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The 'Politics' of Coming Out:

Another Tree in the Garden of Good and Evil

By Perry Brass

For the most part male-male sexuality happens "underground." We think that it's cut off from the rest of real life, and we want desperately to keep it that way: we don't want it to raise its "queer" head at the wrong moments to embarrass us.

It's easy to forget then that we are a part of the rest of real life, and that our own sexual and personal experiences follow—no matter how secretly—what's going on outside as well as what is happening in our hearts. For years, I thought that all of this was strictly internal; it was something we only talked about in bars or sometimes together between the sheets. It has taken me about thirty years finally to see my own "coming out" in a different light.

In the short run, coming out was strangely easy for me. When I think about it the actual story seems almost comical. It happened fairly early (I was sixteen) and the truth was that I had not been inside a closet as much as in a prison that was my childhood and adolescence.

In truth by the time it happened, there really wasn't a lot to hold me back: to keep me from becoming both sexual and homosexual. I'd grown up in the strange hybrid circumstance of being poor, Jewish, Southern, and—to a lot of people, already—gay. I had my first homosexual experience in Savannah, Georgia, a city now oddly infamous for its queerness, the summer after I graduated from high school. Before that, it had all been in my head. It had been this vast—"worst"—thing surrounded by fantasies, desires, and fears.

About a month after this first experience in bed with a man, I went off for a year to the University of Georgia in Athens, where I majored in fine arts. In that winter of 1965 homosexual activity (as either a part of/or upon the student body) was a criminal offense at Georgia.

The unmentionable crime could not even be mentioned in the student handbook—the same booklet which said that while on campus two students of the opposite sex must keep their heads above the dashboard of a car, "either parked or in motion," at all times. Keeping attitudes like this in mind, I was sure that as a freshman living in a crowded all-boys dorm, if I'd ever been in anyway caught—"either in the act or otherwise"—I would have been not only thrown out of school, but murdered.

All of this would soften in a few years as the "love" 60s happened and dope smoking, war protests, and bell bottoms made inroads even into the big "Greek" houses on frat row. But being a fairly irregular kid who had not yet mastered the authentic Southern art of evaporating into the ambient stupidity,

I had death threats early on in my dorm after a lanky member of a soon-to-be-rushed-frat-boys clique reported that he'd walked into my room, closed the door, sat down on my bed, and I had agreed, verbally, to "seduce" him. (Knock. Knock. "Come in." "Just curious." "Uh-huh." "Hey, you think it might be—ah, shucks—possible for a guy . . . to fall in love with another guy?" "Possible." "Could you—ah, shucks—ever 'fall in love' with . . . some somebody like me?" He edged closer. Something is telling me—not exactly a little birdie—that this is not what should be happening three weeks after the beginning of the term.

Later I learned this had been a "test." They wanted to see if all art students were queer: several friends of his were waiting on the other side of the door, to see if I tried anything "funny.") It all sounds amazingly innocent: we still had our pants on. The sexual revolution had not yet fired on the campus. But at the end of one year, completely fed up, I hitchhiked from Savannah to San Francisco. I'd heard vague rumors about San Francisco (decadent, queer, disgusting. . . yuk) and I wanted to make sure all of it was true.

But, honestly, none of that had made my coming out easy. And it couldn't really be called "easy," except in comparison to everything that had happened before. You see, what did make it easy was that two years earlier, at fifteen, during the summer before my senior year at Savannah High School, I'd tried to kill myself.

hat led up to this and what came after, I'm sure, became a pivotal point in my life. It has brought me to believe that this fifteenth year was the most difficult one I've ever known. If someone told I'd have to repeat it, day by day, I am sure that dying would, truly, be easier. And tragically, many kids—especially gay kids—do have to repeat it. In their own way, they have to repeat it and they don't live through it. Or they repeat it, and then they grow up and become destroyed adults.

But I was lucky: something pushed me up from the very darkest bottom of the pool of depression—where I had gone down to drown—and it made me come back up: swinging.

Maybe it was just finally my queer part coming out; the part that would no longer be repressed. But in talking about this, I reveal a lot about the core of my life and how it was formed. To find this core, first I have to go back to another event that was also, in its way, a part of this "coming out." The tragic, rapid death of my father.

He died of rectal-colon cancer, when I was eleven. At that time cancer was something you didn't tell kids about, especially a cancer that originated in your Daddy's gut and ended up somewhere inside his ass. My sister Nancy, two years younger than I, and I were only told the most vague things about him. Mostly that Daddy had a "kidney problem."

Sometimes he'd have to go off to a hospital where only "adults" were allowed in, but he was sure to get better. But no matter what was said (or unsaid), we sensed that something awful was going on with us: something that no one would speak of at all.

A year before he died, my father Louis's last business, a small country grocery store with two ancient gas pumps out front, located seven miles out of Savannah on a soon-to-be-obsolete, two-lane highway to Florida, failed. There is no harder work than failure, and after three years of trying to make a go of it (and learning that the highway would be abandoned for an interstate ten miles away), he was left broke, in failing health, and driven to take any job he could get. He ended up delivering living room suites for a "discount furniture" store.

