“Are you a slut, or are you just plain thoughtless?” I heard Mother shout from the top of the stairs. I was in bed. On the landing, just on the other side of my bedroom door, Mother was not visible to me, but I could see her clearly in my mind’s eye, clad in a nightgown, hands on hips, glaring into the dark below as the creaky front door inched open. Mother was a light sleeper, and, until all five of her children were accounted for, she roamed the house like a ghost. She had taken her post on the stairs in order to intercept my sister, Charlene, who had now missed curfew by several hours.
My sister, I knew, had spent the better part of the night with her boyfriend. Recently, sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee, in the middle of her canopied bed, Charlene had confided to me the story of her first sexual experience. This being my sister, I did and didn’t want to hear. Five years her junior, I knew little about sex, but I was curious. I wanted to know about sex, just not her sex. But I’d have to take what I could get. “Mark,” she whispered conspiratorially, “when I saw that thing pointin’ at me, Lord, I thought something was wrong with it.”
Erections, it seemed, had escaped my sister. Growing up with four brothers, how had she missed this basic physiology, I wondered. I tried to picture the scene, even as I tried not to picture the scene. This was the late 1970s, and toe socks with brightly colored horizontal stripes were in fashion among teenage girls like my sister. I could see Charlene’s toe socks spread eagle above her, her boyfriend, his dick at attention, striding across the room in her direction. Her socks, my sister explained, had played a key role in the encounter. “I’m keeping them on until I get married,” she assured me.
* * *
For Boys Only is the sex-ed guide Mother gave me when I turned thirteen. Written by Dr. Frank Richardson and published in 1952, this yellowed volume must have been a book my grandmother had given my uncle Allen, when he had become a teen around the time of its publication. As the tattered dust jacket explained, “It is written by a doctor in easy, plain everyday language that doesn’t try to ramble around or moralize over the facts that are a perfectly natural and necessary part of this startling but fascinating process of growing into manhood.”
And it was startling and fascinating. Framed as talks delivered in a high school chapel to a group of boys, with names like Jack and Harry and Tom, Dr. Richardson’s book explained the facts of life. As his narrator, the “Doc,” put it, “I talk to the fellows for a while, and then they pop any questions at me they want to, and I try my best to answer them. Some of them are really humdingers with no holds barred.” Jack and Harry and Tom were boy’s boys. They weren’t timid, sissy boys like me. With words like “gee,” and “golly,” they spoke with easy candor to each other and to the Doc. I’d never witnessed such openness, least of all among other boys.
But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?” My immediate thought was, “Yeah, can I have twenty dollars?” It took me several minutes to realize that he was asking me to ask him about sex.
It was different with Doc Richardson. He was direct. “You remember I told you that the testicles make these sperms and store them in the body, floating about in a thick whitish fluid called semen,” he explained. “Whenever the storage tanks get too full, they empty themselves. Sometimes they do this at night, when a boy is dreaming about sex matters. Sometimes they do it without any sign at all except that the night clothing or bed clothes may be wet or discolored. This may happen several nights in succession, or as seldom as several weeks apart, or, in some boys, hardly ever.”
Huh? What can happen when you dream about “sex matters?” I was certain that if I had not read about nocturnal emissions, I never would have learned about them. With growing curiosity, I read on and waited in hopeful anticipation for my first wet dream.
I wondered, too, if my older brother John knew about this yet. He wasn’t much of a reader. When I asked if he had received the same book from Mother, he confirmed that he had, but he didn’t seem to have found it as startling or fascinating as I had. “I read the chapter about girls,” he grunted. That was all he would say on the subject.
