Being obsessed with Kelly Clarkson doesn’t make you gay. But by the time I watched From Justin to Kelly at age 12 — and enjoyed it — there was no denying I liked men.
During the climactic poolside duet, my eyes were glued to the white tank top hugging Guarini’s toned torso. I was unmoved by Clarkson’s baby-blue halter, dangling like seaweed from her neck.
This is not to say I had been a typical boy, scrappy and wild, before the American Idol musical romantic comedy entered my life. I played basketball and got my fair share of grass stains, but early on I felt tamer and more effeminate than my male classmates. At recess, I was never the one chasing girls in the parking lot — I was the one blocking the boys from picking on them. The girls were my allies.
Throw some hormones into the mix and wham-bam: Boys were my jam. The gay stars had aligned, but I wasn’t ready to accept my fate. I heard stories of local boys who were tormented for being gay — one even took karate classes to combat his bullies. At the Catholic school I attended, we were taught that acting on homosexuality was sinful behavior.
Staring in the mirror as I brushed my teeth before bed, panicked thoughts marched through my head: Why me? This can’t be happening. What am I going to do?
Like many preteens, I took instruction from entertainment. In middle school, I started watching a lot of romantic comedies with my mom and older sister. And by “a lot of romantic comedies,” I mean we were Pennsylvania’s most dedicated J.Lo fan club. I watched Maid in Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, and Monster-in-Law with them, all the while pretending to be uninterested.
Secretly, though, I was soaking in every line of dialogue — and every man’s jawline. My mom and sister didn’t know I was gay, or they at least disregarded the drool seeping out of my mouth whenever the male lead would inevitably take off his shirt. I’d sop it up with the sugar from my Sour Patch Kids and compose myself again. I always concocted some excuse.
If the movie was set in an interesting city, like The Wedding Date (Jeremy Sheffield, Debra Messing), in London: “You know how much I want to visit the U.K.”
If the protagonist had a fascinating career, like the crossword-puzzle-creating heroine of All About Steve (Bradley Cooper, Sandra Bullock): “I might want to be a cruciverbalist, so this will give me a better idea.”
I was interested in love and I wanted desperately to see that all hope wasn’t lost because I was gay. Romantic comedies were culture’s codification of love, and their message was unanimous: Be straight. In rom-coms, all sexuality is confined to heteronormative hijinks that flatten the diversity and complexity of real relationships, gay or straight. Female sexuality, for example, takes two forms: single or married. But homosexuality isn’t just distorted in rom-coms — it’s nonexistent.
It’s to the genre’s credit that rom-coms are often lovable movies in spite of their predictability and conformity. Who wouldn’t want to see themselves in When Harry Met Sally…? So I kept watching (and still do), praying that one of them would include a character I could relate to. A Harry who met another Harry.
I remember envying Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in which she handpicks Matthew McConaughey as her lab rat for a piece on how to get a man to dump you.
Do you know how lucky you are, Kate? I thought. You have the privilege of kicking a guy to the curb for fun, for experimentation, and I can’t have one at all.
The only thing holding Hudson back from falling in love was her own pride — and maybe the fact that McConaughey talks like he has a piece of straw hanging out of his mouth at all times. That’s nothing.
In high school, I watched 27 Dresses with my mom one Saturday night. James Marsden’s character is a reporter who’s writing a story about perennial bridesmaid Jane, played by Katherine Heigl. What was in Jane’s closet? A bunch of hideous bridesmaid dresses that had audiences wondering why Jane befriended so many blind sadists. That sounded fabulous. What was in my closet? Me.
When the movie ended, my mom looked at me and said, “One day, some girl is going to snatch you up.”
For a moment, I thought maybe I could do it. I didn’t want to let her down. She imagined a wonderful future for me with a woman by my side and, even though I knew better, I thought maybe I could make it work, to keep things simple and please everyone. I was afraid of tarnishing her perception of me by introducing an entirely new, gay dimension.
“Do you think so?” I responded, half-heartedly. I went to bed that night thinking of Marsden’s dreamy blue eyes, and glanced over at the crucifix above my door frame before falling asleep. What are you looking at?
My parents’ faces lit up whenever I told them I was going on a date, which made me happy, if fleetingly. Unsurprisingly, it never turned into anything more. I waited for something to click, to feel the flutter in my heart that I saw in rom-coms, but it never came. The dates didn’t fix anything. The movies felt like lies.
