Hiding to Stay Visible

After spending the past week in fabulous San Francisco CA, I’m winging my way across the Rocky Mountains returning to dreary Portland Maine.  The company I work for, Odyssey Events LLC, just hosted their first West Coast sex & BDSM conference, after a decade of only doing events in Maryland and DC. Making it all happen took months of hard work, but the event was a spectacular success, exceeding the expectations of everyone who had a hand in its planning, and execution.

In addition to being the event’s national talent coordinator, scheduling coordinator, and production assistant, I kept busy through the weekend: teaching three classes, co-leading opening ritual, and acting as a secondary event photographer. 

I should have had an awesome, if busy time, reveling in the realization of a difficult vision. But on top of all of those things, I also spent the entire event desperately working to suppress the symptoms of my Tourette Syndrome.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the condition, or whose knowledge doesn’t extend past corpolalia (the relatively uncommon “swearing tics” that the media is so very fond of), allow me a brief moment to explain:

Tourette is a neurological condition that causes repeated involuntary movements and sounds, or “tics.” These can include sniffing, grunting, throat clearing, head jerking, facial grimacing, or just about anything else you can imagine. Both motor and vocal tics must be present (or have been within one year) for a diagnosis to be made, and the symptoms wax and wane over time without a great deal of rhyme or reason. Over time, new tics can develop and old tics can fade away. I have a host of symptoms, from the largely unnoticeable, such as painful dystonic back and neck tics, to more obvious tics like head jerking and the barking from whence my website and blog take their names.

Just as symptoms vary from person to person and moment to moment, so does a limited ability to suppress those tics for periods of time. The problem with suppressing is that it often takes a great deal of mental energy, making it difficult to maintain focus on other things. Suppressing like this also typically makes the tics far worse later, once someone has passed the limits of how much they can suppress, or are in a situation where they can stop doing so. In my case, I can manage my vocal tics for short periods of time, but doing so makes my painful back tics worse, tires me out faster, and means that I’m constantly devoting a considerable amount of focus and attention simply on the effort of not vocally ticcing.

Why then make the effort?  Put simply, I hate being invisible.

I often say, and only half in jest, that growing up with Tourette Syndrome taught me how to be a social entity. After all, I’ll point out, it’s hard to be a wallflower when you’re standing in the corner barking like a small terrier.

But in reality, particularly in sexually charged or queer environments, the rather noticeable consequences of my atypical neurological wiring has the effect of rendering me virtually invisible as a person possessed of sexual agency in the minds of the people around me.

This is hardly unique to my experience as a Touretter of course. Many people who present outwardly as having a disability find that they are automatically classified as a non-sexual being in the minds of those around them and even those whom they interact with on a regular basis.  Nor is this phenomena remotely confined to the rather specialized world of kink and BDSM events.

Among gay and queer men, my condition is often seen simply as a burden too far out there to be bothered with as a prospective partner. There is a regrettable stigma in being LGBT in our culture, and in part out of that stigma has grown the pursuit of a nebulous idea of “perfection” in our sexual and romantic partners. As if to say “yes I’m in a same-gender relationship, but wouldn’t you be too if you could have him/her/hir on your arm?”

Equally significant though, the media engines of Gay Inc. have worked hard to present an image of what it means to be LGB(t) in America: attractive, upper middle class, white, monogamous, and most importantly, “normal.” Even if I ticked all those boxes save the last, which I don’t, being perceived as “normal” hasn’t been on the table for me since my tics became significantly noticeable nineteen years ago.

It’s tempting I know, to say that I’m not giving people credit, that given a chance, many people would be happy to engage with me as a sexual and romantic entity despite the Tourette. We want to believe that faced with this sort of situation we’d be guided by our better angels and look past something as simple as some barking or twitching.

But we don’t, and while that’s sad, it’s also very human. As “proof” I can offer this utterly unscientific experiment I ran over the course of a couple of years:

When I remove any mention of the Tourette from my online dating profiles, without making any other fundamental changes, I get responses to messages I send out, and get unsolicited messages in my inbox with some regularity. Put the Tourette back, and the well goes abruptly dry. It doesn’t really matter how vague or specific I get, or even if I take pains to note that I don’t have coprolalia. If I’m out about the Tourette, I get nowhere.

Nor does the strategy of getting to know someone over the web and building a connection before disclosing my condition prove remotely viable. Once the TS is out in the open, potential play or romantic partners disengage to seek out partners whose neurotransmitters fire in a more conventional way.

