picture this: i am 13 & i stand about a head taller than everyone else in my class, i am all arms & legs, both of which have minds all their own (hands that flutter, feet that don’t quite touch the ground, both irrespective of the circumstance in which they would find themselves.) i have buck teeth (pre-orthodontia,) no father, fewer friends & a sharp tongue. i’ve been reading mark twain, r.l. stevenson & other ‘boy’s’ literature for the past several years putting me ahead (& outside) of the standard reading list of the time. i am not a wallflower (although the word ‘pansy’ may have been a mumblecore movement, an undercurrent to my passing a group of male peers, oblivious,) & in spite of, or perhaps because of my outspoken ways, i wore the metaphorical bull’s eye of difference on my back.
i was miserable at team sports, particularly any game with a ball that was airborne, other than soccer for some reason, but that was an ‘un-american’ game & it was rarely played in p.e. i was not a band geek, i was an orchestra geek (i played the cello & carried it, in its brown canvas case with its zippered sheet music pockets, the 10 or so blocks from home to school & back again when weathered allowed.) i liked to sit at the front of the class & was a know-it-all, hand-up-in-the-air to answer every question proffered by the teacher. girls loved me.
7th grade was the only year i was called out & had to fight another boy who thought i’d somehow disrespected him. he was smaller than i was, but ferocious & came with a posse of friends & supporters (i had none) who quickly surrounded us. i did not know how to fight (other than i loved to watch boxing on t.v.—but, d’uh, that doesn’t make you a fighter, it just makes you a ‘homo.’) & although that word (homo) never got used, queer did & of course i had no idea that that meant i liked boys more than girls & even when i finally got home from having the shit beat out of me — i just folded into a ball on the ground (an armadillo) & he soon tired of me not fighting back & got up & took his ‘crew’ home — & told my mother that evening, after she got home from work what had happened (i may have cried then), all she said about being ‘queer’ was that it meant you were different, but not in a bad way, just different & not to worry about it, she loved me.
the torture of teasing & ostracizing me by the other boys did not end after that fight. that year i continued to taunt them with the way i dressed (neatly, ironed — a lifelong habit, i admit — & as up-to-date as the sears catalog would allow at the time) & it was this flair, this style, if you will, that finally got me noticed by the 9th grade boys (what, in retrospect, i would now call ‘rough trade’) & not noticed in a good way. that christmas, mother’s latest boyfriend bought me a pair of ‘show’ cowboy boots that i had craved; they were palamino-colored with turquoise & rust floral cut-outs on the shafts & i fully embraced their beauty. the first day i wore them to school (what possessed me?) a ninth grade tough (rolled up short sleeves, dungarees, slicked-back, greasy hair in a duck-tail) came up behind me & grabbed my new cowboy boot-shod left foot as i walked down the hall between classes & flipped me onto the hall floor, calling out “look at the queer!”
i hit the floor hard, my books flew out in front of me (i didn’t carry them at my side like other boys, but in front of me, like the girls did) & he walked past me, laughing “i’ll see you outside after school.” it never happened, i can’t remember why, but i do remember the humiliation & the unwanted attention to my differences & somehow i learned how to cope with it (this may be where the smart mouth & paul lynde-self-deprecating snarkiness may have come into play,) but whatever it was i found a defense mechanism & the abuse stopped, not quite cold in its tracks, but soon enough to make it bearable.
my seventh-grade english teacher, mr. olson (thinning red hair combed over his shiny pate, short-sleeved white shirts, a paunch,) wrote in the margin of an assignment, “robert, remember that pansies don’t cry in the onion patch.” this cryptic message that i never shared with another soul during my school years (not even my mother,) hung with me, a crewel-worked, flame-stitched primer on being gay before gay was gay.