"Discount," in the South at the time, meant "falls apart one month after last payment." My father was completely shattered. My mother Helen's Russian-Jewish immigrant relatives who had come to Savannah prior to World War I to escape problems in the old country and had become wealthy during World War II, had never approved of her marriage. Louis Brass had been an only child. His parents, who both died a few years after my birth, were cultured Jews from Lithuania, the "Gold Coast" of Eastern European Jewry. They felt themselves to be above Helen's people, who had been, to their mind, merely Polish-Jewish peasants.

My father was a spoiled headstrong man, who thought of himself as more genteel and Southern than Jewish. Few of his friends were Jews; instead they were good ol' boys, and the great joy of his life was to trek out with them, hunting and fishing. He loved dogs, guns, travel books, Tarzan movies, and long conversations over Camel cigarettes and strong coffee. He was short but handsome; I can still see his amazingly "Clark Gable" looks, the flashing, sea-blue eyes, thick glossy black hair; his full, quite sexy lips. He did not fit into a ghettoized Southern-Jewish community and his feeling of always being an outsider, among Jews and goys, brought the two of us closer together.

I wasn't exactly a regular little boy myself, something Helen, who regularly denounced me as a sissy, would never let me forget. (Daddy, to his everlasting credit, never used the "S" word around me; later Mother admitted that he was probably latent since he much preferred the company of men to women.)

Helen's large family (two brothers, a sister, aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins) shook their heads, passively disapproving, as our family fell deeper apart. In the year before Daddy died, we moved several times and ended up in a public housing project where we were the only Jews. Shortly after this last move, my father was taken away for the last time in an ambulance.

I was at school and was not allowed to say good-bye. Six weeks later, he died alone in a Veteran's Hospital in Augusta. My mother began disintegrating. She spent hours either by herself crying or desperately clutching on to us. A few weeks after my father left, she, too, was hospitalized. We were told it was for pneumonia, but in truth it was the beginning of many such hospitalizations for Helen's "nerves."

Nancy and I were dispersed to various relatives, who made little effort to hide the fact that we were not especially welcome in their homes. We were the offspring of a pariah couple: Mother who could not be responsible for her family, and Daddy who had lived in a Southern dream world and had provided nothing for his children. The news of his death, while I was staying with one of Mother's well-off female cousins, overwhelmed me. Now I was alone.

Daddy had taught me to read phonetically when my first grade teacher said I was going to fail. Against Helen's wishes, he had built an elaborate puppet theater for me and gave me The Arabia Nights to read. If it bothered him that I hated hunting, he never showed it. We would go to the beach together and I would make sand castles while he fished. Suddenly, coming out of shock, I began to cry. I was warned by Mother's cousin: "You can't cry now; you have to be the man of the family."

I dried my tears. I could not understand what being the man of the family meant, but I would a few years later as Mother's "nervous spells" increased. Nancy and I began to understand that our mother was something horrifying: a "mental patient," that skeleton rattling the closets of the 50s. After Daddy died, she was hospitalized over and over again and finally given a massive series of shock treatments. A round of hand-holding, drug-dispensing psychiatrists kept her doped up on the habit-forming pills of the day, in order to mask her deeper problem, schizophrenia.

Nancy and I were strictly told not to ask any more questions, and Uncle Norman, the shrewd but blunt patriarch of the family, in a heavy Russo-Polish accent that never admitted to almost fifty years in Savannah, Georgia, informed us, "Helen—your Mama—is a stigma on the family."

Mother's "condition" was always hushed up, but we were given regular lectures about her. She was an unfortunate but lazy woman who had "never learned to grow up"; we were admonished not to "antagonize her and make things worse." She was pathetic and stupid, and unable to make decisions on her own. She had been left with two "exceptional children," who, like other unfortunate youngsters, were supposed to be "models of good behavior and gratefulness."

Not knowing any of the truth, Nancy and I had to try to piece together our world: a situation which later—when I "came out" early and was on my own—repeated itself. The basic question was: how do you fit into something that you are allowed to know nothing about? The answer quickly became plain: learn to accept things. Learn to recognize them exactly for what they are—then work your way around them. Nancy and I quickly learned to dread those mornings when Mother would wake up, come out of her drugged fog, and announce: "I'm feeling a little depressed today."

This was the cue that shortly after she would close herself in her room, take her clothes off, get into bed, and begin hours of screaming and hallucinating. She would rip up the bed sheets, throw things against the wall, curse the world and us, and then completely exhausted, she would call on God for His help. After Nancy and I had made various calls to her smug relatives and then her doctors and the hospitals, God himself would appear in the form of a white coat, with another heavy sedative injection to knock her out.

Sometimes we referred to Helen's "moods" (as in: "Don't make noise, Mommy's in a bad mood") as her "headaches." ("Looks like a really bad headache day.") Her head did ache, often from clenching her jaw so tightly that her teeth split. The moods and headaches left us shell-shocked, like living through a war, but it wasn't a war we could talk about at school. Neither could we bring friends home because there was no telling when Mother might start feeling "a little depressed" and descend into one of her frightening states.

