Many times throughout my adult life people have asked me how old I was when I knew I was gay. There are many components to the answer to this question, though I usually just give the short reply that I was roughly 12, 13 years of age. It wasn’t that I knew I was ‘gay’ per se, it’s that I knew that something within me was different from most (though it felt at the time like all) of my friends. I knew that I ‘should’ be liking girls more than I did, or at least differently than I did.
I had had a ‘girlfriend’ on and off for a couple of years. Many boys make up an imaginary goddess that swept them off their feet at summer camp, or lived in a town nearby, just too far to have her show up in person. I did have a ‘summer camp’ girlfriend. Her name was Tracey…I met her when I was ten. She was a pretty little tomboy with dark hair in a pixie cut and tons of freckles. Her family had a full summer season lot at the Four Seasons Campground in Naples, Maine.
My mother had been taking us to this campground for a couple of years now, with our first trip being the weekend that my father moved out of the house. Mom had loaded us up along with our clothing, toys, and some food and off we’d gone, without Dad, with the explanation that he was busy that weekend, and wouldn’t be joining us. In truth he was busy. He was packing his clothing up and whatever other meager belongings he felt were necessities, and moving from our home to a ‘camp’ owned by his mother and her second husband in neighboring Windham, Maine. When we got home after a few days away, Mom having deflected all questions about Dad with vague replies, she told us that Dad had moved out…that they were no longer going to be married, and Dad would be living at Nana’s camp from now on. She assured us we’d see him, and that he was fine, but that he no longer lived with us. That weekend I had turned 8 years of age. Dad had left the family the day before my eighth birthday.
I looked around the house, noticing the things that were now ‘missing’ that had always been there in my few short years of life, never to return. In those days, Dunkin Donuts had an annual glass jar of munchkins that they sold for Christmas. It was a seven inch tall decanter with a lid, and I had saved one to keep any money in that I earned either through allowance payment, or Christmas or Birthday money. I had been saving money for some time to buy myself a new bicycle. I noticed that the decanter, sitting on the buffet in the dining room, was now empty…save for a slip of paper. I read the note, from my dad, saying that he had needed the money inside, and would pay me back. He never did.
We went to this same campground each summer, for two weeks, and after a couple of years I met Tracey. She was 9 when I met her, a year younger than me. We connected easily, and after a while I considered her to be my girlfriend, inasmuch as a full-blown 10 year old and 9 year old romance allows for such labels. I spent much of my time at the campground with Tracey that year, avoiding my own siblings and the young children of my mother’s friend who came with us. Her kids were supposed to be playfriends, I suppose, someone to occupy us at camp while the adults did whatever adults do, but in truth I couldn’t stand them. I had had two full years of ‘blended family’ outings and innings and had grown to dislike them AND their mother intensely. I could write volumes on the mother, but I suppose I’ll save that for another blog. Suffice to say she was an unkind, brutal, paranoid tyrant of a parent, and not much better as a friend to my mother. Her nickname for me, from age 11 on, was ‘The Little Faggot’. I knew that she called me this, and knew what it meant as I’d heard the term before, and knew it was unkind. As a parent myself now, I cannot imagine befriending someone who referred to my child with such hatred and venom. My mother and that woman were friends for several years, and until such time as I was deemed old enough to govern my own friendships and time, I was forced to associate with them all. Tracey, for two weeks at the campground, provided a nice escape from them all.
I genuinely liked her…and in my youthful ardor thought that what I felt for her was exactly what a boy was supposed to feel for a girl. My peers were getting ‘girlfriends’….so I saw how these relationships began (and ended) and figured ‘this is what I have to do’….no matter how contrary this was to what I was really wanting, and thinking, and feeling. I had no idea what it all meant back then, I just knew that no matter what it was, no matter how it felt….I needed to bury it. I needed to dig a hole deep in my heart and stuff it down inside and cover it up. No one could know. No one could find out.
My ‘summer romance’ with Tracey lasted several years, on and off. She lived in Massachusetts, so we never saw one another once the two weeks at camp ended. But we wrote to one another, pledging our devotion time and again. Eventually we stopped going to the campground, in my early teens, and Mom sold the camper as it was in need of repairs that were getting too costly to keep up with. I kept in touch with Tracey, and though I had other ‘girlfriends, in high school, they were sparse. There was always the two hour distance between Tracey and I that provided enough of a buffer that she was, technically, still ‘in’ my life, and yet I didn’t have to act upon that relationship, or really give much to it. But it was always there for me when I needed, in my subterfuge, to have a girlfriend to measure up to the rest of the guys. But mostly my efforts were for naught, as over time the ‘truth’ of the matter became evident to not only me, but most everyone around me. I was gay.
