A couple of weeks back, in one of my Friday open forums, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek entry about The Game—an exercise that some of my gay and lesbian elementary and middle-school teacher friends play in which they predict which kids in their class are going eventually to start showing up to all the local gay bars and pride events. I did mean the entry somewhat facetiously, even if some humorless readers privately accused me of smugness, or worse, of reducing gay behavior into an oversimplified feminine mold.
That wasn’t really my intent. In fact, my friends who play The Game insist that it can’t be reduced to figuring out which boys love Britney and Gaga best, or which little girls are handiest with an allen wrench. Often, they’ll say, it’s a matter of noticing which kids carry a spark of apartness from the others, and which seem to have a sense of self-awareness and self-editing that other kids might not. It’s the youths who already seem aware of how different they are from their peers, they tell me, that become objects of focus in The Game.
But, you know. The kid who’s memorized all the dance moves from “Judas” the day after it hit the internet is probably a candidate, too.
One of the themes that came up in many of the comments, however, mirrors a response I get in real life when I’m discussing the topic with real-life gay friends. There’s usually a moment in which someone shares something so stereotypically gay about his childhood that it causes him to throw up his hands and exclaim, “How could my parents not have known?!”
One dear friend of mine recalls from time to time, with hot cheeks, how fascinated he was with the little vials, tubes, and trays of tint atop his mother’s dresser. He will confide how, on the occasional day when his parents were out, he would secretly experiment, covering his face with makeup, admiring the amateur results, and then scrubbing himself clean before they returned home. He didn’t become a drag queen as an adult. He’s not especially effeminate. The fascination with makeup happened even before he was aware of his own sexuality—or even had a concept of what sexuality was.
I’ve had acquaintances who’ve confessed that they were more interested in their sisters’ Barbies than in their own G.I. Joes, and some who’ve told me how they longed to dress up as a princess for Halloween. When I was growing up, these weren’t mere quirks; crossing the line from approved activities for boys into the the toys and activities for girls would be accompanied not only by taunts from other kids, but from adults as well. I recall very clearly being taken aside by my second-grade teacher during recess and told that if I continued to side in the shade with the girls and make god’s eyes out of yarn and popsicle sticks instead of playing touch football with the boys, that everyone was going to think I was, and these were her exact words, a little sissy.
For the record, I stuck with the god’s eyes, thank you. I shunned competitive sports as a kid. Despite my father’s best attempts to teach me, I never was able to absorb the rules of football. I resisted being put into a Little League team. I hated basketball despite having the height for it. Later on I learned how to play lacrosse, but hated every moment of it—the same with tennis. I enjoyed swimming and biking and hiking and other physical solitary pursuits. But when it came to all the noisy competitive sports that boys were supposed to relish? I would rather have been sitting with the girls on the sidelines, thanks.
I’ll share two other “How could they not have known?!” moments from my childhood. As a five-year-old, I used to like to carry a purse. My mother discarded a black leather handbag when I was a little boy. It was an ugly, boxy thing with rigid metal jaws that opened with a snap at the top, carried with a small hand strap. And I loved it. For several months I carried it with me everywhere (which, for a five-year-old, means around the house and into the playground). Admittedly, it looked more like an old-fashioned doctor’s bag to me than the height of chic accessories. Plus I was mostly using it to transport hoarded cookies, my penny collection, and a massive amount of plastic dinosaurs and miniature Beefeaters, the two armies of which I’d send into battle against each other in the local sandbox.
The second is perhaps more telling. My parents—both of them—were big fans of the musical when I was growing up. There wasn’t any particular shame in it, in the fifties and sixties; the Broadway cast album and the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was a part of the popular music soundscape, and both my mom and dad loved a good show tune. (As long as it wasn’t from West Side Story, to which they’d both been overexposed in their teens.) I grew up with my mother playing selections from The Fantasticks and Carnival on the piano, while my dad hummed tunes from Bye Bye Birdie and Oliver!
I would’ve been four or five the first time I saw Thoroughly Modern Millie in the movie theater. My parents loved Julie Andrews after My Fair Lady, and I loved her for Mary Poppins, of course. While I didn’t understand a lick of the white slavery subplot and found Beatrice Lillie’s presence in the film frankly as terrifying as Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, I enjoyed the rest of the movie so much that it’s been a lifelong favorite since. I was especially enchanted by Carol Channing, though. Her characterization of Muzzy van Hossmere in the movie is so bubble-headed, fizzy, and sophisticated that to a little kid like me it was like taking a first hit of champagne.
My parents had bought the Millie soundtrack for themselves, but it was I who wore out the LP on their turntable. I learned—and can still sing—every song. But I also decided, for some reason, that the Carol Channing songs I had to learn in Carol Channing’s own voice. Eccentric diction, broad vibrato, and all. So there I was, before first grade had even commenced, the youngest Carol Channing imitator in existence. I could do a gravel-throated rendition of “Jazz Baby” at the drop of a hat.
I didn’t grow up to be a particularly effeminate guy—or even a guy who particularly cares about effeminacy or masculinity. I still don’t know the rules of football. I still love musicals. I can still do Carol Channing. And I have a certain fondness for my messenger bag. But jeez. Stumbling around the house with a purse full of dinosaurs and beefeaters warbling about how my daddy was a wagtime chombone playah . . . well. How could they not have known?
I’m opening today’s Friday forum to my readers because I’m curious. Did you cross those lines of gender stereotyping in your youth? Were you chastised for it, or did you blaze your own fabulous trail? Did you have any of those “How could they not have known?!” moments?
Share them in the comments. Let’s learn from our pasts.