Something must have been off when my mother was pregnant with me. Or maybe "off" isn't exactly the right word. I worry that that might call to mind a tiny version of me floating in hazardous neon hormones like a fetal pig pickling in a jar at the back of a high school biology lab. But something was different. It must have been. What else could explain why, from the day I was born, all I've ever been able to think about is having sex with men?
The first 18 years of my life exist in my mind like flashes of a not-entirely-terrible movie I know I once saw but now can only recall in blurry bits and pieces: a road trip to the Black Hills; a single tooth jutting through the skin just below Kiana Harding's lower lip after she fell off the monkey bars when we were in third grade; a part of myself securely locking into place, if only for a few minutes, with a delightful thunk when I slunked off to my grandmother's bedroom and secretly clamped her faux-ruby clip-on earrings onto my then-tiny ears. But mostly those years are just a long, fuzzy stretch of darkness.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the first glimpse of my sexuality revealing itself came as a story that I was told, not as a memory of my own. My mother claims that once, at a large family function, probably a birthday party or a breakfast celebrating some vaguely Christian holiday, she saw me happily masturbating. I was only 3 years old, and she took me into another room and explained that what I was doing was totally fine, but that I should only do it when I was alone, not in a room full of other people unwrapping gifts that they didn't want or passing a plate of soggy bacon to one another across the dining room table. She remembers that I appeared to take in what she was saying and then ran off to rejoin the rest of the group. A few minutes later she noticed that, once again, I had my hands in my pants. She approached me, probably a bit doubtful that I had comprehended anything that we had just talked about, and asked, "Noah, what did I just tell you about doing that when you're with other people?" To which I responded, "But Mom, I am lonely!"
I grew up in Racine, Wis., in the 1980s. When most people hear "Wisconsin" they think cornfields or deer hunting, which isn't incorrect; it's just not exactly correct, at least as far as Racine is concerned. The city, sandwiched between the much bigger metropolises of Milwaukee and Chicago, is more industrial than rural and is best known as the home of the maker of Johnson Paste Wax, Raid insecticides, Ziploc bags and Windex glass cleaner.
Poison. Preservation. Transformation. It all makes sense when I think about it now. And as beautiful as the city is, with Lake Michigan sewn to its spine like a shadow, it was a rotten place to grow up queer.
I have always been boy-crazy. Always. I would spend hours fantasizing about the father shaving in my Pat the Bunny book, wishing I could rub my hand over more than just his sandpaper stubble. And every time Mr. Rogers came on television, I would pray that this time he would change out of more than just his shoes and cardigan and finally reveal himself to me fully.
When I was 4 or 5, I fell in love with our garbage man. All I really remember about him now is that he had a porn star mustache and never wore sleeves during our hot Midwestern summers. One day, determined to finally take matters into my own hands, I snuck outside when I heard his truck coming down the street and, wearing nothing but my underwear, performed a burlesque-esque dance for him in our front yard. I remember the look on his face -- puzzled, not quite sickened but in no way amused -- when he responded, "What are you? A little queer?"
Unfamiliar with the word and still so innocent as to assume that my little number could have inspired nothing less than a reciprocation of my desire, I ran back into the house and proudly informed my father that the garbage man had called me a "queer." My father, understandably upset, moved toward the door to chase him down and confront him, but he stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned back to me when he heard me say, "It's OK, Dad. I like being a queer." Surely, I thought, this must be a good thing -- maybe a bit out of the ordinary, my own meager mutation, but undeniably good, possibly even magnificent.
The children in my neighborhood used to play a game called "Mermaids and Pirates." I can't recall the particular rules, but I do know that, as you might guess, the boys were the pirates, and the girls were the mermaids. I was always a mermaid. One day, upon returning home, my older brother told my mother that I was "being a girl again." There was a matter-of-fact tone in my mother's voice when she told me, "Noah, you're not a girl; you're a little boy," but somewhere inside, she must have been panicking. Thankfully she didn't show it, and though other people -- teachers, friends, my friends' parents -- often didn't know what to do with me, I never felt judged by my parents or my brothers, only loved. When I was 5 and in the hospital with a rare form of cancer, my parents surprised me with the My Little Pony toy stable. A few years later they bought me a little-girl Cabbage Patch doll with cornsilk hair named Ivy Rose. My dream of being Madonna was not only endured but encouraged, and when I was 9 years old, my parents forfeited one of their Saturday nights and hundreds of dollars so that I could see her Who's That Girl? tour.
I'm not sure if I ever fully wanted to be a girl. Aside from being interested in more typically feminine activities, I realize now that part of the reason that I identified with women was that, as far as I knew as a little boy in small-town Wisconsin, men did not have sex with men. There were no gay men there (and if there were, they were forced to take their pick between being closeted and miserable or just plain miserable). So if I wanted to be with a man -- and boy, did I ever -- I needed to be a woman.
I don't know exactly when during my early childhood I dreamt it up. All I know is that whenever I made a wish -- on a star, on my birthday candles, when I picked up a penny from the sidewalk -- I always wished for the same thing: The Penis Book.
In my mind -- sadly, the only place where it ever came close to existing -- it was a gigantic book filled with billions and billions of pages, and every man in the world would be included. On the left page would be a photo of a man dressed in whatever clothes he typically wore, and on the corresponding right page would be the same man, only nude, of course. The book was born, as so many things are, out of frustration and need. I would go to the grocery store with my mother and spy a beautiful man lifting a heavy bag of dog food into his cart and be distraught that I couldn't see him naked. If only there were some way for me to be able to see every man in the world naked whenever I wanted! I knew that it wasn't technically possible, so if it were ever going to happen, it would have to be a work of magic or an act of God. If wishes were penises, oh, how I would have loved to ride....
