Assault, Bigotry, And Self-Hatred: Not All Wounds Bleed

Realizing that you are “abnormal” according to social norms and popular culture and religion, knowing that people believe you have somehow chosen your “abnormality” and that you can therefore un-choose it, tends to mess with your head.

CN: rape, abuse

I am not yet a teenager. (No, I will not get more specific. Don’t ask.) On this night, I am not sleeping in my parents’ house. (No, I won’t say where I am. Don’t ask.) Soon, after I awake, the dream will fade into fragments of narrative, then individual images, then nothingness, but for now, a story unfolds, and I flow through it, acting and reacting, speaking and feeling.

Everything centers on a sensation—pleasing, both familiar and alien, urgent, tangible. As time passes, that feeling intensifies. “I need to wake up,” I realize, because I sense the coming of a horrid being or a devastating event. I try to move, cry out, but my arms and legs feel like concrete and my mouth won’t open.

Whatever comes for me moves inexorably onward, pleasure with an edge sharp enough to kill.

Finally, I awake. Others sleep nearby. (No, I won’t name anyone or tell you how many. Don’t ask.) Shapes in the darkness. Motionless. I lie on my back. Though awake, I can still feel that awful pleasure. Like escaping a nightmare dragon’s fire, only to feel the very real heat of your burning house.

Warmth, concentrated around my hips—no, my crotch. A sense of motion, up and down and up and down.

My scrotum tightens. My stomach fills with butterflies. My teeth chatter, though I am not cold.

I force myself to look down.

My penis is in someone’s mouth.

Yes, I know whose mouth. No, I won’t say. Don’t ask.

I pull up my underpants. I have no idea what to do next.


Here is what I will tell you—the person who fellated me was male. Before that night, he had given no indication that he was interested in me. I had never seen him look at another boy with recognizable desire. I have no idea why he picked me or why he chose that night or that methodology. When I realized what was happening, I did not immediately stop him. No shouting in shock and anger, no physical altercation, just surprise and a kind of full-body paralysis that, even today, grew from roots I find mysterious—the sensation, or the shock?

Once he went away, I spent the rest of that night awake, not fearful or hurt but living in a new country whose border was the act itself. You might call that country The Afterward.


In one sense, this is a rape story. I never consented. I never even had a chance to. Someone performed a sexual act on me anyway. I don’t want to minimize that violation of a human being’s personhood, privacy, and right to self-determination.

On the other hand, I understand things could have been much worse. No one beat me, restrained me, smashed my face, cut me, or a hundred other horrors that people, especially women, suffer every day. No one verbally abused me, forced me to reciprocate a physical act I had rejected, demanded that I tell them how much I liked it, or convinced me it was happening because I had asked for it. No one killed me to keep me quiet. I never underwent an invasive medical examination or recounted my story in a cold and impersonal police station or navigated public responses or relived the experience dozens of times for lawyers and judges and juries. And when I demanded that the perpetrator stop, he did.

However, that night began a long, miserable period in my life because I had realized something profound. I resented the violation of my free will and body, yes, but the fact that a male had done it made no difference to me. This was the concept that I would focus on more than any other.

What did it mean?

This happened in the late ’70s-early ’80s. Too unsophisticated to question the gender binary and living in a time when other genders were fodder for disgust, outrage, and poorly conceived comedy, I thought about male and female bodies—their various shapes, their structures, their genitalia, their musculature—and understood that, like Walt Whitman, I could sing both the male and female forms. I had never experienced romantic longings for a male, but I grasped the aesthetic and sexual appeal of the male body. This male acquaintance had a nice butt, another one a sweet and attractive face. This male movie star’s build stirred something in me, as did that male rock star’s onstage pelvic thrusts. Before, when I found myself dwelling on such details, I cast them in terms of my relation to females. Would girls like me better if I had that same butt? If I grew up and danced that way, would women scream for me like they did for the rock star?

Now, spurred by male-on-male contact, however uninvited, in my own life, I understood those allegedly analytical, heteronormative moments for what they really were—milestones of my burgeoning sexuality, when I first saw the body as body and discovered what innately attracted me, what flooded me with hormones and quickened my heartbeat, reactions as important and real as all the times I had been attracted to girls.

No, waking up with my penis in a male’s mouth did not cause me to find boys attractive. Rather, my introspection about my reactions to that event led me to see that boys had always appealed to me. I could now imagine consensual same-sex intimacy.