Kids in a war start to live in worlds of their own, and Nancy and I began to live in ours. Always shy, I arrived at my world through reading, writing, and drawing. I felt happiest and safest in this self-enclosed world, away from the tough boys in the project and the kids at school who were not supposed to know anything about my real life. But Nancy's world opened up onto the project kids. She became friends with them, and started smoking, seeing boys, and hanging out.

Mother and her family were furious; Nancy had left our pretend kingdom, in which Helen was not ill, only "immature," and in which we were model children, little junior nobilities fallen upon bad times. We had been drilled in good manners by various female relatives who felt that since Mother could not assume her role we had to be educated in the use of salad forks, butter plates, deportment, and diction.

Later people were sure that I had grown up in a big house with private schools. As part of the fiction I spread about myself, I never denied this since as little "models," we were supposed to rise above our origins.

The year Daddy died, my sixth grade teacher recognized that I was "gifted," which mostly came from my reading escapism. I had developed a large vocabulary and almost total recall of anything I read. I was retarded in math.

Science baffled me unless I could reduce it to sentences and then memorize it. But the next year I was put in a class limited to other "gifted" kids and this distinction followed me all the way through public school. I was allowed to skip a year of junior high and the other bright kids, who were often Jewish and who felt some sensitivity about being outsiders, were protective towards me.

I was withdrawn and definitely odd. Not compellingly sissy odd—there were more pronouncedly sissy boys—but just . . . odd. I lived in a project where none of my classmates had ever been. I was fatherless, at a time when that was unusual. I was not involved with sports, but neither were many of the other boys in my group. We developed a sense of ourselves as being "special outsiders."

An inner life created from books or fantasies was expected. One of my classmates, for instance, gave a stirring talk on American Indians—they had been an obsession of his as far back as he could remember. I still recall the sexual shimmer of his words: the Indians as a forbidden secret race, with their own sign language, dances, and—in the background—their close-to nakedness.

None of this went over our heads. There was sex out there, and we knew it. It was dirty, adult, and desirable. The sexual world was threatening to me—as well as seductive—as it is to most boys. But it literally yanked me by the throat, when, for the first time, one of my gifted classmates called me a queer.

He was the class bully. Even among special tykes there are bullies and this one for months made life miserable for me. My own buddies, acting like the Montagues in "Romeo and Juliet" circled protectively around me. The bully was a fat-necked little thug whose father was an Air Force lieutenant, so his family moved around often. He charged after me at every change of class.

Even after I defended myself and in a show of violence that was completely uncharacteristic gave him a bloody mouth with my fists, he still went after me; so much so that my friends decided that Hollis (a name that might take anyone into psychopathology) was nuts. Better avoided. Later, towards the end of the year, his dad was transferred to yet another base. The Montagues openly cheered.

But being called a queer really hurt me, even though due to the secrecy of my home life, I had no idea what one was and there was no one I could go to and ask about it. Hollis had used words like "dicksucker," which at that time sounded like the most far-out act imaginable. We were still getting used to rumors about fucking ("You mean you get your boner inside of her?" "Of course, stupid!" What an innocent time!), so dick-sucking seemed about as real as shooting marbles with moon rocks.

Certainly, it did not seem advisable: we had already been told in every social hygiene class how filthy that part of the body was, so much so that you weren't even supposed to touch it until you got married. But through the next years, all through high school, Hollis's words followed me like a ghost leering behind lockers and in deserted boys' rooms. I was a normally horny kid, but the "Q" word felt like an invisible sword, swinging over my head.

True, I was attracted to boys. But I was smart enough, without being gifted, to absorb the message that this attraction was verboten. Any interest of this type was worse than being Jewish in a Christian world. It was worse than being fatherless when "fatherless" meant silent: boys never mentioned a dead father. By the early 60s, after the McCarthyist 50s, even admitting to liking other boys was "perverted" and could have you shipped, one-way express, to a "mental hygiene" clinic for observation. So I hid this attraction even deeper than Mother's illness.

But I remember watching the bodies of boys in swim suits and just letting pictures of this drift through me. A particular boy would appear, and I would be pulled momentarily away from everything around me. I'd be in the most painful secret love. But surely, somehow, a girl would take over. I would get married, like you were supposed to, and become "grown up."

There were no words for loving boys—except Hollis's. Even while masturbating, I tried hard to keep boys out of my head. But they would wander back in and tempt me. It seemed like the only way to keep them out was to do the most totally logical thing: deny myself

I had to become somebody else. I devised a whole new person, a brittle, stick-figure image of me. He was funny and likable and smart. I wasn't big (I actually grew three inches after graduating from high school), so I learned the protective coloration of small boys: Keep cool and quiet, unless you've got something really good to say. If you're not with-it, then just be a wit. A wit was not himself, I knew that: he was the walking mask of himself.

I had a lot to hide and the idea of having a real friend, someone I could say anything to seemed impossible. I believed other boys had these kind of friends, but they were "normal" and I was aware of it. They weren't the only "Jew kids" in housing projects, with Moms with strange "nerve" problems. They were boys who appeared "regular," recognizable as "real," like TV people. These boys appeared to me the way civilians appear to soldiers, who see them as having a distant privileged life, out of the reach of war.

