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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Speedway Confidential

The following rant was originally written in New York City during the summer of 2000, for publication in an anthology called Swallow Your Pride. The anthology never happened...or if it did, I never found out about it.
A few years back, I unearthed this essay, cleaned it up a bit, and shared the results for a Pride Day post on a previous blog.
And so it goes once again, as a belated Coming Out Day meditation. It's one of my favorite pieces, and I hope you enjoy...
*****

Supermarkets are much different in the midwest than they are in New York. The most noticeable difference is that they’re always open. One can always depend on a Kroger, a Marsh or an A&P to shine a welcoming light for feverish 3a.m. visitors in need of their all-important comfort food fixes.

Some supermarkets in the midwest have transcended mere produce and canned goods, and have become pumped-up mega-superstores, offering groceries, prescriptions, clothing, toys and lawn furniture, all available to hungry consumers at 5a.m., should the need arise. A person could concievably live in one of these steroid-charged markets, living on a steady diet of Little Debbie snack cakes and sleeping on the latest in chaise lounge technology.

Since there’s nothing really to do in the midwest, 24-hour supermarkets are the middle-aged housewife’s answer to the mall. Neighbors can view each other’s tragic new haircuts, or be a fly on the wall for countless delicious domestic arguments, or share the latest toxic gossip about the town skank. Midwestern supermarkets are a place to stare, to gawk, to analyze, to judge. It’s all we had in the midwest, in the mid 1980s, in Speedway, Indiana.

Around the block from my neighborhood 24-hour Kroger, however, stood a rickety treehouse shack of a gay bar called The Electric Company. We Didn’t Talk About The Electric Company. It was a neutral zone - a limbo. In the eyes of our vanilla suburban community, it just didn’t exist. In fact, fags didn’t exist in our eyes. To be queer in Speedway, Indiana was to be a grotesque tragicomedic Shylock - a darkly witty, cruelly entertaining, gravelly gutter-imp with a heart of coal, sinisterly wringing one’s hands in the shadows and feeding off the blood of cute kittens and newborn babes. Oh, of course, and fags were an abomination in the eyes of The Lord, unclean unclean unclean, blah blah blah. Blah de blah de blah.

The Electric Company was unceremoneously demolished during my junior year of high school, and in its place a church was built. Insert irony here. Not long after the demolition of the bar, I was walking to the 24-hour Kroger one day on an errand for my mom. As I passed through the gargantuan parking lot, I noticed an index card sloppily attached to a lamp post with masking tape. The card, in sloppy red marker, said this:

GAY AND LOVEING IT!!!

Welcome to Hoosier Queer Activism 101. In retrospect, that misspelled index card has done more for me than a thousand so-called “Pride Celebrations.” For someone to write such a statement, to post it in a public place in redneck Indiana, to risk getting caught...man, that was heroism.

Yeah, so the index card on the lamp post inspired me, but I wasn’t quite sure why. At 17 years old, my sheltered self had no idea that I could love another man and call it a LIFE. At best, I thought that the most I could expect from my mysteriously bent libido would be to one day get naked with a guy, get it over with, and say to myself I’d done it, and that would be that. I’d meet a woman, get married, have kids, develop a dandy collection of brandy decanters in the shapes of classic cars, and that whole gay experience thing would be my pervy little secret to pack away in the crawlspace of my memory. That’s how I thought it was done when I was a 17-year-old midwestern youth in 1987. I wasn’t aware that I could be “GAY AND LOVEING IT.”

High school was pocked with even more delicious complications. Our art teacher, a meticulously dressed nelly queen deluxe, insisted upon his heterosexuality and even spoke occasionally of his “wife” and “son,” neither of which had names, neither of which were ever really fleshed out as actual human beings. He bragged and cawwed about the art deco and interior design shows he had visited over the weekend, and he was in charge of stage design for the school plays. His hair color often changed. Yet, please don’t forget, this man was STRAIGHT. And that’s what we believed.

One of our math teachers, a gruff but loveable mulleted butch of a woman, was suddenly replaced by a young man who would later be involved in a scandal when he began dating one of his female students. Parents were riled at first, but I don’t know, I suppose everyone started to think they made a cute couple, and eventually the school came to accept their relationship. Meanwhile, we were told that our original math teacher was on “maternity leave.”