I had developed a sense of what this word meant, and some of the potential ramifications of it. Social ostracizing, deception, bias, hatred, and prejudice. Nothing I read, nothing I heard, ever told me that there was anything but misery in my future. We were not a church-going family (beyond youthful involvement with the White Rock Baptist Church), so I didn’t have constant messages of sin bombarding me. There was no need. I had plenty of negative messages being delivered to me by my society, my peers, and even my own family day after day after day. When I no longer had to associate with my mother’s ‘friend’ and her kids, and no longer had to regularly listen to that woman refer to me as ‘That Little Faggot’, my sister proudly took up the mantle and constantly referred to me with this moniker day in and day out. My father was also quite vocal about his distaste for ‘fags’. Other kids at school ridiculed and berated me for my lack of ‘masculinity’ as well, though I was far from being overtly feminine….I just didn’t like sports, cars, and the other things boys were taught to like or gravitated to. I was an awkward kid. I read a lot, I wrote, and found all kinds of solitary activities to occupy my time rather than facing any more daily torment than was absolutely necessary. I related better to adults than my peers at the time, and found friendly faces in teachers and other grown-ups I encountered. I received encouragement from some of them to pursue the things I was displaying a talent for…acting, singing, and writing. It helped, a lot, to have someone ‘on my side.’
Some of the boys I was in school with taunted me for doing well with ‘cooking’ when we were all forced to take Home Economics in school. It was deemed ‘girly’ to cook, and to show any talent for it (truthfully my milieu is baking, not cooking). I took the teasing and the ridicule as I feared retaliation if I tried to ‘defend myself’ by saying that I had HAD to learn to cook already for myself as my parents were divorcing and my father was not paying child support, and my mother was working three jobs, which left little time to prepare meals and do laundry and chores, and I was therefore doing all this for myself simply to survive. I had zero interest in participating in ‘girly’ activities, but if I didn’t take care of myself, there was no one else to do it for me. None of them knew this, and therefore it was easy to eventually ‘forgive’ them for it, which I have. But at the time, it simply made me feel like more of an outcast than before.
I had friends, yes, and many of them are still friends to this day, but for the most part my once wide circle of friends had diminished greatly as we entered our teen years and the glaringly obvious ‘differences’ between us grew. I had very few male friends. I’ve learned over time that some of them were also gay, but, like myself, were trying to hide it. I wish sometimes we’d revealed it to one another, back then, and perhaps we all could have been a means of support for the others.
It was a different time. There were very few positive messages out there about gays. It was the time when AIDS and HIV first became known and showed up in the gay community and therefore became known as the gay cancer or plague. People were so quick to latch onto it as ‘God’s punishment for sin’ on the gays. Everywhere I went there were negative images about people getting sick and dying from ‘gay sin’…..and I became convinced that this would be my ultimate fate. I would die for being gay. I would eventually contract HIV and eventually succumb to its ravages and be tossed into a grave and forgotten as one of the countless other ‘sinners’ who had not heeded the warnings and repented for their sin and changed their ways to avoid God’s wrath.
The time in between ‘discovery’ of my true orientation and finding an entire community of others who were like me was a very lonely, desperate period of my life. This was enhanced by HIV and AIDS, and the fears I carried about it. I suppose this promoted my rather ‘chaste’ existence until my late teens/early adulthood. I suppose in some ways this fear kept me safe from ‘the gay plague’. I refused to act upon my impulses in so many situations, and avoided the affections of boys and men not because I didn’t want them, but because I thought they were a death sentence. I, in many ways, bought into what the public at large was selling about being gay, and how it was to be the ruination of my life. It drove me deeper into despair. It impacted my self-esteem to such a degree that I felt utterly unlovable and worthless. It created a situation where I felt I had to lie constantly to people I genuinely cared about and loved. I told so many lies I had no idea what the truth was any longer, really. I lied to Tracey, who I still maintained contact with and even ‘rekindled’ our relationship when I was 19, 20 years old.
We talked of marriage eventually. She was in college, I was already working. I had a car of my own now, so I could travel to see her now and again. We’d walk hand in hand and see movies and have dinner and all the other ‘date’ things that kids do. We were intimate with one another, and it seemed the next logical step was to marry. She agreed to become my wife. I thought I was strong enough to put the ‘other urges’ aside for the rest of my life and be her husband. To commit to a marriage to her, and lead what everyone else told me was a ‘normal’ life. I resigned myself to this being the one and only way to live, in order to ‘fit in’ to society and lead a productive life. I determined that I would, no matter what, lead this life and be happy with it.
