Growing up in the modern American South is weird. Every sex talk includes "now it's okay if you like men" and concludes with "God made everyone normal, it's just harder for some to see than others." As a short kid, I would look up and see two things in opposite directions: on one side it seemed so obvious that love is a boundless thing that can take any form, and on the other, there was this vague and looming power that said we're only going to business with the boys that act like boys and the girls that act like girls. The people that make up that force would go far to live in a world without any outliers in the black and white Adam and Eve. For the most part that just included outright ignoring the outliers, but everyone I knew had heard stories of it getting worse.
I've been aware of where I lie on the sexual spectrum ever since I started high school, but after evaluating my immediate surroundings, I quickly decided it wasn't worth the hassle to get in touch with. It was frankly easier for me to play the role of "the boy who acts like boys" than to have the same conversation with everyone who asks.
Playing the role of the straight boy wasn't difficult at all, because, in most instances, that’s close enough to who I am. Although I personally identify as pansexual, for quick answers and shallow conversations I usually round it out to bisexual. And honestly, I consider this a much more “normal” way to be than the hard line in the sand that has to be obeyed with the label 100% straight. In high school, I felt like I had an image to maintain, but not in the “wearing a mask” kind of way, the pop-star kind of way. I embraced it in the clothes I wore, slang I used, and stunts I pulled. I played the role of Ferris Bueller and loved every ounce of attention that it bought me. That role made me feel seen. I was a tangible material character in the lives of all the people around me. A big part of that role is not caring what other people think and I convinced myself that identifying with an atypical sexual label would throw that out of balance and jeopardize the character I created. I told a few close friends who asked, but I never went out of my way to explain the position I found myself in. For the sake of convenience, I became comfortable with telling a white lie.
This was the case until 2019 when I traveled the Appalachian Trail. I remember the night before I headed to Georgia to start the trek, I left my mother in tears after mentioning how unhappy I was growing up where we lived. There wasn’t any shouting or anger. It wasn't a fight or an argument even; just quiet words and tears. That vague and looming force was a quiet thing, but it was sure to keep respectable young men in their place.
In the first few days of hiking, a deep chilling anxiety set in. This was the first time I had ever put myself in a long-term situation without any support or backup plans. I was hundreds of miles away from anyone I knew and felt afraid and alone. I quickly realized I wasn’t alone at all and had very little to fear. I was in the company of a hundred beautiful strangers that were just like me, whose strange and different lives had all led them to the same exact place mine had brought me.
A part of thru-hiking a long-distance trail is changing your name to a trail name. These are often ridiculous nicknames with trivial and insignificant backstories such as Catmilk, Sunfox, Mary Poppins, Achilles, and what was in my biased opinion the best trail name of all time, Godspeed. I strongly believe that this has a significant contribution to the unfamiliar freedom that most hikers find. It comes as a sort of identity disassociation. When you go by a different name, you no longer feel tied to all the traits and expectations that come with the name you’ve gone by all your life. You can make yourself into whatever you choose and the accepting people that surround you won’t be able to tell the difference. In fact, it’s a low level of taboo to call another hiker by their real name. We all recognize the comfort that comes with a fresh start and no strings attached.
Somewhere in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, I remember sitting around a dying campfire with the hiker that taught me how to roll cigarettes. The impression he gave off when I had first met him was ‘either this man is extremely excited about hiking or he’s gay.’ I quickly learned it was the latter. We spent the evening talking about what it’s like growing up and coming to terms with different sexualities around that pile of glowing embers. I told him about what it was like where I grew up, the identity I played, and everything else I’ve told you. He had a similar story with much higher stakes and a better ending, but the part I remember most was what he said right before we put the fire out: That vague and looming force only has its power as long as you believe it does.
At one point I compared the hike to summer camp, only without any rules and with a lot more alcohol. The untethered freedom I felt was a direct by-product of being completely isolated from everyone who had ever known me. I would go through the small towns in the mountains with the friends I made and we’d go to the most insignificant bars where they never bothered to card. Sometimes we would make a game of conjuring fake names and outrageous backstories to share with strangers. I would flirt with anyone who would flirt back and follow it wherever that led. The outcomes didn’t matter and the stakes couldn’t have been lower. Being myself (or frequently a fictional person) became an easy and enjoyable game without any consequences. Being a stranger made me as free as I had ever been. To all the people who lived in the mountains I walked through, I was a ghost. It was in that ultimate freedom where I first felt able to not only be who I considered myself but to be whatever I wanted to be. That vague and looming force couldn’t reach us in the mountains.
Nothing mattered in the best of ways. Although I was in the deep country of the south, I found it so much easier to play with the boundaries of my identity there. I felt free to be radically honest with the people I met along the way. Instead of having the same conversation with everyone who got to know me well enough to ask about my sexuality, I was able to change my answer every time. From then on, I got to be honest with all the strangers without any of the judgment I feared in my old hometown life.
About six months after completing the hike, I was feeling pretty full of myself and thought I was ready to take on the world. The first real leg of that journey was at a work-for-stay in Hawai’i. Being in a new town, especially one isolated as this, I didn’t think twice about being entirely open with my sexual identity. At this point, I had gotten used to the way it felt and was planning on being 4,000 miles away on the Japanese mainland in two months. I pulled my normal routine and quickly hijacked my way into the community in the usual ways: attending church services and frequenting dating apps. These made it easy for me to make friends with people who could help me explore the island and people who could help me explore myself. I spent a while going on dates and making friends with some of the most real people I could find.
The work-for-stay situation turned out to be pretty different from what I was expecting and Covid ended my travel plans. Fortunately for me, things worked out in my favor, and I carved out a nice living situation for myself with great friends and affordable rent. All of a sudden I found myself in a strange and unfamiliar situation: I had transitioned into a physical person in this town. I had to live here among the people I was honest with. I was no longer a ghost.
At first, it was quite an anxiety-inducing experience. Many of the people I met in person were men that I had already matched with on Tinder. One time, someone introduced themselves to me in front of my friends as such and I was dead white with shock and embarrassment. When my friends asked why I cared so much, I didn’t have a good excuse other than the one that I had only just realized myself. I never really stopped believing in the vague and looming force. I had internalized it and carried it with me. It wasn’t until that experience that I was able to give that force its credit and begin to start working on myself to counteract it. The vague and looming force is a myth that’s only kept alive by people like me who fear it and obey its command. The best way to escape it is to ignore it and live in spite of whatever it wants.
Living here has been a refreshing experience and I still haven’t learned all the things I think being honest about myself is going to teach me. In all fairness, I still haven’t “come out” in any public way, I never felt the need to. I simply don’t hold the secret so close anymore because the more I protect it, the more power I give it over me. In all the decisions I used to make to hide it, I was feeding the vague and looming force. These days I know the best way to live freely and pay homage to my old Ferris Bueller archetype is to do as I please and try not to care what people think of me. Whether I’m translucent or opaque in the lives of the people around me, I need to make peace with myself and do as I please.