It seems like a hundred years ago, but it is more likely thirty. I was a typical grade school student somewhere in the wasteland of Central California, there in the farmland of the San Juaquin Valley. I have not had reason to return to that small rural town – that commonplace grammar school – nor to look up any of those students that grew up through the grades with me from kindergarten through high school. Nothing stands out in my mind as rare or particularly unusual about my childhood at school. I think I was educated in the manner of the day about as well as the other postwar baby boomers throughout the country. But it does amazes me how clearly certain events stand out in my mind as vividly as if they had taken place last week or a month ago.
Not long ago, I happened to run into one of my classmates after all these years. In itself this is nothing odd or unusual. No doubt, many who stay close to the place of their birth or childhood happen upon kids they went to school with, from time to time. It is a bit more unusual to encounter a former classmate years later in a totally different environment, a different city, a different world. No doubt, we all ponder the fate of those we first went to school with, when some bit of trivia jogs our memories. Class reunions formalize our desire to know who made it and who didn’t. But it was like traveling to another planet, to encounter Leonard once again after all these years. Circumstances being as they are, oddly enough, I had encountered him once before about ten years after we graduated from high school. Twenty some years later, the story had come to an unexpected conclusion.
Just about every class seems to have a Leonard. From the initial day of first grade until the last diploma was received, ending high school, I felt sorry for Leonard – kindhearted soul that I have always been. Nevertheless, I knew immediately to keep my distance from that kid. In the early years of school – not wanting to stand out, be different, or get in trouble with the other kids – I knew that conforming was the key to growing up with one’s person intact. Poor Leonard either didn’t know that, or just couldn’t conform if he wanted to. From day one everyone had his number, and everybody made him pay. He was the intolerable. He was different.
Just standing there, he exuded an aura of “differentness.” First of all, he was small. He was “scrawny.” He was thin. He looked weak, vulnerable, afraid. He didn’t look like he could play baseball or run a race or catch a ball. He looked like a sissy. Very early on we all knew what sissies were. We knew what they were like and how they acted. Nobody likes a sissy. Leonard was a sissy. He played hopscotch with the girls, and never got near the baseball diamond. He talked in a squeaky voice and dressed funny. At least, we thought it was funny. He got picked on all the time by the boys, and as time went on he got teased by the girls.
He was always last when choosing sides for football, and just sort of ran back and forth during the game. Nobody ever threw the ball to him. He didn’t want them to anyway. He seemed normal enough for the most part. He read as well as most, did his arithmetic well enough too, and was well above average in lots of subjects. But in sports, he was quite the bottom of the barrel.
The more precocious kids always seemed to be the ones with older brothers and sisters who taught them everything first. They would in turn teach us. We all learned to swear, talk dirty, and misbehave from these kids. It was from them that we learned that Leonard was a queer. Now, I remember distinctly being a bit confused about exactly what a queer was, but I knew by third or fourth grade that queers were sissies; and Leonard was a sissy, so Leonard was a queer. I also knew that being a queer was very bad. In fact, I learned that calling someone a queer was just about the worst thing you could ever call them, and that it was fighting words, so you had to be careful just who you called a queer. Someone bigger might beat you up!
Well, we all took to calling Leonard a queer because he was small and weak and couldn’t fight back. It made us feel bigger – more grown-up or something – by comparison. It was good to know that no matter what, at least we weren’t queer. Obviously, queers can’t play sports. If they can’t play sports, obviously they are more like girls, and play hopscotch instead of football. Everyone knows that. Actually, I didn’t care a bit that Leonard didn’t like sports. I didn’t even care if he liked to play hopscotch. In fact, I had no reason to be upset with him at all for anything. But for some reason everybody hated him more and more because he was queer, and I followed suit.
Young boys have little time for young girls. We all know that. Leonard was more like a girl (as least in our minds), so he was no better than a girl. Girls were weaker, slower, dumber. After all, they were girls. But, as time went on, the little boys began liking little girls ... sort of. We all began getting disturbing news from the kids with older brothers and sisters. They told of things like dating, kissing, and going steady (whatever that was). At about sixth grade, we boys became aware that we were not supposed to dislike girls anymore. In fact, we were supposed to like them a lot. In fact, we were supposed to go steady with the most popular girl we could qualify for. Of course, the girls already knew all of this. They had already learned that they were supposed to wear makeup, cross their legs just so, and get a steady boy to take them out on “dates.”
