I grew up in a suburb of New York City, which is widely known as a bastion of tolerance and liberality. But as far as I knew, there was only one queer kid in my grade. Out of a class of some 250. Which is to say the others did not feel welcome. This of course was before I learned that sexuality is a spectrum, and a multi-dimensional spectrum at that. And it was at a time when I would have been more afraid than curious as to where my exact location on that spectrum might be. So there might have been two out of 250 and I never would have admitted it.
A Different World at Summer Camp
I remember this one time when I was twelve I was attending a dance at my summer camp. This was a camp whose attitudes were far more liberal than those of my school. In theory as well as in practice. The percentage of people who were out was much higher. I slept in the same room with people I knew to be queer. Brushed my teeth next to them. Ate with them. Rehearsed with them. Above all, talked with them.
Nowadays, I wouldn’t talk in categories in this way. Unless I had a particular reason to distinguish, I would just say: I lived with people. With the assumption that those people would fall in various places on the multi-dimensional spectrum of love and desire. But this is now and that was then. Back then I lived with people I was conscious of being different from but I did not think the less of them for it. Only so much liberal-mindedness from a twelve-to-fifteen year old.
Dancing at Summer Camp
Anyway. This one time. I’ve never been comfortable dancing. Back then, in the first swirl of adolescent hormones, I was balanced on the knife’s edge between being too shy to put myself forward and too eager to let myself be held back. I didn’t know much. But I knew that there was something exciting about just being near a girl. At a school or a summer camp, they (the counselors, teachers, etc) spent all of their time telling you not to do that. If they saw you hugging for too long, they’d say: cut the PDA. But if you were slow-dancing, suddenly it was okay. It felt transgressive somehow. Like the first time my dad’s friend told me a dirty joke. When you spend all your time being told one thing and then suddenly there is another rule in force.
My skin tingled in the dim light of a crowded dining hall that had been turned over to use as a party space. Chairs and tables shoved to the side or removed. Lights dimmed or darkened. Campers wearing their finest or dressed up outright in vintage fripperies borrowed from the costume shop next to the rehearsal stage.
And, of course, playing music for a crowd got my blood up. Still does, decades later. I was sitting in the back row with the other trumpet players. We were playing mostly swing music, and I felt radiant when I punched those off-beats, or when, occasionally, I got to belt out a solo. I especially loved muting my trumpet with my left hand to create a different sound, nasal, but intimate and inviting, like the singsong of a mobster’s girlfriend in some old movie.
Dancing Vs. Adolescent Awkwardness
I started the evening thinking I would not make it to the dance floor. That I would spend the whole evening on the bandstand. But the head counselor said that we could take breaks and go out into the crowd. Still, I didn’t think I would go. If you had asked why (and I’m sure someone did) I would have said: I don’t like dancing. Because what twelve year old has the wherewithal to say: I am excited by the idea of getting close to someone but so mortally afraid of making a mistake and looking foolish that I have shunned all opportunity to learn how to move my body in dance. So that now the whole thing is a vicious cycle, whereby I don’t dance because I don’t know how and I don’t know how because I don’t...
Because what twelve year old has the wherewithal to say: I am excited by the idea of getting close to someone but so mortally afraid of making a mistake and looking foolish…
Like I said. I was twelve. I knew that there were people I liked looking at better than others; that there were people I liked talking to better than others. There were people… being around them just excited me. And yes, I saw one or two of those people in the crowd that night and so my budding adolescent longing must have overwhelmed my fully developed adolescent sense of shame and shyness. Enough that I made it out to the dance floor.
A Bit of a Crush
I remember dancing with a tall, willowy, black-haired beauty. Do you know I can’t really remember what she looked like. Just that her hair was long and straightened and black. Her face… I remember it being wide and round, but that might have been baby-fat and bones that had not yet finished growing. Dimples or not? I couldn’t tell you. Dark eyes or light? Dark, I think. Glasses? That night surely not but when she was reading or drawing or the like? I couldn’t tell you. I just remember I thought she was really pretty. What’s left a lasting impression on me is how I yearned for her and felt small and shy at the idea of asking her to dance.
But I did. And she said yes. And we danced. To what song? I don’t know. Slow or fast? Honestly… slow, I think. I always felt awkward about dancing to the fast ones. But I could hug and shuffle with the best of them. Then again, I liked playing trumpet for the slow ones, so there’s another tug of war I was on both sides of.
I feel like I should make a joke about being torn between my horn-playing and my horniness, but I can’t think of a good one right now.
Confronting my Sexuality… And Not Having the Tools
Here’s what I remember. Later that night, sitting in my bunk, terrified that I was gay because I didn’t get an erection while I was dancing with her. Never mind that I was clearly attracted to her. Never mind that if I had gotten an erection while dancing with her, I would have been mortified. And never mind that being that nervous and that excited could as easily cause one physiological response as another. Sometimes my traitorous adolescent body used to “pop” just in response to being nervous. But not always. Other times the same nervousness could just as easily cause an erection to topple over like a stack of poker chips.
