The Culture of Groping

The women next to us were stunning. Super-model on a magazine cover good-looking.

One, who I called Alice in my head, was in a sleek and snug crystal-colored dress that hugged her frame tightly. Her shoulders and upper chest were bare, showing off her impressive cleavage. Her arms were bare, her makeup light, and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She danced effortlessly, arms in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying back and forth. Her handsome husband (both wore wedding rings) stood behind her, wearing a button-down shirt, dark pants, and a jacket. He looked like a Mafia-Man with slicked back hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing build. He watched Alice closely, delighting in her enjoying herself.

The other woman I named Prudence. She was like the hottest librarian I’d ever seen. Tight black sweater, gold necklace, horn-rim glasses, short black skirt, bobbed blonde hair. She danced against a man who must have been 7’1” (like actually this height, I’m not exaggerating), a man who looked like an oil baron of some kind. He danced against a pole and laughed loudly and made fun of the people around them. (“What’s grandma doing over there? You think she’d call the police if I accidentally knocked her down?”) Every time he stood up, the people behind him sighed in frustration, unable to see the stage.

I was there with three gay friends, in a busy 2nd floor concert bar called the Depot in Salt Lake City. The crowd was electric and diverse. Women in their sixties, girls in their late twenties with their reluctant boyfriends, gay men in their 40s, middle-aged lesbian couples, college students, people of every race. I was having a blast people watching. As the opening band finished their set, the club started to get busy, and everyone started to close in toward the stage, pressing against each other, in anticipation for the evening’s main entertainment, the woman they had spent $40 each to see tonight: Elle King.

I’d never been a fan of Elle’s, but I am always happy for new experiences and was thrilled to join my friends. Elle came out in a form-fitting black shirt, black pants held up with a belt and a giant gold belt buckle, and a pink cowboy hat. She had swagger, charisma, and a command of the stage. A few songs in to her set, I leaned in to my friend Cole and said, “I can totally see why you love her. She’s amazing!” There was a smokiness to her voice. She sang blues, old westerns. and love and hate songs, and all of them were delivered with a feminist bend. She sang with sheer girl power, unashamed, and the audience ate it up. I wasn’t liable to go buy her album, but I had to admit, she had some serious charisma and talent when she performed.

A few songs in, I was dancing back and forth near my friends when I felt a hand grab my ass. I turned around in shock and literally didn’t know who had done it. Then another hand grabbed my ass. I turned around and saw Alice, in the crystal-colored gown, smiling. “It wasn’t me!” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay it was me the second time, but the first time, it was him!” She pointed to my other side, where a gay man with far too many piercings stood nearby. He winked. I sighed and turned around. Then another hand grabbed my ass.

I turned back around and Alice was right there. “It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help it!” Then she placed both of her hands on my chest and rubbed them over my shoulders and down my arms. “So good!” she yelled, and her husband started laughing behind her.

Over the next few minutes, Alice went on a groping spree. She grabbed Cole’s ass, then Tyler’s, then Josh’s. The she grabbed the ass of a girl nearby, and then the girl’s boyfriend. She turned around and grabbed the boobs of the woman standing behind her and yelled, “I’m having fun and I’m hot and I can do whatever I want!”

I watched the crowd react to her with curiosity, confusion, anger, and surprise. No one really said anything. Everyone smiled uncomfortably and kind of laughed it off. This gorgeous woman was grabbing everyone in the area as her husband laughed. It was some sort of game. She was pretty and drunk, so we will put up with her groping, we all silently agreed somehow. Alice eventually stopped and then returned to her husband, grinding against him as Elle continued to sing.

The gay man tried to grab my ass again and then pressed himself, but I distanced myself from him, delivering a clear non-verbal message that I wasn’t interested. I remembered a few months before in a club when another man had aggressively groped me in a club even after I told him no multiple times. Here I was in this safe space with a feminist artist, getting groped by a man and a woman both.

