BY WHITTIER STRONG
I was eight when my mom escaped my father’s abuses. In the middle of the night, she fled with us four kids to the battered women’s shelter on the north side of Bloomington, Indiana. That shelter would be my home for the month of January 1983.
It was rare for children to stay at the shelter, but one day, a boy my age named Sean arrived with his mom, a woman my mom found spoilt and stuck-up. She intimated that Sean must be the same way. I was just happy to meet another boy my age who I could make my friend.
The evening after Sean arrived, my mom gathered us to get ready for bed. But I wanted to watch a bit of television before turning in. I thought it would be fun to leap out from the bedroom into the adjacent living room wearing only my undershirt and white briefs, like some impoverished Superman. It was all I had to wear for bedtime, anyway; my father had quit buying us clothing, and we had all long ago outgrown our pajamas. So I flung open the door between our bedroom and the living room and jumped out: “Ta-daa!”
Sean pointed and laughed, “Oh, my gosh, where are your clothes? You look ridiculous!”
I was no Superman.
Every day I had to strip down to my underwear, just like everyone else in junior-high PE—out of our school clothes, into our gym clothes to exercise, and then back into school clothes at the end of class, all within fifty minutes. I changed my shirt first, and then tugged down on my shirttails with one hand as I pulled down my pants with the other, so that my underwear was never visible.
I hated changing, but I also hated the rumbly feeling in my stomach that told me I liked being in the locker room. I liked looking at the other boys, the first traces of musculature, the tufts of underarm hair that looked like shredded wheat cereal on the blond boys. I even liked the moldy, musty odor. I didn’t know why I liked any of it, only that I wasn’t supposed to.
All the others were taller, hairier, more mature than me. I was mortified. But at least I didn’t have to put my boyhood completely on display; at least we weren’t required to shower at the end of class, as doing so would make us tardy for the next class.
Midway through the semester came the swimming unit. When we had to shower.
As the other boys stripped naked and headed to the cavernous communal showers, I dawdled, removing each piece of clothing as slowly as I could so that I could shower alone, after everyone else had left for the pool. I even wrapped my towel round my waist before removing my underwear so that I spent as little time naked as possible. The whole affair took so long that I often wasn’t showered and in my swimsuit until the other boys had already started returning from the pool.
On the dreaded day, I was down to my towel and underwear, making my usual checks down the aisle to ensure the locker room was evacuated. Then I returned to the bench in front of my locker and sat down. I reached under the towel and slipped my fingers inside my waistband. My briefs dropped to the floor.
They leapt out of nowhere. Three boys, eighth graders. I can’t remember their names, and only one of their faces (freckled, with hair the color and texture of Chore Boy scrub pads). I consider it a stroke of justice that any other particulars elude me. If I could remember their names and faces, I would be granting them too much dignity.
The two whose faces I don’t remember seized my shoulders, while Chore Boy stood before me, wrestling my towel away from me. It was a quick fight; I was weak.
Chore Boy pointed at my penis. “Look at it! It’s like a baby bird in a nest!”
The boy on my left responded, “Where’s the nest?”
Okay, the boy on my left didn’t say that. The perfect rejoinder, and he was too dense to think it up. Then again, perhaps he didn’t care that there wasn’t a “nest.” I sure did. My paucity of pubes was what most clearly marked me as a boy amongst men.
The chatter of our returning classmates echoed down the hallway, and my ambushers absconded. I was left there on the bench, pale and skinny and much too smooth.
Naked and ashamed.
I was the biggest sinner at church camp, guilty of a crime so vile I dared not speak its name. But maybe, if I followed Jesus closely enough, I would be done with these transgressions once and for all. Wasn’t that the reason I had signed up for church camp in the first place, to follow Jesus?
I had also come to church camp to make closer friends with the guys in my youth group. But I was bad at swimming, worse at basketball, and absolutely abysmal at wooing girls—the typical “guy” activities at church camp—so I was for all intents an outcast. Still, this social status served me well, as it meant I wouldn’t be missed during their afternoon diversions.
The other guys showered in the morning, so I washed up at 2:00 p.m. every day, just after we were released from post-lunch Bible study and left to our own devices. It meant showing up to breakfast every morning with an oily, pimply face, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to the risk of having my hellbound identity revealed.
None of this was a concern in high-school PE. To be sure, I stole plenty of glimpses. But the high-school locker room was big enough for seventy students, so it was easier for me to observe unnoticed. My confidence had also grown since junior high, for puberty had finally caught up to me, and I was more on par with my peers. And even though I was hardly a jock, I had earned a modicum of my classmates’ respect. I clocked a decent hundred-meter dash. I could whip off seventy sit-ups in two minutes. I aced the ice-skating unit, as many of the school’s top athletes fumbled about the rink. I had even overcome my fear of showering, because, finally, I was one of the guys. Never once did I grow turgid, despite the temptations surrounding me, because I was a man, and changing clothes in front of each other was just what men did.
