“Am I The Only Gay Person In Town?” Growing Up Gay in the 80s and 90s
After George Floyd was murdered in the late Spring of 2020, I took to Medium to start writing my experiences about being black in mostly white spaces like the conservative Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois in the 80s and 90s.
What I have rarely talked about is my experience of growing up gay in the late 80s to the mid 90s in that conservative environment.
I got way more harassment for being gay than I ever did for being black, but the two overlap. I didn’t even really know what “gay” was, it seems like everyone figured out that I was gay before I did. Like people had Superman’s X-Ray vision and could see right through me.
Up until 5th grade, I would say I was a very happy-go-lucky kid. I had great friends in my neighborhood and in elementary school. I think almost everyone liked me in grade school. I don’t remember being teased or bullied by anyone in elementary school.
I was a typical 80s kid. I loved Tonka trucks, I loved GI Joe, MASK, Transfomers, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Super-Friends. I was riding my bike all over our neighborhood and getting in the dirt just like every other boy. I hated Barbies and “girls toys” and “girls cartoons” like Rainbow Bright, Polly Pockets, or Care Bears.
The thing is I never told people, I LOVED Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in when it went into syndicated reruns. I enjoyed watching soap operas with my mom and older sisters, and my favorite was As The World Turns. I watched a ton of Betwitched and I Dream of Jeanie, yet not knowing the man who played Uncle Arthur was gay. I loved the movie “Maniquin” and watched it ad nauesueum, not even realizing the charchter of Hollywood was flaming queen type stereotype of gay black men. I just thought Hollywood was funny.
The other obsession: “Jem and the Holograms”. I was OBSESSED with that show and would watch it with my sister every week. I just loved the fact that their was mini music videos, which I was already into being a part of the MTV Generation, the soap opera like storylines, and they actually changed their clothes unlike most cartoons of that time, or even today. “Jem and The Holograms” was an unusual cartoon because it went into charachter development, and showed even the “bad Misfits” could be good people, like going into Pizazz’s back story and her always trying to get her billionaire father’s attention after her mother died.
And of course the minute I heard Borderline, I was obsessed with Madonna. So obsessed my older brother started calling me Fredonna as a nickname and for Christmas I got the 12" single of Material Girl for Christmas 1984, I was all of 8 years old.
Everything changed when I got to junior high school in 1988, several elementary schools fed into one, and I was going to school with a lot more people.
We called it teasing or being picked on back then, but by today’s standards it would be called bullying.
Things started off bad for me right out of the gate. My good friend down the street had a Labor Day Party, it was just a week into starting 6th grade.
My idiot self didn’t realize his sliding glass door in the basement was closed, and I put my knee right through it thinking that it was open, as I was running outside to play in the backyard.
I received several stitches, and because it was in the sensitive knee area, my doctor said try not to bend it as much as possible or the stitches my pop out. So I had to walk around with a stiff, straight leg.
Some 8th graders pounced on me immediately and started calling me “boner” (stiff leg, get it)
I had never encountered anyone really treating me this way before and it really hurt, but I never said anything to anyone. It was my dark secret.
Things went from bad to worse.
One day this kid named Kevin out a recess pointed at me and said “Hey Lamar! Hey everyone doesn’t he look like Lamar? Lamar Latrell from “Revenge of the Nerds”! HEY LAMAR!” he said in a very high pitched and put on effeminate voice. Then his friend Dave and other kids laughed and the “Lamar” label stuck all through junior high school.
I was late for social studies once, and I had a pass though, my teacher Mrs. Halstead asked “now why are you late?!” And I said excitedly “I have a pass! I have a pass!” Then Dave mocked me in that high pitched girly voice “I have a pass, I have a pass” as the entire classroom errupted in laughter. I felt so humiliated. What had I done wrong exactly?
While I had certainly watched a ton of HBO in the late 80s, I had never seen “Revenge of The Nerds”. I didn’t know he was a very offensive and stereotypically gay character.
When I had finally watched “Revenge of the Nerds” a few years later, and I thought to myself, I don’t look anything like Lamar, I don’t think I even acted like Lamar, like a walking caricature. Sometimes I thought there was some low-key racism of the “all black people look alike” thing going on. I will let you judge for yourself.
