(this is a love story)
Winter on the north shore of Boston is deep, a cold which clings so heavy it’s hard not to imagine the entire world has retreated into frigid slumber. Though I’d been in South Florida my entire adolescence, loathing the thick humidity and searing heat of the dredged swamps and fantasizing about ice and chill winds, my first winter at college was brutal.
I’d fantasized about other things, too. I’d romanticized this part of my life, four years amongst old bricks, old streets, old cities, old words, reading old texts and learning profound truths as the snow fell, bitter but beautiful, outside my window. In Florida, skin sticky with sweat and salt, I’d dreamed of this sharp cold amongst books and thoughts–
The snow fell hard outside the windows. I was drinking shit hot cocoa, the sort that comes from white foil packets. The dusty heated air irritates me endlessly, and so does Adam. We’re sitting on the floor playing cards, and I’m trying not to stare at him while I talk. I don’t remember what game we were playing, but I remember there being a Jack in my hand, and he’d just played a Jack, too. One was hearts, the other, clubs. For some reason, this made me try to tell him again.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I say, and he shakes his head, frustrated.
“No, there isn’t,” he says, his gaze lifted from the cards to my eyes. I hate when he looks at me like this, I hate when he reassures me. I hate how much he cares and yet refuses to hear what I’m actually trying to say. So quick to reassure, to embrace, to distract me with laughter. I hate this all so much because I can’t get him out of my head.
“Dude,” I said. I used to say things like that. “I–I’m gay.”
I’d never said it that way before. I’d obscured it with metaphor, polite dancing about with words, prosaic allusions to a subject any of the men around me were too fucking dense to understand. I didn’t want to use that word, or any other concrete description, and I regretted speaking it aloud once I’d said it. I felt I’d profaned the air around us, the frozen land outside, and particularly this friendship.
He was the hugging sort. Some men can be utterly homophobic and still embrace other men deeply, especially when Jesus is around somewhere. That name functions almost as a banishing ward, or a magical saining, cleansing brotherly friendship and touch from any potential sexual taint.
So he’s hugging me, and I’m crying. I don’t want him to touch me, though that’s all I’ve craved since I’d first met him. I don’t want him to touch me this way, to hold me, to reassure me with his beautiful, deep voice that he’ll help me fight.
I’d had a fantasy when I was younger. I’d crafted this image of man-love as two warriors going to battle together, holding each other close before marching to war, dragging each other off glorious, blood-soaked fields, mending each others wounds, fucking away each others’ fear.
And here’s a man, holding me, tears in his eyes, offering to go to war with me, to fight along side me, to wage battle against the evil we’d both seen.
But the fantasy’s wrong. This is all wrong, and I am wrongest of all.
“You can beat this, don’t worry.”
I tried to restrain my anger at him, just as I’d always tried to restrain my lust. “Adam–I want to be gay.”
His arms were gone. The stuffy over-heated warmth of the room suddenly gave way to the wintry chill, and now he was crying instead of me, grieving the loss of faith he probably thought he saw in the face of his best friend.
I’d met Adam a few years before, upon my second visit to Gordon College. I’d been selected for scholarship interviews and had flown on borrowed money from Naples, Florida to Massachusetts to attend a weekend barrage of interrogations about my faithfulness, intellectual discipline, and “leadership” skills.
Gordon is a Christian liberal-arts college, similar to Wheaton in Illinois. Most people haven’t heard of it until just a few days ago, when the president of the college signed a letter to the President requesting exemption from regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of orientation for institutions which receive federal money.
Why’d I go there? I was Christian. Rather into it, at that time. I’d done a lot of praying, actually, as many of the people at the megachurch I attended in Florida were dubious about me going to a liberal-arts college. Everyone thought I’d go to seminary instead, expected me to go, and thought going to a “regular” college (despite it being Christian) would be a waste of my talents.
Some people questioned the wisdom of me going to a college so close to Boston. Cities are full of sin and temptation, they’d reminded me. They were godless places, and many good Christian men had lost their way in Babylon.
They were on to something. The time I went for my interview, my grandparents drove me there. My grandfather handed me 100 dollars and told me to find my way back to them in Hartford. No directions or suggestions, just a reminder to call if something went wrong and to “never count your money in front of people.”
