Walking 'Round the Fence

By Thomas Metz

 

My Coming Out Story. What can I say? It's like every other Coming Out Story. Funny how a lifetime of gothic dread and drama seems pretty ho-hum when everyone you know has gone through the same thing.

I was born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1960. Dad was in medical school there, at Duke. Mom taught school. Yes, I knew I was different even then. In kindergarten I played with the girls at recess. Score one for the stereotypes. Kelly Brown was my "girlfriend," and we scandalized the other kids by kissing on the lips. I was a little too well-behaved for a boy. My parents actually began to make jokes about my amiable "okay" to every request at chore time. But it wasn't always so amiable. For one thing, I sang like a girl—Julie Andrews, specifically, because I listened to "The Sound of Music," and memorized every song. I fashioned a skirt from an old Army blanket and twirled around the living room like Leslie Anne Warren in "Cinderella." Both of these were the focus of parental opprobrium and they stopped by the time I entered first grade, by which time I was making a concerted effort to be "normal," unlike my classmate Rickie, whom everyone knew to be a sissy.

When Dad corrected the girlish way I held my hands when I walked, I studied how boys were supposed to walk. When my brother sneered at the way I put on a jacket (over my shoulder rather than under my elbow to find the sleeve), I didn't get angry, just paid attention and tried to do better next time. I was a good student. By the time I was eight, in Ohio, you could have mistaken me for a normal kid.

But I knew I wasn't. For one thing, I was physically aroused in the fifth grade when Steven and Roger whispered in math class about how they ran naked through Roger's mother's attic. But when they invited me to join them, I knew better than to accept. When the whole sixth grade went to camp, I came back with a bad case of weeping fits. Dad quickly put a stop to that. I couldn't explain why I was crying. It had something to do with seeing for the first time the other boys and girls begin the rituals of flirt and parry. Something in me knew even then that this was important, normal, and good, and I couldn't have it.

But if I couldn't learn to flirt, I could learn other social skills, and in the seventh grade I asserted myself and formed a social clique of the brightest kids in my math class who did everything together: went to the football games, the swimming pool, the Dairy Queen. These diversions had the important effect of putting a face of normalcy on the unspoken perversions I felt in my heart. I was surely the horniest kid in the seventh grade, and my heart and groin were full of dark thoughts about the other boys on the track team, especially the eighth-graders, who were more developed and full of the irresistible arrogance of adolescents who had discovered their own sex appeal.

Then I was seventeen. I wanted to die. I prayed for God to change me. I prayed a lot. I was an acolyte in my church (Lutheran). I was a lay reader on Sundays. I was treasurer of the Junior Youth Fellowship. I borrowed books on religion from Pastor Trump. "Mere Christianity," by C.S. Lewis. I wanted to figure it out: Being homosexual was a sin, and yet when I prayed to be changed, God wouldn't help me. I even got my friend Linda to pray with me— although I didn't tell her what we were praying for, it was a silent prayer—because I read in the Bible that whenever two or three of you are gathered in My name, there am I also. And your prayers will be answered. So He had to hear me then, right?

Then I gave up on God. He made me a sinner, but He wouldn't let me change. Screw Him.

I tried to date girls. Madhu Rustagi. I'm sorry Madhu. I really liked you. Jeanine Howe. Liz Witiak. Sorry. Can we just be friends? I liked kissing anyway ...

This was all in Ohio. It's no good trying to describe it here. I can't go back and bring you a picture of what it was like. It was like a nineteenth-century novel. Anguishing over the moral aspect. Why don't gay people ever get credit for that? We wrestle with God just like Jacob and that angel of his. How I wished that angel would visit me. I'd give him the fight of his life. It was living a lie, living in disguise, trying to act masculine enough that no one would find out my SECRET, MY HORRIBLE SECRET. Would I get beat up? Shamed? I was ashamed. Would my parents still love me if they knew? There was a special tone of contempt and disgust in his voice that Dad saved for when he talked about the "queer" at work, or male ballet dancers, or Tommy Tune, whom I idolized. I learned to keep Tommy Tune a secret. I met him once when I was an usher for a summer stock show. I wanted to sing and dance. "What I don't understand is why you would want to be involved in a line of work that attracts people who are like that?" What would happen when I grew up? What would happen when everyone else got married and I didn't? How would I explain?

