For gay people, a potent question: When did you know?
Eleven years after Ellen Degeneres let slip the worst kept secret in show business, you might think there was no drama left in the question Cinemax asked 150 gay people for a documentary:
When did you know?
But, as I found out when I replicated the idea locally, that query still provokes a surprising amount of soul searching, poignant stories and emotion, as gay people recount the slow process of coming to terms with their sexual orientation. (See Cinemax's way cool online site for the film here)
For most I talked to, it was a slow process, marked by flashes of recognition: the impulsive reaction to a TV show or magazine picture; the surprisingly close bond to a friend of the same sex; the unexpected reaction while changing clothes in a gym class. Later, when the social implication of those reactions set in, there was another reaction. This isn't a story of coming out to the world, but coming out to themselves -- realizing where their head and heart really lies when it comes to romance.
Just in time for the end of Gay Pride month, here's a sampling of the reactions, edited for clarity; just a hint of the amazing conversations sparked by a simple question.
Ant (born Anthony Steven Kalloniatis), 40, of Los Angeles comedian and reality show host
When I Knew: “I remember I was 9 years old and we had a tree fort in my backyard we built with my dad. It had electricity and lights. Seriously the only thing that was missing was a foyer. And Richard Scalfani swiped one of his dad’s Playboys. And he brings it into the fort. And I’m there (with two other friends). They open up the centerfold and they see her breasts and say ‘Look at that’ and then they come down to her nether regions and say ‘Look at that.’ And I yell ‘Look at her shoes!’ Because back then, they used to wear pumps in those pictures. And in my head I said, ‘I’m not like them.’”
When I Really Knew: “It was confirmed when I was 13 and I went into high school and I had a gym class and we had to change for gym. Oh my god I was gay!
When Others Know First: “When you’re a gay kid, predators know it before you do. I was molested in a mall by this man. I said to him do you know how old I am? And he said ‘Hopefully, under 10.’ And I said I’m 12. I felt bad because I thought I had enjoyed it. But I would have been gay whether that would have happened or not. You’re enticed with something you’re supposed to be attracted to, but you’re too young to realize that a 43-year-old man shouldn’t be cornering you in a restroom.”
David Warner, 55, of Tampa, editor of Creative Loafing newspaper
When I knew: “I think I knew when I was nine years old. I just remember being conscious of other guys’ bodies, I guess. I mean, we moved to a new school where everybody had to shower together from fourth to eighth grade, and I guess I just saw things in a different light. But I’m somebody who didn’t come out until I was 23. There was just an attraction there that I was feeling but couldn’t really name. And I got called ‘Daisy’ when I was a kid. So I must have been sending out signals to someone.”
Lorna Bracewell, 24, of St. Petersburg, singer/songwriter.
When I Knew: “I guess it came out when I was I fifth grade. I knew from watching the X-Files in school and having the hots for Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) and not for Mulder (David Duchovny). Everybody – they’d always teased me from as early as I can remember, saying ‘That’s just because you’re gay’ or ‘You’re a lesbian,’ and I’d say ‘But I have a boyfriend.’ I think they knew it before I did.”
Why that Boyfriend Didn’t Last: “I had tried to do the straight thing and it didn’t really take. I never felt at home in a romantic relationship with a man. It felt strange, it felt bizarre – like wearing your left shoe on your right foot; you can do it, but it would feel really uncomfortable.”
Why the Question Feels Odd: “It’s like asking somebody when did you know you were straight? I’m not sure sexuality is something we have self knowledge about – it seems like a social construct. The question should be at which point did I decide to self-identify as gay. In terms of embracing an identity of being gay – it wasn’t until much later.”
Ricc Rollins, 45, of Tampa, senior pastor of the Breath of Life Fellowship Church and author
When I Knew: "I was fascinated by Liberace. Let me give you a list: Liberace, Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly — there was something about them. . . . It was almost like seeing black people on TV in the '60s, where you'd (call your friends) and say, 'Look, there's a colored person on.' Little Richard fascinated me. Because they lived their lives with such flamboyance. It was not them; it was the manner in which they lived their lives — out in the open."
My Best Line: “My mother always told me that women were queens – I guess she forgot to tell me that some men were, too.”
Patti Petow, 52, of Clearwater, concert promoter.
When I Knew: “I saw Babes in Toyland when I was four or five – I don’t remember the whole story. But I remember there was a relationship. And I wished I was the guy in the role, not the girl. Only because I wanted the affection of the girl.”
When I Was a Teen: “I wished and I hoped a lot. I fantasized that it would be nice to have a girlfriend. It would be nice to have a closer relationship than I do with my very good girlfriends. I noticed when we had sleepovers – I realized, well, there are some other things going on. There was more on an emotional attachment on my side. I’ve said best girlfriends in high school are akin to lovers, partners – there is some love thing going on in there. You know what you best friends favorite everything is in the world, because you share everything.”
Michael Freincle, 20, of Brandon, student
When I Knew: “I knew sometime before eight years old. I was more comfortable with girls because they weren’t so obsessed with sports. I didn’t like games like smear the queer -- because, ironically enough, I was always the queer. You know, where you throw the football and whoever catches it gets tackled? Did they know I was gay? I don’t know if I want to give them that much credit. I think I was just an easy target – I was guaranteed to suck at running.”
When I Almost Came Out: “My mother was driving to pick up my brother at Skateland. And the whole ride, I would be saying to my mom – ‘Mom, I’m…and I’d chicken out and say ‘hungry’ or ‘bored.’ I don’t know when I realized what gay was. I must have known about it then. If I had come out then, at least she wouldn’t be asking about girlfriends anymore.”