February 1990. My older sister is five. Our father aims the bulk of the VHS-camcorder at the birthday girl, who already has learned how to open presents and be polite about it: one at a time. She also knows to wait for her parents to interview her after unwrapping each gift. An opportunity her mother takes to gauge initial reactions and to clarify content simultaneously.
“It’s a book.”
“What book is it? Can you tell?”
“It says Heidi. It’s a big Heidi book. It’s from Papa.”
My sister turns to the camera and flips an invisible switch in her brain. “Danke, Papa.”
Approaching the twilight of my twenties has given me occasion to take stock—to contemplate the forecast for the next decade by examining how the current one began, and where it took me. My third decade has been a space where I could pursue my own interests and decisions (degrees, jobs, moves, exes). I’ve been out for almost a decade, and experienced mostly positive effects from that consistent affirmation, no doubt a high level of positivity buttressed by white male privilege.
And yet, something feels off. A something I was able to define when I ended a recent phone conversation with my dad—the first such conversation we had since he returned from visiting relatives in Vienna. Answering his routine questions took longer than expected. My responses lagged, their constricted vocabulary a disappointment. The conversation was nothing more than a casual update, yet my sluggish tongue seemed to signify one of the implications of a larger lifestyle shift I had made over the last decade. From teaching AP English Language and Composition for three years, to dating several monolinguals/non-German speakers, to studying in an MFA program where other writers were chided for their bilingual projects, English has dominated my attention in the last ten years more so than it had in previous decades. Its territory has expanded year by year, a rate of sprawl that calls into question what space will the German language occupy in my thirties.
I took my German-speaking self for granted. Of course my German skills would tag along as I continued to professionally develop as a teacher, a writer, and a homosexual—right? And if they didn’t, what would I lose?
For me, bilingualism has always resembled a game of hide and seek played by one person of two minds. If I couldn’t think of a word in German, its English counterpart gladly took to the stage, and my family, used to such mixtures like “Did you get the Post today?” would not see a need for identifying the language of each word in each sentence. If the main cast and the occasional understudy performed their semantic jobs, they made enough meaning for the show to go on.
I came to realize my awareness of this flexibility when my sentences crashed against the demanding ears of friends and teachers. They would ask, “What did you say?” They meant, I soon learned, to ask, “Why did you use a language I do not speak?” A question that drew linguistic boundaries and defined the relationships I could have with others. The comfortable exchanges with family members and bewildering exchanges with classmates showed me how my languages framed my understanding of the world, and positioned me accordingly: English and German at home, English in the world.
Defining “my place” became a more complex negotiation during puberty, when I began to realize that I existed in territory with expectations for behavior created and maintained for heterosexual ease of use. I was drafting two maps at the same time: one outlining the places I felt comfortable discussing my orientation—at school with friends—, the other outlining the places I could speak German. Both maps shared the same concern: where and with whom would I be understood? Coming out to my friends at school in English presented the lowest stakes, and after several supportive conversations with friends, a long-lasting association had formed.
Only much later did I understand the implications for that association and how clearly it defined the role German would play in my life. In Closet Space: Geographies of metaphor from the body to the globe, political geography professor Michael P. Brown points to an irony central to the role language plays in hiding and uncovering queer bodies: “To come out…one must still build a closet.” (13). The house I grew up in may have been a territory shared by English and German, but on the first map it was a territory in which I remained closeted—a bilingual and normative intersection that dissuaded me from revising my relationship with German even as I was beginning to use English words like “gay” in new ways.
These circumstances left me with limited opportunities to speak German. Domestic routine shaped my vocabulary, which articulated an incredibly boring version of me. I ran errands. I finished my homework. I thought the weather was nice today. (Compare that to what I was doing in English: living authentically and sustaining supportive peer relationships.) Of course, my boring German self was also legibly straight, his sexuality inactive. It had been my mother’s job to have the puberty talk with all three of her children. A monolingual talk with a supplemental resource book, as if puberty were only happening to our bodies in English. My German vocabulary did not have room for sexual agency. I had yet to find a territory both gay- and German-friendly.
Instead, my German reflected lived experience and behaviors modeled by my father and his side of the family. A not insignificant portion of my German vocabulary centered on Advent and its thematic climax in Christmas—my father’s favorite month of the year—and came with its own expectations. At holiday and birthday parties, the task befell me to tell Viennese uncles and aunts that I did not yet have a girlfriend. That I was focusing on my studies—“my homework”!
