Today as I was walking to work, I saw a cute guy on the street, walking hand in hand with his girlfriend. He was pretty cute, and dead ahead of me, so I looked him up and down properly. As my eyes reached his face, we locked eyes for a second. He knew what I was doing, and was unconcerned. We continued on our way past each other without incident.
The most banal of incidents, surely, except that when he noticed me looking at him, I didn’t flinch away and pretend to be looking at something else. And I’m fairly sure that’s the first time in my life that’s ever happened.
Growing up closeted, you build up strong instincts early, out of self-preservation. Your glances are all surreptitious, fleeting, stolen. Unless you’re absolutely sure there’s no chance of being noticed, you don’t let your gaze linger for more than half a second. It’s just looking, but the consequences of looking, especially in a small and homophobic country, are dire. And yet it’s so easy to look, a constant temptation, so easily disguised as something else. So you give in, and you look, but never for too long. And you never, ever make eye contact.
It’s been a long time since I was closeted, but those instincts, so early and so powerful, are hard to shed. It used to frustrate me: even in a gay club in London, where seeing and being seen was a big part of why you were there, my instinct was always to look away. Boys usually misinterpreted it as disinterest, so I spent more time dancing, less time making out at clubs.
It’s no real hardship having a dumb tendency to look away when a boy meets your eye. Of all the psychological scars one can bring out of years of shame and frustration and fear as a closeted gay teenager, it has to be the mildest. But to discover that I am, at last, over it feels like more than a trivial victory. It feels like shedding a burden I’d forgotten I was carrying.
The kids who grow up gay today — at least, the lucky ones, but there are more and more of them — will never have this problem. They grow up watching gay kids have normal, loving relationships on TV, and they know there’s nothing wrong with them and that they can find happiness. They certainly don’t think twice about meeting another boy’s eyes. And while that’s just a little freedom, it feels big.