I never fit in with the other boys. From my earliest memories, I did not like organized sports. I preferred to play dolls with my sister, watch TV for hours on end, or imagine elaborate fantasy stories in my mind. But play baseball, football or basketball? I was not interested.
As a young child, my father would take me to different sporting events. We would watch the Eagles play football or the Phillies play baseball. Sometimes, when I was very young my grandfather would come with us. I remember my father listening to the play-by-play reporting on his small transistor radio with the earpiece in one ear. He never explained the rules of the games to me, that I remember, but I was also not very interested. My main pleasure at these games was eating hot dogs and cotton candy and getting a bobblehead doll. I was bored by the game.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was one of the bright spots in my childhood. She loved me unconditionally. One Christmas when I was about five, (we were Jewish but my grandmother loved Christmas), she brought me a Ken type doll and my sister a number of Barbie type dolls, complete with different outfits. My sister and I loved those dolls and would sit on the floor of her room making up elaborate stories.
About a year later, when I had started Kindergarten or First Grade, my grandmother walked in on my sister and me, who were playing out an elaborate story with the dolls. “You’re too old to be playing with dolls,” she demanded. “I’m going to tell all your friends that you play with dolls.” I knew my grandmother loved me, but I was concerned about her threat. In the coming months, she made the same threat a number of times. There was clearly something wrong about what I was doing that had once been ok, but I did not know what had changed. I soon realized that my grandmother’s threats were just that, threats. But I also began to feel ashamed about my pleasure with the dolls. What was so wrong with playing with dolls with my sister when it was such fun? I could never understand that. I was soon shamed into abandoning the doll play.
Another thing I would do when I was four to six years old, was lie on the couch watching TV and playing with my penis. It gave me such pleasure to lie there and touch myself. My parents never said anything, but again it was my grandmother who chastised me and threatened to tell my friends if I did not stop. Eventually, I stopped touching myself in front of other people. My touching myself moved to the privacy of my room.
From kindergarten through third grade I went to the local public elementary school. While I did not fit in with boy culture, I did not feel like an outcast. Most of my friends at that time were girls with a few boys sprinkled in. In third grade, I had a teacher, Mrs. Miller, who hated me. She put my desk, along with the desk of Kathleen, a girl with enormous thick glasses, directly against her big desk in the front of the room, in order to keep an eye on us. I remember one day she was so angry at me that she kept pointing her finger at me and pushing her finger into my chest. My mother still tells the story of sending my father into the school to talk to Mrs. Miller to tell her to keep her hands off me. On the very last day of third grade, I got into a ruler sword fight with one of my friends. Mrs. Miller angrily sent us both off to the principal’s office. I did not care because I knew after that day I was never coming back to the local public school
The following year my parents sent me to an all-boys Episcopal private school, which I went to for four years. Going to an all-boys school quickly highlighted how I was different than the other boys. I did not like team sports and was terrible at the after school sports that were a mandatory part of school life. I never quite knew the rules for any of the sports I played. One year I played soccer, another track, and in Winter, wrestling. For the gym class, we would periodically go swimming, which was done without clothes. We all had to line up on the side of the pool naked. I was overweight and embarrassed by my body. Swimming naked with twenty other attractive, athletic boys was a painful experience. During recess, I remember the boys would organize baseball games while I would sit at edge of the field under the base of a large tree with a friend making up imaginary stories with twigs and rocks.
The athletic popular guys had very little to do with me. I made a few friends who were also outsiders. My best friend for a few years was Billy, another boy who did not quite fit in. I remember how cute Billy looked with his freckles, crew-cut hair, wearing the school sweater, maroon with gold stripes. Another friend of mine was Robert, a clunky overweight guy, very smart, but also an outsider.
There are boys that always seem to fit in. They love sports and learning all the rules of football or baseball. They can sit with their friends and debate the strengths and weaknesses of different sports teams and weigh in on the merits of an athlete trade or the last play in the Sunday football game. I could do none of these things and it made my years in the all-boys school lonely and isolating. I had few friends and did not feel good about myself. I put on weight. I remember one of my teachers in fourth grade, to my mortification, explaining that I was not really fat, I was just ‘big-boned’. Around this time my father would take me clothes shopping at a men store called Jacob Reeds. He would guide me to the husky clothes section, another mortifying event. Husky clothes were code for the fact that you were fat.
Shortly after beginning to go to the all-boys school, my parents had me go to a psychotherapist. I was told that I was being put in therapy because I fought too much with my sister. In the beginning, we would go in a small room the therapist had full of toys and arts and crafts. I would play and he would ask me questions about my play. When I got older we would sit in his office and talk. I hated going to therapy and I would have regular fights with my parents about going. Finally one day in fifth grade I refused to get in the car. My mother demanded that I get in the car and go to therapy. I said no and kicked the big picture window in front of our house, breaking the glass. I was so afraid of what punishment would follow that I hid under a concrete ledge that held the fireplace until my father came home and found me. I vaguely remember being punished but I do not think I ever went back for therapy after that episode.
Years later in my twenties, I went back to the therapist to see why I had been gone to him. I suspected the real reason was that my parents had sent me to him was that they suspected that I was gay. He turned out to be such an arrogant and condescending man, things I could not have seen clearly as a child. He refused to show me any of his notes from years earlier, but confirmed that yes, my parents had suspected I was a homosexual. And then he charged me for the session. I was so furious and vowed I would never contact him again.
There is much more to write about my growing up, but this essay is a beginning. There are often differences that manifest early on with a gay child. My differences were on display from a very young age. When I came out to my aunt in the mid-1980s she surprised me. “My dear, of course, your grandmother and I knew. I was in the theatre and knew many homosexual men.” Even though who I was, was there for all to see, it was never spoken about. Not one adult, realizing how much in pain I was in growing up or the challenges that I faced, had the courage to try and ease my pain by speaking the truth. Granted this was a different generation, but the people that loved me stood by helpless and watched, or worse, turned away and went on with their lives. I never fit in with the other boys, and everybody knew it. But no one ever said a word that could have helped me understand my differences.