Saturday, April 28, 2012

Coming Out Circa 1974 - Then, Now and Inbetween

I graduated from high school in 1975. Several of my teachers, primarily in the Social Science department, were veterans of the protest movement of the 1960's. One relayed her experiences  at the 1968 Grant Park demonstrations during that years Democratic Convention. She could also tell us, down to what she was wearing that day, of Kennedy's assasination and her emotions at the time. They had been "shit disturbers" in their youth. They were still "shit disturbers" during my high school years, but now they were "shit disturbers" with professions, property, decent incomes and a secure retirement. They were determined that, if it were possible, their students would not be afflicted with suburban isolation and myopia. They were determined not only to teach facts, but to guide and illuminate.

We were taught civics by participation in a mock government. We drafted laws and formed strategies to get them passed. We were made to understand the difference between socialism, communism and capitalism and the positive and negative impacts of each system through lectures followed by group discussions. They were determined to teach us to think, something sadly lacking in today's more structured "to the test" style of education.

The towns that the school's student body hailed from epitomized suburban sprawl. Initially built to hold 1500 students the rapid growth of the area had swelled the population to 3000. At this time, despite the overcrowding, the education received there was of a very high quality. The wealthier families would send their children to the public schools as there was very little difference between public and private schools in the education received. Also, the only private schools at that time were parochial.

At the lower end of the economic scale were the kids like me. We were, not poor, just solid middle class. My family lived in a ranch style tract home built in the late 1950s. The garage to our home was on the left. The floor plan to the house next door was flipped over so that the garage sat on the right. Next door to that home the garage again sat on the left. This continued throughout the subdivision making each home virtually indistinquishable from the next. The area was marketed as Treehaven. So named due to the two trees, planted in precisely the same two spots, in each front yard. There were no sidewalks making walking anywhere somewhat problematic.

The homes of the wealthier students, located in a neighboring suburb, were more varied in appearance, although still primarily mass produced. Many had, however, custom finishes in their interiors. Some had, this being California, in ground swimming pools. One exceptionally wealthy student's home sported not only a pool but also a tennis court. Their fathers were doctors, lawyers or high level executives in corporate offices in San Francisco.

At one point, the socially conscious teachers decided to expose us to alternative lifestyles. This was accomplished through the use of guest speakers. These included members of communes, members of religious orders and even the president of the prostitutes union, COYOTE, which is an acronym for something but I can't remember what. I, years later, discovered that a friend of mine as also a friend of hers. had, in fact, had lunch with her to break in her American Express card, when her fame and fortune, due to speaking and writing about her experiences as president, had afforded her the opportunity to obtain one.

These speakers were to initially include members of the gay community. The school administration, at the last minute, refused permission for the gay speakers to come on campus. Apparently, it was more appropriate for prostitutes to speak to students than gay people. At this time, in some quarters, it was felt that one could be "recruited" into homosexuality. A group of us were eventually able to speak with them by bringing them in quietly during lunch period one afternoon.

During this period, San Francisco was occasionally referred to as "The Gay Mecca", due to it's tolerant and permissive atmosphere. Several teachers, although, none of them openly, were gay. These included my Drama teacher, who later, after graduation, became a friend and mentor, also a  couple of the English and Art teachers. There was one extremely handsome and muscular history teacher, fond of the gay uniform of the day of jeans and polo shirts, which showed off his large chest and biceps. I once saw him being dropped off at school by an equally handsome and muscular man in an equally handsome sports car. It was not until sometime later I realized that it must have been his partner. He and I argued frequently due to his conservative world view, except, it would, seem when it came to his sexuality.

One of the "shit disturbing" teachers had finally decided that he had had enough. One day, tape recorder running, he came out to his class. He said, "The administration refused to let gay speakers on campus. I am here to tell you that for the past 10 years you have been taught by a gay man. "

The reaction was amazing to watch. The teacher had consulted a lawyer and knew he could not be touched. Still, the gay teachers ran from this admission keeping it, and the teacher at arms length.

During this period I was singled out, admittedly due in part to my unique and colorful sense of personal style, to bear the brunt of the anti gay feelings going on in the school as well as the community. I heard the term fag often. Rocks were once thrown at me from across a street as this slur was being shouted. Another time, a hot drink was thrown at me as I was walking across campus as this slur was used. These attacks came up for discussion in a class I was in. Several people said things such as "Well I know this person and...". After being referred to several times as "this person" , I finally stated "O.K. everyone, we all know we are talking about me." What I find bothersome to this day is that the school administration never took any sort of action about the harassment.

One day the teacher that had come out stopped me in the hallway. He suggested that I think about my orientation. I was upset and angry. I was straight! I was not gay!

It was then I began to think and question. As I stated, these teachers were determined to illuminate. This man opened a door I had kept locked and pushed me through it. I will always be grateful to him. On the other side of the door the lights were on.

Unless you experience this revelation first hand you cannot imagine what it is like. Feelings I had for years, suppressed or rationalized as something, anything else suddenly made sense. I felt free and unburdened from the weight of my own denial.

I moved, at 19, as soon as I was economically able, to North Oakland and later to San Francisco where I could live my life as an out gay man without fear of reprisal.

Several months ago, while sharing the laundry room with a young straight man who lives in our building with his wife, he referred to my partner, completely naturally, as my husband. It dawned on me then how far we have come from my high school days. However, when I hear of teens taking their own lives due to the bullying they receive over their sexuality, I realize how far we still have to go.


1 comment:

  1. thank you for sharing this; you have had an amazing life.
    And you are a good writer.