Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone.
——-Billy Joel, “The Stranger”
Being a gay kid growing up in the 1970’s was a time of impossible love and isolation. I will never forget the first guy I fell in love with and the girls I dated to hide the hideous secret that kept me imprisoned behind a self-imposed mask.
For me, the 70’s wasn’t a groovy Austin Powers fantasy. It was Ohio suburban tract homes in nuclear-fission-divorced families. There were two Christmases every year. All the houses in the neighborhood had one of three floor plans, and one of three kinds of families living inside. We walked to school or the store by ourselves. We played in the street until dark and went trick-or-treating long after. The Carpenters and the Captain and Tennille were on our radios and TVs.
It was a very different, and magical, time. Like all kids, we believed it would never end. We didn’t know that there were other stories being told behind the closed doors and drapes of the houses along the street. Maybe we should have; I am glad I didn’t.
Yes, it was a magical time—and magic has two sides.
Both of my families were dysfunctional. My father had a sharp wit that he used to cut other people down, thinking it made him look better. Family was his favorite target.
My step-father was a cruel and mercurial man. You could never know what would cause him to explode into violence. More than once, I was beaten with a belt until I was badly bruised. He would also punish my brother and I by making us stand, facing a wall, for hours.
Even with two families, two houses, I never felt like I had a home: a place I belonged.
In addition to the dark side of my family lives was the fact that I was keeping a secret. Looking back, I see that most everyone suspected me of being something ‘other.’
The secret I was keeping was something so taboo that no one spoke of it, except children with their own cruel honesty. The called me ‘queer,’ ‘faggot’ or ‘fag,’ or ‘sissy.’ At first, I didn’t know what those words meant, only that they meant something bad.
By the 4th Grade, I knew the meaning behind those words, and I also knew they were right. Those hateful words filled me with dread and self-loathing. Sure everyone knew Paul Lynde and Liberace were different somehow, and no one spoke of it.(It would be years before Will & Grace brought ‘gay’ out of the closet and into living rooms everywhere.)
To survive, I did what so many other gay people did—I created a facade. I became ‘the weird kid.’ It wasn’t that hard, I had never really fit in: I never wanted the usual things from the people and situations around me. I never learned to say the right or safe things. I laughed at the wrong things or too loudly, and everything was funny.
This act managed to get me through to the 10th Grade, the start of High School. I’d been bullied and laughed at, I had never been part of the ‘popular crowd,’ and was left pretty much alone. I had a few friends, mostly fellow outcasts, and if they suspected I was gay, they never said anything. I had survived.
High School would change all that. Part of surviving High School is dating. Girls.
There were three girls, young women, I dated in High School. The girl I took to the Prom was someone I liked, and we had nothing in common. The friendship survived the awkward attempt, mainly because we had classes together, but it wasn’t anything that could survive graduation.
The first girl I dated, we’ll call her Sarah, started as an acquaintance’s girlfriend. They broke up, and I was the shoulder she chose to cry on. She was overweight, had low self-esteem and yet could be an honestly fun person once you got past her issues and defenses. We dated off and on for two years; breaking up, getting back together, who knows why. We remained close for many years, then lost touch.
The third girl we’ll call Toni (the prom date was in-between the two), was a couple grades behind me. Again, she was the girlfriend-of-a-friend when we met and we ended up spending more time together, then just started dating. Toni was a pretty girl from a strict family, and her parents weren’t too thrilled with me. I would go back to the school——-even though I’d graduated——-to have lunch with with her and some of my other friends. We discovered many of our favorite authors and bands together, sneaked out to movies (even a midnight show of ‘Rocky Horror’), and just had a lot of fun.
Sure, I kissed and snuggled and did the usual date stuff, but never had sex with any of them. There were back rubs and tickling, long walks and conversations; all of it. I loved them (Sarah and Toni) both, and I never thought that was particularly odd. Those two knew me better than anyone else in my life. They got to see some of what was behind the facade, but not all. That would come later.
At the same time, I found myself drawn to a male classmate. He was handsome, popular and just about everything I wasn’t and wished I could be. Let’s call him Peter. I maneuvered my way into his very extended circle, and he let me. He was oddly accepting of this strange little barnacle that had attached itself to his cruise ship. And he was oh-so straight. I mean girlfriend of the week straight.
Even writing about it now, I still can’t relive that relationship without hyperbole. Peter was the first I-wish-I-could-tell-him straight guy love of my life. He was the first guy my own age who made me feel like I was okay, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for that.
Was I in love with him? Absolutely.
Did he know? It’s possible, I have no way of knowing. I’m back in touch with him now, after years with no contact. It’s the same extended circle thing: he’s married, children, happy. We chat online.
A few years after graduation I did some moving around and discovered the gay life in Florida. I did a tour in the Navy and saw some of the world. Somewhere in there I came out to my family and friends. I don’t think they were particularly surprised.
By this time it’s the 80’s; the “Me” decade is in full swing. I’m in San Diego after leaving the Navy, and my life becomes an uninspiring movie montage: drugs, alcohol and bathhouses, bad relationships, true homelessness. I still have the mask and I tell myself I’m in control of the act, never realizing just how wrong I am.
Coming out didn’t make the unworthy, wounded and confused person behind the mask whole. That would take many years and moves from city to city, a few romances and some amazing friends (including Toni), a great relationship, and losing that love to a lingering and painful disease.
To be honest, I’m still dealing with that kid who grew up in the 70’s with a terrible secret. Part of me, even with all the amazing progress in gay rights and acceptance, is still that kid, looking at the world from the outside; the messed-up kid who doesn’t believe that, for him, there is anything like home.
And there is another ‘me’ who can look back at the amazing life he’s lived and survived, who holds that weird kid in his arms and tells him stories of magic——-the light and the dark——-and tells that broken child that it will all be alright.