fawny.org: Love at First Sight

Love at first sight

[Continuation of “First Impressions
Posted 2000.07.16 ¶ Updated 2002.06.27]

All right, already. There is such a thing as love at first sight, and first impressions are real.

I had waxed poetic – quite satisfied with myself for so doing, in fact – previously about love at first sight as a fraudulent impossibility for homosexualists.

Inverts... spend two decades in the closet. (That is, all inverts younger than about two decades in age.) Our attractions dawn on us according to the same schedule as heterosexualists, but we have to keep our mouths shut. We have our noses pressed up against the glass. It’s strictly look-but-don’t-touch, notwithstanding occasional episodes of playing doctor.

Every time we spot someone we like but have to bite our lips out of fear, a tiny chink of our storehouse of love chips away. For twenty years, we fall in love at first sight every single week. It is love because, with no greyscale between the pitch-blackness of our hearts and luminous outness, we have to round up to the next highest level. We imagine spending the rest of our lives with him because we haven’t been able to spend even ten minutes alone with a man we like, and who likes us, at any time in our lives. Without even crumbs to scrabble for, all we can imagine is the main course.

Of course, what this really means is that some of us are more prone to love at first sight than others. It happens to some of us too often for actual love to take place afterward. Infatuation, or false love for all the wrong reasons, is often mistaken for the real thing.

Like the Pet Shop Boys
hadn’t cleared that up years ago

I should have known better, really, since Neil Tennant got it so right in “Nervously”:

From the start, I approved of you,
Right from the moment you turned to face me.

(We note the distance and dispassionateness suggested by “approved of you,” which we expect from Tennant. Full-fledged emotions are a bit too messy for such a highly determined band man.)

It happens to inverts constantly,
and we can’t talk about it

This love-at-first-sight phenomenon is universal. It’s certainly happened to me. The following is not such a case, but I offer it as a preamble to exemplify how even someone as out-of-the-loop in homosexualist circles in Toronto can find himself muttering “Small world” with a catch in his throat.

At the turn of the decade, a particularly handsome and self-assured skinhead type was seen at the Y. He was so stiff and foreboding that I couldn’t take it seriously, so I just grinned at him and gave him my little East Coast nod every time I saw him. Eventually I overheard his name, and I began to grin, nod, and say “Kevin.” Disarmed by a kind of tactical, form-limited friendliness, Kevin had to nod back.

He’s the kind of fellow who really burns up a room. He burns it to ashes, and I couldn’t take that seriously, either, which is why I always said hello.

Much later, at Boots, he’s retrieving his leather jacket. He can barely stretch it over his shoulders. What happened? I ask. He’s accompanied by a “friend” who strikes me as possessive, or merely under Kevin’s spell, which means that he benefits from more of Kevin than the rest of us do and that’s maybe a lot to handle. Kevin had broken his collarbone. The strain and movement of donning a jacket are painful. In the seconds it takes to hoist the jacket, with no aid from his friend, Kevin seemed breakable inside his unbreakable musculature, highlighted, despite the injury, in a tight, dark T-shirt.

I made a vaguely snarky remark, and Kevin looked vaguely hurt.

I shut right up. Tough fags may be tough, but they still have women’s feelings. A lesson still at the forefront of my mind a decade later.

Rick Bébout’s Promiscuous Affections, a long, thoroughly readable personal history of gay Toronto, has glued me to my monitors for weeks. (After I come home from work and update my own logs, no less. It’s that good. I go to bed only after I can’t see straight anymore.) Rick knew Kevin, too.

Kevin Bryson’s name came up, I can’t recall how. Someone said to me, “Oh, he died last Tuesday.” David Walberg, sitting beside me, said, “Maybe you could write his obituary.” “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I didn’t really know him well enough.”

I found myself thinking of Kevin on the subway home – all those nights watching him at Cornelius, the most wondrous dancing vision of my life. When I got in Paul asked me how I was; I suppose I didn’t look very good. “A little sad,” I said – and then trying to tell him why I simply broke down.

I gave myself a lot of time to cry that night. I didn’t know him well enough, I’d said. Maybe that didn’t matter. What I’d known of him I’d known, and loved. Maybe I could just say that.

At 11:30 pm I sat down to my computer, got very drunk and pecked away until 2:00 in the morning.

“This is about a man for whom I once bought a pair of shoes.

“His name was Kevin Bryson. This should be his obituary, but it’s not. I don’t know all the things you’re supposed to know to write an obituary: date of birth, noted accomplishments, date of death, survived by – all that.

“I heard only tonight, a Friday night in late October, that he died last Tuesday. Three days ago. Or ten. I’m not sure.

“I do hope someone who knew Kevin truly well will say all the things that should be said about him. I just want to tell you what I know. And about the shoes.

“They were red shoes. They were very small, baby shoes with round toes and a strap across the instep. I put them into an adult sized shoe box stuffed with tissue paper and left them outside his door. He lived at Church and Wellesley then, right over Ernie’s barber shop. That was December 1985.

“It was an inside joke, a flirtation without intent. We’d been at Cornelius one night and caught on TV a bit of The Red Shoes, a 1948 movie in which, as I recall, ballerina Moira Shearer dances herself to death.

“More often at Cornelius I watched Kevin himself dance, his hips his centre of gravity but somehow magically light, carrying him with immense grace and beauty and sweat across the floor. I’ve watched many men dance for many years, before and since. But no one has ever been as beautiful as Kevin.

“We did know each other beyond that, just a bit. I’d see him at the Barn or out on the street, sometimes with his boyfriend Ted, sometimes alone, the last time only a few weeks ago. You may have seen him. If you go to Sailor he’s the man on their poster, in nothing but a navy cap, clutching his crotch.

