Written by William Campbell
Hi folks. As part of pride month, we’ve decided to explore the intersections between queer experience and our rural upbringing. As a gay man, the way I live and see the world today is deeply informed by my experience growing up in the country. The recent events in Orlando bring to light the importance of telling our stories. When we do not tell our own stories, others might be telling them for us. This series is not meant to speak for all people who have gone through similar experiences but simply to tell certain aspects of my own story. As I’ve said before, Un/Settled to me is a project about “returning.” In returning, we risk exploring the most painful parts of our past, but in that, we can find resilience for how we look to the future. This series so far has uncovered moments I’ve forgotten, old emotions I’ve moved past, and ridiculous aspects of childhood William that make me love myself even more.
Here are 8 things about growing up queer in the country (pt. 1)
1. I didn’t know what I was, but it was not quite straight
Visibility of queer folks is higher today than the 80’s and 90’s. Popular media is more saturated with queer characters and shows now such as Orange is the New Black, Modern Family, and Transparent. Growing up gay in the country at the time, though, just meant I was confused. The conversation in politics was still vehemently anti-gay, and any time the conversation about gay people came up, it was always coupled with, “They get AIDS.” Sexuality in my childhood mind was immediately associated with sin and sickness. As a result, it left me mostly confused. The conversation only really came up in church contexts, and even then, it was about how boys and girls weren’t supposed to have sex before marriage. Anytime a question about homosexuality came up, the pastors would say, “We can talk about that in private.”
As a result, we never talked about it. Without any type of conversation, it took awhile for me to understand that I was even gay. As a kid, I just knew I wasn’t like the other boys. I’d developed this reputation from 2nd grade on up as the boy who didn’t like sports, didn’t like cars, and didn’t like popcorn. (It’s true. I was a popcorn bigot. My 2nd grade teacher had to make a special concession for me during birthday parties when he would serve it as a treat. Of course, this just added up the tally sheet of me being a little bit “queer”).
It didn’t help that I loved figure skating; that I stopped everything to watch women’s gymnastics on TV; that my first CD was a Celine Dione album (and second was Sarah McClachlan); and that I liked marrying my brother’s GI Joes with my sister’s Barbies. Were there nights that I would practice songs from Mulan and Hercules in the living room until I had them memorized? Of course! Did I go see the traveling tour of olympics figure skaters when they came through Iowa? Of course!
Did any of this mean that I was actually gay? No. But my weirdness combined with my actual queerness to make for a confusing experience. I didn’t know what I was, but I knew it was not quite straight.
2. I avoided football as an act of survival
Sports, specifically football, were a flashpoint for me growing up. As you can imagine, football takes on a fever pitch in rural Iowa (and many other places). I remember hating football, and though I still don’t have any love for it, at the time I avoided it at all costs. I don’t know if my hatred was a lack of interest or a fear of being found out as not quite straight. Because I was different from the other boys, I was intentionally left out a lot. It became clear that I wasn’t allowed access to boy culture, and football became the symbol of that culture. If they didn’t want anything to do with me, then I didn’t want anything to do with their beloved sport.
Deeper down, though, my avoidance of football was an act of survival. I frequently found myself hiding my physicality – my wrists, my walk, the way I talked. Though I didn’t know if I was gay, I didn’t want to be found out and bullied. When one of the most popular games in PE and the playground was “smear the queer,” and school bus jokes were at the expense of someone who walked or talked funny, you intuitively figure out survival tactics. I would spend nights in front of the hallway mirror practicing my walk. I didn’t want to sway my hips too much, or let my wrists look limp.
3. Catalogues were my clues
There were clues along the way that should have helped me figure out my sexuality. Before the internet, I remember looking through my mother’s JC Penney catalogues a lot.
But not for the clothes.
I was looking at the male models wishing I could spend time in their fake houses. I couldn’t have put a name to it at the time, but I knew it wasn’t lust. I probably should have figured it out when I was reading my Hardy Boys books and daydreaming about just hanging out with them. I thought Frank looked so much cooler with his dark hair and dark eyes. Of course, “cooler” actually meant that I thought he was hot, but little William didn’t know that.
Eventually, though, it was the internet that helped me figure out I was gay. After we got a dial-up modem and AOL, I became obsessed with chat rooms of the early internet. They gave me a window outside the small-world of southeastern Iowa. Usually, the chat room I joined was just interest based (i.e. video games or music) but the moment I saw one titled “Gay Men”, it felt like my skin was on fire. That psychosomatic reaction was enough to signal to me that I might be gay. I remember my mouse automatically moving to click on the chat room while in my head I was saying, “I’m not gay. I’m not gay.”
Welp – sometimes our subconscious knows better.
4. I embraced the girls’ world
Though sexual orientation and gender expression are two different things, growing up they were one and the same. Being gay in that setting was synonymous with being a girl. And in our mysognistic society that was the worst offense. To this day, I don’t think people have as much issue with the mechanics of a gay man’s sexual orientation, as much as it is a fear of being treated like a woman.
At the heart of homophobia is hatred of women.
So if I didn’t have access to the boys’ world, I would embrace the girls’. I started hanging out with the girls on the playground, learning all the hand clapping games and going to girls’ birthday parties. It didn’t matter to me that I was the only boy because to me, I was among people who made me feel safe. Like I mentioned above, I became obsessed with women’s sports. I sat on the edge of my seat when Kerri Strug stuck her broken ankle landing to bring the Magnificent 7 to the gymnastics gold for the USA. I clung to the drama of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding like it was my soap opera. In TV and movies, Buffy the Vampire slayer was my inspiration, and Ellen Ripley was my hero. Even when teachers would split kids up by gender for group activities, I would naturally go with the girls. My anxiety would fly through the roof when I had to go with the boys.
After coming out and becoming comfortable in my own skin, I started re-exploring masculinity not as a trait of what I should be, but as one that I could be. I was in a place to learn what I did and did not like about certain hobbies and cultural norms around masculinity. Masculinity does not have to be a threatening trait that forces its power and will on the world. But because of my childhood, I would say that I’m now comfortable in my own form of masculinity. I know that some look at me and want to say that I’m rather effeminate. To that I just say, “Proudly.” As a child I was confused and ashamed that I didn’t fit the gender norms, now I love that about myself.
(Stay tuned for next week when I post the second half of this series. I’ll be hanging out with some popcorn and Hardy Boys with “All by myself” playing in the background.)