Is My Sexuality Made Of Memory?22 September 2017
A boy in a red t-shirt and high-waisted jeans stains my mind. My memories are haunted by Gordie Lachance – his dark eyelashes and silky hair, his faintly freckled skin. If you had asked me even a month ago, I would have told you that I didn’t have a gay childhood. I can’t describe a sense of ‘knowing’, I had no primary school sexual experiences and no childhood boy-crushes; I have no memory of being gay. But sitting now in front of Stand by Me – a film I adored as a kid for its boyish sense of rebellion and freedom – I can recognise the familiar affection I feel for its characters as the same affection I now feel for men.
I’m forced to confront the possibility that I did have a gay childhood, and that I am still unable to come to terms with it. I am losing my grip on my memories, because everything I now reflect on seems distorted through this prism: a single beam of memory refracts into a rainbow of homoerotic possibilities. My four-year-old obsession with ABBA, kissing my best friend in drama class in Year Two, painting my nails with my cousin in the summer holidays; I can selectively collate a simple chronology of sexual discovery that would satisfy the people who promise me they ‘always knew’ I was gay.
I can squeeze myself into that stereotype, but that would be a camped-up reflection of my past. No matter how many times I’m told that people ‘could have guessed’, that ‘it was obvious’, I cannot shake how tangibly I lived straightness. I can still remember what it is to think straight, to see straight.
If the way I understand my sexuality now is ‘right’, does that make my childhood memories somehow ‘wrong’? It could be argued that I experienced a homophobia so internalised that I fabricated a straight identity for myself: I suffocated my ‘real’ sexuality and wilfully erased its traces from my memory. Without leaving a scar, I nipped and tucked my past so immaculately that now I cannot adequately describe my childhood in a way that seems truthful.
Time is a frequency gay people have continually struggled with. Often unable to locate ourselves within a celebrated cultural past or legitimised social future, our memories are fragmented by the closet and constrained by the expectations of the norm. So we tell ourselves that we were ‘born this way’, as a means of legitimising who we are: something biological, something quantifiable.
I think that’s why gay people try and sexualise their pasts – because someone who has ‘always been this way’ is more acceptable, something that has to be tolerated. We poke fun at our ‘confused’ childhoods because the ambiguities of those memories are incompatible with a heteronormative understanding of identity. But if I can still recall the sensations of my past, why is it the privilege of my present self to punch holes in what I used to feel?
Throughout history, queer artists have questioned the stability of their pasts. Reflecting on her own memories in Moment of Being, Virginia Woolf suggests that ‘as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.’ Even the rosy depiction of ‘coming of age’ in Stand by Me is symptomatic of a social desire to contain our pasts within a narrative: as something linear and logical. But no matter how hard I try to frantically piece a ‘gay childhood’ together, it never feels truthful. I don’t want to invalidate the experiences of those people who believe they were born gay or straight, but I don’t want to keep retelling my past to explain who I am today.
I am made up of more than the individual dates that tally up my life experiences. I am made up of more than strands of DNA. I am made up of more than the clothes I wear, or the way I speak. I am made up of memory, intangible and changing.
I don’t think I’ll ever know if the ‘straight’ sexual feelings I had as a kid were genuine, or some kind of self-denial. But I can be certain that my childhood was not some cleverly crafted piece of prose with a proleptic figuring of a deeper sexual and emotional reality. Each time I try and look for those clues I am disappointed, because I only feel the gap between who I was and who I am today widening. I have lost touch with my past, because the boy whose body I grew up in would be afraid of the person typing these words.
We should stop telling gay kids that their childhoods were a lie. That their memories are only half-truths of half of themselves. Part of the shame of coming out is having to admit that you were ‘wrong’; a feeling as though you let everybody down because you were stringing them along. And we don’t fix that by being open to idea that ‘our child might be gay’, because that still demands that kids experience adult desire.
Instead we should recognise that kids don’t experience sexuality in the same way that adults do. All children – gay and straight – perceive lust and even love in ways separate to adult understandings of sexual gratification. I think that means that coming out is more like reaching the point that all of us reach, when you can fully comprehend your sexual identity. We should stop talking about gay kids ‘admitting’ or ‘accepting’ their sexuality, as if we were the ones making everyone else believe we were straight, when in reality so many of us didn’t even understand the way we felt ourselves.
Questioning childhood sexuality doesn’t mean that having a gay childhood – the experiences that I can never be sure I had – isn’t okay, it simply acknowledges that not knowing is okay too. I can’t totally estrange myself from my childhood memories, both straight and gay, and I think that means I shouldn’t be ashamed of the kid I once was. And maybe then, he’ll be less ashamed of me too.