The Road to Acceptance

by Derik Cowan
September 1996

Recently while surfing the net, I came across an article from a young man who was very upset about a sexual experience he had. The young man said that he'd known he was gay for a while, and had accepted that, but that his first sexual experience with another guy had filled him with a sense of complete disgust at the thought. I couldn't help but recognize my own experience in that article.

Like the young man in the article, I too had known I was gay since about the time I was thirteen (I had known I was attracted to guys before that, but I didn't put together the pieces and realize that meant I was gay until I was thirteen), and had basically come to grips with the fact, but even so, my first sexual experience led to so much guilt and disgust that I began to question if I really was gay or merely had fooled myself into thinking so. Anyway, that was four years ago, and since then I've developed a healthy guilt/disgust free sex life, so naturally I sent off a reply assuring the young man that indeed his experience wasn't odd and didn't mean he would spend the rest of his life alone and unhappy.

All this set me thinking about how we as individuals come to accept ourselves for who we are in general. I think we like to think that all it takes for a person to accept him/herself is a realization that he/she is gay/lesbian/bi and the following realization that there's nothing wrong with that. But there's more to it than that, I think. First off, it can take years simply to figure out what exactly the person is. I went back and forth as to whether I was gay or bi for years simply because it was OK in my mind to be bi but not gay. Others I know spent years trying to be gay when in reality they were transgendered. I also know a number of people who originally called themselves gay or lesbian who later came out as bi.

Then there are many other factors that a person has to deal with, as well. How does one view sex, love, and relationships? How heavily does one want to be immersed in "gay culture?" How far does one want to go in embracing the difference involved in being gay?

Personally, these issues have occupied most of my time since I came out. I realized pretty quickly that living in a gay area suited me just fine. It's a natural urge, I think, to want to live around people who are like ourselves. But there also can be drawbacks. Many gay areas have large populations of people with various problems be they medical, drug-related, or personal, and it can be tiring dealing with the reality of life in a community that doesn't receive equal treatment by the society at large and hence has large numbers of people who are hurting. I've spent the past summer in San Francisco, and I've met many kids who came here because they had no place to go after they were thrown out of their homes, listened to many conversations on the topic of friends who either are sick or already have died from AIDS-related illnesses, and seen many people who are merely living in a holding pattern, not caring about the future as long as they have the money to go out today. I loved my visit to San Francisco, but no where in the world is perfect.

The issue of relationships and how a person goes about leading his or her sex life is another problem that it can take some people a while to figure out. There's a great social drive in our society to find that one person you fall hopelessly in love with and spend the rest of your life with in blissful union. The reality is that this works very rarely. Some people feel they are capable of loving several people at the same time, while others are more comfortable with monogamy. The other related issue here is how linked sex and love are in the individual's mind. In my mind, sex and love aren't really linked. Obviously having sex with someone I love is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a really wonderful thing to have sex with someone I just find really hot or someone who I happen to like but with whom I am not deeply in love.

There are other issues, too. I have many friends who like to think of themselves as "normal, only gay." They do their best to dress conservatively and act "straight." Other people like myself tend to play on the stereotypes. For example, even as a young child I used to dress up in my mom's old clothes and put on makeup, so it probably shouldn't have been such a surprise that as a corollary to my coming out I also began to deal with the issue of how I felt about drag. These days I've even been known to hop up on stage and perform in drag, something I would've never considered two or three years ago.

I hope I'm not coming off as too preachy in this article or as saying that the way I live my life is the only way to do so -- that isn't my point. My intention is merely to point out that there's more to identity than just who a person is attracted to, and that each of us has to choose for ourselves how we want to live our lives. For me, that involves a lifestyle that includes living in a gay area, being very politically active, flaunting my difference from the societal "norm" and having a very open lifestyle. But for each person those choices will be different. The only way to be happy is to be yourself, not what someone else tells you to be. So take the time to explore and learn what you like or dislike instead of accepting someone else's word for what's best for you, and have fun whatever you do.

Derik K. Cowan, 21, is a full-time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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