I read books about Jews a lot. Anne Frank. Elie Wiesel. Hiding out. It was comforting somehow. God, don't let them find me out. Please, O Lord, save me. Help me to hide.

Driving Dad's Camaro over Wilson Bridge, back and forth, back and forth. One of these days I'll take a right-hand turn, just before the spot where the cement part of the guardrail begins ...

My best friend (I'll call him "Adam"). Turns out his dad is ... gay! He comes out to the family just as eleventh-grade Adam is discovering girls. Adam is in a really bad kind of adolescent pain. I'm good-looking and popular, so Adam assumes I'll have some answers to the girl stuff. He wants advice. He presses me. What should he do to make Barb Turner like him? How should he handle the embarrassment of a gay dad? You're my friend, Tom, level with me. He just keeps asking me all these questions ... I drop him as a friend, my best friend. He's getting too close ... to my horrible secret.

Sorry Adam.

Then I was in college at Ohio State, too depressed to get out of bed for class. I got A's on my tests, then I got F's, depending on the cycle of my mood swings. I would hold out as long as I could, then withdraw from a class when it looked like an "F" was imminent, accepting the stigmatizing "W" on my record since it was better than an "F." Finally, I was in danger of just plain flunking, in my senior year, and one day I showed up in Dad's office at the hospital, begging his help. Stammering and flushed, I finally blurted it out: "I'm queer!"

Dad was not convinced. I didn't act queer. I confessed to a drunken attempt at sex with a former roommate. (Dad warned me not to tell him anything I would regret later.) Did I ever have sex with a girl? No. Then how did I know for sure? I was just young. Confused. Undeveloped. I had the wrong kinds of friendships with girls. My friendships with them were too "serious." I needed to relax about this. I wasn't really queer at all; the thing to do was just remember that. Would Dad please help me find a shrink? Well, that was a difficulty. Shrinks couldn't be trusted. A shrink would probably just try to help me come to terms with being gay, and we didn't want that. I agreed. Well, could I at least talk to you about this? I need to talk. It's eating me up inside. Sure, we'll talk. You'll feel better. Just remember, you are a good person, whom God and I love. Everything will be fine.

I could have walked on air. I wasn't really queer. Dad said so. Dad's a doctor. I passed the next several days and weeks in a euphoric haze. I told my friend Mabel, the first of my three confidantes in this matter, that I wasn't really gay after all. False Alarm! Ha, ha! Gosh, what a relief. I was a regular guy after all. Mabel was a little confused by this turnabout, following so quickly upon my first tortured confession, but she seemed to take it in good spirits considering the fact that she had recently made the same dark confession to me.

It turns out Dad doesn't have time after all to talk me through my sexual confusion, but it doesn't seem so important now. I returned to my studies with renewed vigor. I could do anything. In fact, I could even get accepted into a master's degree program at the University of Chicago, a fancy brand-name university with Nobel laureates and ivy-covered archways. I couldn't wait to start school there next fall.

But first there was one other minor inconvenience to deal with—my right hand. After typing, it fatigued quickly and the fingers wouldn't flex open far enough to strike the keys. I began to see neurologists and neurosurgeons at Dad's hospital and I was confident that under his direction this problem would be dispatched as efficiently as the other had been. Hell, this thing with the hand was nothing. I knew what real trouble was, and I had survived that. A stupid neuron ailment in one of my extremities was a day at the beach.

By the time autumn rolled around, the motor neuron thing was in my legs as well, so I postponed grad school till the following spring. No sense in courting academic disaster by trying to gimp it through one of those fabled Chicago winters. I stayed with Mom and Dad and went to the library a lot to prep for grad school. Then, only two brief quarters behind schedule, I matriculated the following spring.

