I Should Have KnownBy Gregory Messina
December 19, 2010
I should have known that I was gay a long time before I figured it out. As a young kid I was a fan of Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Woman, and Wonder Woman. I couldn’t see enough Broadway musicals as a teen and took to wearing argyle socks. My favorite movie in the 10th grade was The Little Mermaid and I dreamed of both getting married and honeymooning in Disneyworld. Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” was, and still is, my favorite song to dance to with “It’s Raining Men” running a not-too-distant second.
It wasn’t clear until later that there were millions of others just like me, that I was a walking cliché growing up with gay clues circling all around me; big ones that were the equivalent of head hitting hammers.
I came out in 1994 when I was 20 years old, seven years after I found a man stunningly beautiful for the very first time, or at least the first time I was cognizant of it. Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride made me desperately want to do anything he wished, if he had asked it of me and not Robin Wright. I don’t remember being particularly disturbed about finding a man attractive; it seemed so natural what with his perfect features and all.
The attractions steamrolled from there one after the denied other. As an unpopular teen on Friday nights, I would join my parents when they went over to my aunt and uncle’s house to play pinochle. I did not go because I was a fan of watching card games. No, I went because they had the Playboy channel. As I stumbled across it by accident (and it was an accident) that first time while alone in their den, I quickly started to realize that I was more interested in the pool boy than the bored housewife trying to seduce him. I was watching Playboy for the men and got annoyed when there were half hour specials on the playmate of the month. My time was limited; pinochle did not revolve around the Playboy channel’s programming.
Yes, this should’ve tipped me off.
Or maybe earlier when I insisted on singing the entire Annie songbook during one of my parents’ dinner parties…from “Maybe” all the way to “I Don’t Need Anything But You”. As I had stage fright, I performed from underneath the table so I was not able to see what had to be looks of bored desperation on people’s faces.
Or maybe this should’ve raised some rainbow flags…
I could never get into watching football and only saw it as a hindrance to eating dinner at a reasonable hour on Sundays. I was obsessed with women’s gymnastics during the Summer Olympics and figure skating during the Winter ones. I grew up watching WWF wrestling because it was chock-full of drama and shirtless men, not because I could appreciate a well-executed piledriver.
I taped General Hospital everyday while at school starting in the 7th grade so I could watch it at night and cried when [spoiler alert] Tania Jones died. I spent days with the theme song to Jem and the Holograms stuck in my head.
There was the time I helped my mother and other women clear the table during a big family barbecue. One of the adult men constructively commented, “Don’t be a fag.” I didn’t realize that helping to clean signified being gay. Though, people do insist that Mr. Clean is gay, don’t they?
I excelled in my 12th grade typing class, a trait I inherited from my mother who used to say that Typing was the only class she got an A in. The captain of the basketball team sat beside me looking on in envy of my speed. His best bud one row back reassured him that it was only typing. “Dude, it’s for girls.”
Three bullies in junior high knew that I was gay before I did. They called me a fudge-packer every time they saw me. I thought this term referred to my over-weight and fondness of chocolate. I didn’t realize until later that they were being remarkably homophobic at an early age. But what did they see in me that I hadn’t yet?
They weren’t the only ones. When I was 15, I spent six weeks travelling on a teen tour with 35 other teens. One night, one of my friends revealed that some of the girls thought that I might be gay. “Oh,” I replied out loud. “Maybe I am,” I kept to myself. I cannot say that my friend was as calm as I was. He was truly offended on my behalf; he seemingly wanted to defend my honor. Was I making a tactical error by not defending it myself?
For a talent show performance that same summer, my friend Deena and I were going to reenact a song and dance number from One Life to Live. When I saw the look in some people’s eyes as we rehearsed on the bus, I quickly realized that if I went through with it, people would not just suspect that I was gay. So we found an alternative that did not involve the use of jazz hands.
In high school, I concentrated my attraction to men on one classmate in particular who had a reputation for being a ladies man. I flirted, I touched in passing, I made inappropriate propositions…all in jest, of course, but not really. I thought I had a chance (I’m not sure at what exactly) because he was in the drama club and chorus. Then one day he confided in me with a concerned tone that he thought I was bisexual. I quickly retorted that I was just kidding, whatever I did or said I was never serious. This shut me up for good with him. The secret I was keeping from myself almost got out.
