Abstinence-Only, "No Promo Homo" Sex Ed Keeps Queer Teens In The Dark
My eyes landed on a digital alarm clock on Bryan’s nightstand. It read 3:12 a.m. in big block numbers. Bryan whispered in my ear, his breath hot on my neck: “Stay there.” My head still spinning from the club, I tried to focus on the clock’s numbers, and only on the clock’s numbers. I added them up to six. I rearranged them in order: 1, 2, 3.
A month earlier, I had come out to a friend over the phone, pacing in the backyard of my parents’ house in rural Oklahoma. I was 20. My feet crunched on dead yellow grass as I walked back and forth in front of a barbed wire fence out by the cows. “I think I’m gay,” I said. With those magic words, a place opened up for me — one where I was no longer hiding, but one where I was utterly alone. Until Bryan.
I randomly added him on Facebook shortly after I came out. He was tagged in one of my straight friend’s pics at a party, and I saw he had listed himself as “interested in men” on his profile. I thought he was cute, and I was desperate to meet other gay people. He accepted my request, and we started chatting.
Bryan went to school in Stillwater but was in Oklahoma City for the summer. He was the first guy to express interest in me. He was nice, and he was attractive, and he knew all these things I didn’t know. We decided to meet up.
He was nice, and he was attractive, and he knew all these things I didn’t know.
Bryan knew where it was safe to hold hands, and where it wasn’t. He knew all these back roads where we could park and smoke and not get caught. He knew how to sneak me into the gay bars up in the city. He took me to one, a watering hole called Tramps, and he showed me this spot in the backyard, a concrete bench where I could stand and peek over into the neighboring hotel. “They’re cruising,” he said one night of the men who were pacing the corridors with trucker caps tilted over their eyes and hands jammed in their pockets.
Gay life was shadowed in mystery back then: a seedy, boozy underworld where people hid their faces and talked in code. But Bryan knew just about everything there was to know about it. Bartenders would call him “sugar” and wink at him when he walked in. Drag queens would dance on his lap. He got invited to all the parties, and he’d take me with him. Every day, he’d pull back a curtain and show me something new. He’d explain it. He’d guide me with his hands.
Soon after we started seeing each other, when he first asked if he could top me, I said, “In what?” I thought he was going to reply Mario Kart or something. It was that bad. I look back, and I think that 20 is pretty old to still not know anything about anything.
But I was the product of a perfect storm of ignorance. Like many young queer people across the country, I didn’t have access to comprehensive sexual education. This was years before Teen Vogue published its controversial anal sex guide, and representations of gayness on TV didn’t really exist beyond the occasional punchline. I didn’t have an internet community to turn to. I didn’t have mentors to teach me. And I never dared to look at porn or dirty magazines, either, because I was afraid of God.
I didn’t even know what “gay” was until I was called it at summer camp. Everything I knew about homosexuality, I learned from other kids. I learned that being perceived as gay meant getting your ass kicked on the regular. I learned that physical intimacy between men was disgusting, something to scoff at, laugh at, gag at. I learned that AIDS was God’s way of punishing the homosexuals for their misdeeds. I learned that their lives were empty.
What I learned from my peers was never corrected in the classroom, where our teachers weren’t allowed to bring up homosexuality in any context other than scaremongering about disease. Oklahoma is one of eight “no promo homo” states — for publicly funded schools, mentioning homosexuality is only allowed in the classroom if it’s to caution students about AIDS.
I’d gone to Catholic school for the first six years of my formal education, where any reference to sex, much less homosexuality, had been meticulously scrubbed from the curriculum. I didn’t fare much better in my public middle school out in the middle of nowhere, where I had my first-ever experience with sex ed. We were taught in a class called “physical health” to abstain from sex unless we wanted an STD or a pregnancy. Gay people weren’t mentioned.
The only thing sex ed accomplished in teaching me about gay people was that we weren’t supposed to exist.
Regardless of sexual orientation, abstinence was the promoted policy for us teenagers, as is still the case in the majority of states. This, of course, didn’t make anyone stop having sex, just like not mentioning gay people didn’t make me disappear. Teenage pregnancy rates are highest in states with abstinence-only sex education, and abstinence-only programs have not been proven to reduce sexually transmitted infection rates or a person’s number of sex partners.
