My mother followed me down the hall and waited for me to enter the bedroom before approaching.
“Your father would kill you if he heard the way you’re speaking now,” she said, half-terrified, half angered.
I was five years old and we’d come to visit family. I thought back to what I’d just said in front of my relatives. It must have been something funny, because there was laughter — maybe even a “say that again.”
I questioned my mother about what I’d said, and this made her even more flustered. Not because I’d spoken back, but because of the way I was still speaking. “Don’t say it like that,” she urged, getting me to repeat words again. It was no use. Everything I said only made her anxiety boil over like an unwatched cauldron whose contents who wreak chaos.
By the time my father arrived later that day, I was so paralysed with fear that I barely dared breath, and although I relaxed a little bit at some point, I would continue to carry the guilt of these faults inside me like a worm that could twist and wriggle into different positions but stubbornly refused to ever leave.
I don’t feel any resentment towards my mother, either then or now, over this incident. In fact, we are quite close and she is quick to champion gay rights. The theory that is both most likely and easiest for me to accept is that she was acting out of fear over what was waiting for me if I did not change this most dangerous part of myself.
I only watched The Little Mermaid once, in primary school, when the teacher showed it to us as a treat. But as a teenager living in a country town where the ocean was at least six hours away, Ariel was always on my mind. How I wished to be her, not because she had striking red hair or met and married a generic, characterless prince, but because she found a way to lose her voice.
I didn’t self-harm though I often thought about how satisfying it would be to gouge out my voice box, knowing it was nothing more than a cancer that had no beneficial use. I would have done a deal with villains ten times worse than Ursula the sea witch if it meant I could not speak anymore.
High school isn’t easy for most people: chances are that if you got through unscathed, you were probably one of the bullies able to negotiate cracks and loopholes to your advantage.
Long before I even felt a stirring of attraction to another male, people at school let me know I was gay. How could I protest otherwise? That would involve speaking, and my voice said it all. At my nadir, paranoia over my voice grew so strong that I even asked people: “Can we still be friends even though I’ve got a strange voice?”
Strange was an easier word to say than gay, something I wasn’t comfortable I could be even though everyone had long ago figured out the truth for me.
Luckily, in some ways, my parents divorced and I changed high schools after two years of hell. We moved to a coastal town which felt like a city even though it wasn’t really, and I attended a performing arts high school. I’ll be honest and just admit this now: on my first day, I heard a boy in my maths class with a high-pitched, feminine voice talk loudly, unapologetically, and my first thought was at least people will notice him, not me. Perhaps I could have seen this boy as my chance to learn to speak when I had something to say, but those earlier years of torture made me prioritise surviving at all costs. I would do anything not to repeat them; I planned on staying silent even if I was set alight.
As high school drew to a close, I grew reasonably comfortable with being gay, something that was made easier by the number of other gay and lesbian students and even some teachers that I was surrounded by.
But what really pushed me into acceptance was a man I’ll call Sam.
Sam found me in a chat room — yeah, remember those clunky old things where conversations all began with ASL (age/sex/location), and emailing a photo of yourself to a stranger was actually a daunting prospect?
Sam was on the cusp of graduating from university with a degree in medicine. At the age of 24, he seemed otherworldly — he belonged to the outside world, after all. Sam insisted he was definitely not gay, bisexual possibly.
“When I’m older, I’ll get married and have kids,” he told me, as if this was just something seasonal that would pass with time, a winter flu. He wanted to know where I went to school. “Thought you might have gone to a private school,” he lamented. “The boys there all have such good bodies.”
It’s hard now to convey without cynicism just how much Sam shook the breath from my lungs and made me feel like the most special person in the world. I sent him one or two photos of me — all I had since I didn’t own a scanner and had to rely on a friend to do it for me.
“So handsome,” he said. I panicked, briefly, that he had meant that message for someone else. He didn’t. Later that day I left the house, walking as though I had wings. At almost 18 years old, no one had ever called me anything other than nerd, freak or worse. Much worse.
But there was a catch — there always is. I had to admit, as it wasn’t so clear in the photos, that I had braces.
“That could be a problem,” Sam replied. Sam was sporty and very, very manly. My friend and I looked at his profile. “I enjoy surfing, sailing, football, tennis, cricket, running and so on,” he wrote. My friend erupted into laughter. “Oh, come on,” he said. “He might be hot, but no one plays that many sports.”
Sam oozed masculinity: his rugged, unshaven face was a rich forest; he had a healthy head of night time sky that I wanted to drown inside. But even someone as smart as him could not entirely strike that most delicate balance between natural and forced. Perhaps if I wasn’t so interested in words and language, it might not have been clear how much effort he’d put in to cultivating his masculinity. If Sam had to rely on chat rooms to prove his manliness, he’d let the words clash and echo with their rank power: Ah ‘k, reckon tonight’s gunna be a big one, aye? to give just one example.
In my loosest imaginings, I’d always seen myself falling in love with someone at least a bit like me: someone who spoke in poetry, liked writing or the arts, someone gentle who didn’t raise their voice. Someone nothing like Sam.
One day Sam announced that he was coming to the area I lived to visit a friend. There was no suggestion of us meeting, and I was glad of this. I’d need at least one month’s notice to get myself into a half-way acceptable shape. I was only half-joking when I mentioned plastic surgery to a friend. That night, I collapsed on my bed, aching with longing and barely able to move from the fearful knowledge that the man I had fallen for was twenty minutes away from me.
It meant he was real.
That was when I first started to realise, no matter what I did or said, I was always going to be me, not a version of Sam.
Six months later when I was at university, Sam and I met in the city. We had lunch then he mumbled an excuse about leaving. All up, I got maybe twenty minutes of his time, 10 of which were the time it took for his meal to be prepared, before he blocked me and disappeared. I once spotted him in a chat room and asked why I never saw him online, though I very much knew the answer: My email’s broken, he wrote. Anyway, gotta go.
The good news was that I didn’t beat myself up over it like I once would, but given his preference for boys still in high school, I do wonder how someone not in university with educated friends might have taken this. Was my voice to blame? The way I walked? Or did it all end when I flashed him my offending braces? I’ll never know.
Even today, in my thirties, there are times when I am still not completely comfortable with my voice. If my phone rings in public, I always do a risk assessment of who is in my immediate surroundings before answering. In job interviews, I wonder if this will be the end of my chances, the fateful second I speak, though at least I live in a city where I am less an oddity, and — honestly — the days I worry are growing fewer and fewer. Would I now, in my thirties, still trade places with Ariel? Only if it meant living the ocean forever; I’ve always liked the idea of being a pelagic person.
Funnily enough, I came across Sam on apps a while ago. The most surprising thing of all was seeing that, according to his profile, more than 15 years after we first chatted, he’s remained a very modest 30 years old and is looking for dates with men in their early twenties. I had to smile, remembering that teenage boy in braces looking for a saviour behind a computer screen. He might not have ever met the masculine ideal, but he wasn’t the one living a lie.
This story was published in Episode 2: Masculinity in the podcast, Different Kind of Gay.