Late one night in 2004, during my first cross-country book tour, the phone rang in my motel room in Austin, Texas. I picked up, and a woman began whispering to me on the other end of the line. She told me her name was Nicole. Though I had no idea who she was and had never had phone sex before, within 20 minutes she’d coaxed me into it. A good time was had by all.
I gave Nicole my cell number, and in the months that followed, we developed a relationship. While phone sex remained an ingredient, we mostly shared the day-to-day nuts and bolts of our lives. We never said “I love you,” but my regular calls with Nicole offered nourishment, stability, and meaningful connection.
Eighteen months after our first phone call, I returned to Austin to finally meet Nicole in person. Except the person I met wasn’t Nicole. As I explained in a 2006 essay in GQ, it was a man named Aaron.
Aaron confessed that he’d concocted the “Nicole” voice at 15 because he’d had a crush on a football player at his school and had wanted to find a way to be close to him, even if it was only over the phone. In the years since, he’d had phone relationships with dozens of guys as Nicole. He’d found that these connections left him less emotionally vulnerable than having a real-life boyfriend and—despite their obvious limitations—were ultimately more satisfying.
Given my experience with Nicole/Aaron, I’ve naturally been caught up in the unfolding Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua/Ronaiah Tuiasosopo story these past few weeks. A lot of questions still remain unanswered at this point, but I feel like I’m in a position to illuminate a few things that others find mystifying.
Is it really possible to be fooled into thinking a man’s voice is a woman’s? It happened to me. While in retrospect there was something just a tiny bit off about Aaron’s “Nicole” voice, he’d spent more than a decade crafting and honing it and had found a way to channel the sound of a woman. It seems that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had been similarly cultivating his “Lennay Kekua” voice and persona for years. Those voice mails from Lennay certainly sound feminine, whether it was Ronaiah acting as Lennay and producing the voice, as he demonstrated during his interview with Dr. Phil, or Ronaiah’s female cousin Tino, as the New York Post previously reported.
After I learned Nicole’s true identity, I felt that I should’ve been more suspicious all along, but it’s easy to silence any doubt when you’re enjoying an appealing fantasy. If Te’o found meaning and connection in his calls with this woman he’d stumbled upon online, there was no incentive for him to question it.
Is Manti Te’o gay? Is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo? Ronaiah told Dr. Phil he was “lost” and “confused” with regard to his sexuality. The rest of us are probably less confused. Anyone who pursues a series of romantic relationships with guys by disguising his voice as a woman seems likely to be gay. As it happens, Aaron/“Nicole” grew up in the same kind of religious environment as Ronaiah, where homosexuality was considered monstrous. To a conflicted soul, Aaron told me, a phone relationship with a man felt less abhorrent than a face-to-face one. If Ronaiah is confused, it’s likely not about whether he’s gay. It’s about how to reconcile his religious devotion with his sexual orientation.
As for Te’o, he told Katie Couric that he was not gay, and there’s little evidence to indicate that he’s not being truthful. When I discovered that I’d been having steamy, soulful conversations for months with someone who was actually a man, I wondered if at some subconscious level I’d known and if this was a reflection on my own sexuality. The conclusion I reached is that while I was capable of connecting deeply and meaningfully with a man, I simply lacked any physical attraction to guys and therefore wasn’t gay. Te’o seems to be in the same boat.