The main character in my upcoming book and I share several similarities. Most of them have to deal with personality. However, I carried over one “physical” trait I felt was important: we are both from tiny towns.
I was born and raised in a small town called Pampa. In many ways, it was a huge blessing. Everyone knew each other, which created a sense of family. It was also really safe. Mom was one of those people who threw us out at dawn saying, “Don’t come back ’til lunch.” We’d explore the parks, search water meters for snakes (really), wander random stores, etc… And Mom never had to worry about us getting abducted.
On the flipside, being gay in Pampa was not easy.
I realized I was gay when I was about twelve. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what it meant. But something in my brain knew it was a big deal. I first wrote the words on paper in seventh grade and just stared at them for hours. The good news is I was out to myself for a loooong time. The bad news is there wasn’t a chance of my coming out in Pampa.
Why? Well, growing up gay in a small town presented a unique set of challenges.
1. The “gay thing” was swept under the rug.
You’d think that, growing up in the Bible Belt, I’d heard the “gays are sinners” speech over and over.
The gay thing was almost never discussed. We definitely got the sense being gay was considered evil, but it wasn’t an overt thing. I think people believed if they didn’t acknowledge something, it didn’t exist. And, because the gay topic never came up, no gays existed in Pampa. That’s some math transitive property stuff there, folks!
Here’s the thing. When I lived in Dallas, I rarely knew my neighbors. The city was big enough where I kept myself extremely busy. And I only congregated with the people I wanted to. Screw everybody else. That concept is different in small towns. Like it or not, you knew your neighbors. And their neighbors. Being the outcast amidst this circle of familiarity was really difficult. People could be amazing to each other, but they could also be very judgmental. As a result, people didn’t discuss things considered “different”.
Growing up, I was asked only once if I was gay. One time in eighteen years. Now I’m pretty manly (cough cough) but I don’t think I’m that manly. People may have whispered or talked behind other peoples’ backs, but it wasn’t discussed in public.
There were no gay organizations AT ALL. No clubs, bars, outreach programs, phone numbers. Nothing.
2. The loneliness was palpable.
They say 5-10% of the population is gay and that number feels right. However, I believe the percentage is much lower in small towns. Why? Well, what’s the first thing most gay people do when they get old enough? They move to the big city where they can meet more of their own kind. The second I graduated, I went straight to Amarillo. Then, upon graduating college, I hauled my butt to Dallas.
I’d say the dispersion of gays is different depending on the location. For example, Dallas may be like 12-15% gay. If Pampa was any more than 2% gay, I’d be shocked. And most of that 2% were students (what with all the adults fleeing for the big cities). That meant there were no grownups to provide support or form organizations or anything.
The result? I seriously thought I was the only gay person for years. Nothing is harder on the psyche than feeling like you’re all alone. I was an island unto myself for years. I had no one to talk to, no one to confide in, no one to tell me “You’re not evil and deserve to be loved.” Everything remained bottled up inside. It’s hard having to hide what is one of the most defining things about you.
3. When the “gay thing” was finally acknowledged, it was a BIG freaking deal.
During my sophomore year of high school, a kid named Raymond moved to town from Houston. He was extremely effeminate, prancing all over the place. He proudly announced his love of knitting.
Now, I’m not one to succumb to stereotypes, but it was VERY obvious he was gay. So what did the town do? They swept it right under the rug. There was no tangible proof of his sexuality. No proof equals no gay, remember?
Until someone found his “Hot Guys in School” list.
The news spread through Pampa High in milliseconds. My stomach ached the second I heard about it. I curled up my desk and stared off at nothing, imagining myself getting outed. The thought was terrifying. At that point, the gay thing couldn’t be ignored anymore. It existed and there was real proof.
Retaliation was swift and it was brutal.
One of the guys on Raymond’s list jumped him after school. His eye was messed up the next day. He got jumped again that day. And the next. A fight actually broke out in the halls between classes. I heard some teachers didn’t stop it.
The bullying was so savage, Raymond dropped out of school. He worked at Wal-Mart for a few weeks. I heard he moved back to Houston shortly after that. As for me, I constructed an electric fence around my little island. Loneliness squared.
4. There’s a true lack of exposure.
Mom came home from the grocery store one day, her eyes all bugged out. When I asked her about it, she said, “One of the boys working at Albertson’s was wearing eye shadow. Eye shadow!” It was a big deal!
Stepping outside a certain norm rarely happened. I think the familial nature of small towns caused that. The fact everyone and their dog knew about your eye shadow the second the automatic doors slid open made the exposure too much to deal with. It’s one thing dealing with a small little fraction of a city. It’s another feeling the entire world is watching you.
Therefore, we didn’t see as many worldly things. That caused the whole “feeling along” thing to escalate. Have you noticed that all these points feed into each other? It was like a vicious circle.
5. People really fear what they don’t know.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. If not, let me just share a verse of Beauty and the Beast with you (did I just out myself saying that?):
We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns
Bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!
In this day and age, when everyone is talking about the gay thing, I think some of these points may have changed. Either way, it’s still harder to be a gay kid in a small town. So if you know someone, be kind. He may blog about you one day.