After the interviews were done, I took my first train. I remember standing at the station, purchasing the ticket, feeling both a little scared but utterly exhilarated. I, 18 years old, having never lived in places with public transit, having dreamed since I was 12 of going to Europe, was taking a train by myself to a city.
I arrived in Boston pulsing with life and potential. At the station, I purchased my ticket for Hartford, and though I could have left almost immediately, I decided to postpone my return several hours. I’d never been to a city alone, nor one this big, and something seemed to call to me.
This is 1995. There’s barely anything of an internet to speak of, mobile phones were confined to automobiles (“car phones,” they were called). If you’re younger than me, the prospect of walking about a strange city and finding things to do without getting lost might not seem all that daunting. There are cell phones, after all, and mapping applications on said phones. You can look up whatever you want easily, find places that interest you and get back quickly by looking at a device.
You’re missing out. Eighteen, alone, trembling with fear and lust for life, stumbling out of a train station onto strange streets with no idea what you’re doing and no easy way of figuring out where you are? There is nothing more fantastic.
I wandered the streets, looking into shops and offices, staring at brick and cobble, people and trees aimlessly, with no real intention except to see life and dream what I might be able to become.
And then I’m standing in a gay bookstore.
I didn’t try to get there. I wasn’t looking for one, but I’d wandered into it. Post- and greeting- cards with shirtless men, magazines, some wrapped in black plastic. Books about relationships and living with HIV, about homemaking and Robert Maplethorpe, travel guides and art collections. Posters and rainbow flags on the wall, a large cardboard stand-up of Michelangelo’s David.
I shouldn’t have gone in, I knew. I shouldn’t have been in there, so close to what I wrongly desired. The danger and transgression felt delicious, adrenaline and fear and excitement trilling through my body.
And then the shopkeeper said hello to me, so I fled.
I found out in a few weeks I’d been given the “A.J. Gordon Leadership Scholarship.” It’d pay for half of my tuition and housing, and with need-grants I’d be able to attend without taking out huge loans. I needed only borrow 2000 each year, and work a bit during the school year to pay for books and other things.
While it was quite a relief to realize I’d be able to go to college, I was most excited about what it meant. The scholarship was something like a Fellows program. You got a special advisor and had meetings with the other recipients all designed to cultivate leadership potential. Beyond expectations of high grades, one had to adhere to particular version of the code of conduct which heavily emphasized influence on others behavior, conduct and belief.
In other words, I became both a “leader” and a sort of enforcer. We were also required to take on officially-recognized leadership roles by the second year of college, and become increasingly influential each year until graduation.
This probably all sounds bizarre to some of you, but I was fucking honored and excited. Some of this was the ego-stroking inherent in such recognition, but more of it was the potential to escape the abject poverty from which I’d come.
I signed all the papers they gave me, tripping up only a little on the statements regarding homosexuality. I was to affirm in all I did that homosexuality was both a religious and cultural sin, against God’s design and the proper functioning of societies. I should give no quarter to such sexual deviation in others, as I was to be a leader. And because I was a leader, the possibility that I might have had gay desires was inconceivable.
I couldn’t be gay. I was a leader.
I’d met Adam at those interviews for the scholarship. Lithe and muscular, his face angular, his smile fierce and disarming. He was strongly masculine in a gentle, dreamy way, his voice warm and kind.
One of the interviews was a group affair, thirty 18 year olds sitting in a circle while professors and administrative staff sat and observed. They’d given us note cards on which we were to order what we thought were the five most common reasons for going to college. Then, without any leading, we were all to discuss those reasons for an hour while the faculty watched, silently, taking notes.
They threw thirty strangers at each others’ mercy and watched, like aristocrats at a Colosseum or social scientists at a homeless shelter.
It was a cruel and sadistic game, and one I’m very good at. Some people survive existence through money or strength, privilege or access. But I had none of that, so instead, like Oscar Wilde, I learned to dance through the realms of the social, weaving words and wit like magic into every encounter. I love people, and they’re all I’d ever really had, so I’d become good at them.
I looked at Adam and said, “hey–what do you think?”
