On Being Gay

I have no idea why I'm gay.

I don't identify with most of the so-called "gay community," any more than most men would say they're part of the "straight community."

I will say that I've been attracted to men as long as I can remember. Actually, a certain type of man, as I will explain.

Combing through my self-recovered memories, the first thing I recall is having crushes. They started in the 1960s, with certain characters on TV shows.

The earliest I remember was Bob Denver on the "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." Then Wally on "Leave It to Beaver." Ricky Nelson on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Stanley Livingston on "My Three Sons." Tonto (Jay Silverheels, born Harold Preston Smith) on "The Lone Ranger." My first inclination toward men of color? In that vein, I had a massive crush on Sajid Khan, an Indian actor from India on the TV adaptation of "Maya," starring Jay North of "Dennis the Menace" fame. I even had a crush on the cartoon character Hadji of "Jonny Quest."

If I were being totally honest, I'd mention my deepest early childhood crush of all, Sabu Dastagir, an Indian child actor who played the role of an elephant driver in the 1937 British film "Elephant Boy." But then you'd think I was a pedophile, which I'm definitely not.

As for real-life crushes at that time, I have to mention a boy in second grade. We'd pass each other in the hallway between classes. He had no idea I was interested, like most men throughout my life. I'd fantasize about being together all the time. Nothing sexual. Again, pretty much how I feel about men today.

Some things did happen along the lines of playing doctor. But I'm going to save those stories for my book. However, I will share the most memorable "gay" event of my prepubescent life.

My parents belonged to a country club. It had a swimming pool with college-age lifeguards. I'd hang out there every day of every summer in my youth, when I wasn't building my financial empire mowing lawns. As I look back, all the guards were hot. Teenage girls flirted with them. And I'm quite sure there were a few Mrs. Robinsons among the sexually frustrated wives who sunbathed obsessively while reading trashy novels and gossiping.

Eye candy for days there at the pool for young Ted. Only slightly limited by club rules that required the guards to wear loose fitting boxer-style swimsuits. Which reminds me of the time a guest, an amply endowed young male, appeared one day in an anatomically revealing Speedo. It was like throwing a bomb into a flock of flamingos. The older women fluttered about, lodging complaints with whomever would listen, while the younger birds fanned themselves and ordered extra drinks. Of course I noticed, although I was more preoccupied with hiding a growing problem in my own trunks.

But I digress. The pool lifeguards. There was one in particular I adored. Trim but not overbuilt, dark hair, smooth skin. Cool yet friendly.

There were separate men and women's locker rooms, as well as for boys and girls. One day when it was time to go home, my Dad had me wait for him outside the men's locker room, which I had never entered. He came out, then said he'd forgotten something and pulled me back in with him. OMG. Talk about sensory overload. At that tender young age I'd never seen full grown naked men, other than my Dad. And now I was in the inner sanctum of ultimate maleness, with men flopping around all over the place.

But wait, there's more. My favorite lifeguard. Standing in front of a full length mirror wearing nothing but a jockstrap! (Oh how I miss jockstraps.) His raw sexuality left me gasping for air. I was looking at the most beautiful creation in the universe. Time stopped. A kaleidoscope of intense feelings washed over me. Life would never be the same. The die was cast.

And then a long stretch of nothing. From junior high to my senior year in high school, I became a bookworm. The first order of business was teaching myself how to read. I was dyslexic, although for some reason no one recognized it back then. Indeed, I was told never to "hear" the words spoken while reading—which I later discovered is the ONLY way I can sort through the word salad of printed language.

Other than continuing to have massive, unrecognized and unrequited crushes, I muddled on. Until...

The summer before my freshman year at Wabash College, I knew the time had come to deal with an inconvenient truth regarding my sexuality. Especially since I was about to attend an all-male college, one of the few still left in the country. So I went to a bookstore. Mainstream, not "dirty." There weren’t many titles on the subject. Don Clark’s amazing book “Loving Someone Gay” hadn’t been published yet. But I did find one that appeared to enlighten more than condemn. I went to a park, read it in a few hours, then threw it in the trash, hoping no one had seen me with it.

I also went to see a shrink. I told my Mom I needed to talk to someone about something, but I couldn’t tell her her what. So she set up the appointment. The man I saw could have been a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Totally old school.

“Why are you here?” he asked. Fifteen minutes of silence followed. Finally I said I thought I was a homosexual. Another five minutes of silence. “You probably are,” he said. How astute. I explained I was getting ready to go to college. He suggested an experiment: Try dating women for the next four years. If that didn’t work, take the road less traveled. So I followed his plan, with one exception, which I’ll write about another time.

