“Are you sure you want to wear those?” my mom asked as I pulled a pair of underwear from the dresser drawer. They were my favorites — white briefs with bright red trim and covered in pictures of Simba from The Lion King. “Yes, I’m sure!” I responded with imprudent confidence. Why would I not want to wear my favorite pair of underwear? I thought. I pulled them up over my ten-year-old butt before heading downstairs for breakfast and then off to school.
It wasn’t until later that morning, as we were being rounded up, that I was reminded that my fourth-grade classmates and I would be boarding a bus to our local high school for our P.E. swimming. Upon arrival to the pool, my class was split into two groups – boys and girls – and I begrudgingly fell in line with the other boys in my class as we filed, one by one, into the locker room. Inside, I found a locker, put down my bag and began the treacherous process of changing in front of my classmates. That’s when it hit me — I was wearing my Simba briefs. I suddenly understood why my mom had questioned my underwear choice earlier that morning. She, with the wisdom of moms with sons who don’t quite fit in, had realized that perhaps wearing cartoon undies wasn’t the best idea on the day I would be changing in front of my classmates. Move quickly, I thought as I unbuttoned my pants. They might not notice. I held my breath.
The second I pulled down my pants I knew I’d been caught. One of the boys in my class turned, pointed, and shouted “Look! Look at Ryan’s underwear!” The alarm had been rung. Everyone in the locker room turned to look at me. It was childish of me to think I’d be able to sneak past them, but then again, I was a child. However, that knowledge gave me little solace as my classmates’ taunts rained down upon me. I stood frozen, unable to move or speak, while the boys in my class, some of whom I considered friends and others whom I knew to avoid, laughed and pointed at me, their little faces contorting as they relished in my humiliation. The walls began to close in around me. My eyes darted from person to person, searching for anyone who might help me. No one did. No one ever did. I closed my eyes and waited for it to be over. How could I have been so stupid? I thought. She warned me. She tried to warn me.
I never wore Simba again. I never told my mom what happened. I simply discarded the briefs in the back corner of the drawer where clothes go to die and moved on with my life having learned a valuable lesson. The clothes that I wore could betray me. They could expose me to my peers as different. They could make me a target — more so than I already was. If I was to navigate life unscathed, if I was to survive, I would need to be much more careful.
My hometown, a suburban sprawl in central Pennsylvania, was not exactly a place where diversity was celebrated. Norms, especially gender norms, were followed religiously. Boys played sports. Pink was for girls. That kind of stuff. Even at a young age, it was apparent that I did not fit neatly into the gender normative boxes to which my peers were so beholden. The other kids took notice of the things that made me different, like fanning out my fingers to check my nails rather than curling them around to face me, my large collection of Barbie dolls, or that I much preferred the pink Power Ranger to the red one (though, to be fair, now I would take Jason over Kimberly any day, if I’m not being too subtle).
Because of this, most people knew I was gay before I even knew what “gay” meant. I was told that I was different before I ever had the capacity to understand why. Truthfully, I don’t remember the first time that I thought I might be gay. I do remember one sunny afternoon in third grade, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor – the same bedroom in which I’d put on the Lion King undies just one year later – with a friend of mine. I asked him which of the boys on our basketball team he thought was the cutest. I offered either Eric or Chris as my answers. He didn’t have an answer for me. He didn’t understand why I would ask that question. I started to understand that I shouldn’t ask that question.
Not long after this and the underwear incident that followed, I really began to try to pass as straight. Though I was unwilling to admit to myself that I was gay at the time, I was beginning to understand that I was unlike the other boys in my class. I knew that in order to fully pass, I would need to do everything in my power to fit in, to conform. That meant my entire presentation – head to toe – would need to be airtight, lest my appearance betray me as it had in the past. So, I conformed. Wholeheartedly. And, in terms of underwear, conforming, and ultimately passing, meant wearing boxers. Apologies to anyone who wears boxers, but they make absolutely fucking no sense. There is simply too much fabric – fabric which bunches up around your waistline, and which you then have to physically shove back down your leg in the hopes that it will stay put for the rest of the day. But it doesn’t. It will inevitably bunch back up, ballooning over your belt, until you shove your hand into your pants and stuff the fabric back into place. Your day devolves into a never-ending loop of bunching, and shoving, and stuffing, and bunching, and shoving, and stuffing.
Unfortunately for me, straight boys in my town loved boxers. And I was going to pass as straight if it was the last thing I did.