About being gay, Dr. Richardson had nothing to say. There was no mention in For Boys Only of men having consensual sex with other men. There was only an opaque caution about illegal “monkey business,” of adult men corrupting young boys. When Tom said, “What I can’t understand is what makes older fellows, and sometimes even men that you’d think were decent people, try to get boys to let them do things to them that they know they ought not to,” Doc didn’t use the word pedophilia, but that’s what he seemed to be talking about. “It would take too long to tell you,” he demurred, “why some men get their satisfaction out of ruining young boys, and getting them started doing the same sort of thing with other youngsters. They are mentally ‘off,’ of course, and they really ought to be taken away for treatment.”
* * *
That one might be taken away for treatment was a genuine threat in the house where I grew up. We were unruly children, who often frayed our mother’s patience. “I’d pay to have you sent away,” she fumed whenever we misbehaved. Then she would pile us in the back of her Country Squire Wagon to visit a terrifying place in town called “The Last Stop.” This was a crumbling Gothic mansion, painted garish shades of purple, turned home for wayward children. Presumably, it was “the last stop” before one was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center. When Mother was really angry, with no other reason to travel to the remotest outskirts of town, she would drive us to the YDC. Gripping the steering wheel in a trembling rage, she’d slow, just long enough for us to get a good look at its menacing razor-wire. As we took in the scene, Mother would glare at us in the rearview mirror. “Some day, you’re going to end up there,” she’d threaten.
Eventually, Mother made good on her promise, sending my oldest brother, Joe, to the YDC after he was caught stealing a neighbor’s mail. Afterwards, he made a tour of residential treatment homes, hospital psychiatric wards, and state mental institutions, before being housed at the Anneewakee Treatment Center near Atlanta. “Annewakee,” we were told, is a Native American name meaning “land of the friendly people.” But Annewakee was anything but friendly. Years later, long after Joe’s release, news reports detailed how its director, a one-legged pedophile named Dr. Poetter, encouraged sex between staff and patients because he believed it was “good for the boys.”
While stealing mail may have been the catalyst for Joe’s detention, Mom was motivated by a darker fear. She worried that Joe might be gay, and worse still, that he might turn her other sons gay too. One afternoon after Joe was sent away, she took me aside for a solemn chat. “Has he ever touched your . . . privates?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she meant. Did she mean my “private possessions,” like the miniature Swiss Army knife I hid deep in the pocket of my Billy the Kid jeans? Like Granddaddy, who was never without his pocket knife, with its beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl handle, I guarded this tiny red treasure. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe touched it. He and I shared everything. As far as I was concerned, he could borrow anything of mine. Just as his privates were mine, so my privates were his, just for the asking. I considered Mom’s query, but I could not remember a time when Joe had borrowed my knife. “No,” I told her, I didn’t think Joe had touched my privates. But he could if he wanted to, I added, anytime he liked.
* * *
Like Mother, my father was vocal in his opposition to homosexuality. Not long after returning home from Annewakee, Joe was thrown out of the house for good. Then my father sat me down and gave me a good talking to about the fiery torments of Hell that awaited a “known homosexual.” He instructed me to call the cops if Joe stepped foot in the yard. My father’s homosexual anxiety, however, had deeper roots.
Roaming the yard in search of something to do one August afternoon, I was knocked unconscious when the better part of a Loblolly Pine fell on my head. After a visit to the emergency room, Mother offered a stop at Toys “R” Us. There she bought me my first doll, a handsome Boy Scout named Steve. Now I was not a Boy Scout, nor did I wish to become one. I didn’t even know any Boy Scouts. All I knew was that they liked to go camping, something else I did not wish to do. Sleeping under the stars, in the woods, with bugs, snakes, and who-knows-what other creatures held no interest for me.
What captivated me about the Boy Scouts were their accessories: The ubiquitous Swiss Army knife and the endless assortment of colorful patches, insignia, and emblems. The tooled leather belt with the antique finish. The animal tracks bandana, with illustrations of common woodland footprints. The felt Campaign Hat with leather hatband and chinstrap and Universal Boy Scout Emblem Hat Pin.
My father was mostly mute about sex. His version of the facts of life was so indirect that I missed the topic altogether. Before my first middle school sweetheart dance, he asked with some solemnity, “So, is there anything you want to ask me about?”
