Return to Pine Bluff

8.31.2009

By John Cloud

The fact that Mark doesn't have kids didn't necessarily mean anything, but as the reunion drew to a close -- bad music, line dancing, gin and tonics, mosquitoes -- I wondered whether I should have stayed in Pine Bluff. I had wanted to escape its coarseness, but had I been braver, less selfish, maybe I could have helped soften the place, change it. Lesbians and gays who grow up in rural places flee when they can, ensuring that the towns they leave behind will be just as inhospitable to the next generation of girls and boys who must learn to anesthetize their feelings with half-and-halves.

Yes, of course, this is changing on its own. The Williams Institute at UCLA says the fastest-growing gay populations are not in Chelsea or West Hollywood but in midsize, middle-American cities like Louisville, Ky., and San Antonio. But Pine Bluff and smaller towns like it are at least a generation away from this kind of change, in part because people like me left.

After the reunion, some of us went to Sonic for some much-needed fast food. Alexander, who in high school had been my faggoty nemesis, had turned into a tall, handsome guy with a dry wit and an interesting job. I can't tell you what that job is, or where he lives, or what his real name is because -- half-drunk and sated after Sonic -- Alexander and I engaged in one high school ritual I badly miss: making out by the car before you have to go home. And unfortunately, Alexander has a boyfriend back in the big city where he now lives.

The next morning, Sunday, I faced down my last Pine Bluff demon: I went back to church for the first time in two decades. More than any other place, Hazel Street Church of Christ is where I had come to loathe myself as a gay boy. In my memory, it stood as an imposing building, formidable, inaccessible.

My friend, the largely closeted bisexual with the Memphis boyfriend (I'll call him Stephen), met me at church. Nominally, it had also been Stephen's church as a kid, although he rarely attended. As we walked in, I saw that virtually every detail was unchanged. There was the same faux-wood paneling in the vestibule, the same Southern men with brush cuts and powerful handshakes, the same placement of the drinking fountain and visitor sign-in book.

None of this looked imposing now. In fact, it looked a little pathetic. I walked over to the information board and saw a posting with the church's budget: only $159,200 for the entire year.

This was the place that had terrorized me? I felt silly. I had been such a dramatic little boy. If I had taken myself less seriously, maybe I could have taken this church less seriously.

Stephen and I sat down for the service. Churches of Christ adhere to a quixotic fundamentalism. For instance, because of a strict reading of certain Scripture, there is only a cappella singing, no musical instruments, and the entire congregation is supposed to sing. The minister is usually called the preacher, and he dresses in regular clothes without clerical adornments.

The service began with some songs, and then the youngish preacher, Mike Hogan, took the podium. He asked for prayers for Bertie Johnson, who was very ill (a 91-year-old mother of three, she died the next day). Before the sermon, Hogan asked everyone to stand and greet those sitting nearby. Stephen and I talked with the two older ladies sitting in front of us for a while, and then several other people came to welcome us. Since so many people have left Pine Bluff, Stephen and I were among the youngest people there, even though we are both 38. But everyone was very friendly to these two strange men passing through town together and not wearing wedding rings.

Hogan's sermon didn't contain much fire or brimstone. Instead, he discussed the seventh chapter of Luke, which tells the story of Jesus's kindness toward 'a woman of the city, who was a sinner' (many people assume she was a prostitute).

Stephen and I sneaked out early; I had a plane to catch. We hugged in the parking lot, and I started my journey back to Little Rock and, eventually, Kennedy Airport and Chelsea. After I got home, handsome Alexander sent me a Facebook message: The reunion, he said, 'was a cathartic experience for me. It's amazing that one weekend could lift the anxiety and negative feelings I've had about high school and many of our classmates for the last 20 years. I had prepared myself to be hounded by questions about marriage, kids, etc. I guess primarily thanks to Facebook, that just didn't happen. The only questions I got in that area were about why I didn't bring my partner.'

I agreed with every word and wished, in a few moments of adolescent yearning, that Alexander had no partner.

John Cloud is a senior writer for Time and Time.com.

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