I believe there were four overlapping causes for my homophobia as a child. I definitely did not inherit it from my parents, being that they both were liberal parents. When I would tell some of my fears to my Dad, he would say that he had some very good gay friends, and that there was nothing to be scared of. My mom, as a music teacher and performer herself, had a lot of experience being comfortable around homosexuality. Besides, she worked with and treated all of her students regardless of race, gender, or sexuality equally.
In hindsight, the first cause of my phobia was triggered by my fear of being so overly sensitive. I already felt like this was a girly submissive trait. I felt that anything closer to being related to girls beyond desiring them as sexual objects as strong masculine boys, men are supposed do, from what I saw on television, would make me even more of a target to be picked on.
The second cause of my phobia was this other strange fear I had. It involved “getting other people’s brains”. If I touched or hung around people, who I judged to be inferior in some way, I was afraid that I would adopt their negative traits. When I witnessed or was around “bad” kids, physically I felt a tickle in the back of my brain, the kind that when it became intense enough and my anxiety reached high enough, the tickle would turn into chills down my spine. By some mystical osmosis their personality traits or ways of thinking that I felt threatening to my identity would become mine, and I would further become more of an outsider in social circles that I already was. I basically thought that personality, sexuality, or any other social traits could be caught like a disease.
Perhaps it was from watching too many goody goody after school specials about hanging with the wrong crowd of kids and getting into trouble as a result of that (but more on the ideological influence of television in the next chapter). Between those kind of sitcoms and movies in the 80’s like “Big”, “18 again”, and Vice Versa, and even superhero cartoons that often had these themes of switching bodies or a good guy trapped in a bad guy’s body and vice versa, the idea of “catching someone else’s brain” both fascinated and frightened me. I was already having a hard enough time adjusting and building my own socially well adjusted identity. The last thing I wanted was another wrench thrown in the mix that would change who I thought I was, and I would have to start all over. As will be discussed in the next chapter, overall I was a very superstitious kid.
The third cause was watching an episode of one of my favorite childhood sitcoms, Different Strokes. It was the episode where the boys Arnold and Dudley go into a bike shop and play with their shirts off with the older male bike shop owner. Arnold ends up leaving before things get too weird but his friend Dudley ends up getting molested. The idea of being touched, being molested seemed so terrifying to me. The fact that the molestation was between older man and a boy, and hence being homosexual contact, made me even more fearful. Even though there was a point made on the show, and by my parents, that pedophiles are not homosexuals, the fact that so many pedophiles seemed to be men violating boys, made me link the two types of behavior anyway. My mind often went to the negative, and often feeling like an outsider, I often assumed the worst of what people could do, and more specifically do to me, and even more terrified of any possibility that I could potentially do the same to someone else.
The fourth cause, and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, was how physically affectionate my dad was towards me. He never touched me inappropriately or in my “special no no” places. However, my dad gave me many hugs and kisses, many more so than I saw other dad’s give their sons. I was worried that maybe this was a sign of something bad and gay. Furthermore, my dad, in relating to my social outsider status, would share with me how he was also at times considered feminine. He would make fun of his high voice, admitting that some times when people called the house, they thought he was a woman. He also talked about getting hit on by men as a young man but that he never was interested. Despite his many self-proclaimed feminine attributes, my dad emphasized how heterosexual he was in his taste and love for women.
But between him being so kissy and huggy with me, and admitting to feminine traits, having gay friends, and those other encounters, part of me wondered that maybe just maybe he might be hiding some gayness, and that I might have inherited it. I was always comforted when my mom said that he was the sexiest man she ever met, which I thought was strange because he was not a macho guy, or anything like other less emotional or silly or affectionate dads. I also thought it was funny when she also expressed how much of a fan of Tom Selleck she was in Magnum P.I. It was comforting to know thought that my 5 foot 9 dad could be considered as sexy, if not sexier that Tom Selleck.
