I attended my high school class 50-Year-Reunion last weekend. It was a two-night event. Since I am quite open about my sexual orientation, several people asked me on the first night if I had known I was gay in school. I said I had, but did not fully understand it; it was a confusing time, I explained, since there were no supportive messages, positive media coverage, or visible non-stereotypical gay or lesbian people in the 1960s. Their follow-up question usually was “How did you deal with it?” or “Was it difficult?” I answered as best I could in the noisy, chaotic reunion environment. But I did not go into it deeply because, frankly, I had forgotten some key details.
I bring this up because at the end of the first night, I found myself in a parking-lot conversation with two guys I had not been particularly close to in high school, but who I have gotten to know better through our reunions. They began reminiscing about their group of friends and a series of events with which they were involved and I immediately remembered the missing details. Their stories triggered painful memories which I realized I had mislabeled and misinterpreted for 53 years because of those forgotten, or buried in my sub-conscious, details.
While my high school years were essentially positive, happy, and memorable, and, as a result, I look upon those years with joy and fondness, one memory shrouds all the others in darkness. During my sophomore year, a group of boys, many of whom were athletes, began going out on weekends and raising hell. This group included the two from the parking lot chat. It would have been bad enough to my rule-respecting 15-year-old self if they had just illegally drank beer on Magnolia Beach. But they weren’t content reveling in their self-contained beachside partying. They also ventured to our local hamburger stand, Dag’s, where they created mayhem and generally acted in a less than admirable manner. For many of us who were not part of their crowd, this made visiting Dag’s uncomfortable and awkward.
What I had conveniently forgotten was these boys also boldly sought out boys from other schools, intentionally got into fights with them, vandalized their cars and other property, and created chaos at restaurants and other businesses where their victims hung out. If caught, they generally received “boys-will-be-boys” slap-on-the-hand punishments from police or school administrators. I, focusing on their athleticism, labeled them “jocks.” I should have focused on their behavior and identified them by what they were, hooligans and bullies.
At the same time they were acting like ruffians, I was exploring my homosexuality. I wasn’t alone. I knew that. A few classmate friends were doing the same thing. And while each of us processed the situation differently, we all did understand to a degree what the others were feeling, thinking, and doing. But when one of these friends seemingly distanced himself from me, and became friendly with some of the “jocks,” the two worlds came together. Or so I feared. I assumed and worried that he would casually, carelessly use the sensitive information he had on me and put me at risk. I theorized if one of those boys found out I was attracted to guys, all of them soon would know and they would act on it. Because these boys got drunk, got into fights, and terrorized perceived weaker “others,” I, as a non-athletic, non-drinking, goody-two-shoes “queer,” was certainly destined to get the shit beaten out of me. I lived for three years waiting for that to happen, for the other shoe to drop. I lived in a secret world of fear, anxiety, and distrust. And it was misdirected at “jocks,” not hooligans.
Contributing to this potentially explosive situation, was my desire to be involved in class activities. I made myself one of the more visible guys in the class, being active in student government, editing the school newspaper, and, wearing a target on my back as a yell leader. If the other shoe was going to drop, I certainly made it easy for it to find its target.
It would have been enough had the trouble-makers operated in a world separate from the rest of the class. But from their loose formation during our sophomore year, I was aware that many other athletic boys, the real jocks, the decent, mature, responsible teammates of the hooligans, socialized and laughed with them in the school’s halls. I thought they were condoning, supporting their bad behavior, and, to me, it was a form of compliance. But, in hindsight, I realize they were probably demonstrating that sense of “family” teammates have. I, having not been on a team up to that time, did not understand that type of friendship. They may also have been practicing loyalty to long-established childhood schoolmates. Nevertheless, I had to add the decent jocks to my list of classmates to fear and distrust in case word of my involvement in what Oscar Wilde described as “the love that dare not speak its name“ reached their ears.
