An Original OutHistory Publication
Published November 12, 2014
I was born in 1957 and grew up in a town of about fifteen thousand people situated in one of the mid-Atlantic states. Male-male affection in my world of the 1960s was expressed only between athletes in athletic contexts. And it was only expressed in the most gingerly and brief manner possible. I remember much distance between men with very little eye contact. In my hometown, men rarely embraced for any reason. Male-male embraces were rare, even in television and film. Many of the male adults I knew addressed each other by last names only.
When I was eleven years old, I had a friend named Buck. I knew Buck because he was the brother of a friend of my sister. Without that connection, we would not have been interacting. I had no other male friends. Buck was also a year older than I was and that distanced him from my world. I was bullied and rejected outright by most of my same age peers. Either Buck did not know what a pariah I was in my own class, or he knew and he did not mention it.
Buck and I spent time together outside playing. One bleak fall day, the air smelled of wood smoke. The ground lay thick with damp rose, orange and burgundy leaves. As we played, we began to dig out a space in some brush. Surprisingly for both of us, once inside we began to hold each other. There we were quiet and intimate; I felt an intoxicating sense of liberation. I noticed how quiet the world felt to me and how present I felt to Buck and the world. I was whole. I did not know I was to be gay at that time, but it was clear to me that my sports-loving friend and I could not be seen holding hands.
Bullying At School
My parents were alcoholics, my home life was chaotic and my father was prone to violence when he was drinking. I would have hoped for support and security at school.
What I found at school was worse than what went on in our home. I recall a series of nightmarish occurrences in elementary school wherein I was persona non grata. I liked to spend most of my time with girls and was not interested in, or skilled in, mandatory male-child activities. I dropped balls at all-important moments, and rejected good pitching as I tried to play baseball, kickball and warball to no avail. Catching, throwing, hitting, dodging and kicking balls—the worst of punishments. The more incapable I felt, the worse my performances became.
Naturally, I was selected last for teams and when I had to throw balls, I threw them “like a girl.” Teachers looked the other way as I was screamed at, harassed and humiliated during ball playing. Now I understand that my teacher’s deliberate overlooking of these behaviors was damaging to me, as it enabled more frequent bullying behaviors from my peers. The teacher’s choice was unconscionable; she betrayed me. When teachers allow learners to bully other learners, they shortchange all of their learners. They shortchange their profession by not modeling for students humane, civilized behaviors.
My peers displayed their contempt for me in daily interaction. I was renamed Helen. “Helen couldn’t catch a ball if he tried,” “You’re not supposed to do it that way, Helen,” “Helen, get out of the way,” “Helen, you’re not walking on the right side of the hall,” “Helen, didn’t you hear the teacher?” “Helen’s parents are getting a divorce,” “Helen, leave us alone,” “Helen’s only friend is his sister.” I ignored this as much as I could, and it went unchallenged by teachers. The cumulative effect of this abuse was to make me a pariah, eight hours a day, for four years. During that time and sometime thereafter, I equated school with emotional and sometimes physical torture and terror.
At the time, my peers’ behavior was viewed as “teasing” by adults. Abuse and bullying were not as broadly recognized as they are today. And at least one teacher had distaste for me or imagined that shaming and humiliation were appropriate instructional strategies for those learners who did not tow the traditional gender line.
My mother took me at the age of ten to the cinema ticket counter. Ostensibly we were to see a Disney film. A scandalized clerk pointed out that The Fox, the feature presentation, was for “mature” audiences. Apparently desperate to see a film, my mother in her most convincing delivery responded, “If he understands it he does, if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.” We walked into the dark theatre, my eyes wide with anticipation.
I remembered little of that film, which included lesbian as well as heterosexual lovemaking, except that a woman moaned a lot when she got out of the bath. Viewing The Fox as an adult, I note that in it two women are living on a farm in the country in a loving lesbian relationship. One day a stunning male knocks on their door. Before you can say heterosexual invasion, the man kisses one of the women, who succumbs to passion. She ultimately decides to stay with her female lover. Then, however, a tree cut down by the handsome man happens to land smack dab on that confounding female lover. The remaining lesbian is then hauled away by the handsome male with an expression of great consternation on her face. This grey, wintry, tragic film was my first exposure to gay relationships on film.