But the communal shower at church camp was a different matter entirely: just four shower heads installed in a bare cement wall. Close quarters. Far too easy to get caught should my eyes stray. The fear mutated into nervousness, and all that nervous energy wanted to go straight to my penis.
So I showered alone, hoping on all that was holy that I wouldn’t get an erection. That I wasn’t destined for hell.
When I was a Bible-college student in the early 1990s, a popular story went out amongst younger evangelicals that King David once worshiped God by dancing naked. Now, here were two remarkable claims. First, dancing was not in fact sinful, as the old guard maintained, and second (and more importantly), God wanted us to be wild, exuberant, radical—a message well-tuned to us Gen Xers.
But this story doesn’t appear in the Bible. In the referenced passage, II Samuel 6, David is wearing a linen garment as he dances.
A shame, really. I’d prefer to think of a man so enthralled, so ecstatic, so full of joy, that he rips off his clothing in celebration.
My first Friday in Wigan, England, Vernon and Denny—the American couple who was overseeing my Bible-college internship and with whom I was living for the summer—suggested I might enjoy my day off at the natatorium downtown. So I packed up my swimsuit and towel and caught a double-decker. I climbed the spiraling steps to the upper level and took a seat, the sole passenger up above. Everyone back in the States expected me to regale them with tales of all the very English things I did, so I had to ride on the upper deck. Upon reaching my destination, I descended the steps and said “thank you” to the driver—another mark of my Americanness, as in northern England, you say “ta.” I entered the glass door, paid my admission, and headed to the men’s locker room, where I stripped down and headed to the shower.
I had never been more aware of my penis in my life.
I first looked down at the rosy head that marked me as an American, then glanced over at the other men’s dangling prepuces. I wondered if they would comment on my nationality. What was it like to have a foreskin? It looked so exotic, so intriguing…
No! I couldn’t look! I stared straight at the wall, terrified of the slight swell below. What if the men noticed? What if they found out who I was? What if they called Vernon and Denny and I got kicked out of my internship and sent back to the States and I was booted out of Bible college altogether?
The single men in church would talk a lot about looking for a “Proverbs 31 woman.” In this chapter, King Lemuel (who is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible) describes the perfect wife: “Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands…. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks…. She watches over the affairs of her household” (Proverbs 31: 11-13, 17, 27, New International Version).
So (as I understand it now) a man was to look for a woman who would work her ass off to make him look good. But I wasn’t particularly drawn to Proverbs 31. I was more interested in Ezekiel 23:20: “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses” (New International Version).
It wasn’t 666, but 306.7 that marked me as a child of Satan, for this was the portion of the Dewey decimal system dedicated to “sexual relations.” During my mid-twenties, after finances forced me out of Bible college and I moved back home to transfer to Indiana University, I would go to the Monroe County Public Library once a week to perform my devilish ritual: linger in the 300s. Hope that I wouldn’t be caught by anyone I knew. Slip a book off the shelf, and give a quick glance at some passage about the history or psychology of gay men before sliding the book back into its slot and departing red-faced from the library.
In time, I grew bolder, checking out books on the subject of homosexuality and hiding them under my jacket in the library foyer. The first was Boys Like Us, edited by Patrick Merla, an anthology of the coming-out experiences of famous authors. The book was arranged chronologically, opening with stories from the 1950s of clandestine encounters and lost virginity, and then working up to the 1990s, when “coming out” entailed brazen activism. And here I was, reading this book in 2002 and living like it was the 1940s.
Another volume from my period of literary indiscretion was Sex for One by Betty Dodson. I’d long since reasoned that the Bible didn’t explicitly condemn masturbation; if you could avoid the sin of lust by not thinking about another human being while doing the deed, you were in the clear. I’d also determined that, if I wasn’t allowed to have sex with a man, and my hope to become heterosexual enough to marry a woman was growing ever dimmer, then I was going to be the best lover to myself that I could be.
I skipped over most of the chapters because they were addressed to women, and reading about their anatomy didn’t serve my purposes at all. But one chapter changed my life. In it, Dodson related that, for most people, the greatest obstacle to enjoying sex, whether solo or partnered, was the acceptance, the celebration, of their own bodies.
She laid out the following instructions:
1) Locate a full-length mirror.
2) Light candles and dim the lights. The soft glow would highlight your assets and hide the blemishes that get in the way of a positive self-perception.
3) Remove all your clothing.
4) Look closely at your body, from head to toe. Consider what your best features are. Consider that there are many types of handsome, of beautiful, and that every type of body has someone who admires it. You might have the curves of a Rubenesque beauty, or the solid masculinity of a sumo wrestler. All of these are valid.
I had no full-length mirror; the bathroom vanity would have to suffice. I did, however, own a lot of candles, because it was 2002, and I was a closeted gay man who wanted a fashionable home.