There’d been a lull in conversation. The first few who’d spoken at the beginning were the ones you learn to expect, the alphas, the men and women who’d been told all their life that they were powerful people, destined to lead. Each of them beautiful, with perfect teeth and great skin, talking with such authority that no one could possibly doubt their destiny. They spoke, and dominated, and everyone else sat quietly, beaten into submission.
Those are the sorts who rule the world, clear cut the forests and crush indigenous revolts.
Adam looked back at me, his eyes alight. He wasn’t quite ready to talk, had been under the spell of the inheritors of power. But he smiled, and fumbled with words, the first person to speak in answer to an invitation, rather than some notion of divine right.
I don’t remember what he said. I could see the observers looking at each other and smiling, straining to see my name tag and then scribbling quickly in their notebooks. I’d impressed them, I could tell. Perhaps I’d meant to, had known they’d be excited by someone widening the conversation, including others. Marks of leadership and all that trite shit.
Mostly, I just wanted to hear Adam talk. I wanted to watch his jaw move, see his slate eyes dart across the room nervously, regard his movements, his quickened breath and trilling body.
He spoke, and I regarded his charge across the grand circle of this absurd Colosseum, this strange battlefield, and I imagined one day dressing his wounds, wiping war-sweat from his face as we stared into each others eyes, trembling before our first awkward kiss.
Adam didn’t get the scholarship, but I did.
He said he’d go to war with me, but it was a battle I no longer wanted to fight.
I figured out I wanted men when I was eight years old. Then, I’d seen nothing wrong with such a desire. Sure, I’d known men were supposed to be with women, but an eight year old doesn’t understand that the playful pre-sexual fantasies he engages actually mean anything to the rest of his life.
It didn’t take long to figure out otherwise, though. An intolerant and uneducated ass of a father helps the process along pretty efficiently, as does all the policing by others through school. I got less pain and brutality on that matter from other boys. It was the girls who enforced gender conformity with iron fists and sharpened nails, bitter words and social pogroms.
By thirteen, I’d become quite Christian. Youth groups are great places to sublimate homosexual desire, and Jesus is mannish enough that a creative pubescent boy can pour upon his deific form all manner of transmuted desire.
By eighteen, I’d spent 5 long years praying fiercely for God to take away my profane lust. I’d written to an “ex-gay” Christian counselor who replied with long letters about his success overcoming the homosexual lifestyle. He described in great detail his experiences in high school as a very masculine athlete who’d never come to grips with God’s “purpose for men.” He wrote about his descent into sin and depravity, sordid and tragic tales of sodomy with teammates on his football and soccer teams, truck stop blow jobs and drug-fueled group sex with men 30 years older than him.
I masturbated to his letters.
After talking to a priest, I gave up trying to be straight.
Gordon College is non-denominational, but it’s severely Protestant. Chapel attendance during the week was mandatory, but students were expected to attend a church of their choosing on Sundays elsewhere.
I couldn’t find one the first year. I’d occasionally go to the one Adam went to, but there was a lot of waving of hands and sometimes barking. Also, he’d cry in divine ecstasy, passionate tears streaming down his face. I couldn’t share the experience, as I’d already found the god of the Christians to be very distant. Also, sitting next to him in tightly-packed pews–his muscled arms and legs pressing against mine–became unbearable.
A friend at the college, who’d been quite a critic of many of its policies, invited me to come with him to an Episcopal chapel. I declined repeatedly until I began to realise most of the people I liked went there.
The commonalities in that group of friends were simple. We all liked reading, tea, and Europe, though most of us had never been. Also, most of us leaned politically left, though I’d just begun to work through my understanding of the larger world.
The priest there one day asked me to talk to her. I admired her, and she was the first priest I’d ever met, let alone talked to. She asked me if I had something I wanted to tell her. I didn’t, but then I realized I did, and then blurted out,
Before this, I’d fought so fiercely against my desires, my mind endlessly wrestling against my heart, that I hadn’t known what it was like not to embrace a feeling.
It felt amazing, and terrifying. The notion that I was “okay” had never occurred to me, though I’d always known fully the consequences of admitting my interior world to the external. I’d lose friends, certainly.
I’d also lose my scholarship.
Adam was the first person I’d told, and the most dangerous. He’d been my best friend, which, for a closeted gay man, is sometimes also a surrogate lover.
