It’s amazing how growing up in the south can scour the fairy right out of a kid. I grew up in the redneck-saturated rural south in a town that couldn’t legitimately be called a town unless the only frame of reference was Antarctica.
For the first part of elementary school, I played with everyone. If the boys were playing kickball, I played kickball. If the girls were playing dolls, I played dolls. Then, around the fifth grade, I noticed a change in everyone around me. The boys started to be interested in girls in a way that I was uncomfortable with. Their language became rougher and offended my young Mormon ears. The girls were now interested in the other boys and no longer wanted to play with me, either. I was sensitive and was still one of the smallest kids in my class. My athletic abilities hadn’t progressed like the other boys and soon I was soon outclassed. I hung around the cheerleaders frequently and could even be found making posters and cheering on the sidelines at games. When I reluctantly played on the pee-wee football team, I ended up crying when we lost the game.
I cried easily.
The friends I had were those who fell out of the group for whatever reason: the tomboys, the freaks, the emo kids (before there even were emo kids), the poor kids, the protestants who were actually trying to live their religion (and thus pushed to the edge of society), the fat kids, etc. My mom was proud of me for befriending the unpopular kids, but to be honest, I would have dropped them in a second for a chance to be one of the cool kids (and occasionally, I did).
Entering the seventh grade posed a problem. My school was so small that every boy who wanted to be on the football team got a uniform. This meant that almost every boy from seventh to twelfth grade was on the football team. I hated football, but when I voiced my concern to the adults around me, all I was told was that if I wanted to fit in, I had to play. I did see one way out, however. A few years older than me was a kid who was great at basketball. He was also smart and was considered one of the “good kids”. No one bothered him for not playing football – mostly because he was so good at basketball that they understood his desire to focus on one sport. I decided to not play football, but join the basketball team.
Even from my first practice, I knew deep down that I was never going to be good at basketball. I kept playing because I genuinely enjoyed it (lack of talent aside), but I knew if I was going to survive, I had to throw my efforts into the other two areas: smarts and being the “good kid”. To be honest, I didn’t have to put much effort into it. I always got good grades and the level of education was so poor that cruising by was easy. Everyone knew that I was Mormon, so that took care of the “good kid” part.
All that was left was to kill the “sissy” side of me. Cheering on the sidelines was out and I monitored my actions and words closely to make sure no overly feminine gestures or phrases escaped. I played up my image of the “smart kid” and fought back against attacks with cutting remarks and talked in big words, which confused my enemies (seriously, I was like a nerd in a frigging ABC Family movie). I was the teacher’s pet and at such a small school, having the faculty on your side was an advantage rather than a crutch. Soon, the other kids didn’t bother me at all, but then again they didn’t talk to me, either. In order to protect me from everyone else I had successfully, but unintentionally, pushed them away. When Columbine happened, the other kids (and a couple of faculty members) threw a wary glance in my direction. I was a disgruntled outsider – was I going to shoot up the school? Little did they know that I didn’t even know how to load a gun.
My senior year, I went to a farewell party for an acquaintance at another school who was moving away. I went with a friend from elementary school (one of the tomboys) and after about an hour of awkwardness, we left. As I waved by, one of my acquaintances’ friends yelled, “fag!” I was confused. I didn’t recall saying anything especially “faggy” that night. In fact, I hadn’t said hardly anything. My friend assured me that it was nothing I did, but the guy who called me a fag was just “like that”. It was also the first time that I had actually been called a fag – before then, a combination of my family’s status and my sissy-suppression had prevented it.
It would be years before I stopped policing my mannerisms. I no longer get a twist in my stomach if my wrist hangs a little limp. I don’t hyper-analyze my speech and worry if it gets too high pitched. I’m just me and I’m generally happy with who I am, but sometimes I wonder what I would be like if I never made a conscious effort to never cross my legs “like a woman”. Because now, even though I just act how I act, I still pass as straight. When most people find out I’m gay, it’s usually a surprise. If they did have a suspicion, it was almost always because of what I would say, not how I would say it. My forced masculinity is ingrained now, but what if I had kept cheering on the sidelines? What if I hadn’t deadened my excitability in order to appear manlier? If I had been more relaxed and accepting of myself then, what would I have been like now?