Can you see the horror here? In the proudly homophobic ’70s and ’80s—when Billy Crystal’s character on Soap was called a “fruit” on national airwaves, when Three’s Company mainstreamed Mr. Roper’s blatant bigotry without making him an Archie Bunker-esque clown, when comedians as sophisticated as Eddie Murphy and Mel Brooks used “faggot” as a punchline—only a sexual assault allowed the possibility of same-sex attraction to exist in my mind long enough to realize it had been there all along.

Talk about bittersweet.


Here, let me pause to clarify something else: What happened to me that night was no one’s fault but the perpetrator’s.

Do not call my parents neglectful. They were not. Like most parents, they did a lot of things well, and they made some mistakes, but this event was not one of the latter. When you send your children off to sleepovers or Scout camping trips or church lock-ins, do you say, “Have a good time, dear, and make sure no one blows you”? Do you interrogate every child and parent, looking for signs of predation with absolutely no grounds to suspect any? When your children return, do you scrutinize their every expression and utterance, probing for signs of rape? Can you see the future? My parents had no cause to suspect anything would happen to me. Nothing like it ever had, and the perpetrator would never touch me again. There were no signs of trauma to read.

You cannot blame any other adults who might or might not have been nearby. They were asleep, and there were no warnings for them to heed, either.

In a sense, it’s even hard to blame the perpetrator. Alone, in the closet, unable to live as his true self without fear of scorn, derision, rejection, exile, physical and verbal assaults, and more, he suffered an isolation that straight people cannot understand. He was lonely, in constant emotional pain. None of that excuses what he did or explains why he chose me, but to dismiss him as a predatory sicko without examining the circumstances that created him would only perpetuate those conditions.

I have long since forgiven him. It’s over. Even if you know me personally and believe you can guess his identity, you can’t. He is long gone from our lives.


So—the assault angered me and made me wary of sleeping in the company of others, but what actually traumatized me was, in fact, very similar to what the perpetrator struggled with—an Othered sexual identity in a time when, even more than today, bigots and trolls and bullies preyed on LGBTQ people. The realization that I was not and had never been one hundred percent straight fell on my head like a meteor and nearly buried me under tons of red-hot rock.

Much like the old south’s “one-drop rule” for race and the false gender binary, America’s understanding of sexuality back then generally stopped at the gay/straight divide. There was no sexual continuum, no sophisticated acknowledgement of a broad spectrum of identity. If you were “normal,” you were either a man or a woman. Otherwise, you might be a freakish mix of both—not Intersex or Transgender, but a hermaphrodite, a shemale, an it. You might be a man with “female characteristics” or vice versa, in which case you were labeled and persecuted as gay, whether you were or not. You were shunned, pushed around, threatened, laughed at.

Realizing that you are “abnormal” according to social norms and popular culture and religion, knowing that people believe you have somehow chosen your “abnormality” and that you can therefore un-choose it, tends to mess with your head.

In many circles, even today, bisexuals are misunderstood. They are viewed as gay men and lesbians who simply haven’t fully accepted their identities, LGBTQ posers, sexual tourists, cowards too afraid to commit. Contemporary bisexuals enjoy wider acceptance, but even some members of LGBTQ communities look on them with disdain and distrust.

Given how my perpetrator’s gender identity and expression did not bother me, and the subsequent realizations about my attractions to the male form, I knew that I was not straight. Yet I also knew I did not fit the common representations of the gay man—the prancing, foppish, lisping, limp-wristed, cross-dressing, sexually ravenous “faggot” that “real men” so disdained. (Who these “real men” were, and why they got to make the rules, and why the rest of us should follow them, and why anyone could be persecuted for their identity were questions that would occur to me later, as I matured.)

In terms of attraction, I liked girls much more than I liked boys. Plus, for some girls, I had already felt affection that might be termed nascent forms of romantic love. I had only felt friendly love for boys.

I was not gay, goddammit.

But the attraction. But the way I had responded to the pleasures of oral sex, even after I knew a male was performing it. But the fact that I had stopped him because I resented the violation of my Self, not because he was a dude.

I was clearly not straight.

What the hell was I?

For me, the real trauma of this event lay in both that question and in the knowledge that the answer mattered little outside my own head. For my hometown, my family, my friends, my state, my country, only “not straight” mattered. It would be enough to condemn me.

Even if I could have ignored the signals popular culture sent me every day—LGBTQ people are funny! Freakish! Alien! Subhuman! Unnatural! Constructed! Victims of their own bad choices! Promiscuous to the point of predation! Gross!—I vividly remember hearing a relative saying, “I’ll tell you what. If any of my kids ever decide they’re gay, they better not come home.”