I learned years later that our dykey math teacher was “let go” by the school because one of the girls on the softball team she coached had come to her in confidence, and told the teacher she thought she might be gay. This teacher had the unmitigated gall to tell the girl that being gay wasn’t bad, and that she should accept herself. The girl then came out to her parents, relaying the math teacher’s words of wisdom. The parents, enraged, called the principal and demanded the math teacher’s dismissal. Soon after, the math teacher got “pregnant” and we never saw her again.

And she was replaced by a man who started openly dating one of his students.

The repressive nature of our school came to a minor boiling point - for me, at least - one day at the end of English class. It was during that free-for-all time after the lessons had ended and minutes before the bell was to ring, signalling the end of another school day. The focus of this day’s attention was an anemically skinny, pale, translucently-skinned, chronically silent boy named Phillip. Karen, the school shit-kicker, was letting him have it, not holding back, aiming for the jugular. Phillip didn’t have a chance against this frizzy-permed cat-fight championship contender in a Ronnie James Dio t-shirt and stone-washed jeans.

“Why are you a fag, Phillip?” Karen taunted. “You see, I don’t understand what’s so great about being a homo. Could you explain why you have to be a fag?” The kids around Karen giggled and stared. I watched Phillip turn purple, the veins in his see-through skin twitching and pulsing, his fingers digging into the splintery wood of his desk.

As Karen’s voice reached a shrill, nicotine-stained crescendo, Phillip could have no more. He stood up, threw his books to the floor, and had every last molecule of our attention. “I’M A FAG, OKAY?” He shrieked. “WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?!”

This was NOT said in Speedway, Indiana in 1987.

We were silent, every last one of us, even our teacher. We didn’t know what to do with that moment, how to digest it, where to take the strange, alien energy Phillip had unleashed in that room. We couldn’t look at each other. We certainly couldn’t look at Phillip. The bell rang. That bell was our savior. We tripped over each other getting out of that school, to our safe, secure homes, to our syndicated sitcom re-runs and the detatched bliss Nintendo video games. For all I know, the energy that Phillip let loose in that classroom is still there today, years and years later. I didn’t turn around that day, for fear of turning into a pillar of salt. I didn’t see if perhaps the teacher had a gentle word with him, or if the kid was dragged by his ear to the principal’s office to be “dealt with,” or if the evil Camaro-cruising Karen had decided to savage the poor lamb and was picking his bones clean with her stoned-out teen hyaena friends. I don’t know what happened to him. In retrospect, I wish I could go back to that moment and congratulate Phillip for what he did. Hell, he was cute in a “fetch my oxygen mask” kind of way, I wish I would’ve had it together enough to have asked him out. But at the time, of course, I didn’t know I could do that. I didn’t even know about the world what Phillip knew about himself.

After that incident, I once had a chance to say something to Phillip when I visited my class-mate Christian - a tragically cute, spindly spider of a pothead who lived in the same apartment complex as me. Christian was the object of my first notable boy-crush.

Phillip was at Christian’s on the day I visited - there were always stoners and drop-outs and outsiders hanging out at Christian’s - and go figure, Phillip was on his way out. I so wanted to open my mouth - oh my GOD, I was in the same room with The Gay Guy! - but I didn’t. I didn’t. I just said “hey.”

After Phillip left, Christian and I were alone. After some small talk while listening to Wendy & Lisa’s first solo album, Christian came at me from left field. “So, like, are you gay?”

YES. YES. YES. WHY, YES I AM. ONCE AGAIN, IN CASE I WAS UNCLEAR: YES.

I giggled. “Eh, not that I know of,” I lied dorkily. Despite the matter-of-fact way in which he asked, despite the way his Gummo-gear bare-midriff t-shirt was exposing bony angles of hips and ribs that seemed to be sending me loveletters with every shift of his weight, despite the fact that we were all alone in a dark apartment, Wendy & Lisa cooing sapphic ballads in the background, I didn’t trust that question. That question had been presented to me before, but in the context of: “Why are you different? What exactly is WRONG with you? Could it be that you’re...not One Of Us???”