“Maybe that’s all you need to know. I never knew much more. Only that he was graceful, smart, reserved. I knew him as you may know someone you watch dance, maybe chat with from time to time, and then – who knows?

“Too many deaths I’ve known only like this: a vision seen in bars and on dance floors; a few friends in common; easy nods and smiles on the street – someone whose mere presence makes you, in some small way, simply feel good to be alive. That’s the warp and weave of gay life, these casual, deeply pleasing connections.

“And then you hear he died last Tuesday.

“You’d think we’d be used to it. I thought I was. But tonight I have cried as I never cried, not right away at least, for friends I did watch die. I suppose I’m crying for them now, too.

“And for other, seemingly casual visions. For one named Vincent; you may have seen him. For another Kevin, Kevin Hunt – more than casual but not an affair either: just (just!) the affection gay friends can know so well.

“And for Kevin Bryson, for his magic and beauty – a huge gift to the world, honoured once by me with a small and silly one – gone now, except in memory.

“I know I’ll see magic and beauty again. It’s all around: you only have to look – to pay true, generous attention – and you’ll find it.

“But not Kevin’s, not his particular magic. Not ever again.”

The piece appeared in Xtra a week later... with a subtitle: “A reflection on one loss too many.” It would have more impact than anything I’d ever written there.

Many people told me they’d read it, calling me, stopping me on the street; one rushed out of Bar 501 to catch me and say so. Some shared their own memories of Kevin. But most said: That’s how I’ve felt for so many people, but I never knew how to say it.

They wondered, it seemed to me, if they even had a right to grieve for someone they’d barely known. But we did.

A recent example from literature

War Boy by Kief Hillsberry:

The thrill part came from knowing for sure that something would happen and I mean something kewl. And is it scary in a way to have the same feeling about a total stranger who looks at you one-seventh of a second on a smelly old hippie bus.

Yes, sometimes. If you’re 14 and deaf. For adults, the trick is to recognize the impulses and act on them.

Further evidence from sacred texts

The British Queer as Folk nailed a staggering litany of essential homosexualist truths. Vince, Stuart, and the lads survey the dance floor at Babylon, and Vince declares:

Sometimes you see these men. You can see them, and you think That’s it. That’s him. You don’t even talk to him. You never see him again. He doesn’t even know you exist. But you think about that man for the rest of your life.

Stuart leans over and plants a kiss on Vince’s forehead.

like Neil Tennant,
is dispassionate

And then there is the evidence proffered by Malcolm Gladwell in the article I won’t forking shut up about, “The New-Boy Network.” Scientific evidence suggests that we have a built-in pre-rational ability to size people up instantaneously.

Further, the vestigial vomeronasal gland, located behind the bones of the bridge of the nose, is thought to receive pheromones, a likely source of instant attraction or repulsion.

And there’s my own experience

Since reading Gladwell’s article, I am somewhat more aware of my reactions to people. While walking down Queen St. with Ron Loranger, a fellow rounded the corner on his bike. He and Ron said hi. The fellow had a nice smile on his face and seemed like one of those lovable, up, handsome heterosexualist men who doesn’t know any way to deal with his friends other than with open warmth. I got that, and more, in the span of two seconds.

Who’s he? I asked. Oh, the husband of a friend of mine. I’ve been over to their place for dinner a couple of times. She’s an artist. Well, he seems like an up people person. Oh, he is, said Ron.

We then had a discussion of how I gleaned that knowledge instantaneously. How? Through some pre-rational means, obviously.

At the other end of the scale, I had a troubled friend with the worst possible taste in men. At Pride Day many years ago (surpassing Christmas as the loneliest day of the year; I no longer attend), my friend was lounging with his new beau, a tiny, disagreeable Oriental guy whose gaze said, instantaneously, “I’m an uptight loser, and you know it, and I hate you for it.” That’s exactly what he was, complaining that my friend always touched him “down there” and had the communicative skills of a truck driver in 1967 Brooklyn.

A particularly stellar example
that rocketed me out of denial

I unlocked my bike on Richmond St. I heard the unmistakable sound of someone wiping out on a skateboard. I turned to see the man already starting to recover and remount. A 24-year-old, six-foot-tall, beautiful and radiant redhead with muttonchops, orangey chest hair, and good-quality flowing loose summery white button-up shirt and pants. I underwent mild cardiac arrest but recovered fast enough to say:

– That only happens when you’ve got an audience.

He was halfway past me at this point.

– Of course, as a red-haired person, you’re used to having an audience!

– I certainly am!

he replied sunnily, with a big smile. (What was he carrying in his right hand?)

I followed him a ways (on the opposite side) because we were naturally heading down the same one-way street and exchanged a smile now and then.

Quite apart from his status as a top-fifth-percentile redhead, I immediately knew everything about his personality, namely Outgoing, Good-Natured, Free, and Happy. And moreover, it rubbed off on me.

But it may work only on the outliers

I will now concede once and for all that first impressions are often reliable. Love at first sight, even for inverts, is imaginable.


If first impressions were as reliable as billed, we would be flooded with stimuli, especially in the big city, where every corner, every subway car, every grocery store is packed with first impressions waiting to be made.

Is there a certain floor and ceiling, a certain threshold, a certain flashpoint above or below which first impressions do not register?

Do we even notice anything but the very top or the very bottom of the range?

The answer is no. So are first impressions reliable generally or only in more pointed cases? If we assume some evolutionary basis for the pre-rational and/or vomeronasal capacities, wouldn’t it make sense that the two most pressing uses for this power would be strong attraction or strong repulsion?

Love or hatred, in other words? Or love or danger?

Updated 2002.05.05, 2011.05.07

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