MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's turn now to something many people still find hard to talk about, which is sexuality. Add same-sex attraction and it gets even more difficult for many people, something we were reminded of recently when Michael Sam, an openly gay college player was selected in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. ESPN was there to document the moment, which included a kiss he shared with his boyfriend upon learning the happy news. The response is still raging across social media with some saying it's about time, others expressing annoyance and anger and still others expressing anger at that anger. What's that all about? We were thinking about how, at a time when America's laws and much of it society is ever more welcoming to LGBT people expressing sexuality, especially for gay men, is still so controversial and sometimes even dangerous. And now writer Michael Arceneaux is adding even more complication to the story by writing about his own fear of expressing his sexuality as a gay man. This very personal essay was written for the site xoJane. His essay is titled "At 30, I'm Finally Tackling My Intense Fear Of Sex." As you might imagine, this conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners. So with that being said, Michael Arceneaux is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: How does it feel hearing me talk about the piece?
ARCENEAUX: I'm really surprised by the reaction I've gotten from it. I really didn't have any expectations, but - I'm not very sentimental - but a warm feeling about, like, the way people have reached out to be about it. It's really humbling and I really have appreciated it.
MARTIN: How have people reached out to you about the piece? Saying it really resonates, that they're seeing themselves in it?
ARCENEAUX: I've had a lot of straight people, actually, which is funny. Normally, when I write anything gay-related, I get a lot of straight reaction, more so than I do gay reaction sometimes. But a lot of people - either they say that they've been there - gay or straight. Or they just are really proud of me, because I'm a pretty open person, but I'm very cautious about writing about certain things. And especially sex, because for me there's still kind of some complications with family and their reaction and kind of like a pushback. But I'm really happy that I wrote the piece and I hope to write more.
MARTIN: What made you want to write this piece and why now?
ARCENEAUX: You know what? Years ago, there was a story about two young black boys who committed suicide within the same month. And I know what it's like to be taunted when people have suspicions about you not being hard enough or they're assuming that you are gay. So that was kind of like the start of it. And I wrote a piece. And I had already come out to myself and my friends, which, honestly, was more important to me at 21. And then I told my mom finally, after the piece got a lot of attraction, at 25. But even now, I just think, for me, I don't necessarily see myself. I don't hear myself. And as a gay black writer, I need to lend my voice to something. That just was the driving force.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the piece, for people who have not had a chance to read it yet. You write that this started - your fear started well before you came out - and it was connected to the way your parents responded to gay people in your family. Why don't you pick it up from there.
ARCENEAUX: Yes. At the age of six - the very first funeral I ever went to - my uncle died of AIDS. And while he was a drug addict, he was also a gay man, which is the more likely culprit behind his death. And for me, my father - his reaction was very much, like, you know - his brother was a faggot. My mom did not - it was many years later that she had acknowledged that he was actually gay. But, I mean, with the use of that word - that's how I learned what it meant to be gay. And, you know, when you're six - and I don't really remember much about the funeral, but I remember seeing him in a casket. I remember crying and I just remember, like, a lot of anger and shame around it. And for me, that always stuck with me. And as a gay man even now - I just entered 30. I've seen people die of AIDS. So AIDS has always been, like, in the back of my mind. It's been hard not to - not think about it sometimes.
MARTIN: So think that you kind of all locked into this idea that being gay meant being sick? Is that what you think it meant?
ARCENEAUX: Yeah, 'cause even without my uncle - I can remember Pedro on "The Real World." I would like to think I'm a bit more modern. Obviously, I'm not my parents. I'm not 60 years old. But sex can still lead to death if you're not very cautious. And this is especially true for a lot of gay and black Latino men. It's hard not to think about it, because it's always around you, even if no one says it. You can't help, but - you know, people drop off like flies every so often. I still see that on Facebook. So it's always there, but I'm learning not to let that control me and how I pleasure myself.
MARTIN: Well, but, you know - but the fact is that that is the argument that many people who are hostile to same-sex relationships, particularly same-sex relationships involving men - that's the argument that they've made. It's that this is how you know this is wrong, right? Because people get sick and die. That is one of the political arguments that's been made against advancing the rights of LGBT people. Do you think that's the part of it that you heard? Or do you think it's more like a visceral - people you saw around you? What do you think?
ARCENEAUX: I don't really particularly care anymore - and haven't for a while - about what other people thought about me being a gay man. Because, I mean, by now, most people know you can easily die from being straight. And I think, even with respect to a lot of the young gay black and Latino men dying now, that's more about people not necessarily being able to reach them with the resources and education that they need. And I think, frankly, a lot of people are still very ignorant about sex. You know, we're only now lowering the teen pregnancy rates. So in that respect - you know, we just don't really talk about sex. So I'm trying to put this in a nice way, but I just generally don't care what people think, as far as that goes, like, the fodder.
MARTIN: Yeah, the politics of it is...
MARTIN: ...What's concern. It's so personal. Well, I got to be honest with you about the piece. I think that that's what struck with me is that - just what a personal pain this was to you. And it wasn't that you weren't having sexual feelings. It was that - it was something else.
So tell me as much as you can, as appropriately as you can, if you would...
MARTIN: ...Bearing in mind that we have a very general, you know, audience, how you think this affected your life? I mean, you still sought relationships, right? How did it play itself out in your life?
ARCENEAUX: I'm going to keep this BG - Beyonce before partition. I'm very sexual. I am like many people, many men. You know, I have sexual desires like anyone else. I think about sex a lot.