During my junior year, I was caught in a love triangle except that the two other parties involved were not in love with me. Laurie and Jake were both my best friends yet hardly friends with one another. I convinced myself that I had a crush on Laurie so when Jake and she started dating, I didn’t take it well. I took it much worse when it felt like Jake was abandoning me to spend more time with Laurie. It didn’t occur to me until years later that Jake was the one I had a crush on. I somehow missed that minor detail.
As a frequenter of Broadway, I often passed by certain kinds of unreputable establishments that could be found on 8th Avenue in the theater district. One in particular always caught my attention because its sign above the door read “Cock Around the Clock”. What in denial gay teen didn’t dream about going to a badly pun-named strip club?
One day I had the occasion to be in Manhattan entirely by myself and so decided to take advantage of my solitude and pursue the fantasy. I was ready to see naked men in real life rather than just on pay cable.
I was positively terrified yet excited. I had no idea what to expect once I entered and had no idea what kinds of other men would be inside. I self-consciously opened the door and was confronted by a steep staircase worthy of a Hitchcock film. Once I made my nervous ascent, I quickly bought my entrance ticket and made my way to the “theater”, barely taking in my surroundings.
I was crestfallen when I entered. I suppose that I imagined a beautifully muscular man dancing in a G-string to the hoots and hollers of good-looking men in the audience. It was 11am on a Tuesday. The audience was empty save for the dirty old man up in the corner. The naked performer on stage was sitting on a chair, touching himself with what smelled like Coppertone 8, and he wasn’t the least bit attractive. I had seconds to decide where to sit and so chose the front row, directly in front of him. Anywhere else, I worried, would’ve been insulting.
There I was, an uncomfortable 17 year old wearing a toggle coat from the Gap, khaki pants, with a book in hand watching a stripper at “Cock Around the Clock”. It was not exactly the moment dreams are made of. Shortly after my arrival, the man put on his G-string (there it was), stepped down from the stage and approached me. Oh God, he sat on my lap.
“I’m just here to observe,” I insisted in a panic. It didn’t even occur to me to bring singles.
“That’s ok,” he reassured me without getting up. “Don’t be so nervous.” He gyrated a bit. “How’s your book?”
I ran. I got up in a flurry spitting out apologies, and fiercely made my way to the exit and flew down that hellish stairway back to the safety of daylight. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t be gay. I wouldn’t be gay. I would stop thinking about men. I would make sure of it.
I should have known; it didn’t stick.
I grew up before Ellen came out on prime time and passed the baton to Will & Grace who helped bring homosexuality to the mainstream. This was before Tom Hanks barely kissed Antonio Banderas, before there were Angels in America, before three drag queens Abba’d their way across the Australian Outback and before Rosie O’Donnell pulled the ole bait-and-switch.
I wouldn’t dare suggest that I grew up in a difficult environment. Compared to many, I had it easy. It’s just that homosexuality was not yet discussed openly and if so, it was certainly never done so in a positive manner. My only gay role model growing up was Jack Tripper and so that doesn’t count.
Yes, certainly, somewhere in the midst of all this confusion I realized that I was gay. I just wasn’t ready to accept it yet. If only I knew then what I do now, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.
All of that being said, one cliché didn’t take; I never cared much for Barbra.
Firstly -that photo is adorable.
Second – what a wonderful piece.
Thirdly – ‘Cock around the clock” Seriously?? That’s the best name ever!!!
Thank you, Zara! I so appreciate that. And I promise, I’m not clever enough to have made that name up.
Though, people do insist that Mr. Clean is gay, don’t they?
I think it’s the single earring.
They called me a fudge-packer every time they saw me. I thought this term referred to my over-weight and fondness of chocolate.
That is so funny, yet so sad. I want to hug seventh grade you while simultaneously raising my fist menacingly toward those rude, cruel little boys. Dude… Kids are such assholes.
