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“My dad says you’re a fag.”
I’d been to his birthday party on the weekend, and when a third grade classmate pronounced those damning words. My mind flashed back to how his father had looked at me at the party; a strange combination of mockery and disgust that hadn’t registered at the time. I remember the sick, dizzy pins-and-needles feeling spreading through me, my stomach knotting at the thought that grownups were making fun of me, even talking about me negatively.
The weight of that judgment was crushing. Grownups were the gods of our universe as children, so this was utterly damning.
Did everyone’s parents think this about me? Did my own? I had a high-pitched voice. I was “artistic.” I talked a lot, and was highly articulate for a child. I didn’t like violence. I used a napkin when I ate. I loved music, and I loved to sing.
I was eight years old, and I was terrified. Before that moment, I’d merely been called what my male peers clearly considered to be the worst thing in the world for a boy to be called: girl.
And now, this terrible new word had been assigned to me, by an adult no less — fag. The word, first uttered at that birthday party, would follow me through my remaining three years at that school. Fag. Girl. Homo. Gay. One-on-one, I was generally well liked. This changed instantly in a group, or a pack of my peers. In a group, I became “the girly-fag,” which my peers were sure to remind me of daily.
I realized I was, in fact gay, when I was ten years old. I’d always known I was different, and with the onset of puberty, the rush or hormones and the fact that while I enjoyed the company of girls (who didn’t, for what it’s worth, mock me or insult me) I had no attraction to them, which was devastating to me. I realized that I was the very thing that my tormentors had told me I was. For a few years I prayed to be straight, every night as I cried in my bed.
Eventually, I started praying to die in my sleep.
I transferred to a school in another district at the other end of the city for middle and high school: a school for the arts, which provided a measure of relief for my difference that had been absent at my other schools.
But even here, while I found that my “creative side” was celebrated at this new school, I was still very aware of the way I was perceived. The jokes and comments from other classmates about seeming “gay” (the word used not only as a noun, but also as a scathing catch-all adjective for everything un-masculine) continued, unabated.
The thought of high school looming in the near distance filled me dread. I spent the summer between the 8th and 9th grade riding the Toronto subways and studying guys my age, and older teens, noting their posture, their manner, their way of speaking, their style of dress. I consciously adopted those postures. If I was going to survive high school I felt I had to get rid of all the things that were “giveaways” to who I truly was, especially as I felt I would need to “balance out” the fact that I was going to be entering the drama and dance programs. I was always very aware of how many classmates viewed me, talked about me.
A message in my Grade 9 yearbook actually says, “I had a great time getting to know you this year. You best be calling me this summer! I love you, and I never believed the lies people told me about you.”
That was the beginning of my high school experience. I played the part for a few years. I expressed an interest in girls. I made out with them at parties. I, occasionally and very briefly, dated.
Eventually, I simply had enough. The daily performance was exhausting, and I was realizing that the people whom I was hiding from were not people that I respected. And I felt like a coward for adopting stereotypically masculine affectations, for using them to hide who I was, for using them to “pass” as a straight boy, or at least a boy who wasn’t me.
When I was starting my last year of high school I was cast in a principal role in the Toronto production of Mamma Mia. That I was playing an almost aggressively heterosexual (and hormonal) character was probably irrelevant to those of my peers who took issue with it. It was a musical, therefore, like, just so gay.
I came out when I was in my last year of high school, to a family whose first words when I said that I was seeing a guy were, “That’s wonderful, when do we get to meet him?” My first boyfriend attended my high school graduation and sat with my family. That evening, after the diplomas had been given out, I caught the eye of another classmate who was standing with his family, and he looked at me with disgust. His father sneered at me, turned his head to this family and made some remark I couldn’t hear, and laughed. For a moment, I was eight years old again, and I could smell the smoke of birthday cake candles and hear the mocking voices of boys who knew the rules.
And I hear that little boy’s words in my ears every year around Pride when the same argument that’s been going on for decades rears its insecure self-hating head yet again: “You’re the type of gay person my Dad hates, so I hate you.”
As Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in South Pacific, “you have to be carefully taught, how to hate.” To any closeted gay men reading this who feel a little unsure of how well they’re “straight acting,” forgive me for pulling a quote from the Musical Theatre Songbook. I’m reminded every year when Pride rolls around that many gay men still have a hatred for gay stereotypes, of which the ability to quote from Broadway musicals at will is a stock-in-trade.
Even in 2014, a quick perusal of social media often reveals gay men insulting and denigrating “limp-wristed, lisping, flamboyant nelly queens” and “femmes.” Those awful “stereotypical femmes” who make life so much harder for all those macho-posturing gay real men who are “straight acting” and who “pass,” while drag queens and “effeminate” gay men perpetuate a stereotype simply by existing, by being — the gay men who come out years earlier than those who can “pass as straight” do, because they don’t have the dubious luxury of hiding who they are.
A great friend once said to me, “Masculinity is like Cool — to be it, you must first stop hoping that people think that you are it.” My friend is a brilliant FTM trans man. And his point about masculinity is spot-on. Truly masculine men don’t tend to worry about “appearing masculine,” or “passing as masculine.” They don’t think much about whether or not people consider them masculine nor place limitations on the masculinity of others.
Truly, comfortably, authentically masculine, principled gay men are comfortable calling out not just anti-gay slurs, but “femme-phobic” statements, too. Truly masculine men aren’t threatened by, nor even bothered by, perceived “effeminacy” in others. Confident men tend not to worry about how others may perceive them. I would posit that the opposite of masculine is not “feminine”— masculine is being a man; the opposite is being a boy. Boys lie. Boys give excuses. Boys evade. Men stand up to be counted, and meet their challenges from a place of honesty.
When a gay man expresses his learned disdain for “stereotypical” or “effeminate gays” what he usually tends to be saying is “I don’t like those gays that my family made fun of. I don’t like those gays that the people around me mock.” And mostly, “I haven’t evolved as a man past the point of hating who and what my dad hated, especially guys who act like fags instead of men.”
Rather than blaming their families, or their communities, let alone themselves, they blame the targets of that inherited hatred. Blame the fag, not the bully.
Which brings me back to that high school classmate who gave me the evil eye as I stood with my boyfriend and my family at graduation.
A few years later I saw him at a local gay bar. He looked at me with that same glare of hatred. He walked over to me. I smiled. In the drunken flurry of his words, mostly comprising various permutations of "f*ck you," I gathered that it was my fault that he wasn’t out to his family.
“You make the rest of us look bad,” he slurred. “And you were in that f*cking musical. You ruin it for everyone else.”
My reply to him, delivered without rancor, was that perhaps he should have come out to his own parents when I came out to mine.
I’ve not seen him since. Not even on Facebook. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found peace with himself, and happiness in life.
Even today, a significant number of my gay friends and acquaintances come from bigoted and decidedly misogynistic families. None of them have gone on in life to perpetuate the prejudices of their families. Coming from a bigoted household does not mean that you will grow up to be a bigot, yourself.
However, I’ve never met a gay man who denigrates “gay stereotypes,” or perceived “effeminacy,” or who tosses around terms like “nelly queen” or “flamer,” that came from a family that was not anti-gay, or who didn’t hold as an item of faith that there are rigid rules about gender-appropriate behavior and presentation, especially for boys.
It’s a pernicious and brutal inheritance, a burden that some men — men who will always be broken boys on some level — never succeed in throwing off. And the only anesthesia available for those men is the hollow bliss of apparently never realizing that, in their venting of contempt for those awful, embarrassing, femmy queens, they’re announcing to the world that someone’s dad still says they’re a fag.
Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?