I thought about Alice and her groping spree, and how everyone just kind of laughed about it uncomfortably and shrugged it off, even though it was very uncomfortable for the most part. I thought of how the tables would turn if it was her husband grabbing people. Both the men and the women would be uncomfortable, outraged. A fight would likely break out. When he yelled, “I’m hot and I can do what I want!” as he grabbed a woman’s boob, he would likely get punched in the face and have the police called on him. Then I wondered how the crowd might respond if they considered her less attractive, or if she wasn’t there with her husband watching over her. How would the other women on dates react? What about the single men?

I realized this was likely rare in clubs, this thing where women groped other men. This woman was clearly drunk and determined to enjoy herself, and she clearly thought it was okay. Gay men grope other gay men far more frequently in clubs and bars. And straight men group women everywhere and seemingly always: women dealt with this at work, at bus stops, in restaurants, while shopping. I can’t imagine. I was feeling violated and impatient after these few encounters. What must it be like for them?

I started to relax a bit, even as the crowd jostled and pushed around me, getting more drunk. The music was good, and I let my body sway with the bass line and enjoyed the people watching. Twenty minutes or so passed, then I felt a hand at my neck. Fingers gripped the collar of my T-shirt, then, before I could even turn around, I felt freezing water pour down my shirt, followed by a few jagged ice cubes. My shirt was tucked into my shorts, and I felt the ice land at my waistline and stop there. As I turned around, I was already untucking the shirt to let the ice fall free to the floor.

My anger spiked as I turned around, already thinking I was glad it was water and not alcohol that had been poured on me. I expected to see the grop-y gay man behind me, but instead I saw Alice. She was holding her plastic cup, now empty, and she was giggling with delight, like she had played the best joke on me. Behind me, her husband was laughing hysterically, as were Prudence and the giant. I was not amused, and I let my anger out in a soft but stern tone, unfiltered.

“What. The. Fuck. You grab me, you grope my friends, repeatedly. You grope everyone around you and think it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny. And now you are fucking pouring ice down my back! Bitch, you don’t know me. Back the fuck off!”

I watched Alice grow pale and back away from me. I hadn’t threatened her or advanced on her, but she knew I was very, very angry. Her husband ushered her behind him and put an arm out toward me to hold me off, although I hadn’t moved. Behind me, the crowd still danced to Elle’s music.

“Hey, whoa, man, back off,” he said.

“Reign her in, dude,” I said with derision. “I didn’t fucking deserve that.” And he quickly moved her away.

I had a hard time enjoying myself after that. I was far too sober for this. I got jostled a bit more by the crowd, but no one else was groping. The wet streak down my back was cold at first, but then just stayed wet and took time to dry. When I lose my temper like that, I immediately get sad and angry at myself. I regretted what I had said, especially the word ‘bitch’, which I try to avoid at all costs. I could have said fewer words and delivered my message effectively. But I also had a right to be angry. The groping had been too much, but the ice water was way over the line.

I drove home thinking of lofty terms like feminism and consent, feeling free and feeling safe. I had been having such a nice time before all that, and the admission had been expensive. I hadn’t asked for that, and it wasn’t warranted.

A few days later, I attended a party with a group of gay men, and told this story. Several of them shared stories about straight women going to gay clubs and groping the gay men while dancing and drinking. Women grinding up on them, women grabbing their hands and placing them forcibly on their breasts, women unzipping their pants. Yet when I asked them, the men each admitted they’d been groped by other men at the clubs far more frequently. It was just that the attention from other men was generally more wanted due to the attraction. And they all agreed that women likely deal with this much more frequently.

I’m left with a lot of thoughts after this experience, but I’ll close with this:

Alice, wherever yo are, I bet you’re a really cool person. You like Elle King, and you can definitely dance, and you seem to have great friends. I bet we could have some fascinating conversations. I bet you deal with a lot of sexual harassment in your day to day life. And I bet it is almost universally unwelcome. Just recognize that I celebrate your  right to go out and have drinks. But if you want to grope someone, or pour ice down their back, stick to the people you know. Because you left me feeling violated and angry. Your actions kind of ruined my night. I had a right to be there just as much as you did. And no matter how hot you think you are, you don’t get to just do what you want. You’re responsible for yourself even when you’re drinking. Actions have consequences, and I was your consequence that night. This is an era where politicians are being removed from office for behavior like this, and you aren’t a TSA agent.

