The extent of my middle school rebellion included watching music videos and inappropriate television programs, or in other words secret MTV viewings. Each afternoon, I watched the latest episodes of Daria and Total Request Live from a lookout point, the basement window. A friend and I spoke over the phone as I simultaneously watched both the television and driveway in case one of my parents came home. Very lackluster for a youth rebellion… although I did also sneak to the movie theaters once to see a horror film, but that’s really all. Okay, even with that, still unexciting.
For a lot of guys in my class, girls became their chosen pastime. For me, I focused on school and trying to learn names of my new classmates. I also had a slight fear in me that inappropriately touching a female before marriage could lead one to hell. Were there opportunities? Of course. A typical public middle school allowed for these opportunities. Classmates handed around pornographic magazines in boys’ bathrooms or students hooked up in the stairwell. I tended to associate myself with schoolwork over my peers.
One afternoon, Oleg came out of one of the bathroom stalls holding a deck of cards. His bright red hair and freckles made him a frequent target of middle school bullying, triggering him to become a bully himself. It could have also been his overly persistent personality, since he felt like he had to insert himself into every conversation no matter the topic. Yes, more than likely, his unpopularity stemmed from his unnecessarily aggressive nature, which no one appreciated. Oleg announced he had stolen the deck of cards from his father the night before. He boasted about the variety of naked women in the deck. He gloated about how easy it was to steal the pornographic material. And now, he wanted to make a profit by selling the cards to us for two dollars a card. His fingers traced the dozen or so cards in his hands wondering which one we, the bystanders, would chose. He looked in my direction as his lone prey to taunt me one on one.
“You’re a church boy. You wouldn’t like one of these, anyway.” Our eyes locked and I felt a slight chill down my spine as the other boys stared at me and waited for a response. It felt like the world froze as my thoughts raced and searched for a rebuttal. The need to look at naked women on a deck of cards made no sense to me. The women could have been your mother or sister or even our teacher, I thought. Was his comment a win for him or for me? Should I go ahead and enjoy the two dollar photography just to fit in? Am I missing a part of my teenage years if I don’t?
I blinked my eyes a couple of times and looked around to see a half dozen pubescent teenage boys waiting for my response. Oleg’s and my eyes locked again. I pushed my thumbs between my backpack straps and collar bone. I gave Oleg a slight nod, turned around and exited the bathroom. Upon leaving, I could hear the boys whisper which cards they wanted and how to pay Oleg back.
I became the school’s leper. And somehow, I was the last to know.
Soon after the melodramatic bathroom showdown, middle school started to become torture as rumors of my sexuality circled within different peer groups. A failed dating relationship with a close female friend did not help my case, though it’s unrealistic to think any middle school romance will last. Everyone’s dating relationships failed within months. This was middle school. It’s kind of the point. But for me, I would have rather been in class learning about something instead of worrying about who I was supposed to fall in love with. Maybe I just did not get it. Middle schoolers are not completely rational in how they relate with one another. It was middle school afterall.
Everyday, I started to pray for my family to leave Boston’s bedroom city. The fun of sledding down the apple tree hills or playing hide and seek with youth group friends did not outweigh the consistent torment at school. I pressed into my academics with a fake smile while ignoring any internal emotions. Any friendly elementary school relationships I had quickly disappeared as the gay rumor persisted. Within two or three months of being in middle school, I became the school’s leper. And somehow, I was the last to know.
Luckily, being a diligent student had its perks—like a hall pass to the library or bathroom as frequently as I wanted. I rarely talked in class, so teachers did not question too much of what I was doing. One afternoon, I took the long way back to class to clear my head. Burnt red, forest green, and navy blue lockers lined the hall, matching its equally dull gray carpet. Despite the gloomy, awkward middle school atmosphere, the roundabout walk gave me a chance to gather myself before heading back to class. More importantly, it provided me with a brief moment to get away from the classmates I began to hate.