Images of violent gay deaths or suicides, when projected to the masses at regular intervals, have ramifications for how people perceive the gay population. Decades after I saw The Fox, I was surprised when my sister told me that her only real concern about me being gay was that I might commit suicide or be murdered. She had bought into a myth that had been carefully designed to negatively predispose her thoughts about gay people. At that moment I realized the impact that film and the media have on the way people think about sexuality.
I awoke as a sexual being in an atmosphere of homophobic bullying, social disapproval and condemnation. In fact, the 1960’s was a decade in which homosexuality was thought to be as undesirable as bestiality or necrophilia. Conversations in the media and elsewhere prompted me to ask myself whether being a teenage homosexual was worse than being a murderer.
An eroticized depiction of the fallen angel in a magazine mesmerized me. I wondered if the fallen angel was evil enough to be a homosexual. Was he thrown out of heaven because he was a homosexual? What could all of this mean for my soul? Would I be thrown out of heaven if ever I was found out?
I learned to become self-supporting, self-counseling and self-prescribing so that I could cope in an ostracizing, bullying world. As a teenager I was left to consider the nature of my own goodness and evil. Most people believed that my homosexual nature was evil. Their beliefs prompted internal dialogue for me even as I considered what it meant to be evil. Was thinking about a behavior enough to make me evil? At what point does a given action go from neutral to evil? If thinking about gay sex, for example, was sinful why not go ahead and act on these thoughts that I could not suppress? As I reasoned my way through this morass, I was forced to learn how to respect myself and to believe in myself with no social or emotional support. There was no visible or accessible LGBT rights organization in my community and precious little reference to LGBT people in the media that was positive. I turned twelve years of age in 1969 and six months later the Stonewall Uprising occurred. I could not have imagined how that event would impact my adult life.
Once when I was junior high age I was riding my bike home. Two boys that I barely knew stopped me and began to assault me. A man walking by intervened and stopped the altercation as he said “two on one is not fair.” Not fair? It was battery and I was left with a broken collarbone. After the altercation, I hobbled home pushing my bike, in excruciating pain. The recovery was long and painful as the bones scraped against each other as they gradually healed.
There was no provocation for this bashing other than I was perceived to be a sissy. I never told my family about that perception. I was too ashamed. A pattern of not feeling free to tell others about my deepest feelings and fears began that day. Fear and guilt were molded together for me as a result of this encounter. Even today I struggle with the effort to share my deepest fears. My first reaction is always to clam up and suppress fear. This is an automatic mechanism that is activated instantly - to hide first and try to cope later, unobserved.
Violence spawns feelings of rage and degradation. Those were my own feelings at 14; I was enraged that anyone would feel free to assault another person. I felt degraded as I picked my injured self up off the ground. I knew inside that this altercation would not have happened if it were not their homophobia.
In 1971, exploring why I was abused was not an option. My sexual attractions were regarded by the culture to be shameful and unmentionable. I was forced to tell others that I did not know why I was attacked except that the boys were looking for a fight.
My parents called the parents of one of the boys and the father came to our house and questioned me in an amiable way. He did not call again and we learned that he later told the police and sent us a letter indicating that the injury was not inflicted by the boys. Justice was not going to be served, because at that time lawsuits were very infrequent and my parents did not have the bucks to litigate. Thereafter, I began to try to hide whatever behaviors I may have had that were stereotypic or gay identifiable. The difficulty was that these behaviors were natural for me; I could not recognize them any more than I could see the nose on my face without a mirror.
As an adolescent I felt I was alone. I knew of no other gay individual in my life sphere which is why I was riveted when my grandmother’s issue of Life magazine (December 31, 1971) contained an article entitled “Homosexuals in Revolt.”
I discovered in that article that there were not only gay luminaries and gay leaders but also gay churches and communes. A gay religious leader was claiming that God loves gays.
I learned that political movements for gay rights and equality were mobilizing. The article had one revelation after another for me as I realized I was not alone after all.
Not only was I not alone, my people were taking a stand against their oppressors and repressors. Homosexuality, the article said, was “Rarely mentioned in print before.” I still own my grandmother’s copy of that Life issue.