And as much as I might have doubted by dad’s masculine status as a boy growing up, I took note of how loving and supportive he always was for my mom, and how much strength and masculinity that took. I never saw another dad more affectionate with a mom in any other household than mine. He would espouse that women are smarter than men and would even go as far to say that we are here on this earth to serve them. I had a really hard time reconciling these less stereotypically masculine attributes of my dad with finding my own modern heterosexuality as a nerdy male in my current American cultural society. And yet there were times when my dad did get mad, that I was legitimately scared and proud of how threatening, and therefore masculine, he could be. He was sensitive like me. As lucky as I knew I was for having my dad, the strength I found from his unique complete being as a man I would not fully understand until later. What was more amazing was that he was tolerant of my doubts, always having firm conviction of who he was. And besides that, everybody loved my dad. He was adored by kids and adults alike for his charm and humor. But, again, more on him in my next chapter about my ideological history.
The intensity with which I intended to relate and empathize with others scared me through my young life. I remember being seven years old watching Mystery Theater with my parents on PBS and seeing a pig being beaten by some bratty violent kids. I imagined being the pig and how helpless it was and I started to cry intensely, which led to a phase as a kid where I was very much into animal rights, imagined creating a machine that could translate animal sounds into language so they could speak for themselves. I had a natural sympathy, because of my own experiences I perceived as an outsider, with the disenfranchised, the beaten, the taken advantage of, and the underdogs. This posed an interesting conflict when I would relate to homosexuals’ oppression, rebellious flamboyant culture and expression.
Needless to say, my first major confrontation with my homophobia was when I was in the children’s choir in the Metropolitan as a boy soprano when I was 10. I auditioned to get into the choir from a recommendation of one of my mom’s student’s parents, whose daughter was also in the choir. We carpooled and sang every Saturday. I got to perform in La Boheme at Lincoln Center as a peasant boy in Act II singing Papillon. I loved doing the shows. We got paid $20 a night. It cut into school time in 5th grade. The kids were somewhat cutthroat and catty and besides my mother’s student, Pamela, I did not make many friends (surprise surprise). My homophobia manifested in my fear of being touched by the older gay men in charge of dressing us up in the costumes. They would help put our costumes on, but I was afraid that by them touching me, just casual incidental contact, I would become gay in some way and either be molested or molest someone else. It was an embarrassing fear, because I knew it was unfounded. It was just that during those pre adolescent years, more and more gay jokes were made among my peers, and I did not want to be an outsider. And yet again, at the same time, since I too knew what it was like to be an outsider, I was afraid that this was a potential precursor to being gay.
Also the 5th grade chorus teacher in my new Saddle River Day School seemed to fit the profile of being gay, having very feminine and gestures, and a somewhat soft demeanor even when we acted up. The kids were very mean to him. He ended up resigning. He loved me though. He thought I was a talented singer in my grade. As appreciative as I was to get attention and positive feedback from a teacher, I was a little afraid that his low status would rub off on me. Later that year, after the 5th grade chorus sang, the Lower School Band played “One” from a Chorus Line. I was smitten. I thought I found a potential outlet, a new way to enjoy “gay” music without the threat of homosexuality more associated with singing and the chorus. I joined the band the next year playing the trombone.
Broadway music was not the only music I liked or gravitated towards in my younger years. I also liked some pop music. However, it seemed that my taste for pop music was influenced by what the majority of kids in school liked, along my sibling rivalry with my older sister, Melody. In the beginning, I remember loving the same pop music as my sister circa early 1980’s. My favorite musical moment with my sister was when my parents went out for a while and my sister and I were left alone. To proclaim our independence and having the house to ourselves, we turned on the radio and Deniese Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” was on and we danced and jumped around the house to it. We also both used to watch Duran Duran’s “Rio” and Hall & Oats’ “Private Eyes” on MTV while playing the card game UNO.