The whispered words came out from nowhere and the repetition grew louder and louder. I looked over my shoulder to see who was around me. No, I was not going crazy. Oleg was walking directly behind me, unashamedly saying the words into my ear. The only space between him and me was the backpack I tightly grasped out of both fear and anger. My nostrils began to flare as my face turned a deeper shade of red each time he spoke a word. I kept walking toward the top of the stairs headed to the library, keeping silent as a way to fight back. I thought that if I didn’t say anything, maybe he would stop. But Oleg did not relent.
My shoulders twitched each time he whispered a derogatory term. The words felt closer than his breath on my neck. In my mind’s eye, he became a hawk and I his prey. He spotted me from afar and swooped down to taunt me before consuming me for his midday meal.
I tried taking slower, deeper breaths to keep my cool, but my heart would not stop pounding. As Oleg continued his verbal assault, my heart pounded faster, and my fingers curled into a fist until we came to the end of the hall. The top of the stairwell transformed into a mountaintop. And there we stood, on the cliff’s edge. Oleg’s taunting stopped as he brushed past my shoulder to stand in front of me. We faced off man-to-man for the final showdown. Our unnatural silence could not contain my elevated pulse as my eyes grew wider and I looking at his freckled, light-skinned face. Oleg smirked only from the left side of his mouth, raised his eyebrows and waited for my response.
Without a moment’s thought, my hands swiftly came to his chest and with one large push, I lunged his body into the air. He toppled down the stairs like a runaway boulder down a cliff until the brick wall stopped him. With a blank stare, I towered over him from the top of the mountain. No one else came around. He looked up at me in amazement. I nodded my head, and with the adrenaline fading away, my feet slowly moved backward five steps then I turned around to make a quick escape back to class. Still, I knew Oleg would share this with no one.
God answered my prayers, well kind of. We moved from apple country to the deep south. Georgia would not have been my first choice, but twelve hundred miles kept me from the other middle school. No one knew about me here, nor I about them. I chose to stay in the shadows for as long as I could to see if friendships would naturally occur. And six months later, I transitioned to the county high school.
I remember the first time I saw Carl in high school. His style reminded me of an alternative male model, who would have been better off living in a large city rather than rural America. He stood out with a black choker around his neck, a dozen or so plastic neon bracelets on his wrists, wide-legged pants and a tight shirt. His black painted nails made quite a contrast from his bleach blonde hair. He was quite the anomaly in this country high school. Normal male attire meant a polo shirt neatly tucked into khaki pants held in place by a brown belt, with matching brown shoes or cowboy boots. Carl did not meet any of those southern prerequisites, which made him an instant outsider. An all too familiar rumor inched its way around the high school. This time about Carl and his non-traditional sexual orientation. My chances were about the same due to my lack of a southern accent and failure to meet cultural protocols, like saying “Yes sir” or “No ma’am” to my superiors.
The preppy southern look of polo shirts and khakis was typical for attendees of local prominent churches. And at times, men would exchange polo shirts for T-shirts announcing “The South Will Rise Again” with a rebel flag displayed on the back. I viewed it as a contradiction, yet I’m told it’s “Heritage Not Hate.” It felt uncomfortable to mix Christian culture with Confederate flags. The Jesus this particular group preached stood in direct opposition with what I thought Jesus represented. This group made it very clear who they stood against but not who they stood with. As a result, I stayed away from this culture. I grew attracted to anything different from the traditional Bible belt norm. Fellow swim team members, skaters, punks and random students from the unpopular churches were in my circle. But overall, I stayed on the fringes of even those groups in hopes of going unnoticed.
Who would turn down a friendship?
On an unremarkable afternoon, Carl introduced himself to me between class periods. He asked if we could become friends. Without hesitation, I said yes. I did not have a lot of friends, so who would turn down a friendship? Carl and I started to exchange handwritten notes by dropping letters in each other’s locker or handing them to each other in the hall. A pen pal friendship for the early twenty-first century high school. The college-ruled paper revealed basic parts of our lives – our family’s, hobbies, likes and dislikes. The intentional letter writing sustained our blossoming friendship.