I’ll keep my hands to myself. You do the same. And let’s start changing the world around us by starting with ourselves. My sons learned this rule in the first grade. Let’s apply this rule to grown-ups, too.

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Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

Seattle Part 7: Halloween in the Big Gay House

November, 2014

After a little over a month in my new city, I accepted an invitation to live with a couple of new friends in their large home. They had a spare room open, and the rent was affordable. It was a brand new beginning once again.

I moved in at the beginning of November, on a week end day, and as I unloaded boxes, I had this sense that I was being given another chance to do things right. This could be my college years, those I had missed out on the first time around. I’d been so caught up in Mormonism that I had drowned myself in church, missionary service, school, and work. In college, I had never dated, never sat around with friends on the couch getting high and laughing at movies, never cuddled with a guy who stayed over late. I’d had roommates, but I’d been deep in the closet then, inauthentic. And here, a house of young attractive professionals, who seemed to live the very life I’d been looking for. There was a hot tub, and a big kitchen, and everyone seemed confident and fun. They called it the Big Gay House.

I’d only been there for a few hours and was barely settling in when I learned the roommates planned to go out for the evening to the local gay bars to celebrate Halloween. It was a few days after the holiday, but they assured me everyone would be dressed up and ready for a very fun evening of drinking and dancing. I’d been out to the clubs a few times since I’d moved here, but never with a group of friends like this. I had very fond memories of dancing with my friends in Utah, and this sounded delightful.

So that evening, after it got dark, I put on my slightly scandalous boxer costume: red silky shorts, boxing gloves, a red cape over my shoulders, and a black stripe drawn over my nose. I was shirtless, and wore tennis shoes, and it was cold outside, but I was working hard at becoming more comfortable in my body, and this seemed like a nice chance to celebrate.

The roommates offered to drive to the club, knowing a good place to park, and as we headed outside I realized how briskly chilly it was, and how little I was wearing. We laughed together and soon arrived at the club. I reminded the guys that I didn’t have a house key yet, and asked how late they wanted to stay out, and they said they would play it by ear.

An hour later, I was on the dance floor, slowly sipping a vodka cranberry and dancing with a very cute guy, when I looked up and realized I couldn’t see my new friends anywhere. I kept dancing for another 30 minutes or so before excusing myself. I scanned the dance floor, the patio, the bar, and the sidewalk outside the club and couldn’t find them anywhere. I sent a text, asking where they were, and thirty minutes later I got the answer that they had decided to walk to another club, Neighbors, one about a half mile away. “Sorry we didn’t tell you! Must have forgot!”

Frustrated, I clutched my arms around myself in the cold and briskly walked to the next club, where I paid a cover fee to get in. This club was packed full, but mostly with straight couples, I realized. I saw the roommates out on the dance floor, dancing and drinking, clearly enjoying themselves. They saw me and gave me huge enthusiastic hugs, and the evening went on from there. I danced, had a second drink, and relaxed into the evening, as I watched the predatory behavior of a few straight college guys chasing girls around the dance floor, the girls pretending to be demure. I’d never been in a club like this, gays openly dancing among the straight guys, the music blaring, the drinks strong, and most of the room in costume. It was magical in its way. But as 2 am rolled around, this being much much later than I normally stay out, I began to get very tired. I looked around and realized that, once again, the roommates were gone.

Over the next 30 minutes, multiple text messages went unanswered. They were gone. I walked back to where we had parked the car, and it too was gone. They’d left me there. Simply forgotten me.

It was now past freezing outside, and I began to realize I didn’t have a key. I opened my phone up and got an Uber, barely remembering my  new address to get home. A few minutes later, I was at my new home, the roommate’s car in the driveway. The house was dark. I walked up to the front door, where I could see one of the roommates passed out on the couch. The other must be asleep in his room upstairs. It was nearly 3 am now.

I knocked. I rang the doorbell. I knocked again. Then on the window. I shouted through the window. More doorbell. I called both of their phones and could hear them ringing. More doorbell. More knocking. Finally, the roommate on the couch looked up, stumbled to the door to unlock it and let me in, and then walked, without a word, up the stairs to sleep.

