I'm one of about a dozen students at a Catholic boys school who get together on Wednesday afternoons to sift through poetry submissions and hope something good shows up for the school literary magazine. Each meeting is more discouraging than the next. Most of the garbage I have to read was assigned by an English teacher who apparently isn't much of a muse. Some works are anti-liberal in theme, many are sports related, many are void of creativity altogether and almost all are miserably written. The writers are mostly the guys with the stellar GPAs, bound for the Ivy League, unless their family tradition dictates LSU or something worse.
These are the guys who get National Merit recognition, score 30+ on their ACTs, graduate summa cum laude. And on Wednesdays after school I get to remind myself that these are the guys turning in poetry like "Al Gore/Is a bore/He's a pot user/And a sore loser." Or how about "Ode to Mike Ditka"? Poem after poem about the love of golf, a passion for football, the fulfillment of the baseball dream and the strain of the swimmer who must sleep in class because he practices so much. (The last example was one by the student council president. I think he's headed to Notre Dame.)
These are also the guys who, with their less poetic friends, have tortured me at school since the fourth grade. These are guys who would have been very bummed if an anti-harassment law like the one being proposed in the state of Washington had been enacted during our school careers.
Fortunately for these guys, and guys like them across the nation, the Christian Coalition chapter in Washington managed to help stall the harassment bill (also known as the bullying bill), which would have required each school district in the state to adopt a policy against harassment, bullying and intimidation, as well as train school employees and volunteers to be aware of bullying and try to prevent it. The legislation originally included a reference to a state hate-crimes law that protects gays and lesbians, but that was removed as soon as the Christian Coalition got involved, arguing that the bill "jeopardizes First Amendment free speech rights and conscience protections."
I am the guy that the Christian Coalition, and probably a healthy portion of my classmates, believe would be unfairly protected by a bullying law. I am the guy whom their consciences demand that they belittle and deride. Fortunately for me, however, I don't need the law anymore. I'm a high school senior about to get out of Dodge.
But Mr. S., a man who has taught at my school for nearly 15 years, is not so lucky. This is Louisiana, not Washington, and this guy is as gay as a tree full of parrots.
The whole school knows about it, basically. He's unmarried, liberal and, worst of all, effeminate. He can be one flaming queen, and his inability to hide certain mannerisms means he has to protect himself. If I had to hide my sexuality at this place for that long, I'd go insane. There are times when he opens up a little bit, lets himself chat with the liberal students. Otherwise, he's often crabby, defensive and constantly worried about how to hide what's painfully obvious.
Once I managed to reveal to Mr. S. that I knew his nickname among those in the know -- it's Florence. He gave me a look of doom. I thought that was the end of it, but the next day he called me into his office, closed the door, lowered his voice and pointed his finger in my face.
"All this talk with you calling me she ... a girl ... Florence -- it has to stop."
He was angry -- stuttering and whispering. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? If you keep doing it, I'm going to have to stop associating with you.
"You're playing with fire and I'm not gonna get burned."
He wasn't hurt; he was scared. He made it clear to me that it wasn't personal -- he just didn't want to lose his job. I was stunned. It scared me to think that an obviously gay teacher couldn't be the least bit open after working at the school for almost 15 years, that he had no chance to bring his partner to school functions, no way to defend homosexuality in class without setting off alarms with the administration. I hated seeing how bitterly militaristic he has had to become to defend the sound of his voice. The preppies are all out to get him, to take him down, and he reacts with this attempt at discipline, which really amounts to a sort of cute, prissy feistiness.
I felt bad for Mr. S. I wanted him to come out, make a stand and demand to keep his job. During my time in high school I had pushed an agenda: I got angry and declared myself a homosexual at 14. So I often don't know what to make of a man his age who can't manage to do the same.
Now I'm not so bold. I'm more like Florence, it seems, than I'd like to believe.
Last year, after a junior prom where I danced endlessly with a trophy date who happened to be a freshman knockout from Tulane, I realized that the fun wouldn't have been possible if my date hadn't been gorgeous, and especially if she hadn't been female. I had taken a girl to every dance and was tired of it. I promised myself that I'd never go to another school dance with a girl and the only dance left was the prom. So I was left with three possibilities and six months to let them drive me crazy. I could go stag, not go at all or find a guy and try to take him.
I figured the best thing to do was to take a guy and the worst thing that could happen is that we would be rejected at the door. I told my school counselor, in confidence, what I wanted to do. She warned me that there was no chance that my date and I would be let in. The next time we spoke, she asked me if I had given any more thought to the idea.
"You've been through so much these past few years that I'd hate to see you mess up your graduation," she said.
When I asked what she meant by that last comment, she told me that a higher official had informed her that if I tried anything at the prom, they'd likely revoke my graduation privileges -- which meant that I wouldn't be allowed to be onstage at the graduation ceremony like every other member of my senior class and that I'd get my diploma on a Thursday morning in some receptionist's office.
Her comment made me want to go even more, but everyone I talked to said that if I had made it this far after a mostly miserable four years, it made no sense to risk so much for such a silly reason. In addition to that, finding a date was going to be impossible.
In the end, I pulled a Florence and went to see the Paul Simon concert that he played as part of the Jazz Festival in New Orleans.
Last year, I had confided in Mr. S. that I was worried the new creative writing teacher might not accept the content of my work.
"But Mr. S., everything I write is gay!"
"Well," he told me, "it'll be good to have you in there to bring the guy along."
"I guess," I said. "I just don't want to be restricted as to what I can write about."
Mr. S. lowered his head, hushed his voice and offered the closest thing to a sexual declaration he could give me.
"Well, you know, there are things I'd like to say but I'd lose my job."
At the time I practically swooned in disgust. That's it? That's all you can tell me, and even that has to be a big secret? Oh, Flo. What am I going to do with you?
Now I realize that sometimes there is nothing as scary and un-Christian as Christians pursuing their Christian agenda. Poor Mr. S. could be crushed like a bug by those performing "God's will." If an organization whose stated purpose is "locate, educate and activate Christians for effective social, political and spiritual action" is prepared to fight for the right to condemn homosexuality at school, even to a disruptive point, Florence and every homo sinner and gay student have got to be prepared to hide.
I also seriously considered the idea of boycotting graduation -- voluntarily surrendering my graduation privileges -- to demonstrate that even though I had backed down to the administration on the prom, I wouldn't let it happen again. And after the prom, feeling alone and drowning in self-pity, I decided to go for it.
Of course, decisions like this are all valiant and noble when made at 4 in the morning crying on the couch. But they are painful to face in broad daylight. Relatives all love seeing their little boys graduate. And what about my mother and father? How could I explain to them what I can hardly explain to myself, even though I knew this was the right thing to do?
My mother has always been very supportive unless she no longer understands, and I wondered if she'd understand this. My father and I have an awkward relationship, though he has certainly come around since some jerk in the guidance department told him of my sexuality three years ago. He recently refinanced our house in order to make a tuition payment in time for my graduation. And he's getting a post-retirement job to send me to the school of my choice next year -- Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., a wonderful little Quaker liberal arts college. Could I do this to him? He is, by the way, the one who paid for the Paul Simon concert.
I'm not quite sure what will happen. Asking them for their blessing on this is going to take some nerve, and even if I get that nerve I still have to deal with the school itself. I promised myself I'd be brave with the prom and failed to stand my ground. This is a bigger move and I feel a little lost.
I suppose that at least Florence will forgive me if I cave and take the stage at graduation. And then, perhaps, I'll have better luck next year with the Quakers.