I was one of those kids in school who got made fun of just for existing. I was always a punching bag, and I learned to tune a certain amount of it out, but by the time I got to be an adult - as in out of college and supposedly moving through the "real" world - I felt there was no longer any excuse whatsoever. Once we were no longer students - no longer trying to prove ourselves worthy of grades, degrees, the approval of others in general - we were now supposed to be good people. Right?
Some people just never grow up at all. They never stop feeling the need to impress others. 10 years out of acting class, and they are still trying to get noticed, get respect, get laughs. And they will attack anyone who comes near them who engenders a feeling of jealousy. For any reason. It could be better clothes. It could be a height thing. It could be that unnamable quality that some people possess - the self-confidence and happiness that shows when they walk in a room. This is often the most unforgivable offense. How dare you look so fucking happy? So fucking calm? Who do you think you are?
I was raised to believe that homosexuality is perfectly normal. My mother is an actress with a degree in science education. My father is a doctor - a neuropsychologist - who plays mean piano and guitar. They were very down-to-earth when I was a kid. Some people are short, some people are redheads, some have brown skin, some are gay, some are better at sports than others. These are all normal things that earned humanity my parent's favorite adjective: fascinating. Both of my parents are agnostics as well, so I was also taught that no one holy book contains any absolute truths, and that no one religion is more valid than the rest. So all that abomination against God stuff just never applied in my house. Also, thanks to my Mom, I'd been in the theatre community since I was 4 years old. I'd been bounced on the knee of all my mother's friends, straight and gay. I never really got what the big deal was until I was in junior high school.
The big deal was society. The big deal was that some kids' parents and ministers and teachers taught them that gay was bad, so it must be. Eleven-year-olds in a private school with a gifted program aren't really concerned about such things. There wasn't much debate.
High school was a whole different story. I never took any direct flak for hanging out with gays, but hearing the abusive talk in the hallways - and classrooms, and extra-curricular activities - seeped through my skin. Worst of all, I heard some people who I had thought were pretty cool say horrifically homophobic things. In retrospect, I wonder if these kids didn't say these things knowing I was listening. All I knew at the time was that kids who seemed so cool were saying horrible things about people who had always been kind to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I greatly admired and wanted to be like some people who happened to be gay – my Mom’s friends, some directors and choreographers, dancers I had worked with and become friendly with. And these little shits were wishing them harm, without even knowing who they were, because they were gay. I was sickened.
On a shallower level, it seemed to me that not everyone talking that way seemed to be genuine gay-haters – they were simply using homophobia as a weapon. It was a powerful social assassination, being called gay. Anyone could be gay - girls, boys, black, white. Therefore, anyone could be accused of it. Being accused of it meant that your life would be social hell. And seeing these kids use that as a way to wield social power... how do you fight against that? I couldn’t see how. It was the cruelest, most effective way of brandishing hatred I had ever seen. And they were so casual about it. In some cases, they were gleeful. I remember very clearly how a table full of popular kids howled with laughter at some boys calling another boy a fag, and the long, awful walk across the courtyard while they jeered at the top of their lungs. I knew that kid. He was nice. I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
The worst part was that when these kids said such awful things, the teachers never corrected them. That behavior was acceptable. Racial slurs were unacceptable. Anti-semitic comments were severely punished. But calling someone a faggot in the hallway got nothing but a stern look and an admonishment to keep your voice down. The power-mad assholes were running the place, and there was nothing I could do.
This pushed me farther into social withdrawal. I realized that being nerdy and having a runny nose were minor offenses. I learned that I wasn’t abused because I was a deficient person, I was abused because everyone was abused. It put my experiences into perspective for me, but in a terrible way. It became clear to me that the world is a mean, spiteful, evil place, run by mean, spiteful, evil people. If someone was nice to me, it was probably because they assumed I was Christian, straight, whatever they approved of. Evil masked itself inside otherwise nice young kids. I trusted no one.
The theatre community wasn't the haven you'd think, but it was better. At least there, the bigots were in the minority. I wonder if my pursuit of theatre wasn't partly motivated by rebellion. I do know that, at the time, it was the only place where people seemed to like me for who I was, where I was praised for being interesting rather than made fun of for being different. In the theatre, white straight folks are the minority. For the most part, I got competitive bitchiness from the straight girls in the shows, indifference and silence from the straight guys... and never-ending dance partners from the gay men. Some of them found me charming in a little-sister sort of way. Some became true friends and confidants. Some were practically family members.
I did a production of La Cage Aux Folles when I was a senior in high school, and there was public outcry. There were hateful letters to the editor published in the local newspaper. There was talk all over town. All of a sudden the board of health threatened to shut down the theatre because we didn't have a sprinkler system installed. I don't think anyone at the board of health had set foot within 100 yards of the theatre in ten years.
When I performed with this group, I felt righteous. Better yet, I felt right. I felt like I was doing something important, something I was meant to do. I had refused to take part in my high school’s musical in favor of doing this community theatre show, and for a senior, that was quite a statement. I had chosen a side… and we won.
We had sell-out crowds. All my friends came to the show, and told me they were proud of me. I was proud of the work I had done, but I was prouder of my friends, on stage and off. I felt like the evil in the world couldn’t reach us, not in that space, not during those weeks.