My attitude toward the resources at my disposal only amplified the erasure of my nascent homosexuality. Most of my individual German practice occurred with the assistance of my Pocket Oxford Duden German Dictionary, gifted me in eighth or ninth grade. The dictionary did include entries for gay and penis and semen, but not entries for cock, dick, top, bottom, or blow job. Only selectively out and completely terrified of sex made finding German words for these concepts seem beside the point compared to studying noun declensions in the context of my German coursework. A pity given all the jokes that arise when discussing sexuality in German. A word like Schwanz—meaning dick and/or an animal’s tail—would present much pun potential for the puerile mind of an adolescent boy.
In important ways, German class acted like the same kind of territory as the domestic sphere. Correctly identifying the gender of my ideal partner never appeared on my quizzes. In all our skit and conversation exercises in class, we sounded like straight, bumbling kids, not the poised young adults we congratulated ourselves for being. For me, playing straight was just another frustration in our failed attempts at squeezing our English vocabularies into much smaller German territories. Every conversation—even for the straights— carried the weight of what we left unsaid. Is there a better analogy for the closeted experience?
Even if I had had the desire to increase my gay German vocabulary with the help of my dictionary, my diction would have remained medical, as sexy as a talking textbook. Any request for a blow job would have been supplied by my English tongue. A moot point—even that stayed silent on the matter until I was 20.
A virgin and perennially single, I spent the time outside of school taking tentative steps toward an understanding of my sexuality. My own room and a computer with dial-up gave me opportunities to expose myself to helpful—and in retrospect problematic—conceptions of male sexuality. Images of naked men had their obvious appeal. Beyond helping me discover my fondness for chest hair, these photographs conveyed information visually, thereby sidestepping any concern that I was only looking at naked men in English. The same excuse not to examine these behaviors came up while reading the comments in a forum thread on favorite positions for anal. When the time came for me to have gay sex, my body—not my bilingual brain—would be participating. Why seek out a German forum to get the same information?
By the time I graduated, I had built up the semantic patterns I would hold myself to for years: English was the language of sexuality—even if that sexuality was always-already filtered through heteronormativity—and German was the language of domestic routine.
I put pressure on myself to come out to my dad before my first boyfriend made his first trip to Tucson. I could have easily avoided the encounter altogether: my best friend was housesitting for one of her philosophy professors during the winter break, and had generously offered Nick a room for his visit. A fabricated story about a camping trip with friends could have covered my absence from the family table. But I had become comfortable enough in my decision to date another man that I knew such strategic camouflage was at best a delaying tactic—not a solution.
That was the explanation I gave Nick the night I had chosen to schedule The Talk. Nick, out to his parents but closeted to his grandfather, had given me permission to change my mind—an anxious gesture that anticipated and countered any pressure I might have given him to come out to his grandfather. But hearing myself justify the timing of the conversation affirmed my desire to live the kind of life I wanted—a life in which I could introduce my parents to my boyfriend.
Anxiety set in—I ended up delaying the conversation for a few hours until the end of my father’s evening routine, as if the timing could give the encounter a dream logic that—regardless of outcome—would seem irresistible and immutable by breakfast.
After watching the ten o’clock news, he rose from the couch and wished me a good night. I jumped to my feet and told him—unleashing an outburst instead of initiating the calm conversation between two adults I had intended.
He paused, then asked me if I had a boyfriend. When he saw me nod, he told me he was tired and needed to go to bed. Frozen in place, I watched him turn and walk down the hallway to his bedroom, not quite sure if I should have felt accomplished or like I had made some sort of mistake.
Only years later did I realize I had, indeed, made a mistake: that night I had told him I was humid—schwül—, a word separated from gay—schwul— by a mere umlaut, a dip of the tongue. Earlier, I had practiced the different vowel sounds in isolation, oscillating from one mouth position to the other with the regularity of a wavelength. But the high stakes of the moment had distracted my tongue, which substituted a word I had often used in casual conversation with my father about Tucson’s rainy season. It was the hesitation any language learner must face the first time they breathe air into new-to-them vocabulary and send it out into the world to face their audience’s critical ears. In that moment, however, I had botched my attempt to clarify my identity in a language that continued to remind me of the insecurities I was supposedly leaving behind in the closet.
