"Before there was Glee there was me!" I exclaimed to great laughter, breaking the ice and beginning 30 minutes that would change me forever.
I was in the middle of a classroom in Long Beach Poly High School, Long Beach, CA. Ms. Hanes room, 252, top floor, brick building, corner of the campus lunch time. It wasn't the first time I was on this campus. On the contrary, it was just the first time in 31 years that I had been on it as I graduated from it in 1980.
As an openly gay pseudo-celebrity, I get asked to do a lot of things. I always do what I can when I can, and when I was approached by The Homecoming Project which is part of the Live Out Loud campaign I had to say yes. As a national talk show host, I know how important it can be to reach GLBT teens and their friends as I get many emails and phone calls from youth seeking advice, a connection, wanting to talk to sometimes the only gay voice in their lives, sadly, me.
Long Beach Poly has an active GLBT gay-straight alliance and a date was picked for a lunchtime presentation. Great, I would be one of those guests I used to hate in high school at lunch assemblies.
My good friend Joe wanted to go with me; he's an ex-Marine and wanted to show the kids that two very unlikely people (big, tough straight Marine and the flamboyant entertainer) can be best of friends, so we hopped on our motorcycles and drove to my high school.
I cried on the way there. Because no matter how old we are or how far we go, our high school experience will always be with us. The emotions of the flood of memories, 31 years worth, being brought back to that place where so much of who I am was forged, it was overwhelming.
Long Beach Poly is an inner-city school where many of the students are from the lower-economic strata, even before the Depression. It is has a large minority population of students, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, with enough White people thrown in to keep a balance. They're not a group of privileged students; they know the ropes. It would be a tough crowd.
The main entrance is no longer on Atlantic Ave. in Long Beach, the gate I went through for three years now closed off with a new one down the side. The new one is a GATE, with a guard and such. We walk up and are greeted with huge signs: "Anyone displaying Gang Colors, Affiliations or using Gang Symbols at any time will not be allowed on the premises;" "Video Surveillance Equipment In Use On Campus At All Times" and other such security warnings were displayed. I laughed, and the security guard asked me what was so funny.
"In my day, our gang members would have torn that sign down, shot it, painted their tag on it, and left it on the steps... and all the signs remind me of my last trip to Los Angeles County Jail, when I was visiting a friend," I said.
Times have changed, he reminded me. And so they have.
We get in and head across the quad to the Science building. Half way across, the lunch bell rings. Suddenly, over 1000 students flood the area, grabbing for their cell phones, meeting up with friends. Look how grown everyone thinks they are! Did we think we were this grown in high school? And look, how young! Embryo's with legs and digital devices. As seniors passed by, I thought, America, my country, would put a gun, a rifle, an automatic weapon in your hands in just 18 months and send you to a foreign land. The students were obviously 17 or 18, and I realized, wars kill children. It's easy to talk about it, but go down, and look at a group of 17 or 18 year olds and imagine them in Iraq or Afghanistan in under a year. It's a grounding thought, and when one realizes the average dead soldier is under 25, it's really appalling.
There were so many students. I realized just finding a voice, being unique, navigating these crowded waters and surviving was a HUGE challenge. No wonder after leaving Poly many like myself feel we can take on the world. Poly has graduated more NFL players than any other High School. Many stars went there, politicians and more. Just thriving in an environment of so many who are so different is a life lesson all its own. I know it's the most important thing Poly taught me.
We get to Ms. Haynes class, room 252. Will anyone show? Could anyone care what I have to say?
We walk in and the room is full. There, in front of me, sits kids from 16 to 18, kids who are trying to figure out who and what they are. I couldn't even imagine. In the Poly of 1980 we didn't have this type of outlet. Gay students often hung out with the nerds or the other outcasts. I had no one at school to address my being out. I was out, my junior and senior years. I had no choice, I can't hide, I can't pass. A Gay/Straight alliance was something done in the locker room and never spoken of again, not a group that met every week. I remember at my 20th High School reunion other gay people coming up to me and telling me how they came out after high school because of my example. If only they had approached me in school, i wouldn't have felt so alone.
I met the President of the Alliance, and the VP; two students fully unafraid of being in such a group, bright, enthusiastic. The President introduces me to the students, and I am taken aback. Here I am, being introduced as a success, as an openly gay success, in the place where my entertaining skills were developed almost as much to save my life as to be a part of it. I took Streisand's advice and made them "laugh with me, not at me" when I was 16 years old, and it helped me through school more than Babs will ever know.
What to tell them. What message in 25 minutes did I want to impart to the class? Too many.
I began with the, 'Before there was Glee! there was me!" line, which was full of truth. I was Kurt Hummel, the guy that had to be out.
I moved in to how things never change. I opened my "Memory" book from 1980. In it, there was a place for "Stories of the Day." I asked if any could identify what was important in 1980. No one could, since to them it's ANCIENT history.