That year, when I graduated high school, my mother tried to throw a big graduation party for me. She hired a DJ, ordered tons of food and drinks… nobody my age came. My mother must have invited 50 families to this shin-dig, and there we were in a nearly empty room, with loud music, tons of food and a black cloud hanging over my head. My own best friend chose to see the Springfield Symphony with her parents rather than have a soda with me. One girl from my high school - who was even dorkier than me, really - did come, and I loved her for that, but otherwise, I was completely rejected (again) from my entire peer group. But guess who did come? Our gay friends from theatre. Some of them had known me since I was practically toddling. They had watched me grow up. They made my night. I was jitterbugged around the room to Wham and twirled across the floor to ABBA, and I remember using the words "Dah-ling" and "fabulous" a lot. Those guys made my night. I turned my back on high school forever.
Of course, college was totally different. I was, of course, a theatre major. At a party one night, a straight man I was sort of messing around with danced with one of our gay friends, laughing his ass off, saying "I'll dance with you Seth, but that's all!" I remember the quiet calm that spread through the inside of me when I saw this. They were both drunk, and dancing, and laughing. A certain layer of fear was extinguished, like pouring water on smoldering embers of a fire that had burned itself out. Pepto-Bismol for the soul. A very tiny, ever-so-thin layer of belief in humanity grew in its place. That night, I slept alone, and didn't feel alone. There were very, very few times during college when I didn't feel alone, and this was one of them.
During my junior and senior years, I found myself hanging out less and less with the cliquish theatre crowd and more with the students in Southwest Hall. Half of Southwest was the International dorm, where virtually all the foreign students roomed, paired with American students who had specifically volunteered to live with someone from another country. It was a haven of new ideas and cultural exchange. The other half of Southwest was the honor's student housing - you had to be in the honors program to get those rooms. (I was in the honors program, and could have lived there, but I was comfortable in my single room in the co-ed dorm across the hall.) So added to the cultural diversity was a community of true intellectuals and overly smart people. Southwest Hall was heaven.
And over half gay. The honors students at ISU had a large gay percentage. I thought this highly amusing. I met lesbians for the first time, and they were the smartest, funniest, roughest women I'd ever met - and they didn't snub me. I still can't get over that.
Underneath it all, we all just wanted to have friends. I adored and respected that crowd. I dated a guy in that dorm. I always wondered how different my college experience might have been had I lived there.
By the time I moved to New York, I'd gotten back a lot of the faith in humanity that high school had taken away. I'd learned some self-respect, and learned that there are just as many good, open-hearted, accepting, fair-minded people in the world as there are bigoted racist homophobic assholes.
Just not in Springfield, not when I lived there. New York, here I come.
When I started classes at SCAMDA, every single guy in my class was gay. Every one! One was very Christian, eighteen, and closeted, but I was convinced he was gay too. He dropped out after the first semester. I was partly relieved to be surrounded by gay men. I was freshly broken up with that boyfriend I wrote those poems about. It was easier, being surrounded by gay men. That first semester was like a dream. We were all new to New York. We were all young, we were all talented, and we were all excited to start our lives. We had all lived through our own bits and pieces of hell. We all shared our stories with each other and became very close. Well, most of us. But it was enough. My faith in humanity, for the most part, was restored.
Something else really interesting happened to me that year as well. At SCAMDA, I knew that when somebody said or did something cruel to me, it wasn't because I was a freak whose destiny it was to be the popular kids' punching bag. It was because they were nasty bitches who didn't know how to behave. I was suddenly SO above all that shit. I'm not saying it didn't hurt, and I'm not saying I didn't descend to their level on one or more occasions, but this time, I just knew better. I had figured something out. And you know who the nicest kids in the school were? The gay boys. You know who the nastiest, biggest bitches were? The youngest, magazine-pretty straight females whose primary motivation was to rule their immediate surroundings. My closest friends were a very few women who were beautiful in quiet, artistic, unusual ways, and gay men.
I guess, to this day, nothing has really changed.
Does this make me innately distrust beautiful straight women? Hell no. I've discovered over the last ten years of adulthood that there's no trackable data which can predict who will be bitchy and who will be cool. I’ve known bitchy men and women, and I’ve known nice ones too, gay, straight, all races, all backgrounds. I try to approach everyone with openness, and let them reveal themselves. Thankfully, most people are pretty cool. Most people are just… people.
I'm passionate about what some people call "gay rights" for the same reason I'm passionate about civil rights, women's rights, and the more subtle issues of this kind like elitism and classism. I'm passionate about breaking down meaningless, pointless boundaries of fear and hatred. I'm passionate about wanting my country to be a fair place for me and all my friends - ALL of them - to live, love, work, raise families, and build communities. Because I'm just one of them. I'm one of the girls and one of the boys. I’m cool, and I'm a geek. I was an outsider, and sometimes still choose to stand outside, but I've been invited inside some wonderful groups, and wonderful places.
Why do I prefer to hang out with gay men? I don't. I prefer to hang out with people I respect, who I like and admire, who treat their loved ones with love, who make me laugh, who are kind and good and considerate and generous. That’s all I care about. That’s all that matters.
Not too long ago, I went into a nice Chelsea gay bar to wait for some friends. They hadn’t yet arrived, so I sat at the bar and ordered a drink. As I went for my wallet, a skinny guy sitting a foot or so away from me glared at me. He was wearing a skin-tight sleeveless black T-shirt and a heavy chain around his neck. He waved his cigarette my direction, and snarled loudly to the bartender: “Since when do we serve breeders in here?”
I froze for a moment. A few seconds of quiet passed while nobody responded to him. Ice cubes clinked into a glass. Someone sitting farther down the bar engaged that rude man in conversation on a different topic, and the focus shifted off of me. The conversations were quiet.
The bartender served me my drink with a smile, and a look in his eye that I have seen before. “Thanks,” I said, feeling tired. “You’re very welcome,” he replied.
I slapped an extra dollar on the bar. When my friends arrived, I bought a round. And when the music cranked up, we danced.