We had no money. I didn’t get along with most of my class at a wealthy-parents-all-boys Catholic high school in Omaha, Nebraska. Comments, looks, and often fights began over how much of an outlier I was. My mother, who fought to get me into this school, didn’t fully understand that every day would be an uphill battle for me. Instead of being a new-name-brand-clothes-wearing, new-sports-car-driving, two-parent-nuclear-family-having young gent, I was the wildly-holed-faded-hand-me-down-wearing, religious-nuns-gave-me-free-rides-to-school kind of kid who had a lower class single mother who easily qualified me for a handout scholarship.
I had developed an interesting East Coast accent from all the places we had lived prior. I had a slightly different olive-brown skin color, which never seemed to be a big deal until going there. The fights that ensued over the differences became physical on several occasions. Though my stature was small, I was usually able to handle myself. In the first part of my freshman year, the fights were invariably about my clothes or my appearance in general. It was my fault that my family was poor and that I was only there on scholarship with all the other minorities. I was a threat to the status quo among the other students.
Even in the few situations when multiple students were involved in trying to hurt me, it usually landed me in the principal’s office. I was frequently bewildered that I was subjected to Catholic practices as punishment, such as masses or sit-ins at rosaries. I was a boy who had recently converted to Unitarian Universalism, and I found it a little ironic and sad that occasions held up to the standard of “sacraments” had been reduced to methods of retribution, though, in hindsight, they were no worse than being in my meager and very ultra-conservative household, where I was often relegated to my room without anything other than homework, prayer, and a dicey book collection. The Internet and most TV was not allowed anywhere in the house.
My attraction to the same sex had always been some intangible that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. It manifested itself in many ways. When younger, I’d play Barbies with my sister in her small wooden-floored bedroom while mom was cooking dinner. I had a knack for creating interesting looks for their hair, which included extensions (from hair collected from cutting other Barbies) and hair coloring, using permanent marker. I played the mother or daughter of house role-playing games in daycare, and would go as far as trading clothes with the girls I was playing with. I loved the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I was seldom found in competition with the other boys over being the pink one, “Kimberly.”
But even upon being asked by adults at times, I was not able to piece together that my fascination with other boys actually chalked up to little crushes. It never really mattered that much. Sitting on the cold, newly installed, off-white, smelly linoleum in the living room, ensconced by the couch, I was keenly reminded of the odd things that occurred in my childhood, all within the parameters of a very sheltered life.
It dawned on me that I first called someone my boyfriend in second grade. His name was Nick; I was very fascinated by him—how tall he was, his short light brown hair, the small birthmark above his upper lip. I liked the way he would talk to me, gaze at and chase me around during recess—it was just like any other puppy-love grade school infatuation.
We would sneak behind the same old oak tree surrounded by acorns and black squirrels every day at recess; he would take charge, pin me up against that tree, and kiss me. Aside from the fact that we were both boys, and he often referred to me as his girlfriend, we carried on as all the other pretend relationships in grade school did. In third grade, we married and divorced four times, each time being presided over by a girl who pretended to be a minister. Our weddings and divorces were attended by everyone in the class and even kids in other grades. Somehow, all these transgressions remained elusive to the very Catholic nuns who taught us.
What didn’t remain a secret was the way I played ‘alternative’ roles while playing house in after-school care. The other kids could not have cared less that Nick was dad, and I, the mom. The monitors did have a problem however. The principal, Sister Miriam, threatened my mother with expulsion if it didn’t stop. From that point on, the teachers at school treated me differently, some calling me names, and one, Sister Tish, even caused me physical harm on multiple occasions, by pinching and biting me until I drew blood and developed bruises.
Those memories of early childhood became tempered with the revelation that everything was about to become very different. In the weeks that followed, I learned more about the world around me than at any other point in my life. Because of what happened that day in early October, I learned what it meant to be gay. Before, HIV was just a pretend disease that swimmers caught from diving and hitting their head on the board. But now I knew what might really happen to a person if they contracted HIV. Later, more extensive coverage surfaced about a police officer coming in contact with the blood of the young man on the TV screen.
I learned more about the Westboro Baptist church and how urgent they felt it was for them to make it known that god hates fags. I learned that the Catholic Church was anti-gay. I now knew the difference between being a conservative or a liberal. I learned that Wyoming was not liberal and that many conservatives were also anti-gay.
It still came down to this for me: What was so wrong about liking other guys?
On October 7, 1998, on the ABC evening news, the news anchor was talking beside a picture of Matthew Shepard: a scrawny, white, blond twenty-one-year-old. He had been courted by two presumed heterosexual men at a local gay bar in Laramie, Wyoming. He was lured into their truck, and taken to a barren farmland east of the Rocky Mountains. Matthew Shepard had been found beaten to a pulp, tied to a falling apart and withered crimson-stained fence and left for dead when he was located.
