In my Sophomore year at Danville High School I had fallen in love. Like many other 16 year olds, I had fallen head over heals into my first real relationship. I was able to develop the kind of trust that comes with loving someone who loved me back. But unlike my peers, my relationship had to be totally underground. It was a secret kept as if my life depended upon it. While my fellow students were holding hands, exchanging rings and going steady, I was sneaking away for clandestine meetings with a 26 year old man from Champaign-Urbana. What set me apart from many gay teens of that era was the understanding that I was normal! I clearly saw the parallels between my relationship and those of my peers, but also understood the prejudices that required my relationship to be covert.
I met Jerry at the end of summer vacation in 1965. Jerry owned a small fast food restaurant on the campus of the University of Illinois. To me his ten years seniority seemed like a lifetime of experience beyond my own. After school started I began calling him from a pay phone on my lunch hour every day. Occasionally we would arrange to meet after school or he would pick me up on weekends. I signed up for every football game played in Champaign or Urbana that season. During our football evenings we would listen to the radio so I would know the score in order to feign interest. When the game entered the last quarter, Jerry would drive me back to the High School to catch the bus back to Danville. We developed a great mastery for deception. I even convinced my mother that I had signed up to participate in a weekend at the University of Illinois for prospective Freshmen. She was puzzled when she dropped me off to a deserted school early one Saturday morning. I easily convinced her that everyone else was waiting inside the school. As she turned the corner on Fairchild Street, Jerry came around the opposite corner and I jumped into his car like a bank robber fleeing the scene of the crime!
That weekend on the campus of the University of Illinois represents the death of my adolescence as well as the birth of my conscious pride. Even as it was happening I understood that most other people in my life at that time would have seen it as something evil, degenerate. But my heart always forced me to see the bigger picture of my life, exactly parallel to the lives of my peers, theirs celebrated, mine judged. So every step I took outside the tiny box they had constructed for me was a step closer to freedom. The more free I became the more anger I felt about the intolerance and injustice I was expected to accept in silence. Intuitively, I knew that anything bad about my life was inflicted from outside me. I was perfectly comfortable loving and accepting love in return.
In order to completely understand the context of my life at that time, one needs to understand the relentless homophobia that confronted every moment of my life, in both subtle and not so subtle ways. My boldest attempt at self expression then, was a small crop of hair above my forehead that revealed the natural curl I inherited from my mother. It was the signature of who I was, the one small part of myself that could live openly, a lifeline that kept me from being totally annihilated by a very hostile violent world. But the most dangerous part of this act of defiance was that it was mainly noticed by those who wanted to hurt me the most! They could not accept someone who would blatantly express that which they feared most inside themselves!
The thing that separated me from them, was my shameless acceptance of who I was. I wanted desperately to break free from the prison of fear an intolerant world had imposed upon me. But the bars on their prison were fashioned of religious dogma that promised them redemption if they killed what ironically had been created by the God they professed to believe in. I was lucky that I had never been taught to hate myself. I understood without doubt, that their insecurity and self-hatred could be assuaged by hurting or even killing me. So every tiny step I took toward liberation, no matter how subtle, was met with not so subtle resistance. My very existence challenged the core of their arrogant self-righteous religious fantasy world. To keep me in line they would throw stones in the form of scripture from the Old Testament, with very clear intention of warning me that real stones would follow if I went too far!
Now I’m sure if you went back to my hometown and asked people who were in my class if they remember me or if they remember the kind of oppression I will lay out in this essay, most would express surprise. And there lies the problem. Even today, forty-five years later, there is an assumption that it’s OK to think homosexuality is wrong, so it’s OK to destroy the lives of those who are homosexual. In this culture where we love to profess our superiority in the world, wave our flags and speak of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, there is a toxic undercurrent that invalidates it all. Let’s face it, it’s OK to say that homosexuality is an abomination if one holds the Bible in one hand while holding the homosexual down with the other hand! No matter how much pain and suffering and war and death organized religion inflicts on the world, it is held up as the example of what is good in the world. Its illegitimate position is so strong that it even trumps honest sacred committed loving relationships!
