SPOILER ALERT! That comic story I’ve been telling for the past decade or so…it didn’t end well.
You know how the game is played in grade school…right? First base, second base, et al. These days I think of it more along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut’s three strike rule. Well…he didn’t exactly call them strikes. What he said according to his daughter was…
“I think you’re allowed to be in love three times in your life.”
I’ve had my three strikes. Strike three was the boy I met in church. Strike two was when a very pleasant mutual closeness with a straight friend dropped me into a pit lots of gay kids probably find themselves in when they start crushing on a close but thoroughly straight friend. Decades later I’m still not ready to look back on that time.
Strike one was the boy I met in school…that other place which in a better world I might have hoped to find that magical first crush and first date and…dare I imagine it…going to the prom together and all that magical Disney-esq stuff boy and girl couples get promised as a part of growing up. He’s the Tyler (TK) Anderson in A Coming Out Story and no, that’s not his real name. I’ve changed all the names in that cartoon, in part because I don’t want to tell other people’s stories for them, but mostly because the story isn’t about him and it’s only tangentially about me: it’s about growing up gay in 1971-72 America, and what that did to a lot of us and why grownups need to give gay kids a break. I’m telling it with a sense of humor because I can still manage to look back on all that with a sense of humor, and because even after everything that’s happened to me, or not happened as the case may be, I still feel it deep down inside as a magical Disney-esq period in my life. The stars really did shine a little brighter, the sky was a little more blue, the birds really did sing a little more sweetly, I walked with a lighter step. Life was good…wonderful even. You’re allowed to believe it three times in your life.
My first time began as it had to with a couple gay kids, but with the added layer of us both being somewhat nerdish (me Way more than him). First comes a lot of stunned gawking at each other. Gawking turns to smiles, smiles turn to hellos, hellos become brief chats that turn to longer and longer ones. In our case it was the school library where we often met. Talking shyly turned to touching. First in safe pretense that it was accidental. Then it became a thing. The touch of hand to arm. Then meeting each other at the end of the day and walking together out the school door became a thing. From there we went our separate ways. We lived in different neighborhoods. One day on our walk together he put an arm around my shoulders, gave me a quick little squeeze, and before I could say anything rushed out the door with a see ya later. I swear I lifted off soared into the stratosphere right then. Later that evening I could finally admit to myself that I was in love, and oh by the way, gay.
Things developed from there in that thrilling and terrifying way it was for gay kids in 1972. It’s something I still have to think more about how to talk to in my cartoon. But I’ll give everyone a major spoiler now because, why not: It ended abruptly after I made plans with him to go on a camera hike at Great Falls.
I mean…come on… I’m old and single and that we didn’t become a Disney happily ever after couple can’t be much of a spoiler. No, it didn’t work out. But happy Disney endings were on short supply for gay kids in 1971-72. In some places here in America they’re still nearly impossible to find. In some places elsewhere you get thrown off a building or honor killed.
I’d talked him into a tentative interest in photography. Looking back on it if I’d had half a brain, which teenagers don’t, I’d have taking an interest in his interests. But he was into things like tennis and skiing and I am not the sporty type. One day he brought one of his father’s nice Leica cameras to school and I told him what I knew of how to use it. We agreed to go on a hike with our cameras the following Saturday along the towpath at Great Falls. I asked for his phone number so I could call to let him know I was coming. Then the plan was we’d take a drive to the Great Falls park and wander the towpath looking for some good shots. This would also allow us to be alone together for a while, and so I was hoping, get a bunch of stuff out in the open between us that by then was getting ridiculous not to openly acknowledge.
You need to understand…this was spring of 1972. The torrent of abuse gay people got from the world around us back then, from Every Direction, is probably hard for some of you to understand today. And what I didn’t appreciate enough was what would happen when his family found out. I…perhaps stupidly…never thought twice about bringing him home to mom because I just knew mom would have loved him. He was bright, hardworking, decent, the kind of guy I might have hoped to meet in church or in school in some other better world. And mom would have loved him too…right up to the point she found out what my interest in him actually was. What I probably didn’t appreciate enough until decades later was how what happened next may have saved me from that major heartbreak way too many gay kids know all too well: what happens when the parents find out.
We’d agreed I would call at 11 on Saturday. So all morning Saturday I was on pins and needles waiting for the appointed time. When the clock struck 11 I jumped on the phone and dialed. I got an answer, but it wasn’t him. It was an older male voice.
“Yes…is Tyler there”?
Tyler comes on the phone. First words out of his mouth are…and I’m not kidding: “Why are you calling me!?”
His voice was terse, irritated. For a second I didn’t know what to say. Like an idiot I began to remind him of our plans for a Saturday morning camera hike.
“I never agreed to that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”
“I never said I was going anywhere with you.”
…but…yes you did…
“I don’t know why you’re calling me.”
That was pretty much how it went.
If I’d had half a brain, which teenagers don’t, I’d have realized something was going on at his end and I just needed to play along…oh sorry…this has all been a terrible mistake, please accept my profuse apologies… But now in addition to the massive letdown I’m feeling I’m also getting a bit irritated at being called a liar and by him no less. So I stupidly pressed on…yeah we did…we were going to go to Great Falls..
“No…I never said anything of the sort..”
…with our cameras…
“I just don’t know why you’re calling me.”
Finally in desperation I said, “You gave me your phone number!”
And he says… “Well I didn’t think you’d use it!”
Which must have gone over well with whoever was at his end listening in.
After that, he kept me at arm’s length for the rest of the school year. I figured I would just wait it out, whatever it was, and eventually he’d start talking to me again. But it wasn’t long after that the family moved away, and for the next three decades I wondered what had happened, where he’d gone.
I moved on and yet I didn’t. Isn’t that how it goes? But straight kids had the possibility of getting a little closure afterward. Why did this happen? Why did I get dumped? Father doesn’t like you. Mother says you’re a bad influence. You’re from the wrong neighborhood. You have the wrong religion, color of skin, income level. Gay kids get reminded not just of how much their culture hates them, but also of how badly the need is to erase us from existence. The beloved gets hospitalized and the scared and terrified other gets told they don’t belong there with them and security escorts them out the door, while the family that hates them both is allowed the bedside. The beloved dies and the one left behind is denied a place at the funeral while the family that hates them both changes the locks on the doors to their home and removes their belongings to distribute amongst themselves. You have no rights. It isn’t just you don’t belong here. It’s you do not exist.
I kept searching for him. There were other guys, other attempts at just getting a date, strikes two and three came and went. I never stopped trying but I never stopped searching for him either. At first I just wanted to know what had happened and hoped against hope that we could begin again, and maybe this time it would go better. Then came AIDS. I visited the Names Project quilt the day it was first displayed on the Capital Mall, and for years afterward had nightmares of wandering among the panels and finding the one with his name on it. So I kept searching. I had to know.
I eventually found him. I’ll write about it someday. It’s not a happy Walt Disney ending. Those are for the happiest place on earth. But for your gay neighbors of a certain age, that ending is the rare and wonderful exception. We did not exist back in those days. Thank goodness you’re only allowed to learn that three times in your life. I don’t think I could handle a forth.