It was in men’s chorus at Northwestern, the conservative Christian college that I attended and graduated from.
And no, not how you think.
If the group was particularly well-behaved and productive in rehearsal (which, given a bunch of college-aged adolescent males, wasn’t very often), the director would promise to read from something referred to as (curiously) the “red book.” Essentially, it was a book of advice from the 1940s to young men on various topics… such as, how to woo girls.
As you might imagine, it was about as bad as advice from the same time period written to young brides. There was a chapter in this book on how to “go in” for the first kiss, and how to overcome any objections the young lady might have.
Because, you know, women are virginal and virtuous, and men are coarse animals who can’t help themselves.
There are two things I can recall about this book, the first being the stilted, unwittingly hilarious, horrific language the author used in basically recommending young men force themselves on women. It went something like: “If she backs away, don’t worry—women are naturally hesitant in these areas… If she tries to push you away, don’t worry… if she starts to claw at your face, start to worry.”
I’m paraphrasing, obviously. But not very much.
The second thing I’ll never forget about those days in men’s chorus, at Northwestern, and of all my growing up years was the intense attractions that I felt towards guys—and the equally intense anxiety of being found out and caught.
There’s enough anxiety around one’s affection being discovered and the fear of being exposed and scorned.
However, it’s a real brain teaser for a young gay man (or woman) to know that one’s romantic affection could get one expelled from school and from an entire community.
So, all this to say, I had a breakthrough a little while ago, thanks again to Hank Green’s Crash Course: Psychology.
“Say someone almost drowned as a kid and is now afraid of water. A family picnic at the river may cause that anxiety to bubble up, and to cope they may stay sequestered in the car, less anxious but probably still unhappy while the rest of the family is having fun.”
Earlier today, I went grocery shopping with my friend Matt. On the way in, I stopped to pick up some course-ground coffee for my French press for an upcoming trip (as I’m not a fan of drinking coffee that I can also chew).
One of the baristas was a young man who I’ve seen there before, and who I’m 99.99% sure bats for my team. (Not so sure, however, which position he plays.) I’m never sure if baristas (who I’m reasonably sure are homos) are actually flirting with me, if they’re being polite, or if they’re trying to get a bigger tip. But this guy was definitely laying on the charm in asking me if I’d done anything fun that day.
When guys flirt with me, especially seemingly out of the blue, it launches an internal monologue that goes like this:
- Shit, someone is talking to me!
- Wait, is he flirting with me?
- Is this guy even gay, or is he just one of those overly friendly straight guys? Because I can’t tell anymore!
- Quick, what can I deduce about his cultural and educational background? His hair is styled in one of those dumb faux-hawks. Is he a “club” gay? Will he even understand half of the words I use? Should I switch to one-syllable words? Wait, that’s so incredibly elitist and arrogant, making grand assumptions about someone based on their hair style…
- And wait, why would he be flirting with me? Guys don’t flirt with me. Yet, he seems to be flirting with me. Oh god, what do I do? Am I supposed to flirt back? What if he’s not flirting with me after all? Will that make me look desperate? Pathetic?
- Shit, he’s talking to me… oh, no, he’s still just waiting for me to respond to the thing he said two seconds ago.
Later, I recounted this experience to my friend Matt and he pointed out that there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve spontaneously come up with something witty or clever to say. So why is it so damned difficult for me to respond to flirts?
In other words, why am I basically Liz Lemon?
Enter Hank Green.
“Anxiety disorders are characterized not only by distressing, persistent anxiety but also often by the dysfunctional behaviors that reduce that anxiety.”
It doesn’t take a PsyD to recognize that my current anxiety about guys is directly caused by those closeted growing-up years. In every interaction with a cute guy, I feared that I might inadvertently say or do something to give away the fact that I was wildly attracted to him, i.e., gay.
If you’ve seen the video of the guy getting beaten up by his bigoted family after they learn he is gay, being outed in a predominantly religious community is a legitimate fear, whether of physical violence or being shunned.
For much of my teenage and adult life, I had to tell myself that acting on my attractions to other men, let alone having a boyfriend, was impossible. And though I’ve been out-gay for some time, there’s still that same unresolved anxiety running like a background app on my phone, draining the battery.
While it leaves me lonely, like the girl who survived drowning only to hide in the car when her family goes to the beach, I unconsciously shut down potential romantic or flirtatious interactions to reduce anxiety.
And, just as my depressed moods have a cause, it’s not that I can’t flirt. There’s just unresolved trauma. Phew!
What to do about it now?
That’s one reason why I’m back in therapy.