Sam of madlife.net asks:
When did you first know you were gay? And if you’re not gay, when did you first know you were heterosexual?
An easier question would be when did I not know. I have to think back a lot of years. At 34, years old it seems that my coming-out story is a bit different from many gay men my age, because I came out at such a young age. I was 12 or 13, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Even before I knew there was a name for it, I knew I was different. I can’t describe what I felt, or what I knew then, but I just definitely knew. I knew enough to keep quiet about it for as long as I could, and I knew instinctively that it wouldn’t be accepted in the community where I grew up, or the people I grew up with. I remember as far back as kindergarten having a special fascination with other boys. In fact, I can think of one in every grade of school that I kind of fixated on or just wanted to be near as much as I could. I remember their names and what they looked like then; Thomas, Mark, Sean, David, Dexter.
The one that’s most burned into my memory is Alex, from fourth grade. I wish I could remember his last name, so that I could find out what ever happened to him. By the time I reached fourth grade, there were other differences of mine that were becoming apparent. I was an skinny, effiminate, non-atheletic little boy growing up in the macho south, where a boy was judged by the size of his muscles and how well he did in sports. I was horendous when it came to sports. About the only thing I excelled at was running, particularly sprinting, which was already becoming a survival mechanism. I was picked on, unmercifully, every chance the kids got. But Alex was different. First, he was a beautiful, tall (for that age) Latino boy – charismatic and likable. He was probably my first real crush, but what made him special to me was that he took up for me when the other kids picked on me. He defended me and made them stop. So he kinda became my hero.
After the fourth grade, we moved. I had to go to a more rural school in Hephzibah, Georgia. If I thought I had problems before, they only got worse out there, where my differences were even more stark and even more noticable. Alex wasn’t there, of course, so I had to fend for myself. There were boys I felt strong attractions to, and unfortunately some of them were also the boys picking on me. I won’t go into the years of therapy it took me to get past all that. I flunked out of phys. ed. because I refused to go into the locker room to dress out. I just couldn’t face it in there any more.
I retreated into books. I’d always been an avid reader, and I discovered that if I took a book with me everywhere, and buried my nose in it during recess and other times when I might have to interact with my peers, there was a much better chance that I might be left alone. I got in good with the librarian at school, and volunteered as a library assistant. So, during recess, instead of joining the other kids on the playground, I’d spend time in the library, shelving books, helping put up bulletin boards, etc., with the librarian and the other library assistants (who were mostly girls, as I remember). I learned how to use a library, a skill that has served me well for the rest of my life, and would serve me well as I figured out what was happening to me and why I was feeling what I was feeling.
Adolesence and puberty were setting in, and I found myself having other feelings for the boys around me, that were stronger and different than before; and another reason not to go into the locker room. It was clear that I wasn’t feeling the attraction to girls that the rest of male peers were – or were claiming to. So, what did I do? There wasn’t really anyone I could talk to. Especially my parents, who would just point me to the bible. So, I started reading. By that time I’d been called “faggot” more times than I could count, and I knew what it meant. But at the same time I didn’t. I wondered “What does it mean if that’s really the way I am?” I went to the public library, this time, took a big breath, and went into the section on homosexuality, once I’d locatd the subject in the card catalog.
In those shelves, I came across a book that I credit with saving my life. Its title was A Way of Love, A Way of Life: a Young Person’s Guide to What it Means to be Gay, and it was written by Frances Hanckel and John Cunningham; a lesbian and a gay man, I presumed. It was the right book for me at the right time. (Just a year or so ago, I decided I wanted it on my bookshelf at home. It’s long out of print, so I searched for it online, and found a copy. It’s sitting on my desk as I write this.) It covered everything; history, names for homosexualty (some of which I’d been introduced to already), sex, puberty, meeting other gay people. What I’ll always remember is that at the end, there was a chapter telling the stories of a dozen other people who were gay or lesbian. They were old, young, single, coupled, etc., and they were all living happy productive lives. By the time I finished reading it, I knew two things: I wasn’t the only one, and a happy life wasn’t out of my reach because I was gay. (I also knew that I had to get out of town. Augusta, Georgia is a pretty conservative town, and at the time it wasn’t a great place to be gay. My big plan was to go away to college and find other gay people there, which I did.)
I went back to school with a little more confidence, because I knew being gay didn’t mean I was a freak or some kind of defective. I knew there were others like me, and I knew that there were place and people out there that would be accepting, and that I just had to find them.
I also went back with a little more attitude. It must have been sixth grade. It was spring. We were going back inside following recess, which I’d spent sitting alone, reading. I remember this short, fat, bespectacled black kid name Gerald started in picking on me that day; the way I walked, the way I talked, how I was always reading, etc. I suppose, now, that it was a good way to deflect attention away from his own possible flaws. I ignored him for the most part. He was behind me, and his teasing was starting to draw an amused audience. Finally he said it, or rather asked the question. “So, are you a faggot or what?” Without planning to, I whipped around, got right in his face and said “Yeah, I am. What’s it to you?”
And suddenly I was out. There were whispers of “Oh, my god,” and “He admitted it!” I’m sure it was all over school soon after that.
Well, I paid for that moment of empowerment over the next couple of years. From then on, every day was an exercise in physical and verbal harrassment that teachers either didn’t notice or didn’t care to stop. It was daily psychological warfare, and there wasn’t anyone else around on my side. It got pretty bad. I’d get sick thinking about going to school. I’d withdraw as much as possible when I got there. And I’d come home angry and depressed afterwards. Once I expressed a desire to take a gun to school, blow all those kids away, and then use it on myself. My mom heard that, and before I knew it I was sitting in a therapist’s office.
t turned out to be a good thing, therapy. It gave me a neutral place to talk without fearing retribution, since whatever I said to the therapist was confidential, and not even my parents would be told. At our first appointment and said to him “Look, if we’re going to work together I need you to know something about me first. I’m gay, but I’m not here to change that or anything.” After recovering from what had to be the shock of having a 13 year old make such a declaration at the first appointment, my therapist said what was probably the best thing he could have at that moment. “Let’s just work on the whole person, and let that piece fall into place where ever it will.” Boom. Just like that, someone else was basically telling me that my being gay was OK, no big deal, not the end of the world.
Things got a little better. Shortly after that initial appointment, I auditioned for and got accepted into the fine arts magnet school in our county. I was still the only openly gay kid at that school, but it was a whole lot easier. There were a handful of guys, three or four, there that tried to pick on me, but them I could handle. After that, I went on to college, where I came out completely, joined the gay student group, became an activist, and passed the first non-discrimination policy for sexual orientation at my university. But that’s another story for another time…