Decide? I hadn’t decided a damn thing. I had realized something, and I had to choose whether to be myself or shove that part of me deep down, but I had absolutely no say in whom I was attracted to or whom I loved. No one does, not even the straightest straight person. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we had that kind of control? Science and, perhaps most importantly, lived human experience overwhelmingly support sexual orientation as an innate, perhaps genetic, state of being, not a choice or “lifestyle.” Why would I choose to be what I had been taught to loathe?

Beyond my anger over the idea of choice, though, that statement cut me to the bone. It was the first time I truly understood that at least some of the people who were supposed to love me unconditionally did, in fact, have conditions. If you have never experienced it, try to imagine what it’s like to be a pre-teen and know that you must keep yourself a secret, or you will find yourself alone in the world, unprotected, hated.

Just a few years ago, a 70-ish-year-old relative recounted meeting someone for the first time. “I wish he hadn’t been a queer,” this relative said of his new acquaintance.

Why? What difference did it make?

“I won’t support anything that promotes a gay lifestyle,” said another relative.

What, I wonder, is “a gay lifestyle”? What did my relative think it means? Is that the lifestyle in which you live safely, freely, loving whomever you want just like straight people do, without being oppressed, verbally attacked, abused, murdered? Is that the “lifestyle” you won’t support? If so, why?

For many people, the answer is, “Because God says so.” As a Christian, I believe that’s nonsense. Read those Bible verses homophobes love to quote all the time. Then examine them in their original context. Study them with some sociohistorical awareness. Inspect them with some knowledge of how language evolves over time.

Other writers, including some Biblical scholars and religious leaders, have already rejected the idea that the Christian God justifies homophobia, so I won’t repeat that material here. Instead, I ask you to consider this: How would you feel if you’re 6-years-old, 12, 15, 25, and you’ve spent your whole life hearing that God is Love, except in your case? That your very nature makes you hateful in God’s eyes and that you are bound for hell on a fast train? That your choices are to spend your life at war with yourself, in misery, repressing your ability to and opportunities for love, having relationships with unsuspecting good-faith partners who will suffer their own self-loathing and heartbreak when you cannot give them all the connection they deserve, having children who will never truly know you; or, on the other hand, to accept yourself and lose your friends, your family, perhaps your job, and your eternal soul? That God made you but also condemned you?

No wonder so many LGBTQ people commit suicide. No wonder so many homophobes feel justified when they hurt us and kill us. Every single individual who spreads this mindset, and/or votes for anti-LGBTQ legislation and politicians, has blood on their hands.

Having internalized all the cultural attitudes toward non-straight people, I spent the next 20 years hating myself. Every time I admired a male body, guilt tore me apart. Every time I touched another male, I abused myself afterward, physically and mentally. Every time I so much as remembered feeling same-sex affection, I knew I might as well just die. Who would miss an abomination like me?

Now, at nearly 47 years old, I know how much bullshit I swallowed and how much time I wasted. I know there is no pathology involved with being LGBTQ. I know God does not hate me; only small-minded, miserable, fearful people do. I know I am God’s creation, just like anyone else, and that He would no more condemn me for being what He made me than He would condemn you for, say, having green eyes.

For a long time, though, I didn’t know that, and neither do countless people of all ages who, like me, have been sold a terrible lie. On July 26, Donald J. Trump perpetuated this lie when he announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, in any capacity. Early estimates show that 15,000 patriotic heroes will be affected.

Living in this kind of America shoves you down in a hole.

Once I fell into mine, most everything and everyone around me dropped dirt on my young, vulnerable head. From my childhood to my early 30s, what straight, allegedly Christian people had taught me brought only anger and pain.

I fist-fought people on backroads and in streets. I drank far too much, far too often. I did things that could have gotten me or others killed, and I did not care. My relationships suffered. My writing suffered. My career slowed. Perhaps most harmful, my near-constant sadness and negativity and gloom about the future opened a crack through which other kinds of permeating and long-lasting pain flowed, soaking me down to my roots.

I have been fighting to mop up those poisoned waters and close that fissure all my life.

I encourage everyone who reads this to think carefully before you make careless statements about LGBTQ people, their personhood, their safety, their value as human beings. Your neighbor might be gay. Your cousin might be a lesbian. Your uncle might be pansexual. Your children might be anyone at all.

Your casual bigotry could hurt worse than physical assault. Your hatred today might echo inside them for years. You might even kill them.

Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.

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