Finally revealing the last thing on the list

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-WIRE) — “Jim, if you’re gay, I’m gonna have a problem.” Silence. Ten seconds turned into 10 minutes turned into 10 hours turned into the four years we’d known each other.
I was born just outside of Cleveland, although I spent most of my years growing up in rural Ohio and Indiana. I spent those years awkwardly. Small Catholic schools governed by football. I was never terribly athletic, but I believed that to be athletic, to be masculine, to be strong were the most important things a guy — a Midwestern guy — could be. The social order that began on the playground is not the sort of thing one questions.
I managed to get through kindergarten, eight years of grade school and four years of high school without ever realizing it, but it was always there. Bits and pieces of my memory. For one guy, it was his biceps, flexing them to impress pimple-faced girls. Another guy, silly as it sounds, it was his armpit hair. Another guy, it was his size that he always bragged about. God, I always thought — God, I want to be like them.
It came all of a sudden. Like I said, I guess there were signs. But it seemed all of a sudden. It was a little alcohol. It was a really cute guy. Three inches taller than me, with a shock of blond hair.
It went fast. It developed into a ‘relationship’ — that is, there were a few dates to justify the constant sex. But it was powerful. You can say it hit me like a ‘Mack truck,’ or like a ‘freight train,’ but it was more powerful than that. Any physical object can hit you, can knock you down, can kill you. But they only can do that. This thing dragged me along, body and soul, left me nauseous, suffering from vertigo.
A few days after it happened is when I told my best friend: “Jason, I’ve gotta talk to you about something, but I don’t know how you’re gonna react.” Then his response — half joking, half never in a million years thinking that’s what I was about to tell him. “Jim,” he said, “if you’re gay …” He said, “Jim, if you’re gay, I’m gonna have a problem.” And then the silence.
Of course, I don’t remember what he or I said right after that, to break the silence. It couldn’t have been very long. We were on the phone, so one has to talk, or at least breathe, to let the other person know the connection hasn’t been lost. And we talked. Actually, we yelled. The only thing I distinctly remember after that is assuring him I wasn’t attracted to him, which I knew from when other guys came out to me was one of the first things any self-assured straight, homophobic male ever wants to know. He may have said that he thought I was going to hell, but he may just have told me, at my own inquiry, that he thought it was morally wrong.
We met in person, while I was home from college for the winter break. And we yelled some more. I can understand why he was upset, and I appreciated his yelling. Some people you come out to, and it’s like you could be telling them the weather. It just rolls over them. Being gay, I thought, was more dramatic than that. Jason wasn’t like that. He was homophobic, as was I. As guilty and confused as I was, I at least felt sane feeling absolutely miserable. People who treated it like it was absolutely nothing made me wonder if I was nuts feeling all this turmoil.
I then remember coming out to my parents. I came out to them, and it changed everything. It was bad. There’s definitely something different about someone being gay when that someone’s your own kid. I don’t know why, but it’s just different. I think for my mom it was the thought that she’d never see a little blond-haired, light blue-eyed grandson coming up to her, yelling “Gayi,” or whatever little grandsons call their grandmothers. I think she felt betrayed, like I tricked her, or something. While I have to repeat to myself that she’s wrong, I can understand how she came to feel that way. You build up all these dreams around someone, you almost literally live for them, and when that someone goes away, you haven’t the slightest idea where to hang those dreams.
So much about my life has changed since high school aside from my being gay, and it’s hard to separate out what’s what. Every day is a different challenge. Way too much of my time, of course, is spent admiring other guys — it’s so easy to do, because as many women often say, straight men are clueless. Many days, though, it’s a more difficult challenge — it’s a conversation with a professor, for instance, and you’re talking about your life plans (or lack thereof) and you know that finding that “right” guy is part of them. And you reach that point in the conversation — sometimes there are several points — but you reach that point and you have to decide, “Do I say it?” The pressure is there. Sometimes I don’t say anything, but other times I just blurt it out.
I did that the other day. I was talking to a linguistics professor and for the first time I noticed what an awful word “gay” is. It starts with a voiced velar — that means it starts way in the back of your throat, where you can easily choke on the entire word. It’s almost as bad as saying “ho-mo-sekshuual,” which just seems like it’ll never end, like a 45 rpm record playing on 33.
And you say the words. And you just try to make it sound as inconsequential as a hangnail. And to the other person, it may have sounded perfectly natural. If they weren’t paying close attention, they might have thought you said something about a Sox game. But when I say those words, “I’m gay,” my vocal cords drop into my gut, and I feel like the wind is about to hit me. It’s taking one of the most personal things about myself and serving it up to someone on a silver platter.
So why on earth am I writing this column for everyone to see?
I’m writing it so someday I won’t have to write it. That is, I’m writing this column so someday I won’t have to explain myself to the world, to rip out something personal and expose it to the judgement of whatever person and whatever prejudices he may hold. I’m writing this not because I think I’m going to convince you straight readers out there to rethink your prejudices and assumptions; I’m not trying to preach to the converted or convert the intractable. If you like gay people — good for you! If you don’t — that’s your problem. I’m writing this column not for you, but for myself. I’m writing this because I had some stuff to get off my chest, and I hoped that by saying it clear and saying it loud, that I would say exactly what I mean and have to live with that forever.
Again, why am I writing this column? I’m writing it for the same reason I wrote something else very personal years ago: Back when I was a senior in high school, and I was first getting into writing in any way — back when Jason and I were two “straight” friends, and hung out together doing “straight” things (whatever those are) — I wrote a list of things I wanted to do before I died. It started out with obvious things for a wannabe hippie teenager experiencing the wonders adolescent angst to say: I wanted to get high, I wanted to make love to a certain girl, wanted to join a commune. Then later on: I wanted to ride down the Mississippi on a raft like Huck and Jim, I wanted to be a cattle rancher and a teacher in the outback, I wanted to fall asleep under the stars and wake up under the sky. I wanted to write my soul. And finally, I wanted to never forget who I was again.
I wrote that because I was young and cocky and ecstatic with my own day-to-day existence. I wrote that because I believed what I wrote. But as time would have it, I didn’t do most of the things I put on that list. Actually, only one or two. But as I was searching for a topic for my last column — as I was searching for something more intelligent and heartfelt than nuking the Spice Girls or bringing pigs to Brown — I remembered that list, which I’ve carried in my wallet for the last five years. And I pulled out the four tattered shreds of paper that were left, and I read the line “never forget who I am again,” and I thought that now certain things needed to be said.
If like me, you’re gay, and if like me you’re graduating, think about how you’ve spent your four years here. Think about whom you’re open with and whom you’re hiding from. And think about what prices you’ve paid for your silence. When you’ve come out and someone hasn’t been fully accepting, think about the pain you felt. When you haven’t come out to someone, think about the weight you’ve carried.
I had someone e-mail me from a Midwestern university from out of the blue several months ago. He’s out to no one, gets drunk and gives guys head. He’s scared, and he’s harming himself in ways that I wonder sometimes if he even knows. Before you read another thing, say another thing, think another thing, stop. Never forget who you are.
Jim Veverka’s column originally appeared in Monday’s Brown University Daily Herald.