Before the Internet…Before high school gay/straight alliances…And before Will and Jack, the boys from Queer as Folk, and, of course, Rosie and Ellen – there wasn’t much about “being gay” on early ‘90s TV. In fact, I didn’t even really know what the term “gay” was until I came out and my friend Marcus said, “Hughes! You just came out! You’re gay!” It just wasn’t something that I had ever been exposed to or understood for that matter. So, when I came out in 1994 at the ripe age of 16, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into; honestly, I kind of came out by accident.
I was a pretty flamboyant child growing up in suburban metro Detroit. My mother says I used to run around in her high heels, my grandmother’s wig and my sister’s Wonder Woman Halloween costume. Early on she knew I’d “either grow up to be a cross-dresser or homosexual.” My father, on the other hand, fearing she was right, signed me up for a little-league softball team. I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I do remember playing softball and how I refused to slide into home because I didn’t want to get my pretty blue uniform dirty. “Operation Butch Up” failed miserably.
After my father’s botched baseball plan, my mother enrolled me in theatre classes; that’s where I excelled. Being around theatre people actually helped me open up as a person. I started to get a sense of “what” I was, but more importantly “who” I was.
During those years, I grew more “in-tune” with my sexuality. At the age of 11, I had the “a-ha” moment and realized just how “different” I was. It was sixth grade sleep away camp and each cabin had an assigned teenage counselor who never left our side; they ate with us, did arts and crafts with us, slept in the cabin with us and even had to shower with us. And frankly, seeing my 18 year old camp counselor naked in the shower was more than enough proof for me that I liked boys.
“I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more” – Judy Garland, Wizard of Oz
As an adult, I have been known to rage against conforming to any standard and perhaps I developed this personality trait in my early years. However, when you’re not a conformist you stand out, and when you stand out you become a target. I was effeminate, liked to dress up in rather unique fashions and accessories, didn’t play sports but loved theatre arts, and hung out with all the girls on the playground. During my K-8 years, lunch in the cafeteria and recess was a nightmare.
I experienced everything from my food being stolen off my tray to being held up against a fence while guys took turns punching me. This usually ended with me and another boy (or boys) in the principal’s office, and what you would think would be a slam dunk case of detention for the bullies and an apology on behalf of the school to the “bullied” (i.e., me), surprisingly always went the other way. My bullies got slaps on the wrist with maybe 100 sentences to write, while I was lectured about “prancing around the playground like a girl” and “asking for it.” I was advised if I didn’t want to get picked on and pushed around then I “should start acting like a man.”
I eventually found ways to get out of recess as a way of survival. I became a student aide for teachers, helped out the librarian with various tasks, and requested tutoring – all in an effort to stay out of large open spaces with my classmates. But, this didn’t last forever and the school administration started forcing me to eat in the cafeteria and go out for recess as a way to “integrate me with society.” The bullying and harassment got worse as the guys got older and bigger and I eventually was “removed from the student body” due to the fact that I was deemed “a disruptive student” – a punishment reserved for the worst kids who were so bad that they threatened school faculty and staff – and was “sent” to another school.
The summer after sixth grade, at the age of 12, I had my first “experience” with a boy who lived on my block. As much as I enjoyed my first “summer fling,” this very early sexual awakening scared me. I started to have feelings for the other boys around me and I knew that wasn’t “normal” – at least not in the sense I’d been taught – so I started asking the big question: What exactly is “normal?”
School got a little better but not by much, and by the time I arrived at high school, the harassment and bullying went from name calling and minor pushing to physical violence, which included slamming into lockers, bloody noses from punches in the face, and the word “faggot” becoming my unofficial nickname. The one difference about high school was that I already had allies waiting for me. My sister had just graduated and left behind a few friends who protected me. Most notably were those students in the theatre department who had their suspicions that I was gay. Apparently, I wasn’t the first gay kid to walk through the halls of the school, nor the doors of the drama department.
The few gay trailblazers before me came out in a big spectacular way – and then disappeared. No one knew what happened to them nor did anyone try to find out. Remember, in the 90’s we didn’t have Facebook or cell phones, so existing in a bubble wasn’t difficult. But I was 16 and a junior in high school when my bubble popped, and frankly, my coming out story isn’t some big spectacular moment nor was it some groundbreaking, tear-filled Lifetime movie scene.
“Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up.” – Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
It was at a theatre department cast party held at someone’s house. We were all sitting around discussing life over coffee when someone had the bright idea to go around the table and have everyone divulge a secret. As I look back, I realize it was a planned effort to bring me out of the closet. And while my “friends” may have been doing this for their own amusement, it was the push I needed to be honest with myself for the first time.
When it was my turn I said, “I’m sorry guys but I don’t know what to tell you. My life is a fairly open book and I pretty much tell you everything anyway.” My friend Marcus piped up and said, “Ok, Hughes, I have a question for you: Are you gay?” I immediately said, “No, I’m not gay.” And when I saw everyone’s disappointed expressions, I said, “Well, I don’t think I am.” And they all looked up in excitement and someone said, “I’ll put on another pot of coffee.” That was the night I confessed, “Yes, I guess, I’m gay!”
