At ten, in 1949, in the fourth grade, I was aware first of what was happening on the playground. I couldn’t play ball. My father tried occasionally to teach me, but he didn’t know how to teach me and didn’t really know what it was he was supposed to be teaching. I hated recess, because that was when I felt most humiliated.
There was something wrong and the first part of the problem was that nobody knew what it was. It had something to do with playing ball, but it was way bigger than that. It was something about my having done something terrible, being something terrible, with my failing at being a boy. At ten, I was just beginning to hear from other kids things I didn’t understand. I had no idea what was happening.
My teachers ignored it. The other kids on the playground could see what was going on—I couldn’t play ball—but they just had one response, call him a sissy. My parents didn’t want to hear about what was happening. If they listened to me tell them what was happening, then they would have to do something, and they didn’t know what to do. I was already having feelings about other boys, but I didn’t know whether these feelings were connected with what was happening on the playground. Did these feelings have anything to do with being a sissy?
There was nobody to tell me what was going on. It wasn’t on the radio. It wasn’t in church. My parents. My teachers. I didn’t even know if this was the kind of thing you asked anybody else. I went through my whole life before I graduated from high school bewildered and humiliated.
And now, there’s Barack Obama, the President of the United States speaking this week, and I wonder for a moment why I am so moved. It’s because I grew up—years, decades, all those years of hurt and bewilderment—waiting to hear what Obama has just said this week. It’s so much more powerful coming from him than from the Supreme Court.
Adults get tough and do what we have to do without kind words from anyone. But what we’ve all been getting in touch with this week is how it felt at ten on some playground somewhere when we needed to hear what Obama said, but there wasn’t anybody to say it.