The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Gay in a Wordless World

I was gay before you could say “gay.” In fact, I was gay before anyone said “gay,” as far as I knew at the time. One advantage of age-induced hindsight is you have data those younger than you don’t have.

Author age 10.

The generation of Republicans who are pushing all these regulations and laws to restrict access to information — and in many cases laws just intended to harass kids, especially trans kid — don’t have these memories. One is they are too young, another is most of them aren’t gay and those who are gay are too closeted and terrified to admit it.

I knew I was gay early, I just didn’t know precisely what it was I knew. I know my age then because this took place at a home my parents rented in Chicago before moving to the suburbs; and the suburban house was built when I was almost four years old, so this would be shortly before that. We moved in as soon as the house was finished.

Kids were allowed to play outside without panicky parents watching horrified. There was yard between our Chicago house and the neighbors and somewhere in the grass I had lost a small toy truck. I was distraught and desperately searching for it.

That’s when HE stepped into the sunlight. I remember the sun behind him and I looked up at him. I know he was in his teens but to a three-year-old that was a full-grown adult. The sun produced a halo-like effect, which only drew my attention more. In his outstretched hand was my truck. He had seen it in the grass and retrieved it for me.

I was completely smitten. For someone as young as I was he came across almost like a mythical god. It was the first such flirtation with an attraction to which I didn’t give much thought. Of course at three I had no idea what it was, nor did I know anyone would have problems with it. I just knew I thought he was wonderful and could look at him all day.

We moved to the new house but the attractions didn’t disappear. My grandmother, who still lived in the old neighborhood, had a neighbor who had a son who was either in his late teens or early twenties — I can’t say which. His name was Mickey and he pulled off the James Dean look, which was popular at the time — tight jeans and a tighter white t-shirt. I loved just looking at him but if you asked me why I couldn’t tell you — I just did.

Mickey would go with on the boat when my father and grandfather went fishing. I hated the sport but when Mickey was along it was bearable. I would just sit quietly watching him.

All this time I had no idea what was going on. I certainly didn’t see it as sexual; I didn’t see anything as sexual. I don’t think I even knew what sex was about. Mine was just a deep attraction, which is pretty much how kids have always started seeing the facts of life. During these early grade school years all I knew was I liked boys.

All the boys in my neighborhood were good kids and I had a whole gang of friends. There was no bullying that I remember and no real name-calling. Friends from grade school tell me they don’t remember any bullies either. So, I didn’t hear anything derogatory about being gay at all — not even the insults that are often cruelly thrown about on school playgrounds. Neither did I hear a word of support. I had no words for my feelings and no judgement on them — either one of damnation or approval.

This changed when I was 11 and watched my father, 37, die of a heart attack. I snuck back into my bedroom and peaked through the curtains to watch the ambulance take him away, his face covered — and I knew what that meant.

My mother decided to deal with raising four boys by sending the two oldest of four — I was the oldest — to a boarding school founded in 1887 by President Lincoln’s son. In spite of the school’s rhetoric it was a cruel place and bullies abounded — both other boys and staff members. The next few years were hell and I spent a lot of time fearing pain would be inflicted on me. The school actually created a system of social control encouraging older boys to bully younger ones, including with violence. The violence they inflicted was far less painful than the discipline from staff — people whose first resort was the paddle.

In this atmosphere of violence and bullying I heard words of hate for the first time, words that seemed to imply liking other boys was something horrible and if you did this you were some sort of monster yourself.

I started to get an inkling I was someone deficient and unworthy of life itself. If other boys found out I would be assaulted and I knew that could mean physically or sexually. I was just coming to understand sexuality but getting honest answers was still almost impossible.

Science class once showed a film that spoke of sperm meeting an egg and fertilizing it. After it was over I asked the science teacher how a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg got together. The film never said, and neither would he. “You know,” he replied. I insisted I didn’t know but all he’d say was “Yes, you do, you know.”

This sent me to a place of refuge for me — books. I had questions no one would answer, but books would. Then teachers wouldn’t just “not say gay,” they wouldn’t say anything having to do with sex, which left me wondering. I got in trouble once for asking a housemother, as I read the newspaper, what was the difference between a Protestant and a prostitute — after all they are spelled so similarly. She thought I was being cheeky, I was just unsure what prostitute meant.

As I started reading I finally got some answers and understood heterosexual sex. But it didn’t apply to me. And I had a growing sense I was the only individual on the planet so malformed as to find other boys attractive.

For me the planet was a vast empty wilderness and I stood there looking for a friendly face, but finding none anywhere. There was this massive world where men and women related to one another and off on the side, watching it entirely in isolation I stood observing. There were nights I cried thinking this meant I was doomed to be alone my entire life.

There were also the insults the bullies threw around, always demeaning to gays. I was unclear about what they precisely meant. I started looking up words in the dictionary to try to figure out what everyone was talking about, but which no one would explain to me.

As I read one definition after another each word would use other words I had to look up to comprehend. Eventually I came to the world “homosexual.” When I read the definition at age 12 it was honestly the first time I ever heard it.

I probably read it several times to be sure I was reading it correctly. It likely had some insulting language in the definition at the time but I understood the gist of it. A homosexual was someone attracted to others of the same gender. That was me! For the first time I had a word for who I was.

Far more importantly, it meant for the first time in my young life, that I realized I was not alone. I couldn’t be. If I were the only one there wouldn’t be a definition in the dictionary. There were no gay characters that were acknowledged in any of the popular culture I was allowed to see. There were, perhaps, vague references, which I’d later realize, but nothing obvious to me. I didn’t even know that day when I saw the deity in the sun at age 3 that the feelings I had were criminal in every American state. I was 7 when the first state legalized being gay and 49 before it was legal in the entire country.

I was alone for so many years, feeling isolated from the heterosexual world around me, never imagining there was anything else. I survived the world where you couldn’t say gay, even though I was gay. But remember, those who didn’t survive aren’t here to write their stories.

I lived in a world where I thirsted for knowledge and adults conspired to keep it from me. They wanted me to live in some idyllic darkness but it didn’t help me, it hurt. It isolated me. It made me fearful and put me to sleep with tears in my eyes. They wouldn’t say “gay” and I was the one hurt by it.

Now, in spite of the hateful campaigns to hide books and abolish words, I don’t think the New Inquisitors will ever successfully wipe out the information that LGBT kids yearn to know. These campaigners are the bullies we all grew up with, it’s just now they have political power. In the tradition of all bullies they are making life a living hell for so many kids. Sadly some won’t survive their crusade.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.