“That’s cool,” Christian said. “I was just wondering. It doesn’t make a difference to me one way or the other.” We spent the rest of the night watching MTV and bullshitting about our certain impending fame and glory. I often think about how that night would have been different had I answered his question differently. It could have changed the course of my life, really. Or maybe not. Or maybe the evil homophobe Karen was hiding in wait in a nearby closet, and the whole thing was a set-up which I successfully diverted. Who knows, really?

All I know is, the last time I heard about Christian, he was working as a hairdresser and living with his boyfriend. Well, good for him.

I don’t know much else about Speedway, Indiana. After I graduated, I went to college and then moved to New York. My mother moved to another town, so there’s really no reason to go back to Speedway. It wasn’t that I had a particularly traumatic time growing up in Speedway, but I also don’t have a whole lot of nostalgia invested in the place, either. It was just where we lived for a while, and now we don’t. Meanwhile, one week out of every year, the Indianapolis 500 comes to town, and the streets are littered with mullet-headed good ol’ boys sitting on top of their winnebagos, flashing their grammatically-challenged “SHOW US YOU’RE TITS” placards. Who needs to revisit THAT?

Meanwhile, I moved to New York City, where I worked for almost five years, in varying degrees, for the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. For five years, the job was like going back to school. I learned and learned and learned. Working at an LGBT social services agency, I learned terminology like polyamory, butch-femme, leathersex, harm reductionism, sex-positive and all things related to the transgender spectrum. I know what a radical faerie is and I know what a trannie fag is. I've plodded through my own dog-eared copy of "My Gender Workbook". I’ve debated the virtues and dangers of using the word “queer,” and during my time working at The Center’s information desk, I played impromptu case counselor, doorman and bouncer, part-time detective, as well as wearing at least a couple dozen other hats. I had to answer point-blank questions like “what do you think about Rogaine?” and “where in Manhattan can I go to masturbate?” I had to find temporary shelter for kids who had just gotten kicked out of their homes because they came out to Mom and Dad and it didn't go so well. I was also screamed at, spit at and attacked at this job...by other gay folks. Interestingly enough, I can’t cite a single case of homophobic violence by someone hetero-identified that I’ve encountered at that job. Not to say it hasn’t happened there - I just never encountered it.

And through all this fancified big city education and experience, it’s easy for me to forget that scrawny-ass index card taped to a lamp post. It’s easy to forget how I used to wonder how much frustration and passion and will power it took for that person to tape that message in the middle of the Kroger parking lot in Speedway, Indiana. As I look at shops in my gay ghetto selling the Official Gay Bottled Water and as I hear about yet another garishly-advertised and outrageously pricey “Pride Event” (with obligatory drug-fueled after-party), and as I endure the mountains of rainbow-themed merchandise that will no doubt be snatched up like so much juicy pirate’s booty, I feel like the defining moments of what I consider “gay pride” happened in Speedway, Indiana, and can’t be re-created by a garish float topped with waving gym-rats, pumping late-’80s house music from speakers hidden within neon papier mache sculptures of unicorns and giant stilettos.

I can’t help but wonder what good a $65.00 rainbow-colored Beanie Baby leather bear is going to do for someone afraid to join a Pride parade, for fear of being spotted by a relative, or a boss, or a spouse, or a classmate. Maybe such an item of homo kitsch becomes a much-needed talisman of someone’s coming out, I don’t know. Every Linus needs his blanket, I suppose. But then, who knows - maybe the Speedway Kroger is stocking the Gay Bottled Water, and someone’s sipping away contentedly even as we speak, one less index card away from a life of alienation.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never lied about being gay if anybody asked me outright. I don't understand why you lied to the guy with the ribs and skinny hips.

1:13 PM, October 12, 2005  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Sometimes, if you love or want someone so much it hurts, the most terrifying thing either of you can say is "yes".

1:37 PM, October 12, 2005  
Blogger Glee Club said...

Dear anonymous: I probably lied back then for the same reason you won't post your name today.

6:21 PM, October 12, 2005  

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