By Monday morning the entire school knew and I was “officially” out of the closet. Afterward, everyone started to distance themselves from me. I was left with only a few friends that would still speak to me in public. This forced me to turn to the older 20-something’s that I worked with and they were all too-supportive when they heard the news. In fact, word spread like wildfire and it wasn’t too long before the word spread to my little brother’s junior high school.
He came home one day and said, “Everyone at school is saying that you’re gay.” I just deflected my little brother’s inquiries, saying, “They’ve always said I was gay. What’s different now?” In reality, I was living somewhat of a double-life and felt truly ostracized, but that made me stronger. I was forced to develop a rock-hard shell and thus gave birth to my inner “queen!”
“You have to be self-reliant and strong to survive in this town. Otherwise you will be destroyed.” – Joan Crawford
Instead of keeping a low-profile and cowering in corners, I strut my stuff down the high school halls as if I were walking’ on a catwalk. The secret was out and I didn’t care. While the others before me made a big splash coming out and then disappeared, my coming out was pretty quiet; but I made it so the aftermath was bigger than all of those previous “gay student announcements” combined.
I felt I owed it to them to be bigger and not be silenced by the ignorance and discrimination of society. I wouldn’t back down and I wasn’t scared to talk back. And I didn’t just stop with the kids around me, I went after teachers too. No one was safe and it was almost as if the residual energy of every gay kid who walked those halls before me took over and forced that school to change. Still, it wasn’t easy.
Keeping quiet at home while being out and proud outside was proving rather difficult. When I snagged myself an older boyfriend, my mother became increasingly suspicious, not about me being gay but about my “extracurricular activities” with a new “boy-slash-friend” that she had never met. That’s when I decided to end the ruse and come out to my family. In the process, I introduced my boyfriend to my parents, who were not all too pleased to learn that I was dating someone seven years my senior, but they knew I was responsible and careful and that there was nothing they could do to stop me, so they stood by me and let me have my freedom under their watchful eye. In the long run it worked out better that way. I now had allies when the school administration suggested I transfer to a different school. My refusal came off much more powerful when my parents stood by my side and defended my choice. Whether it was the right or wrong choice, it didn’t matter. I was free to make mistakes but always had a place to go home to, which sadly is more than I can say for some gay teens that are deprived of a simple support system at home.
“The regrets of yesterday and the fear of tomorrow can kill you.” – Liza Minelli
As for me, I’ve become what I always wanted – a strong independent gay man that doesn’t need to hide in the closet nor be the main attraction at a gay pride parade. I’m a better person today for embracing who I am but I have to admit this wasn’t clear until a few years ago. I was visiting my family for the holidays and ran into someone who worked at my high school.
She confessed that my coming out in high school was one of the most courageous things that she had ever seen any young person do in her life, and she felt that I opened the metaphorical “closet doors” for a large number of students that followed in my footsteps. I found out the school now has a gay/straight student alliance and their very own “Day of Silence” in honor of those gay teens that were/are trapped by the silence. For the first time in my life I understood that what I had done for my own survival actually meant something in the grand scheme of things.
So, on this Day of Silence, I will leave you with some good advice about being a gay teen in high school: Remember, whether you are trapped by silence or living out loud, your day will come and you will rise up.
Written by Kevin Hughes
- How do you deal with other kids calling you names or physically assaulting you? Gay bullying is something that I experienced all too often in school and I did what I had to do to survive. My best advice is to leverage your quick wit to talk your way out of potentially violent situations. Use your best personality attributes to gain the upper hand when you encounter your thug, and above all else, stand your ground. You can’t run away from bullies when you’re a kid, otherwise you’ll be running for the rest of your life. Recruit some allies that you know and make sure you are seen with them in public. Bullies are less likely to approach someone that has an entourage. Also, this tactic can create an illusion of protection even when you are alone. No one is going to push around a “David” when he hangs out with a “Goliath.” And use some common sense when it comes to your safety. As horrible as it sounds, there are ignorant people in the world that may not accept us, so when you’re going out, make sure that you have a ride that picks you up and drops you off somewhere safe and in the company of adults.
- Is it difficult to come out to your friends and family? Well, of course it is difficult. As a member of the gay community, you will be faced with much worse situations. Looking back, I see that the “coming out” experience is your first real taste of what’s in store in the future. But you should do it on your own time and not anyone else’s calendar. It’s your life! So live it the way you want!
- What about sex? You should wait and experience your first time with someone that you love and that you know loves you. And also, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, USE PROTECTION! You’re not invincible and just because the guys in the advertisements for the HIV retrovirus cocktails look hot as they climb mountains and wind surf, that is not always the face of AIDS.