Sometimes being gay means you fear for your life. It was not uncommon to hear ‘faggot’ screeched among a din of sniggering teens. The laughs were worse than the names. For reasons unknown to me as a 15 year old, the joy they got from my pain and shame was far more unsettling than the words could ever be. It was an all-too routine to be called a cocksucker on my way into Mrs. McNally’s Bio class. In fact it was indeed a routine. He waited for me every day to call me a faggot and a cocksucker. I didn’t know much about him. Just that he looked disgusted by my existence. He looked like maybe his family farmed some land in our small town. If not, he couldn’t be more than a generation removed. His background was unimportant to me, and mine was obviously of no consequence to him. He knew everything he needed to know, innately – just enough to have opinions about my worth, and to know that I would listen to them without retort. It was not a rarity to get unsolicited feedback from strangers.
Boys my age, or even much older, emboldened by something they saw in me, felt comfortable to stare into my eyes with disdain – to offer their observations without reservation. I was still playing chicken on monkey bars and jumping from swings at recess when I understood that it happened most when my defenses were low. When my guard was down. When I was having fun being myself. It was when my internal monologue was sleeping and I was just existing that they saw whatever it was they hated in me. There were bright spots, though. I had friends. Lots of friends. Thank god for those friends, because they made me feel seen as a person. Even if I only allowed them to see pieces.
The summer between high school and my first semester at the nearest community college to my childhood home was exciting. I thought often about the new person I would be. Unbothered by embarrassment or self hatred, I’d stop hiding – just stop pretending. If someone asked, I’d just tell’m. I would be cool and confident. Scenarios played out in my head like a coming-of-age movie. The ones where a moody goth knows just what to say and a jock just needs to hear the right combination of words to unlock his humanity. College wouldn’t be like high school or jr. high. The end of August came fast though. By the time I had driven from the place I was raised to the parking lot of our community’s little college, a new plan had emerged. I’d wait until my classes were figured out and I had made a few friends. That’d be easier. This was college after all. The people would be smarter, more enlightened adults. There would probably even other gay people, I thought.
‘Jack’ was a jovial, smiley type. In the absence of sharpness existed a charisma which seemed almost unintentional, but its benefit was clearly not lost on him. Disarming and well-muscled, I was relieved to have randomly sat next to him for our first day of class. We made easy conversation. I found myself wondering if I had, so easily, made a new friend. Maybe I had even met another gay person. That class met every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I had the weekend to ponder and obsess. I found myself walking more quickly to class for our second meeting on Monday afternoon. Was my fantasy of college really so accurate? Was it all easier for people like me after High School?
As we sat, I was ready to ask breezy questions, and provide weekend-themed anecdotes. He didn’t give me the chance though. Jack spoke first, with a quickness. As if he was just waiting to tell me about his weekend. I pretended I wasn’t nervous while he talked. Maybe it was my self-preoccupation, but it took a few seconds to really absorb what he was telling me.
“What’d you do this weekend?”, he asked. Without waiting for a response he started recounting a story that felt practiced. As if he had gone over it a few times with friends, maybe. “Me and my buddies headed downtown. You know what steelies are?”, he asked rhetorically. “We were bored Saturday, so we took our slingshots to Detroit.” I nodded to keep things rolling. “You know fags got clubs downtown? There’re fagots just holding hands n shit outside.” He giggled a little while remembering some little piece of what he had done a couple days earlier. “Dude! I hit one in the head. He went down hard. It was hilarious.”
I can’t quite remember what he said after that. All I could hear was my heart thrumming in my ears. Suddenly my face was hot. I could feel a quiver in my chest, and I was sure he could see it. Such a beautiful smile. So disarming and charming. My thoughts were spinning out of control. As I sat with my back against a cinderblock wall and a smiling monster twice my size between the door and me, I wondered why he was telling me this story. Was he onto me? Could he see that intangible thing in me that was so evident to those boys in high school? Was he letting me know that he knew…something? Did he see me walk to my car last week? Did I tell him where I lived? Did the gay man whose head he fired a steel projectile into last week survive? Can I tell someone? If I do, will he know it was me who told? Why did I STILL want him to like me? I even wondered if by telling someone it would lead to some line of questioning that would conclude with me getting outed. I don’t remember the rest of that class, or the walk to my car or the ride home. I do remember a distinct, deep sense of fear and shame. While standing at the registrar’s window to drop that class the following day I so badly wanted to tell them what he said. I wanted to stand up tall and use that backbone I thought I’d developed the summer before college. The words just never made it further than the back of my teeth. Did my earliest experiences with homophobic hate prime me to hide? Was I conditioned to wrap myself in a blanket of others’ judgments?
It was several years before I told anyone what the jovial, charming, muscly guy with the easy smile had done. It was several years before I rebuilt the courage it takes to entrust one’s family and friends with every piece of oneself. I feel shame, still, for never having told the police; for not standing for myself; for not defending my community.