At eight years old, I could not have understood Scouting founder Robert S.S. Baden-Powell’s ideal of “muscular Christianity” that joined physical fitness with moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. But as a confirmed sissy-boy, I understood that I was not, nor would I ever be, Boy Scout material. My interest was not in nourishing my spiritual and moral character through love of the out-of-doors and an earnest vigor in working for God. Rather, I loved to accessorize.
Sporting a swath the size of a dollar bill shaved from my scalp, and a dozen fresh prickly-black stitches, I held Steve Scout in my arms for the first time. Along with Steve, came several accessories: A Scouting Booklet, badges, an Official Scout Uniform, shoes, a jaunty red neckerchief. But this would be only the beginning. Steve would need a tent, a sleeping bag, the Steve Scout First-Aid Backpack, the Steve Scout Campfire, and, come winter, Steve Scout Snowshoes.
When my lesbian Buddhist aunt arrived from LA on Christmas Eve, I was certain that Aunt Jean would bring an exciting new Steve Scout Adventure Set from the West Coast. It would be one we could not find at our local Midtown Mall, where the anchor establishments were a Post Office at one end and a Laundromat at the other. Aunt Jean’s Christmas gift would be as exotic as she was. And she was. That she was from California would have been enough, but, to a boy growing up in the rural Deep South, that she was both lesbian and Buddhist was intoxicating.
What’s more, Aunt Jean worked as a DJ, announcing song titles on the in-flight radio station for a major airline. Her voice was smooth, with a hint of smoke, washed clean of the Southern accent of her Georgia kin. Her dark hair and eyes, her sharp, square chin, these could have been my father’s. But there the resemblance ended. Unlike her country relations, whose fashion sense was dictated by the Sears catalogue, Jean was sophisticated, glamorous. In her rich, ginger-colored Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress and black knee-high boots, to me, she was like one of Charlie’s Angels.
Not only, according to Mother, had Aunt Jean burned her bra, but she and her girlfriend, Barbara, also burned incense, much to Mother’s dismay, in Grandmama’s Wedgwood egg-cups, while they chanted before a makeshift altar in the guest bedroom: “Nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo, nam myoho renge kyo.”
My father embraced his little sister with jaw-clenching Christian duty. He was visibly unnerved by Aunt Jean, grinding his teeth and clearing nothing from his throat whenever she spoke. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uuuhn.” At the same time, he welcomed his sister’s return home as a chance to coax her to Christmas Eve services at the First Baptist Church. If he could just get her in the door, then maybe the Holy Spirit would lay a hand on Jean. Maybe she would give up girls and The Eightfold Path. Maybe she would cancel her return flight to Sodom.
Just as she feared my brother Joe’s corrupting influence, Mother was certain that Aunt Jean would poison us all. When Barbara leaned in to receive a chaste peck on the cheek from Aunt Jean after the Christmas dinner blessing, I watched beneath the table as Mother’s nails dug deep into my father’s thigh. Later, I heard angry whispers in the kitchen: “I won’t have my boys exposed to her and that Barbara making out at my dinner table.” Whenever Aunt Jean came to visit, the air in our house was charged, and I eagerly drank in her electricity.
My heart sank on Christmas morning when all Aunt Jean pulled from her tiny carry-on, her only piece of luggage, was a small, shrink-wrapped basket of dried apricots, with a gift tag addressed to “The Hall Family.” Seeing my disappointment, Aunt Jean explained that Buddhists don’t give Christmas presents. Then she added quickly, “It won’t be a Christmas gift, but you and I could go to the mall tomorrow.”
The next morning, Aunt Jean borrowed my father’s red VW Bug, and we raced to beat the crowds of post-holiday shoppers. When she offered, “You can choose one toy, anything—anything you want,” I made a beeline for Bob Scout. But when I laid his box on the counter, Aunt Jean hesitated. She seemed to be doing a quick calculation in her head. I thought of the paltry dried apricots. Maybe I had overshot. I could feel Steve Scout’s emptiness in my own stomach.
