May 26, 2022

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We Didn’t Say ‘Gay’ At My High School. It Almost Cost Me My Life.

Coming of age in the early ’90s in a small city in southeastern Wisconsin meant growing up in a time and a place when no one said “gay” (or “lesbian” or “bisexual” or “transgender” or “non-binary” or any other part of the LGBTQ+ community), and the only time you heard “queer” was if you were being called one by one of the kids who took turns making your life a nightmare like doing it was their dream job. Like it was their proudest joy.

My town didn’t need legislation like Florida’s disgusting new “Don’t Say Gay” law that specifically prohibits discussing sexuality and gender identity with kids in kindergarten through third grade, but which is strategically so vaguely worded it could possibly apply to kids in any grade.

That’s just how it was. Everywhere. Always.

“Don’t Say Gay” was a way of life. Our way of life.

There were no gay people in Racine, Wisconsin, then ― and if there were (which of course there were), they didn’t talk about it. No one talked about it.

It was believed the world of wicked queer people doing wicked queer things was somewhere else, out there, miles away, in big cities where bad things happened to bad people. Most of the small towns in America ― and even many parts of the big ones ― believed the same thing.

But, just the same, there was still a danger glowing a queasy, otherworldly glow somewhere in the uncomfortably not-distant-enough distance and it required that good, God-fearing citizens vigilantly defended themselves and their families against it — or else who knows what might happen?

Or else everyone knew exactly what might happen.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the memo.

I’ve been gay since the second I sauntered out of my mom at St. Luke’s Hospital in July 1978. Not just gay ― gay gay. The kind of gay that people would whisper about. The kind of gay that people would worry about. The kind of gay that I could do nothing about. And for the first four or five years of my life, the kind of gay that I didn’t ever think to think about because it was just who I was and I still didn’t know I needed to hate or hide it.

Once I started kindergarten, I quickly learned how boys behaved and how girls behaved and, consequently, that how I behaved wasn’t how I was supposed to behave. But no matter how hard I tried to change, nothing changed.

“I’ve been gay since the second I sauntered out of my mom at St. Luke’s Hospital in July 1978,” the author, here with his father, writes.

Courtesy of Noah Michelson

In eighth grade, my friend Krissy (I had been, like so many young gay boys, beloved by the girls in my class for many years because they adored my wit and my sass and my collection of My Little Ponies, but the older we got, the stranger and wronger I seemed, even to them) told me that a boy in our class was telling people I was gay. At that point, I didn’t know exactly what being gay was, but I knew it wasn’t something you wanted to be and, terrifyingly, because of the thoughts I was having about other boys, I knew that it was exactly what I was.

Even though I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, I can still remember the look on Krissy’s face when she asked me if it was true and I told her no. She looked relieved but I also saw more than a flicker of disbelief flash behind her eyes. She knew. I knew. Soon everyone would know.

So, I spent the next six months begging God to make me straight. Worried a simple prayer each night before bed wouldn’t suffice for such a momentous request, I wrote him letters instead. Every night after dinner, I sat at my desk and poured my heart out to him while listening to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was my favorite album at the time and felt particularly appropriate for the spiritual task at hand. (I told you I was gay ― so gay that even when I was pleading with God to rewire me so I was no longer the gaudy pink lamp perilously shooting sparks across the living room, I couldn’t help but do it as gayly as possible.)

I was still gay and headed straight to hell ― aka high school.

And it was hell. When I tell you I had no friends in ninth grade, I mean I had no friends. My gayness made me odious. Poisonous. Dangerous.

I hadn’t come out ― that was just not an option ― but everyone still knew. How could they not? My gayness was undisguisable. Unavoidable. Inescapable.

No one wanted to be seen with me or talking to me ― unless they were torturing me ― so I spent all of my time alone. Hiding. Holding my breath. Futilely trying to make my body melt into the furniture in whatever room I found myself in.

The torture was relentless and enthusiastic and horrific.

I was called every awful name you can think of.

Often, whoever was sitting in the desk behind me would lean forward and slap the back of my head or flick my ears throughout whatever class we were in.