My father has always assumed the role of a conversation partner. He is no grammar teacher. He would much rather ask about my weekend plans than correct any of my many errors. His hope must have been that we would eventually, through osmosis, learn the gender for common nouns, and apply cases when appropriate. I must not have listened carefully enough, for my conversational German became a confident, if blundering, collage of comprehensible sentence fragments, echoes of what my conversation partner just said, and misgendered nouns. An approximation of meaning, the way my German tongue articulated an approximation of me.
That mixture was the result of a lifetime preference for relying on context rather than on disciplined practice with my grammar book. Excuses helped me accept my sloppy tongue: my sisters and I acknowledged our handicap status as Americans long ago once we had realized the extent to which our German skills lagged behind our English skills—skills bolstered by formal education and a social network of other English speakers. It was pointless to pretend our German could compare to what our younger nieces and nephews were capable of. Why put on airs for relatives who knew we lived in Arizona?
August 2016. I am twenty-eight, and taking advantage of an extra-long summer break by reading an Agatha Christie book translated into German as Das Fahle Pferd. Every five pages or so, I stop reading silently to practice reading a section out loud. This is a short-lived exercise, as I begin to suspect some of my pronunciations are off. Without a conversation partner nearby and without the motivation to record and then assess myself, I return to silent reading, only to find myself getting distracted by the insecurity of my pronunciations.
An insecurity that reminds me of the night I came out to my father. Years later, I find myself still fascinated by what my father had not said that night.
Perhaps, so used to living with his children’s earnest if ungainly attempts at speaking German, my father had silently translated the need in my strange outburst.
Perhaps he hadn’t critiqued my pronunciation because the mere announcement—regardless of the language that couched it— had startled him as an affirmation of a long-built-up suspicion. His only son was gay—no unwelcomed umlaut could compare.
Startling, too, could have been my decision to use my father’s tongue to queer the conversation. I had considered coming out to him in English but had decided such a move carried problematic implicit effects: English is my mother’s tongue. If the medium is the message, my father would have seen his son’s mouth transform in front of him into the mouth of a foreign sissy. Its strangeness an emasculation. It is unfortunate bilingualism invites such dichotomies, especially when each of one’s languages stands in for a parent. That my parents followed this linguistic division throughout my adolescence made binary thinking a consequence difficult to undermine.
There was another reason I committed to initiating that conversation in German. Each of us was weaker in the language the other excelled in. To come out to him in German was to assume a lower position, a semantic kneel with honor-thy-father overtones. It was a gesture meant to suggest his importance—my audience-as-father. I needed him to know I was comfortable enough with my identity to discuss it with him using his native language. An argument that my identity was a topic worthy of vocabulary and conversation—even conversations.
Coming out, the cliché goes, happens over and over again. What surprised me about the process was its relation to my sense of self as a bilingual, which in turn depends on the interactions I have had with other speakers in those languages. I have only used German to come out to one person—a sharp contrast to the dozens of conversations I have had with people in English. One consequence? I lack the aplomb that comes with routinely coupling a language to transparent conversation about sexuality.
Here’s the anxiety: were I to fly to Vienna tomorrow and visit a gay bar, my German tongue would slam the closet door, bashfully listening as I spoke of desire in English. A Jungfrau once more, far removed from an easy masculine confidence.
Scarcity underscores this concern. The reality is, having a partner who speaks both of my languages—or even more!—resembles an idle thought experiment rather than a possibility. Thinking of my bilingualism seems a distraction from supposedly truer considerations of compatibility. A willful ignorance that increases my chances of living an English-only future. When I do see profiles that mention German proficiency, I hesitate. I know I should embrace the chance to maintain my skills and learn new vocabulary, especially if we can both be naked during those conversations. But my German has always assumed a domestic, sexless semantics. Sounding like a shy eighth grader who ditched his grammar class too many times makes my already introverted self anxious, less likely to use German to woo anyone. A shame, in both senses of the word.
Perhaps watching German gay porn is a solution. Perhaps taking the risk to write more German into my poetry is a solution. What is clear to me, now that my father is in his seventies, is that I will need to work consistently and find new community in order to create a space for German in my life in a time when I have left behind most—if not all—of my closet anxieties.
To forget my German to the point of complete atrophy would be to mourn the death of my bilingual gay self, a person my parents deliberately cultivated in their one-language-per-parent model. Such a passing would create a grieving process made even more bitter by my eulogy, written in perfect English.