It was complicated. The silly little motor neuron thing had accumulated several names by now. Peripheral motor neuropathy. Spinal muscular atrophy. Atypical motor neuron disease. It's like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, only it moves more slowly. And it's not so silly anymore. My body is wasting away. I've lost the function of my right hand and I've learned to write with my left. I'm wearing braces on both my legs, walking with a cane. Two hundred fifty milligrams of Prednisone every other day. I think I'm going to die. And so, I learn years later, does my neurologist. But I have learned one surefire defense mechanism, DENIAL. I just pretend it's not happening and somehow I earn a master's degree, and I'm even accepted into the Ph.D. program. God, am I proud. But I'm becoming weaker with every passing month.

At the University of Chicago I meet Jonathan and Irwin. They are perfect and they run the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. They are smart, cute, Jewish, intellectual, and they have something I lack: integrity. They never lie about their sexual orientation. In the face of precipitous decline, things like integrity are the straws of dignity I can still cling to. It doesn't stop the slide down, but somehow it is important. I have no God, I have no hope, and I am going to die. I want a clear conscience. No more lies.

I go home for Labor Day. It's a busy weekend. I attend my high school reunion, and I systematically come out to every member of my immediate family except my little brother, whom Dad convinces me is too young and impressionable to hear about such a thing. This weekend is one of the hardest memories. My mother, sister, and older brother hear the news with poker faces, not really surprised, not really sure what to say. I act out the Phil Donahue show in my older brother's living room, explaining to him and my sister what "gay" means. Mom and Dad are another story. They wouldn't even show up at my brother's for the discussion.

When I talked to Dad, he closed the door behind him so no one would hear, then shouted a diatribe on rimming and child molesters. "What's rimming?" I asked. And I pointed out that most child molesters are straight men. By now I've done some reading on the subject. Fact: You take a hundred gay men and a hundred straight men, and the child molesters are almost all straight. That's a fact. I'm trying to stick to the facts. I'm trying to stick to the truth. I need the truth. I'm in trouble. I need support. I'm slipping, and I'm trying to reach out for support. Dad says I will never be accepted this way. How many people have you told? I am ruining my life and he will never "accept" this. Don't even use that word. And there's another word he doesn't understand. "Support." What do I mean by that? He literally does not understand the word. And although I am in a master's degree program for language and literature, this is a word I can't define. It doesn't matter what you mean, Dad says, the only way to deal with this is to keep it a secret. Forget "support."

I am so afraid of the hate I see in my father's face. I don't know what he may do. There was something that sounded like a veiled threat, "If you tell your little brother, I just don't know what I'll do with you." That night I crept into the kitchen to retrieve my cane and slept with it at my side. Just in case.

The weekend ends and I am back at school, but it isn't over, because the motor neuron thing marches on through my body. I know there will come a time when I am dependent on these people who are so ashamed of me. Who will feed me? Who will dress me? How will I blow my nose and wipe my ass?

Home from school the following summer. I'm driving over Wilson Bridge again. This time I'm driving closer to the guardrail. Back at school, briefly, then the worst happens. That winter I am back living in their house. It's for good this time. They try. I can't tell you how hard they try. They build an addition to the house, downstairs because I can't do stairs. This is where I will live. They do things for me. Dad, who has an especially gentle touch, clips my toenails for me. My sister takes me to the grocery store with her, so I get out of the house. My older brother takes me to a movie. My little brother pours my coffee. Mom makes my meals, washes my clothes, takes me to doctors. She finds clothes for me that have elastic and velcro. No buttons, no snaps, no zippers, no ties. She helps me put on my ankle braces each morning. She fills out stacks of paperwork for a Social Security nightmare. She does all this for me and once a month she drives 300 miles to do the same for her dying father. Maybe it's true what they say about gay men, that they have strong mothers.

I honored Dad's fiat for a year. I didn't tell my little brother. The following year, when he graduated from high school, I considered the terms of that injunction to be over, and I did come out to him. He told me that he had in fact known all along—ever since my fight with Dad, which apparently everyone in the house heard. But nobody has said anything. At all. Nothing. We're that kind of family. We don't talk about unpleasant things. I have become an unpleasant thing.