And in the piece I acknowledge, it's not that I didn't necessarily act on those emotions. But a lot of times I would initiate something and then stop it because, again, that fear of intimacy. The fear of the consequences of my actions, it would stop me, and it would make a lot of people angry. And they had a right to be angry.
But, I mean, you know, the same way - I grew up with alcoholism in the home, but I drink. You know, sometimes I get drunk. I'm not belligerent. But it's kind of like the same principle. Like, sex can be dangerous, but if I protect myself and if I'm cautious, if I ask the right questions, if I'm doing what I need to do, why not enjoy it - the same way I go to happy hour. Probably might go to happy hour later. Probably might have sex later. I'm kidding. But you never know. But I just know that I'm preparing myself the best way not letting a fear kind of, like, continue to kind of debilitate me.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a conversation some might find sensitive. We are speaking writer Michael Arceneaux. And he wrote about confronting his fear of sex as a black gay man. You also say that you had this fear, but you also then engaged in behavior, you know, could be dangerous - you know, being intimate with people who you barely knew - right? - and situations - and not taking every step to protect yourself as you could. So what do you think that's about?
ARCENEAUX: I think when you're dealing with the hurt and isolation and not necessarily being accepted by people close to you, you act out in different ways. Though there were moments when I felt weak - I would prefer to love the person I'm having sex with. But you know what? Sometimes love takes a while so you want to just at least get your urges out.
And I sometimes, like - I won't go into full detail - but, you know, I remember being on 125th, being angry seeing somebody, trying to make that happen. I was letting it happen, then I stopped because I came to my senses. But, you know, I could have just as easily gone through with that the way a lot of other people have and ended up with kind of, like, some life-changing consequence. Fortunately, I caught myself.
But it's hard for people to cope. And a lot of times necessarily with gay men, you know, gay women, they don't necessarily know how to cope because it can be a lonely feeling still. I know we're a lot more accepting and all of that, but not completely.
MARTIN: You write at one point in the piece, I wish this was the part - and this is after you even had some health issues that you hadn't really dealt with appropriately because you were trying to work through all this. But you write at one point in the piece, I wish this was the part where I said, and it was then that I decided that my libido had been left in the ice box for far too long, and it's time to overcome my fears and set it free. Yeah, that didn't happen.
And then - but you said it wasn't until a year ago or so you sort of dealt with yourself. And you said, I know the answer. I'm mortified. So what is it you think finally made you kind of look yourself squarely in the face and say this is what's going on with me, I got to deal with it? What do you think it was?
ARCENEAUX: Honestly, I wish Mariah Carey was playing in the background and suddenly, like, butterflies would appear and I just would have gotten it. But I literally woke up one day - and to be fair, a few of my friends had been putting in my head that I needed to be having sex to kind of de-stress myself. But literally one day, I just looked and said why aren't you having sex? Why are you not having sex? And I mean like going all the way - like having sex not the everything-but, not the whatever - foreplay. Why are you denying yourself?
And it literally just hit me one day, and then things changed. And I just kind of opened myself up more. And the minute sometimes when you realize what you need to be doing, it might not happen literally seconds after, but it didn't take long. And I haven't regretted anything that I've done.
I still have those concerns. But, you know, as I put in the piece, I'm just a lot more practical about it, realistic. Yeah, sex is fantastic. And people should have it if they want to. Now, for me, I finally got it.
MARTIN: You wrote this piece before the whole Michael Sam thing and all that other stuff came out, and no pun intended. What do you hope will be the response from this piece? Do you have someone in mind who you hope will read it? Is there some response you hope will come - flow from it?
ARCENEAUX: You know, full disclosure, I will say I've had dealings before when I've written personal essays and kind of, like, a pushback about wanting to write about my experiences as a gay black man. And I've heard reactions a lot of time, particularly from agents, what have you, that because I'm a gay black man, my appeal is very limited, which I find ridiculous because if you turn on the radio, if you turn on television, you might not see the gay black men behind a lot of this stuff. But right now gay black male subculture is very popular.
So for me, this is partially cathartic. But also, I want to show that my voice matters just as much as anyone else's. And I'm not limited by my race or my sexuality. People can appeal to me no matter what they look like or no matter what I look like. If it's a good story, it's a good story. So part of it is that - just a little - a wee bit resentment.
MARTIN: I feel you. I want to emphasize again that we called you and you wrote this piece before all of this, you know, hullabaloo around Michael Sam. But I was interested if you had any reaction to either the kiss or any reaction to the reaction. Anything you wanted to say about it?
ARCENEAUX: I was actually in a bar in Harlem when that first aired. And next to me there was a bunch of dudes who clearly were disgusted and continued to go on and on and on about how disgusted they were. To be fair, I don't always like public displays of affection either, although I've recently dabbled and accepted into my life.
But that said, I think that matters. You know, those reactions will be those reactions. But we do need to see that, maybe not over and over and over again. But I would say that about any straight couple doing that. But I think it still matters because we need to see Michael Sam and we need to hear a Frank Ocean, who may not necessarily identify as a gay black man, but can sing intimately about his love of a man and how it sounds just like anything else. Or even Azealia Banks who raps about sometimes having sex with women, and it's really much to do about nothing.
I think all of this really matters because we're not as evolved as we like to pretend that we are. And we still don't really see a lot of LGBT people of color do that. So I think it really matters because I think there is some little black boy or little black girl looking at this, and it helps.
MARTIN: Michael Arceneaux is a writer. His piece about his fear of sex appeared on the website xoJane. And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Michael Arceneaux, thank you so much for speaking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.