While rejection always sucks, I vastly prefer the passive rejection of an unreturned note or a note never sent, over building a connection with someone only to have them turn tail and run when they find out about the Tourette. This is why after much experimentation, I settled on leaving the disclosure in place in my social media and dating-site profiles.

As an aside, I’ve found in talking to many of the trans* people in my life that there are some clear parallels to be drawn between my own experience as a Touretter and the trans* experience, especially but not exclusively as it relates to dating and sexual agency. While as a rule most of the trans* people in my life reject the idea of trans* identity as a “medical condition,” and I certainly wouldn’t call being trans* a “disability, one could likely replace “Tourette” and “TS” in the preceding couple of paragraphs with “trans* history/identity” and have a painfully familiar storyline to many people.

Despite all the issues inherent in being seen as a Touretter, suppressing my tics at Surrender was hardly a rousing success as a strategy. With part of my attention perpetually diverted to managing the tics, I found it hard to fully engage with the people around me, and I know that I was a bit off my game during opening ritual and my urethral sounding class if nothing else.

On a related note, while I’ve achieved a satisfying level of professional success in my field, although I certainly have goals and dreams as-yet-unrealized, I have doubts as to whether I could I have gotten where I am now, had my entry into this world not coincided with a combination of a strong waning phase and a couple of years where my primary tics were not as socially intrusive as the barking (which has been an on-again/off-again companion for nearly nineteen years). After all, as I’ve discussed before, my much of my work is fundamentally related to sex work.

But beneath all the issues of dating and career opportunities, closets are not, and have never been places where I feel comfortable. When I did consider pursuing play at Surrender, or even just a deeper intellectual/emotional connection with someone, I found myself hyper conscious of the fact that I was not presenting them with my authentic self.

Speaking only for myself, Tourette Syndrome is part of my fundamental makeup, and without its overarching influence, my life would surely look radically different than it does today. It’s not hyperbole to say that there’s no way to really know me without understanding the TS and how it has and continues to effect who I am and how I move through my life.

I’d love to say that I’m going to resolve to be more open and positive about the Tourette, or that I won’t repeat this exact same pattern come Dark Odyssey Winter Fire in February. But the reality is that I honestly don’t know.

That’s the Siren’s song of the closet after all.  

My Cis Guy Problem

I’ve got posts I should be working on about actual topics that matter to people, but I have to get this one purged from my brain so I can get some *real* work done. Before I continue I want to get an important point out of the way: it’s relevant to the entire context of this post to know that I’m male identified and was male assigned at birth. Also called “cis gender,” or “cis” for short, it’s the opposite of being transgender or transexual (trans*), and is how most people identify, even if they aren’t familiar with the word(s).

Now on to the post:

I’m in my 32nd year, and I have never been in a relationship with a cisgender guy who was both emotionally invested in me as a person, and attracted to or sexually interested in me.

That’s a really hard thing for me to write about for two reasons:

  • Because I don’t know how to write about it without seemingly to dismiss the incredible emotional intimacy and hot sex that I’ve had with the many awesome trans* men in my life.
  • It really is something I find terribly painful to say, in part because of what it says about my failed marriage, and in part because of what it says about me as a person. 

Let me take on the second point first:

Yes, I was with a cis guy for eight years. And yes, we had a lot of sex (of one form or another) during that time. However, our ex never really hid the fact that he wasn’t attracted to me sexually. Periodically he would go through a phase where he would announce that he’d never actually been sexually attracted to me in the first place, and had been “lying” to save my feelings. Then we’d stop being physically intimate for a period of weeks or months, until he decided he was ready to re-engage with me sexually. It was regular as clockwork (18months) but never stopped being horrible.

He even accused me of sexually assaulting him. Saying that since I knew that he didn’t want to be sexually intimate with me, when he initiated sex I had an obligation to say “no” regardless of how insistent he was that it was what he wanted. That I ignored his “preemptive revoking of consent,” in his mind made me an assailant.

With the physical and emotional distance three years apart has bought me (along with a LOT of therapy), I can see that this behavior could be seen as a kind of emotionally abuse, but it doesn’t actually detract from the driving issue in this post.