In my junior year in high school, a tall gangly boy named Sam started to revive Hollis's junior high innuendo. I had become good at evaporating, fading directly into the walls unless it was necessary to speak. Sam, who I gathered must have needed some evaporation of his own (kids, as a group, being cannibals always ready to eat the next one in line), somehow understood that one way to get himself off the hook was to grab me and hold me on it.

Sam was not a jock, but in an ungainly way he was attractive. He had small blue eyes and fine, WASPy, lank dark hair. He wore thick, wire-rimmed glasses, the type "brain" kids were supposed to wear. His parchment-pale skin had blue veins under it, and I remember the way they ran up the inner sides of his prematurely oversized forearms, making him look adult to me. He was in some of my advanced classes, but was two years older than I and had not been part of my junior high group that had been tracked together.

His father was a postman, part of the working, lower middle class, which had always spelled out the values of the South. Integration had appeared that year in our big high school. It marched in in the form of several hundred armed federal marshals escorting half a dozen terrified Negro students through twenty-four hundred wary, nervous white ones.

Sam's family was fervently racist with relatives in the Klan. His own set weren't the smart Jewish kids, but a group of nerdy, slide-rule pushers who told endless nigger jokes. As the racial tension at school increased, along with my own need to disappear (since I lived in an all-white housing project where blacks—always distant cousins to Jews—were considered parallel on the evolutionary scale to scum), the "Q" word slipped out again: as if it had only been waiting for me.

It started—I remember—at the beginning of third-year Latin one warm afternoon. Everyone was laughing when I walked in. Then they quieted down and Sam announced: "Brass's late 'cause he's been having an assignation in the boys room."

Behind his glasses, Sam's eyes twinkled. He looked as if he'd found all the real dirt on me and was spreading it about in great, filthy gobs around the room. Something was happening; it was getting closer. I wanted to run away, but all I could squeeze out was: "I don't think so." "He doesn't think !" Sam roared; then, he added: "That's okay, Brass. We all know you're a queer."

I froze like a car's ignition in the dead of winter. I felt isolated; criminalized. Where could I go with this? The Q-word had so much weight in it that it could barely hold all the contempt that oozed from it. Queer was not just a label: it wasn't something you either casually were or were not. It possessed a disfigurement all its own: of all the worst, disgusting aspects of the human race—from Nazis to Commies, from atheists to devout Catholics, from skid row bums to cotton-pickin' darkies—no one wanted even to be shadowed by a queer.

Queers did not just suck cock, or get one stuck up their asshole. There were redneck boys in the project who did that and they'd tell you about it, since fucking another boy was called "cornholin'" and it wasn't the worst thing in the world you could do by a long shot.

Cornholin' was something white-trash boys did to fool around, like getting shit-faced on corn liquor and smoking cheap cigarettes that you rolled out of a tobacco pouch. No, being a queer, exactly like witchcraft, possessed an element of its own. It meant that you did things with other queers; that you were impelled by forbidden, disgusting desires that you can no longer hide It was—though I could never possibly admit it—very similar to the "condition" that I lived with at home; it sat remarkably comfortable next to Helen's derangement.

Being a queer nakedly embraced all the ghoulishness of the world: queers did not believe in God, the separation of the races, and all that was good, laudable, and decent. Things like the Scouts and door-to-door, mint-chocolate Girl Scout cookies; the flag; the American Legion; football and baseball—everything that my native land stood for, queers secretly swarmed against. They were a pestilence: it said so in the Bible, even as much as I—in my young, hopeful heart of hearts—did *not* want to believe they existed.

Ever since Hollis had first called me a "queer" in the seventh grade, inside I did not want to believe that any group of people could be so despised, not even in Savannah, Georgia. Queers had to be fictional, like the weird, towering Cyclops who ate men. The Cyclops did not exist, I knew, and neither did queers. It was simply a label for all that was disgusting and horrifying. It was only something "mythical" to be afraid of, as people would be—say—of my mother, if they had ever found out about her.

I decided, then, to redouble my effort at disappearing until I, truly, became the nice boy that I wanted to be. I would be that boy, no matter how much it cost. I wanted the outside just to evaporate, to blow away, because inside I felt like a photograph that had been so bleached out in a tank of acid that nothing was left of any detail, except a faint line where there'd once been a smile. I kept that shy smile, and like the old song went, I would let it be my umbrella on a "rainy, rainy day."

After Latin, I went up to other kids with whom I'd been friendly and then I saw that the Q-word had spread. I was shunned. Several others began to dig into the same scar that Sam had opened. I heard "queer" whispered and repeated in the hallways. I felt hunted, but I wanted only to pretend that nothing mattered. I saw nothing; didn't hear anything either in front or behind my back.

Not the comments at the school paper where I worked; or the hall whispers; or the slurs at me while I waited for the bus. I contracted smaller and smaller, even though I was sure this was still only a brushfire. But anything I did—one unprotected move—would pour gasoline right over it. A few weeks by. It seemed as if time stopped. Each time I returned to school, I felt tiny and rigid with fear. The rigidity entered my body and I began to walk around with a pronounced stoop.

Then Sam got tired of calling me a queer. He was never accepted by the Jewish in-crowd, and his little gang of bone-headed bigots out of necessity had to turn their attention to immediate things: Negroes were in the school. It was true. And there was always the question—among the girls—of what to do if one, forgetting his place, asked you to dance?

