When a boy reaches puberty and begins to discover he is gay, there’s no road map for what happens next. There is very little in the straight world akin to the coming out process, which begins with coming out to yourself. Realizing that you’re gay is realizing that you are someone different than you thought. When I was growing up, even though I knew I was different than other boys, I expected that when I got older, I would be attracted to women and eventually have a wife and children.
But life throws curve balls. When I was 14 years old, I was 6’2″ and looked 18 years old. With my platform shoes and a green army jacket, and with my best friend Josh, we took the train from the suburbs to downtown Philadelphia on a sunny Saturday. From the newsstand, at 17th and Chestnut Street, I bought a copy of Screw Magazine. For those who don’t remember, Screw Magazine, published by Al Goldstein, became notorious in later years for the lawsuits against Goldstein and the paper. Anyway, later that day, hidden from my parents, I sneaked the magazine into the house, stuffed down the back of my pants, and hidden under my green army jacket. It was that day I discovered my attraction to men.
I had been an overly protected child, and as worldly as I felt that I was at 14, I really knew very little about the adult world, which included sex and sexuality. I remember looking at Screw and thinking that if I did what I imagined a man did with a woman, using my hand (think masturbation) that something would happen. I didn’t know what. I had read about orgasms and had sex education in school, but really didn’t quite understand the orgasm thing.
I locked my bedroom door, took off my clothes, and began to play with myself. I got hard and excited, looking at the pictures of naked men and women in the magazine. It was during that day looking at a Screw magazine that I began to realize that it was the pictures of the men that I was looking at and which got me excited. I didn’t seem to notice the images of women in any lustful way.
Still not quite grasping what the attraction to men meant, I assumed the excitement over the women would come later. That same afternoon, I had the first orgasm that I remember (that wasn’t nocturnal), as well as my second, third, and fourth. I thought this new explosion of pleasure called orgasm was incredible, and I didn’t want it to stop. It was only when my penis and balls began to hurt that I did stop.
I don’t remember being upset, frightened, or shocked that I was attracted to men. It’s just was what it was. I do remember a sense of wonder and trying to understand what it meant. While I had read about sex and orgasms, it wasn’t until the day I came home with Screw Magazine that I had the first orgasm that I was consciously aware of.
I had a vague notion that homosexuality existed, but I knew very little on the topic. I had no context for my attraction to men. I don’t remember at 14 ever having heard much about homosexuality. My father never talked about fags, or homos, or anything like that. It wasn’t his style. Homosexuality wasn’t a topic that ever came up in my family. So I felt I had discovered something about myself that at that moment was acceptable to my 14-year-old mind, but the acceptance didn’t last long.
I soon discovered how the world of 1971 saw homosexuality. I found a high shelf in my father’s den, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), a 1969 book by U.S. physician David Reuben, and was devastated by the chapter on homosexuality. That book presented homosexuality as a sick, low life, painful lifestyle, which I wanted no part of. In the world of 1971, there was no other information: no internet, no one to ask, no large bookstore to hide in a corner and read, nothing I could find in the local library. Every time I went to the library, I looked up the words, homosexual and gay, in the card catalog, but found very little. I was alone, and it was frightening.
As I began to understand how the world saw homosexuality and learned about the gay world through Ruben’s sick distorted descriptions, I saw a world that frightened me. At some point in my 14th year, I tried to commit suicide. I didn’t want to live in the homosexual world Ruben portrayed. I wanted no part of it. I didn’t die, and life went on, but it took another 40 years before I could accept my homosexuality.
When a boy reaches puberty today, they have an enormous amount of information by which to make sense of their attraction to other boys. Today there are still religious and political forces within families that are against homosexuality. At least there is a plethora of information on the internet and positive role models on TV to help young men understand their attraction to other men. Young men are coming out earlier and in more positive ways than in my generation.