To make it worse, many girls, popular girls, cute girls, smart girls, nice girls seemed to gravitate toward the “bad boys,” often becoming their girlfriends. It was the classic good-but-rebellious teenage girl’s attraction to “bad boys;” it was an inborn maternal challenge to help the rough-edged boy find the sweet guy inside, and to bring him out of that closet.
For me, however, this created three potential groups who could discover what I was feeling, thinking, and doing: the hooligans; the friendly, seemingly accepting teammates; and the girlfriends. To protect myself, to assure survival, I needed to avoid these three groups, or at least deal with them from a safe distance, and watch them as if my life depended on it, which, in my mind, it did. Some of my classmates might say, “Oh, Tom, you weren’t distant at all. If anything you were involved, friendly and fun.” And I was. But only with those I chose, only those I perceived as safe. Classmates would be surprised at the number of social leaders, popular kids, in our class with whom I had virtually no relationship. I couldn’t take the risk. As a result, my close friends came from other groups, the peripheral people as I later called them. As active as I was in high school, I never considered myself part of the inner core, “in-crowd” or “popular.”
You might ask if I ever was exposed or victimized from members of the three groups from which I distanced myself. Well, no. Not exactly. I don’t know if they were involved; I don’t know who was involved. But I did have one puzzling, upsetting, threatening experience as a yell leader. At the end of halftime of a football game, I returned to the platform where we performed and lifted up my megaphone. A note had been taped inside it. It read something like, “We know what you are.” or “We know what you do.” I looked at it, realized all my fears might be coming true, and knew I was being observed. In what has got to be the best un-Oscared performance ever, I made a face that told whoever was watching that I had no idea what that note meant nor was I worried or scared. I peeled the paper out of my megaphone, wadded it up, dropped it at my feet, and outwardly ignored it for the rest of the game. I have never found out who wrote that cryptic note or what that person’s motive was. Oh, I can speculate someone had peeked behind my mask and knew my secret. But I can’t assume it was any of the likely suspects. There was no follow-up.
Other than that incident, I never was “outed,” threatened, or beaten up for being gay by anyone, including the “bad boys.” During our senior year, however, I was confronted by three of them for trying to grow my hair out like The Beatles. I was told in no uncertain terms to get my hair cut. To my relief, I was not called a faggot, queer, or cocksucker.
Therefore, many years later, I realized that my high school anxiety was essentially self-induced. It was as much paranoia as it was fear and distrust. In 1967, The Buffalo Springfield sang, “Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid.” For what it’s worth, they were right. I was more afraid of being exposed than I needed to be.
I know many of my gay peers have gone through similar high school experiences. And we survived. But, sadly, even today in a much more evolved America, many young gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender teenagers do not survive high school bullies. While threats against them are real and mine only imagined, I feel pain every time I learn of a beating or a suicide in the LGBT teen community and I realize how lucky I was.
I also am well aware that gay teens are not the only ones to have had painful experiences in high school. Everyone had them. I know, too, that I am not the only one to have had secrets in school. In fact, in recent months, several of my classmates have shared their surprising, painful, enlightening stories with me. They inspired me to detail mine.
Fifty years after high school, as I contemplate my parking lot conversation with those two former “bad boys,” I realize that I, like many other non-athletic high school boys who grew into gay men, had often repeated that I “hated” the jocks in high school. But, in my case, it really was a mislabeling, a misinterpretation, and a misunderstanding. I didn’t hate the jocks; in fact I had friends among the decent, mature, intelligent ones. And they were the majority of the schools athletes. It was the roughnecks, the thugs I hated. And it wasn’t hate at all. It was fear and paranoia. I feared those hooligans and what they might do if . . .
Sometimes hindsight is 50/20.
I rarely had a class with any of the “bad boys,” but I have often wondered if I had befriended one of them and been invited to Magnolia Beach, Dag’s, or on a midnight mission into enemy territory, would I have gone. Probably not. I also have frequently thought about which one or ones, in their horny, drunken vulnerability, would have let me seduce them if I had befriended them, or, more interestingly, which ones would have attempted to seduce me.