So the administration, headed by a Southern Baptist deacon, stopped school dances. For the boys, there was the ongoing question of how to deal with them at gym, where black bodies were even more repulsive than those of imputed queers. For Sam and his friends, it seemed that no matter how much you despised queers in all forms—as niggers, Communists, or whatever—nothing could turn back an environment in Savannah, Georgia, that had already been changed.

At the same time that I was going through this hell at school—and trying not to show it—life with Mother took an unexpected turn for the worse. After years of hospitalizations, drug dependence, and leaning on me until I folded, she decided that this was the moment for her to change. She was going to rehabilitate herself. At the insistence of her female relations who ordered her "to grow up and stop acting like a child, Helen; if you let your nerve problems get the most of you, they will!" she decided that it was time to start acting like a normal parent.

Her family had pointed out that it was shameful how Perry had become the parent and she the child in our house. Now, in their parlance, she was ready to "straighten up and fly right." Her rehabilitation process was extraordinarily simple: she would knock me down "a peg or two" as often as she could in the most vicious manner possible. If Nancy and I were going to revert to "normal" childhood, we would have to be brought down, no matter how painful it was, to that level.

In the past lashing out at us had been a way for Helen to vent her feelings. We had become used to phrases like, "You never care about anyone! You're both selfish! You're both a waste!" But these new attacks were more venomous. They came partially because Nancy had already made the decision to leave home. She spent more time away (with her "white trash friends"), and finally, to escape Mother's dementia, had placed herself for a while in a home for abandoned girls.

This left me alone with Helen, who became determined that by the time she was through with me, I would never leave her; I would be too destroyed to leave. She fell into obscene tirades that left both of us exhausted. She stopped thinking about the words; they came spitting out as strings of anger, obscenities, and accusations, followed by storms of tears and self-hatred. "Everyone thinks you're gifted! You're talented—well, know what you are? You're a worthless piece of shit, without an original bone in your body. You're a jellyfish—a weakling! A spineless jellyfish and no one'll ever care about you except me! I'm the only one who cares—and you're too stupid to ever know it!"

This was becoming too sick, even for Helen. I had become used to her craziness, and much of the time I could take her rages standing up. But even others, like neighbors in the project, realized we had reached a point of no return. Sometimes I'd shout back and tell her that I hated her: I was going to leave. She would threaten to call the police or lock me out.

She was a tall woman, at five-foot-eleven, but her rage made her seem even bigger. She was angry that I had done well in school and that soon I would leave her and go away to college. Her own mother had been sick with Parkinson's Disease and Helen had dropped out of high school during the Depression to take care of her. Why couldn't I do the same thing, devote my life to her? She had once been a beautiful, athletic woman, with a gift for music. Now she was suffering from a grave mental illness and held in contempt by her relatives. All she had been able to do was produce her two "model" children, who had become the symbols of her humiliation. She could not control—or keep us—and now was in competition with us, so that each success of ours seemed like a failure of hers.

By coincidence that summer to get away from home, I became involved with Savannah's amateur "little theater" group, that had been in existence for decades. In any Southern town, theater is always a hotbed of "puh-version," and that summer this one was mounting "My Fair Lady," out on a covered wharf in the reedy, salt marshes of a lovely nearby suburb, called "Isle of Hope." (How Southern fictional all this seems: having a "homosexual crisis" while doing "My Fair Lady," out in a place that's supposed to offer escape—called "Isle of Hope." Tennessee Williams couldn't have improved on it.)

I joined the prop crew and the head of the crew, a salty old lady herself whose daughter had been the lead in L. T. shows for years, gave me a ride out every night. She and her daughter liked to hang out afterwards and on some nights I would arrive home late, sometimes eleven or twelve. Helen was furious. She swore to keep me away from every human vice—and the theater was full of them: drinking and even sex—which people talked about in a fairly unabashed manner. I had never fit into anything in my life, and suddenly here I was, at fifteen—a show kid.

The people at the theater liked me and a new idea, that it was possible to like me, slowing flickered over me. It was a wonderful feeling, one attributable to those first glimmers of adulthood. But Helen, noticing some changes in me, became more and more worked up about my involvement with the show.

To add spice to this story, there were live queers in the show. And as much as I tried not to believe, I knew it. They brought with them a quirky kind of electricity: that of small town queens trying to be drop-dead sophisticated. They talked (and smoked) like Tallulah Bankhead or Bette Davis, with sharply flexed elbows and pouty voices. And although I could not get close to them—certainly close with real comfort—I did understand something: I was not in school anymore; this was real life.

And it was possible not to be scared, at least not one hundred percent scared—even as much as Mother told me how despicable the local theater crowd was. A few years earlier she had forced me out of Boy Scouts, when she felt that it was taking me away from her; now she felt similarly about our amateur theater. But this feeling was too good; it made me feel that I belonged someplace.