But my romantic feelings for other boys started about that time too, so it made things worse. I was confused. I thought people were going to find a very dark secret about me. I was getting into reading X-Men at the time, and maybe they had some sort of Charles Xavier like mind reading clareyoyance going on .
The thing is. I never heard a single negative word about gay people from parents or at church. Well once I did hear my mom refer to a boy as “switchery” which I can only guess was some sort of southern term for someone who switches team, from women to men, I’m assuming.
I believe that our town and church was SO conservative they didn’t even want to talk about it gay folks AT ALL, even negatively. Thats how terrified of it they were. But I knew somehow that it was “abnormal” and “wrong” with me, without hearing any negative messages. Like it was my intuition telling me I wasn’t right or like everyone else.
I never told anyone what I was feeling or going through. I started to get quiet, withdrawn. Furthermore, I just wanted to disappear and fit in with everyone. I thought if I didn’t talk, no one would hear my voice and that would give less people a chance to tease me.
I guess it’s a stereotype to say junior high school gym class was torture for people, but it really was. I was good at running, and I did track and cross-country, but all of those stereotypical boys sports like baseball and football I hated. I was bad at them. And of course the degrading practice of picking of who you want on your team, I was always picked close to the end and the teasing was relentless.
And taking a shower in junior high school gym, it was a torture. We weren’t required but a couple of times, we were forced to. The gym teacher had a checklist, sat and watch us go in and out of the shower, and get out. It was humiliating. Till this day even when I had gym memberships I would never take a shower there, I would wait till I got home. I am a very modest person. I don’t want people looking at my body.
I would try to “butch up” and tried to play football at recess sometimes, but I knew I was fooling everyone and myself, so I stopped.
The thing that was confusing, is that I had some genuine crushes on girls at the same time. So I didn’t know if I was bisexual or gay. But I was also having crushes on a few male friends. So I tried on the bisexual label for my high school years.
I don’t know if I need to say this to anyone, but probably like everyone else, these childhood crushes were not sexual in nature. I will describe it that I would start intensely liking a boy, and I would think they were the coolest, most amazing person in the world. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. I’m assuming that’s how straight people had childhood crushes too?
I remember I went to church youth group in junior high, and there was a cart with some religious books on it. I opened up one of them, and it was one of those straight up 1950s puritanical anti sex books complete with those goofy illustrations warning about “heavy petting”. Towards the back it said how sinful it was being gay.
Things got better with time, people started calling me “Lamar” less and less by the time 8th grade, I finally started liking junior high school, but it was too late, I was about to graduate.
Then, like going into junior high, going into high school, there was another sharp change.
I was both on track and cross-country. I never had problems with anyone on the cross-country team (though I do remember our coach gave us a pack of motivational materials, and one of the stories in it was about a boy running a race, and losing motivation and he thought to himself “don’t f@g out now”)
It was track where I was teased by mostly people in the grades ahead of me. I guess they dropped all the pretenses because it went from “Lamar” to being called “f-ag” and “f-ggot”.
Once again, I never told anyone. It never crossed my mind to tell someone like a counselor or the coach. I was ashamed. I thought no one would even understand.
I had my first guy love interest in high school. It was a bizarre relationship. We actually grew up together, he was my next door neighbors grandson. He lived with his grandparents for a while in the 80s, but he moved away, but he would come back to visit from time to time.
We never talked about, it was like don’t ask don’t tell, we never kissed or even took our clothes off, but we would cuddle and did the sinful “heavy petting” sleepovers with clothes fully on, and we sent each other thinly veiled love letters.
Thinking I was being slick, I rented “My Own Private Idaho” from Blockbuster for us to watch. You have to think in the early 90s that was at the time the only somewhat mainstream movie where gay people were not made to look like pariahs or some walking effiminate lispy queen. But at the time I wasn’t really ready for a deep indie movie from Gus Van Sant and I didn’t grow to appreciate the movie till later in life.
You have to remember how far we have come in portrayal of gay characters in TV and movies. We didn’t get our first positive portrayal of a gay teenager till Rickie, played by Wilson Cruz on “My So-Called My Life” in 1994 which was a flop on ABC, but became a hit on MTV in reruns when they wouldn’t stop playing it.