I try not to make anyone mad. I'm funny. I'm charming. I'm a good conversationalist. I am a guest in their house. I am not grateful. I am ashamed. I am twenty-five. I want a life.

I live in my parents' house from December 1984 till September 1987. I was turned down for Social Security. Because of the progressive nature of my illness, I couldn't prove I was disabled back on my "eligibility date," which is officially determined to be June of 1982. Ronald Reagan is in office and this is happening to everyone who applies. His Administration gets more judicial reprimands than any other Administration in history. Half of the people who are ultimately found eligible are turned down as a matter of course, to wear them down through the appeals process. It's not even a secret. It makes one news column in the "New York Times." These are the 1980s and no one gives a shit. I do get Supplemental Security Income, SSI, it's $124 per month. I try the ALS Society, Easter Seals, MS. Nobody can help me. I have the wrong disease. It doesn't even have a name for Christ's sake. But I don't complain. What have I got to complain about? I know I'm lucky to have a roof over my head, and my folks have a showcase house. I have one other thing: access. Because Dad is a professor of medicine, I try some very expensive experimental drugs. He comes home from the hospital with exotic treatments, and I sign on. Medicine is a calling, and Dad's a believer. So I believe, too. He's more than a doctor, he's a disciple. He's gentle, he's kind, he's generous, he's smart as hell, and he takes all the time in the world to explain exactly what's going on and how this drug might help you. When you see my father on the floor of the University Hospital, you understand that sometimes there's a reason why a doctor is beatified by his patients. It's because he's a saint.

I am so fucking desperate. I stay up late. I have not had a full night's sleep since I started Prednisone in 1982. One night on late-night TV, in spring of '85, I hear a pop psychologist talk about his self-hypnosis technique for quitting cigarettes. It's simple. Just tell yourself over and over that you are quitting. You don't even have to really believe it, your unconscious will hear the words and believe for you.

I try it. I walk around the backyard, repeating the words in my head, "My nerves are recovering." I make it once around the yard, sticking to the fence so I can hoist myself back up when I fall. I do this for a year, every single day. It's an exercise in delusion and I know it. But I am so angry and scared I don't care. I have no hope, but I have reached a place beyond hope where you try because there's nothing else. I get to the point where I can't walk from the family room to the kitchen without hearing my own voice in my head: "I am getting stronger." A year goes by. My stamina improves, and I'm walking twice around the yard. Then twice around the yard, twice a day, and finally, onto the flood plain behind the house. But I'm as weak as before. Dad is still clipping my toenails. I keep walking, mumbling miracles under my breath.

Then in the spring of 1986 something happens.

I tilt the coffee pot.

Bracing the lip of the pot against the coffee cup.

Holding it at arm's length, the way I always do.

Grasping the handle with both hands.

Steadying the pot with my left.

Tilting it with my right hand.

And my right arm lifts the pot. It lifts the pot. My right arm lifts the pot. Something has changed.

I don't tell a soul. I keep walking around the backyard. At some point, my legs get stronger, too, and by autumn I can move my right leg from where the gas would be to where the brake would be, then back to where the gas would be. I think I can drive. I try it once in my sister's car in front of the house, and that's all I need. I begin to apply for jobs. I typed up a resume on my computer. I think at this point I was typing the way I do now—by using my left thumb and wedging a ball-point pen (the kind with an eraser on the end) between the fingers of my right hand. I filled out job applications by holding a pen in my teeth. I did this only when I wanted the writing to be legible and when I was pretty sure no one could see me. When I thought someone could see me, I used the more laborious method of holding the pen in my left hand. I could also write by wedging the pen in my right hand if I wore a hand brace, but then all the movement had to come from the elbow and I wrote in letters that were too big to fit on an employment application. Life was complicated, you see. Complicated and full of all this infuriating adaptation.

So there's this guy, Raj. This is where I hear Barbra Streisand humming in the background. Raj loved me, in all my needy excess. He was beautiful—is beautiful— we're still friends. How did I deserve to be held and loved by such a beauty? The thing is, when you're disabled, you don't carry much currency in the meet market. Gay bars: going there for love is like going to the Praise-The-Lord Club for religion. I mean, they talk about it, and it looks like they're going through something like what you were after, but they've got another agenda. I never felt love in a gay bar, mostly I just felt rejected by hot-looking guys who went to the gym a lot. Raj loved me. I loved him. That's all I want to say about that. It was special.