“It’s only $12.99,” I pointed out. “You said anything.” But Aunt Jean was not searching her wallet. She was making a different sort of reckoning. Aunt Jean recognized that toys like GI Joe were “action figures.” Steve and Bob Scout were not. They were dolls, just like Barbie dolls and Ken dolls. Aunt Jean could also plainly see that Steve Scout was white and Bob Scout was black. Not only was her Deep South, white, sissy-boy nephew playing with dolls, but now he wanted a black doll.
“Are you sure that’s the one you want, Sweetie?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve already got Steve. I just need Bob so he’ll have someone to camp with. I’ve got the forest fire observation tower all set up.” Aunt Jean looked uncertain. She tugged at her crocheted vest.
“Well, you get Bob, then,” she said, “and let’s put out some fires.”
The house was quiet that afternoon as Steve toured Bob around the campsite, artfully staged under the Christmas tree. The only voices in the house were theirs, from a backpack filled with prerecorded camp-talk, activated by a pull-string. “Let’s make camp, here,” Steve and Bob Scout repeated again and again. “I’ll roll out the tent, and sleeping bags. You cook the fish.”
Later that evening, I overheard more angry whispers in the kitchen. Afterwards, Aunt Jean told us, as she and Barbara quickly gathered their things, that their visit would have to be cut short.
Soon after Christmas, Aunt Jean sent me a note. She inquired about Steve and Bob. In San Francisco, in a neighborhood called the Castro, she explained, there were lots of nice guys like Steve and Bob. When I was older, maybe I could visit her and Aunt Barbara to see for myself.
* * *
In my early teens, I had no notion of “gay,” and so I wasn’t looking for Doc Richardson to discuss the subject in For Boys Only. In retrospect, I understand that long before then I had had feelings for other boys, but I didn’t think of those feelings as romantic. Rather, I thought I just wanted to be like the cute, confident boys I admired at school. They were not my friends, only distant, mysterious objects. What I thought I felt for other boys was envy, not attraction.
I had much the same feeling for the boys who appeared one month in National Geographic World magazine. This was National Geographic for children, so the articles were about kid stuff. For a long time, I was captured by one story in particular, “An American Gymnast in the U.S.S.R.” “Few Americans have had the chance to train with Soviet athletes,” the story explained. “But thirteen-year-old Caleb Daniloff, of Washington, DC did.” In the article, Daniloff is pictured with classmates in a Moscow gymnastics school. Photos depict the young gymnasts in various poses. There is nothing sexual about the pictures. But there is a physical intimacy among boys that was foreign and strange to me, wholly unknown, and deeply captivating. One photo showed a boy in a perfect bridge pose. His hands and feet flat on the floor, his head and neck curving behind him, he thrusts his waist toward the ceiling. Another boy, his fingers spread wide and pressed firmly into the first boy’s abdomen and chest, is doing a handstand, his legs a rigid V in the air above his partner’s bridge. Their bodies are lean and taut, exposed in tiny shorts and tank tops. Pictured behind this pair is the American, Daniloff. He stands side-by-side with a Soviet boy. Each balances on one foot, the other foot, leg stretching up, up, held tightly in an outstretched hand. Their arms reach toward the ceiling. The two boys maintain their balance by holding hands with each other. I’d never touched another boy with such familiarity. At the time, I had no idea why I was so drawn to this image. But I could not take my eyes off it.
* * *
At the end of the winter break of my first year of college, I drove to Florida to pick up my friend Marcia. She needed a ride back to school. Our plan was to travel to my home in Georgia, stay the night, then return to campus near Atlanta the following day. In the car together, we did what we always did: We got high and sang along to Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls.
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric.
