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6527212 February 27, 2009

Wicked Gay: An Aberration Story

Just because we are different does not mean we are worth less. It could be just the opposite.

Some people are born green, and I don't mean environmentally conscientious. I mean green as in strange, different, odd, deviant, and scary. Just like Elphaba. Well, maybe it's time we all took off those spectacles we so graciously accepted from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz who parented, molded, or preached to us. Who has really been to Oz, anyway? Who are these people who claim to know all the answers, and pass out free glasses in a needy, lonely world when all we really need is love?

Newsflash: Love is patient! Love is kind! Love does not wear green glasses!

Last weekend I saw the play Wicked for the first time. What struck me most was the simple yet powerful way the story demonstrates how a well-meaning crowd of ignorant, mislead people can drive both cultural and individual destiny. The person who is different, who has a unique understanding or perception of the world--who is green--cannot easily find a place in such a society. Well, sometimes life sucks, so this may be the reality.

But does it have to be?

Kenneth was born green, or at least he looked that way to all the unsuspecting folks who wear those asinine glasses. He is a gay man who grew up in the deep South. Kenneth and I graduated from the same high school class. In fact, it was he and I who choose to leave high school early, each seeking to escape what plagued us. We both had flying monkeys at our backs and green burning holes in our eyes. I'll always remember seeing Kenneth in the school office on what was the last day of school for both of us ... only us. At seventeen, looking into Kenneth's eyes, I knew that he felt green, and because I was green, too, in my own way, I felt a bond form between us that I still feel today.

Since then, both Kenneth and I have burned those silly glasses. We have fully recognized them strapped over the eyes of family, friends, co-workers, and strangers alike. I say it's time for a bonfire! Perhaps no one mourns the wicked, but does anyone out there understand us? In the end, despite what makes us green, we are exactly like you. The irony is that our differences are our common bond.

As a gay man who grew up in the deep south during the 1970s and 80s, it was particularly challenging to fit in, particularly as a teenager. Can you clue us in as to what you went through?

Well, just growing up in the South and surviving is an accomplishment. Being gay, trying to grow up and get out is another story. You have to hide who you are. You are told that people "like that" are shameful and going to hell. They are possessed. I can see how gay and lesbians would run like hell to get out to the east or west coast as soon as they can. Think of the wide use of alcohol and drugs in the gay community ... thanks to all the preachers and such who told us we were doomed for hell.

When did you realize that you were gay, and how did you cope as a young man?

I knew early on ... by the time I was in the 9th grade. How did I cope? I decided that I would hide in the church and school activities. This worked most of the time.

People our age who believe they weren't impacted by prejudice in the deep south during the 70s and 80s must have stayed indoors a lot. How did you ultimately overcome the stigma of being gay at a time and place when African-Americans were still struggling for equality? Do you feel that things have changed for the better now?

I didn't overcome the stigma--I just learned to live around it. My father was not the most kind of men to deal with, so I took shelter, let's say, from my mother. She was a great friend and protector. Things really haven't changed. People just don't talk about it as much. We are still the butt of jokes, and a topic that gets some of the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Non-Denominational ministers all worked up.

You're planning to attend our 25th high school reunion this summer. Will that be an easy step for you? How did your high school experience influence how you view yourself as a gay man?

The reunion will be a great step for me. All those who talked about me, made fun of me, etc. are now having to deal with life in ways they couldn't imagine back in high school. How could they? I have a feeling most are now overweight, have kids to support, are unhappy with jobs or life situations. Now look at me. I love the partner I'm with; love the work that I do; go on great trips; always learning how to do something new; look forward to getting up each day. Pretty nice I think.

I have an abiding appreciation for all the wonderful things about the South; however, I also realize that the culture is sometimes unable to easily accept difference. Many people don't realize how they mentally and emotionally separate people into categories, which influences their words and actions. They are a product of years and years of cultural influence. (For more on this, read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.) At church we sang. "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" ... but all around, people failed to live by that code. We were bombarded by mixed messages. Should we forgive those people?

Try to educate them? Ignore them? It's hard to ignore your upbringing and your family. Forgive them for what ... doing as they were told??? You also need to look at it this way ... the south is joked about all the time for being backward thinking, talking odd, dressing funny, and eating all the wrong foods. They have enough to deal with including cleaning their Francis I silver patterns. (By the way, according to the Southern Primer, if a southern lady has that pattern, she's a bitch ... my phrasing).

Being teased and bullied can be extremely painful to children and teenagers, and leave life-long scars. When my daughter was six, she got a "Bully Note" sent home because she hit a boy in the stomach out of silliness. It seems that, at least in my neck of the woods, the schools are trying to stamp out this behavior at a young age. Do you feel that enough is being done in the US school system to combat serious physical and emotional bullying?

NO! I hear on the news all the time of some kind of injury or fatal action by teens in schools. There is even churches in this country that do nothing more than motivate kids to act in violence against those who are not just like they are. We have a long way to go before this behavior is away from the kids and schools.

I think some understanding parents are still uncomfortable discussing issues such as "being gay" with their kids, while some parents propagate their intolerance in the home. Were there any kids or adults who helped you cope? What can we do as parents to help our children be more accepting of kids who are different than them, regardless of what that difference may be?

No one was there to help me. I tried my best to be secure in the protective walls I built around myself. Parents need to really stress to their children that all people are different, be it the color of the skin; the accent they have; gay or straight; wealthy or not. We need to get them to understand that different is not bad, but a new adventure for learning. We need to get them to understand that being different is what they are to those who are different from them.

After all these years, do you believe that your earlier struggles helped build your character? Have you been able to discern positive outcomes as you settled into your adult life?

That is a yes and no kind of question. Yes, I have been able to overcome the struggles, and stand on my own feet and fight the battles that I choose and need to fight. Pray that God, Budda, Goddess or whomever you choose, help you when you go into battle against me. I'm armed with knowledge and words that will slice you in two (figuratively). Yes, having to grow up as I did does make you confident, strong, and accepting.

If you could say anything to the world about growing up gay in a hostile environment, what would that be?

Hummm ... let's see ... You shake your heads at the amount of suicides, drug use, rapes, murders, etc, but then continue raising your offspring to be haters of man and the world. If you want change, then first, change yourself. Teach yourself about the advantages of those who are different. We all have something to offer in this world. Take the time to learn what the something is. You'll find out that you're in the middle of a wonderful world with fascinating adventures just by befriending someone who is from India, working close with someone on a project who is a gay man/woman.

Just because we are different does not mean we are worth less. It could be just the opposite.

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