For the last few weeks, I have been corresponding with a man I knew briefly at a school in the South in 1957 and 1959, and, as may be usual in such exchanges, we attempt to find out how we remember it in 1957 and—very gingerly—to find out how we are today. It is a delicate maneuver. I think he liked the school then, and I didn’t.
The school was a conservative stronghold in the South and not a good place to be if you were a gay kid. I knew I was gay, and I needed to figure out what to do about it. I was naive and didn’t know this school would not be able to give me what I needed. In 1957, in the South, there were just damned few gay men out there on whom I could pattern my life or that I could learn from. In that, this school failed me.
I left this school after two years. Afterward, I did the wrong things—I went into the Army, and instead of starting to write as I wanted, I went to graduate school. I planned to become an academic. I got married. Looking back on it, it seems like everything I did was a deflection from what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was middle-aged that I began to live as I had always meant to live. Since then, I have lived without any reference to that school in the South. I live in a gay community among gay or gay-friendly folks, and I write my gay novels.
But occasionally I am invited to exchange letters with other men who experienced that school in the South. In these exchanges, what I look for is that the other man sees how brutal those years were, and how dangerous for gay kids. And now, today, what I look for is acknowledgment that the people I am dealing with have learned what was wrong about the culture in 1957 and have changed as I have.
In the years since that school in the South, I got a doctorate and learned about literature. I taught college for eighteen years—Shakespeare every term—and later, when it came time to write my gay novels, I found I was hugely affected by my experience in the classroom. And I had my children, who are with me still, and whose children are with me still, and who enrich me and my partner still.
Life is interesting that way. If I had been given a chance to think about it, I would have said, “I never meant to get married,” but I did get married, and now that I am doing what I always meant to do with my life, I find that I do it better, deeper, with more conviction, because first I did those things I didn’t ever mean to do. In that way, the homophobia at that school in the South—because I had to learn what it was and to fight against it—has been a gift that keeps on giving.
For a full, fictional treatment of this kind of life, see Race Point Light.