The private college we attended was filled with well-to-do prep-school kids. They were high achievers, accustomed to excellence, entitled to it. They had credit cards and drove flashy cars. They had drugs of every description. These students, I was surprised to learn, studied as hard as they partied. The unofficial center of our small campus social life was a notorious club whose members were required to maintain a 4.0 GPA, even as they binge-drank and Hoovered up great piles of cocaine. At their parties, they doled out ecstasy like Skittles. In my small-town public-school experience, one could either be a top student or a drug fiend, but not both. It had never occured to me that the two aspirations might be successfully combined. I was intrigued. And so I studied diligently, and, to fit in, I bought a bong and a coke spoon.
Like me, Marcia didn’t belong. She was a scholarship kid, as unpolished as I. But she was smart and driven and always available to get high. Together, we studied and wrote papers late into the night, then drove the miles of deserted country roads that surrounded the tiny college town, smoking weed and singing “What’s Going On” and “Love is a Hurting Thing.” Marcia was unlike the genteel Southern women of modest, understated grace I’d grown up with. She was loud, brash, and direct, with a raucous laugh that filled a room. I was enthralled. But when she arrived at our house after Christmas, one look from Mother told me that she didn’t care for Marcia. The next morning, as soon as I made my way down to the kitchen, Mother looked over my shoulder and asked, “Where’s Marcia?”
I glanced back too, toward the stairs. “In bed, still asleep.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed. “That will not go on in a Christian home!” she shouted.
It took me an instant, as I shook off sleep, to understand her flash of rage. Mother had arranged for Marcia to take my sister’s now-vacant downstairs bedroom. My room was upstairs on the opposite side of the house. Mother imagined that we’d shared a room so that we could have sex. This was strictly forbidden. But I had no way of explaining why she was mistaken. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Yes, we had slept together in my bedroom, Marcia in one twin bed, I in the other. After a late-night ride around town, we were high as usual, and forgetful of the house rules regarding the sleeping arrangements of unmarried couples. Our infraction was, at any rate, less intimate than Marcia and I were accustomed to at college. There we often bedded down in my dorm room in a single twin bed. But it wasn’t what Mother assumed. Sex between Marcia and me was inconceivable. After all, she was dating my friend Steve, and they couldn’t get enough sex with each other. I was the friend to study with, get high with, and then fall asleep with. But not sleep with. Besides, Marcia had been telling me, almost since we met, that I was gay. I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Just because I like Patti LaBelle, that doesn’t make me gay,” I insisted.
“Since when did this become a Christian home?” I shot back to Mother. Marcia and I loaded the car in silence and made a quick exit. Mother didn’t speak to me again until sometime after Easter, when my father phoned and begged me to apologize. “Apologize for what?” I insisted. I wanted him to say what he thought I’d done, that I’d had sex under his roof—with a woman.
* * *
I was twenty-one before I had my first serious boy crush. His name was Ethan. He had a beautiful, unruly mop of blond hair, which I suspected had been highlighted. His doe eyes were green as grapes, his smile electric. Men and women alike pursued him. Everyone who met him seemed smitten. But Ethan was aloof, unavailable to all. Whether he was gay or straight was uncertain. Some days I would observe him sunbathing in the courtyard of our dormitory. I longed to stroke the angry purple scar, which marked the exit of his appendix. One evening, I surprised him at the sink in the communal bath on our hall. He was applying mascara. I wanted nothing more than to become that brush.
Just beginning to take my first tentative steps out to gay bars, I was elated one night to see Ethan in the same Midtown dive, Burkharts. He was leaning against a wall, drinking a seventy-five-cent draft beer, observing the scene, just as I was. Afterward, we began to talk and to acknowledge one another on campus.
As summer approached, I learned that Ethan had gotten a job at Cafe Intermezzo, an upscale coffee shop and bar, but he did not plan to start until after he returned from visiting family at the close of the term. Ethan didn’t know I knew about his new job. To be near him all summer long, while he was away, I too applied for a job at Cafe Intermezzo. I’d get hired and begin right away, while Ethan was gone. Then, when he started at the cafe, I planned, it would appear that he was following me, rather than the other way around. By then, I’d already know the ropes, and Ethan would depend on me to help him get acquainted in his new position.