Even back then, I had a strange competitive sense about the entitlement to enjoy a song. This sense started in my head between my sister and me and it kind of worked like the Monopoly game and its properties. If someone enjoyed a song more than the other person, that song became “their song”. They owned that song as if it was Park Place. Some songs were harder to swallow as far as overall popularity on the charts. Some I did not mind my sister liking more. It might as well have been Baltic Avenue, but something like Huey Lewis and the News? Oh man that would hurt if I thought she somehow owned that song with her sheer will of enjoying it so much. I would get jealous if I heard my sister blasting music from her room. It meant she was enjoying something that was hers in her space without me, and if she blasted it really loud, because all I had was a clock radio in my room at that time, I would feel like she owned it and I would eventually hate the song that I originally liked because she liked it so much. Unless of course she got tired of it, and I could show off how much I enjoyed it and how much fun me, and the song were having together. By the mid 80’s, she became less attached to Michael Jackson, Loverboy, and Huey Lewis and more into HEAVY METAL!
Aside from any potential greater musical joy, I was jealous of my sister’s social life. She was a social butterfly. As much as her learning disabilities did not make her book smart or able to excel at school things, she had a talent for making friends. We were both Capricorns born in January and yet in most ways as opposite personality wise as you can get. Heavy Metal became popular right when I was starting at the height of the hardest years of childhood/adolescence. While I was at that rich ass Saddle River Day School, all the kids raved about Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet album and Guns and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. I thought I had an in when I saw my sister have the Slippery When Wet tape cassette in her room. I tried getting into “Living on a Prayer” and the one that was especially huge in 5th Grade “You Give Love a Bad Name”. I tried liking Bon Jovi, but the more I tried to like what the popular kids liked at SRDS, the same kids I constantly tried get better grades on at everything in class, the more I realized how futile it was for me to win them over no matter what similar music I listened to. Bon Jovi and every heavy metal/glam rock band, and every rock-oriented band that came before or after them, they all represented the music of the oppressor. In this case, the oppressor was all the kids I did not fit in with or I felt never accepted me in their social circles, and of course the slacker, super social, party girl sister who oppressed me with her towering ability to have and make friends so much easier than me. In hindsight I even hated folksy mellow songs like Blackbird because they reminded me of the many campfire times at the sleep away summer camp I attended when so many kids would pair up to snuggle with girls while counselors would play those songs. I often was an odd man out without a girl to snuggle with at a campfire.
The only 80’s pop music I liked was more dance oriented, where I did not need a partner or a girlfriend, where I could draw attention, and at least momentarily admired for my unusually passionate and rhythmic solo dancing skills. When I got invited to my first classmate’s Bat Mitzvah, I loved the songs that the dj played like “Walk the Dinosaur”, “My Prerogative”, and “Love Shack”. But whenever I heard Hard Rock or Heavy Metal at these parties, like Pavlov’s dog, I immediately felt like I was either I was going to be picked on or left out of the social loop. However, when those more funky dance songs came on, I would often make a scene. One parent went up to my father and asked how much I cost to perform. I had no idea I’d actually get paid to do the same thing but while playing a trombone ten years later. Other Jewish kids at the school would invite me to their Bar at Bat-mitzvahs not because we were friends, because I really did not have any aside from temporarily friendly acquaintances, but because it became a thing that they could laugh at me because I could not resist getting my groove on.
Fearful of hearing more hard rock-ish songs on the radio I stopped listening to it during the rest of the eighties. Overall, I found my refuge by going Lisa Simpson on everybody. I tuned into smooth jazz on CD 101.9, which was really just instrumental R&B. I got more into jazz and even more into older Broadway songs and jazz standards. The first CD’s I ever owned were Glenn Miller, Harry James, Count Basie with Tony Bennett, Manhattan Transfer, and New York Voices. That was where I found my soulful entitlement, something that I thought was special to me, something I knew I could enjoy more and be more familiar with than any of my peers.
And in some way I thought with my little personally soulful music rebellion against my peers, I could win over similar like-minded old souls, who like me did not appreciate the loud rock music to which these kids were listening. In my own warped way, as an ambassador to jazz, older music, discipline, and unique over-achieving competitive goals I thought someday I could attract enough people to take over the world with my neoconservative-ish movement,. Still when I went to those parties I felt nice to find some modern connection dancing to the pop dance music of the day. It would make me feel as included as when I jammed out with my sister to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, a time before we grew apart into our separate musically feudal factions, with her blasting Warrant’s “She’s My Cherry Pie” from her bedroom upstairs, and me blasting Glenn Miller’s “Chatanooga Choo Choo” from the downstairs music room.
