Spark Notes is a recurring series about lightbulb moments in sexual development.
Growing up as a young gay boy, it was very useful to have a twin sister—even before I realized the gay part. She offered access to a world of femininity that felt so right but off-limits. I wiggled my way into her dance classes, styled my hair with her barrettes, and often slipped into her dresses from the family costume box. Each of these were moments of freedom from the normal expectations of masculinity. But her most important contribution to the development of my sexuality (besides turning out to be queer herself) was a year’s subscription to Cosmogirl magazine.
Cosmogirl, a less sexualized (and now-defunct) version of its parent mag, swapped hardcore sex secrets for tabloid-y relationship stories, accessory layouts, and a lot more makeup advice. The raciest section of every issue was the interview with some hot guy of the moment, which always featured a full-page image showing off his shirtless muscular physique. Oh, and some words about his favorite movie or whatever, which always seemed to be Fight Club.
Though each month’s hunk was different—he might have red hair in April, piercing blue eyes and a mop of blond in June—what remained consistent was how much these photos excited me. At first I didn’t know why I was so drawn to them. Did I long to look like these guys? Was I jealous of their how attractive they were? I only knew for certain that I had to see more of those glistening chests and abs. So I started sneaking into my sister’s room.
I wasn’t home alone very often, but when I had the chance, there was always one priority. I knew exactly which issues to grab to find the boys I liked best, their exact page numbers, and just the way to reposition them on my sister’s bookshelf so my presence remained undetected. I’d do it once a week or so, only temporarily slaking this taboo thirst. Sneaking into her room felt transgressive, like an even more dangerous version of playing with her Barbie dolls alone in the basement. I was breaking the rules, invading my sister’s space to do something that didn’t make sense. Now I know what I was really after: an outlet for my gay desire. But at the time, I just felt compelled to unlock the secrets offered in those magazines, secrets I wasn’t supposed to understand.
Everything suddenly came together when I saw Josh Hartnett on the cover in October 2003. “A revealing glimpse into his oh-so-private life,” the headline promised. I had never seen Harnett in a movie before, and I don’t recall the nature of that glimpse; but I do know his strong jaw, soft skin, hint of facial hair, and rich brown eyes all conspired to crystallize something in me. The fall of his hair and his faint unibrow—these set that thing sparkling. I don’t even remember the actual spread in the magazine, only his cover photo with the purple background. Those lashes and that gentle but confident gaze—these were enough to change the course of my life.
After seeing Hartnett, I finally understood why I kept returning to my sister’s room without her knowledge: I was looking at a magazine made for girls’ eyes, staring at boys the way boys stare at girls. Turns out girls get the best magazines. I was slowly discovering that a gay gaze existed, and that I was allowed to look. I could ogle men in ways I’d only been told I was meant to ogle women. While my friends had posters of scantily clad ladies on their walls, I longed to cover mine in muscular twinks like Josh. I wanted to wrap myself in thick arms and smooth chests forever.
Alone with these magazines, I was finally able to be wholly myself. I could read how to get a boyfriend or take a quiz about my ideal first date. I daydreamed about what a life would be like with Hartnett, what kind of couple we would be. I indulged in all the fantasies I hadn’t previously thought I was allowed to imagine. With Hartnett, it was the first time I spent hours wondering a fictional future with a guy, thinking through the dates we could go on and the trips we could take. What it would be like to kiss him and have him hold me tight.
Of course, the realization that I was gay wasn’t all longing and giddiness. I was terrified to express my feelings because I’d learned from church and my social circles that liking boys was wrong, and that if I liked them there was something wrong with me. Cosmogirl didn’t have any of that judgment. It wasn’t made for me, but sometimes I felt like it understood me the most. I loved it for the same reason I adored female pop stars like Britney Spears. Their work wasn’t for the boys; it was about how to obtain them.
I struggled in the closet for a while, too scared to mess up the life I had for whatever lurked outside and resistant to allowing others to be right about my own life. I’m not gay until I say I am! Finally, one dark fall night in college on my friend Kevin’s porch, illuminated only by cigarettes, I quietly mentioned needing to share something. He’d been meaning to talk to me too, and in an instant, we came out to each other, breaking into laughter as the greatest tensions of our lives evaporated. I’ve since found better outlets for my gayness than a magazine for teen girls, but I always look back on my sister’s year of Cosmogirl with love.
It was my first gay escape, and Josh Hartnett was the key.