My first kiss happened when I was thirteen. My boyfriend at the time was fourteen. It wasn't long before we were real lovers. But I couldn't sustain it for more than a year or two. I was young and wild. And I had my eyes on other guys in high school. Back then, the 1980s, it was all underground. Now my old alma matter has an LGBTQ/Straight alliance club. That's progress. Back then, I was fairly out. By fairly I mean if someone asked me if I was gay I would say, "It's none of your fucking business."
Obviously I was gay, I didn't really hide it. And this is no sympathy call, or old guy waxing poetic, saying: "Gee, I wish things were different then." No, I don't. You can't go back and fix the bullying and youthful hate. But you can recover from it. I am a firm believer you can survive anything, including homophobia and bullying.
The other day I was going through a box of letters I have kept all these years. Love letters. Letters I never intended anyone to read. In that box was the sweetest love letter of all, a six-pager, written by my boyfriend when he was fifteen and I was fourteen. He pledged his love forever. It's a beautiful thing, written in his best script, with illustrations and hearts and flowers. I want to publish it, but again, I feel these love letters should stay private, a secret between young hearts.
We're grown men now, and when I see him at class reunions I always smile and give him a hug and kiss. I remind him he was my first real love. And despite the pressures that broke us apart, I have so many fond memories of our time together. High school was not designed for LGBTQ kids in the early eighties. All the rituals: proms, homecomings, sports, even health classes... they left LGBTQ teens out of the equation. But I have my letters, and I have my memories, and when I remember I try and focus on the love between we two boys. It was all pre-AIDS, pre-doom, pre-straight alliances and anti-bullying campaigns.
Recently, a piece of legislation came before Tennessee allowing, even encouraging, bullying of LGBTQ teens as an act of religious freedom. What a sickness. What a broken shame. These laws usually die on the vine before anyone can enact them. Back when I was a kid you didn't need them. Bullying was a daily routine and no one did anything about it. I still wish someone would create a website where old bullies could apologize for their behavior. That would be a real healing deal. I'm not that savvy with technology to make that happen. But a few years ago, I was sitting with my sister and she told me one of my old adversaries had come up to her at a basketball game and told her that he had tormented me, or, in his words, treated me poorly in high school. She said he seemed bothered by this still. His discomfort was a comfort. I just wish he could tell me firsthand. And I could say to him what I am saying to you, "I will never have children, but you who do could make a real difference by relaying our story to your children. That would be evolution of the highest order. I forgive you, in fact, I forgave you when you expressed concern through my sister. But to do something about it, to pay it forward, would be a real amends."
I sit with two memories. One, a beautiful childhood love story, and the other a tragic reaction to it by my peers. Bittersweet by definition, we are evolving. I'll put my faith in that classroom any day. Until acceptance and equality extend to our children we are all bound to do the work of social salvation. It starts with an apology, and it ends in forgiveness.