One after another, little boys “discover” girls. One by one, they catch on that they are supposed to like girls, be seen with them – even smooch! But, alas, poor Leonard. He would surely be the last to discover girls. Then, to our horror, we learned from the kids with the older brothers and sisters that queers not only can’t play ball, but they don’t like girls! And worse yet – girls don’t like them! What girl wants a guy who can’t throw a ball or run for a touchdown? Girls like guys who can do those things. Everybody knows that.
By high school we were learning that there was more to this liking-girls thing. It was more than a social thing. It had to do with our bodies. We were learning about sex. The kids with older brothers and sisters came through as usual, and we knew all about it ... or so we thought. There was a lot to learn. But one thing we learned to our horror: Queers not only don’t like girls in general; they don’t want to have sex with them. Not only do they not want to have sex with them, but they want to have sex with other guys! Can you even imagine it? That Leonard was even worse than we thought. Not only was he like a girl, but he didn’t like girls. And worst of all, he wanted to have sex with guys. I distinctly recall the hysteria surrounding the discussion of this new information. I recall the anger, the revolt, and the disgust that the guys displayed toward Leonard at this time. But I never understood it really.
I had watched Leonard get teased in one way or another throughout grade school. I enjoyed the tricks and pranks that the other kids played on him. I laughed when they hid his books, drew unflattering pictures of him, and even when they “pantsed” him, throwing his pants on top of some lockers while he ran around bare-assed, trying to get them down. But it wasn’t really funny anymore. The kids that I had grown up with were now getting really angry and cruel toward Leonard. It was not just a joke anymore. Leonard was not just a sissy. He was not any longer just a queer. Leonard was a Faggot!
I wasn’t quite sure exactly what a faggot was exactly. I knew that it was a queer. You know – someone who wasn’t like a woman, played with girls, didn’t like sports, and didn’t like girls. Sex wasn’t altogether clear in my own mind at the time. And I am probably safe in saying that it wasn’t all that clear in the minds of the other kids in high school either. But somehow we all knew that it was just horrible that faggots liked guys; and that they should be beat up for it. I still had nothing really against poor Leonard. He couldn’t be accused of playing with girls anymore. He never dated – true. But what girl would go out with him even if he had asked? After all, everybody knew he was a queer. But now it was getting out of hand. I saw several guys push him around in the hall one time, and felt a bitter sensation in my stomach. Why did they hate him so? Was I supposed to feel some hatred more than I felt? I was confused. Somewhere in high school, I heard that fags lure little boys into lewd sex acts. That was why they were so hated. That made sense, sort of. That really did sound bad. But somehow I just couldn’t see Leonard doing that. In fact, I thought it stupid, contrived, and far-fetched. I saw no reason at all to hate this young man because somebody told somebody else that people like him do this or that. I never knew him to be dishonest or deceitful. And I even began to see a good person sort of lurking beneath that skinny frame.
By high school we were all growing up and out in all sorts of places. Each of us was experiencing changes in our bodies unlike anything we had ever known. Leonard – then called Len – was no exception. He was suddenly taller than many of us. He was all arms and legs. Though not quite the picture of coordination, he was definitely no longer the wimpy little kid from fourth grade that everyone used to call sissy. I guess years of rejection had made him a bit of a loner, so when he finally found interest in a sport, it was one predetermined for a solitary life. He had learned that he could find some personal satisfaction and freedom from insults in his own private world – the world of the distance runner. Our high school was long on football and short on track, so any talent he may have had was never discovered. He just practiced alone or with the few other odd fellows who never got into contact sports. Those were fast-changing times –the mid-sixties – and something was in the air.
By the last year of high school, I had finally come to admit to myself something that I had always known. I was in Len’s club as well. But I had always played along, and had fooled everybody in a way that Len could never have done. And as Viet Nam became more and more a reality for us all, I knew that my own struggle had just begun. Meanwhile, in a way, Len’s was over.
We never talked or felt a common bond. I wanted to go up to him one day in the last few weeks of high school, and apologize to him for being such a jerk all these years. I wanted to say that I had always thought it was terrible what indignities he had had to suffer, and that I was his brother. I just wasn’t ready to do it. I remember the warmth of the sun shining in my eyes, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the sight of Len – now a tall, lean, athletic young man, stretching out the way runner’s do. I walked by him. I couldn’t speak. He didn’t notice me. I walked and never looked back.
My next thought of Len came after several years of college, campus protests, draft card burnings, and chaos. I sat in an Army recruiting station, pencil in hand, and filled out the form detailing my life, telling them all about me. Finally, the inevitable happened. I came to question #62: “Do you have any homosexual tendencies?” I thought of Len. No doubt, he had encountered the same question. No doubt, he simply said yes. I pondered and said no. After all, what would everyone think? So I went to Viet Nam and he went to San Francisco where I ran into him several years and two marriages later.
