I’ve always thought of myself as being into capital-m “Men”—men who are big, and tough, men who play football and lift weights and eat steak. I imagined meeting my first boyfriend at a frat party, not as co-counselors at an arts camp in overcast Alaska. Taylor does not fit into what I used to think of as my type: he’s an on-and-off vegetarian who slept underneath a flower-patterned quilt for the duration of camp. (That quilt is what came to mind on the second day of the summer, when one of my friends said, “I bet you’re going to hook up with him,” and I felt a little slighted.) The person I actually wanted to date was my roommate, a bisexual modern dancer from Miami who played soccer in his free time. We didn’t have anything in common, but I didn’t care. He performed the easy, confident brand of masculinity to which I thought I was attracted.
With my roommate, I would bike to the water and feign interest in starfish. With Taylor, I became friends. Eventually I realized that this was the real connection, and that I was developing romantic feelings for him. But even when we started dating, I was secretly embarrassed when he wore a blouse, because that made him more like a woman, and I was secretly proud that he had dated women, because that made him more like a man. It took me a while to see that I was treating gender as something that could be tallied, with the misguided goal of scoring as many points as possible. It took me even longer to then stop tallying, to realize that I liked it when Taylor wore dangly fish earrings, and to wish more guys would wear dangly fish earrings, because they really did look cute.
By the time I left Alaska and its rain, I had learned how important it is to differentiate between what you actually want and what society tells you to want, and to be proud of the differences when they exist. I’m not claiming that this is an easy process, or even one I’ve completed for myself. Constructs like masculinity and femininity are stitched into our cultural fabric and individual psyches far too deeply for a quick excision. But when I finally, fully, thankfully got over my reflexive discomfort with Taylor’s affect, I felt more in touch with my desires—and more like myself—than I had before.
For me, the essential paradox of queerness is that it is a catch-all label of individual expression and empowerment, far more inclusive that gay or straight, which still have normative concepts of gender in tow. I feel like I wasted a few years chasing after some idea of what a man was, but now know better: I’ve learned to be queer instead of gay. Because the thing is, having confidence and pride in your desires is far more important than the objects of those desires, be they manly women, or womanly men, or men who dress like bison, or women who eat like giraffes, or all (or none) of the above.
Maybe in the end, I’ll end up with a football-tossing frat bro who takes our children to the gym on Tuesdays, or maybe he’ll wear eyeliner and a floral dress to the grocery store. All I can tell you for sure is that I’ll know who he really is, and he’ll know who I really am, and we’ll love each other immensely.