Sometimes a headline sends you into a weird internal spiral remembering traumatic moments, such as: A babysitter was caught on video slapping a boy for being a “gay a** b**ch” & his family went to war – For once, there’s a happy ending.
When I first saw the headline, I didn’t see the subhead about the story having a happy ending. Instead, I found myself reliving the times as a kid that I was teased and/or punished for acting wrong—and usually not understanding what I had done that was so wrong. For instance, I loved singing along to music played on the radio, my parents’ records, or the TV… and sometimes the reaction from family and friends was encouraging. And other times I would get teased or yelled at or even spanked for my antics. And to me there wasn’t a clear difference between the times that my dancing and singing would make people happy and the times when I would get called a sissy or freak or pussy.
The first time I remember anyone calling me a faggot was when I was nine years old… and it was a teacher who did it. He wasn’t my regular teacher. The school district I had just transferred to had elementary students spend a few hours each week doing fairly simply physical education activities under the supervision of a secondary teacher. We were lined up in the gym waiting to be taken back to class one day, and music was playing from somewhere. I don’t remember why, nor do I remember what the song was that was playing, but I recognized it, and I was doing jazz hands and bouncing to the music while singing along when the teacher walked up, grabbed my arm, and (at least how I perceived it at the time) yelled in my face to ask whether I was a little girl or a little boy?
I stammered back that I was a boy. And he shook me and growled, “Then stop acting like a faggot!”
When our regular teacher arrived to collect us, the phys ed teacher explained that I was in trouble because I had been acting up and distracting the other students. So for the next several days I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess. I had to stay in the classroom with my head down on my desk. I was told that I needed to spend the time thinking about how bad it was to distract other students from lessons.
None of which made sense. The lesson was over. We were standing in line. Absolutely no education was going on, we were just standing in line waiting for our regular teacher to come get us.
That’s not even the worst of it. Because the phys ed teacher had called me a faggot, and it wasn’t a word I was familiar with, I asked my regular teacher what it meant. And I got in trouble even more for saying “dirty words” in the classroom. But I was just quoting another teacher!
It was only a month or so later when a Sunday School teacher gave me my very first own dictionary, and one of the words I eventually looked up in it was faggot. And in that dictionary the word is defined as “a bundle of sticks, twigs, etc bound together used for fuel etc.” Which didn’t help at all. How was me singing along to music acting like a bundle of sticks?
To get back to the story linked above, when it says “The child was participating in a viral “Savage” dance challenge with his sister. He looks longingly at her as she continues to dance.” I really understand that part about looking on longingly as others were allowed to do what I couldn’t do. It wasn’t always gender-based, which is what made it so hard for me to figure out what I was doing wrong all the time.
The end result was that those of us who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes—whether due to sexual orientations, or gender dysphoria, or simple statistical variance—all found ourselves crashing and burning between various metaphorical Scylla and Charybdis with neither map nor compass nor guide to see us through.
Which means that many over us spent years waffling between extremes around our own identity. Which brings me to another headline: Queer Rock ‘n’ Roll Legend Little Richard Is Dead at 87. Some versions of the blog post that eventually became this one started after I saw the first story a few daya ago about the death of Rock star Little Richard.
Little Richard was an extremely flamboyant rockstar whose stage persona inspired a large number of performers ranging from James Brown to Prince. At different times in he career he flirted with being out; other times he blatantly admitted to his queerness—for example when he said that “if Elvis is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll than I am the Queen” as well so the several times he described himself as “omnisexual.” Unfortunately, at many more parts of his career he denounced gay/lesbian people, and transgender people, and referred to parts of his own life as a struggle against sexual sin.
I went through several drafts this weekend of a post about him… and then I found the blog post that covered most of my points more succinctly than I had been able to:
Although rock ’n’ roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen.
…Little Richard will always represent a sad existence to this once-closeted gay boy of the 1970s and ’80s. If it had just been my own self-loathing that made me feel embarrassed for him then I would only fault myself. But his clear struggle between his faith and his sexuality — at one point he became a preacher and more recently he denounced gay and transgender people as “unnatural” — represented everything that is wrong with organized religion, and I found his willingness to go along with it humiliating for everyone concerned. Still, you have to believe that the joy his music brought so many people is something that will be remembered far longer than the harm he caused so many LGBTQ people — himself included — during his 87 years on planet Earth.
When Little Richard appeared on various musical variety shows during the 60s and 70s, he represented a painful contrast. Part of me loved his stage persona and performance, but another part of me was deeply ashamed, because while I was still struggling with my own sexuality, he was clearly far outside of the acceptable boundaries of gender expression. Yet I still identified with part of what he was doing.
It wasn’t until many decades later that I learned that the original version of his first top forty hit, Tutti frutti referred to the kind of black gay man who wanted to be sexually dominated by other types of men. When he decided to record the song, he cleaned up the lyrics, but there were whiffs of the meaning that carried through, nonetheless.
I guess what I’m saying is that part of me understands why Litte Richard was never quite brave enough to come out and stay out. While another (much smaller) part of me understands why he had so much trouble negotiating his shame. But the greatest part of me remains deeply disappointed that he kept retreating back into self-loathing.
Little Richard, Tutti Frutti:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)