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Preface: I was recently asked to participate in a blogathon to support Scarleteen, an online sex education forum for teens. I was flattered. I was humbled. I was a little queasy and had to breathe in a bag for a minute or 12. I decided to contribute the story of how I survived homophobic bullying thanks a single library book. I’m living proof that progressive sex education (no matter how small-scale) makes an enormous difference in the lives of the very young. It’s my hope that all who read my sarcastic, satirically-tinged autobiographical account will consider making an enormous difference by supporting Scarleteen.
"In this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld/ In this life, you’re on your own!" —Prince
High school is a laugh riot. It’s a jolly funhouse where the unpopular and the unusual are punished for their crimes against conformity with a topsy-turvy ridicule. Here, overweight boys have “due dates”, homely girls are proposed marriage by homecoming kings, underwear waistbands are wedgied into easy carrying handles for Special Ed students, and exchange students, (regardless of country of origin) are addressed in mock Chinese. In this swarming mosh pit of ha!rassment, powered by sweaty insecurity and raw, smelly fear, homophobia stands as the indisputable height of hilarity. At least that’s how I remember it.
“Gay” was the Golden God of Comedy at my Iowa high school back in 1985. It was the sun that shined down on an otherwise unfunny and frighteningly confusing world and made it all worthy of a ridicule most amusing. Anything could be “gay”, and therefore hilarious: a pack of Lit’l Smokies dog-piled on a cafeteria tray, “True” by Spandau Ballet, the color green and all who wore it on Thursday. Behaviors were “gay”, too: raising one’s hand in class, missing a foul shot during a gym class basket ball game, wearing one’s backpack over both shoulders as opposed to the heterosexually-mandated right shoulder. The entire marching band was apparently gay, and so were the Choir and the Drama Club. But they called themselves the Glee Club and The Thespians, so weren’t they just asking for it?
The Golden Gay God of Comedy was capricious. His ways were mysterious. Amazingly, not even heterosexuality provided an adequate defense against The Gay. Prince was a perfect example. Anyone who’d heard his Purple Rain album, (and only the Amish and the deaf hadn’t) had witnessed Prince’s very vigorous love of the ladies. Its most notorious track, “Darling Nikki”, was an epic ode to boy/girl frottage practically tailored to the heterosexual fumblings of the typical teenager, yet the man who had composed and performed it? Gay, gay, gay. It could be argued that, like the Glees and the Thespians, Prince had in his own way “asked for it.” He did, after all, wear high heels and make up, but so did Vince Neil of Motley Crue. Yet nobody called Vince Neil gay. And thus was the delightful cruelty of the Golden Gay God of Comedy.
When I moved from Ohio to this Iowa High School, I found myself a permanent inhabitant within the crosshairs of the Golden Gay God of Comedy. My favorite paisley shirt was gay. My red hair was gay. My glasses were gay. My inability to put a ball in a hoop was gay. I was president of the Student Librarians, a post I’d accepted with the purposeful solemnity worthy of the Gayest of the Gay. As fate would have it, I really was gay, which put a weirdly embarrassing spin on my relationship to the Golden Gay God of Comedy. How unfair, yet undeniably dead-on he was! He had called a duck a duck, and what could I do but quack “You got me there, bub!”?
I paid dearly for my hilarious gayness, and my own personal bill collector was comedian Chuck “Smith.” Who at my Iowa High School could deny his uproarious stylings? The spectacle of the redheaded new girl in the weird shirt with spit in her hair, getting groped by a “lezzie!”-squealing Chuck, filled the hallways with deafening laughter. Such rollicking high jinks!
Since the story I’m telling is sarcastic, satirically-tinged autobiography, I’m going to skip over the part where I cried when I got home and was afraid to go to school and hated the entire world for what had happened to me. In fact, I became physically ill while reliving 1985 in the writing the first draft of this story. Because there is no crying allowed in sarcastic, satirically-tinged autobiography, I’ll jump right over the abundantly obvious fact that what happened to me was very, very painful and will now mercifully deliver us all to the part where I decided to turn things around and fight hilarity with hilarity.
