Opinion editor's note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by a first-time contributor to Star Tribune Opinion. For more information about our efforts to continually expand the range of views we publish, see startribune.com/opinion/newvoices.


Growing up just south of the Twin Cities, I learned from a young age how to watch myself. When friends at sleepovers wrestled on beds and jumped from couch to couch like kings, I hesitated. I stepped back. I learned to distrust my natural impulses at the very moment I was coming into my body at 11, 12 and 13 years old. How did that happen? The answer lies in the idea of sexual repression — a state of mind in which a person associates sex with fear, anxiety and shame. As a boy, even if I couldn't begin to define terms like "gay" or "faggot," I knew their weight — their power to mark me. I knew that boys and girls could hurl those words at one another without a care. It was just how it was in the '90s. In my Catholic grade school, teachers turned a blind eye. They knew they could.

A lot has changed since then. As a 38-year-old man, I am openly gay. I teach gender and sexuality studies at the college level. I live in St. Paul and drive an hour and a half to Eau Claire, Wis., three or more days a week. I'm stable. Yet, I'm still healing. When colleagues and friends ask why I put myself through that commute, I'm starting to tell them the truth: I do it because I'm trying to reclaim Minnesota as the state that taught me to hide.

For the past three years, I've been writing a memoir on the fallout of sexual repression — the ways in which it bleeds not only into how we view sex, but also how we struggle, as I have, with addiction. To finish that book, I've had to face addiction and my recovery process head on. In recovery, we have a saying: "Liquor was but a symptom." What that saying means is that deeper fears, anxieties and resentments cause us, as alcoholics, to want to pick up the bottle again. These emotions are, after all, the very things that fueled our drinking in the first place — that made us sicker, and sicker. To this day, unresolved tensions from my childhood linger in my bones. When I was drinking, I could numb those tensions and rationalize my substance abuse: I had suffered in the closet for too long, I told myself. I deserved every last drop.

This past July, I hit three-and-a-half years sober. Like any other alcoholic, I know it's only one day at a time. I know that if I'm not careful and if I relapse, I could hit a bottom from which I might never bounce back. And so, I go to meetings and share my experience. I talk with my sponsor. When appropriate, I've also started to open up with students regarding my struggles. There are so many days when I wish I didn't have to have these conversations — as kid, I didn't think this would be my future, but here we are.

Though children might not yet have the terminology or the wherewithal to grasp concepts like "sexuality," much less "repression," they can recognize moments when they feel their bodies being shut down by forces beyond their control — be it religion or cultural norms or laws. As a child, I could feel those moments. I sensed them in the glares from my Little League coaches, or the stares from my friends' fathers.

And so, as I read the news and hear of yet another banned book crusade or piece of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, the rhetoric feels all too familiar. In an instant, it puts me back in middle school. Back there in that anxious, fearful, 12-year-old boy inside me. On all sides of the political spectrum, we could do more to recognize and resist the kind of logic that works to shut down perfectly natural, bodily instincts — because at the end of the day, that's what sexual repression entails. And as for the long-term consequences? They are real. If we're not careful, we'll see them more clearly in a sea of rising distress, fear and addiction in children of today.

Jonathan J. Rylander, who lives in St. Paul, is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Writing Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.