That’s me, back in 1969 or so. Twelve years old. One important thing in my life happened right about then, and a second important thing didn’t. I wrote about the first thing in a blog posted to Tulare County Atheists some time ago. This blog is about the second thing, the one that didn’t happen. At least not for another 25 years.
I had a “girlfriend” when I was 5 years old. We attended the same kindergarten class in Tacoma. I remember calling her my girlfriend, and I think she called me her boyfriend, but I’m not sure either of us really thought much of the designation. For me, it might have been more something my father suggested. She and I only interacted in school, since we didn’t live close to each other. We didn’t really play that much together, and other than the status of “girlfriend”, I really don’t recall much about her. I think her name was the same as my sister’s, Sherry, but I could be mis-remembering that. We moved after the end of the school year, and I never saw her again. I don’t recall being upset about that. Maybe that was the first clue?
That was it for girlfriends up until my senior year in high school. Second clue? Perhaps.
I should have figured out the second thing right about the same time I figured out the first. But there was a big difference between being OK about being an atheist, and being OK about being gay.
“Coming out” as an atheist was rather easy, even if it did make me feel uncomfortable at times. I had plenty of positive role models to look up to as an atheist. Carl Sagan was an up and coming science popularizer, and Issac Assimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and many other examples existed that provided support for a young person to look up too. Even if people around me made disparaging remarks about atheists, I knew they were wrong, and could take comfort in knowing they were out there.
Twelve. That’s a time of big change. The body starts doing things you don’t expect, and that I wasn’t really warned about. Oh, there were some classes, starting in 5th grade, but they weren’t all that informative. We got some very basic stuff about what was going on, but it really didn’t help.
The voice starts cracking, hair starts poking out in new places, and those hormones start working overtime, creating all kinds of opportunities for embarrassment. It’s really confusing when the girls don’t start looking appealing, after you’ve been brought up in a society that says they will, and that there’s something wrong with you if they don’t.
They tell you that one day you’ll grow up and meet a nice girl, get married, have kids, and live the American Dream. Well, I could never see myself in that picture. I would try to imagine a wife and kids, and that just never worked. I didn’t know why, but figured maybe I was just a slow starter. (remember that phrase? isn’t is ‘wonderful’? “slow starter”) But no matter how long I waited, the girls never became anything other than… girls. Never a sexual urge there at all.
But the boys…. oh, the boys. And terribly, terrifyingly, confusingly so. You have to remember, this was 1969. Visalia in 1969. The “free love” of the late 60′s didn’t trickle down to my group. And especially not gay love.
“Faggot”. “Queer”. “Homo”. Always said with hatred and disgust. There were no positive role models in my world that were gay. Anytime I became aware of anything gay, be it in a movie, television show, or if something was said by adults around me, it was presented as perverted, pathological, evil, sick. What little I did see did not speak to me. I was not like that. I couldn’t be like that. So I wasn’t like that.
Since the feelings about boys would not go away, and the feelings that I was supposed to feel about girls just weren’t there, I stuffed every bit of budding sexuality down as deep as I could, and tried to ignore it. If my friends talked about girls, I just listened, or played along. I had no clue what they were talking about (and at that age neither did they, but they talked up a good story), and hoped things would change as I got older. Of course, they didn’t.
Two things happened in the wider world that finally led me to accept my truth. One was the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 1980′s, and the other was the Internet.
Once HIV/AIDs started becoming a news item, it became possible to see gay men as normal, real people. Although at first the attitude of many was “they’re getting what they deserve”, and it took the death toll to climb to obscene numbers and begin making inroads into the general population before the Reagan administration began to take it seriously, the epidemic finally exposed me to what it might mean to be gay. At first it was scary, thinking if people thought I was gay they would immediately think I had AIDS, but slowly attitudes began to change. Leaders in the movement became visible even to those of us hidden here in Visalia. I could see positive images of gay men. They weren’t perverted, pathological, evil, or sick. They were just men. They were people I might know. (I would learn later that several of my high school classmates, and not the ones I suspected, were gay. At least two of them died of AIDS.)
The second important thing for me was the creation of the Internet. Once it got going in the mid 90′s, it was possible to chat with other gay men, find sites that catered to them, and provided information and positive imagery of what it might mean be to be gay. I don’t know if there was ever any material in the library about homosexuality, and even if there was, I would not have been able to find it. It probably would have been in the “adult” section, and there was just no way I was going to ask a librarian about the subject. They would figure out what I was afraid to admit, even though I refused to think about it myself. And if I had managed to find something, I’d have to take it to the desk and check it out. That wasn’t going to happen, you can be sure! That’s the great thing about the internet. You can research what you like, at your own speed, in complete privacy. It took years of “surfing” the web, chatting, and seeing more and more examples of regular people who were gay before I was comfortable with the idea that I was gay. Eventually though, it happened. The final step was meeting an incredible man that gave me the final nudge I needed to step completely out of the closet, to the outside world as well as to the most important person of all, myself. I wonder how long I would have teetered on the edge had I not met him.
So. Twelve year old Jimmie is an atheist and a homosexual. He accepts the idea of atheist pretty easily, and walks in and out of that closet at will. Homosexual is an idea he cannot fathom at all, however. That just can’t be how he is. That’s not how he is. That’s not how he’ll be. That closet door is so solid, so tight, and so thick, that he doesn’t even know it’s there, or that he’s even in a closet to begin with. If he was a twelve year old today, how might things be different? One thing is sure, he wouldn’t end up taking a girl to the High School Senior Prom, causing her to endure what would have to be a really lousy date. Maybe he’d take his boyfriend instead. Times change. Thank goodness.
This is Jimmie today. He’s an atheist, he’s gay, and he’s not embarrassed or ashamed of either anymore.