Unfortunately, the emotional bond between two male teenagers made others uncomfortable. The high school had limited locker space, so each student had to share with another classmate. Cody was my locker mate for lack of a better term. Cody had not hit his growth spurt yet, which resulted in him being the punchline to a lot of jokes. Cody attempted to play it off by being the class comedian. One morning, I headed to our shared locker to grab my Algebra book. I could see Cody standing with his arms crossed, tapping his foot with a note in one of his hands. I stared at the paper and made a mental note of how the paper was folded. It was a note from Carl. The closer I got to him, the faster his foot tapped and redder his face turned until I was standing right in front of him.
“I don’t care if you are friends with this guy,” Cody stated with anger, “but I don’t want notes left in our locker. I don’t want anything to do with your friendship.”
How could a note left in a locker be such an issue? I inwardly questioned. But in my passivity, I opted not to question Cody. I told Cody it would not happen again to avoid further conflict. I shared this news with Carl in our next letter exchange and we started handing notes to one another in the halls.
In his next letter, in navy blue, cursive letters, Carl wrote “Could I have your phone number?”
My face reddened as I read the question. Carl’s intentions felt innocent and excitement grew inside of me. With a black pen, I scribbled my phone number on a piece of paper, folded it into a paper football and gave the note back to Carl. My smile would not go away as I dreamed about having a best friend for the first time. Carl made me feel valued within a culture where I felt so disconnected. He, in his black jeans and tight fitting shirt, stood true to himself. Because of this, I could be honest with him.
One evening, my dad handed me the cordless phone and with a southern drawl stated, “It’s for you.”
“Hello?” I said as I pressed the cordless phone closer to my ear and attempted to discern whose unsteady voice was on the other line. I patiently waited while the man cleared his throat and attempted to introduce himself again. Carl's soft voice meekly stated who it was and I returned a quick affirming response to him, “Oh, hey!”
Nervousness still echoed in his shaky voice as our conversation continued with the basic get to know each other questions. It was our first conversation outside of our hallway note exchanges. Our conversation ended in fifteen minutes or so. And I walked out of my room to be immediately greeted by my father.
“Who was that?”
“Carl. A friend from school.” I innocently divulged, but within moments the conversation became serious.
“Your brother told me who he is. You don’t need to associate with people like that. You don’t want people to think you are one of them. You’re not going to talk to him anymore.”
The conversation’s tone quickly changed like an afternoon rainstorm suddenly rushing through the valley. I pinched my eyebrows together as I internally wrestled with what had just happened. My father, a pastor, told me to unfriend a man because of cultural principles. It baffled me, especially considering my lack of friendships in this red state. My only close friendship could disappear. Internally, I knew Carl and I had just had our first and final phone call.
“Do you understand me?” he sternly questioned.
I blinked a couple of times, unsure of how many times he had asked the closed-ended question. His large brown eyes stared into mine as I mumbled a response.
“What did you say?”
“It’s ‘Yes sir.’”
I let out a strong sigh as I cleared my dictation to pronounce “Yes sir” in a military-like fashion. With my head down, I turned around, placed the phone on the wooden dining room table and walked back to my room. Carelessly, my hand flopped at the wall to turn off the light, then I laid face down on my bed in shock until I fell asleep.
Carl became the leper so few wanted to touch and I joined the majority in isolating him.
The following morning, I handed Carl a note containing the death of our short-lived friendship. I avoided a truthful explanation to save face and avoid embarrassment. He was probably more hurt than I was. The note passing ceased, and disappointment radiated off of each other as we passed in the hallway and avoided eye contact. Carl and I mourned the death of our friendship from a distance. Though he had never affirmed that it was his sexual orientation that made him a social outcast, his suspicions about that very idea stood true. Carl became the leper so few wanted to touch and I joined the majority in isolating him.