Not so encouraging, however, was a section of the Life article entitled “Is homosexuality normal or not?”
Freudian theoretician and past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Edmund Bergler, was called upon in the Life article for an expert perspective.
A powerful and influential voice, Bergler was a Jew who had fled the horrors of Nazi persecution to live in New York City. Once in the United States, he contributed to the stigmatization of homosexuality as a disease and assigned specific homosexual personality traits to them.
The personality traits included “masochistic provocation,” “hypernarcisism,” “refusal to acknowledge accepted standards in nonsexual matters,” and “general unreliability.” Berger went on to explain that these traits were common to all homosexuals.
As a member of a stigmatized social minority, one might have expected Bergler to refrain from contributing to the oppression of others but that was not to be.
The author of the Life article did not refute Bergler’s claim. Was this how I was to evolve as a human being? Was I going to be generally unreliable? A narcissist? A narcissist on steroids?
Discussed as well was “aversion therapy,” “a treatment given to gay people at that time in which a homosexual patient is punished, usually by electric shock, when shown an erotic picture of a male and rewarded by the absence of pain when viewing a picture of an attractive woman” (p. 72). Those who gave such treatments professed to believe they could convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. The article did not mention another form of commonly applied “shock treatment”, Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), wherein electrodes were applied to the patient’s temples and a current was applied thereby throwing the electrified victim into appalling levels of convulsion. ECT was also being used at the time to treat symptoms of homosexuality. Such proclaimed “corrective” techniques continued for decades. It is notable that, due to the efforts of Bergler and others, The American Psychological Association did not remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders until in 1972.
The Life article was frightening on some levels and reassuring on others. At least, I knew I was not alone in my sexual orientation.
I do not remember realizing at any particular point that I was gay. Such a realization came to me gradually, almost imperceptibly, as I became a sexual being. Throughout that time I was keenly aware that my sexuality had to remain a secret. Indeed, my very existence as a homosexual was unmentionable. My family would not learn I was gay for another eight years, until I was twenty-two, and had already been in two committed relationships. I suppose I became gay the way a heterosexual becomes straight, gradually evolving in a way that shuns control.
The next spring after the Life article arrived, I was marching in our high school band. We were standing and waiting prior to a parade. In the band ahead, I noticed a tanned young man with the whitest teeth I had ever seen (and there were no teeth whitening products at that time). He smiled repeatedly as he spoke with his colleagues. More and more, as he smiled, I began to imagine that he was smiling at me. I stood transfixed with my fantasy. I began to resolve that I would find a way to meet him. As it turns out, my friend Jerry knew him, and I asked Jerry to arrange for us to meet. Things began to cook at that meeting, an exhilarating experience. I had to pinch myself to believe this was occurring. For the first time, since that fall day with Buck, I simultaneously began to witness and participate in affection between two men. Over the next few months, a loving relationship began to emerge, one that was strangely compelling. It was a powerful force; a love that could transcend barriers.
As fulfilling as our relationship could be, it had its stressors. How were we to meet without drawing attention, to find a place to be intimate, to keep it all hidden? A few months later my boyfriend’s father suggested to him that the amount of time we spent together was “unnatural.” Had we been playing football together, I suppose that time would have been seen as perfectly natural. Of course I did not call him my boyfriend at the time or even really think that way because such language, indeed the very sentiment at that time, was owned exclusively by heterosexuals. In 1973, one boy would have felt silly to say “boyfriend” to another boy.
And yet, with all of its stressors, I regard this period to be one of the most magical of my life. I knew that my deep feelings and this positive alliance were valuable and so the experience with this young man would portend my future as a long-term relationship-oriented person. I recall with clarity how grateful I felt to have someone with me who expressed affection to me, someone who wrote “love Bobby” at the end of his letters to me. Our relationship occurred behind the scenes and could be shared with no one. Such was the life of this relationship forty years ago.
We were on the bus on the way home from Mardi Gras when and some of my band colleagues were looking at the book I had purchased, Mardi Gras in New Orleans: A Photographic Essay by Mickey Demoruelle, I had bought the book in part because it contained an actual photo of two men kissing, a rare example at the time. When my bandmates saw the photo above they grabbed their stomachs in mock retching. They shrieked in horror. I sat in my seat in a state of shock when I realized which photo was the source of their anxiety, terrified that they would advertise to whom the scandalous book belonged. Their revulsion chilled me and put a dry lump in my throat, letting me know where I stood in their eyes as a member of a sexual minority.