Growing up, my best friend Ethan, who grew up across the street from me, was my main connection to what was musically current and cool. The only time I actively tolerated listening to Hard Rock was when Ethan got into it after a summer of being at sleep away camp where that’s all he listened to. Even though we grew apart when we were younger, we started to hang out more as we approached adolescence. He was one of the few people I felt I could naturally be silly around. We would make fun of everything together. Even though Ethan had glasses like me and was arguably as nerdy looking, as we approached adolescence, he started getting more fashion conscious, cut his hair differently, and wore contacts. He had a lot of first times before I did, many of which I imagined happening to me in his place. We often played card games (rummy, Casino and Spite & Malice) in his room in the attic of his house. And it was during those games that he exposed me to my first hip-hop – Tribe Called Quest. It seemed to combine both the harmony I liked from jazz plus the rhythm I liked to dance to, and what was more is that it was becoming more popular than the Hard Rock that dominated the theme music of my popular peers and older sister.
The other thing about hip-hop that was mysterious to me was that it had this swagger, a rebellious overtone that I related to. Between the funky beats and the rhythmic rhymes, I found it as a welcome popular substitute to hard rock because it went against most of the mindsets of hard rock. I could never see my sister, who had some racist viewpoints, nor the rich white kids, own and dance to hip hop the way I potentially could. Generally it was funkier, more rhythmic, and because of all the black overtones, it seemed to have more of a right to be rebellious that I didn’t see and hard rock or what had been mainstream popular could equally claim a right to. Still while I mostly was into old jazz and Broadway standards, and CD 101.9 smooth jazz, I really enjoyed listening to Tribe with Ethan because it connected me with something modern. It was both esoteric and popular as one could get at that time.
Aside from my links to modern American culture and a functional social life, my friendship with Ethan helped me confront my fears about homosexuality. I’m not sure who started it, but it most likely started from our natural way of having fun, cracking jokes, and stretching the boundaries of silliness. This “it” to which I refer was that certain gay flirtatious behavior some guys seem to do with each other. Just as we would some times play, and joke around talking in urban “black” slang with each other, pretending to be someone else, or experimenting as if we had another identity, we did the same thing experimenting with “gay” mannerisms. We would pucker our lips, talk feminine and with stereotypical lisps. In some ways, I’d say we sounded like stereotypical black gay men because of the popularity of Eddy Murphy’s standup comedy during those times. We would play around and talk gay with each other, hypothetically inferring that we would do sexual things to eachother or to whomever. We would even imitate one of our neighbors, a psychologist husband with a wife and two daughters, who we suspected by his feminine mannerisms, graying perm-ish curly hair, and the way he would say, “Hello boyz”, when he passed us walking his dog, that he was gay. We never thought of it as being mean or that we were making fun. It felt like an adolescent way of pretend, except instead of playing with action figures or acting like super heroes, we played with cultural and sexual identity.
I felt that there was something very liberating about playing around “acting gay”. I suppose the first thing I enjoyed was the light bright feeling I felt when I tapped into what I internalized as my feminine side. As someone with a natural talent for dancing, it felt very natural for me to be aware of adjusting my posture. And there were times when I was little, I would wonder what I would look like as a girl, and then being attracted to myself. It was the same kind of feeling I had when I turned my He-Man character’s head around and pretended he was a muscular girl with long bangs and a vagina behind it’s furry underwear. It was a particularly intriguing idea when the prospects of rejection from girls from my nerdiness seemed to limit my contact with actual females and feminine energy. So instead I tried to enjoy that energy manifesting from myself. I discovered more and more that dancing was a way I could tap into becoming the feminine energy I desired to meet and have contact with, the same energy I often felt I was denied or from which I was rejected. In fact for years and even now at points, I often feel like I have to fight my first instinct to outdance women on the dance floor, an instinct because one I often figure they will reject me and so what’s the point of trying to win them over, and two to show them that I’m better than them and don’t need them anyway. (It took a lot, as will be mentioned later, to realize that I needed a different dancing strategy using fun playful energy rather than an angry frustrated antagonist one if I were to attract women on the dance floor.) But it also felt humorous to be so outrageously silly, and flamboyant. My experimentation with flamboyant dancing felt affirmed when my Dad himself, whose similar silliness seemed to endear him to everyone, likened my flamboyant dancing to what he saw in Mel Brooks movies like Blazing Saddles, when the straight comedian Dom Deluise would do a dance routine called “Stick Out Your Tush”.