My life had become so difficult. Like a left-handed person forcing himself to write with his right, I struggled to try to be straight. One day I realized that it was a ridiculous and impossible endeavor, and moved to San Francisco myself. For the first time in my life I knew the joy of living in a world where I was truly at home. I was happy. Then I met Len. At first I wasn’t quite sure it was he. After all, it had been ten years since high school. I came to the track meet to participate in a fundraiser of some kind, and there he was. Sporting the then-fashionably-long hair held back with a headband, he looked the picture of health in his running togs. His long beautifully muscled legs and arms, tanned to a deep brown, indicated thousands of hours spent exercising in the warm California sun. He ran with the effortless grace of the dedicated marathoner. I saw the sunshine gleam off his sweaty back, the wind in his hair, the gleam of his white smile as he talked to friends and competitors. In my mind I saw that skinny little boy being teased and shunned. I had passed up my chance once to meet him on different terms and would not do so a second time.
He didn’t remember me! At first. Then he began retreating over the years, and I could sense that bad memories were coming back. For a brief moment, I think he was that little first grader being confronted with a ghost from the past, but as soon as that look came onto his face, it left. He smiled, shook my hand, and looked right into my eyes. We talked into the night and met again the following day for lunch. I enjoyed being with him, but when our lunch was over, there was little left to say. He really didn’t care much about what had happened to the kids we had gone to school with, and I guess I can’t blame him. He was amazingly happy and secure in himself. He was “married” to a great man, and they ran fifteen miles a day together. We parted with a hug. I wanted to hold onto him as a shred of something from the past – something that turned out to be so much better than I had imagined it could. I walked away with this warm fuzzy feeling inside. Remembering all the shit that he had taken from everybody for so long, I reveled in the knowledge that he was so very happy, secure, and hot! If they could see him now!
Almost twenty years passed. The world spins on. The seasons changed and we all got older. Some got older faster than others. I was visiting a friend in the hospital. He was about forty-four. He had had a heart attack. He was overweight. His wife was overweight. They ate too much cholesterol. They lived in a tract home in the suburbs, and watched football on TV. They probably hated faggots but didn’t know why. Just as well. I was being kindhearted. I brought some flowers. It seemed the right thing to do. I had worked in the same office with this guy for some time. He was nice enough. I didn’t like seeing him in the hospital. I felt sorry for his wife. What was she going to do now? He was pretty bad off. He would surely die. What could I do? I stayed for a while, then left.
I saw him way down the hall. I could tell he was a gay man. We can always recognize each other, even at a distance. There is an aura. We approached and our eyes met. It was Len! He looked disgustingly healthy and even more disgustingly handsome. Middle age wears well on some, better on others. It wore very well on him. Looking past that lean frame without a drop of fat on it, those grey eyes, the salt and pepper hair ... I could still see that little kid in grade school. What a difference!
“What have you been doing?” I asked. “Working out and chasing men,” was his flippant reply. “How about you?” I was floored – the world truly on its head. I recall that wimpy little kid in grade school as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Our lives were half over already, yet I still remember almost every detail in glaring clarity. How had this skinny little kid, so victimized by his classmates, come to be this outstanding handsome man? Nobody would have believed it. We all live in a world of illusions, and the illusion of the wimpy male dies hard. Yet I had just left the room of the beef bully Mr. Jock type who played football in high school. His days were over. His bloated face and body were already wearing the death mask. Yet Len was extraordinarily good-looking and fit.
But fate plays cruel tricks. Len didn’t live much longer either. I guess he was too beautiful for his own good. He was diagnosed with AIDS shortly thereafter and began the downward slide. I am so thankful that I ran into him that day at the hospital. At least I was finally able to make up to him what I was unable to when we attended school together as children. I was, in the end, able to be his friend. He was spared the indignity of old age. I will always see him as the virile young runner with the tan and the shining hair, as well as the lithe middle-aged Marlboro man – the advertiser’s ideal. Yet, somewhere in the background, I still see the poor little kid enduring the taunts and insults of the “real” boys who had become the “real” men. His story does not have a Hollywood ending. I would love to report that he outlived them all, and went on to fame and fortune; but he didn’t. That was his lot. Oddly, he wouldn’t care about that. He had always accepted himself, and as a result had lived a happy life. I miss him a lot. But in the end, I am still puzzled by the question that I have always asked: Why did they hate him so?