I entered the house, shivering, and closed the door to my new home behind me. This was my first night here. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase. I’d been forgotten, left outside. I’d wanted the adventures of a college student, and, well, I guess this is what it was going to be like. Drunken dancing until 3 am? Left behind by friends? Shivering on a front porch in only a pair of shorts in the middle of the night? Is this what I had been after?

In my new room, I pulled the covers up over myself. I was simmering with self-shame, with anger. I was 35 years old. I’d given up most everything to come here, to find myself. A thousand miles away, my sons slept in their small beds. I missed them so much that I physically ached. And what had it all been for? This?

I closed my eyes, exhausted. But before I fell asleep, I vowed to myself anew that I would become healthy. Strong. I would do it on my terms. For me. For them.

 

I don’t dance like I used to. Partly because I’m in a relationship with a guy who doesn’t like to dance much, and partly because I’m a little older now and I vastly prefer going to bed early.

But there remains something so magical about a dance floor in a gay club, full of loud beats that shake the floor (and my own bones), where men (mostly gay) and women (mostly straight) shake their asses and throw their hands in the air while they scream out the lyrics to their favorite songs. It is a beautiful space to celebrate life and leave the world behind.

I don’t fit with the standard gay club culture. I don’t use drugs, and I don’t like getting drunk. I enjoy one drink, perhaps two, enough to loosen the wires in my brain and let it all go, perhaps just dipping my toes in the world where my head spins slightly and I get a dopey grin on my face. But I stop there. I don’t like getting drunk, or sloppy. It results in nausea and headaches, and I’d much rather live with energy the next day instead of a hangover in bed. On top of that, I’m the guy that gets to the club before it’s really busy, and I prefer to leave when I get tired, generally around midnight, which is when a lot of the crowd starts to arrive. I’d much rather wake at 7 the next morning, and I’m certainly not equipped to sleep until noon.

Every gay club has its own character and flair. Some seem to cater to youthful crowds, where long lines congregate at the bars for cheap or overpriced drinks, people pack into the patio or outdoor areas to talk loudly or smoke, and others cram into the dance floor in hard packs to strut and perform, or to shuffle from foot to foot while they sip on their drinks. Some clubs are huge, with upstairs levels or basements, cages or dance poles, tiered stairs to dance on, and multiple bars, indoor and out. Others are simple, a section of floor around a bar, with stools and standing room early. Some are seedy, with old porn photos on the wall, trophies for the latest Mr. Leather contest winner in glass cases, and long dark hallways where, in earlier years, gay men might venture for anonymous sex.

I’m currently staying in Phoenix, Arizona, for a few days, and whenever I travel to a new place, I’m always curious about the local gay culture. (A few months ago in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I discovered two gay bars, one that was very trendy and was, literally, empty of people on a late Friday night, and another that had multiple levels and was filled with people who looked like they’d stepped out of 1995). Within a two mile radius of the place I’m staying in Phoenix, I discovered no less than seven gay clubs, knowing I’d likely see none of them, or maybe just one. Some had normal names, like Charlie’s and Stacy’s, and others more trendy names, like Kobalt, but there were a few holdovers from the days when gay clubs had, well, gay names, like Cruising’ 7th, and the Rock. Each club tends to have its own feel and vibe, and its own crowd that it caters to. (Note that in some cities, gay people just frequent regular bars, there being no real separation in the communities, everyone equally integrated).

So on Thursday night, I headed over to Kobalt to watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, one of my favorite pass times in a crowd of gay men who tend to scream, applaud, and laugh raucously at the screen. There were multiple tables full of congenial, and mostly white, men in their 20s and 30s, and we had drinks and laughed together. It was wonderful.

Friday night, I walked past Cruisin’ 7th, and popped in out of curiosity. I found a small seedy space with about 12 men propped on bar stools (keep in mind it was 6 pm). One of them aggressively flirted, clearly very inebriated, offering to buy me ‘just a shot or two’ as I casually turned him down.

“I’m just here celebrating because I’m finally out of a terrible relationship. I supported his fucking ass for too long and he fucking left me anyway. And he thought was was so special, he made me grieve for two months before I got on with my life. And he couldn’t even finish medical school! He thinks he’s so smart, but he didn’t even know what an ampersand was! Come on, just one drink!”