During the time of my relationship with Jerry, I was a member of the DHS A-Capella Choir. When our director Miss Wolf announced that every member was required to stand before the class to audition for a part in Moment’s Musical, I was both terrified and excited. Never before had I been asked to stand before the entire class to sing solo. I had always just been one of many voices blended together, enjoying the anonymity of the crowd. I’m sure everyone had fears and apprehensions, but I saw this as a make or break opportunity. I imagined anything less that a perfect performance would open me up to all kinds of ridicule. Something Jerry had said to me resonated in this situation. “If you can create something really beautiful that will blow them away, they will forgive or forget you’re queer!”
After sharing my dilemma with my neighbor Gloria Sempsrott, she invited me to practice with her at her piano. After checking my range, Gloria decided that the perfect song for me was “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” I practiced religiously every night after school! The night before my audition Gloria assured me that I would do just fine. The next morning when my turn came, I handed the sheet music to Barbara at the piano, closed my eyes, counted the beats, then opened my mouth and something miraculous happened. The entire room became silent, only my voice and the piano could be heard. I felt this incredible sense of belonging. I looked out across the room and everyone was looking back at me with admiration and respect. I finished the song, then heard applause. Miss Wolf looked at me and smiled and I thought to myself, “Jerry, I did it!” But sadly, when I think back across the great span of 45 years to that time, that one moment is MY memory of High School. It’s all I have.
Moments Musical "In The Still Of The Night"
I was chosen to sing a duet with a girl. “In The Still of The Night.” Miss Wolf would get so angry when I was instructed to look into my partners eyes and profess my love to her. I would break out into uncontrollable laughter at the absurdity of such a notion! Soon everyone was annoyed with what they saw as my disrespect for my partner and the show. The longer it went on the more complicated it became for me. It just felt like another attempt to destroy who I really was. I just couldn’t find the ability to pretend to that extreme. On the night of the performance I was terrified I would laugh. But I did fine!
After months of seeing Jerry, I decided to introduce him to a member of my family. It was done in the context of a musical event at the University. I was not prepared for what happened next. Suddenly there was a lot of discussion in my family about the “Queer” from Urbana and how to convince me that knowing someone like this was not proper for a young impressionable boy. I freaked and broke off the relationship. There was no concept at that time about “coming out.” I had absolutely no one to talk to except Jerry who was devastated. I was terrified that my family would disown me! I took the coward’s way out, but not without severe consequences for myself.
I literally wanted to die! Never in my life since have I ever been that confused and depressed. It seemed that my lack of self-esteem was attracting the attention of the bullies. Ironically, the worst ones were adults.
Each morning I walked through the halls of Danville High School in terror of being seen by the principle, Mr. Schoolcraft, who would routinely pull me out of the hallway into his office to ask if I am a boy or a girl. Then in a high pitched voice he would ask if my mommy put my hair in curlers for me. For the first time in my life I hated school.
Then I received the final blow. My swimming instructor, an ex-Marine, announced that any boy with long hair would have to wear a woman's bathing cap to class. The jocks had no problem showing up in caps with pink flowers. When I refused, knowing what would ensue if I wore a women’s cap, my punishment was to do push-ups for the entire class period with the voice of an ex-Marine screaming in my ear each time I collapsed onto the floor. That evening and the following day I was in extreme pain from a dislocated shoulder on one side and a sprained shoulder on the other. The healing took six weeks.
This was the period when I truly contemplated taking my own life! Not because I hated myself! Not because I believed loving another man was wrong! I wanted out of the struggle. I could see no future for myself. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life running away from bullies, living two separate lives in order to survive. I wanted to kill myself because that’s what I thought all the people around me wanted me to do!
But that’s not who I am! I’m a fighter. I’m sure if I had thought that homosexuality really was wrong, I would have gone through with it, ended my life! But I stuck around and a few months later I met Larry. He was a friend of my sister’s husband. He moved in next door to my sister. They all thought he was a ladies’ man, a good influence on me. So with the blessings of my parents I went off to Miami Beach with Larry, as payment for helping him paint the outside of his house. In Miami Beach we fell in love with each other and spent the next nine years together.
So I’m living proof that it does get better. But if we are going to stop Gay suicide, it is imperative that we all stand up together and demand the end to the idea that homosexuality is wrong. What’s wrong is to hide behind religion to justify hatred and bigotry, regardless of its origin! The idea that God condones hatred and scorns love is the true abomination!