Or did I? The truth, really, was that I was still miserably shy, and having my self-image constantly demolished had made me very fragile. I had become so used to being invisible, and having no home I could speak up about, that my invisibility simply hurt less at the theater than it did at school. Perhaps that's the reason why theaters have been refuges to gay men for centuries. So even though I was unprepared to fit in with this older, faster crowd, not fitting in just didn't hurt as much. There were other "irregulars" there, and I knew it.

But something else was happening that summer; something I could hardly put my finger on; but in effect, the pressures of the last year had made me, finally, almost as sick as Helen. It would be impossible to try to diagnosis it.

But I guess taking this bumpy trip through puberty alone had isolated me so totally from the outside world (which in the South was, also, very sickly constructed), that I began to show symptoms of deep depression. I stopped sleeping at night; during the day I felt listless and absent. And the lingering grief that I'd had for my father, that I'd never been allowed to express, appeared. I had held it back for four years. Now as I was literally cracking up, it came back.

Helen's campaign against me intensified as her perceptions of my popularity at the theater grew. Her episodes of schizophrenic dementia widened until I could no longer tell them apart from her "normal" self. She would storm into my room in the middle of the night to tell me that she was going to have me sent off to prison, or to a boys orphanage. "You'll get beaten up there all the time! That's what a little know-it-all shit like you deserves!"

I would nod and pretend to go back to sleep; there was no use even answering her now. But the truth was that I was crumbling into a hole of misery so deep that nothing could pull me out of it. It was like trying to scoop my way out of quicksand, as Mother shoveled her crap back over me. I had gone through the tortures of a whispering campaign at school and her relentless abuse at home. But my last defenses collapsed, when I realized, over the course of many summer nights, that what they had been saying about me at school was true.

If every aspect of my life hadn't been so hidden, realizing this might not have been so bad. Somewhere they were kids who went through it and survived it, but there was no way I could even broach the word "homosexual" with anyone openly. If I'd been able to, the realization would have been only another moment: another thing told. Instead it became one more accusation against me: one I was now pointing at myself. And, as you might have guessed, realizing this came to me, of course, at the theater. Like many other queer kids-to-be, it was all in show business; and suddenly I was a part of the show.

Background: Mayhem was going on backstage. Right behind Lerner and Loewe's Edwardian Mayfair. Sex, in skimpy rehearsal clothes, was dog paddling its way out into the open. It was straight all-American teen sex, but I could smell it. Along with the greasepaint, hair spray, and stale Budweiser always evident at summer theater.

Sex was girls. Swarms of cute cockneys and Mayfair ladies from the show. Quick feelies and backstage flirting. Kids close to my age were hanging around—either their parents were in the cast, or they were chorus girls, teeny sexpots just out of high school. It was expected that I would be a part of this. Every theater develops a community of its own, and there are certain rites to entering it. Kids quickly spot each other, pair off; it became obvious that the Isle of Hope wharf with all its dark corners was a great place for settling and experimenting.

The 50s were melting down; we were in the cool prologue of the 60s. Sex—something we kept hidden like the covers of dirty Harold Robbins paperbacks—was peeking out. Even Time magazine had recognized that this previously unmentionable thing was being investigated in our country like it was a new state opened to tourism.

For me it was like stumbling in sleepy Savannah upon a new floor of a department store, And discovering there the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and an invitation to get naked. I picked up the invitation, read it and realized . . . that girls did nothing for me. My battery did not turn over with them. Any electricity I expected did not happen. Sparks did not fly. Seeing them up close, backstage, available (even getting unmistakable "yes" signals from them) . . . did nothing. I wanted it; really. But nothing happened.

Something was missing. I could have dealt with being attracted to boys, that was something I could hide. But not being attracted to girls, like you were supposed to be, clobbered me. Now I was walking out onto the new floor of the store—the one with the charge card waiting and my name on it—and finding there was nothing there. No walls; no floor. I was walking out into a void. And there, hanging over the void, was one word. Queer.

The word sent shivers up me. I was going to end up like one of those lisping creatures who talked like Tallulah and who needed hair spray on their wrists. Suddenly, I knew that was what I was. And the thought was killing me: I was sure I was going to die. I was going to be crucified. And the cross to which I would be nailed—right there in Savannah High School—was my own sexuality. I could see it as vividly as a train speeding towards me. I was maturing. And my maturing was taking me directly . . . to hell.

Then I saw it. Like a single ray of light at the end of a tunnel. There was someone waiting for me who understood. Someone who had disappeared from my life, without saying good-bye. It was Daddy; with his sea-blue eyes, dark hair and smiling Clark Gable mouth. I felt as if he were holding up a shining disk of light for me—and the light was getting closer.

An immensity of grief had created him directly out of the insanity that I had entered. He was the only person I could talk to, so we talked at night when I couldn't sleep. He promised me that he would be there for me, that he had never really left. And that if I did what was necessary . . . when I woke up, he would be there; waiting. Daddy, warm, comforting, appeared. There is always a point where dreams, need, and desperation merge—and there is a human movement towards this.

Perhaps Daddy was only a marker on a trail I had already begun, but to get to him would be very difficult. I would have to swallow all my fears of darkness. The crushing fears I'd had that would not even allow me as a child to attend his funeral. The fear of finality. Of closing the box; of watching the wind carry away his dust. But this seemed to be the only way . . . and some time, early the next evening, I snuck into Helen's room and took out a small bottle of one of the many tranquilizers that kept her agitations at bay. With a glass of water, I swallowed about eighteen of them.