I did find love in the Columbus gay community, but it was at the AIDS task force. This was real community—a couple hundred volunteers, 150 people with AIDS, a handful of staff—amateurs mostly, trying to do something about a really terrible disease that seemed to select as its victims only the most outcast. Learning as you go. Hugging everyone. Sharing your milkshake with someone you know is HIV-positive, and knowing enough about transmission to know that it's not a problem. At some point getting angry enough to stop using the term "AIDS victim." At some point getting angry enough not to care if your employer finds out what you do on your time off. This is where I count the beginning of being gay and being happy. Being proud to count among your friends drag queens and S/M dykes. Proud to kiss your friends hello when they show up on your front stoop and the hell with what the neighbors think. Proud you survived and found all those other people who listen so rapturously every time they hear "Over The Rainbow."

I'll never forget the first time I saw two guys kiss, friends, just saying hello. I'll never forget the time I held a friend's hand as he died, my AIDS task force "Buddy." I was such an inept volunteer. I'll never forget my gay uncle inviting me to his home on Long Island and showing me off as his "intellectual" nephew to all his queenie friends. I'll never forget reciting names during the opening ceremony of the Columbus display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. I remember adding my uncle's name at the end of the preprinted list, and I remember that that was the only funeral he ever had. I remember that it was my AIDS task force friends, gay and straight, who held my hand that evening.

So things change. The impossible happens. I'm thirty-three years old now, and I'm writing my coming out story for publication. I'm not sure I like the tone that all of this has taken. It carries too much of the tenor of those bad old days—I can't think about them even now without getting angry, defensive, hurt, and scared. But life is different now. My life is a nice place to be. It's not always easy, and not always happy, but it's rich. And mostly it is happy. I have learned to forgive and move beyond that hard place. My family has never uttered Raj's name, and that hurts, but I love them anyway, with some limits. They seem to love me, sometimes lavishly. We've all tried so hard. And I've worked at finding my own courage, my own acceptance, my own sources of "support," that word my father had so much difficulty with. I can take a broader view of things now because I have a job and I am independent and I don't need anyone's help. It was harder during the enforced dependency of my illness, when I was all grown up but not quite a grown-up. The people who loved me and cared for me hated who I was; they were ashamed of me. That's the picture that sticks: they loved me and they hated me and I needed their help and they helped, with a generosity that was seemingly endless. And in a very complicated way, I am finally grateful for their help.

Support. Let me tell you about my friends. My friends are also my family. The stories we share are a part of my personal family history, as much as Aunt Annie's spaetzle or Grandpa's collie dog named Watch. Gay people are making a new kind of family, and this is where I have found joy. There are a thousand networks of friends and lovers and ex-lovers who care for each other and take care of each other. At its best it's like the Columbus AIDS Task Force. My family can be as big as I care to make it. Mabel does Thanksgiving, Bob does Christmas, we all do Halloween. Linda reads my stories, Carol takes out my stitches, Doug lets me cry on the phone. Michael explains love, Ron explains astrophysics, and I boss Mabel about her flossing habits. It's a circle. We share holidays, we share jokes, we share ways of looking at the world. We share our lives. There are a lot of us out here and when we come together that makes a community, but each of us came here a different way, and we were only able to come together because each of us individually, one day, by ourselves, after long silence and fear, decided to tell the truth.

2002 Thomas Metz. This essay was first published, in slightly different form, in "A Family and Friends' Guide to Sexual Orientation" (Routledge Press, 1996).

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TOM METZ
lives in San Francisco. He has performed as a guest artist with AXIS Dance Company and in readings at Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe in San Francisco and the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. His writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in "A Family and Friends' Guide to Sexual Orientation." His essay "Love Is All Around," will be included in the anthology "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, to be published in 2003 by Harrington Park Press.


Photo: 2000 Denise Mignon Railla

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2002