The story of my running away from home—twice, in fact—is one for another day. This story, after all, is about being a role model for gay teens, and running away from home doesn’t exactly qualify there. Suffice it to say, that my father and I ultimately negotiated a settlement, at his behest, because he didn’t want me to flunk out of high school and adversely impact the rest of my life. The terms, loosely, were: If I agreed to stay in school until graduation, he wouldn’t ask who I was seeing or what we were doing, as long as I didn’t bring any of “them” home. (Two weeks after graduation my father declared me an emancipated minor and I, at 16, was living in Europe. But that, too, is a story for another time.)
When the time came I made the presentation, laying out my journey thus far, and sharing what I had learned about the meaning of homosexuality. It was a pretty low-key affair, having been eclipsed by all that had gone into making it happen. Kids in the class asked questions and I answered. Nothing changed, really. At least not in that particular classroom. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was that plenty was changing in the closeted hearts and minds of other gay students at Branham High School—students I’d never met, who’d only heard of my project through the grapevine.
One such student called me at home one evening, introducing himself as Rich, telling me he was doing a paper on the subject of homosexuality. He said he wanted to interview me. I agreed to meet him. Turned out we were both on the Cross-Country team, so we arranged to go running together. In the end, Rich and I dated briefly (after Joey moved on due to the fact a that his being 19 and my being 16 opened him up to charges of statutory rape), and Rich never did a paper on the subject (nor had he ever intended to). But we did talk. A lot. It was an incredible experience to be able to share our thoughts, hopes, and fears about being different.
Unfortunately, our kind of different was unpalatable to Rich’s fundamentalist parents who, upon learning of our relationship, promptly withdrew him from Branham and re-enrolled him at nearby Leigh High School. I believe they also put him into some kind of Christian reorientation therapy. I had only a few furtive moments to speak to him after that—once when I staked him out at Leigh—and he wouldn’t say much. It was clear that he was traumatized. I was worried that he would attempt suicide. (He didn’t. I ran into him 15 years later in San Francisco.)
Eventually, because of my widespread involvement in everything from Track, to the Chess Club, to student government and the school play, it’s safe to say that most of the school knew I was gay by the time I graduated in 1974. Surprisingly, during all that time, there were only three minor instances of antigay sentiment expressed openly toward me. Once my locker was tagged with “Beaugay,” a witty play on my surname. Then there was the time when yearbooks came out and I signed a freshman jock’s, telling him how cute he was; after his jock friends saw it they made catcalls at me once when I walked by their huddle in the hallway.
The third time I was taunted, which probably would have occurred whether I’d come out or not, was when I was the only boy enrolled in a Modern Dance class with my friend Karen (who later asked me to the Senior Ball). We were practicing in the gym when the class ended. But because I was having a difficult time learning to “chassé,” the teacher kept me a few minutes longer to try to get my arms to alternate with my legs instead of swinging with them (imagine if you will, left arm paired with left leg, right with right; pretty awkward). Boys who were between classes began gathering at the gym door and making rude remarks. In all honesty, I deserved it. Not for being gay, but for being such a klutz.
There were plenty of other opportunities before I graduated for kids to be mean, rude, or violent, if they were inclined to. For instance, there was the time my friend David (Karen’s brother, as it turns out) went as my date to the homecoming dance. We were asked to leave after—during, actually—the first dance. Once again, however, it was the adults who had the problem; the other kids just found it amusing. I remember a lot of smiles that night. Of course, David was straight, so perhaps the onlookers who knew that just considered it a big joke.
I don’t know whether the positive response I got from my peers was due to anything I did, or if it was just a great bunch of kids I went to school with. Certainly there was not the toxic political environment in the 70s; this was before Republicans and religious zealots decided to make antigay rhetoric part of a perpetual right-wing agenda in the media. People didn’t talk much about gay issues, good or bad. So the reactions of the kids in school were their own, not something handed to them in church, at home, or on TV. That, it turns out, was a good thing. I doubt it could be replicated today, although we see that, for the most part, the younger generations who have been exposed to gay friends and celebrities are far less inclined than adults to have a problem with gay peers. The battle for understanding hasn’t been won yet, but the signs are positive.
It really does get better!