He’d cried, and then vowed to help me fight it until he understood that I wanted to embrace it instead.
We didn’t talk much for weeks after that. I don’t know whether the shame or the sorrow was greater. When I’d see him, I could see love in his eyes, but it was the love a man might feel for his brother who’d just betrayed his country. One thinks of the American Civil War, or Vichy France, brothers divided by ideology and nationalism, but not by affection.
I could feel the hurt in his words. He was a wounded knight, and though I tried to heal those wounds, we both knew my loyalty had changed. I’d forsaken my oaths to the kingdom of Heaven, and any embrace could be a prelude to blade-thrusts from behind.
I’d lost my greatest ally, my best friend, right at the beginning of war.
You can’t be a A.J. Gordon Scholar as a homosexual.
I’d tentatively initiated conversations with those around me. A few were quick to shut down my trying with sharp words, or silent stares. Others were sympathetic but withdrawn. Only the new group of friends I’d made, the Episcopals, gave me any quarter, but most of them were fighting their own wars at the college or had long before decided they’d finish their education and forget Gordon College ever existed.
I told an Old Testament professor who seemed open-minded. She’d railed against young-earth creationism in her lectures, so she seemed certain to understand. She offered some sympathy, but stated that the prohibitions against Sodomy were clear.
“You can be celibate,” she’d offered, helpfully, and gave me some articles about Catholic Mystics to read. “The desire isn’t the problem, it’s the action. If you never have homosexual sex, then you’ll not have to worry.”
I told Adam this, and we became friends again. He vowed valiantly to stand with me on this. He’d guard my chastity, he said. He knelt when he said this, but not to me, to God.
This seemed a good resolution. I was excited enough about this that I began to talk more openly with others about my desires for men. “It’s okay,” I told them. “Celibacy is devotion to God.”
It wasn’t long until I had to answer questions from the mentors and advisers of the scholarship program. I’d overestimated my own skills of persuasion, the art with which I could move through the realms of the social.
There’s a theory, put forward by Jamake Highwater, that the social wit and skill of men like Oscar Wilde is how gay men survive in Western society. Fabulousness becomes a weapon, a way of ingratiating one into circles of straight, white, male power.
Oscar Wilde didn’t end up so well, either.
My conversations with the advisers went horribly. Worse, they’d been talking to each other about this, and were scrutinizing the rest of my behavior heavily.
I became brutally depressed. The external pressure had become intense, but worse was the great sorrow of the apparent path before me. I could be a Christian and a leader and afford college if I never had sex with a man.
I was 20. I’d never had sex. And I could never have sex with a person I desired. Ever.
But hey–I had Adam to help me. He’d left a sweaty gym shirt in my room, and I slept with it at night. I’d visit his room when he wasn’t there and put my face on his pillow to imagine myself close to him, taking in his scent.
And Adam played piano. At night, he’d go to the chapel and play for hours. He’d invited me to come listen, and I did.
“Have you ever lain under a piano when someone’s playing?” he asked.
I hadn’t. He told me to, and I did.
I cried there. It’s beautiful, the sound crashing into your physical form, untethering your soul. The notes course through your veins, ripping into muscle and mind. You are no more, only the music and the man playing the music.
I cried, but not just for the music. I cried for myself, for the whelm of desire under which I was drowning.
I got suicidal after this. Missed classes, got into arguments with my advisers. I worked as a Residential Counselor, and my supervisor, who’d been one of those kind, hippy Christians, became openly hostile to me.
I got so depressed I had to go to therapy. The college had contracted with local providers, and the therapist I went to prescribed me anti-depressants. She seemed suspended, restrained. Her face was sympathetic, but her words were always terse. I suspect she saw the easy answer to all of my problems, but could not tell me I should let myself be gay.
As part of the leadership requirements, I applied to become the editor of the college newspaper. I was quite excited, and the others interviewing me seemed quite positive.
One of my advisers of the scholarship program was in that interview, one to whom I’d confessed my homosexual desire and also my anti-depressant prescriptions.
“You suffer from depression,” he said, in front of everyone. “And you’re on medications. How do we know this won’t affect your job performance?”