In the meantime, I moved out of the dorm and into my first apartment. It was a tiny two-room basement flat in the home of blue-haired widow from Derbyshire, England. She had a vicious German Shepherd who pursued me every time I stepped foot out the door. But I chose this particular apartment because it had a fireplace. Whatever its drawbacks, come winter, I could imagine how romantic it would be, my first boyfriend on the futon in front of a blazing fire.
Cafe Intermezzo was opened late at night, in the heart of Buckhead. It was the last stop for posh crowds concluding a night at the theatre or out on the town, with fancy desserts and cocktails. Wait staff began early in the evening and worked until 2:00 a.m. After unwinding at the bar over drinks of our own, Ethan and I would go out to nearby dance clubs until dawn. If I was lucky, Ethan might suggest sleeping over at my place. As we spent more and more time together, my crush deepened. But so did my shyness. Whenever Ethan stayed over, I kept to my twin bed, while he slept alone on the futon, just feet away, by the empty fireplace. In the dark, I felt a deep ache as I listened to his slow, even breathing.
* * *
Thanks to Doc Richardson, I understood the mechanics of sex, but I could not imagine how it all got started, exactly. In my teens, I sometimes overheard conversations among peers about having sex. Some couples in high school behaved like old married folks, they’d been fucking for so long and with such regularity. But how did they get together initially? I couldn’t guess.
When I finally did find myself in bed with a woman for the first time, I was as surprised as she was. Sarah had visited the college writing center where I worked as a tutor and confided in me about a boy she had a terrible crush on. She was invisible to him, she lamented. His name was Ethan. While I did not reveal my own love-sickness for the same Ethan, I shared her palpable ache. Somehow we ended up at the newly-built Ecolodge near campus. While the encounter was fumbling and awkward, I was relieved. I was having sex with a woman. In spite of the insistence of friends like Marcia, this was clear evidence that I was not gay.
Not long after that, at a sprawling dance complex called Backstreet, I met a boy visiting Atlanta from Minneapolis. I watched while other men stalked him around the club. They shared my opinion of his handsome good looks. I would have to act if I was to be the one to capture his attention. Too shy to introduce myself, I sidled up next to him at the bar, making sure my bare arm lightly brushed his. My knees nearly buckled at the spark. Without turning toward me, he flashed a wry smile at the mirrored wall behind the bar, his eyes mischievous behind long, thick lashes. When Daniel introduced himself, I fell in love with his voice. Unlike my Southern drawl, Daniel had the polished Midwestern dialect of a television news anchor. I could have listened to him talk all night long. As he unspooled the contours of his life, I learned that Daniel had been a child gymnast, and later, an Eagle Scout. I’d never kissed a man before, but that night on the dance floor with him, I seized the opportunity. His lips remain vivid in my memory. They were full and insistent, his tongue curious. We kissed for hours. As the music thumped in our chests, we were so involved that other patrons gathered round several deep to watch. I’d never been kissed like that. This, I understood crucially, was what Doc Richardson had left out of his sex-ed guide, For Boys Only.
Daniel was slight, a few inches shorter than I. Looking down into his dark eyes made me feel tall, confident. I was delighted by this new sensation. Holding his face between my hands, I kissed his eyelids, gently plucking them up with my lips. In the early hours before dawn, after he’d stepped away for a moment, Daniel slipped up behind me, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce embrace. He was small, but powerful. I felt an opening inside me, like a taut spring had been released. The feelings of comfort and security were overwhelming. I was on the verge of something, which was a great mystery to me, even as I was about to enter into it. Although I never saw Daniel again after that night, for the first time, the romantic touch of another—a man—felt right and natural to me. With certainty, his lips, his embrace told me who I was.