Modern American underwear for men really started to take form in the 1920s. In 1925, Jacob Golomb, the founder of the boxing brand Everlast, replaced what had been a leather belt around the waist of his company’s shorts with an elastic band in an effort to make the shorts more comfortable. In doing so, he created the modern boxer short. Boxer shorts, however, were critiqued by many for not providing enough support for the male accessories as compared to other undergarments. Then, in 1934, Arthur Kneibler, the Vice President of Coopers Inc, an undergarment company in Wisconsin, received a postcard from a friend who was on vacation in the French Riviera. The card featured a picture of a man in a bikini-style brief bathing suit. A lightbulb went off for Kneibler – what if there was an undergarment for men that provided more support than the boxer short while also requiring less body coverage than older styles of underwear like long johns. The brief was born. Kneibler called them jockeys because they offered an amount of support that had previously only been available from a jockstrap. The brief was an instant hit, so much so that in 1971 Coopers Inc officially changed their name to Jockey.
Thus, the stage had been set for the great debate of the 20th century: boxers or briefs. During World War II, members of the U.S. Armed Forces were given a choice between boxers or briefs during their deployment, and it’s been speculated that many men formed their fierce loyalty to their underwear of choice during this time. A man would come to be defined by this choice. So much so that decades later, in 1994, President Bill Clinton was asked during an MTV town hall which of the two he preferred. “Usually briefs,” Clinton replied with a laugh.
Service in World War II notwithstanding, the rest of us choose our underwear the way we choose any product we buy: through the constant bombardment of advertisements. The commercial market for men’s underwear has existed since roughly the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until 1982 that these advertisements took on an inherently sexual nature, when Calvin Klein released an ad featuring Olympic pole vaulter Tim Hintaus wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs. While the Hintaus ad was a little before my time, it would again be Calvin Klein who would eventually get my attention with an underwear ad. In 1992, the company released a new campaign featuring rapper-turned-actor “Marky” Mark Wahlberg in a pair of white boxer briefs. The crotch-grabbing photo. You know the one. Though I wouldn’t discover the picture until my adolescence, I would immediately form an intense relationship with it and other underwear advertisements. Let’s just say that photo — and some poorly photoshopped alterations of it — found their way onto my computer via Limewire.
Young Ryan didn’t have to look at giant billboards to get his fill of underwear advertisements. There was a much more accessible – and height appropriate – place for me to consume these men: the department store underwear aisle. The underwear aisle is infamous. It’s foundational to most, if not all, queer boys’ sexual awakenings. It’s a magical place where the ripped torsos, glistening pecs and bulging crotches of men are on display for all to see. And you’re allowed to look! You’re supposed to take your time, perusing, choosing the pair that’s just right for you. I spent many a trip to department stores in my youth feigning indecision in the underwear aisle. In reality, I was lingering, allowing myself to soak in the raw sexuality. In the years before I discovered that I could download poorly photoshopped nude photos of Marky Mark directly onto my computer – and subsequently destroyed my poor, unsuspecting Dell with virus after virus in the process – the underwear aisle was my Mecca, my Playboy Mansion, my safe haven of sexuality. While there, I could let my eyes linger the way I couldn’t other places. I had an excuse to be there, to look at the nearly naked men. I could indulge in the sensations and urges, which truthfully, I didn’t fully understand quite yet. All I knew was that I liked it. I liked it a lot. Occasionally, I would let my eyes wander from the boxer shorts toward the briefs, bulging briefs. If I was feeling particularly daring, I would let my eyes dart – if only for half a second – to the jockstraps, the thongs. These were the truly forbidden fruit. So little fabric, so much skin. I was barely able to contain myself.
One afternoon, well into my twenties, I found myself back in that underwear aisle. I was home on vacation from college, spending the weekend with my parents. My mom, in the way that moms do, insisted that we make a trip to the department so that she could restock me on the “essentials” – underwear, socks, and the like. At the time, my underwear of choice was the Adidas Climalite boxer brief, because sports. Thankfully at some point in high school, the culture in my town had shifted and boys had started wearing boxer briefs, and I was freed from my excessive fabric hell. Boxer briefs, which have the same length as boxers but fit snugly against your leg, are, as the name suggests, a hybrid of boxers and briefs, or as the great American philosopher Hannah Montana once said: the best of both worlds.
I fingered through the racks of boxer briefs looking for my preferred brand, size, and color. I was careful to wear only the most neutral colors, blues, grays, and blacks, while avoiding anything too eye-catching, too flamboyant. I had secured a haul of my fly-under-the-radar underwear when my eyes caught them – the trunks.
For those who don’t know, trunks are just boxer briefs, but shorter, leaving the majority of the thigh exposed. Think Daniel Craig’s iconic James Bond bathing suit moment in Casino Royale. My eyes locked onto the model on the packed. My loins stirred. I stood there for a moment, utterly transfixed. I wanted them. I wanted them badly.
It’s not like I had never seen trunk underwear before. I had friends who wore trunks. I had just never thought I could wear them. My friends were safe, they were securely heterosexual. The rumors still swirled around me. I was still under far too much surveillance by my peers. The tight boxer briefs were one thing, but tight and short – that might be pushing it.
