A true story of two gay men I once knew.

My last two years of high school resembled nothing more than Napolean Dynamite. Except I never went to the talent show. And Pedro didn’t win. In fact, there was no Pedro. So maybe it wasn’t that much like Napolean Dynamite after all. But in some ways that movie felt like how those years felt: I was desperately trying to be relevant in a place whose social constructs seemed completely foreign to me, and my friends were a haphazard assortment of acquaintances with no commonalities other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My best friend at high school during those years was a guy I’m going to call Pierce, because he bore a striking resemblance to Pierce Brosnan. We met because my parents went to the same church as his mom for a few months right after we’d moved, and we ended up living on the same block. What I liked best about hanging out with Pierce was that I never had to prove myself when I was around him. I didn’t have to be cool. I didn’t have to be good at sports or compare how many phone numbers I was able to pick up at the Friday night hangouts. We just hung out. Pierce had a mostly cynical way of individuating that I could appreciate, perhaps reminiscent of Ferris Bueller more than anything else. We didn’t have the same tastes in music: I listened to Aerosmith and he listened to Prince, but he had a poster of Madonna1 hanging directly above his bed which made me wish I was brave enough to try something like that in my own house. He liked to hang out at Nordstrom’s and had lots of expensive clothing. Sometimes he’d give me the outfits he’d gotten bored with, which I appreciated greatly because I was still recovering from the mockery of wearing hand-me-down flannel shirts in junior high about a half-decade before they became popular.

One of the ways in which I desperately tried to be relevant those last two years of high school was to join the soccer team. I was a terrible soccer player. And whereas I might have been able to avoid the ire of the school jocks by fading into the background were I not on the soccer team, my very presence on the team made it actively worse. If that weren’t enough, the girl at the school I had the biggest crush on was dating a guy who was not only one of the stars on the team, but had a much more impressive mullet than I could ever hope to grow. I would have had better luck if I had not joined the soccer team and hoped that she would eventually take a sudden interest in guys who dressed like gay men with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But I was too stubborn for that, and kept shanking balls of the side of my foot as if they would go where I intended the next time.2

One time while I was hanging out at Pierce’s house, he told me that one of the guys on my soccer team, Alex, was gay.

“THAT’S DISGUSTING!” I proclaimed.

He tried to calm my homophobic outburst by telling me who Alex’s boyfriend was, but I didn’t want to know that either.

Faggot was the worst insult you could sling at another boy in the rural 1980s America that I grew up in. It was worse to be called a faggot than to have your parentage insulted, because you could still be a person even if your parents were no good. But if you were a faggot, it’s like your entire boyhood had been stripped away. We didn’t really know what it meant to be gay in elementary school, but we all assumed that any boy who would rather hang out with girls than go mucking about in the creeks looking for crawdads was one. It was the place of the alpha boys to make such proclamations, and the rest of us to look on disappointedly before heading off to our boyish activities leaving the “gay” boy to his own devices. By adolescence we had a better idea of what being gay was about, but the stigma never went away.

I spent the rest of that season making sure that Alex wasn’t sitting somewhere that he could look up my soccer shorts when we did our stretches. I don’t know why that was such a concern of mine, what was his gayness somehow going to rub off on me if he found me attractive? But he never did anything to indicate that he had any physical attraction to me or any of the others guys on the team.

When I think back on this incident, I take some small comfort in the fact that I never outed him to the rest of the team. That would have been something I could see my adolescent self doing: as if putting him down would somehow make me one rung higher on the social ladder. We even played the same position, so if he quit because of it, I would have gotten more playing time. Maybe I didn’t say anything out of respect from my friendship with Pierce. Or maybe it was because he was perhaps the only person on that soccer team who didn’t treat me like an incompetent fool. Why ruin a thing that wasn’t bad yet?

Ten years and a handful of gay acquaintances later, and I still wasn’t quite sure what to do with gay people. I’d realized that the visceral loathing I’d had in high school wasn’t the answer, but I didn’t know how to respond to a sassy gay man or a bar room full of transvestites trying to push my buttons when the bar crawl I was on hit their hangout.

The answer came in the form of a gay man who was attempting celibacy. That was a struggle I understood, or at least thought I did before I met him. He somehow seemed safer than the flaming friends of friends who comprised most of the gay people I’d met. One day he invited me to go on a roadtrip with him and some other celibate gay men for Easter. At that point in my life, Easter reminded me of an ex-girlfriend, so I went along mostly to take my mind off of her.

That roadtrip taught me more about gay men than anything else I’ve done or seen. We were treated differently everywhere we went than I was normally accustomed to being treated: it was almost like we were coated with slime that the waitress or whoever didn’t want to get their hands on. I thought about saying something about it to the waitresses, but the gay men I was with didn’t seem to notice. Either that or they were so accustomed to it that it was buried beneath their smiles. I suppose if one did notice those things and started saying things about them, they’d come across as a flaming gay guy. Maybe that explained a lot.

At the last meal before we went back, my friend asked me to switch seats with him. I asked him why and he said because there was a really hot guy across from him that he was lusting after. I turned around, and sure enough there was a guy there: to me it just looked like some dude, I had a hard time understanding why anyone would find him so attractive that they had to change seats. But it reminded me of the first chemistry class I took in college. It was the summer after my senior year in high school, and there was a really attractive WSU student who was trying to bring her grades up by taking courses at the community college that summer. She always sat at the front right bench, and there was nowhere in the classroom that I could sit where I couldn’t see her. I always spent a few minutes praying before I got out of the car and went into the college, and one of the things I always prayed for was that I wouldn’t be tempted to stare at her in class that day.3 I pretty much always failed: the class was an hour and fifteen minutes long, it was summer, she was a college student, and there was no lab component.

As I rode back to Denver through the barren landscape of southern Colorado at the end of our road trip, I pondered these things. I’d gone with them on this trip in part because Easter made me feel lonely. But I realized that I would never be as lonely as a celibate gay man. There was always some hope, no matter how dim it might seem at times, that one day I would find companionship. Celibate gay men are stuck in the back of that classroom in a never-ending summer with no hope other than that someday it will all just go away. I’ve never had that kind of faith in anything. I’m not sure if anyone should have to have that kind of faith in anything.

This is long, and I’m just now getting to the point. Tim Wise once said that black people are sick of every white liberal born before 1950 claiming that they were at the Civil Rights March. I can see gay people having similar complaints about our generation.4 Most of us grew up with words like faggot, gay, and queer as the worst insults one could endure in grade school. Most of us used them in that way at some point. And now most of us are shouting homophobe at every Duck Dynasty or Chick-Filet SNAFU as if all those gay people we humiliated growing up are going to forgive us for it and let us join them on the right side of history. They shouldn’t have to let us in, and I don’t think that doing so will help their cause in any way.

If you really want to make a difference, do something real instead of just picking a different group of people to insult. Apologize to a gay person for what you did when you were younger. Find some way to share a story like the one I did here about how you changed your mind. These sorts of things show how change can happen, and might even convince someone who still wears their homophobia like a safety blanket why they should be more open minded. But don’t act like you’re on the right side of this one: no we had it wrong from the start.

1-      Circa 1992.

2-      One time it actually did happen. The ball came off my foot and went in something resembling a straight line terminating in the back of the net. It was a JV game my senior year of high school.

3-      This was very important to me at the time.

4-      I think I can say this without saying gay is the new black, because that is not what I’m saying.

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