It was 1984 and I was a very young closeted gay kid who had just moved to a new town and a new school in Joliet Illinois. During my first week at Joliet West High School my new next door neighbor asked if I would like to attend a school play that was being put on that evening, and having no friends or anything to do, I agreed to go. The play was a production of The Miracle Worker and I was captivated from the beginning to the end. It was my first real introduction to acting and dramatic plays, but it was also my first time seeing the woman who would become my life-long best friend, and the man who would inspire me to accept and be honest about my sexuality during one of the most homophobic periods in American history. I recall the play had barely begun when I pointed at the two actors onstage and asked my neighbor, "Who are they?" And she replied very matter-of-factly, "Her name is Hazel Fuller, she is like the black version of Madonna at this school; and his name is John Barrowman, and he is going to be a STAR!"
John would indeed go on to be a star of stage and screen, perhaps most notably for his role as Captain Jack Harkness in the British Sci-Fi series Torchwood. John would also become an inspiration to young actors and gay men around the world when he officially came out of the closet professionally in 2004. But even back in high school he was never really that in the closet to begin with. Yes, he did have a girlfriend for awhile, her name was Page as I recall, and she was a pretty and popular cheerleader. I have a very vivid memory of one night towards the end of John's senior year. Hazel and I were at a party at John's house (he threw several parties) and at one point we went upstairs to use the bathroom only to find Page and a group of her cheerleader friends already in the bathroom. The girls were all consoling Page, who was visibly upset and next to tears. I don't remember the exact details but apparently John had either just recently told her that he was gay or she had been informed of the fact and John didn't deny it. And I just remember that Hazel and I walked out of the bathroom talking to each other about how surprised we were that Page was surprised by the news. We, like many at school, assumed she knew that John was probably gay. I remember John's sexuality was often a subject on the school's gossip vine.
I was a junior during John's senior year in high school but I would see him two other times after he graduated and both times are seared into my memory bank. The summer after John graduated I heard that he had a starring role in a local adaption of the play Deathtrap and so I bought a ticket and happily attended. I was totally blown away by John's talent as an actor. Even though I was in Drama Club and even had a small role along with John in our high school production of Li'l Aber and had seen him on stage several times before, this was a whole new level of talent and it just seemed to come to John so naturally. In the play Deathtrap it is revealed that John's character is actually a gay man. Playing a gay role now-a-days is no big deal but back in the mid '80's when the early AIDS epidemic had just begun and the homophobia and hatred of gay people was so prevalent in America that it was almost palpable, and playing a gay role was downright courageous for any actor to take on, let alone one just out of high school! I was so incredibly inspired by John that night and his inspiration began to have some rather immediate effects on my behavior during my final year of high school. I stopped all pretensions of being a jock and any aspirations of being a "cool kid" and I shocked a few friends by adopting a "neo gay punk" look (which basically consisted of me shaving the sides of my head and growing out the top and adding heavy streaks of blonde -- as well as wearing lots of over-sized Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Depeche Mode t-shirts). My journey exploring my sexuality had begun.
I would see John one other time. I was at a football game during my senior year of high school. And if any of you have attended high school in rural America, or seen Friday Night Lights on TV, then you know what incredibly hyper-heterosexual environments high school foot ball games are. And as I sat there on my little perch way down at the ostracized far end of the field I caught sight of John Barrowman confidently walking towards the bleachers that were packed full of his former classmates. John literally strode down the entire length of the front of the bleachers. Even today it's hard to describe, but if you've ever heard RuPaul's popular dance track "Sissy That Walk" you'll have some idea of the performance John was serving in front of the entire school on the football field that day! He didn't say it and he didn't have to. In fact, to me it seemed as though he couldn't have been more obvious if he had paraded in front of the entire school with a large rainbow sign emblazoned with the words "I AM GAY & PROUD!" He called out "Hello" to a few of his old friends while waving to them in front of the now absolutely shocked crowd. John's movements seemed grandiose and somewhat over exaggerated and there was a defiant smile locked on to his handsome face.
I will remember that till the day I die. I think it was John's way of letting everyone at school know that they no longer had any power over him. He was free. And almost as soon as he made his grand entrance and was satisfied that everyone had taken note, I saw John turn and start walking back off the field. I ran down to the edge of the bleachers and yelled out "Hi John, you look great!" John looked over and walked towards me. He reached out his hand, at first I thought to shake mine, but instead he reached up and grabbed a lock of my newly blonde hair, winked at me, smiled and said "Nice hair, Wayne." It was such a simple thing and yet it was the first time in my life that I had ever felt any type of validation as a gay man and it was the very first time that I had ever seen such a positive image of a gay man, he was not only not ashamed of his sexuality -- he was defiantly proud of it! The realization that being proud of my sexuality could actually be an option in life was a huge revelation to me.
Hazel and I remain close friends to this very day as she continues to live her dream as a singer/songwriter in Chicago. I am the proud godfather of her now adult son who himself just recently graduated from Joliet West High School. And though John's path and mine were never to cross again I carried the memory of his proud defiance with me as I began to break down the barriers of shame and fear in my own life. Determined to prove the stereotypes wrong I joined the Army after high school. I was going to prove to myself and everyone that I was just as tough as any straight boy and could handle whatever the military could dish out. And I know that my memory of John's courage inspired me when I left the military after a full tour of duty and later became an activist for the repeal of the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and for the passage of marriage equality laws. I guess writing this throw-back Thursday article on John is my way of thanking him for being brave back when we were kids and for giving me an example of a proud and confidant gay man at a time in my life when I was so very desperate for a role model. Thank you, John.
(p.s. John, if you do happen to read this, Hazel said to make sure I tell you that she said "Hey, Baby!")