Monday, June 20, 2011

Gay Pride 2011: Happy Gay Me!

That's my high school yearbook photo, from the year I graduated, 1976. Fortunately by then I had abandoned the really awful long stringy hair that had guaranteed I would be asked if I was a boy or a girl at least once a week. I was very serious. That's a quote from a 20th-century Chinese poet, Lu Hsun: "From the clay of life abandoned on the ground grow no lofty trees, only wild grass. Wild grass strikes no deep roots, has no beautiful flowers and leaves, yet it imbibes dew, water, and the blood, and flesh of the dead." Jesus, lighten up, dude! There's a more light-hearted photo of me in the Compass also: I'm dressed as a monk in my satirical rewrite of Shakespeare's Othello that was produced as a segment of the senior class variety show in the public high school in the incredibly privileged Connecticut suburb I had abruptly been made to call home for the previous three and a half years. If you've ever seen Ang Lee's brilliant film "The Ice Storm," minus the parental swingers at the key party you've seen my Connecticut life. I remember that ice storm.

I was not a light-hearted teenager, though I was not completely miserable either. Actually I loved school, and did well in it. Straight A's. I had friends in my classes, and a couple friends for after school and summers, but I spent most of my free time in High School sitting in the teachers' lounge hanging out with my English teachers. Mr. Economou and Ms. Burroughs were amazing teachers who challenged me to think clearly. They were great fun also. It wasn't that I was a teacher's pet, though I probably was. It was that I was deeply in physical love with the boy who I thought was the smartest, handsomest boy in the world, who was first invited to hang out on those comfy sofas, and after befriending me, invited me there with him. I'll call him T (having Googled him in adulthood he doesn't look like he'd enjoy being featured here).

I enjoyed cracking jokes with the teachers and learning so much, but most of all I enjoyed the opportunity to stare at T's crotch for hours and hours on end. It's how I spent a good portion of school season for the years 1974, 5 and 6. I didn't have particularly elaborate fantasies about T, but he filled out his corderoys and khakis very very well, if you know what I mean.

I thought about T a lot, even when I was home; though he lived in the very rich part of town and I lived in the very modest working-class section. We were not after-school friends. My mother loved books; she owned a lot of them. My father loved books, and he owned a lot of them. When they divorced the bulk of their combined book collection wound up in boxes that eventually made their way to our tiny attic in Connecticut. I made a nest in those books, and I had discovered all the good parts. I had also discovered that if I read the good parts and rubbed myself in a certain tremendously strange and exciting way, a disturbingly good sensation would occur sometimes involving, well, moisture that was most definitely not pee. Anyway as much as I loved the good parts of these books very few of them offered clues as to why I might find T so terribly intoxicating, and none really helped me turn my fantasies about him into particularly specific lurid scenarios, though I do remember that I had one particularly vivid dream involving reaching into his pocket for some keys. It was a terribly adult book collection, but avant garde literature from the 1950s and early 1960s rarely seemed to do more than occasionally mention queers.

Oh I knew what I was, without ever daring to put it into words. I was probably seven years old and playing with my little friend Herbie in Chicago when his father arrived home from work. His father proceeded to change out of his suit into his casual clothes in front of us. To be fair to Herbie's dad this was done completely unlasciviously without a tinge of impropriety. It was not what I saw when his father dropped his drawers — nothing actually, cause the tails of his dress shirt maintained his modesty — but what I felt. I certainly had no words for it, but here I am forty-five years later still remembering my absolute voyeuristic attraction; what I felt then as a seven-year-old boy is conjured up every time I see an unbelievably handsome man just out of possible reach in the middle age of my adulthood. It was stomach-thumping desire.

I didn't lose my virginity til I was nineteen, picking up a drunken Mexican man one cold winter night at a Chicago gay bar chosen because it was far from where I lived. He had a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of his TV set and a stack of porn in the tray underneath it. To my dismay he fell asleep in the middle of this momentous milestone. As Dan Savage says, "It gets better." So it wasn't like the hormones I discovered gestating inside me at age seven sent me on a ruinous or dissolute adolescence. I made a couple vague sexual overtures to friends in Junior High School before we left Chicago for Connecticut, but they were rejected good-naturedly and off-handedly. No friendships were lost. I developed a very dirty mind, but I was a very good serious boy.

After staring at T all year, he went off sailing for summer break. Which turned his skin a wonderful tan and bleached all the golden blonde in his hair to pure white by the start of school each fall. My last summer at home before senior year mother took me on a summer road trip. In Washington DC I passed by the hotel newsstand, my eyes widening at the copies of Playgirl arrayed beneath the cash register. I remember breaking out in cold sweat and the shakes as I grabbed a couple dollars out of my mother's purse later and went downstairs to make that magazine mine. The first time I jerked off to that magazine I imagine I lasted about thirty seconds. It was a very well read magazine by the time I finally tired of hiding it and guiltily threw it away by cramming it the bottom of a garbage bag.

