I still remember sneaking a peak at Out magazine for the first time as an awkward pre-pubescent. And that was not that long ago since I'm only 21 now.
It took place while my dad was deciding which John Grisham novel to buy; I was sitting in the farthest, most-secluded corner of the Jackson, Mississippi Barnes & Noble with Out hidden inside some comic book--which was probably just as homoerotic.
It was comforting to see there were people like me. I saw pictures of people who didn't have to hide or feel ashamed, and I wanted to be like them. I didn't understand what was so wrong with these images. They were no worse than the ones in my older sister's Cosmo.
Although Mississippi may not be the over-exaggerated inbred, racist, gay-bashing wasteland that many movies make it out to be, it certainly is not the most comfortable environment for a young gay boy to come to terms with his sexuality. There are no pride parades or high school GSAs. The two gay bars in town are hidden on Jackson's back streets in the less-desirable neighborhood.
From before my first Out magazine, all the way through high school, I kept hidden behind my comic books and movies and TV shows. The few girls I dated were the quintessential beards. Since there was no GSA at my school, I kept myself busy with student council, theater, newspaper staff, and even the fellowship of Christian students.
I may have not known it, but the signs were there from an early age. Instead of sports and GI Joes with the boys, it was dress-up and Barbie dolls with the girls. When most of my friends were excited to see George Clooney kick Arnold Schwarzenegger's frozen ass in Batman & Robin, I was excited to see Clooney's tight ass in that rubber Batman suit, complete with a cape and pinchable nipples.
It was 1991 and the movie was My Girl, starring a young Macaulay Culkin, that finally nudged me in the right direction; specifically when Vada told Thomas J, "Maybe we should (kiss), just to see what's the big deal."
While my parents may think my first kiss was with Paige White, the flower girl at my older sister's wedding--they even have a cute photo of us--I remember my first kiss being in the corner of the daycare at Woodville Heights Baptist Church. I too wanted to see what the "big deal" was; so another boy and I naively gave it a shot.I still didn't quite know that I was gay. That wouldn't happen until 1999, circa She's All That, when I had my first fantasy about Freddie Prinze Jr. Even then, I didn't want to believe it. The other kids at school made it seem as if it was a plague, making "gay-wad" the funny new insult, and I barely knew what I would say to an adult if I were to talk to one.
On top of that, the "cautionary tale" of my long-lost cousin were enough to lock me in the closet for life. Before I was even born, his parents disowned him for being gay. Until the powers of Facebook intervened, all I knew was that he moved to Vegas to become a drag performer.
My fundamental resource for learning about myself was watching Dawson's Creek with my older sister. Kerr Smith's portrayal of a closeted gay teenager gave me hopes that I'd fall in love in high school with a gorgeous teen heartthrob and nobody would have an issue with it.
As far as my family knew, I had a crush on Katie Holmes. She was my beard long before Tom Cruise got to her.
Then there were the very informative AOL chat rooms. After my parents had gone to sleep each night, I would dial up the Internet on the family computer. Made wary by the kidnapping stories they told me to keep me from talking to strangers, I tried to find people who might convince me to come out. Instead I found more people who were ashamed of who they were.
Hearing the anti-gay opinions of my community of rednecks almost brainwashed me into living a lie. I imagined suppressing my feelings all the way though an unhappy hetero marriage until the grave. I knew I wouldn't be happy if I didn't come out so, after graduation, I left the fear of high school bullies behind.
It was a slow process but eventually all the people that mattered to me knew. My sister even assured me that my grandfather who died when I was 14 would have approved of who I am now.
While most of my generation may not appreciate or even acknowledge the hard work and suffering of our predecessors, it's the reason we don't have to undergo electro-shock therapy or pray the gay away. Now that we find ourselves in the era of It Gets Better, Lady Gaga, and Glee, more and more kids will find the closet door a little easier to open.
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