Later that same night, I sat through a mediocre play on the campus of Arizona State University, about three employees who swept up popcorn in a movie theater. In it, one of the characters, a young black man, struggled with his homosexuality, which had resulted in depression and a suicide attempt in his past, and another young woman admitted to being bisexual, causing her to fight off rumors that she was lesbian. And somehow, more than anything else, the play, and the very brief experiences with the gay community in Phoenix, left me with thoughts of how the world is changing for queer kids, and how grateful I am to witness that firsthand and peripherally all at once.

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Piranha: Reflections of First Love

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?

The first time you drove to see me, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, a six-hour cut through desert and mountains, you listened to Lana Del Ray on repeat. You told me how her voice took you someplace else. She was your muse, you said once.

And so, when I sat down in a coffee shop today to write about something else, and one of those songs came on, one of those I know used to make your soul sing, my fingers stopped working for a minute, and my mind started working backwards, to all those little memories we created together.

I remember the last time I saw you, working at your little juicer in the Nevada hills, adorable in your apron. I hadn’t seen you in a year, and I knew we were all wrong for each other, but there was always a place in the back of my heart where we would set aside all of the complications and differences and just work it out. I entered the shop to surprise you and you instantly made me melt, all over again. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, you told me you were with someone else, and I bid my final farewell, then sat in my car and sobbed for an hour before I could drive away.

I remember our last real weekend together, holding hands in the rain and walking the streets of Seattle while talking about plans for the future. We pulled on stocking caps and, side by side, ascended to the top of a waterfall, where you just held me, and when a dog rushed by with its owner, you got that low growl of adoration in your voice as you looked at it in longing, muttering “Puppy!” with unbridled enthusiasm. We sat in the car later, and I told you “I love you” for the first time, and you said, “I love you, too”, and I told you not to say that unless you meant it. And when I wondered if we might be together, you shook your head and said you weren’t ready, and my heart broke, and  that night, with our arms and legs entwined and my head on your shoulder, you held me tight, and I somehow knew it would be the last time.

I remember months before that, when I sat in frustration, waiting for your text message back. There had been longer silences lately between us, as far away as the hundreds of physical miles, and though I missed you, I refused to reach out, just like you refused. You seemed to want me to prove that I could be with you. You needed some sort of bold gesture. But I had children, a job, and child support payments, and you wouldn’t move to be near me, and so we would wait, both of us, stubbornly, for the other to make the first move. And then I’d get lonely, or heartsick, or perhaps drunk, and reach out with how much I missed you, how much I wanted to be with you. We would fondly text for a few days, and then fall back into the same pattern of stubborn silence. And I remember feeling, even in those times, that no one would ever be able to make me feel the way you did.

I remember seeing you in St. George, Utah, during a massive blizzard. You drove to see me for a day, agreeing to give it one chance. You wore a leather jacket and you’d grown a beard, and you wrapped your arms around me as the snow tried to stab us, and we just held each other for five minutes, and it felt like home. We went inside without speaking, and we made love, and we just lay there laughing and feeling amazing, and you muttered “God, I missed you” under your breath. And then we had diner at some terrible cafe, and  you could barely speak, telling me how this couldn’t work, how you just weren’t ready, and then you left, too soon. But I held on to that hug in the snowstorm for weeks afterward, clutching it close, refusing to let it go.

I remember hopping on the porch the first time you drove up to see me, unable to contain my excitement, like a child on Christmas morning. We’d been texting back and forth for weeks, and during your family vacation, you’d locked yourself in the bathroom while everyone slept so that you could just keep talking to me that much longer. You made me feel desired, like I was worth it, and that week I paraded you around in front of my friends, eager to show off this beautiful, authentic man, this brilliant person who was there with me, not, them, but me. And you didn’t care about my baggage, my kids or my divorce, you only wanted to make me smile, and everything was just perfect, giving me a taste of a life I had never thought possible.