All of the rom-coms we watched pushed me further into the closet. I felt irrelevant, invisible. I assumed the disregard for homosexuality in film meant that I would be disregarded in society if I were to come out. Without a personal computer, and too nervous to rent anything remotely homosexual from the video store, I had no exposure to the LGBT world. The absence of gay characters in entertainment, paired with an absence of gay figures in my own life, instilled a hopelessness in me that a future out of the closet was impossible.
It was almost worse when there was a gay character, because he was just a sidekick. He was comic relief, there to cheer up the protagonist with cocktails and cheeky one-liners while her life comes crashing down around her.
Take George in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a late ‘90s hit whose soundtrack spent years in my mom’s car CD rotation. Julia Roberts (a national treasure, I still believe) realizes she’s in love with her best guy friend, Michael, days before his wedding. Hoping to win him over, she enlists her gay friend George to pose as her fiancé and make Michael jealous.
Played by the raffish Rupert Everett, George is handsome, sophisticated, and delightful. He is the most eligible person in the movie, and he has its best line. (“Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage, maybe there won’t be sex, but, by God, there’ll be dancing.”) But, as a gay man, play-love is about all one can expect for George. He's simply a pawn in Roberts’ cruel game — a sin worse than the ones I learned about in school.
Catching a rerun of Legally Blonde on TV one night, I felt like a bird watcher, patiently and attentively waiting for a rare, elusive gay to appear.
Ah! There’s one! The token gay man has a minute onscreen during the famous bend-and-snap scene, where Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is teaching the ladies at the hair salon a sexy way to catch a man’s eye. He joins them as they practice pretending to drop something and pick it up seductively, wearing a tight tank top, bell-bottom jeans, and a perpetual duck face.
The music stops and from the back room another gay man emerges, sashaying into frame while stirring a cup of hair dye. That’s two gay men for the price of one scene. He has five seconds on camera and a single line, delivered in a voice so sassy it likely shattered the Kinsey scale: “Oh my God, the bend-and-snap! Works every time!”
I saw pieces of myself in these men — certain mannerisms or inflections in speech — but they weren’t three-dimensional. They were caricatures of what being gay meant, of how I felt. What if I’m not this way? I wondered. Is this how I’ll have to act in order to be seen?
Rom-coms are cherished because they provide an escape into a world where, for at least 90 minutes, happy endings seem possible. Deep in the closet, I needed the escape as much as anyone. But how can you escape to a place where you don’t exist?
It wasn’t until I moved to Boston for college that I mustered the confidence to come out. I used my newly minted independence — and my laptop — to explore my sexuality and more LGBT films. I started dating a guy who is still my boyfriend.
After graduation, he invited me to spend a weekend at a beach house in New Hampshire with his parents. At the time, he had been hiding our relationship from them, as they were still getting used to the idea of his dating men.
He was nervous that they would react poorly, so, reluctantly, I pretended to be his friend for the weekend. We avoided any handholding, kissing, or touching. I felt like I was at a school dance again, where the teachers and priests told us to “leave room for the Holy Spirit.”
One night, at 2 a.m., we snuck down to the beach, setting off the house’s outdoor motion-sensor lights as we ran across the back porch. We stood in the cool, fine sand and kissed under a canopy of stars. The waves crashed on the shoreline as we held each other close. The moment swallowed me whole and I finally felt the flutter I had resigned to childhood daydreams. I pulled him toward my chest and, for the first time, whispered in his ear, “I love you.” He looked me in the eye, and said it back.
That night plays in my head like the final scene of a rom-com. But, actually, it’s much better than a rom-com — brimming with passion and shrouded in secrecy. We worried his parents had seen us leave the house, and wondered if they would disapprove of our relationship. It’s this combination of urgency and secrecy that sets the gay experience apart.
For years I believed love was off the table for me because I was gay. I pined for the sugarcoated relationships that straight couples in rom-coms had, but they pale in comparison to what I’ve found. Gay love stories are inherently interesting because, often, they’ve grown out of a struggle that leads to a powerful bond. They can be both funny and uplifting — a classic rom-com pairing.
I long for the day that gay love stories enter the mainstream. Not so that they become as rote as the rom-coms I grew up on, but so that they might convince a closeted boy in Pennsylvania his sexuality doesn’t negate his ability to love and be loved.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.