The bit about Jack Tripper is hilarious. I forgot that he had to feign homosexuality to live with the girls. Now that I think about it, that was kind of a weirdly political show, wasn’t it. Was that the first show were being gay was discussed? Now I kinda want to research this. Gee, thanks, Gregory – I was going to get something done tonight, too.
Nice to see you around these parts again. Always a pleasure reading you.
Thank you, Gloria. Kids are just plain mean.
You may have googled this by now, but I know Billy Crystal played a gay character on SOAP, but I’ve never seen that show. Not sure if that was the first series or not…
Also, that’s just about the cutest damn picture in the whole world.
When I was in grammar school I had a friend named Zack who was gay. Unfortunately, like you, he didn’t know it, either. At first, he would defend himself against the masses but eventually he just gave up. The little bastards broke him. He spent his days joking with them but would insist to me that he wasn’t gay. He didn’t come out until he was 25 and from what I understand, his parents still don’t know. So sad.
Anyway, bravo for finally finding yourself and taking that first step. I enjoyed this story and look forward to more from you.
Thanks for reading and for your kind comments. It’s nice to know when people can relate to what I write whether personally or through others.
Mr. Clean is GAY?
How did I miss that?
It sounds to me that you figured things out sooner and more easily than people used to back in my day when it was simply not spoken about.
You’re a smart guy.
Good to be comfortable in your skin.
I just realized you got the same degree from the same school as one of my sons!
I want you to know that this time I am farther away than you!
I’m in Singapore, and every time I write a comment first it vanishes and I have to try to remember what I said and write it all over again.
Is it like that from France?
That photo is most definitely adorable! Okay, so when are you going to pull all of these essays together into a collection? You know I love your writing style, the humor and the candidness and the meaningfulness of your subject matters. So, chop chop, get busy. For me. Because I said so. That whole scene in the strip club with the guy smelling of Coppertone 8, ha ha, so depressing yet so funny. Love the details like that throughout. Good stuff, Gregory!
Thank you, Cynthia! That is my dream, of course, to have a collection at the end of this. But, really, I’m not David Sedaris. Who on earth would buy such a book besides you and my family? Whenever I procrastinate on an essay, I hear your words of encouragement pushing me on. So thanks for being so flattering.
I hope your son has gotten better use out of his degree than I have.
You sure do travel a lot, Irene Zion. I’m very impressed. And I’m sorry to report that I’ve never had vanishing comments.
Oh, and thanks for reading, as always.
Well, Gregory, can’t say as he has had much use for it, actually.
This is awesome. Well told–such a sweet innocence conveyed, those early years…
And–Jem! God, so long since I last heard/thought of that name. Gonna need to see about getting my hands on some of those episodes.
Also: “They called me a fudge-packer every time they saw me. I thought this term referred to my over-weight and fondness of chocolate.” Sigh–this makes my heart hurt. Good way.
Thanks for sharing.
That’s one of the most adorable photos I’ve seen, Greg. You were fabulous then and you’re fabulous now.
You’re very kind, Marni. Thanks for always reading me too.
I also taped General Hospital in 7th grade. When I went on vacation for a month during the summer, my 8 hour video tape made it to where I could only record the Monday and Friday episodes of each week (the most important, if you have to choose.) And a friend hand wrote recaps for me. This was a bit later (the mid-90s) than the time you mentioned, but Quartermaines are Quartermaines.
This was a great piece. Better to figure it out later rather than never.
Now that your son mentions it, I do see the underwear resemblance.
Yes, Quartermaines are Quartermaines, no matter what decade. The friend who wrote recaps for you was a very good friend!
Thanks for your comments Sara!
Also, my 3 year old son likes your bike (“It same size as mine!”), but somewhat because he thought the basket was underwear draped over the handlebars.
You’ve made it to the coveted cubes!
I’m so proud of you!
I’m sending out actual paper cards and would like to send one to you, if you feel comfortable emailing me your street address. If not, I will understand by your not answering this.
Charming piece! What I appreciate most is your innocence. You were being yourself in a world that is way too quick to label and judge.
As others have said, the photo is adorable!
I didn’t see The Princess Bride until a couple of years ago. Had I when it was age-appropriate to do so, I would have done anything Cary Elwes wished, too.