It’s taken six decades to accomplish, but in that time, I have been called: fag, faggot, fairy, fruit, homo, nellie, pansy, and queer. But by far, the most painful pejorative of them all has to be sissy and it was the very first I remember ever having been called at a very tender age. It was my older brother who often called me sissy boy whenever he was forced to have to include me in his play, or look after me while my mother had to do something that required her full attention. Being seven years younger, I was always a burden to him, something he was forced to put up with and he made it quite clear that it was with great detestation that he had to recognize my existence in his world at all. I didn’t expect him to like me, just not demean me by name calling. But that he did and with great gusto and he knew just how to zero in and make it hurt deeply. It was bad enough to have the cruel world of West Buttfok, Ohio hurl abusive epithets, but when it came from your own flesh and blood it was almost too much for me to bear. I even heard sissy from my father and mother, discussing me when they thought I couldn’t hear. And it all started very early in my life.
My mother saved most of my elementary school report cards, along with my childhood photos. I especially enjoy the one from Kindergarten. Miss Pete was my teacher, and we were evaluated at four separate times in the school year. Each of the evaluations was a typed paragraph which summed up our progress throughout the school year. In the first, she detects “a slight lisp which might be outgrown” It wasn’t. I had speech therapy in the third grade for a sibilant “s” (how appropriate for a gay-to-be). But more concerning “he does not seem to join in the play with the other boys in his class” and she was right. I naturally chose to hang out with the girls because they were a lot more well-behaved and played wonderful make-believe games while all the boys wanted to do was build forts with the huge wooden blocks, then proceed to knock them down and rough-house. What kind of fun is that? She comments in the following two paragraphs that “he enjoys story time” and that “he is a perfect gentlemen”. In the final paragraph she is “happy to report that he now enjoys the company of both his boy and girl classmates” which I think was actually bullshit, because I didn’t like them anymore than I did the first day and I had always identified more as one of the Kindergarten girls.
Elementary school got much better, and so did the boys. I enjoyed being one of the top students and each year, one of the teachers’ favorites and popular in the class as well. I always had one boy “best friend” each year; I guess I have always been a monogamous kind of guy. But none that I could play doctor with until fifth grade and that was a kid named Jim, who must have been held back twice, because he was already a few years older than me. To clarify, we didn’t play doctor in the classic sense (we were far too old for that-especially him) but he did teach me about masturbation, and demonstrated his technique for me and a few others in our class after school in his garage on several different occasions. I found it fascinating and couldn’t wait until it was physically possible for me to accomplish.
Then came junior high. It was a disastrous period for me. The whole socialization process had changed and it became boys against girls, yet at the same time our foes were also supposed to be our focus of sexual interest. It was all too confusing for me, perhaps because I was getting very different signals about who I was really attracted to in the first place. The only positive thing that came out of seventh and eighth grade was the locker room before and after Phys Ed class; I absolutely hated gym and anything connected with sports, but did I love getting naked with all those boy-men! Unfortunately, I had to endure all the awfulness of what junior high was daily, weekly, for only a few minutes of nakedness with about forty guys three times a week. Similarly, I had to brave a ton of name calling throughout each week as well. Junior high is where I learned, quite surprisingly, (and when it was far too late), that if you wore green on Thursdays you were a “fairy”. Up until this point, the only fairies I knew about were Tinkerbell and friends. Imagine my chagrin that first Thursday I chose to wear an outfit of olive corduroys and multi-shaded green sweater, that I would, for the balance of my West Buttfokian education, be forever branded “fairy” by some of my fellow students.
I need to interject here, that at this time I was thirteen, just under five feet tall and weighed not yet one hundred pounds. In other words, a typical skinny, scrawny geek who would later that year be fitted with eyeglasses. Early on in the school year I made friends in study hall with a heavy-set girl named Connie. She wasn’t very pretty, over-teased and peroxided her hair and dressed like trailer-trash, but she had a filthy mouth and got into trouble a lot and for some reason this appealed to me. Maybe I felt she was “safe” because I knew she’d never expect to have a boyfriend , or maybe I was just attracted to her bad-girl image. She danced incredibly well and loved music and always had cigarettes for us to smoke. We walked home from school together, often with some of her friends. She wasn’t popular among the regular girls, but maintained her own pack of cohorts by shoplifting items according to their requests. It was limited only to what she could steal from a local store similar to K-Mart. This was totally out of my comprehension; I never knew anyone like this before. Finally, after several weeks of hanging out after school, I asked her if she could “crook me” a 45 of YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE . Sure enough, a few days later she slipped it into my notebook as she entered study hall. I was amazed. But no good deed goes unpunished, and I was going to pay big time for Connie’s gift.
