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Mark Allen

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The Value of Facebook in Gay Lives, Then and Now

Posted: 05/30/2012 12:41 pm

Whether it's reconnecting with ex-friends, ex-flames, ex-family, or ex-bullies, Facebook has allowed a new generation of gays and lesbians to revisit their pasts, providing a realistic, two-way visibility that previously didn't exist.

Using Facebook, I recently found closure with someone from my problematic gay adolescence.

I knew Zach at Clark High School, in Plano, Tex., but he didn't know me. It was the early '80s, and we were both in the ninth grade. I had a big, bewildering, gay crush on Zach. I was enthralled by him. We had zero in common and ran with different crowds. I didn't even have a crowd. There were no gay proms, no gay characters on television. Gays weren't in the public conversation, local or otherwise. I couldn't even gossip about him with family or friends. Did I even know at that age that my fascination with Zach was physical attraction? Could Zach be gay? Did I even know I was gay? The people I was out to at the time were almost nil.

Even if things had been different, I was too shy to introduce myself. The fact that Zach didn't know I existed at all was strange, because we'd already had several long conversations on the phone. Confused? Not as much as I was back then.

In the pre-Internet, pre-Facebook days of the early '80s, "communication hi-tech" was just telephones, which were primitive even by phone standards. There was no *69, no caller ID, no call waiting, no cordless. People didn't really even have answering machines yet. Just plain telephones, like the one Cliff Gorman's "Emory" uses when he calls his first gay crush, "Delbert Botts," in William Freidkin's 1970 film The Boys in the Band. (If that film were remade today, would he just tweet at him instead?)

This no-frills technology didn't make stalking in the early '80s easier, just simpler. I simply found Zach's family listed in the phonebook (a large paper book with last names and phone numbers arranged alphabetically) and used a map (also paper) to find his address, which I rode my bike past several times hoping to steal a glance. Welcome to small-town gay adolescent dating.

One afternoon at home when my parents were out, I slowly called Zach's number on our kitchen phone, listening breathlessly on the receiver. I hung up right away when his mother picked up. When I called again a few day later -- gasp! -- Zach himself picked up! "Hello?" I heard his deep voice saying. I slammed down the receiver. Whew!

I was even more thrilled than usual to see him in school the next day. We had second-period English together. He sat one row over and three seats up from me (I spent most of my time in class studying the outlines of his muscular back and the texture of his mullet haircut). Did he look any different after I'd called his house?

Things got complicated between Zach and me when I called again a few weeks later. His mother answered again and (I don't know where it came from, or how or why I did it: Desperation? Love? Boredom?) right on the spot I spoke to her in a high-pitched, feminine voice (not a stretch at the time).

"Is Zach there?" I cooed, trying to sound like a ninth-grade girl.

"Sure, honey," she said. "Hold on."

What was I doing?! Sweat poured off my forehead and palms, my shaking hand ready to slam down the receiver when and if Zach picked up.

Suddenly, click. He'd picked up the other line. "Ma! I got it!" I heard him yell across the house before almost yelling "Yeah?" into the receiver. Zach was speaking directly to me! "Hello?" he repeated.

"H-i-i..." I squeaked in my high voice.

"Who is this?"

"Um..." I wanted to hang up, but something kept me going. I finally managed, "You don't know me."

"What?! Is this a joke?" He said louder.

I continued my vocal charade. I told him that he didn't know me. I told him I was a girl in his class who liked him. I said we didn't share any classes, but I knew his schedule, where he hung out, and with whom. The more I spoke, the more I lost the shakes. I told him I was calling anonymously because I felt that he was out of my league. I wasn't popular or beautiful. Hey, I was a confused gay kid growing up in Texas in the early '80s! Nobody said it was going to be pretty.

I'd discovered newfound confidence as a "girl." It was awkward, wrong, but my adolescent hormones were raging, and I had to channel them somewhere! I told Zach I just had to call and tell him he was the cutest, smartest, most amazing guy in our class, and I thought the world of him.

He began interrupting me, wondering if I was a female friend playing a joke. Then he tried to get me to confess my first name, then my initials. What did I look like? What kind of clothes did I wear? Who were my friends? Did I ride the bus? Did I like Van Halen?

