Gay is disgusting.
That was my thought in eighth grade, anyway. We were four men and four boys living together in what was affectionately (and probably accurately) known as "Stink House." Me and my dad, the school bus driver and his three sons, and a rotating cast of two other men, which at times included a leftist-beat poet/author of minor acclaim and the future mayor of our little city. There we were, a bastion of honkey-tonk, dope, alcohol and red meat in a rural fishing village of 400 some six hours north of San Francisco, a rural, updated version of Brady Bunch Americana.
If you were going to insult someone or something back then, "fag" or "gay" was a pretty good way to do it. It rolled off the tongue thoughtlessly enough, and in hindsight, probably served in some way to assert my own nascent sense of naïve machismo. In fact, I don't think I really thought about it at all, or had anyone ask me to think about it, other than a seventh grade P.E. teacher who made us change the name of "Smear the Queer" to "Catch the Carrier."
Shortly before starting high school, my mom convinced me that after four years of Stink House, a change might do me some good. So following a summer sweeping and stripping floors and hauling trash as a janitor at the elementary school, I moved four hours south, a world away.
The actual "town" of Albion was -- and is -- little more than a series of lettered dirt roads branching off a paved road that winds about nine miles from the edge of the Pacific up one of a series of mountain ridges. A day before high school started, I moved into a broken-down van with a bed and no room to stand. It was 1985 in rural California, and the relative noise and racket of Stink House felt like a distant metropolis.
The van smelled of mold and mildew and sat in an alcove of huckleberry bushes and redwood trees a mile down a dirt road. The van was connected to an old wooden two-story house by 150 feet of extension cord that gave me a light at night by which to read. The cord wound from a crack in the window through some bushes and small sequoia trees to an outlet on the side of the house, where my mom was living with a few girlfriends while we waited for the framing and a roof to be put on the house she was building.
I hadn't lived a school year with my mom since fourth grade. I was 5' 4", 210 pounds, the new kid in a small town, and a freshman in a high school of 300. I wore shorts every day despite frosty weather, believing it nearly impossible to find trousers that fit, and wanted nothing more than to be the star of the basketball team. It was, it's fair to say, a difficult adjustment.
A month later it got tougher. During a still-getting-to-know-you conversation with my mom -- a friend's house, me washing dishes, she drying -- I asked if she had a boyfriend. She said no. Being funny, I asked if she had a girlfriend. She just looked at me. I dropped whatever I was holding and ran outside into the trees at night and sat on a log and looked up at the stars and cried.
Gay was foreign and wrong and I couldn't understand it. I was in a new place, far from the familiar comforts of sport and testosterone and now my mom, my only anchor in this strange place, was gay. I was angry and scared and alone.
Adolescence is awkward to begin with, and being fat and new in school in a small town didn't help. Over time -- lots and lots of time, and arguments, and struggle -- I came around, evolved, became grateful not just for my mom and her love, but for how being confronted by her sexuality created a more open, wise and accepting me. Still, it was a very difficult time and a confusing passage through puberty -- it can be tough to learn to be a man when your mom is getting more pussy than you are. Indeed, evolution takes time.
In December, the Obama administration named tennis great Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow -- both openly gay -- to lead the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The decision was rightly seen as a direct challenge to Russia's brutal and ignorant laws, where it is illegal to be gay (but not to jail musicians, kill journalists, and consolidate billions of public money through private takeovers).
The move is a brilliant piece of international diplomacy, and one that should be applauded more loudly than it has. I am desperately hopeful that gay Olympians from around the world have a contest in Sochi to see who can come out the loudest -- a modern, joyful and globally supported second act to the gloved hands of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City.
Obama was politically hesitant to support same-sex marriage until Joe Biden forced his hand, coming out in favor. Obama has since admitted he has "evolved on the issue." and the U.S. is quickly following. While it is still illegal to be a gay adult in the Boy Scouts, young scouts were recently seen passing out pizza to same-sex couples waiting to get married in of all places Utah!
On a recent Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon brilliantly parodied Billie Jean King following Obama's appointment, and declared (and I paraphrase), "There is no demographic that could care the hell less about what anyone thinks than 70-year-old lesbians."
While that very well may be the case now, it wasn't always. But for those of us lucky enough to have found our own evolutions among that long and glacial struggle, it shines with the beauty of progress and wisdom. Now I just have to wait and hope Biden comes out in favor of the environment.