In high school, I developed two peer confidants, particularly my straight friend Cheryl, my gay friend Jerry, mentioned above. The value of their roles in my life cannot be overestimated. I worried however, about what might happen if my sexual orientation were to be revealed to my family. How would they react? Would they reject me? Disown me?
These concerns led me to be obsessively careful about my underground self. My journaling about intimate topics, letters and other gay related materials were hidden at all times. If someone were to find out my secret, I wanted it to be on my terms. But I slipped up and my mother did “find out” in spite of my efforts to conceal things during my college years. She found gay publications under my bed when I was away at a conference. When I returned she said “Hunter, I want to talk to you about something.” Her eyes were very black and I knew that meant she was angry. She asked: “Why do you have these magazines?”
I was twenty-two when my mother discovered those publications. She sequestered herself for twenty-four hours and emerged with her verdict. She was not pleased with the realization that her son would not have a wife and children. But she was determined to support me. My sister Mary Ann’s awareness evolved gradually, never any negative feedback from her. When I was in my twenties my dad asked my mother if I was gay and she told him to ask me. My father and I never discussed my sexual orientation.
I suppose he did not approach me because he did not want to ask me such an intimate question, perhaps because such discussions made him uncomfortable. I was not bothered by his reticence. My father and I were not in the habit of discussing deeply personal issues. However, once in the late 1980s he invited my partner and me to dinner. The tone of that event revealed that he knew we were a couple and that he respected our relationship. I appreciated that dinner very much. My family welcomed my spousal equivalent at all family functions. I could not have not dreamed of that when I was in high school or college.
A Gay Teacher
When I graduated from college as a music teacher in 1979, the gay and lesbian civil movement was a just ten years old. With no civil rights protections whatsoever as a gay man, I was facing an uncertain professional teaching world.
As a teacher, I could not discuss my personal life with colleagues. No one knew that I had a long-term partner. I might have been fired if such information were relayed to the wrong person. Even in the most relaxed situations during my teaching years at Saint Albans High School, I never uttered a word about my personal life. I consider that passive bullying.
Soon I was hired to be a choral music teacher, I was called to meet with the principal of my school. He told me that he had heard from another faculty member that I was a homosexual. He went on to say that I had better be good at my job or there would be repercussions. The thundercloud under which I entered that job was compounded by homophobic student attitudes during my first year of teaching. Those resulted in tense relations with students I still regard that year to be the most difficult and threatening one in my life.
Each day as I showered before work, I thought about what I would face that day. How many times would I be challenged, ignored or insulted by a student while I was teaching? As I thought about it all, I felt a sinking, sickening feeling in my stomach. Why did some students (eight or so in a particularly important performing ensemble) respond to me the way they did? Was it because of their lack of faith in me as their teacher? Was it because they perceived my gay identity, or worst of all, both? And what if they all marched out of the rehearsal hall to complain about me to my homophobic principal?
When I confronted one student about smoking in the Music Department doorway, she told me she was “going to the Board to get (my) ass out.” There was also unbridled homophobic words scrawled on the department bulletin board. There was the student who stormed out of my office muttering “bitch.” How many times would I hear “fag” or “sweet” behind my back as I walked down the hall? I feared that students I perceived as supporters would turn on me, and there were a few who did. I remember their names nearly three decades later probably because loyalty is of paramount importance when one’s working environment is appallingly and unrelentingly hostile.
I sensed there were also a handful of homophobic parents. What if they banded together with the homophobic principal to get rid of the gay teacher? All of this was occurring in the fiercely heterocentric early-Reagan era. If I were to go down in flames ignited by homophobia what would my family think? How awful for them, I thought.
My worst fears were never realized. I will never forget the day that a number of my students came to say that they wanted me to know that they supported me. Later, two recalcitrant students dropped at the semester’s end. That very spring we received a superior rating at a regional solo and ensemble festival. Later, the principal apologized to me and said how pleased he was with my work.