I didn't know the first thing about girls, so I let the details fly: My boobs were huge, I had feathered hair, I wore glasses, my dad owned a Camaro dealership, I danced in my room to Pat Benatar wearing just leg warmers, I slept in the nude, I lived on Burger King and Tab.

Zach loved it all.

Around the time he started saying, "I know which girl you are, but I'm not gonna say," my vocal chords began to ache. I hoarsely blurted out, "My parents are coming in! I have to go!" and slammed the phone down.

The warm sense of anticipation I usually felt before seeing him in class was replaced the following day with dread. What if he'd somehow figured out it was me? What if he'd told people? But when I walked into class, he did what he always did: He looked right through me. I wondered if he'd even told anyone an anonymous girl called him. I certainly hadn't. What a relief. I vowed to never call him again. Too dangerous.

The following Monday I was ready for dialog again, this time with menthol cough drops at the ready.

"Hi... remember me?" I cooed in my most girlish of girlish voices.

"Hey!" he replied, "Yes!" He was happy to hear from me! I mean "her." Whomever.

We spoke a long time. "C'mon," he kept interrupting, "just tell me who you are!" I'd pursued him; now he was pursuing a me. The sense of validation was a wrong fit that felt amazing. "Why don't we meet at the mall?" he'd ask.

"No!" I'd reply playfully.

"C'mon, I bet you're prettier than you think! OK, give me your address. I'm gonna come pick you up right now." This was all moving so fast! That's when I told him my parents were coming in and I had to hang up again. As I did, I heard him yelling into the phone, "No! No! No!"

Wow!

My third call to him the following night was strained. He kept me on the line but acted bored, watching an episode of Too Close for Comfort on TV while half-distractedly talking to me. The honeymoon was over. I didn't need to suddenly end the call this time, simply cooing, "Well, bye," as we both slowly hung up.

The next day I wasn't well. I ended up missing a week of school from a bad sore throat and a high fever, no doubt prompted by straining my voice.

I never tried to call him again.

As the months and years went on, I moved onto other things, other crushes, life. Zach remained in my class all the way to graduation, and we even attended the same college. We never once met. On the occasion that I'd see him, I always thought back to those phone calls and laughed to myself. It had been a small event at the beginning of the abnormally normal gay life I would eventually grow into. As an adult, those experiences with Zach turned into a funny story I shared with friends. "Well, you won't believe what I did!" Everyone laughed, many commiserated. Kids! Gays!

1980 turned into 2012. When old school friends began contacting me on Facebook, much to my surprise, so did Zach. Now married (to a woman) with a small family, he still resided in our Texas hometown, where he'd become a successful drag-strip race-car driver. Zach sent a message saying he'd seen me in our high-school class' Facebook group, and even though we didn't know each other then, he remembered me. I was amazed! But this was not an unusual Facebook situation. He could clearly see from my profile photo that I was gay. I was pictured in an embrace with my partner of 12 years and listed as being in a relationship with him. Like all the other old friends contacting me, Zach didn't care. I wrote back, "Thanks for getting in touch Zach, looks like you're doing great. Good to hear from you. Best, Mark." A few days later, I approved a friend request from his wife.

About a month later Zach contacted me again on Facebook, asking how I was and what New York City was like, and asking about my writing. I wrote him back. I learned a little about his life, and he found out about mine. We became casual online friends. After some thought, I decided not to come clean about the phone calls. It was so long ago. But why? Honestly, I was undecided. My paranoid curiosity began to stir. Had he known that it was I on the phone all those years ago? Had he somehow figured it out and didn't say? Why chat me up now? I began to brace myself.

Then he hit me with it.

He wrote again on Facebook to tell me that he and his wife were pretty certain that their 16-year-old son was turning out to be gay. Really? He told me he'd written with the goal of talking to me about it, eventually. He asked if I had any advice about anything, because they both felt really in the dark about all of it, in that small town in Texas. Why me? He said I was the only gay person he new, in life or online. He left a phone number.

"Hi, Zach!" I said to him on the phone, in my real voice.

We chatted about his son. I told him my personal opinions about the best reactions from him and his family when and if his son came out to them or the subject arose. I recommended local organizations and resources. Above all, I told him I thought he was doing the right thing, that it was obvious he cared about his son very much, going to the trouble to seek out the knowledge of what it's like growing up gay, from someone he'd never met.

 

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