The first time Mary Martin flew across our 21-inch black and white Philco as Peter Pan on live TV, it was 1955. Precocious enough to see the wires holding her up, still the theatrical kindergarten me pretended they weren’t there at all. I believed Peter really could fly. What bothered me more was that Peter Pan was not a boy. Worse, he was a woman! I figured by the time I was twelve or so, I could do a much better job with the role myself. To begin with, I already was a boy.
Peter had instructed me, that in order to fly, all I needed to do was “just think wonderful, lovely thoughts and then uuuuup you go!”. Some of the loveliest thoughts rattling around my five-year-old brain were of bare-chested, (or lovelier still), naked men. But while not knowing why, I was afraid to think of those things even secretly. And when I did allow myself to acknowledge these indecent images, still I could not fly. Of course I would never be able to take flight I came to realize, because I’d forgotten Peter Pan first needed to sprinkle the fairy dust on you. Where would I ever find fairy dust, I spent weeks afterward wondering?
I’ve read the psychological studies on dominant mothers and passive fathers. For a time this seemed a plausible excuse for me being queer. My father worked most of his life as a tool and die maker. He wore either a dark green or navy work shirt and pants, and came home each night either covered in and/or reeking of grease and oil. Even after laundering, his uniforms still bore the scent of eau de machine shop. It was a fragrance I was certain I never wanted to carry about me. My mother was a licensed beautician, who during my early years, was semi-retired. Many of the customers from her old business continued to come to our basement to get their hair done. Although a far more interesting job, giving permanents and blue rinses to silver-haired old ladies hardly seemed any more fascinating a career path.
My preschool years were spent joined at the hip with Mom. If she was cleaning the living room, I was following behind with my own tiny dust rag. On laundry days, I dumped the hamper and sorted the dirty clothes. Once the towels and socks came off the clothes line, it was my task to fold them. When she made a pie for dessert, my tart-size version went into the oven once hers had baked. This was the one she and I would sample before older brother came home from school or Daddy made his smelly entrance after work. In this way, I was groomed to become the perfect housewife–a task I understood at five years old, that my mother abhorred. I feared her plans were to draft me as a possible stand-in. Although I truly enjoy cooking and baking, to this day household chores come just before DEATH on my bucket list.
By kindergarten I had grown so unnaturally close to my mother and our home, I had missed almost too many school days–48 according to my report card. Only because I was far ahead of most of my classmates, and nearly half a year older than many of them, did they promote me to first grade. In this same report card, Miss Pete, my kindergarten teacher, noted I had a lisp (a boy with three ‘S’s in his full name). She stated this would be carefully watched in the next few years, “although he may just outgrow it”. Can we all say SISSY? I couldn’t, at least not without sounding like the mini-poof I was.
Surveying my very vivid childhood and adolescent memory, never once did my father ever throw, toss, pitch, bounce or hurl any variety of ball in my direction. Only one time in his seventy-seven years did I ever see Dad participate in a game of sport, other than horse shoes. It was at a huge family July 4th picnic, where my uncles and older cousins coaxed him to come up to bat in their softball game. He swung at everything, and when he finally did somehow miraculously make contact with the ball, my Dad ran like a chubby pubescent girl in her mother’s high heels. Perhaps this is partly to blame for my first grade teacher’s comments for the fall grading period: “He enjoys the friendship of his classmates, however he needs to be encouraged to associate more with the boys in his class”.
Truth of the matter was, not only did I not know how to play boys games, I simply never wanted to join in any of their stupid antics. I was hoping to play doctor with them and check out what they had in their pants and how we compared equipment-wise. That was the sport I was looking to compete in. I was also bright enough to know one needed to be very cautious in this area, because it might become troublesome if I pursued the wrong boy. Here, in these initial years of elementary school, I had already learned the important lesson of how to hide the dark, secret life brewing inside. The confusing, sometimes frightening secret I neither had a name for, nor dreamed there even was a name for. Yet somehow I was sure there were grownups somewhere who had figured out a way to pull it off, and a place where those like me could go. It was nowhere in West Buttfok for sure, and I’d never seen any of those kinda guys with my own eyes.