I remember meeting you that first time, in the Piranha club in Las Vegas. The room was full of men. My friends were all drunk and paired off with others in the club, dancing in corners, and there you were, blonde and blue-eyed, with dimples, in your button-down sweater and jeans, laughing with friends. We made eye contact, multiple times. I danced near you, hoping you would join me, and I took a shot or two for courage, then you finally approached me. We yelled our names out loud to each other, and danced, trading phone numbers as our friends’ gave us thumbs’ up signals of approval. We kissed and danced and held each other, to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and we both commented on how amazing it felt to find a connection like this in such a place. I went to sleep that night with you on my mind.

I wonder about you sometimes, Matt. Last I heard, you had moved to San Francisco with a new man. And I truly hope you are happy. I long ago deleted any and every way to contact you. I wiped out your phone number and Email so that I couldn’t reach out to you in a moment of vulnerability and see history repeat itself. You aren’t on social media in any format, so I can’t even be tempted to look you up. And the distance helps. Because what you represented to me then, you can no longer represent.

Like you, I’m with someone else now. He loves me, and I love him, and he makes me feel the way that you used to, except there aren’t long silences in between the snowstorms and waterfall hikes. There is no stubborn heel-dragging, no doubts that he wants to be with me, no apologies that he just isn’t ready. He’s some of the things you were, with his own wonderfulness on top of all of that, and he’s consistent, an adjective you lacked in your character composition.

Yet every time Lana Del Ray comes on, I’ll likely always think of you. Her voice is haunting, as your presence always will be. I’ll always think of finding a first love at the age of 32, one that would stretch on for years without resolution. I’ll think of headiness, of passion, of hopping, of waterfalls, of juice, of puppies, and of being held in a snowstorm.

And I’ll think of piranhas, silvery, slick, and sleek, until they expose their fangs.

Piranha

Ah, look at all the lonely people

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I remember a year or so after coming out of the closet, getting caught in the middle of a group of men who were all in pain and causing so much drama, rather like a bad episode of Melrose Place where everyone loves everyone else and everyone is both a hero and a villain… and I remember absolutely loving the feeling.

It was a typical Saturday night in Salt Lake City and a few friends and I decided to go out dancing together. It was March, a beautiful spring evening. We loaded the car up with five of us, all friends of mine, and though the other four knew each other, I was the common factor among them; none of them knew each other well. So there we were, five gay men in our 30s, all of us formerly Mormon, ready to go out for a night on the town. None of us were in the mood to drink alcohol, so we planned to just go dance our asses of at the local gay club. We got their around 10 pm so as to avoid cover charges, though we all knew the club didn’t get busy until 11:30.

There were only ten other people in the club that night when we arrived. Versions of popular songs by various artists played, each with a techno beat and a loud bass line, and we spent our evening dancing around then heading out to the patio to talk, back and forth. The club got more and more busy throughout the night and overall we had a good time. But oh the drama that developed.

Friend A tried flirting with and dancing with friend B a few times, but when B, who recently had a breakup, wasn’t interested, A found a mutual friend of both of theirs and made out with him for a while on the dance floor, making sure B could see. B pulled me to the side to confide in me and that is when his ex walked in, arm in arm with another guy, and then B wanted to make the ex jealous and danced with another guy, which made A furious.

Friend C was sad that night, feeling like he would never meet anyone and fall in love ever, and friend D tried consoling him, but C left the club without telling anyone and went for a long contemplative walk during which he ignored our texts, only to return when we were ready to go looking for him. D was relaxed and enjoying himself, much as I was trying to do, but at the end of the night, he ended up going home with A, leading B to get even more disgusted with A and C to ruminate on how he didn’t even get flirted with.

I remember laying in my bed that night with a giant smile on my face. Though the evening had been stressful and not as relaxing as I had hoped, I had the incredible sense of power and comfort that I actually had friends, drama and heartbreak included. I had spent so many years without true friends, without experiences like this, that to suddenly have that in my life felt like such a wonderful blessing. I remember rolling over in my bed that night, feeling wonderful and a having a general sense of ‘okay, this is what it is like to be single and gay in Utah, even for a guy in his 30s. Some day soon, I’ll meet somebody and be in a relationship and…’ I drifted off to sleep.