I've never asked my mother when she figured out I was gay — she didn't confront me with it until after we had both (separately) moved to New York in the 1980s. But jesus the seventies were so fucked up she had to see it. I still remember the awkward evenings we spent sitting on the couch together watching TV movies of the week. There was "That Certain Summer," which history remembers as a ground-breaking movie: what I remember about it is my inability to meet my mother's gaze for hours afterward. And then there was "Born Innocent," starring Linda Blair. Yes, of Exorcist fame. Anyway, Linda is a bad girl, sent to reform school, and she gets dragged off by even worse girls into a storage closet where they rape her with the handle of a bathroom plunger. I can also still remember the loud crinkle of our TV dinner trays as my our running conversation during TV time turned into mortified silence. Well, in my mind I am a little confused whether it was a bathroom plunger in the film or some other utility object just as I'm a little confused at which I tried sticking up my own butt somewhat later. My bad! There was certainly a half-hearted and excruciatingly fumbling birds-and-bees talk from my mother. Fortunately school had covered all those details so it was mercifully brief.

I never confessed my lusts to T. Perhaps if I had been a teenage drinker things might have been different, but alas. I'm pretty sure he knew I worshiped the ground he walked on, or rather, the couch he spread his legs on as he propped them up on the low coffee table in that teachers' lounge. I'm pretty sure he enjoyed the attention. Who doesn't want worshipers, after all? But as though we were living out a curiously inverted "Brideshead Revisited," T's Sebastian act was a kind of private show for me never meant to have an actual pay off. Our friendship didn't last past graduation: He grew up to be the staid suburbanite, inheriting the respectable family mantle and I to be the raging gay liberationist/communist/pagan lost in the gritty big city. For what it's worth, my adult taste in adult men is nothing like T.

When I got to college back in Chicago in the fall of 1976, I felt very unsteady on my feet. There was actually an out gay couple, Marcus and Stuart, if the names don't escape me. Bravely for that time of decade they would hold hands as they crossed the school quad. And I would cross the street rather than be caught dead interacting with them. And that's what surprises me, because as a little gay seven year old, or a little gay Junior High School student or a bigger gay High School Student, I didn't know enough to feel shame at who and what I was. It was only with the passage into adulthood and the dissipation of my happy daydreams of T, that it occurred to me I was not necessarily like other people, and that the deep dark reality of the real me was not necessary something that would be welcomed and accepted by those around me. The next two years would be in some ways the hardest of my life as I strove to become somebody. I discovered I had somehow learned to be afraid of who I might be.

And that's what Gay Pride, a profoundly political holiday, ultimately gave me: the tools to conquer that fear; fear that didn't come from inside me, but was placed on me. I've written elsewhere on The Cahokian about my fruitful steps to coming out. I made it. I had to leave a lot behind, but I made it. I could do a lot more oversharing and talk about sexually maturing through the 1980s amidst the terrifying rise of AIDS, and perhaps I will someday. But the point I wanted to make here, now, was that once I was an innocent child, growing into the only person he knew how to be. Nobody made me gay, except perhaps God Him or Her self. My life was hard and easy, full of joy and pain, like most people lucky enough to make the journey through childhood.

When all of today's anti-gay marriage bigots say "think of the children," I do. I think of the gay child I was. I think of how lucky I was avoiding too harsh an eye of judgment. No parent ever told me not to be who I was. I thrived on tremendous unconditional love. I made my own mistakes. I had my own disappointments. I had my own successes. Every child, destined to be gay or destined to be straight, deserves that opportunity to discover who he or she can become. How afraid people are! And how sad that is, especially for the children who might be falsely protected from having the opportunity to discover who they are, free of condemnation and judgment.

Life is still sometimes scary. But I'm proud to be... me.


  1. this was an enjoyable read.

    i remember when i was probably seven or eight, my grandparents had a copy of time magazine on their coffee table that i flipped through, and there was a very chesty lady in a swimsuit, and i remember having no idea why, but i NEEDED to stare at that woman's chest.

    your story of discovery of your sexuality sounds identical and very reminiscent of mine, except that one of us is gay and one of us straight.

    i don't know what 'anti-gay' folks think of when they think of a child growing up gay, but all this goes to show is that we are not all that different as people, as adults, or as sexual beings.

    you really should write a book or something about your childhood, ish (do you prefer ian, now?). i would buy it. and read it.

  2. You presented a nice little synopsis of growing up - I agree a book would be in order. I think kids need to have real life instances to relate to in these growing up years, especially when the parents may not be as supportive as they could be.

    I will have to re-watch Ice Storm sometime and keep you in mind.

    Thanks for telling this story, it could be more helpful than you could imagine for some kids today.

  3. @ freebones. Thanks! Did you like National Geographic Magazines also? Great -- and educational! -- near-porn for kids! Anyway growing up is something everybody has to do; I can't imagine anybody not having blush-worthy experiences. But so what? That's being human.

    @ both of you, this blog has really helped my self-confidence as a writer. I feel like it's definitely practice for writing something at soon-to-be-extinct book length. I appreciate your feedback and vote of confidence. If I ever manage to pull something together you'll definitely hear about it.