Dear Dr Ren,
I had an experience recently that has me shaken. I have never considered myself homophobic. I have friends all over the spectrum. I really think about gender issues. Hell, I’m an ally!
So when I was asked to play a gay character in a community theatre play, I didn’t think twice. But during a kiss in the performance, I had a very negative reaction. It felt wrong! I hid my anxiety, but I haven’t been able to shake my distress.
I thought I had this stuff figured out. Am I just as much of an ass as the folks I’ve been mocking all these years?
Straight and maybe still narrow
Dear Straight, et cetera,
Ah, yes, you have encountered the distinction between intellectual enlightenment and gut-level wisdom. Before beating yourself up too badly, understand that what you have experienced is just another step in the coming-out process — of appreciating the many layers of bias we learn about those who are “other.”
If we grow up in a multicultural, inclusive environment, we tend to be more accepting of differences, and the opposite is generally true. Our opinions are moulded by our cultural messages. Sounds like you had that part pretty much figured out. And for that you deserve kudos.
What you ran into with your man-to-man kiss struck a different, deeper chord. As a straight man, you are sexually attracted to those of the opposite gender. Kissing those people feels right. You undoubtedly have parameters within that category. For you to feel attraction, you may require the women to be peer-aged (or not), taller than you (or not), of a certain race (or not), et cetera, et cetera. Those you meet who fall outside your preferred criteria won’t be attractive to you, and kissing them will feel awkward, too.
In other words, you will be uncomfortable kissing anyone to whom you do not feel some sort of sexual attraction. Sensible. It doesn’t follow, however, that because you don’t feel rapturous lip-locked with someone that you hold them in any sort of contempt.
If anything, perhaps this experience serves to reconfirm what you already knew: that you are straight. It does not make you narrow.
What might have happened, in contrast, is that you could have experienced a kind of “sexual awakening” and discovered that your theatrical kiss felt exciting and perplexing. It may have propelled you to reexamine your sexual identity, and that would have been all right, too. We come to our realizations in all sorts of manners and junctures in our lives.
Let me address a related matter. You were sufficiently distressed about what you saw as your potential “enlightenment failure” to pen this letter. Are you always so hard on yourself? Many straight men never consider what it means to be an ally, whereas you beat yourself up for possibly losing the title. Please understand that allies are appreciated and treasured. Give yourself the credit you deserve.
You may also come to find some feelings you have not yet uncovered. I’m not trying to insinuate anything that isn’t there, but your reaction to the kiss may signal more conflict about your sexual identity than you acknowledge yet. That’s all right, too. Acquiring knowledge about how we are our best sexual selves takes time.
It may be helpful for you to relax about this whole question for a while. Sit with it loosely. Examine it again periodically. Notice if and how your attraction to men and women changes. Though men’s identifications are commonly consistent, we are flexible creatures. You may find your tastes are more inclusive than you thought.
Regardless, you sound like a thoughtful, insightful person. I’m sure you’ll be just fine.