It’s hard to describe the way it feels when you are looked at as a predator for simply existing.

The evangelicalism of my childhood equated queerness with all manner of horrendous things: unrestrained lust, pedophilia, assault. We were taught that “homosexuals” would prey on children to convert them. We were taught that “homosexuals” would force themselves on you, that their lust couldn’t be controlled.

I knew I wasn’t like that. I had no interest in children. Just the thought of it makes me horrified. I also had no interest in forcing myself on anyone. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

And yet there are those who were uncomfortable because I existed.

And yet, there are people who saw me as dangerous and thought I shouldn’t be around children.

I remember the terror I felt that I would be outed in my first job as youth pastor. I made sure to hold myself above reproach. If we went on a youth trip I changed in the bathroom. If anyone in the room was changing I made sure to look away or leave the room. I wanted to be sure that if and when I came out no one would be able to say I had done anything even remotely scandalous. 

I shouldn’t have had to worry about stuff like that simply because of my sexuality. I shouldn’t have ever been painted as a predator.

I also remember the adolescent crushes, the normal adolescent crushes. They weren’t even sexual, I didn’t understand sex at that point and had no interest in having in. What I longed for was closeness. I wanted to hug and hold hands with someone. I wanted their head on my shoulder. I wanted to talk late into the night and share the deepest parts of myself, the parts that so often felt unseen or misunderstood. I wanted closeness and intimacy. And yes, it was a crush, deeper than just friendship, but it wasn’t really sexual. 

And sometimes these girls that I had a crush on seemed to be interested in me, too. They seemed to want the same things that I wanted. They would hold my hand or put their head on my shoulder. They would lean into me. We would talk and be close.

Looking back I’m not sure how they experienced our relationship. Were they responding to the masculinity in me that I didn’t yet know how to name? Were they responding out of the queerness that was in them? I have no idea and I don’t want to put labels onto anyone else’s life. What I found hard and heartbreaking, though, was the people who saw me as a predator in these situations. 

Because I wasn’t stereotypically feminine, I was automatically seen as the initiator. I was the problem. I was the one who pushed. Even though I wasn’t. Even though things were reciprocal. Even though it was innocent.

I have walked through much of my life feeling shame over innocent crushes. Feeling shame over having wanted closeness. I have felt like I was doing something wrong by putting my arm around my friend or reaching out to hold their hand to comfort them. So I haven’t really talked about my crushes. I have tried to pretend that part of my life didn’t exist because I have been made to feel like these honest, real, and normal feelings were somehow not only abnormal but also predatory.

This is an unfair burden to place on anyone. Our narratives about desire, crushes, and queerness have to shift and change. It’s not somehow intrinsically more predatory for a young gay man to have a crush on his straight male friend than it would be for a young straight man to have a crush on a young woman who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. In both cases, obviously, the trouble would come if the person with the crush refused to take no for an answer. But that becomes about control and consent and behavior, not about feelings. We have to change how we understand queerness. It is not inherently dangerous. It is not inherently predatory. It is not inherently anything negative.

Instead how about we learn to have conversations about desire. About intimacy. About wants and needs? How about we learn not to fear difference or feel threatened by it? How about we learn to have conversations about consent; how to ask for it, how to give it? How about we learn to treat one another with respect? 

What if young men were taught to deal with their feelings of rejection by working through them instead of resorting to violence? What if young men were taught how to not feel threatened for being soft and open and emotional? What if we stopped painting queer folks as predators? What if we stopped rewarding men who react to anything seen as “gay” with violence and anger by patting them on the back and praising their masculinity? What if we instead told them to get a grip and learn to deal with their insecurity?

What if we created a culture where men who brag about sexual assault don’t end up the President? What if we created a culture where actual sexual assault is seen as a problem instead of the mythical “gay man making a pass at a straight man in the locker room” predatory trope?

What if we learned how to separate closeness and intimacy from sex? What if people of the same gender could be physically affectionate with one another without it being seen as queer or sexual? What if gasp a straight person and a queer person could be affectionate without it being weird?

I want to live in a world where we can talk openly and freely about desire and intimacy and connection. Where we can be affectionate with one another. Where we don’t have to carry shame over our queerness. Where we are not made to feel shame over our queerness. 

I want to live in a world where I am not automatically seen as a predator for existing.

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