The answer I gave didn’t assuage their sudden, collective doubts. I don’t think any answer could have.
I didn’t get the position, and I experienced similar doubts when I applied to become a Residential Counselor again. Only an appeal to one of the directors, who I knew went to an Episcopal church and seemed likely to be sympathetic got me that position. I told him everything, the gay stuff, the depression, and particularly the fear about losing the scholarship.
I got that job, and he advised me not to tell anyone else that I was gay.
I’m no good at shutting up, though.
The anti-depressants were horrible, pulling from me all my creativity and the last dregs of desire for life left in my spirit. To get off of them meant possible suicide, but to stay on them meant living death.
I stopped taking them and began to stare at my despair. This isn’t easy, isn’t fun. Everything I was inclined towards a kind of desire, while everything around me walled such lust away.
Most of my friends had become distant. I was a residential counselor, but the other guys on my floor had lost respect for me once they’d heard I was gay. Most of them, jocks, would come into my room shirtless in their loose boxers or torn gym shorts to talk about Jesus or girls or how difficult college was. That stopped once they began to understand what might have been going on in my head. Not seeing their ripped bodies and experiencing their playful banter actually took some pressure off, but the ostracization was horrible.
But worst of all, Adam was never quite the same.
This self-avowed champion of my sublimated sexuality, my monastic, celibate destiny, had a girlfriend. The worst times were when she visited and he’d disappear from my existence for days. They tried to include me sometimes, inviting me to the beach with them towards the end of the school year. I went once, and I vowed never to put myself through such torment again. Their relationship looked like a film, the final, beautiful moments of resolution in a romance.
I can’t do this, I told him. I’m gay. I’m going to be gay.
That look again, those tears. “No–you said…”
I shook my head. I was angry, tired of being mired, trapped, restrained. Fire coursed through me, and I wanted to burn everything around me.
I told him I wanted to love, too. I would not live the rest of my life suspended, restrained, devoted to a god who’d demand that I live forever without desire.
“You’ll lose your scholarship,” he warned me. He wasn’t angry now, but afraid for me. Care and love soaked his words, reforged his face.
I went to an administrator. I’d heard she might be tolerant, maybe she’d help. I explained everything to her, as best as I understood it.
“So, if I’m gay, I’ll lose this scholarship?”
She nodded and stiffened.
“Uh, I’m gay, so I’ll lose this scholarship, I guess.”
“I can’t afford to go here otherwise.”
“You’d like to withdraw, then.” It wasn’t a question. She handed me the forms I needed, and I left the office, and that was it.
The picture accompanying most of the news stories regarding Gordon College’s request for exemption from anti-discrimination laws? It’s an Irish Castle, and was the administrative office when I went there. It was built from stone of a castle in Ireland.
I walked in there a student. I left a drop-out, a failure, and a fag.
And then the rest of my life began.
In Tarot, the Jack of Hearts is the Knight of Cups, the Grail Knight. He’s the sensitive dreamer, the seductive poet, the romantic fool.
The Jack of Clubs is the Knight of Wands, the revolutionary, the radical, the liberator. Charming and inconstant, the black-clad anarchist who lights a fire to start an insurrection and is gone.
The first is water, the other fire, and between them, desire.
I saw Adam a few years after leaving college. He’d gotten married to a different woman after getting jilted by his fiancee. He seemed happy with his life, and unhappy with me. I’d visited him on my way to somewhere else, a brief stop, but in that short time he understood that I was someone else.
We were brothers, staring at each other in recognition and confusion across a trench. He’d become more Christian, I’d become a Pagan. I’d fucked men, his wife was expecting a child. I was an Anarchist, he’d become Libertarian.
“Why do you have to throw that in my face?” he demanded. I’d made him angry, referring to something about a lover I’d been with.
My words were a shot across the line, an attack, an assault in a battle I didn’t want to join.
“Why do I have to hide that from you?” I asked.
And there was nothing else to say. We stood there, swords drawn, ready to wound without knowing why, brothers, reluctant warriors ready to slay.
Instead, we turned and walked away, knights of our respective domains retreating from each other in silent truce. That game of cards had ended when I played my Jack, or when he played his. I do not remember which one he played, or which one I played.
And I do not think either of us won.