That was over three years ago, and the novelty of being single has long worn off. Just a few nights ago, I had a group of friends over, and I love being surrounded by people I care about. Some of them are partnered and they cuddled next to their partners, hands clutched tight. Others looked across the room at the person they have a crush on or used to have a crush on. Others chatted on their phones with the boys they hoped to date next. At the end of the night, I checked on my sleeping sons, tucked them in tightly, kissed their foreheads, and climbed into bed. I no longer go to sleep thinking I’ll meet someone soon. Instead, I just go to sleep.

It took me a long time to understand the psychology of being gay, and it is intensely complex, as all human psychology is. Simply put, human beings go through active brain development from birth until approximately the age of 25. In the beginning, the brain pathways are forming enormously fast, using the blueprints of DNA, or nature, and coding them with the development of experience, or nurture. The first few years of active development turn into the slightly slower development of learning and relationship formation, which then meld into adolescence and hormones, and finally into adulthood. Many of the developments happen at particular ages, such as the early building blocks of language and motor skills. When something happens to interrupt that learning process, personality can be impacted long-term, lasting throughout the life span. For example, if a young girl is abandoned by her father, she may grow up having difficulty trusting members of the opposite sex, and that aspect of her personality will show up in different interactions in different ways throughout her life span. There are volumes and volumes written on this topic and I can only cover these thoughts briefly here.

Now most kids recognize an attraction or interest in the opposite gender relatively early on. It might be as early as first grade or even younger when they start having ‘crushes’ on kids, and it is only a few years later when sexual interest and attraction develop. For most gay kids, they develop an understanding that their attraction to the same gender is wrong, it makes them different from other kids, and they learn a coping mechanism to deal with it; they hide it, suppress it, or ignore it, even as young children. So a few years later, when sexual interest develops, heterosexual Janie gets a crush on heterosexual Charlie and they go out and kiss and break up and she cries over her heartbreak and falls in love all over again with Sam just a few months later, and her brain, at age 13 or 14 or 15, learns how to process this and handle it. But homosexual Linda has a crush on heterosexual Sally, and she can’t tell anyone, so Linda instead pretends to have a crush on heterosexual Bobby, and she never learns how to love, or be loved back, or to have her heart broken, or to get over it, and instead she only learns how to hide.

Now for many gay men and women who grew up in religious environments, such as Mormonism in Utah, there is the additional damage that comes from growing up believing that their homosexuality was a curse from God, an affliction like alcoholism, and/or entirely curable through therapy or faithfulness. Coming out of the closet often results in a loss of faith, rejection by religion and family, and a loss of community.

Now, fast forward to five gay men in their 30s at a nightclub in March, having their hearts broken, feeling rejected, feeling like they are doomed to be lonely forever. Suddenly, those lessons that most of the straight kids learned when they were 13, the gay grown-ups have to learn while they hold grown-up jobs and grown-up relationships. And some of them, like me, have kids to raise. And it is difficult and painful and there is so much at stake.

I can’t tell you the dozens of men and women I know who turn down love because they think they don’t deserve it; who value sex more than they value relationships; who fall in love but run from it because they think they are settling too quickly and maybe there is something better out there; who grow despondent and depressed because the person they like doesn’t like them back; who grow jaded and bitter toward those who don’t have the same values and motivations that they do; who isolate themselves or cry themselves to sleep or think that loneliness is the only long-term option. And these are the people, these often damaged and in pain individuals, who are dating each other and looking to each other for their own loneliness to be filled up and taken away.

Coming out of the closet and experiencing the authenticity of self is a powerful and incredible thing. After so many years of hiding, it is wonderful to have a clear head and a full heart, like coming up for oxygen after years of holding breath. It is also intensely confusing and painful. You have to learn to experience not just happiness, attraction, and fulfillment, you have to learn how to process shame, desire, rejection, and confusion. There’s no easy way through it. Friends help, therapy can help, journaling can help, a supportive family can help. But ultimately it is a path that simply must be taken and a journey that must simply be experienced.

My only advice for those going through this part of the journey to authenticity is to be kind to yourself, to take it one day at a time, to surround yourself with people who love and validate you, and to know what you are looking for so that when you find it, you are prepared to embrace it, work for it, and be happy and alive.