By the end of the week, I got bombarded by a group of high school girls I had never met. They interrogated me on why I had hurt Carl by quickly ending the friendship through a note. I shrugged my shoulders unsure of how to respond. One third of me did not want to catch the isolation Carl carried. Two thirds of me wondered why I had followed through with my father’s military orders. I shrugged my shoulders again and let out a small, “I don’t know.” It seemed to satisfy their questions as they walked away to comfort Carl standing in the distance.
News of the Matthew Shepard murder flashed on the television screen. I sat alone in the den and watched the headlines of a gay college student getting pistol whipped, tied to a fence and left to die in freezing temperatures somewhere in Wyoming. The murderers lured him by pretending to be attracted to him only to carry out their horrific acts. The reporter’s description of Matthew being tied to a post like a scarecrow sounded so barbaric. All in the name of the anti-homosexual mantra. And inadvertently, I felt like one of the killers.
Why did religious folk hate the queer population so much?
Where did the gay fear come from? More importantly, why did religious folk hate the queer population so much? Focus on the Family began a ban on the Disney franchise, which our family joined. I became warned that Disney allowed "those people" to have gay parades so the homosexuals could flaunt their half naked bodies for the world to see. The wind through the gay rainbow flag sprinkled the next generation with gay glitter which tainted their childhood innocence. More importantly, Christians needed to fight for the true definition of marriage. A life bonded between only a man and a woman. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. I only had two thoughts about the new ban. One, would I ever get to vacation in Disney World like everyone else? Two, wouldn’t this ban isolate people more and create an us versus them mentality?
The broken friendship with Carl continued to haunt me. Even though I ended our short-term friendship, I also became a target from our short term association. Before one afternoon class started, a classmate came to my defense and yelled at two female students for calling me “faggot.” The tension grew in the room as everyone looked in my direction as if I was the one who caused the eruption. Isolation continued in the high school cafeteria as I became singled out for my less than masculine demeanor. I felt the lack of masculinity, but where did it stem from? Was my voice too high? Did I swing my arms too much when I walked? Did I move my body in a certain direction to give off gay vibes? Should I be playing a particular sport? What did it mean to be a man? I could not figure it out.
Eventually, I began to spend my lunches in the courtyard with the skateboarders and reckless ones. The unspoken common place for the outsiders. I listened in on conversations of pot smoking and their latest sexual endeavors. I only nodded at key moments for general acceptance, while internally praying for my loneliness to go away. I never said much, if anything at all. I only spoke when spoken to. I did not know what the freaks did or did not know. I only knew safety came from staying with them. Well, at least for the half hour lunch break.
The following month, the high school held a school wide assembly to announce the social standards of the upcoming Homecoming dance. The slender, well dressed principal started the assembly by praying as he always did, then moved into a discussion of ladies’ fashion and appropriate couple interaction.
Was it worth protecting oneself, when you have a front row seat of a single scapegoat getting trampled to death?
“Also, no guy and guy dates. And no girl and girl dates.” The principal made noise of disgust, while simultaneously throwing his hand around like he had limp wrist; obviously mocking the gay community. And instantly, the auditorium erupted with laughter. Its hatred echoed within my heart and mind as the students’ laughter encouraged the praying principal to continue on. He jerked his hips as he walked, insensitively demonstrating how the majority thought a gay person walked. The sexual minority was an easy target. I knew that much. Way too easy. My shoulders fell inward as I began to think of Carl, the only open homosexual student and somehow the most hated teenager in the high school.
It did not take long before the entire school knew what happened. The principal’s jokes gave permission for Carl to become the sole bull’s eye. My peers crumbled papers which were then thrown in Carl’s direction. The bolder students yelled “queer,” “faggot,” “gay” and any other derogatory term as an additional attack. My stomach tightened as I heard the detailed news of the attack in the hallways. I felt exhausted as I realized that I too was one of the stone throwers. To be in silence is to cast stones. And I chose to be a silent person in order to “protect” myself from a harmless friendship. I began to wonder: Was it worth protecting oneself, when you have a front row seat of a single scapegoat getting trampled to death?