Year: 1978 and 1979
Age: 15 and 16
Location: Monte Vista High School – Spring Valley, CA (suburb of San Diego County), USA
This was a hard one to post. It won’t be filled with tons of pictures or graphics. I don’t know that it will be very long. But it is important.
Queer boys are belittled, abused, assaulted (verbally and often, physically) and shamed by our straight (if myopic and fearful) counterparts as we go through those four long years of hell known as high school.
I am not sure what it was like for lesbians. I knew some dykes in my teen years at Monte Vista. Some of them were way butcher than I was. One I even had a crush on until I found out that he was actually a she. Blew my young gayboy concept of attraction right out of the water. She went by Mal but I found out a few days after my very first drama class (in my freshman year) that it was short for Molly. M-O instead of M-A as I’d assumed when I heard it. I just thought it was some random queer guy who had a very distinctive name. She had the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen to that point in my life. And she was a very cool person to talk to. Very, very level-headed. I wasn’t as close to her as I would’ve liked, but she was always fair and very open with me. I admired that.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that as a young queer boy in school, I learned very quickly that I needed to shore up my reactions to things. I needed to keep my head down, eyes to the ground and not be ostentatious about anything. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Drama and Choir were safe havens for a gayboy. The arts in general were safe ground to be different, no matter what that meant. We were creative people. We got that life moved beyond the binary. Well, that was more speaking from my drama class than it ever was from choir. Choir was run by a Mormon Elder from the church right next door to the high school.
Drama, on the other hand, was where you could let your hair down; you could be whoever the fuck you were. My fantasy boyfriend, Tim, and his clique were there. I loved being in that room. Some of the coolest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet came from that room. We’re scattered to the winds now, but it was uber cool when it was in play back then.
I got along. I did the best I could not to be noticed – even if I was the gay kid who liked disco when punk and new wave were the rising thing in everyone’s mind. My freshman year was enlightening. For the most part I avoided being bullied too much. I learned to stick to either the drama or choir rooms on breaks. Roaming about in the halls or sitting out in the large quad between the gymnasium and the lunch room wasn’t always the best thing for a boy like me. Funny thing was, choir was right next to the lunch lines so you had to navigate rough waters to get to your safe haven island. That was until I learned that there was a back door to the choir room that would completely sidestep running the jock-laden lunch line gauntlet.
I was a quick study. I had to be to survive.
But I got through my freshman year. I got to watch some really brilliant kids in their senior year step up and be absolutely brilliant on stage in our little drama plays. Our drama class was taught by a man who had the distinction of being in Ben Hur with Charleton Heston. He’s one of the charioteers in the big race – he’s highlighted for all of like three seconds of film but still he was in it and I was in his class.
That was sort of cool. His daughter went to our school and she was magnificently talented – she reminded me of Stockard Channing or Elizabeth McGovern, both in stature and in the way she could carry a role to absolute perfection. She was kind, too. I remember that about her. She was very kind and extremely giving whenever I shared the stage with her. It occurred to me that it never cost her anything in her performance. That was my take away from being in that class with her. It’s something I carry to this day: cheering others on in the arts takes nothing away from what you do. I got that from Reagan (pronounced REE-gan not like the President). Regan was epic and so fucking cool.
I remember being so impressed with her father. He related a story to us that stuck with me to this very day. He said as an actor your job is to listen and assimilate everything about you. You needed to soak it all up. He then told us a story that happened to him while he was in the restroom at some fancy hotel in downtown San Diego.
“I was in there doing my business when the door to the stall next to me banged open startling me. The guy ambled in and I could hear him literally slump onto the toilet. I couldn’t tell if he bothered to unzip or pull his pants down or anything because he was mumbling to himself, ‘I can’t believe it’s over.’ Then he began to sob. Words would pop out of his mouth, words of lost love, of absolute devastation like I’d never heard from other man before. I began to imagine some sort of row that happened in the restaurant between him and his wife or girlfriend. He went on about how they’d have to part and divide everything. He spent a great deal of time lamenting that he probably wasn’t going to get the family dog. He was devastated. I was enthralled. Here was the complete desolation of someone’s life and I knew I needed to absorb what he was going through because it was something that was raw and deeply felt. I allowed myself to imagine the conversation that led to this moment in his life when he said something that completely turned my world upside-down. He said, ‘I just don’t know what I’ll do without my beloved Hank. Oh, Hank, why’d you have to leave me?’ I was floored. It never occurred to me that he was a gay man. His voice, his mannerisms, from what I could hear, led me to believe he was a strapping guy and it was a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend sort of thing. That twist, that simple revelation taught me more about the human condition than any acting class I’d ever taken – and I’d been with the masters: Strasberg, all of them, you name it. But Hank’s ex-boyfriend upended them all. That’s what this class is about. Revelation. Exposing the very inside of you to find the human truth.”
Big words, and a very powerful story to impart in my freshman year.
As I said, I’ve carried that with me to this very day. I build my characters in my stories with that very concept in mind. I love character studies. It is the subtle nuances of who they are that are often the most powerful.
So, when did I become a dick, and who is Richard in all of this, right?
I’m coming to it.
