Q: Do I remember choosing?
[A friend of mine—both a believer and gay—asked me this question in the context of a larger question: Is sexual orientation a choice (as evangelical Christianity espoused for years)?]
A: For me, whether I liked girls or boys was never a question. It was more like a current I found myself in … orientation sorted itself out. I don’t remember choosing.
What do I remember? Katherine—Stephanie—Susie—Ellen—Melissa—Michelle—Mary-Katherine. Them, I remember.
Katherine was fun. Stephanie was scary. Susie was pretty. Ellen was different. Melissa was just what you do when you’re in fifth grade. Michelle was … no doubt about it, I like girls! And Mary-Katherine? I damn near became a Catholic!
Katherine was an across-the-street neighbor, and first friend who was a girl. We were four. You know how it goes—everyone doted over us, ‘They’re so cute!’ They referred to us teasingly as boyfriend and girlfriend. So there you have it: Katherine was my first girl.
Confession: Katherine was also my first kiss—a story I’ll save for another time. Greg Griffin dared us. Greg, of course, is the kid Mom forbid me from playing with after he told all of us neighborhood kids the reason Santa Claus didn’t go to Peter Marks’ house is because Santa doesn’t like Jews.
Pre-school introduced me to a wider group of friends and activities. And Stephanie.
4-year-old pre-K at Brother Book’s All American Christian Day School. Yes, looking back it seems every bit as goofy as the name suggests—sort of a hybrid mix of staunch conservative, by-the-book (King James version, of course) Christianity, and radically conservative patriotism. We little cherubs were all dressed in red, white and blue; girls in long, blue skirts, white cover-it-all blouses, with red scarves; boys in blue pleated slacks, white collared shirts, and big-ass red bow ties. Hellfire and brimstone meet ‘Merica.
My first interaction with girls other than Katherine, and none of them were as much fun as she was. Stephanie was pure evil. She pinched me every day at nap time. I told Mom. She said she’d speak to my teacher.
Doug, always helpful, advised: “When a girl pinches you, that means she likes you. Just pinch her back—a firm pinch, like this,” digging his fingers into my side, “then she’ll be your girlfriend.”
I tried to separate myself from Stephanie at nap time. Somehow, her mat always ended up next to mine. Every damn day, the teacher would say, “Quiet now! The lights are out!” … and PINCH!
I was the star of the school Christmas pageant. THE star. You know, the one that shone down on baby Jesus. Mom made my costume—a huge cardboard star covered with tin foil. I quickly realized that my star reflected the stage lights and the more I moved, the more rays of light danced around the room. I didn’t have any lines. I was too busy strobing.
Stephanie was the angel. No shit.
Kindergarten meant two things: No more naps! And no more Stephanie! Like Brother Book always said: Praise the Lord!
It must have been some sort of kindergarten orientation thing. Mom and I went to “my big school” to see the classroom I’d be in, and to meet Mrs. Woods, my kindergarten teacher. It was cool—got to claim my cubby-hole, find my place on the mat, and practice sitting down and folding my hands. I learned I could wear regular clothes—not those silly Uncle Sam suits.
Then I saw her.
As Mom was pointing out all the cool things around the room—colors, shapes, letters and numbers—my eyes caught sight of a little blonde-haired girl, her hair in bouncy pigtails. She wore a pink frilly dress, lacy white socks and saddle-shoes. I couldn’t look away.
I was five. I had no clue of anything romantic at this point. I just knew I liked looking at her. Pretty is something you like to look at, right? Pretty flowers. Pretty scenery. Pretty pictures. Susie was my first awareness of a pretty girl.
The school year began. At this age, boys played with boys. Girls had cooties. But I really wanted to befriend Susie, somehow. Much of the year went by. Then, a stroke of genius: I could invite Susie to my 6th birthday party!
I broached the subject with Mom. She was all for the idea of inviting Susie. Win! But … Mom insisted that if I was inviting Susie, I’d need to invite all the girls from my class. Steep price to pay, but worth it. Party invites out; everyone was coming. It would be epic—pin the tail on the donkey; clothes-pin drop; yard games; cake and ice cream; and presents, of course. The countdown was on.