Not everything was fantasy. While the only fruit that my failed seduction of the garbage man had borne was me, not all my advances were unsuccessful, though they couldn't really be called successful, either. In some ways I looked at the boys in my neighborhood as prey, and in other ways I saw them as partners in a scheme that they didn't understand and, for the most part, weren't interested in. But I knew what I wanted, and their confusion and indifference didn't stop me -- or stop things from happening.
I have one especially clear memory of being 6 or 7 and pretending to be Russian soldiers with a friend of mine from the neighborhood. I don't know why we chose to be Russian -- maybe even then, in the final years of the Cold War, my queerness caused me to subconsciously identify as an enemy of America, or maybe I just thought Russian guys were hot -- but, regardless, there was a pup tent set up in my friend's basement, and we did all the things that we imagined that soldiers did around the campsite. There was marching and saluting. There were fake fires to build and feed. There were guns to clean and aim and shoot. But the thing that I was most concerned with was getting my friend into the tent.
Once I did, I found ways to make things happen. But it was never enough. I was not yet an expert of the sexual arts, and my friend was even more clueless, and what's more, the desire just wasn't there for him. Even though I knew that what I wanted to do wasn't "right" (but pushed past that feeling for the sake of momentarily satisfying my insuppressible hunger), for him, at that age, I don't think it had anything to do with shame; it was just that we would only get so far before he was ready to "wake up" and see how much ground the enemy had covered during the night.
Sometimes I joke that for me to have had the urges that I had as often and as intensely as I did as a child, my parents must have been part of a satanic cult that performed sexual rituals on me, and I just can't remember it because my mind has protectively blocked it all out. At the very least you'd think that they were heavily into porn and that I must have caught glimpses of Debbie doing Dallas (and Detroit and Duluth and...) through a keyhole. But they weren't. And I didn't. No naked pentagram parties in our basement, no spread-eagled video vixens. My brothers and I weren't even allowed to drink soda.
Even when I was pretending to be a woman, I was still in love with my penis. Once, in kindergarten, I excused myself -- we were busy working on some craft project with macaroni or pipe cleaners -- and went to use the single-occupancy bathroom located just off to the side of the classroom. While peeing I began to sing a song about my penis. I don't remember the words; all I remember is that it was a sweet, celebratory little tune. A few moments later there was a knock on the door, and I heard Mrs. G, my teacher, telling me that I needed to finish up. I pulled my pants back up and returned to class thinking nothing of what had just happened, but only a few seconds of silence passed before Neda Salinas blurted out, "We could hear you!" and everyone broke out laughing.
It's the first moment in my life that I remember feeling truly ashamed -- and of something that, up until then, had brought me nothing but joy. Now, suddenly, my penis and the things I wanted to do with it were things to ridicule, things to shut up about, and in many ways, even at that young age, it was a certain kind of a beginning to a certain kind of an end.
Like most other boys, as I approached my teenage years, masturbating quickly became my favorite pastime.
Since the Internet was still years away, and seeing as there were no other easy ways for me to get my hands on porn, I had to get creative. But, honestly, it really wasn't that difficult to find inspiration. Almost anything did the trick. I would get off to the line drawing of the handsome naked man with his modest erection in the sex-ed book that my parents had bought for me. I would come while looking at a photo of a shirtless male ballerina featured in an old calendar that I found in our basement. And then, one day, a miracle occurred: I found my first International Male catalog in the mailbox.
For many gay men, just saying that name -- International Male -- brings back fond memories (and maybe a hard-on). The catalog was half-filled with obscenely muscular men modeling puffy-sleeve pirate shirts and hot-pink fishnet tank tops, and half-filled with those same men in ridiculously themed (and absurdly tiny) undergarments (think camouflage mesh G-strings and high-cut bikini briefs made to look like tuxedos). It was about as close as a gay pre-teen could come to winning the jerk-off lottery.
And for a few months I was in nearly-naked-hunk heaven.
Every day I would race home so that I could be the first to check the mail in hopes that there would be a new catalog. And because my father certainly wasn't in the market for a DayGlo cock sock, he had no idea that the International Males were going missing.
Normally I hid it under my mattress or at the bottom of my underwear drawer, but one night I put it under my pillow, as I planned to "read" it after my mother had come in to say goodnight to me. But I didn't realize that a corner of the catalog was peeking out, and upon seeing it, my mom pulled it out from beneath my head.
"What's this?" she asked before she had gotten a good look at the catalog, which was open to my favorite page (and, not coincidentally, the one with the least amount of fabric): the jockstraps.
Horrified, I scrambled to find some plausible excuse, but I knew that it was useless. I had been caught. "I need new underwear, and I want some like that!" I croaked, pointing to a bright-orange jockstrap without meeting my mother's eyes.
She didn't say anything more than, "Oh, OK." Then she put the catalog on my desk next to my bed, kissed me on the head and walked out the room.
Unable to catch my breath, and feeling like I was going to vomit, I instantly began to cry. My secret was out: I loved men. I lusted after them. Men in garbage trucks. Men in grocery stores. Men in puffy-sleeve pirate shirts. And I wanted them to do wonderful and terrible things to me. And now that my mother knew, my short, strange life of incurable desire was surely over.
And then, a few seconds later, my door reopened, and I saw my mother's figure framed in the doorway. She came over to the side of my bed and leaned close to my ear and said, not in a whisper, "There is nothing you could ever do to make us stop loving you. Nothing." Then she kissed my head again and walked back out of the room.
This essay is taken from the anthology BOYS, published by Thought Catalog, which showcases the voices, stories and lives of gay, queer, and trans* men from around the world. Click here for more info and to pre-order a copy of the book, which will be available digitally on Oct. 31 and in print soon after that.