The most confusing times during my often lonely adolescence, when Ethan was maybe one of two only close friends through high school I had, was when the flirtations and gay talk would at times open the door in my mind about the possibility of actually acting on it with him. In spite of, or perhaps because of this residual dynamic of often being the whipping boy, or square nerd, and the submissive in most of my social situations with Ethan, I often felt so appreciative that he was my friend, so appreciative for his companionship. There were a couple of occasions in our early teen years when we would watch tv on his mother’s bed where I briefly entertained the idea of kissing him. I mean we had just playfully talked gay with each other. What if we took it to the next level? I often pushed the thoughts out of my head, and would feel guilty for even entertaining them, because for one I would hate to lose the best friend I had by putting sexual energy into the best platonic male relationship I ever had. But secondly, the homosexual thoughts were not pressing. I was not obsessed with them. They just popped in my head now an then, flaring in my mind often when I was afraid of ruining our friendship somehow when things were going so smoothly without any moments where I felt alienated, or when my mind just felt completely open.
What also took the stigma out of homosexuality being threatening was how one of Ethan’s older brothers came out of the closet, and yet both of them maintained a vibrant social life and status. Also, he became close friends with a cool openly gay classmate of ours who for a while regularly joined us in our card games in his attic, especially during Beverly Hills 90210 nights. And since Ethan both had a better social life than me, and had already lost his virginity and was sexually active in high school, way before I would be, it was inspiring to hear him admit to something during a walk the three of us took one night. A common ritual when hanging out at Ethan’s was to take a 15 minute walk to the 7-11. One night, Ethan, me, and his friend (we were cool but we never hung out outside of Ethan’s association) walked to 7-11 and got goodies, probably including chips and salsa and I often got Twix, and a Yoo Hoo. When the topic of homosexuality came up, Ethan admitted to saying, while maintaining his heterosexuality, that while he is not gay that if he met a guy that if he ended up being attracted to and fell in love with, then he’d consider homosexuality. Since it came from him, a guy whose heterosexuality alone I envied, it just seemed to be the coolest most socially progressive thing I ever heard. He never met that guy he hypothetically brought up, and yet he still remained cool and platonic with his gay friend. Yet such a statement took out any hierarchy of feelings or attractions. Somehow, it made him seem that much more secure in his heterosexuality.
One thing my mom always told me was that one of the hard things about being an intelligent person, especially a gifted one, is that you consider all options as you discover who you are in this world. I would alternate rationalizing my homophobia and simultaneous homosexual sympathy, as being a product of being intellectually open and empathizing with what I perceived as a similarly alienated walk of life. In many ways just as I gravitated towards the rebellious anti white/popular kid aspects of black hip hop music, I also gravitated towards the urgent exclamation of flamboyant expression associated with gay dance moves and some mannerisms. I appreciated the outspokenness of male homosexuality and envied the emotional freedom that sexual label seemed to engender, and yet I was scared of the social ramifications of actually experiencing anything homosexual.
Perhaps that is a similar dynamic to how so many privileged white people want to say and act urban black without having to experience actually anything “ghetto” or disenfranchised related. And just like I felt more entitled to dance black, I thought experimenting with feminine movement and expression gave me an expressive weapon most straight white guys I saw as my competitors and potentially socially oppressive bullies would not have access to, giving me attention and potential alliances with the women I wanted sex from and the minorities I hoped would accept me as being similarly disenfranchised, even though my oppression was arguably more internal than external. Still since by society’s standards I was obviously not black, questions and considerations about my sexuality were things I would grapple with for much of my young adult life.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams