Friday, January 26, 2007

1981: Working Class Gay

It was 1981. I was fourteen years old, gay and struggling to find my niche in the working class suburbs of Boston. Despite the waning of disco, I still liked Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand. Why was it that what I liked was always different from everyone else. Regardless, I would sit in my room listening to 'Last Dance' and 'MacArthur Park', from the 'On the Radio' LP, over and over all the while bantering about thoughts of playing in the hay of some Hazard County barn with the Duke Boys. While the kids at school were fawning over Pink Floyd, I was secretly infatuated with Bette Midler from 'The Rose' and discovering her older albums like 'Live At Last' and 'The Divine Miss M.' The pot smoking roughnecks that I sometimes frequented with behind the bleachers would never be caught listening to 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' or 'Enough is Enough.' Midler, Streisand and Summer were my secret friends masking a much deeper suppression, a love for men.

As I did most school days, depressed and lost in thought, I walked the two mile trek to junior high. I watched a rusted Ford Falcon drive by with a sticker of Mickey Mouse flipping the bird: "Fuck You Iran!" It read. I worried about the future of the world. With that, I wasn't sure how I felt about Reagan's ideals. With his presidency, the working class town in which I lived felt threatened. Me, I didn't really know any better. I liked that he wanted to restore "the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism." Once again, that would make me a misfit, not only gay but perhaps with even a republican bent. Amongst a pro-union, Democratic family, I kept my opinion to myself.

I kicked at the dirt in the road, remnants from the sanders, the town trucks, that would barrel down the road spitting a mixture of salt and sand out of their rusted yellow cabins as they attempted to melt the town's icy streets. I walked past the factory, the town's major employer. It was a block or two from school. This was the part of the walk I hated most. One couldn't help but breath in the fumes, the smell of rotten carcasses mixed with chemicals. It made me want to throw up my peanut butter toast and tea breakfast. I wouldn't be able to eat again till dinner.

Despite my daily case of factory-nausea, for whatever reason, I refused to let people see me eat at school. Very, very rarely did I ever buy anything in the cafe. Part of it was because I was coming out of my pre-teen fat stage and, quite frankly, didn't want people to think I ate. I just sat with the jocks and listened to them tell stories of their over dramatized sexual encounters. Occasionally, I would throw in some comic relief which, in their clique, allowed me a position. Yet of the three categories my junior high required subscription to, I fit into neither: I wasn't a jock; I wasn't a druggie and I was only a moderately good student. I didn't fit the mold. The only remaining, unspoken, category was that of fag and I refused to be there.

When the obviously gay students (there were maybe two) passed by, my jock friends would heckle them. I would turn the other cheek. I didn't like the jocks' rudeness but with my stance I struggled. I tried to remain impartial for the two overtly gay students were sort of my friends but to the jocks I couldn't readily admit that. As my brother once told me, "don't be caught hanging around the gay guys. You'll get a reputation." I took this to heart and would only talk to them on a safe, limited basis.

One time, in candid discussion at the school library, as I picked out a Hemingway book for an upcoming report, I discovered that Billy, one of the gay guys, was also a Streisand fan. At that time, I had no idea a gay following was equated with Barbra. Finding someone else that also liked her, to me was wonderful. I knew of nobody, save my mother and I, that liked her. So I immediately invited Billy over to listen to some of the records I had. "You have ButterFly! I didn't think anybody had that!" He said agreeing to a Thursday afternoon Barbra-fest.

While previously I had hinted around to my mother that I was gay by saying things, years back, like, "I can't stop looking at this new boy in school. He's so handsome," she didn't want to believe that I might one day live the life of, in her words, a "faggot". Despite Billy's appreciation for the diva, and also having seen 'A Star is Born' over four times like my mother and I, she wasn't happy to have an obvious gay boy in her home. Perhaps she thought his gayness would corrupt me. While she allowed us to listen to 'ButterFly', and even some Donna Summer, she made sure the door to my bedroom was kept open and made it clear that Billy would not be staying for dinner. Also, he would need to leave before my father came home.

It was rare that I had a school friend over the house. Obviously this choice of friend was not welcome; I got that point. My choice of friends and music was not fitting in. So, that one March afternoon, just weeks before the Reagan assassination attempt, into the closet I further went.

That night I subscribed to Columbia House's 12 albums for a penny. I taped the penny to the allocated spot on the card, stuffed into an envelope and slapped on a fifteen cent stamp. In six to eight weeks I looked forward to receiving a box of rock albums that I was determined to like and listen to: Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Foreigner and the Rolling Stones would take the place of my secret friends. I looked over at my closet. Farrah Fawcett smiled back at me. Tomorrow I would ask my mother to take me to Penney's so that I could use up my savings and buy a pair of Nikes like the ones my jock friends wore. I was determined to fit in.


Donnie said...

This was a wonderful post, Rick. I really could relate. Although, I was the fat kid all through school...fat, smart, artistic, and gay. The only thing I lacked was either a club foot or hunchback.

I ached to fit in but never did...I hovered at the edges of many cliques, but never a full member of any of them.

Spider said...

Columbia House and those 12 albums for a penny - who was NOT a member! And I certainly understand the not fitting in - a TOTAL BAND GEEK here!

Sorted said...

LOL I remember the 12 albums for a penny. Thanks for the memories of one of most torturous times in my life!!

digital t-square said...

Hahaha. I remember that penny offer, too. Usually in the back of the "Parade" magazine that came with the Sunday paper. If I didn't send that penny to buy 12 records, I'd tape it to the needle on the record player so it wouldn't skip.

Bruce said...

Good post, Rick. I was lucky enough to have artistic and intellectual parents who actually would become upset with me if i seemed to care too much about fitting in. But that still didn't protect me against childhood taunts of "faggot" and "fairy."

steve'swhirlyworld said...

I am far too young to really understand what you're talking about....LOL OMG, you should have been my neighbor; we would have had a blast together in highschool! Of course the bedroom door would need to stay open :)

David said...

Funny how all the tnings in your post, esp the Donna and Barbra albums and the exact same Farrah poster, crossed the Atlantic!