Blue, green, or brown were okay on Thursdays. But not yellow, red, or orange. Those were fruit colors and spoke volumes about you if you wore them on the wrong day. The thing is, when these rules dominated parts of my life in fourth and fifth grade, there was no one to tell how important the rules were to me. I didn’t know what it was to be a fruit, why that was bad, or that I was one.
Somehow, a year before we had any talk about sexual reproduction in Catholic grade school, the children were enforcing heterosexuality. If you dropped something in the hallway while in line waiting to enter the classroom, you’d be better off leaving it on the floor than bending over and then hearing the requisite kissing sounds being made, followed by the uproar of laughter. If the nuns knew what was being suggested, they did not let on or do anything to stop it.
Enforcement of heterosexuality was everywhere. Feast days of saints, for example, were peppered with pleas to overcome sensuality (St. Clement), to guard virgins in chastity (St. Joseph), to “flower” as a virgin (St. Bibiana), to die rather than have sex (Sts. Lucy, Prisca, Dorothy, and others), to be a perfect spouse (St. Frances of Rome), to parent (Sts. Marius, Martha, and Frances of Rome), and to brush your teeth (St. Apollonia).
Feast days were also normed by gender when I was growing up. May, a celebration of the Virgin, was devoted to first communions, girls in white, and boys in navy blue. By the time we were seven years old, we had been told to confess our impure thoughts, whatever the hell those were. We knew the concept of lust long before we felt the actual stirrings of goal-directed desire.
Baptisms. The naming of infants. Lining up for church services or recess. Scoldings for talking “like a girl.” Flower girls and ring bearers. Confirmation names. Bridal showers and bachelor parties. These were all part of the process of heterosexualizing us. Thing is they didn’t work for me back then. My name (rhymes with fairy) fit in about as well as the navy blue drag I was expected to wear to religious celebrations. Standing in line among the girls because of my height seemed tidy to the nuns who were so keen on creating a sense of order, but it only reinforced that I wasn’t the right kind of boy, or maybe not a boy at all.
Certain strengths were valued over others, as long as they were congruent with what was expected of heterosexual boys and girls. Sissies, boys who like to do stuff that others view as ”feminine” instead of playing sports and getting dirty, were ridiculed. On the other hand, Tom boys, those girls who liked sports and were physically active, were tolerated, but usually only until adolescence. But even the use of those terms under the guise of tolerance reflected the widespread and profound social disapproval of even remotely challenging the gender norms.
So, against that backdrop, revealing to my teachers, parents, and siblings at age 16 in 1964 that I was not heterosexual was a radical act. That was 5 years before Stonewall. I was still in high school.
Since then, my gay identity has been used as the pretext to push me into lockers, trip me to fall down stairs, ignore my presence, question my trustworthiness, threaten eviction, deny health coverage, limit promotions, prohibit my visiting my hospitalized spouse, and snubbing me quite publicly. Recently my nephew regaled me with stories about being in wedding parties, where there were attendant bachelor bashes and bridal showers — all things denied me because of heterosexual awkwardness about what to do with me. I’ve also been asked for fashion tips, cooking lessons, interior design connections, and advice on flower arranging.
Tuition forgiveness for the children I have not had while teaching 30 years at UWM, family discounts at community events, and significant social security and federal and state tax benefits were also denied me as a gay man.
I confess, however, that in the 56 years since I came out as a gay man — even with all the bullshit involved — I have never regretted my decision to live in integrity, congruent with who I know myself to be.
Happy National Coming Out Day!