Raised in a very Catholic family, in second grade I began Sunday catechism classes to prepare for my first communion. The nuns taught us all about sin–mortal and venial. They were overly concerned with impure thoughts to the point, I felt, of obsession. Impure thoughts were about all I had in the category of sins to confess as a second grader. That and disobeying my parents. I hadn’t taken up swearing yet. Swearing came in the fifth grade, along with stealing quarters from my mother’s purse, and smoking cigarettes by the railroad tracks, which is what the quarters were for. In 1961, a pack of Kent’s (with the Micronite filter) cost twenty-one cents at Marshall’s Drug Store. Smoking cigarettes was not technically a sin in and of itself. Smoking fell into the category of disobeying your parents, my Catholic buddy Johnny Stelmach pointed out to me while we puffed away, as freight trains whistled by us on the tracks. But I digress.
What if the priest asks me WHAT my impure thoughts are? Could he do that? Who could I go to for the answer to that question? Certainly not Sister Dorothy Ann. Of course she never had an impure thought, being a nun and all, with a rumored shaved skull and tightly bandaged chest. If our young priest, Father Leo questioned me, I could lie and say I was thinking about Marilyn Monroe’s or Sophia Loren’s breasts. Lying to a priest in the confessional had to be worse than a mortal sin. It had to be a special brand of mortal. But how could I ever tell Father Leo I sometimes wondered if his chest, under that black-collared shirt, was hairy?
So what was wrong with wanting to see his naked chest? Nothing. But WHY I would want to see Father Leo or any man for that matter, naked (something I spent hours sinning about in these days) was the real question. Without the term for my affliction, without knowing why it was there in the first place, I silently carried this sin on my soul and never once dared confess it. And luckily, in all my hours clocked in the confessional, no priest ever did ask just who those wonderfully impure thoughts were about.
But my gay sensibility didn’t begin here, or in kindergarten or while playing little housewife. It went back further than that–to the days of some of my earliest recollection. I knew how to print before kindergarten, and could read before I started first grade, so this was before that time–a time when people didn’t get their daily news from the television. My Dad religiously read the CLEVELAND PRESS from front to back every night after he got home from work. From his chair in our living room, he would call me up into his lap once he got to the comics. I would nestle back against him comfortably, as he read the daily comics aloud to me, my teeny finger following the letters in each word. My favorite by far was L’il Abner.
Now it wasn’t the story line that kept me interested. It made little sense, and the hillbilly dialogue Dad tried patiently to explain to me. The satire, of course, was totally lost on my three or four-year-old brain and perhaps my father’s as well. But that Abner–he was so tantalizingly attractive to me. At the same time I understood I should have been attracted to Daisy Mae. Abner was a boy and so in love with Daisy Mae. Abner was a boy and I was a boy, and boys married girls–not other boys. This was a basic truth quite clear to me, even at my tender age.
There was something about the tiny opening at the top of Abner’s shirt which showed-off just enough of his broad chest to intrigue me. Having no clue as to why, I understood this had to stay my little secret. I knew it was wrong to feel this way, even though I could not comprehend these sensations at the time, nor why I was feeling them. I was super-thrilled on those rare occasions when my paramour was shirtless, and I could easily ogle that big, hunky, hairless chest. It made me feel tingling all over and my insides sort of jumpy at the same time.
Selfishly I wish I could go back further, wondering if maybe there was something that set my libido to the gay mode–a big bang where my gayness got its start. I am here to tell you that nearly as long as I’ve been aware that I exist in the universe, I have known precisely who and what I am. Maybe the birth canal I pushed myself through was lined with fairy dust, and I became covered from head to toe with the stuff at the same moment I was born into this fabulous world.