The Elton John song Crocodile Rock was all over the radio. “I remember when rock was young, me and Susie had so much fun…” In my little mind—even though there wasn’t an us—it was our song.
The day of my party arrived. This may have been the single most anticipated day of my life thus far; Susie is coming over! Then the phone rang, I heard Mom’s end of the conversation. I knew something was wrong. Felt it. Mom sounded concerned, and then ended the call, “… we hope Susie feels better soon.” NO!
I’d never have another chance. A few days after my party, Mrs. Woods addressed our class. “Today is Susie’s last day. She and her family are moving to …” I couldn’t tell you where. May as well have been the other side of the world. That night our song came on the radio, soundtrack to my first heartbreak—“The years went by and rock just died; Susie went and left me for some foreign guy…”
A couple years passed. I was eight. Diann got her driver’s license. Mom and Dad laid down the ground rules: She wanted to drive anywhere—especially if there would be any hormonal teenage boys there—take the little brother along. Ingenuous! I was birth-control.
Diann’s boyfriend had a little sister—Ellen. She was an older woman. She was nine.
And she was different. She was so intriguing to me. She was … serious. I was in beginning band, playing—and I use that word very loosely—trombone, like my big brother. Ellen was in a youth orchestra. I practiced my trombone as little as possible. She practiced for hours, every day. And liked it! Serious … ly.
I never really interacted with Ellen. I’d like to think it’s because she was so devoted to her music. More likely, it’s because I was a pain-in-the-ass 8-year-old, and absolutely not serious.
Fast forward a few years—5th grade. All of a sudden, girls were attractive. All of us guys were having our coming-of-adolescence experiences at the same time. Girls were on our radar. The question, for both the boys and the girls, became ‘Who are you going out with?’ To be cool, you pretty much had to have an answer to that question.
That’s where Melissa came in.
She was a Schultz, and I am a Shaw. They sat us alphabetically in the classroom. She wanted to be cool.
We did that awkward adolescent thing—going out, but never really going anywhere. We talked on the phone, but honestly, the more we talked, the less I wanted to. It had to have been the same for her. We were doomed to break-up. But we both had an answer to the all-important question. So we went out for most of the year … with a wink to our secret.
In fifth-grade culture, another threshold of coolness was being free of babysitters. The term itself screams … baby? My sister moved out, I was eleven … and Mom and Dad didn’t give a damn about my coolness.
Michele was an across the street neighbor. In her senior year, with a college plan, respectful to the parents, Mom and Dad loved her. I was convinced she’d be the end of my reputation! There was this consolation: Michele was hot! Yes, at this point I’d started to notice. Michele had lots to notice.
One of the nights Michele chaperoned me—sounds better than babysat—I confessed mine and Melissa’s faux-boyfriend/girlfriend ruse, and that I’d never really kissed a girl before. She asked, “Would you like to learn how to kiss a girl?” Hell yes! Michele gave me a very thorough lesson.
No doubt about it! I like girls!
Michele went off to college. I went on to Middle School … looking for that first girl to really kiss.
Climbed on the school bus, heading for the first day of sixth-grade, and there she was—Mary Katherine. Wow! Beautiful in an out-of-my-league way. Once we got to school, it was all the more obvious, I’d never get on her radar, there. She was always surrounded by other kids. Cooler kids. But I noticed something: every Friday afternoon, Mary Katherine got off the school bus a stop early. I learned she went to Annunciation Catholic Church for CCD—whatever that is.
Home room at the Middle School they sat us alphabetically again—I’m next to Liz Stone. Liz was a no-shit, tell-it-like-it-is pragmatist. I must have confessed my affection for Mary Katherine. Liz’s advice: “You want to impress her? Go to her church.”
I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. Liz filled me in on all the rules—CCD, confirmation, first communion, serving as an acolyte or altar boy, giving shit up for Lent, not eating meat on Fridays. No thanks!
I don’t remember ever making a choice. Looking back, I see … lessons. Life is more fun with a girl like Katherine. Some girls do have cooties, like Stephanie. Beauty is fleeting, like Susie. Some girls grow up faster than boys, like Ellen. Some girls are better friends than girlfriends, like Melissa. Pretty girls, like Mary Katherine, could lead you astray—
And kissing girls is important—so do it well. And often.