As days went on, footage of the crime scene emerged. The fields were beginning to change color. Hues of burnt orange, red, and yellow slowly overtook the green to blend in with the color of the mountain-soiled dirt. Cars had passed right by Matthew when looking for him. His body had almost been mistaken for a scarecrow by a cyclist in the foggy chill of those fields; the bloodstained fence was almost camouflaged by the waves of fiery color surrounding it.
I usually didn’t care when I was caught outside of my room, the justification being that I was thirteen and I was adult enough to go wherever I wanted in the small, old rural house. Tonight, I regretted it, and wished I had been dreaming. I ran back to my room, somewhat cognizant of the fact that my mom would know that I had snuck out. I slammed my door, fell onto my old twin-sized bed with even older green bedding, and began to internalize what I had just watched. Within seconds, I made connections between Matthew and I; the pieces of that puzzle finally fit.
My future grew dimmer. Just moments after computing in my head that I was gay, my mom stomped down the stairs. I thought I was in for being yelled at again, something that most thirteen-years-olds get used to quickly. She had apparently made the same connections I had. She asked very calmly if I thought I might be a homosexual. I tried to lie, but the words never left my mouth, I just nodded and buried my face into my wafer-thin pillow and began crying hysterically.
Tears slowly rolled down her eyes as she grabbed my shoulder and began to pray wildly. It wasn’t a particularly nice prayer; it sounded more like an attempted exorcism.
Apart from the revelation about my own feelings, I also concurrently had to learn about the very real dangers of being openly gay. It wasn’t something that most people were okay with at the time. Everything that I had read or learned about in school became glaringly real. I fully understood now that a lot of people really do have the capacity to hate just for hatred’s sake, out of fear and unwillingness to overcome that fear. They lacked the ability to reach out and accept the differences in people that ultimately make the human condition so interesting.
When Matthew Shepard died on October 12, it was as though the entire country took a deep sigh and a step back. Was this really who we were, is this really what we do to the kids who are just a little different? Do we let the Aaron McKinneys and Russell Hendersons, Matthew’s murderers, reign free? Is this morality?
Matthew’s mother, Judy, quickly became an outspoken advocate for gay rights throughout the world, and became a role model for parents who were trying to accept their children as they were. She became an active member of PFLAG, testified in court cases, and helped advocate for laws that litigate hate crimes in this country. From the times of the trial of Matthew’s now-convicted murderers, she has remained a primary face and name in the new order of civil and gay rights.
My mother wasn’t like Judy Shepard, and still isn’t. Her trajectory of acceptance seemed to go in quite an opposite direction, and it immediately manifested itself by further repression of what I was allowed to do in my free time. I was closely watched and even followed by her when hanging out with friends, and when it was discovered that I had made other friends who were gay, the results ranged from significant groundings at home, to being sent to psychological institutions, who would usually turn my mother and I away once they realized the true reasons for being sent there.
My mother would make up reasons, saying that I was making threats at the high school to harm others or that I was hopelessly addicted to drugs, in an effort to get one of these institutions to take me in. Eventually, a home did take me in, though I learned it was not because of what my mother alleged, but rather, they were afraid of what harm my mother was causing me by constantly imposing such rigid and abusive penalties on me for something completely beyond my control.
After a few weeks at this home, I was given the tools to communicate with my mother and avoid certain topics around her. I returned to Preparatory school. I made it official about my sexuality fairly quickly afterwards. This came as little surprise to my classmates, and things ran smoother there. Much as it had been throughout my childhood, my classmates didn’t care. The taunting over my other minority statuses also soon diminished, many of the kids having seen the same footage of Matthew with their own eyes.
I was more closely guarded by the faculty, who were paranoid of an attack against me. I was only the second person to ever come out of the closet at that and they’d be damned if I became another example of hatred. Many of the teachers and faculty members instantly became very supportive, as were the Jesuits (usually the more liberal of the Catholic factions). What was very unfortunate to see however, were the teachers who obviously felt otherwise. Their true colors shined by shunning me: a practice still surprisingly common in Nebraska, when a person who was once friendly towards you, turns their back in response to, or instead of, a salutation. What can possibly be said about that kind of action? It is an action suggesting I wasn’t placed here by the same divine providence as them.
Although the return to “normal” never really happened at home, I still continued my education, despite being completely disinterested. I managed to graduate, and by the time I did, there were a dozen more boys who came out. After high school, many guys in my class approached me to share their story. They had all waited until after high school to come out, but thanked me for being a reason they finally made the decision to do so. I still keep in touch with a couple of them. I, we, have Matthew to thank for being the pivotal martyr of our time. It is he who started the national conversation and began to change the hearts of an entire generation. He certainly has changed mine.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.