In the glow I stood nude, thinking as objectively as I could. My widow’s peak had yet to make its journey up my head; my hair lay thick and youthful. The shadows accentuated my sharp cheekbones while obscuring my slight acne scars. I’d left my Hollywood-calibre chin clean-shaven. My narrow shoulders and flabby upper arms didn’t look mismatched in the semidarkness. The bulging veins on my small hands looked strong, masculine. My smooth chest appeared broad and muscular, a wonderful feint of light. My stomach recalled Dodson’s sumo wrestler. I believed women didn’t like such a thing, and I was years from knowing that gay men had built an entire subculture around the admiration of large bellies. Sumo wrestler, I told myself. The shadows hid the adolescent thatch that never reached the full spread and density of manhood. And below these pubic wisps…well, I’ll just say that puberty was ultimately kind. My relatively solid thighs looked downright athletic in this light. The mirror cut off there.
For the first time in my life, I truly loved myself.
And then, I couldn’t help but reach down and love myself.
“I want to wrestle.”
This was the tagline of the Gay.com profile that caught my eye late one night in the Indiana Memorial Union computer lab. The request was most atypical: no overt demand for sex.
I instant-messaged him, and we hit it off immediately. Each of us shared his story: I, a deeply closeted evangelical undergrad who had joined the website, not because I wanted sex, but because it was 2003 and it was still fun to just plug random words into Google with a dot-com at the end just to see what would happen, and when I finally screwed up the courage to enter “gay.com”, I discovered there was a site for people just like me. He, a self-proclaimed “straightish” grad student whose girlfriend was out of town for six months and who, despite having zero romantic or sexual interest in men, enjoyed wrestling them.
“Would you like me to come over sometime and wrestle?”
What to do? On the one hand, I longed for some kind of physical contact with another man—and if it was nonsexual, so much the better. Perhaps I could find some loophole in the Bible that would allow me to manhandle a man without holding a man. But, on the other hand, what if he was lying to me and wanted more? I was not about to have sex with any man.
It took a couple more instant-messaging sessions before I trusted him enough to invite him over. The first two times, he came to the door, I invited him in, he stayed in the living room and stripped down to his wrestling singlet while I went to my bedroom and changed into a tank top and boxer-briefs. Then we would engage in a few rounds of collegiate-style wrestling upon the full-size mattress I had dragged from the bedroom to the living room prior to his arrival.
The third time, he came to my door to find me completely naked. This wasn’t a surprise; wrestling in the nude had been on the table since he first suggested it weeks before. But he had to earn my trust before I was ready to do this with him.
He flung off his clothing with ease, displaying his paltry chest, rotund belly, the strip of fur running down from his navel. We sat in conversation for a while. My right leg trembled violently, as it does when I’m at my most nervous. “We don’t have to wrestle nude if you don’t want to,” he said. But I did. All the while, my member tumesced. I apologized profusely for my arousal, but he said it was okay, it’s just part of being a man. We chatted awhile more, and the excitement below died down.
Then we wrestled. And the warmth of skin on skin, sweat on sweat, the endorphin rush of wrestling to a pin, was more satisfying than sex could ever be.
I was unable to lie on my back as I stared up at the fireworks above Orono Lake, because a four-pointed crimson star, the space in the small of my back beyond the sweep of my hands, had burnt itself into me—and all because I had been too scared to let another man put sunscreen on me. And even though there had been no prospect of sex, per the regulations of the nudist club, I wished to avoid even the hint of impropriety, a sentiment echoing Ephesians 5:3. I was, after all, saving myself for marriage—even if the marriage wasn’t recognized in the eyes of the law. I wasn’t sure how I would get any rest that week. Life as a back-sleeper. Still, I had to give myself some credit. I had made it through my first nudist event.
It was not only the nakedest, but the outest, I had ever been. In Minneapolis only a month exactly, and already I was attending gay social events. That they were nudist gay social events was mostly beside the point. I was finally in a city where I could explore and express my sexual identity, five hundred miles from the hometown where I fretted over who might discover my reading habits, where I spent hours practicing how to walk without a swish so passersby wouldn’t shout “faggot” at me quite as often.
My eyes darted back and forth between the rockets in the sky and my half-dozen companions, who had also attended the nudist potluck. One was a schoolteacher, another an accountant, a third between jobs like me. Not monsters and deviants, as the church had taught me they were. That I was. If you saw them dressed, you’d never imagine how much they enjoyed being undressed.
And as blue and green spiraled in the black above, I thought about my many journeys, least of which the one that had brought me from Indiana to Minnesota. I thought of how I had gone from being a timid Christian whose every step was dictated by those around him, to a bold knight of faith who dared to go where few ventured. How I had shifted from a frightened small-town closet case to an out-and-proud gay man living in an out-and-proud gay city. From a skinny, smooth little boy to a not-so-skinny, mostly smooth man.
How I had gone from boy to man.
I couldn’t foresee how much of my journey yet lay ahead, no clue that I would happily surrender my virginity just four months later. Nor could I imagine that I would eventually reason myself out of theism. But the future didn’t matter at that point. It was the Fourth of July, and only one word was on my mind.