The next year, our choral ensemble performed in New York City, at New York University, at the NY, NY Festival of Music, and received excellent ratings. Just before our bus pulled out of Saint Albans headed for the airport, one of the parents reminded her daughter to take a picture of a gay person in the Greenwich Village. None, presumably, existed in Saint Albans.
My students came to know me as a human being rather than as an exotic figure. As time passed, they responded to me positively and graciously and we formed excellent partnerships, shared meaningful learning experiences, and developed a supportive community.
Strange though it may seem in light of the history described, my teaching eventually became a joy.
My work also involved a tremendous output of energy. My last year at Saint Albans High School I was seeing two hundred and sixty students a day-over five times the enrollment upon my arrival. The growth of my programs was beginning to consume me. I decided to become a teacher educator, so that I could reassure future teachers that their professional dreams can come true. Even today, in the conservative profession, many, maybe most, teachers are expected to hide their same sex relationships.
As I was completing this article a friend suggested that I contact one of my bullies, tell her about this essay and ask if she would comment on it. My friend made the suggestion with the confidence that only a straight person of my generation could have. The suggestion made me wince. Months later I sent a message to Jane, now in the education profession. I told her I was working on an essay that describes my being bullied at Hansford Elementary School. I asked: would she “care to comment on that from your perspective?”
A few hours later I received Jane’s response, and she later authorized me to include it here:
“Hunter, I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about you over the years and felt the need to reach out and truly say I am sorry for my part in what must have been a terrible experience for you. I can remember joining in with the name calling and feeling in my gut that Iwas doing wrong. Now as an adult I can call it what it was -- painful bullying. And I know I participated and I am ashamed. I am truly sorry. Congratulations on your article and let’s hope it makes a difference. Jane”
With moist eyes I thanked Jane and told her that the bullying I was subject to “had a lifelong impact, one that I have worked hard to overcome . . . . On the other hand, I feel the experience has made me a better teacher and teacher educator than I might have been otherwise. Anyway, again I do want to thank you for responding. It took a lot of courage for me to contact you and your response has been very meaningful to me.”
Jane then suggested that I contact others in our class, and tried to help me do that, so far to no avail. In a message to Jane I said: “your response has been one of the most transformative events of this cathartic process, very, very powerful both in terms of our own healing . . .”
A few days after the conversation with Jane I was working on a writing project and it just would not flow. I was trying to force it. Then I heard a voice say, “Helen can’t do anything right.” I thought of Jane and in my mind’s eye I saw those words shatter. I stood in silence and I knew at long last I was free.
1 R. Stross. (Producer) & M. Rydell (Director), The Fox [Motion picture] 1967. Available from Warner Brothers Achieve Collection.
2 D.Mehl, (Ed).The Fox/The Captain’s Doll/The Ladybird. NY: Penguin. 2006.
3 D. Ossana. (Producer) & Lee, A. (Director), (2005). Brokeback Mountain [Motion picture] Available form Universal.
4 R. Graves (Ed.). "The year that one liberation movement turned militant: Homosexuals in revolt." Life, 1971, December 31, pages 62-72.
5 D. Mixner, D. LGBT history: The decade of lobotomies, castration and institutions. 2010, July 28. Retrieved November 20, 2010 from Live from Hell’s Kitchen…
6 M. Demoruelle. Mardi Gras in New Orleans: A Photographic Essay. Publisher: Author, 1973.
Hunter O'Hara is a Professor of Education at The University of Tampa. His book Transcendent Teacher Relationships: The Way of the Shamanic Teacher is to be published in 2015 by Sense Publishers of Educational Research, Boston. The book will be available through Amazon and Barnes and Nobles. He also has published over 30 articles in peer reviewed journals.
Dr. O'Hara specializes in early childhood education, music education, diversity education, and literacy education. He has researched teacher/learner relationships that transcend traditional roles to create higher levels of learning. He also has written about diversity teacher education, as well as children from disadvantaged or abusive backgrounds and their special needs. A former teacher with K-12 experience and extensive musical education training, he advocates a strong role for the arts in education. See more at: http://www.ut.edu/hunterohara/#sthash.sUR3SuU9.dpuf
Last edited: November 12, 2014, 2:10 pm EST