So let’s take a step back. I was twelve. To my knowledge I don’t remember being told by my parents one way or another about being “gay” as it would have been called then. I would have learned it from my friends and acquaintances. And typically, such words as “gay” and “lesbian” and “bisexual” would have been used to inflict wounds. A rival in some game of pickup soccer would be called “gay” (or a stronger word would be used). The same with someone who showed too much emotion at the wrong time. Or you could be walking down the hallway and someone would call you “gay.”
I sometimes get time-travel urges. Moments when I feel so angry and sad that I want to travel back in time to a given moment and change things. In this case, it’s to give my younger self a hug. To have a conversation with him and tell him not to listen to these jackasses. They don’t know what they’re saying anymore than I know what I’m hearing. They learned a word that someone used (an older sibling, likely) to gain power over them. And they’re now using it to gain power over me. And the result is that my first and only exposure to queerness (except one or two visits to the New York apartment of my mom’s doctor-friend and his husband) was through these word-games. These playground power-plays.
Sometimes it’s just Dancing… And Sometimes it’s a Moment of Crisis
I did not know that the night of that dance would be a moment of crisis for me that I would remember some twenty year later. That it would sadden and scar me through my adolescence. That it would shape the trajectory of the development of my mind. What I knew was that I was not great at talking to girls. Was not great at dancing. And (this was something I would have thought was unrelated) that “gay” means you are a guy who wants to have sex with other guys and… maybe misses goals on the soccer-field?
People who are gay are just people? I am sure someone had told me that. Probably more than once. But that wasn’t my reality. My reality was that if you missed a kick on the soccer field you were gay and that that was a bad thing.
I was twelve. I had already physiologically developed to the point where I could have had sex, though actually doing so was still years off for me. But my body didn’t know that. My body was ready to go. Silly creature, my body. It meant well, but it had no idea what was going on. My mind, either. So the result was that I didn’t have enough information to survive the experience I had at that dance. At least not to survive it unscarred. If I knew, for instance, that it’s neither a positive nor a negative to be gay; that it just is; that people who are gay are just people? I am sure someone had told me that. Probably more than once. But that wasn’t my reality. My reality was that if you missed a kick on the soccer field you were gay and that that was a bad thing.
So yes. Someone had told me what being gay was and that it wasn’t a bad thing. But weight that against a thousand games of pickup soccer. A thousand wisecracks in school hallways. A thousand rides on the bus. No wonder only one kid came out.
Sex Ed is Preparation for those First Crises
There are people in this world who will say that young children should not receive sexual education before they are a certain age. And I can only say that these people have forgotten what it was like to be children. My own sex education began at age four when my mother was briefly pregnant. I learned the word “pussy” when I was six years old. I remember proudly announcing as much to my mom and then I remember her barely repressed rage as she carefully ascertained that I had learned the word from another child, not from an adult. And as I have said, I learned the word “gay” from my classmates on the soccer field, too.
When adults do not step in, little kids are our first sex ed teachers.
I don’t think it’s possible for a child to grow up free of trauma. But we can still do our best to shield them from the ones we know about. And one step along that path is teaching kids that queerness is about more than who you have sex with. And that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” sexuality to be born into. I’m telling my story because it‘s a fairly light case. Even at the age of twelve, I knew better than to subject another person to the bigotry I nevertheless subjected myself to. Okay, I didn’t always act on that knowledge. And I did know the right answer. I knew that it wasn’t wrong to be queer. A few years would pass before I believed it. And a few more years before I was able to admit that I was likely more “straight…ish” than straightforwardly straight.
The point is that my case can be considered a fairly light one. And it’s still nightmarish. I still had sleepless nights and seemingly endless self-recrimination over whether I like this person or that person; or this type of person or that type of person. And this was with two parents who have post-graduate degrees. One of them is even a therapist. And I still arrived at this moment unprepared. I’m about to have more company.
A lot of these organizations are demanding that sexuality be taught in the home in an age-appropriate way. Imagine if the Million Moms and other regressives were up-in-arms protesting their respective state capitals because they wanted math or English to be taught at home by the parents in an age-appropriate way. Yes. It’s not a bad idea to have conversations with your child about sex. A bunch of them. One every so often. But teachers go to school to learn how to teach. It would be a shame to put that expertise to waste in a matter as important as this.
The point is that my case can be considered a fairly light one. And it’s still nightmarish.
But then. For all the coded language, there are enough people coming out and accusing liberals of indoctrinating their children into the evils of acceptance and love that if we don’t vote them out of power, that’s on us. Oh wait no it’s not. It’s gerrymandering and graft and corruption. Dammit. We’ve got a long fight ahead of us, don’t we?
Happy Pride, everyone.