The only thing sex ed accomplished in teaching me about gay people was that we weren’t supposed to exist, and I abided by that religiously. I hid myself so thoroughly and with such paranoia that I was willing to do just about anything to keep it a secret, to make it seem like I was straight.
The first time I had sex was in the back of an empty movie theater with a girl I didn’t know that well. I don’t remember her name. I know that I was 15, and that she was older than me, and that she smelled like lavender. I was at an age when the boys in my class were bragging about sex, and anyone who hadn’t done it was either a loser or a faggot or both. People were starting to catch on to me. I was terrified of them finding out.
We lay down on the folding theater seats, me on top, her underneath. I was scared, not only because I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because my classmates had told me rumors about the seats in the theater. They told me I could get STDs because of all the people who’d had sex on them. They told me I could get AIDS from the used needles that druggies had left behind. But my anxiety about being gay — not just being called gay, but secretly knowing that I was — trumped my fears of the dark theater.
I was at a party in high school when sex came up again, the party where I got drunk for the first time. A friend of mine moved away, but no one lived in the family’s old house yet. There was no air conditioning and no plumbing. We sat cross-legged on the dirty carpet and drank until we were wasted, then we crash-landed on couches and pillows and spare mattresses. I ended up next to this guy, another friend. His hands started searching all over me under the sheets, his speech slurred. “Dude, I’m so wasted,” he said. “I’m not even gay.” He said that a few times while I wondered what to do. “I’m not even gay.”
The night Bryan drove me back to his place after taking me to the club, I was slumped over in the passenger seat of his car, my eyes shut tight. Watching the passing streetlights was making me nauseous. I worried I was going to throw up.
“Have you thought more about bottoming?” Bryan asked me as he drove. He’d been bringing it up a lot lately. I knew it was something he wanted me to do, but I wasn’t ready. I looked over at him incredulously, wondering why he’d ask me again. I was in no condition to try it that night. “Not now,” I said. We rode in silence back to his place. He guided me to his bed, set me down on my stomach, and I fell asleep.
I didn’t know men could be raped.
At 3:12 am, he penetrated me without lube and without a condom. I was passed out on his bed, and when I woke up, he was inside of me. While I stared at the clock and waited for him to finish, my first thought was not that I was being raped. I didn’t know men could be raped. My first thought was that if I pushed him off, he’d be upset with me.
Weeks went by, and I didn’t get tested for anything. I didn’t know that was what I was supposed to do. I only knew that I didn’t see Bryan the same way after that night, and that I called things off with him shortly after. Still, I didn’t think he had done anything wrong. We were dating, and he wanted to hook up in his bed. I thought that breaking up with him would be the end of it. But it wasn’t.
Every once in a while, I would have nightmares about Bryan touching me. Nightmares where I was clutching the quilt on his bed, and some invisible force was pushing me down, anchoring me in place. I would feel occasional white-hot spurts of anger, but I couldn’t identify its source.
These thoughts and emotions only existed as frightening, amorphous figures in the dark, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to name them, to give them shape and texture. I sat with them, and they spoke to me in a language I didn’t speak, because I’d never learned how.
I read somewhere that monsters are only monsters because we don’t understand them or can’t explain them. That makes sense to me. It wasn’t until months later, when I told a friend in college what had happened to me and he suggested I see a counselor at the campus health center, that I came to understand my own experience and was able to process my feelings. It was after that that I realized what a scary place I had been in without even knowing it. Education can’t guarantee your safety. But I was uneducated — about gay sex, about consent — and that made me more vulnerable.
Abstinence-only sex ed and “no pro homo” laws keeps kids in the dark, leaving them with bodies they don’t fully understand and experiences they have no context for. Policymakers might think they’re protecting young people by keeping them uninformed. But it’s in the shadows of ignorance where the monsters are.
I had another nightmare not too long ago. I was in a dark room. A hand anchored me to the floor with overwhelming strength. It paralyzed me. All I could do was wait and watch. I woke up in a sweat, and as the world came back into focus around me and the dream receded to the back of my mind, I breathed a sigh of relief that the light was on, and that I could move.