The fact of the matter was: I was much funnier than Chuck. Even though I was too inward and awkward at the time to let anyone else know it, I knew it. It galled me to be on the outside of the joke, looking in at its heart and soul, which was ironically enough, my own victimization. The Golden Gay God of Comedy may have ruled the school with his nonsensical and pitiless jurisprudence, but it was plain to me that he had a very sub-par servant in Chuck “Smith”. I mean, really: calling a lesbian a lesbian? It was the most uninspired put-down, ever. The personal disappointment was bad enough, but how was I expected to hold my head up amongst the pregnant fat boys or the portable special ed students?
Which brings me to the book One Teenager in Ten: Writings by Gay and Lesbian Youth. Published in 1983 by Alyson Press and edited by Ann Heron, the book was packed to bursting with the testimonies of people like me. One Teenager In Ten had unceremoniously arrived at the Library of my Iowa High School one spring day, innocuously packed in a cardboard box along with over a dozen paperbacks of sundry and disparate subject matter. As was my duty as the President of the Student Librarians and the Gayest of the Gay, I had glued the pocket in the front cover myself, and never dared to ask where it came from or who had ordered it. I snuck it home without committing my name to the check-out card and read it in one night.
The very existence of this book was an enormous comfort, because it was tangible proof that even though I was by myself in my Iowa High School, I was by no means alone. The book also gave me a sense of perspective. As bad as I had it, there were others who had it even worse. They would escape their own Chuck “Smiths” at the end of a school day, only to be harassed by their own families and members of their churches. Some had been institutionalized. Others had attempted suicide. For the first time in my life, I counted myself lucky to be the beloved daughter of 2 unrepentant hell-bound atheists for reasons other than not having to wear a dress for Easter. But as valuable as a source of solace One Teenager In Ten was, the book actually turned out to be an even better blunt instrument of pure comedy vengeance.
On the night that I had temporarily stolen One Teenager In Ten from the library, the Golden Gay God of Comedy came to me in a dream. He took the form of a paisley-clad Prince, tottering in the sauciest pair of F Me Pumps I had ever seen in my life. He wagged a sassy, lace-encased finger at me. “You’ve abused your post as The Gayest of the Gay,” he scolded in a surprisingly deep voice, “A crime most uncool and worst of all–unfunny.” He regarded me with those Bambi eyes ablaze within their Mabelline confines, so I knew he meant business. “Someone needs that book much more than you do,” Prince admonished me, and punctuated his disapproval with a nut-cracker split on the foggy floor below us. He sprung up before me, did a cyclone-spin, swept the curtain of curls out of his right eye, and said, “Someone named Chuck ‘Smith’!” He departed into the clouds with a chirping little shriek. I believe it went something like this: “Owwww—ahh!” which I took to mean “Don’t get caught!”
So the next day, I kept the book and returned the card to the library. I’d never seen Chuck’s handwriting, so the Golden Gay God of Comedy had guided my hand in the forgery of his signature: the plodding jumble of widely-spaced upper and lowercase letters you might find on a “No Girls Allowed” sign. I stamped the due date on the card and filed it away accordingly. And I waited.
Which brings me to Study Hall. Located at the left corner of the right-hand serif perched at the top of the U-style-layout of my Iowa High School, the Study Hall was ensconced in the end-of-the-line Gay Ghetto also inhabited by the Library and the Band Room. The white ceramic bricks that comprised the entire school were never whiter or shinier than in the Study Hall. Like teeth. Were we trapped inside the mouth of the school, I would often wonder. We were made to sit at desks set in skittish rows, and expected to ignore the lumpy loudness of the biggest hits of last year emanating from the Band Room next door while we ostensibly caught up on our studies. The clock on the wall was perpetually set on Anchorage time, and every minute was a shiny white eternity. It was the perfect setting in which to contemplate suicide. And receive overdue notices.