#1, Iran; #2 Afghanistan; #3 Gay Rights. Those were big stories in 1980, and everyone laughed about how it is still the same today. I told them how one of my first stories for the Long Beach High Life (the school paper, which I renamed in 1979 and the name stuck. Used to be called Long Beach Poly High School High Life, but I took Poly High School out of the name so I could get on the service list for the publicists in Los Angeles and NYC. High School press wasn't serviced, and I wanted to go to plays and premieres and was poor, so needed to go for free. Changed the name of the paper, got on the lists, began running reviews in the paper)...anyway, one of my first stories was on the Brigg's Initiative, which would fire teachers for being gay or hiding one that was. I told them how I went to Orange County to see Harvey Milk debate, when I was their age, and how his message of we must all be out made it easier for me to be honest with myself and others.
They asked how I connected when I graduated with other gays. Well, I told them the truth; I put on my Dolphin shorts, leg warmers, roller skates, Chiffon top, harnessed up my Springer Spaniel Freckles and became a fixture in the gay haunts of Belmont Shore, Granada Lot, and then yes, the Bars.
The Bars are a double edged sword. Yes, they are a place where like minded people meet. But they can also foster a negative lifestyle. I told them of how so many like me that jumped in full steam ahead are now dead; how gay men my age have lived through a real life holocaust. I told them of the early days of AIDS, the drugs, the bigotry, the never ending funerals. And told them that if any of them think safe sex is something they don't always have to do, then just take a gun with one bullet in it and play Russian Roullette instead.
I spoke honestly, maybe too honestly, about life both as a gay teen and then an adult.
One asked me if "It gets better" as the anti-bullying campaign says. I watched as teachers became a bit uneasy when I said, 'No, it doesn't get better. That's a lie. There will always be someone that doesn't like you or someone else for whatever reason. Bigotry will always be around."
But they took heart when I said what gets better is one's ability to deal with the crap. We change, not the bigotry. We become able to deal with it, but only if...
We own it. And that was the message they loved. I was poor, White, had a Streisand "Star is Born" perm and gay. I could either be a victim of all of that, or own it and work with it. I decided to own it. Because no matter who we are, and I reminded them that there are over seven billion people on the planet, all with unique DNA, meaning that no two people's sexuality was alike either, no matter who we are, we must own it. We must be so comfortable with who and what we are that no one could rattle our belief in ourselves, and they will try. Every day, someone will try. But they won't succeed if we own who we are, what we are, how we are and that each, in our own ways, are fabulous.
I asked the kids where "gay" fits. How many of them worry about their economic status, their race or other such classifiers more? All of them. At Poly, being gay is down the list of things students are. They are poor, they are Black, they are Brown or White, their parents have lost jobs, some don't live at home, others are doing OK financially but have other issues outside of the "gay" one. In fact, it might be a little easier, believe it or not, to be gay in such an environment, where others have so much more to worry about.
We laughed for a half hour, and I'm sure I was inappropriate; sometimes the truth is. When asked about drugs, yes, I did them. And I reminded them more people die of prescription overdoses than street drugs, so be sure to stay out of the medicine cabinet because "one turns in to 10 and suddenly you're eating 35 a day and sending your maid to score some for you like Rush Limbaugh." Joy of joys, most didn't know who he was.
I talk to millions, yet, I was so nervous for this group. But I was so glad I went. I left hopeful, hopeful these kids won't have it as rough as I did because now they can find they are not alone. And the kids were so bright! So attractive! So full of life! If this is the future of my GLBT community, then I think it's in great hands.
I encourage every GLBT adult to get involved in the Homecoming Project and LiveOutLoud. The rewards gained from just 30 minutes of your time will be immeasurable.
Leaving the campus I saw where I pined away over my first love, Eddie, waiting for him to get out of fourth period so we could do lunch. I saw the room I sat in for P.E. because I wouldn't go in the locker room with all the other senior kids when I was a kid. I was afraid they'd catch me looking and hurt me, so I got special P.E. and basically helped around the office. I saw the auditorium where I was the lead in the plays, where my nemesis came to me after a play and said, "I guess I'll have to leave you alone now, you're really talented, I guess that makes you OK." The guy that wanted to kill the homo prior to the play now wanted to applaud him. That taught me quite a lesson. I passed the lunch line, where I ate high caloric food unchecked for years.
I will go back if invited, and talk to more GLB T students. Maybe if we had had such a guest when I was in school I wouldn't have felt so alone. I wouldn't change a thing about my life because then I wouldn't be me, but it could have been easier along the way.
If one kid got one thing from me that day, then the trip was so worth it.
Hats off to the Homecoming Project and LivingoutLout. It's a program giving as much to the volunteers as the youth, if not more.
For 31 years I ran from the hatred, the anger and the bigotry I got in high school as the out gay boy. Now, I will gladly run back to try and ease that on future generations. So should you, gay or otherwise. Go talk to the kids, your eyes will open, and maybe even fill with tears.
Follow Charles Karel Bouley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thekarelshow