In the morning, sometime close to ten, when she realized I wasn't going to wake up, Mother drove me over to the emergency room of Memorial Hospital, the large county general about five miles from the project. I had my stomach pumped. She was frantic, and kept repeating, "They're going to blame me for this!" The attendants and residents stared at me and couldn't believe that I'd do this—I was a small kid; I might have looked closer to thirteen—and in 1963 kids didn't kill themselves.

"Why do you want to kill yourself?" I was asked. The answer was impossible. I couldn't say: "To run away from homosexuality. From the label 'queer,' pursuing me like a ghost. From Helen who's driving me crazy. From the horror of growing up." I couldn't say that. All I could do was go back into that pit of depression that I had tried to escape a day earlier with my mother's pills.

I stayed in the hospital for two days of observation. I saw a therapist and was put on an antidepressant—so Helen and I could now divvy up the prescriptions together. Then I was sent home. I felt like a plaster doll that had had its head smashed, and was then thrown down a long flight of stairs. It was too late to go back to Little Theater. They would have to finish "My Fair Lady" without me: Helen had won her battle there. She was sure that my involvement with "that theater crowd" had caused my "breakdown." After her initial fear that she'd be blamed, she refused to accept any role in it and returned to her old habit of raging at me, using me to get back at the demons inside her.

I couldn't reveal at all the images I'd had of Daddy: that he would be there at the end of the dark tunnel. But now he, too, was gone, and I felt more alone than ever. I couldn't speak about my "homosexual panic" to anyone. It was too embarrassing. The depth of rejection that homosexuality (both the question of the sex part and the "queer" label) would throw me into was unchartable. It would place me outside everything I knew to be human: the Southern Jewish community in which I had grown up; my school; my friends who did not know me at all, but who would disappear if they knew anything.

The therapist I continued seeing was a white-haired, middle-age man and a classic Freudian. He believed in keeping completely silent during our sessions. At the beginning of each, he would look over the tops of his glasses and say, "How are we today?" then stop cold.

I was sure that he was there for me to talk about Helen, who seemed a safer thing to talk about than sex—that sex—which was too upsetting. I was a repressed and depressed fifteen year old who had just tried to commit suicide. Why I had tried was too embarrassing for me to bring up, and Mr. O'Neal—not wanting to cross any of Freud's barricades—didn't want to bring it up either.

Still, the human psyche has an amazing ability to heal itself, especially if something is thrown to it that contains a key to healing. Something was happening somewhere in my consciousness; I won't say "sub" or "unconscious," because I believe that it was starting to play in the very patterns of thought that I had to work with. It was the feeling that I was really worth saving. And it was the realization that if I were going to save myself, I would have to throw myself the lifeline.

Something that brought this idea closer was a visit by my sophomore English teacher, Betty Deal. Mrs. Deal was a fairly plain woman who'd been brought up a Catholic in the North and who had had a tremendous effect on me. I asked Mother to call her and tell her I was in the hospital. I felt that beside my father, Betty was the first person to believe that there was something inside me worth keeping.

One afternoon at the beginning of the tenth grade, she asked me to stay after class. I was puzzled, and then after everyone left, she said, "You're really intelligent. I just wanted to tell you that." She walked into my hospital room—I was still coming out of having my stomach pumped—and she immediately said, her eyes full of tears: "You would deny the world your great gifts!"

I think about those words when I think about all the fifteen year olds who try to kill themselves because somehow they believe they are the very things that I was so afraid of being: things that are called, for want of a better word, queer. What a horrifying tragedy that every one of them will be denying the world his or her great gifts. If only some one had been there to throw them that most usable lifeline. And all it is is a little scrap of paper that you could roll up and put into an empty aspirin bottle, that says, Don't believe them: YOU'RE WORTH SAVING.

The rest of the summer, after my attempted suicide, was not a great deal easier, but being on anti-depressants myself helped with Helen. Nancy came back from a summer camp near Atlanta where she had been on scholarship. She learned about me being in the hospital. It brought back all of her bitterness towards Mother. Nancy had never sentimentalized Helen and she realized that despite everything our relatives did to whitewash the situation, Helen was venomously unbalanced. Although Nancy, too, was supposed to be a "model" child, she had never been able to levitate herself above our "unfortunate circumstances."

After being reprimanded by several of our well-meaning aunts for failures in deportment, she began to tap the hidden wells of her own anger. In doing this, she found the energy that allowed her at least physically to escape Mother. She blamed Helen for what had happened to me, and behind my back confronted her. Nancy knew that it could have happened to her, if she had allowed herself to be driven that far. Things became even tenser between them.

