“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.
As a gay man, I am often asked about my “coming out story,” the moment at which I revealed to the world that I am, in fact, a gay man. It’s a difficult question to answer, because the narrative often proposes coming out as a singular moment. One day I was in the closet, and the next I wasn’t. The truth, though, is that I don’t have a coming out story; I have many. Indeed, on some level I’ve had to come out to every person I’ve ever met. The thing about coming out that gets lost in traditional conceptualizations of the narrative is that it never really stops.
I came out to myself for the first time when I was about twelve years old. I can’t recall one specific event that made me realize I might be gay—another fact that throws a wrench in traditional narratives of these events. It happened more as an accumulation of differences, an increasing awareness that I was somehow apart from the hyper-masculine social order my peers had constructed. Gradually, I came to understand why that was the case. Perhaps owing to the drawn-out nature of the process, nothing much about my perception of myself changed when I did eventually apply the word “gay.” It was simply another adjective, like “writer.”
Some years later, though, I realized that there was another crucial difference between myself and the people around me: sex was not a part of my life. More and more of my peers were beginning to obsess over sex, while I remained at a distance. You could chalk this up to my being attracted to other men. It’s hard to join in on conversations about which parts of girls are most alluring when your answer to the question of “tits or ass” is a resounding “neither.” Again, the process was gradual, but it soon dawned on me that something deeper was at play. When I tried to imagine myself with a man in the privacy of my own bedroom, I found it impossible. I was as distant from my own sexual desire as I was from the juvenile discussions with my friends. I felt closed off from the “sex” part of my sexuality, as though it were impossible for a gay sexual relationship to be healthy. On some level, I recognized the absurdity of this, but I couldn’t bridge the gap between intellect and emotion. As the years passed, that chasm widened. I began to obsess over this distance in myself, grasping at a part of myself that was always just out of reach. I suspect that this disconnect had much to do with my status as a disabled man.
I have a comparatively mild case of Cerebral Palsy, but this fact has irrevocably altered the way that I relate to my own body. I have often said that I don’t have body image issues so much as I have body issues, problems with the idea of the body. Though this is somewhat glib, there’s a significant degree of truth to it. Part of why I was so resistant to exploring my sexuality comes down to the fact that I was resistant to inhabiting my body. I felt closed off from gay male desire.
Somewhere along the way, I became a poet. The story of how this happened probably deserves its own essay, but it’s enough for our purposes to say that part of that process involves rediscovering Whitman. My exposure to the good gray poet prior to this was through passing discussions in high school English classes. I knew that he was a progenitor of the American poetic tradition, but not much else. This time, around, I went a little deeper, discovering, among other things, that Walt had been involved with men. Calling him a “gay man” is bound to be reductive, given that gay identity proper had not yet emerged in this period. I would also be remiss not to note that many of Whitman’s male partners were much younger than he. This, too, is complicated. Like the category of “gay man,” the notion of “the childhood” as we understand it is also contingent. In Whitman’s period, boys as young as ten were expected to work. Clear lines between adults and children could not be drawn in the way they can today. Thus, it would be reductive to characterize Whitman as attracted to youth. Even still, claiming Whitman as a queer poet is not without its challenges, as many scholars have noted.
Speaking personally, these nuances could not have been further from my mind when I was in the infancy of my poetic career. I zealously embraced Whitman as a gay ancestor. This forced a re-evaluation of his poetry, but similarly occasioned a rethinking of my own conception of the role of sex in my own life. Whitman’s treatment of sex opened something up in me. He discussed his sexual proclivities with characteristic freedom. Much of “The Body Electric,” for example, is a list of body parts that Whitman is ecstatic for. Nestled among such pedestrian fare as “shins” and “legs” is “the man-root.” I was struck by how cavalier Whitman was about its inclusion. The penis is one body part among many, worthy of comment only because it has attained equal status with the others. For the first time, I saw gay sex not as an aberration, but as part of a connective whole. I became part of the chorus that sang “the body electric.”
I soon learned that “The Body” was a reworked version of one of the Calamus poems, Whitman’s most explicitly gay verses. At various points in the cluster, it felt like Whitman was speaking directly to me: “I proceed for all who are or have been young men/To tell the secret of my nights and days,/To celebrate the need of comrades.” For the first time, I felt that my needs had been legitimated. But the first thing that grabbed me about the series was the title. The calamus refers to a root, and a particularly phallic one at that. In using this image as a framing device, Whitman asserted his desire as part of the natural world. I derived a deep sense of security from this, finally coming to understand that there’s something beautiful about gay sex. My desire is, or can be, the stuff of poetry.
Here’s a poem of my own that in some respects is an homage to Whitman’s Calamus poems, in terms of using nature as a framing device for sexual/romantic encounters, and, in certain ways, dramatizing the process of “coming out” as a gay disabled poet. Of course, being a poem, it’s not just “about” something; it’s “about” itself.
(listen to the poem, read by the author)
All rootedness is temporary.
I know this by now.
It’s a kind of ambient knowledge,
a bone-ache insistence.
Every harbor is a poor one.
No shelter adds up
to the vision of it. And yet
here you are at my door.
You sought me out, offered your name again. Your tongue
tripped over the syllables, as though inventing it for the first time.
Just hearing it makes so much seem possible.
I want to plant myself in your good soil,
wait for something to grow. Please, sit.
Help yourself to anything.
About the Author
Chris Costello is a writer and editor from Central New York. His poetry has appeared in Protean Magazine, Nine Mile Magazine, and Ghost City Review, among others. He has written essays on disability for The Mighty.