My eyes kept darting back to my mom. Did she notice that I was staring at the package of trunks? I felt like that same little boy again, sneaking glances at the jockstraps — that familiar forbidden feeling bubbling up within me. No, I thought. Be safe. Be smart. It’s not worth the risk. Sufficiently deterred, I placed the trunks back on the rack and told my mom I was ready to leave. She left the aisle while I lingered for a moment longer, eyes transfixed on the trunks. Impulse took over, I snatched the package and scurried off to catch up with my mom.
The entire trip home my mind was ablaze. What if my mom had noticed the trunks mixed in with the other underwear as we checked out? What if she said something? I’d needed to get my story straight in case she asked. I would not allow myself to be caught off guard. Not again. As we unpacked the car, I decided to throw her off my scent.
In a performance that would make Tori Spelling look like Helen Mirren, I loudly proclaimed that I had made a mistake! I had accidentally grabbed a pack of trunks when I had clearly meant to get all boxer briefs. How foolish of me! I looked, out of the corner of my eye at my mom, trying to gauge her response. Nothing. She was completely unphased. A woman with far more important things to worry about.
Having pulled off my con expertly, I bounded up the stairs to my room, contraband in tow. I ripped open the packing like a maniac, plastic flying. I stripped out of my other clothes and pulled the trunks up over my twenty-one-year- old butt. The trunks were a truly heinous shade of orange, but the moment I slipped them on to my body I felt electric. I stood in front of my mirror, flexing my legs for longer than I’d care to admit. I turned in circles, catching a glimpse of my body from every angle. I liked how I looked. I liked how I felt — like I was breaking the rules. It turned me. I felt sensual and mischievous. There, in the same bedroom where I had put on my Lion King undies over a decade earlier, I finally learned another important lesson, this one just a revolutionary as the last — that I could feel sexier just by putting on a sexier pair of underwear. There, in that same bedroom, I finally felt empowered by my underwear rather than fearful of it.
It would be another half-decade after the trunk “accident” before I’d fully come out of the closet. Not long after doing so, I’d be sitting in my therapist’s office, a small room overlooking the treelined streets of Presidio Heights in San Francisco, having a conversation with her. She and I had been taking things slowly since I’d broken down in tears at the end of our first session after telling her I was gay. This evening, though, she asked me how I might want to change how I presented myself to the world now that I was living out. How would I like to dress? What other interests might I like to explore? I didn’t understand. She explained that oftentimes her patients who came out would then feel free to embrace parts of themselves that they had previously felt the need to hide.
I was taken aback. As 25 years old, I considered myself a fully formed adult. My interests were my own. The clothes I wore I did so because I liked them. My voice, my taste in music, who I chose to spend my time with; all clear representations of the real me. I might be gay, but that doesn’t mean I need to change everything about myself. The moment became slightly contentious. Thankfully, she didn’t push the issues. I left her office that night uneasy, as doubts about myself and my authenticity swirled through my mind.
At this point in my life, I still didn’t really have any other gay friends. I was very much the token homosexual in my, admittedly extremely welcoming and supportive, social circle. I still lived in the heterosexual world. What’s more, I didn’t even realize it. I had seen coming out of the closet a switch to be flipped. Once and done. Wipe my hands on the sides of my pants, walk into my new gay life, and call it a day. The reality was, of course, far from this. I had been so indoctrinated by the heteronormativity of general society my whole life — bombarded by it constantly from every angle imaginable — that I was still under its spell even after coming out of the closet. I had adopted this heteronormative view of the world as my own, internalizing it. That’s why I felt as though I wasn’t allowed to buy the trunk underwear or why I didn’t have an answer for my therapist on what I’d like to change about my personal presentation. I had started to view myself through the lens of who society told me I should be. The idea of who I was supposed to be had long ago eclipsed who I actually was. It’s a bitch to think about, isn’t it?
I only recently threw away that pair of orange trunks, though I’d stopped wearing them years ago. I think I held on to them for so long because in many ways they marked a big step towards authenticity in my presentation to the world – a version of myself that I had begun to lose long before I ever realized he was slipping away. The trunks represented a return to the real me.
The incident in the locker room happened just about twenty years ago now. I sometimes think about that little boy, standing there in the locker room in his Lion King undies. The shame that he felt. The conformist that he became. And then I think about those heinous orange trunks and how they were the first domino to fall in my exploration of self through presentation. How my underwear became the arena in which I felt most comfortable exploring a more authentic me. I think about how in the years since I first snatched them off the rack in the underwear aisle, I’ve been on a journey back to myself. The real me.
The orange trunks were just the first step. After I gave up on orange, I experimented with the flamboyant colors I used to shun — hot pink, neon yellow, electric blue — the sheer brightness of which lit me up on the inside. I followed this with a toe (or a bum) dipped into the once forbidden world of jockstraps, where I learned to revel in my own raw sexuality in a way that I hadn’t before. And about two years ago, as any one of my Instagram followers could tell you, I made my return to briefs, finally coming full circle. Admittedly, though, my current underwear of choice doesn’t include cartoon characters.
At least not yet.