By the late 1970s I was out. Told my parents and only those close to me. I was going to gay bars, meeting people, having experiences I never had in high school. It was a giddy time, pre-AIDS. That said, I never, ever could have imagined there’d be gays in the military, much less gay marriage. Although slowly emerging into public consciousness—"The Village People"—gay life was still very undercover. At that time in Indianapolis there was little acceptance. True story: The police used to write down the license plate numbers of cars parked at gay bars. Turns out I was a “known homosexual” after all.

Then so much happened. Most of my circle of 20-something friends died of AIDS. Being gay was definitely not cool anymore. Somehow I made it out unscathed, as did those couples who got together and stayed mostly monogamous.

There are many more stories to tell. But for the rest of this post I’d like to focus on the general topic of gay relationships.

Let's start with gay marriage. A backlash is growing following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Conservatives might argue that big decisions like that should be decided by "the people," aka through state legislatures. Does that mean Loving v. Virginia should be overturned? You know, the Supreme Court decision that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Forget about marriage, a lot of people still have trouble with the idea of gay relationships in any form.

I had the rare opportunity to work for and ultimately live with two men who wrote the first popular book about gay male relationships. “The Male Couple" was published in 1985. The authors, psychiatrist David McWhirter, MD, and psychologist Drew Mattison, PhD, were pioneers in seeking validation for gay couples. They were featured on an early Oprah show. David was a key player in getting homosexuality declassified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Both of them were early members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS).

I met David and Drew when they hired me to help them write a companion guide for a caregiver's educational video called “Male Couples Facing AIDS.” We became friends, then I became their house manager for six months when I was between jobs. Looking like a Mars colony of interconnected quonset huts, their white domed home sat atop a hill overlooking Lake Hodges outside of Escondido, CA. It had been featured in Architectural Digest and was frequently used to host tony dinner parties for thought leaders in human sexuality.

David and Drew were very kind to me, and I have many fond memories of my time in their home. As the resident houseboy I got to meet people like Don Clark; John Money, infamous proponent of reassignment surgery for sexually ambiguous children; Igor Kon, famed Russian sexologist; and an assortment of successful older men and their pretty boi toys.

As for “The Male Couple,” it was more anecdotal than scientific, so its conclusions were questioned in academic circles. But based on my own experience and observations, I think the book’s main points are correct. In a nutshell: Whether gay or straight, men relate to each other first as men. That said, for gay men who are mutually attracted, sexual connections are often immediate and intense. David and Drew identified this initial stage of attraction as limerence.

In some cases the initial feeling of intense attraction leads to coupling. From that point onward, it’s a question of clearing milestones as the limerence fades and a true partnership forms, or does not. There is also the issue of sexual openness in the relationship. David and Drew posited that virtually all longterm male couple relationships become sexually open, after varying periods of monogamy. The only issue is the extent to which couples are honest with each other.

Note to file: There are male couples who insist they are totally monogamous.

Today when I see longtime male couples, most of them strike me loving friends who are deeply connected in many aspects of life. As David and Drew would say, sexual fidelity is supplanted by fidelity to the relationship itself. When the relationship works, it becomes a separate entity that both partners nurture and cherish.

David and Drew were pioneers. They themselves had a loving, caring and mutually supportive relationship. Drew died December 29, 2005. David died July 28, 2006.

When "The Male Couple" was written, few dreamed of legal gay marriage. And yet longtime coupling has always occurred, usually in secret. My greatest regret is that I did not embrace that possibility at a younger age when there were more options. I met some truly fine men who wanted a committed relationship, but I wasn’t ready. So I both celebrate and envy today’s generation that can think about more than just survival. They have fewer worries about being fired or kicked out of an apartment, although legal gay discrimination still exists in some states—many of which formerly prohibited interracial marriage, btw.

While I celebrate the right to marry, I think it would be a mistake for gay men to model their relationships after heterosexual couples. Men relate to each other differently than a man and a woman, or two women. Let's celebrate that unique connection while being open to all the loving dimensions that are possible.

As for my desire to be in a relationship today, it would have to be with a very special person. To paraphrase the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, “first, do no harm.” I have a good life and would not lightly risk it to the 50% failure rate of marriage. Or the potential heartache and financial devastation of a messy breakup. Not at this late stage in life. I’d rather have good friends. If there is the potential of something more, it will grow out of friendship.

But that’s logic talking. No one is entirely immune to Cupid's arrow!

P.S. This passionate TED talk from Dr. James O'Keefe MD makes an interesting argument that homosexuality is a necessary and extraordinarily useful cog in nature's wheel of perfection.

Comments? Send to: tedkseastrom@gmail.com

DSM
Igor Kon
John Money
Loving Someone Gay
Loving v. Virginia
Sabu
SSSS
The Male Couple
Wabash College

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