I’m From Everberg, Belgium.

by Brian Keener

Google Earth Satellite Image of Belgium
I’m From Everberg, Belgium.

“I am gay.”

The 6 am face in the bathroom mirror said that to me over and over again, swollen with too much drink from the night before, like every night before, leaving the rest of the sentence unfinished, too terrified of a cascade of consequences, but the unsaid words were clear.

“And you will die if you don’t come out.”

That all seems queenly dramatic from here, but back then it was the death throes of a man who should never have been. I was 45 years old, married 13 years to a wonderful woman, with two great sons, living the privilege of a diplomatic family with a large house we didn’t have to pay for, kids in good schools, a job and career track I loved (no mean feat as a trailing spouse in the Diplomatic Service, I got lucky), time and money to pursue my interests, the comfort and shell and identity that any man would envy. I was a child of a multicultural and well-to-do, well educated, and well traveled diaspora, that was living a multicultural and well-to-do, well educated, and well traveled life with a beautiful and dynamic woman, two great kids, a nanny, and a job I loved and was good at.

And I was living someone else’s life.

He was gorgeous. I was four. He lived with us temporarily at my grandmother’s house. My mother was an executive at an airline for a South American country, and he had been recruited for the States. He stayed with us till his family could join him. I walked unthinkingly into the bathroom just as he was stepping out of the shower. He was perfect. And I knew instinctively, knowing nothing, that I was attracted to him.

I couldn’t have know what it was; a four year old boy-child has only just learned to stand up to pee, he has no idea of sex, or physical desire or sexuality, and certainly none of those elements were present in that moment as I paused for a second at that door, but there was something visceral, true, hard-wired, and normal for me as he pulled back the curtain and raised his leg to step out of the shower. I knew then. The clean smell of a man and the hair on his thigh. The 4-year-old knew then. Like he knew how to breathe.

I was four years old. And I quickly shut the door. I kept that door shut for another four decades.

The roads you forge and the turns you take are all of your own choosing, but not always of your will. They lead to where you stand now, and you can look back and wonder how you got here, but second-guessing your own life is a fool’s game and dangerous. It is perhaps possible that had I come out as a young man in the 80s I could be dead by now, but the little boy of the 60s and 70s wouldn’t let him, because he didn’t understand what he was and in any case, little light gets in under the closet door when it’s shut.

Growing up in Texas in the 60s and 70s in a Catholic family didn’t just mean that homosexuality was frowned upon, it just didn’t exist and if it did it, it was in muted mutterings of horror and shame. But it wasn’t until much, much later that I figured out how secondary that was. I have no understanding of what it’s like to negotiate life from a wheelchair or a busy sidewalk with a white stick and a dog, but I do understand what it is to live in a world not built for you. Television, advertising, love songs, movies, prevailing assumptions about what constituted a male, all pointed to something you were not, but should strive to be. A Stepford Man. All social cues and expectations told you you were meant to be with a girl, marry her, have children, be the breadwinner, talk football, like breasts, watch ass, and talk dirty about chicks in the school locker room. I hated the locker room, not because I was rotten at sports, and not because I had to make sure to avert my eyes from the guys (I had trained myself well for that). I hated the locker room because I had nothing to say.

I couldn’t build any kind of rapprochement with my school mates because I had no compass points to travel with horny teenage boys my age, and was anyway terrified they’d find out I had a crush on them. They also followed the Construct of what a man was supposed to be, and did it successfully, because it was their hard-wired inclination to do so. I had to work really, really hard at this straight thing, because I wasn’t. But back then, it was what I was supposed to be, so I went along. The Construct told me so.

I did as I was told. I could never go along with the faggot trash talk because something very deep told me in ways I couldn’t hear that that was a kind of heresy to the self. But I had girlfriends, dated them, kissed them, fucked them, and some I even loved. Some I still love. But all of these relationships ended with me rejecting them, often hurtfully. For them. They couldn’t figure out why, and neither could I. When I did make forays into close relationships with men, it ended with them rejecting me. And of course it did: I only pursued relationships with straight men, because gay men were out of bounds, not part of the Construct, not part of the game, and so to be avoided. But when the need to connect viscerally with a man in hard-wired ways I did not understand began to rear its inevitable head, rejection quickly followed.

In my twenties the Construct had started to pop its rivets.

There were brief encounters with men, mostly anonymous, because that was how my homosexuality was supposed to be, anonymous. It taught me the brief thrill of snatched episodes of sex, but there was the mask of bulging bisexuality to hide behind. By now it was the eighties and I could get away with that. The Construct, as it had now acquired capitalization, must still be fulfilled.

I met someone. She was (and is) wonderful. We got on, had much in common, had fun, shared much at many levels. Finally, I thought, here was someone I could build the life the Construct told me I was supposed to have. More to the point, she made me feel loved for me, a feat I certainly had never accomplished for myself. We married.

The time of her and me is a different and painful and wonderful story, but we did build a life, a good one, had two wonderful sons together whom we are still raising together, but it unfolded slowly and with great damage that this life was not one of integrity. There was great anger, too much booze, bad parenting on my part, self-loathing, lying, prevaricating, both of us tiptoeing around the rhinoceros on the living room carpet. An ever-growing chasm not just between us, but between reality and the fact that the Construct had not only popped rivets, it was taking on water, and its doom was only a matter of time.

I met someone. In a chatroom on faith and reason. Another different and painful and wonderful story, but he and I connected on levels, not all sexual, that I had never known existed, but I knew absolutely certainly that it was because we were both men, those connections could not have occurred if we weren’t. It was basic, visceral, hard-wired and vital, and I knew in this, and finally, that I was not the man/husband/father/brother/son/friend/colleague/newspaper buyer from the station kiosk that I was supposed to be. I was not living a life of integrity. The Construct had sunk, and if I was not going to sink with it, it was time.

“I am gay.”
“And I will die if I don’t come out.”

I was 45. The process was hard, because it was least of all about me, I had seen to that. There was my wife, the children, our family, our life together. The woman I married and offered a life that wasn’t mine to offer had invested hers in mine. She was going to suffer, badly, and to this day, I know I can never put that right. I think she and I have come to a safe haven, but the Closet is a killing place. The friends we shared would sort themselves out and have, but this wise wonderful woman and I figured out that just because the marriage was over, it didn’t mean the family was. Happily, that came to pass.

Coming out later in life, means you missed a lot of the life you were supposed to have, but it also means that you have the age and maturity to deal with it along the circumstances and roads and turnings you took to get there. My life, even though I claimed it late, is not to be regretted. I have my children, whom I always wanted and treasure, and they are at peace with a gay father. Their mother and I are the parents they need us to be.

I had worried for a while, that coming out so late, that I had missed so much. And I did miss a lot. But I would not have what I love now if I had taken other roads, other turnings. There is a market in the gay world for the fat middle-age bald guy with glasses, and though I’m not exactly beating them off with a stick, I can afford to be selective about the relationships I want, and I can choose to have the people in my orbit who enrich my life and whose lives I can enrich. I know how to love now: how to be the father/ex-husband/brother/sadly no longer son/friend/uncle/guy who buys his newspaper at the station kiosk, because, even this late, I’m the man I was born to be.

For any man, gay or straight, that is the Construct.

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