Not a single friend of mine knew any of this was going on with my old next door neighboor, and as I said, I was still having crushes on girls, especially this new girl who moved in from Ohio and joined the cross-country team our sophomore year who I am still friends with today.
I even got my “friend” to go with a good girlfriend to a high school dance, just so I could be around him more and that he would sleep over that night of the dance.
In my Medium piece about growing up black in the white Chicago Suburbs, I mentioned how I had an identity crisis about my race when I bought what I thought was more “urban” looking attire.. A gold chain, the ubiquitous L.A. Raiders Starter Cap, and the black and white White Sox Starter jacket, and tried to make myself like hip hop music.
This was also me trying to “butch up” again, since in the lunchroom, I walked past some black girls who did not go to elementary school with us, I believe they had recently moved from Chicago, and they looked at me and asked me “are you a f-ggot?”
I felt as if I looked like the gangsta rap that was so popular at the time like Snoop Dog, or Wreckx n Effect, I would be taken more seriously by black folks, and everyone else. I wasn’t the “fairy” anymore.
I got a job at the local Fuddrucker’s a “gourmet” hamburger place, and I worked with a a black guy that was on the track team with me. He spread a rumor at work that I tried to hit on him in the locker room at school. His locker was near mine in the locker room, but I never liked this kid, and it was the early 90s, doing something like that could have got me into some serious trouble or worse, and the thought of hitting on a boy in high school was unfathomable. Like it never even entered my mind because I thought no one else was gay in my high school. I told the cooks at Fuddruckers that this NEVER happened.
It seems like by junior year, the teasing had stopped. Many of those who teased me in the years ahead of me graduated. I got into honors English and Spanish, and our school was so good academically, that even the “cool popular kids” were in honors classes and I started meeting them and becoming friends with them. It’s silly to think how special I felt to be friends with “cool kids” and get invited to “cool kid parties”.
Many of them shared my new-found love of Synth Pop music like New Order, The Pet Shop Boys and Erasure.
My cluelessness about being gay was extended into high school. Looking back my Spanish teacher was clearly gay. When he was saying things like “oh no she di’nt, but she did write the book” or calling people “Senorita Cosa” (Miss Thang) but it didn’t register. I thought he was just being silly.
I had another intense crush on a really good friend. Of course, I never told anyone or him. I was too scared. I honestly thought I was the ONLY gay person in my entire town. I had never met anyone who I thought I was gay in my life. I suspected MAYBE some kids in school were, but I never really ever knew.
Once I slept over at his house and his sleeping bag was next to me. I woke up and his hand was on my chest, accidentally. But with just that, I was elated. Just his hand on my chest briefly, till. he rolled over and took it off.
I later told my friend in college that I had a crush on him. He was so flattered and he asked me to stand up in his wedding.
But even in my 20s after college I was too ashamed to tell people sometimes that I was gay, and I was mostly out. I remember one of the groomsmen at my friend’s wedding asked me if I had a girlfriend. I sheepishly looked away, answered with an honest no, but then tried to point the conversation in another direction.
I didn’t meet any gay people till I got to the University of Illinois in 1994. I was an early adopter of using the internet to reach out to gay people, back then it was usenet forms and online bulletin board services. I met an RA of one of the dorms across the street, and he was out and proud in 1994. I couldn’t believe it he was just honestly living his life. He was the first person I came out to. We only met a couple of times for coffee.
I have told a few other people what it was like growing up, and they have told me how brave I was. I don’t feel brave or strong at all. I don’t think anyone liked junior high school, and I know friends who were bullied just for being a “geek” or “weird” or made fun of for their weight. I think everyone has their “something’ in life, their secret cross to bear that they don’t tell anyone about. I think I was and am just living life, and to be a walking cliché myself, I will quote Madonna from Sky Fits Heaven from the Ray of Light album
“Traveling down this road
Watching the signs as I go
I think I’ll follow the sun
Isn’t everyone just
Traveling down their own road
Watching the signs as they go
I think I’ll follow my heart
It’s a very good place to start”