I wrote about the Stonewall Riots several times last week, and at one point felt that I needed to clarify that I wasn’t personally involved. So I’ve uploaded my school picture from the year. As you can see, I was a bit too young to be hanging out in bars—even ones where the owners didn’t care much about checking IDs. Of course, it is demonstrated hundreds of times a year that being that young doesn’t shield one for homophobic bullying.
I was routinely called a “sissy” and “pussy” at school, on the playground, and even at home. Of course, those weren’t the worst insults. If my dad were really angry he’d call me “cocksucker.” This word was usually deployed while he was physically beating me, whereas the others usually never arrived with anything worse that a slap. Now, to be fair, he also yelled that word at tools that didn’t work the way he wanted, engines that were failing to perform correctly as he was repairing them, and so forth. It’s not that the word literally applied to me back then.
I was a sissy. I liked to sing along and dance in front of the TV when mom watched old musicals on the afternoon movie, for instance. I liked helping my mom, my grandmothers, and great-grandmothers in the kitchen. More of my friendships with kids my own age were with girls than with boys. I was horrible at any sports-related activity. I would much rather read (my mom taught me to read well enough to read picture books to my younger cousins before I entered school) than run around playing cops and robbers with the neighbors.
I also loved helping my grandpa do carpentry work (when I was really young that involved me following him around and trying to hand him the right tool). I loved working in the garden with my grandpa and great-grandpa. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any male role models — I had some very positive male role models in addition to the awful example of my father — I was just equally interested in things that stereotypically girls were expected to be interested in as those that boys are expected to like.
I wasn’t completely gender-non-conforming. I liked watching boxing with my paternal grandfather and football with my maternal grandfather (once I was living close enough to see him all the time). I loved playing with my Tonka trunks. I would create elaborate war and spy story scenarios to act out with my Captain Action action figure. I was really into the space program and built a model of the Gemini space capsule and later the Saturn V rocket and Apollo capsule and lunar module.
I have been a science fiction fan since before I can remember. My mom was into Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, and infected me with the sci fi bug very early. I was quite fluent in Heinlein’s brand of manly-men conquer alien worlds style of sci fi at a very early age.
But for every Tonka truck I longed for, there was an Easy-Bake Oven, or Barbie, or various kitchenware-based toys that I also wanted. And I could never quite understand why I got yelled at by Dad for wanting to play with those. I mean, one of my grandpas (Dad’s father) baked the best cornbread in the world (hand’s down!). If Grandpa could enjoy backing, why couldn’t I?
While some parts of my childhood were bad, I do have to admit that things could have been worse. I was bullied for not being manly enough by dad, other boys at school, certain male teachers, and more than a few church leaders. Mom and a bunch of the church ladies held secret prayer meetings to try to pray my (suspected) gayness away when I was a teen-ager. But, I wasn’t actually kicked out of the house (like thousands of kids around the country each year, and like two of my high school classmates) for being a queer.
And though I did go through more than one period of having suicidal thoughts, I never actually tried it. Unlike hundreds of kids each year who try and succeed because they’ve either been bullied for seeming queer and/or are terrified that their family will find out.
Most of that is down to luck. My love of sci fi/fantasy gave me access to a lot of literature that gave me hope for a better tomorrow. The vast majority wasn’t about a better tomorrow for queers, of course, but just a better, more enlightened tomorrow seemed less likely to be so hostile to boys like me. I also had some wonderful teachers and other adults in my life who affirmed my interests, and just affirmed me.
I also just don’t seem to be temperamentally able to give in completely to despair. There’s a stubborn core to my personality that believes I can beat or solve anything, if I just have enough time to figure it out. How much of it is inherited (I do come from a long line of very stubborn contrarians), and how much is learned (some of the stubborn relatives were in-laws or adoptive relatives), but I suspect more than a little of it is hardwired into my neurological system.
More than one of those relatives who were important role models were also outspoken advocates for doing what’s right, standing up for yourself and others, and never being ashamed to be yourself. That some of them contradicted those lessons a bit later in life when I came out didn’t shake the foundation they had helped lay in my heart, though.
So, I’ve been a nerdy queer loudmouth for as long as I can remember. That’s more than 50 years. I don’t know why anyone would expect that to change now.