Hey, guess what - I'm a homo
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A happy young fag was I
A few months shy of my eighteenth birthday I was rejoicing to discover that I was gay. I can’t remember if I was still in college or was working in the Board of Education warehouse: my first job (the head of Armstrong State’s math department had rescued me from a final year of high school but college didn’t please me, I quit).
Wave hi to Reddy Killowatt as you enter the Port City
Surely Savannah is gay friendly than in 1972. Now there’s likely a gay rights group. I doubt the Basement still exists. It was the only gay bar in that part of Georgia. No gay bar could be more perfectly named: brick walls adorned with a few beer signs. It was buried invisibly under a building on Abercorn in the Historic District. Rumor had it that rich gay men would hang out at the Pink Somethingorother. Mostly straight people but wealth could get anybody in.
Savannah’s old money fancied itself aristocratic. Homophobia usually wasn’t overt. At least not with your own class; homosexuality was a quaint aberration to be tolerated, not much distant from the men who sired mulatto children. Savannah wasn’t necessarily a bad place for a gay man, it was a bad place for this man.
As I said I was rejoicing. A load of synonyms – jubilating, triumphing, glorying, celebrating – I’d’ve danced had I known how (a serious omission). If I’d ever esteemed mankind I’d forgotten it. Muddled thinking, conformity, blandly living without questions or beauty, merely distracted by television – that was my picture of the people I shared the planet with. I never fell into the shameful device of striving to be unlike them, a genuine difference was a gift. (Alterity in postmodern academic idiom.)
Unwanted confidences I imagine
Excited, I started telling people. Running into somebody I knew from Shuman Junior or Savannah High it was the first thing out of my mouth. One fellow did let me know that not only was I violating some sort of biological Prime Directive but I was also headed toward the fiery pit where the worm dieth not. (And a few months ago he discovered my weblog and let me know he’d outgrown his youth. One of the happiest surprises from my years of writing about myself online.)
Mostly there wasn’t any visible reaction. In my very large high school I’d emerged as the school weirdo. On and off since junior high my teachers would tell me that I was the smartest kid they’d ever taught (since I’ve never done anything to set mankind on its collective ears I’m hoping this doesn’t sound like braggadocio). Some people laughed at me. Peculiarly the jocks were always very friendly, greeting me like an old pal in the halls. Kind hellos from strangers were odd. Everything I know about high school status networks I got years later from bad movies and TV shows. Perhaps by sheer oddity I was bastardized school celebrity. To most people I must’ve been a ‘nerd.’ Perhaps to others I was unclassified or my teachers respect made them cautious. It wouldn’t be until years after I’d left Savannah I started wondering. Leaving me with only over elaborate speculations. Visible reaction or not, the word that I was a fag must’ve gone round. My confession was the last I’d see of them. They weren’t friends, there wasn’t the faintest sense of loss.
Mrs. Shirley Jordan was happy for me I think. Possibly the only teacher that appreciated more than my intelligence and saw that I was troubled without thinking that I was fucked up. She’d been my eleventh grade English teacher; I visited her at school to tell her.
Dr. Wolfe, the shrink that the school had forced my parents to send me to asked if it bothered me. I said no and we went on to other things. Being someone I could bitch about my father was probably the only therapeutic quality of my visits to Dr. Wolfe. Mostly I remember him for introducing me to Matthew Arnold.
The stories you’re liable to read in the bible
I'm sure Pate Matthews, a Christian wimp friend, was deeply shocked. Poor guy, his mother wouldn't let him go more than two blocks from his house. He lived in real heterosexual hell: he liked girls but was too awkward to talk to any. Fairly good-looking he'd never been on a date. If he married it was probably to some Pentecostal cow his momma forced on him. Picture a small-minded, demonically intolerant, tightly controlling redneck woman and you have Pate’s mother. Pate loved rock music but eventually burned his records fearing they were the Devil’s music.
During the interregnum between Victor’s leaving and returning to Savannah my best friend was Randall Maddox. We spent every Saturday together talking about vampires, comic books, sundry. Randall had accompanied me into agnosticism. His parents were kindly but belonged to a stringent protestant sect that didn’t allow even a piano to be played in Church. His upbringing betrayed him and he’d come to believe that he’d blasphemed the Holy Ghost, committed the unpardonable sin and no act of his could ever save him from eternal pain. When I came out to him I can’t remember his response. Nothing hostile, possibly he was baffled, even hurt. My confession had come at a time when his mind was splintering. Regardless of my sexuality our lives were following different paths; our friendship expired. Last I knew of him he was taking business classes in college. Probably at his insurance salesman father’s urging. He’d have never chosen them himself.
