Sixteen, and Never Been Kissed

I don’t know if he was what we call “gay” and this is not my story to tell. But the impossibility of who I was at that time requires me to borrow a story of what it meant to be a certain kind of desiring subject in a specific institution at a particular stage of development. Names need not be used.

The story itself is unexceptional and those who were there will recognize the characters.

: One day, a drunken 16/17 year old boy-man accosted a younger 16/17 year old boy-man and attempted to perform what the law might term “gross indecency.” Subsequently, the perpetrator was forced to change residences and we spoke about him, of him, over him, in the impoverished languages of sin, sensation, and sanction.

He became the embodiment of our fears and hopes.

For those of us “inclined that way,” his physiognomy and actions became a source of fascination and a cautionary tale. We learned that intoxication might betray us and disdained chemical traps. We haunted mirrors, anxious that our eyes, lips, cheeks, facial expressions might resemble his, and thus betray us. We displayed interest in the case, but never sympathy. We already knew how to pass, but we taught ourselves how to do it well: some of us turned to brothels, others to pornography, others to God, many of us to all three.

For him, there was no release from the “oppression” of the closet. Instead, he learned to inhabit the threshold, neither being nor becoming. Rumors had followed me. Gossip followed him. I lived in the interrogative. He lived in the indicative.

In what sense, then, did he embody hope?

Proximity to a body that desires otherwise opens possibilities. One need not desire as that other body does, but one begins to see the faint traces of little-walked paths. One realizes there is more than one path into the forest of desire. One follows bending grass, anticipating the surreptitious pleasures behind tall bushes.

I cannot return this story and so I cannot borrow it. Instead, I use it to tell a certain kind of story about a certain time in a certain place. What is specific has been approximated. It might be termed an attenuated history.

From this distance, it remains impossible to understand whether the impulse to perform “gross indecency” demonstrated a proclivity or whether it was purely due to intoxication. After all, the internets are full of “very” heterosexual men simulating same-sex oral and anal intimacies. Yet the question of his sexuality seems unimportant.

Were we to meet, the terms of the conversation remain ill-defined: would my confession elicit identification or disgust? Not disgust because of what I say, but because of the lateness of my saying it. For instance, I remain ambivalent about individuals who come out “too late” for it to make a difference. To say this is to state an impossible, retrospective hope about the implications of others coming out. It is to believe, without any evidence, that others’ vulnerabilities might mitigate mine.

It is not a story of courage or hope, not an example of what Heather Love terms “affirmative history.” However, this is not to say that it cannot be a “useful” history, as Nietzsche might suggest. It is not a cautionary tale in any traditional sense. I have no interest in asking young Kenyan men to stay closeted nor do I have any investment in promulgating the (sometimes true) myth that high schools can be incredibly normative and homophobic.

So, what kind of story is it?

My anecdotes, as I’ve indicated in the past, have to do with gender transgression and the ambivalence of desire. They have to do with winning awards for “best female,” feeling the weight of male lust as I dressed in my sister’s clothing, experiencing the burden of male disgust (disavowal) as I changed into my own clothing. They have to do with occupying a different threshold marked by the inchoate, even queer, teenage desire directed toward me only to be retracted in a collective moment of normalization. In fact, my anecdotes refuse the narrative of the closet, because they are not predicated on assuming or performing sexual identity in terms of gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Instead, they occupy the murkier realm of possibility and opportunity, of unfettered lust and teenage hormones.

Arguably, this world is much harder to write about. It refuses the certainty of moving from a threshold and insists, instead, on negotiating the flows of bodies and desires. One occupies the infamous “revolving door” in a literal way. If, in recent years, I seem to have moved away from the doorway, I am only a few steps away from it.

4 thoughts on “Sixteen, and Never Been Kissed

  1. Interesting how this mirrors my experiences in a certain *Bush* in the late 90s

    So many stories…

    Thank you four your wonderful posts, as always

  2. I wonder if you’re not glorifying the liminality you preceive in the situation; a liminality, if we can move the discussion more into the explicit, between straightness and gayness. (Or homosexuality and heterosexuality). My instinct, when trying to get at the truth of things, is always to attempt concreteness, specificity and to “name names,” as it were; yours, as I percieve it through reading your posts these last years, is toward obliquity, to move into the abstract, and to insist as far as possible that “the details/circumstances/names don’t matter.” In responding to you, I’m going to try more for your method.

    Some years ago, after a series of hit records, a young R&B singer I used to listen to and admire vanished abruptly and permanently from the public stage. Quite recently, I learned that he’d been busted in a sting by a police officer in a scenario not so different from the one you describe. How had the singer responded in the (failed) attempt to save his career? He wasn’t “like that.” He was, in fact, “only bisexual.” Never mind whether he was telling the truth: you may be sure, first, that american black homophobia met that answer with wholly undiminished fire, and, second, we can ask ourselves “why did he resort to such an answer?” “what mitigation was he hoping for?”

    The answers to those two preceeding questions, I think, has some bearing on your (and mine, and all adult queer) desire to emphasize–to go back to–to celebrate? to claim?– the liminal spaces of sexuality.

    How’d I do? I think my denotation came through much too clearly, after all.

    P.S. I love your dwelling on that first Fanon semi-colon. My attention fixed there too. I was, like, what is the relation between those two clauses exactly? I agree: it’s too wonderfully rich and suggestive for us to simply conclude that Fanon erred in his choice.

    Kai in NYC

  3. ‘Mo, I embrace the typo. I suspect this “story” is more paradigmatic than I choose to claim.

    Kai, I do love my abstractions! I also haven’t used the word liminal in years though, as you suggest, I might always be using the concept.

    Two quick thoughts: I was not specific because I did not witness the actual events. It was all gossip or, if you prefer, discourse, that shaped my knowledge. Also, Nairobi is a tiny village and I would hate to cause shame where it might not be warranted. Michael Signorile I am not.

    The second response is historical-cum-theoretical and has to do with my ongoing project about how to be responsible to queer practices without insisting that they are either homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual (with the histories that create and circulate those terms). How is “queer” a function of institution (an all boy’s school) and location (Nairobi) and period (the early 1990s)? The story and the various party’s reactions might be homologous or better contiguous to homosexuality and homophobia, but those might be too-convenient forms of shorthand and I want to pause before using them.

    Really, Tevin was arrested? Or is this someone else? I don’t listen to any music at all. Haven’t since going to too-loud clubs messed my hearing.

    I have much love for Fanon’s semi-colon and colon.

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