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June 22nd, 2018

The Paradox Of Gay Visibility

This, from The Washington Blade, came across my newsfeed this morning…

EJ Johnson recalls crying with dad Magic Johnson after coming out

There’s a passage in it, where EJ’s mom relates how she figured it out…

“We went to Hawaii once and I’m sitting behind him and his friend,” Cookie says.”The girls go by in their bathing suits and the guys go by and when the guys go by, they were like, ‘Whoa! Hey!’ and then girls go by and nothing. So I was like, okay, we need to have a talk.”

This was something about me mom noticed all the time during my teen years. I did an episode about that in A Coming Out Story. But that was artistic license: we never had a talk about it when I was a teenager. We couldn’t. Not in the late 1960s and early 70s. After mom passed away I inherited her diaries and it was only then that I saw the extent to which she’d figured it out…and kept avoiding knowing what she’d figured out.

But there was a reason she didn’t get too alarmed about it either, back when I was a teenage boy, and even more so back when mom was a teenage girl. A fact which may escape most folks today. Back then, the trope in movies and TV, juvenile books and magazines, was boys didn’t have any interest in girls until they were almost adults. Then suddenly all their hormones activated and they started dating girls. But until that sudden change happened, a boy’s interests were in hanging out with the other boys. And your best friend was someone you stuck with through thick and thin, always stood up for, shoulder to shoulder…

“Teenage boys are wild about girls.When their hormones kick in at puberty, they can think of nothing else, and that”s the way it has always been– right? Wrong. Before World War II, only sissies liked girls. Masculine, red-blooded, all-American boys were supposed to ignore girls until they were 18 or 19. Instead, parents, teachers, psychiatrists, and especially the mass media encouraged them to form passionate, intense, romantic bonds with each other. This book explores romantic relationships between teenage boys as they were portrayed before, during, and immediately after World War II. The author takes the reader through a rich landscape of media — sci fi pulps, comics, adventure stories, tales of teen sleuths, boys’ serial novels, wartime bestsellers, and movies populated by many types of male adolescents: Boys Next Door, Adventure Boys, Jungle Boys, and Lost Boys. In Hollywood movies, Boys Next Door like Jackie Cooper, Ronald Sinclair, and Jimmy Lydon were constantly falling in love, but not with girls. In serial novels, Jungle Boys like Bomba, Sorak, and Og Son of Fire swung through the trees to rescue teenage boys, not teenage girls. In comic strips and on the radio, Adventure Boys like Don Study, Jack Armstrong, and Tim Tyler formed lasting romantic partnerships with other boys or men. Lost Boys like Frankie Darro, Leo Gorcey, and Billy Halop starred in dozens of movies about pairs of poor urban teenagers sticking together, with never a girl in sight…”

We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness, by Jeffery Dennis, 2007

That’s the boyhood I remember. And if you think all that is exaggerated, or a case of the author seeing homosexuality where there is none, what you have to remember about that period of time is that in the movies and TV sex simply didn’t exist, let alone homosexuals. Married couples slept in separate beds. When Lucy Ricardo got pregnant they couldn’t even say the word pregnant on TV. You got the feeling movie and TV characters had no genitals at all…especially in movies and TV shows created for kids and teenagers…and babies when they happened really were delivered by the stork to unsuspecting but very happy couples. Now how did that happen? And nobody saw anything out of place in two boys having a passionate friendship. In fact, it was thought to be good for them. Builds character. teaches the importance of trust and loyalty. The steadfast friends who always stick together through thick and thin. I watched those movies on the TV, and the old TV shows, read the sci fi pulps, and the comics, adventure stories, tales of teen sleuths, best friends forever, even as Hollywood was setting out to change all that, and recognize the existence of teenage hormones. At least, the heterosexual ones.  

It was something mom could tell herself as I kept getting older and older and still showing no signs of an interest in girls, even to the point of getting my heart broken over some other boy who broke up with me, or moved away. I remember crying my 8th grade heart out in when a friend I’d known since elementary school moved out of state, and I knew I’d never see him anymore, and mom just giving me that boys will be boys sigh. Looking back on it I can just picture her thinking to herself, just wait until it’s a girl that breaks your heart… 

So I was a little late with it. Some boys were. Not to worry…one of these days Bruce will discover girls and he’ll get with the program. Plus, we were Baptists and I wasn’t supposed to be having any sinful thoughts about girls until I was older and those thoughts could be directed toward marriage. Mom could feel good that I wasn’t tempted into sinful lust just yet.

Which meant I never had the pressure at home to start dating and questions weren’t asked about why I had no interest in girls until much, Much later. and by that time I’d made my peace with my sexual orientation, even if mom and I still couldn’t talk about it. I had a few years of breathing room. I don’t think gay kids these days have that. The paradox of gay visibility is it’s making the world safer for us, even as it exposes gay kids to pressure about their identity they might not be ready to face for a while. They can’t hide from themselves or their peers the way I could.

But at least the world they eventually come out to isn’t as hostile as mine was. Even in red state America they can at least think about taking the one that stole their heart to the prom…maybe even imagine marrying them. How I wish. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gladly traded that safe cocoon, and having The Talk with mom, for a boyfriend.

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