I failed, rather quickly.
No matter what I had done to bury the truth about myself, it kept coming back to the surface time and again. I realized, after spending a night with a young man I had met in an after-hours bar, that I had to end things with Tracey…for her good as well as mine. I was lying to her…deceiving her…..and no matter how much I wanted to try to lead a ‘normal’ life…..it was far more ‘criminal’ to inflict this upon her and enter into a marriage with her that was based upon lies. I knew it had to end. I owed her that much, whereas even if I didn’t love her ‘romantically’….I loved her as a person. She didn’t deserve what I was about to do to her.
Trouble is…I just didn’t know how to end it, what to say. I didn’t want to break her heart. We’d been childhood sweethearts….we’d maintained contact over 10 years, all through our teens, and gotten to the point of talking marriage. I’d told her time and time again how much I loved her, how much I wanted to be with her, always. What could I possibly say now that wouldn’t break her heart, which she also didn’t deserve? I wracked my brain for some plausible explanation to give her that would soothe her sorrow. There didn’t seem to be one.
In the end, I took a cowardly way out. I did something that I knew would anger her….and determined that rather than leave her with heartbreak…I’d leave her with hatred. I would end things in such a way that she’d never wish to see me again, and therefore would spend the rest of her life thinking I was a complete asshole rather than considering me someone who ‘got away’, and thinking she was the reason behind it. She wasn’t. And so, after 10 years, Tracey and I parted ways. There has never been any contact between us since. 20 years plus after this, I wonder how she is….where she’s at….and how her life turned out. I hope she found happiness with a man who could really love her in all the ways she deserved to be loved. I hope her life has been blessed with joy and laughter.
This morning I’ve been reading about the ‘patriarch’ of the Duck Dynasty family, Phil Robertson, who is under fire from the media and has been suspended from his reality show by the network that produces it for some anti-gay sentiments he has expressed. He made public his views, his beliefs, and his prejudice about gays and quotes the Bible as the source of his rather uninspired views on gays. He, to me, is just another in a long line of people who use the Bible to justify their own prejudice and intolerance of others who are different from them. His prejudice is now a matter of public record. I wonder how long it will be before he joins a long list of others who, once their public image and livelihood are threatened, will ‘apologize’ for his remarks and proclaim his absolute horror at thinking he might have offended anyone with his personal views.
So many times in my adult life I have tried to express to others that being gay is far more than just a sexual act. That is just one facet of it. No matter how many or how few sexual acts you engage in in your life, no matter if you never again had any physical contact with someone of the same gender, if you are gay, you’re gay….you’ll still be gay, and will always be gay. There are plenty of celibate gays out there in the world, and they are still gay. It’s not based upon a sexual act alone. A former ‘boss’ of mine once said ‘Yeah, but you could switch in six months if you wanted to and go for girls, right?’ I asked him if he could switch in six months and go for guys.’ He said, ‘NO WAY!’ I then asked, ‘What makes you think it’s any different for me?’ He had no answer, but from that point forward there was never any questioning of my changing teams in his mind.
To sum all this up…..if you don’t like gays and lesbians, and all the other single letter designations like Q, T, B, etc., then don’t like them. Honestly. I’ve never met a single gay or lesbian person who felt that everyone in the world HAD to like them and had made that their mission. In this day and age when someone tells me they ‘don’t like gays’….rather than feel any kind of shame or self-loathing…I feel indifferent to it….it’s their opinion…their like or dislike….it doesn’t impact how I feel about myself, as a gay man, at all.
No one will ever pray, beat, or legislate the gay out of people. It simply cannot be done. You can disown your child, disassociate from your friend or co-worker, shun your neighbor, or engage in laws to limit their rights and freedoms. It will never, ever change who they are. You can tout your beliefs and countless passages of scripture that they are ‘sinful’ and ‘an abomination’, and it won’t change them. It’s not an illness….not a disease….you won’t cure it with hatred and intolerance. There is no ‘cure’…..and even if there was one, plenty of us wouldn’t take it, because we’ve learned to love ourselves, no matter what hatred you’ve heaped upon us, no matter how fervently you’ve tried to break us time and time again…we are, as Shakespeare said, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
If you want to be prejudiced, be prejudiced. That is your right. It’s also my right to say I don’t want to hear it. I have that right, and will stand up for it and defend it until the day I die. No book, no therapy, no amount of hateful and ill-intentioned names is going to change who I am. There will always be ‘gay’ in the world. Just as there will always be prejudice, I am sure.
Fortunately, I’ve learned not to succumb to it.