When I told Momma she said she knew something had happened but had assumed I'd gotten a girl pregnant. She was worried, not angry. My gay uncle’s fate probably scared her. She'd known a few gay men and they'd seemed miserable, bitter.
Not much later I ran into one of those bitter gay men. I grew up knowing Henry Porter. He’d been our landlord in the early sixties. Years earlier he’d known my Daddy in Chicago. Young Henry had a passion for my Daddy. He’d devolved into a pissy old queen who could make Boys in the Band seem cheery. Discovering that I was gay was a source of spiteful satisfaction. Henry had never recovered from his youthful infatuation. My sexuality for him was a revenge on my father.
There was never any question but that my father could’ve beaten me up. He was strong and violent. When he’d point out some female he thought sexy I’d feel a bit queasy (a joke on me). I was too scared of being hurt or killed to confront him with my sexuality.
Finally he asked. And exploded.
If I was starving in the gutter or dying in the hospital he wouldn't care or want to know. Never, ever think I could come back to his home. He was a “man's man” and I was a “man for man.” (I did like the second formulation, summed it up nicely.) He gave me some money and told he to leave in the morning and never come back.
My father was a mean, brutal bastard. But love me he did. Eventually visited my parents in Savannah. He didn’t talk about girls (or boys). I’d always thought if I didn’t bother my hair it wouldn’t bother me. (Until I discovered that keeping it no more than five or so inches long would get me more sex I let the locks run untrammeled.) To make Momma happy I consented to a haircut. Found myself back at the snazzy uptown barber I’d gone to for years (complete with manicurist). My haircut was worthy of a Methodist preacher. When Daddy got home I cursed the haircut violently. He looked at me with surprise and said that I wasn’t really “that way.” I’d said it only to piss him off.
It took me some time to untangle his words and realize he’d decided that I wasn’t gay. I couldn’t be if I hated a haircut that my Momma wanted. (Is there a semiotian in the house?) Knowing defeat and preferring peace I didn’t try to educate him. As I type I can think of the best reason. My mother never told me what he’d said the night I’d come out. She wouldn’t. There’s no doubt that he’d spent weeks loudly damning her for turning his son into a faggot.
A broom and a closet but not a broom closet
Let me jump ahead about three years and confess the time I went into the closet. For the third (and last) time I found myself in jail. Someone’s stock dividend checks arrived by error at my Atlanta post office box. On a wild whim I tried to cash them on a visit to Victor and Nancy in Eden North Carolina.
Most of the Eden County jail had been condemned by the Feds, but part of the building was considered habitable by felons. Food was slid through a slot at the bottom of the cell floor. Powdered eggs, fried bologna, black coffee. The nasty, barely edible agricultural surplus they once gave people instead of food stamps. Not that the arrival of meals didn’t become a quickening moment of the day. (And it was a sort of appropriate place to read Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose even if I didn’t share his taste for rough trade.)
My first night there two guys told me I had to be initiated. Initiation consisted of letting them shove a broom handle up my ass. I talked a lot. I cajoled, threatened, said I don’t know what. Eventually I convinced them to leave my ass alone. (I’d had passive anal sex only twice and wasn’t looking to explore my limits.)
One of the trustees brought pot in regularly. Not to me, he would’ve had some if I’d asked and paid. (With what results: pot leaves me highly spooked.) A couple of very muscular black men would get stoned and repeatedly ask me if I had “the package.” Slang for gay (‘top’ and ‘bottom’ hadn’t been coined back then, I don’t think the distinction would’ve interested them). Never heard of “the package” before or since. Rape fantasies are fine but not the real thing. I convinced them I that was straight and emerged with my ass undamaged. (Luckily Claiborne Darden’s family owned a big chunk of NCNB, the bank I’d tried to scam.. I’d worked for his research firm in Atlanta. Claiborne wanted me to come back and man his phones (he was always weirdly practical). Phone calls made, my public defender stood up and asked that all charged be dropped. The judge said that was fine with him. I got myself back to Atlanta on the next bus.)
Not telling my father until he asked and lying about it in Eden County Jail were my two experiences of the closet. I can see how my silence with my father can make me look like a hypocrite. I didn’t tell him I was an atheist until he asked. I never told him anything. When I was living at home I contrived to take a shower just before dinner so I wouldn’t have to sit at the table with him (years later he’d let me knew he’d discerned the pattern).
Even though I think I acted sanely in jail I’ve never wholly resolved me feelings about it. Only a fool would let themselves be raped and beaten. Our evolutionary heritage probably links shame to cowardice. I can’t really say whether I was ashamed of going into the closet or in finding my life at the mercy of others. Or is that a distinction without a difference?
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