effeminate or whatever, I feel like I would have figured it out sooner. In a lot of ways I’m not like a typical man’s man, into sports and beer and women and whatever else, but I’m also not a stereotypical gay man, either. Maybe I like interior design more than most men, but whatever. I guess I’m just trying to say maybe it’s easier for gay men to figure out they’re gay if they kind of naturally check off more of the gay stereotype boxes. When you’re like pretty “normal,” maybe that’s another factor that makes it harder, but I don’t know. For people who don’t know me well, there may be a few subtle “That’s how you know” indicators, but I don’t think it’s super obvious.
Some people who know me well were pretty shocked when I came out, but I think most were kind of like, “I could see that.” Like I said, if you kind of think it, it’s more probably more likely that you’re right than that you’re wrong. To me, that’s just another indicator of how natural it is. Like a little kid that everyone thinks is gay and ends up being gay definitely does not choose whatever characteristics lead people to think that way about him. I think some gay people intentionally over emphasize gay characteristics, maybe as a way to communicate to potential partners and just make it clear that they’re gay and looking or whatever, but I also think a lot of it is just natural to the core and stuff people don’t think about or exude intentionally. I definitely didn’t try to indicate in any way that I was gay before I came out, but people have always thought that my whole life. That’s kind of just how you know.
So, how do you know? Maybe it’s different for everyone, maybe it’s the same. I don’t know because I only have my own experience, and so do you. What I do know is that everything I’ve heard and read about the experiences of gay men and gay Christian men is much closer to my own experience than that of straight men. What I do know is that it requires some context and some education. What I do know is that maybe you’ve subconsciously known something your whole life, but you just didn’t really want to consciously know it. I’m pretty sure straight people just know they’re straight, and it’s everyone else that has to wonder. That’s how you know.