They were delivered from the Library next door, every Wednesday, and handed out to the offenders trapped in the Study Hall. The overdue notices looked harmless enough: innocent white pieces of paper, lovingly cut into slips. But the dot matrix derision they harbored left a stinging welt. “You have betrayed the trust invested in you by the Library, as well as the entire intellectual community of this Iowa High School,” the notices announced, “and therefore all will know your shame!” That was how I took it, anyway. Nobody else seemed to mind much. I had Study Hall with Chuck (naturally) and I would sit in the back of the room, watch as he writhed in boredom over his unopened books, and instead of suicide, I would think about One Teenager In Ten. And I would quake with suppressed laughter. It was an excruciatingly delicious wait for Wednesday. No matter what happened to me in the hallway or what would be thrown at me in Study Hall, I had something to laugh at and something to live for: Wednesday.
The only thing that trumped waiting for Wednesday was, well, Wednesday itself. The look of utter bafflement on Chuck’s face upon being presented with that first overdue notice is perhaps the most cherished memory of my youth. A cow confronted with a curling iron, a chimp with a chess set, a trout with Tommy Tune tickets– none of them had anything on Chuck’s goggle-eyed bewilderment. Stunned, he hesitated for a moment before accepting the notice. He blinked as if to shake it off, and regarded the slip of paper with the puzzled disgust one might exhibit upon being bestowed with a piece of freshly-wiped toilet paper.
The notice in and of itself was clearly an effrontery. Chuck would never do anything as gay as set foot in the Library, let alone check out an actual book. That stuff was strictly for fags. He protested loudly to no one in particular but to everyone all at once: “This is STUPID! I don’t go to the stupid Library!” He let out a gasp of exasperation and rolled his eyes.
And then he read it.
A funny thing happened next. No, make that a fucking hilarious thing: Chuck lept from his seat with such violence, I had to look twice to make sure it was still just a desk, and not the lap of Liberace. As his empty desk spun into the next row, nearly hitting a cheerleader, the Band Fags next door presciently pumped out a cumbersome cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” The Study Hall monitor shouted his name over the blaring tuba breakdown and demanded he return to his seat, but there was no stopping Chuck from storming the Library to defend his heterosexuality. But it was all in vain, as his name was clearly committed to the checkout card, in all its childish glory.
And thus, the Golden Gay God of Comedy was at last properly served. For several weeks afterward, I basked in a sunlight that rendered an otherwise unfunny, and frighteningly confusing world somehow worthy of a ridicule most amusing.
Afterword: I’ve grown up to inhabit a world that is in many ways both better and worse than the one in which I grew up. It’s a world in which same sex couples can wed (coming to a state near you!) and gay soldiers can serve their country with their heads held high (at least for now!). It’s a world in which, a gay-centric show like “Glee” not only exists, but thrives commercially, a world where an out lesbian is poised to take the daytime talk throne currently held by Oprah Winfrey. All of these things were just unthinkable back in 1985. Yet it’s also a world in which young gay people commit suicide to escape homophobic bullying. I survived 1985 thanks to One Teenager In Ten and a mean streak. The mean streak I was born with, but One Teenager In Ten came courtesy of my Iowa High School. It was just one book, one miniscule instance of forward thought and inclusion on the part of my school board, but the difference it made in my life cannot be understated. It afforded me the strength to stand up for myself and survive to adulthood. I can’t help but wonder how many lives could have been saved if that one miniscule instance of forward-thought and inclusion had mushroomed beyond that book in that tiny Iowa high school. I’m of the belief that the inclusion of the gay perspective in sex education would help eliminate the confusion and irrational fear experienced by both gay and straight students. Homophobic bullying and its tragic aftermath are the results of a fearful and narrow-minded educational culture. I truly believe the Chuck “Smith”s of the world would be better served by a book like One Teenager In Ten instead of overdue notices, which in a way, they have been receiving pretty much all along.
American educational reform, it seems, is powered by an arthritic hamster running on a primitive wheel made of third-world wicker. Thanks to the machinations of the Religious Right, it will very likely be a cold day in Satan’s codpiece before we’ll see true reform in our lifetimes. In the meantime, there is Scarleteen. Scarleteen is an online sexuality resource for young people, providing free, inclusive, comprehensive and positive sex education, information and one-on-one support to millions. Running strictly on private donations, Scarleteen does so much for so many with so little. It may have even saved a few lives along the way.