They say you never forget your first love. There’s a reason for this. When you first find yourself taken with another you’re taken by surprise. So, when you fall you free-fall and usually to the bottom of adolescence’s hormonal wishing well. You don’t go in guarded because you don’t know that falling in love is a thing to guard against, at least at first. This is especially true when you’re queer: no one tells you that the feelings you feel for your best friend might be more than those of friendship. You have to parse the pain to figure that out, and the trauma of this first romantic drama will co-author your love stories for the rest of your life.
Simply put: you never forget your first love because, if you’re lucky, your first love is also your first nonconsensual sensual relation.
Mine was, and it wasn’t my last either.
This is what I have to tell you.
He was my best friend, he insisted he was straight, and I’d fallen for him as the leaves fell for the ground around us on the day that everything changed. Teenager that I was, though, I didn’t know I’d fallen at the time. Not for certain. What I knew was that my desires were at war with each other. On one side, the desire to be normal made its last stand from a foxhole dug by the promises of state recognition, family acceptance, biological children, and privilege, pure and simple. On the other side of the war, the stronger side, the desire to touch and to be touched by this beautiful boy marched unstoppably over the battlegrounds of my mind.
We sat in his parents’ driveway that day, my car our only privacy. He spoke first: “what do you need from me?” My engine was running, the heat was on. I said, “I need you to kiss me.” If I’m being honest, dear Diary, I didn’t need him to kiss me to know how I felt. I wanted him to kiss me to know how that felt. (What is the difference between experimentation and instrumentalization?) There was a long pause before we held hands. It wasn’t the romance of laced fingers but the too-tight grip of two arms wrestling for safety. Then, with our eyes closed, we kissed. Our contact was as fleeting as it was infinite and Dashboard Confessional sang along the whole time.
We were two lonely brown boys just trying to survive the small minds of a small town. Our friendship was our only sanctuary from structural stupid—at least until the armies of my desire decided to raze it to the ground. Eventually I told him, “it hurts too much to be your friend.” His reply felt like a lie but I let it be true because I so badly wanted to: “What if I said that we should be more.” What followed were flashes of something just short of sex: mouths met moments that were once just fantasies; hands held tight to things that seemed too good to be true. And were they? Was he expressing a queer impulse even more impossible than my own, or was he simply so in need of a friend that he would give his desires over as hostages to mine?
I probably don’t have to tell you that whatever we had between us didn’t last.
Months later, having fled to college, I gave what was left of my gay virginity to the first cute-enough boy that would let me call him “boyfriend.” We did it in his basement dorm room and by “it” I mean…well, something. I remember wanting very badly to get all the below the belt stuff under my belt; I needed to be finished with firsts. So, bluntly, we took turns getting fucked. It felt like pain and pooping; we announced as much to one another as it happened. It was his first time, too. Looking back, we could have used some more lube and a lot more sex education. Still, it was fun—in the way that trying and failing to swim across the Discovery Zone ball pit was fun. I never imagined that my sexual fantasies would be less fantastic in reality until I actually tried to realize them, you know?
Sometimes—as in your first time(s)—you don’t know you have a boundary until you’ve already passed it. A move gets made, a line gets crossed, and you find yourself standing with someone else in territories ranging from uncomfortable to unsafe. What should happen then?
A year or so after that first fuck, my first boyfriend, now my first ex-boyfriend, would offer his help upon noticing me drunkenly stumbling to the bathroom at a party. When we got there, he stood behind me as I stood over the toilet and vomited. I was tasting stomach acid and shame when it happened. I felt his hands unbuttoning my jeans, his fingers feeling around beneath my boxers. I didn’t say no (I was throwing up…), but I did struggle to remove his hands from my pants. He persisted, though, and I, barely able to hold my head up, stopped struggling. When my stomach finally emptied I turned to face him, but before I could wipe my mouth clean and my eyes clear he kissed me on the lips and forced his tongue against mine. After a few suffocating seconds I pushed myself free and hobbled back into the party.
It might surprise you but I didn’t think much of it at the time. It didn’t feel violent; it felt annoying and even arousing. He was probably horny and one drink away from where I was. It was stupid, sloppy seduction from someone I used to know—a forgivable crime.
I didn’t second-guess this until the next morning when he texted me an avalanche of apology. Surging, heavy, cold. “Please don’t say anything.” “It will never happen again.” “I’m so sorry.” Like most men, his apology was also a confession. Like most sexual assailants—so, again, like most men—he was a cliché, defined by his evil banality.
Even then, though, I didn’t want to do anything like press charges. Partially this was practical: I had no desire, as Sara Ahmed might put it, to become a problem by exposing a problem. Mostly, though, I didn’t want to press charges because I didn’t think that what happened was all that bad. Assaulted or not, I felt unscathed and unharmed—a product of my patriarchal privilege, no doubt, but still. Certainly, I thought, the impact of his actions did not warrant the consequences he might (but likely wouldn’t) face were I to accuse him of what he had done (and, as a good abolitionist, I didn’t much believe in that kind of punitive consequence anyway). Of course, some will say that my shame or masculinity or yet-to-be-unearthed trauma is causing me to misrecognize my own experience. They might be right, I guess, but I bet those same people would say that it’s my right to narrate that experience and to have that narration respected as truth.
Sometimes a boundary you know you have (or should have) gets crossed, but you find yourself feeling, like, fine or whatever. What should happen then?
I ask because the problems posed by my first love and my first ex-boyfriend are problems that I still confront all the time in gay male (queer masc?) contexts. Consider, for example, a gay bar. It’s happy hour and someone wraps their arms around me. I don’t consent to this, but they seem tipsy, friendly, and harmless enough so I giggle and wiggle away. That same night, someone, I don’t see who, grabs my ass. This act in a straight bar might cross a line, but does it here? Does the fact that I was more flattered than offended make it okay? Maybe we have to let go of hard and fast rules and acknowledge that we each draw our boundaries differently. But, of course, that’s just as tricky. If a super hot stranger kissed me goodbye on the lips I might love it; but, honestly, if a not so hot stranger did the same? No, thank you. So, are the conventionally pretty privileged (read: white/light, thin/built, cis/masc) less likely to transgress? That’s not a world I want to live in—though, duh, I already do—and this is to say nothing about what happens when new hands find involuntary hard-ons on a dance floor, or when some extra-extroverted someone backs into you at a sex party and you find yourself—surprise!—inside of them. Is that somehow not the unwanted sexual contact referenced in New York’s legal definition of sexual abuse? (I’m asking earnestly, not rhetorically.) Is this just the price we have to pay to play?
I doubt it and I have to ask: when does queer context provide for pleasures unknown to the straight world and when does it cause us to confuse sexual misconduct for something else: closeted boys being boys, a right of passage, a sloppy seduction, or a heretofore beloved form of non-normative intimacy?
My point: problems for queer sexual ethics don’t begin when one first attempts to manage multiple partners and they don’t end with the question of consent. They begin before we know they begin and they end when we die (or when our sex lives do). Let’s face it: the scripts of straight sexual ethics fit us like baseball gloves we never wanted. We don’t throw and catch on the same field or in the same way. We may not throw or catch at all. Of course, many queer subcultures have ethically sound sexual scripts, and, even when they don’t, sex without a script isn’t always a bad thing. The question, though, is this: What do we do when it is?
Let me know,
James McMaster is currently political chair of GAPIMNY and a PhD candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. Twitter and Instagram: @jmcmaster29