Shortly after the delivery of my hot 45, I began receiving a series of anonymous phone calls. They were from a guy, who referred to me alternately as either sissy-boy or queer-boy. He said I didn’t know him, but he knew me and he was going to beat me up one day after school. I asked him why he would want to beat me up if I didn’t even know him, and how could he know me and I not know him. That wasn’t important, he would quasi-explain, the only important thing was he was going to be waiting for me at my corner bus stop soon and “would beat the shit out of my queer face”. It was amazing how he was able to fill each of his short sentences with those stinging words sissy or queer. I always received these calls soon after coming in the door from school and he would make two or three brief, threatening calls each week. I was scared to death. I had, up to this point, avoided physical confrontation of any kind. I knew I would never be able to defend myself from even an elementary school kid. I now was the sissy-boy he accused me of being because all the years of name calling had instilled it in me.Who was this person, and why was he so angry with me? The only one I could speak to about it was Connie, because she was always threatening to beat everybody up, so certainly she would understand. I figured as a last resort, maybe she would help me beat him up. I know I would have been afraid of her in a fight because she was one tough broad. With each phone call and every passing week, I grew more and more paranoid. I developed eagle eyes whenever walking, especially to or from school. I was leery of any strange guys I saw anywhere, any time of day. This was crazy. I was being stalked long before I knew the word existed.
After nearly a month of these calls, my anonymous caller made a slip-up. As I attempted to reason with this insane teen terrorist, I asked him what school he went to. He had admitted earlier he didn’t go to West B. He gave me the name of a high school in the next town over. I knew no one there, but I remembered instantly that Connie had a cousin she often spoke about in that school who she was very close to. I paused, took a deep breath, and said “so then you must be Connie’s cousin”. There was silence on the line. Then he shot back with something to the effect of yeah but it didn’t matter because he was still gonna’ kick my queer ass. I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but knowing that he wasn’t totally anonymous anymore gave me a tiny morsel of courage, so I turned the tables on him. “OK, so when are we going to get this thing over with? When do you want to meet? Tomorrow?” Another longer pause. “I’m busy tomorrow”, he says. “Maybe next week. Don’t worry sissy boy, I’m still gonna’ get you”. He hung up.
The next day I didn’t even wait for study hall. I met Connie outside her homeroom. I told her we had to talk before study hall. We arranged to get hall passes at the same time from our first period classes. She knew what was up, because I’m sure her cousin must have called her after he hung up with me. I asked her point-blank why he was harassing me and the only answer she gave was a shrug of her shoulders and “he’s just a crazy asshole”. I never did find out why this guy started calling me. Maybe she needed to intimidate me and couldn’t do it face to face so he was her surrogate. Or maybe he was jealous of Connie’s and my relationship (whatever the hell that was) and wanted me to leave her alone. I only know that he never called again. And Connie and I were civil to each other but never buddies again.
But it didn’t matter that his phone calls stopped. The ordeal made me so frightened, so unsure of myself and so afraid of even my own shadow, that I was haunted by the thought that sissy-boy-me would forever be taunted and jeered at and threatened with physical harm for the rest of my days. And for many, many years afterwards I was. Anywhere I walked, any time of the day or night, I lived in constant fear of being beaten up for being queer-just being me. If I saw a teenage guy coming my way, I hurriedly crossed to the opposite of the street. If, God forbid, a group of older boys was walking in my direction I would duck into the first open door or safe place and wait until they passed before continuing on my way. Even in my twenties, and my first few years living in Manhattan, I was intimidated by the mere sight of teenage boys, certain they would beat me up because I had “sissy” tattooed in invisible ink across my forehead. It literally took years to get over my phobia. It’s been uncomfortable for me just to write this paragraph nearly fifty years later.
Did any good come out of this? We always want to feel that overcoming obstacles in life makes us better people. It usually does. It toughened me up, certainly. Did I learn anything from it? Yes, that it was really difficult growing up gay back in the old days. And today with television shows like GLEE, and all the “out” pop icons, and Gay/Straight Alliances in high schools, and Pride Parades in cities all over this world, it’s still really difficult growing up gay.