Was It Abuse, or Wasn’t It?
After my father’s year-long sabbatical in the UK, my family went back to Columbus, Ohio. I started in at Dominion Junior High’s seventh grade in the fall of 1969. It felt like a step backward. The school work felt too easy. There was some new interest in the kids my age. I was a late developer. One or two of the boys, however, were beginning to grow bigger bodies and hairy pubic patches. You could see this in the locker room during required gym classes where we were also forced to strip for gang showers. I was fascinated, but it also felt like a humiliation. I had to remind myself not to stare, or else be labelled “a fag.” In fact, most of the boys were curious about nakedness, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. They called the other boys fags, with little or no provocation. It was almost as common as “hi” or “hello.”
A fag was also the worst thing you could possibly be, a snowball studded with rocks that could hit you in the back with little or no warning. I now think many boys said “fag” to each other in the same aggressive way they’d slug each other. It certainly wasn’t always, but it could be a compliment (“I see you”) wrapped up in an insult.
The difference was that I was beginning to think that my covert interest in other boys actually did make me a fag. I didn’t have the subtlety to see how widely it was being used on other boys besides me. I also made the mistake of pronouncing a French word correctly in some class and gained the extra nickname of “Frenchy,” which in central Ohio was almost as bad. It was certainly aligned with being thought gay.
It’s hard to know when you’re twelve going on thirteen what’s okay and what’s not. I’d never been interested in watching sports on TV or playing basketball, as my younger brother was. His was the only boyhood masculinity other than my own that I’d had the chance to observe. I was interested in the dolls that belonged to my friends who were girls, movies about divorce, and paperback biographies of Mary Queen of Scots.
My father was interested in tickling us both. This had begun two or three years previously, but I seemed to attract his attention more now that I was on the edge of puberty. Or, perhaps, I just hated it more as I felt my body about to go through that change. There was a television in the room where he kept his books. He’d often tickle us in there as we watched TV after supper. I probably began by liking his attention, but he also tickled me against my will. He was stronger than me and I couldn’t escape. He’d also squeeze my knuckle or pinch my finger until it felt as if it might break. I’d often get up after he let me go and hide in my room, feeling humiliated at what he’d done to me. I don’t think my brother experienced these tickles in the same way. If you asked him today, he’d tell you it was just rough-housing.
But it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like an invasion of my privacy. It felt like he was making free with my body in a way that I didn’t want. It felt like he wanted to hurt me. He became impersonal when he was doing it and not paternal. I knew that my mother strongly disapproved. She was the only one who could get him to stop. I’ve never seen her face look more dark or damning than when she’d come in the room and tell him to stop.
I also wonder whether the fact that I was a more gender-unconventional child attacted his attention. My brother was a straight boy with a strong streak of sports-oriented masculinity. I was more feminine and the fact that I was gay might’ve been legible from about age 7. I wanted to be a witch at Halloween and wear a black dress. My parents allowed this without comment and I felt no disapproval for the way I was until later.
I’ve often wondered too whether my father wasn’t gay or bisexual himself. He loved my mother, but at a later stage in his life he also confessed a romance with a guy pal when he was growing up in the country as a teenager. He told this to my brother and me after my mother died as if it were something terrible he needed to get off his chest. Perhaps he was self-conscious about his profession as an expert on poetry and literature, not exactly a manly profession in the gender-conventional Midwest of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, or indeed of the mining and farming communities where he’d grown up in the thirties and forties.
He had what looked like crushes on some of his male students and on one of my male cousins. He was furious when he discovered me once dressed up in a skirt and playing with the neighbor’s dolls. He policed effeminacy. He told me that I shouldn’t wear knee socks because they were effeminate. He was suspicious when I put on a long cape, having seen the wedding scene in the movie Camelot. He suspected me of wanting to be Guinevere rather than Arthur. My mother told him to leave me alone.
He did back off as puberty started, as I grew hair, and discovered ways of avoiding him. But I have never forgiven him for those tickles. They felt like forcible sex to me. I hated him for that. Sixty years later, when he grew much older and weaker and needed my increased attention, I had to make an effort to choke back those childhood memories in order to be kind to him.
I was never naked during the boyhood tickling. He never touched my genitals. But his hands on my body, his manipulation of me so that I sometimes couldn’t stop laughing and sometimes had to fight back tears from pain and embarrassment, felt like a violation. They felt like rape. I know of those who went through much worse than what I went through. It was not how you should bring up a little boy, however. It’s not the way to make him proud of himself, of who he is, and of his body.
Here’s the difficulty I have with those memories now. If I suffered at his hands, I also prospered in school because I was growing up in a house where correct English was spoken, where books were respected, and where conversation at the dinner table was expected. Teachers in both junior high and high school paid attention to me. One English teacher noticed my liking for English queens. My interest in Queen Elizabeth II grew out of Guinevere and Mary Queen of Scots. She saved articles out of her women’s magazines for me. She seemed to look whatever effeminacy I had straight in the face and treat it as normal. Bless her.
At the same time I began to be intensely interested in boys at school. I fantasized about three of them whom I saw in classes and in the locker room. There was a wrestler. There was a shy, all-round athlete who managed to do well in every sport he tried. There was a prototypical student council president, tall, smiling, and nice to everyone. I seldom talked to these guys unless they talked to me, which most of the time they didn’t. But I had sightings of them getting changed for gym. I’d seen all three of them in their underpants. I admired their lithe sense of comfort in their own bodies. I also cut out photos of men in underwear from magazine advertisements. I kept a folder of these cuttings in my closet.
I also won a major writing award, which had no financial benefit, but which attracted the interest of several colleges and universities. I was invited to apply to an essay contest at the University of Chicago. We had to write several pages on a photograph that moved us. I wrote on a black and white press photograph of three women mourning the death of King George VI in 1952. It was a picture of the current queen, her mother and grandmother, all wearing see-through black veils and looking lost in a London train station.
I didn’t win the essay prize, but I did go to the University of Chicago. It was there that serious academics began to notice and encourage my interest in the monarchy. It was there that I had my first boyfriend. It was there that I reclaimed some of the freedom and independence in a major city that I’d lost when we returned from London. It was there that whatever injuries I’d sustained in boyhood began to be repaired by men and women whom I respected and grew to love. It was there that my writing was praised in such a way that it overcame some of my uncertainties about childhood and about being gay. It’s in large part because of what happened there, between the ages of 18 and 22, that I was thrust in the direction of writing as the thing I could do that made me feel good about myself.