Moving between your sophomore and junior years in high school isn’t easy on any teenager. I wasn’t quite as nervous about this move as I had been when we moved from Chicago out to the suburbs–which was a major shift in everything I was used to, moved me away from friends I’d been going to school with since first grade, and made me that thing no one wants to be: the new kid–primarily because I’d already experienced being the new kid once already, and had never really gotten over it. Suburban life wasn’t good for me, really–I got picked on and bullied alot, called gay slurs pretty regularly, kids didn’t want to be my friend because they’d open themselves up to the same bullying I was experiencing. So, while I was going to miss the people I did consider to be my friends–which was yet another eye-opening experience in and of itself, but more on that later–but I wasn’t going to miss the bullying, the being targeted, the snickers after I walked past people in the halls, and worrying about having a place to sit in the cafeteria every day (my sophomore year I joined Choir to get out of the lunch break–we were always dismissed fifteen minutes early so we could eat, so I would grab something quickly and eat it as fast as I could; I still eat fast to this day).
I even thought it could be a fresh start for me, and all of that could stay in the past.
While I sometimes will joke about how glad I was to get out of Kansas five years later, I appreciated my time there. My high school was actually–given its size–a much better school than the enormous one I attended in the suburbs; I actually learned there and participated in class. I was, of course, horribly lonely; it’s never been easy for me to talk to people I don’t know (painful shyness, to the point of anxiety), and as always, when nervous and uncomfortable I resort to humor and jokes and being a clown. I never felt like I fit in there, but it was so much better than my old school experience–and the slurs didn’t start there until the second semester of my senior year. That was fine; I just had to make it through a few more weeks by then and at that point I was ready to get out of there and move on with my life.
Kansas wasn’t a particularly welcoming place for a gay teenager in the mid-1970’s, but then most places weren’t at the time. I remember thinking I was the only gay kid in Kansas, the only one at either school I attended, and there was absolutely no one I could trust to talk to about it. I missed having real friends, ones like I read about in books or saw in movies and television shows; it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized I never had real friends because I never trusted anyone enough to actually be honest with them, tell them the truth about me–and the real basis of friendship is mutual trust. I obviously have always had serious trust issues–the whole no one can find out hell of my first few decades of life–but I never felt close to people because I didn’t trust them enough to not turn on me, walk out of my life, and/or mock me if I told them the truth.
So, for a long time I rather held it against Kansas and the area where we lived for not being more open and welcoming, and it was unfair. Would rural Alabama have been better? New Orleans? Nebraska or Texas or California? Even in the cities with a big queer population at the time–New York, Chicago, San Francisco–I wouldn’t say the life of queer kids going through the hell of being closeted in public school was better there. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t; I don’t know. But when you live in Kansas and are a queer kid in the 1970’s…I felt like I was marooned on a distant planet.
Oddly enough, the little book store in the county seat, the News Depot–they had a massive newspaper/magazine section, and also carried comic books; it was there I started reading them again–that I found the books that were my foundational queer reading: Gordon Merrick’s The Quirk, Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Catch Trap (and yes, I am aware of the allegations against her as well as her husband–and his, I believe, actual crimes; but I cannot deny the book was foundational reading for me, either). The clerk didn’t even give me a second glance whenever I bought one of these books; I also had to bury them in my room in stacks of other books so my mom wouldn’t find them (my biggest fear was always one day my mom would get bored, wander into my room to find something to read, and wonder, ‘The Quirk? What’s that about?”). There were sex scenes in them, too–sex scenes I read over and over again, memorizing the page numbers so I wouldn’t have to use a bookmark or turn down a page, which was far too risky. I already had a vague idea of what gay sex was like, gathered from insults and comments in other books; but these were pretty graphic and left no doubt in my mind whatsoever about what was involved.
And boy, I wanted to find out how it actually felt.
(I never actually found a gay bookstore until I moved to Tampa in 1990. But I would spend hours in bookstores in the years prior looking for anything that might even be remotely gay or gay-friendly; and occasionally I would find something like Dancer from the Dance or The Swimming-Pool Library but what I really wanted was something fun to read with positive gay characters. characters who weren’t stereotypes or to be pitied or felt sorry for; gays who lived their lives openly and proudly, and maybe solved crimes, fell in and out of love, experienced life that wasn’t all solemn and dreary and sad. Don’t get me wrong–I am not dogging either of those books; they are wonderful novels and beautifully written, but…I am a genre guy, not a litfic guy, and I wanted to read some gay crime or horror or romance or something entertaining. Once I discovered the wealth of books and authors that actually existed in the genres? There was no turning back.)
I had always felt like I didn’t belong anywhere–my earliest childhood memories are of me being aware I wasn’t like the other kids, in many ways, and how odd and different I felt. That feeling never changed growing up–hell, there are still times when I feel like I am from another planet–and the moving around didn’t help, either…I do remember thinking, every time I moved to a new city and state as an adult, ah, here we go again–no friends, no life, and no idea how to find anyone who is like me–if there are any people like me.
It was often discouraging. I felt like I was going to always be alone.
By the time I was twenty it was time to go, to leave Kansas and never go back. I felt so stunted, and so unhappy, like my potential hadn’t been tapped and never would if I remained there. I knew if I stayed in Kansas I would wind up probably very unhappily married, with kids and a whole life I didn’t want, had never wanted, but was expected of me. I knew I would never be happy there, completely happy–and so when the chance presented itself to move to California (California! You can imagine how exciting that sounded to me), I took it and never looked back.
With the passing of time and more perspective, a lot of the bitterness I used to feel about my experience there has changed. I don’t know that the experience there now would be any different than it was in the 1970’s, but I suspect that even had we stayed in the suburbs of Chicago those last few years of high school and first years of college would have been equally scarring and stifling; that’s pretty much how it was for queer kids everywhere back then. Some of the kids I was friends with, or knew, from my old high school in Kansas have friended me on Facebook, and me being a big ole queer must not bother them too much; it’s not like I hide it anymore (those days are forever gone) and they don’t unfriend or block me (although my feed could be hidden from their walls; I’ve certainly done that). I’ve revisited Kansas some in my work already–some short stories, a novel here and there–but this latest visit there in the world I created for #shedeservedit might be a bit unfair; but in a town where toxic masculinity has been allowed to run unchecked, I can’t imagine it would be a comfortable place for a gay teen.
And that’s enough for today. Hope you have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.