Richard was, by all accounts, a very queer boy. He was taller than most – which didn’t help him blend in. He wore clothes that were at least five years behind everyone else. He had a very large, dramatic looking nose. I think back on it now and I sort of liked that about him. He had a style that was odd, and his dramatic, very Jewish features were captivating in their own way. He wore a dark corduroy jacket with dark leather lapels and large buttons no matter the weather. It could be 98 degrees outside and he would wear that damned jacket. His hair was moppish, dark brown, curly and slightly greasy. None of this helped so he could blend in. To be honest, he did nothing but stick out, in all the wrong possible ways.
He tried to be friends with me. He even took choir one semester so he could get to know other kids who were “more open” and “accepting” – sad fact of the matter was, no one was as open as all that. And I don’t think it was anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head. No one I knew of pointed to him and said Jew or Kike. To be honest, I don’t think any sort of that talk ever surfaced throughout most of my years in high school. In fact, there was only one heated debate that raged about religion but that was an isolated incident involving the choir singing at the benediction of the outgoing senior class. And that was the only time that religion became a topic of debate. So I don’t think anti-Semitism played a factor. I know it wasn’t for me.
What was a factor? That he couldn’t blend in more. He was an odd boy. A nice boy, but odd. I tried to connect with him; I did. But even for a queer boy like me surrounded by other odd kids – the outliers – Richard was further left of field than all of us put together. He was in another galaxy far, far away. And not a cool one like those of the Star Wars saga – which was all the rage at that time.
And here’s the thing, I knew I was awful to him sometimes. I knew I said things that were hurtful and not very nice. I hated myself the moment I said them, and even apologized numerous times afterwards. But I suppose hurtful things, apologized too many times, only pointed out how insincere my apologies really were since I hadn’t evolved to stop doing or saying these things to him.
The part I didn’t want to face? The part that was all on me but I couldn’t admit it? He was queer with a capital Q. In BIG BOLD LETTERS with light bulbs flashing and radio announcers relaying every faggoty move he made. He was like me. Only I did my best to hide it, to blend in. He didn’t. He got a lot of shit for it, too. I shoulda been there for him. I regret that more than I can ever say. It’s one of the reasons I champion queer and outlier kids now. Richard is the reason I fight for queer youth and I am so passionate about helping them.
I spied Richard getting bullied by a group of jocks one afternoon. He saw me watching from the far side of the large courtyard. He knew I saw him getting picked on. I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t say anything. I just moved on and did my damnedest to forget it.
He didn’t come back after that day. I think his parents pulled him out of our school and sent him somewhere else. I remember being so angry with myself for not saying anything, for not going to get someone who could help if I was too afraid to step up to the plate and help him. I never got to apologize when it mattered most. He was gone. He never came back. I don’t even know how badly he was picked on that afternoon. They could’ve fucked him up good. It was that bad.
I don’t know if he’s still around. So much happened with the AIDS and HIV stuff in the 80s and 90s. I don’t know if he felt so bullied that he did something drastic. I’d like to think he was strong enough to rise up and become something great and fulfilling. That’s my hope for him, at least. I knew he was uber smart, and actually had a very dry wit. Oddly enough, he taught me the value of wit under duress. He gave me that. What did I ever give him? Hope and my absolute shame that I was never the friend and ally he wanted in school.
I often say I was supported by my friends and family as I came into my own queer/bent ways. But I always felt disconnected because they had a life I didn’t get to have. I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school. I didn’t date. None of that happened until I actually left high school. What would’ve had hurt if I had opened up to Richard? I might’ve made a lifelong friend. I might’ve gotten to really know one of the coolest guys on the planet.
But I chickened out.
I was the dick.
After he left, I vowed I wouldn’t do that again. That thinking often got me into some very uncomfortable situations, but Richard’s look, those eyes as he was fearful of what those jocks were going to do to him still haunt me to this day. Queer kids abandoned by their family and friends, forced to live on the streets, by their wits, often trading their bodies and pieces of their souls just to get by, it’s Richard’s eyes that say that to me. It’s what’s behind a lot of what I am writing. In many, many ways, I am still atoning for abandoning him when he probably needed a friend most.
I thought of looking him up. I searched his name on the internet. Oddly enough there is a guy who lives here in San Francisco (where I live) who has the same name, is around my age and looks quite a bit like I remember him (only older). I don’t know if it’s him. I fantasize it is. He seems happy in the pictures I’ve spied on Facebook and other social media. But there is some part of me that says – maybe it’s not him. Maybe he never made it this far. And that cuts. I still emotively bleed from that.
It’s not my proudest moment. It’s actually one of my more painful ones.
In this way, it is the mea culpa of all mea culpas of my life:
I’m sorry, Richard, that I wasn’t the friend you deserved. I am sorry that I wasn’t strong enough for both of us. I knew you were like me. I knew you were, deep down, so fucking amazing and I was just scared. I wanted to hide, to blend in, but you were fierce and fearless. You didn’t care what others thought. Well, you played it that way. But being queer myself, I knew what those eyes were telling me all along.
And they motivate me now to write the things I do. Much of what I do, of what my characters go through comes from that singular moment when I chose poorly.
It is a regret I will take with me when I leave this planet. It is a price I wish I could repay a thousand times over.
Hugs to you, wherever you are. And hey, if it turns out you are that guy in SF, maybe I’ll have that chance to say all of these things to you in person. I’d like to think I am strong enough for that. Time will tell. Until then, I’ll wait, and watch and see if I can determine if you are him or not. It’d be a lot to throw at someone who wasn’t who I thought he was, so I want to be sure.
Until next time,