Since leaving us, Asrik in fact has for the most part not pursued other men. And while he describes himself as bi/pan-sexual, he isn’t open to relationships with guys (if you’re reading this Asrik, I stumbled onto your OKC profile when researching moving to the PNW, and you were the one who asked me to review your “what I’m looking for” list on Fetlife). He may have used his conflicted sexuality as a weapon, but it’s the conflicted nature of his sexuality that’s actually the relevant point here.

I don’t want to make this sound like it’s all about one guy though, because it isn’t. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first back up to point number one:

I’ve had some amazing experiences, both sexual and emotional, with the trans* men in my life. Some have been lovers or friends with benefits, while others have been partners or boyfriends.

The last thing I want to do is come across as saying that I don’t value the FAAB men in my life, or that I don’t see them as men. Neither are true. My life would be far less rich without the men who are important to me, and some of the most “masculine” and male men I’ve ever known have been trans*. That I have a stupid issue around wanting to be accepted by cis guys is my issue, not theirs, and I hate myself for having it.

That’s not hyperbole either, it’s fair to say that I deeply loath that I care in the slightest whether another cis guy can both emotionally and physically engage with me, particularly when so many men who happen not to be cis, have done both.

I said that this wasn’t an issue about one guy (Asrik), and it’s true.

For some reason, maybe spooky, maybe not, I have a life-long history with cis guys who are not able or willing to engage simultaneously on both a physical and emotional level with me. It’s a pattern that dates back to my early adolescence playing with other boys at sleepover parties. The role of the one who wants, but isn’t wanted, is a very familiar one, and maybe that’s why I’ve been so willing to play it so often in my relationships.

Before Asrik, Fire and I briefly dated a different guy who wasn’t all that into men. Since Asrik, I’ve been in one actual *relationship* with a cis guy, but he felt pretty much the same way Asrik did, drawn to me emotionally and able to engage sexually, but not really attracted to me.

I’ve also encountered the exact opposite: men who were open to fooling around, but didn’t want anything beyond the physical. It’s worth noting that I was thirty-one the first time I had a sexual encounter with a cis guy who actually wanted me sexually, and it just a one-time hook-up from Manhunt. It was still enough to teach me the profound difference between grudging and enthusiastic sex. And it cast a whole new light on the “good” sex I’d had with cis guys before.

There’s a third, and related classification of guy that I’ve been involved with, and that’s the “conflicted straight/bi boy.” You could argue that the cis guys I’ve been in relationships with fit this category, but it’s one that can apply as easily to hookups as to relationships.

For some reason they are the one kind of cis guy who seeks me out (other than 60yr old married men on hookup sites). For years, I was happy to “help” these guys explore their feelings, because I found it affirming to have a cis guy need/want me in some way. But doing so has always left me feeling worse about myself in the end. Sex or relationships with someone who feels conflicted about their feelings for you can be devastating for one’s sense of self worth, a lesson you’d think I’d have learned during eight years of marriage to Asrik. It took a guy giving me oral sex while crying in despair over the realization that he liked it, to make me realize that I needed a break from taking conflicted bi guys to bed.

I wish I could tell you why I cared about any of this. For a long time I thought it was just a penis thing. I’m an enormous fan of cis guys’ genitals, and I thought I was just missing having access to a dick or two. But I’ve had hookups at conferences and with guys I met online, and while it’s sort of fun, it doesn’t do anything to help me feel better about this bigger issue.

Intellectually I can understand that I’m not really what gay cis guys are looking for. I’m poly, and cis guys in their 30s are generally looking for “the one.” I’m kinky, but in a way that doesn’t fit within the narrow confines of most gay male BDSM. My faith is another huge issue in the gay dating world, where overwhelmingly it is understood that atheism is the LGBT default. And of course, there’s the Tourette (the “barking” in Notes from a Barking Shaman), which is a dating obstacle to start with, and seems particularly problematic with gay men.

Understanding some of why I’ve been out of the closet for 19 years but have never had a healthy relationship with a cis guy doesn’t really change anything though. In my mind this has become a double edged personal failing, both that I’m undesirable/unable to be with cis guys in that way, and that I give a shit what cis guys think.

I know this is one of the more rambling and pointless posts I’ve made in a while, and I apologize for that. Del and I have a joint NFaBS/SGaR post on the word “shaman” that will be awesome coming up soon, and I’ve got some religion and politics posts that I think you will appreciate. But in keeping with my new commitment to greater openness about who I am and where my internal processes have been, I felt it was important that I share the experience here.