Despite attempts at "family therapy" with the three of us under Mr. O'Neal's Freudian eyes, nothing ever became untangled. Not a bit of the truth about our family ever emerged: that Helen was severely disturbed and that I was "struggling with my homosexuality"—another term for attempting to survive in a crippling homophobic environment—was never said; nor that Nancy was fighting alone (as I'd had to) to stay alive—this was also neatly swept under his office rug. The tiny apartment we lived in felt as if it were littered with schrapnel and the ricochets of Nancy's and Mother's exploding anger

But I began to mend myself back together. The plaster doll's head had to be reinforced. I had reached rock bottom, the place where you either drown, or push yourself back up. I spent days by myself, pulling slowly towards some sense of recognition. Then one evening about a week before school was scheduled to start, Helen had the idea that we should all go to a drive-in theater to see the new Lawrence of Arabia movie.

Frankly, I remember very little about that movie—except later one of my school friends saying that Peter O' Toole was too "effeminate" to be cool—but that is not what will always keep Lawrence in my mind. What I remember was Mother parking the car somewhere in this big lot—in those days drive-ins went on forever—and I went out and walked around before the movie started. (To this day, I adore and miss drive-ins.)

I roamed over into a large adjacent field filled with wild flowers. A magnificent sunset emerged through several darker layers of clouds, slowly edging its way out until it filled the whole sky. It dissolved anything that might appear later on the screen. It was the widest, most sweeping sunset; its great red arms enfolded me directly and told me I would be alright. Perhaps God, Life's totality, the thing we only know as Itself, was holding me because suddenly something clicked in my mind: I told myself that I would never, ever, let anyone drive me to suicide again. Not Mother. Not kids at school. No one. I would be as hard as nails, but I would never let this happen to me again. (I know this sounds right out of Gone With The Wind, but it did happen.)

The next year at Savannah High, my senior year, that longed-for magical senior year, was different. No one was sure why, but I knew. I had become a shit—of course I wouldn't have referred to myself in that graceless way—but it was true. I had made the decision: I was as hard as nails. I snubbed every kid who had harassed me the year before. I walked past them in the hallways, in classes, or outside. I refused to talk to people. I cold shouldered them. I dropped the smile completely. I ceased being invisible. I pioneered what gays refer to now as "super attitude"—at least two decades before we got it.

So, as you might have guessed, I became popular. Kids who had been part of the whispering campaign came up to me: now they wanted to be friendly. I decided to act as if at best I'd only indulge them. I was beyond cool: I was cold. I wasn't at all interested, and let them know it.

Sam was stunned. He started coming up to me; I acted as if he weren't there. He came on more, starting conversations, throwing me smiles and compliments. I let him know that he was no friend; I didn't want him as one. With a few exceptions, I wanted no one as friends. They could all go screw themselves. The few I did want had been with me the whole time.

It was a peculiar distorted lesson to learn, but one which stayed indelibly with me. I devised what I called, later, "Perry's Paradoxical Law (of Straight Men)." The Law (of Straight Men) lays down its premise simply: If you act warm, kind, compassionate, and honest with straight guys, they'll suspect your motives. They'll think you're a patsy (and a queer). If you act cold and off-handed, they'll think you're a regular guy, respect the hell out of you, and come over to you.

It's a tragic and awful part of life in American society, but it seems that every episode of popular TV shows like Seinfeld —as well as most of what we call "office politics"—bears it out. (I'vd also come to realize how much the "Law" hurts straights as well, and how much heteros have had to suffer because of it—and, lately, that as gays become more "mainstreamable," we are starting to fall into the same trap.)

Under the "Law" though was a simple thing. Raw anger. As a means of preserving myself, of giving myself the life jacket that I needed to survive, I learned to hate the people who were killing me instead of hating myself. I had been through some of the worst that the straight world could give me and it was now time to enjoy the gay one. This made my actual "coming out" at the age of sixteen (the next summer, after my senior year) comparitively easy.

I felt no guilt about sex with men. No lack of self worth. My main problem was just getting away with it and my only reaction was fear: I knew that there were people who might want to harm me for doing something that effected them, directly, in no way at all. As several people suspected, I came out through (yes) Little Theater. That next summer I met a man who caught my eye, or actually I caught his. He was about twenty-three and I was sixteen.

How he ever had the guts to pursue something with me, I don't know. I guess he was a confirmed "chicken chaser" and I was in that category, but I realize that he could have been jailed, drawn, and quartered for getting me into his bed. I was sure I was madly in love with him, because I believed that was what you were supposed to be before you sucked some man's cock. (Or, in more polite language, allowed yourself to "connect" with him: is that E.M. Forster enough?)

He gave me his telephone number and then asked for mine. I knew what he wanted and so, of course, I gave it to him. He called me at home a few evenings later, when, thank God, Helen was away. At sixteen, even though I was slated to go off to college a few weeks later, how could I explain a man of twenty-three calling me? I went over to the apartment he shared with a "friend" the next afternoon, and to get up the courage to do what I knew I wanted to do, I drank about half a bottle of the Gilbey's Gin that he offered me. (Was it considered sophisticated to offer chicken a drink, or was that just part of the M.O. of all good chicken queens?) Anyway, we were off to a great start. He has streaky-blond hair and was very good looking, and I still remember the way he looked, and smelled, and felt. But I cannot for the life of me remember his name.

Perry Brass's newest books are The Harvest, a gay science-politico novel, and The Lover of My Soul, A Search for Wisdom and Ecstasy, a collection of poetry and other writings. His new website is, where you can reach him and learn more about his work.