One Saturday afternoon, someone called my house pretending to be another incredibly unpopular boy in our class and when I picked up the phone, an artificially soprano voice with a preposterous lisp said, “Hi, Noah! This is your gay lover!” Then the voice suddenly changed to a deep growl and it spit, “WATCH YOUR BACK BECAUSE I HATE FAGGOTS” through the receiver and into my ear.

I was held down in the gym locker room and doused in spray-on deodorant.

I was tripped down a flight of bleacher steps after a pep rally I had been desperately trying to teleport myself away from.

I could go on, but I won’t.

The author at his 8th grade graduation. Hell — aka high school — was just a few months away.
The author at his 8th grade graduation. Hell — aka high school — was just a few months away.

Courtesy of Noah Michelson

This was 1992. Not only did we not say gay at school (or anywhere else), but there was no Ellen or “Pose” or “Queer Eye” or Lil Nas X. RuPaul hadn’t even released “Supermodel of the World” yet. You had to use your imagination to find queer people on TV or in the movies or on the radio (or, if they were there, they were the villain or the butt of some nauseating joke). You had to squint to see yourself in the world. And too often, even if you could catch a glimpse — even if you could take a few seconds out of your busy day of hating or half-heartedly defending yourself from your tormentors to dare to dream of a future that didn’t include a wife, a grave or a life of suffering and loneliness — there was no marriage equality. There was no gay adoption. And there was AIDS.

My uncle Ward came home from New York City to die of AIDS in my grandparents’ home, which was next to my house, in 1990. I was 12. I saw him when he arrived in Racine and he was already just a bag of bones being helped up the driveway by my mom. I never saw his goofy gap-toothed grin again except in the panicked daydreams where his death was my death ― and it was now clearer than ever that the only thing that being gay would bring me was death.

My parents were — are — amazing. They loved my uncle. They took me and my brothers to see the AIDS Quilt after he died. They taught me about acceptance and understanding and love and they love(d) me unconditionally (and so do my brothers). And looking back now, I know that if I had come out to them, they would have supported me (and, of course, they knew all along ― how could they not?). But at the time, there was simply no reality in which I believed that could happen.

My shame was so thick it suffocated anything good that I had in my life and I didn’t think there was any way I could ever explain how hard I hurt — or who I was, especially after we lost my uncle — to them. I just couldn’t do that to them. That’s how revolting I believed I was. But I know with every dizzy electron spinning in my body that I would not be here today without the love I received from my family. Still, it almost wasn’t enough.

Because God never got around to making me straight and because I wasn’t sure I could face another day of high school ― or whatever horrors most certainly awaited me if I were to somehow make it out of high school ― I decided to take matters into my own hands and I began to look for ways to kill myself. I’ll spare you the grisly specifics but let’s just say if you can think of it, I thought of it. I researched it. I fantasized about it. Several times I got as close to the edge as you can get and then hovered there, frozen, before finally slowly backing away.

Not saying gay ― not hearing gay or seeing gay or knowing that there were gay people somewhere out in the world living healthy, happy lives (or that being gay and living a happy, healthy life was even a possibility) almost killed me. It almost made me kill myself.

I left my high school a few weeks into 10th grade after telling my parents I wasn’t happy. I didn’t tell them exactly how unhappy I was or why, but four days later, I was at a new school. Once there, I forced myself to try to “butch up” as best as I could. Since I wasn’t going to die, I had to survive, and it seemed like my best bet.

The author at Disney World with his uncle Ward, who died of AIDS in 1990.
The author at Disney World with his uncle Ward, who died of AIDS in 1990.

Courtesy of Noah Michelson

I still wonder who and how I’d be if I had been able to be who I was supposed to be. I still think about that little boy and everything that was stolen from him.

Just because I didn’t die doesn’t mean I lived. Not for a long time. It took years before I had the confidence to do something as simple as order a pizza or ask a stranger for directions. Before I no longer cowered when someone got too close to me. Before I felt worthy of being seen or heard or known ― of wanting to be seen and heard and known, even by my own self.

Thirty years later, I’m proud to call myself gay and to identify as part of the queer community. So much has changed over the last three decades but so much hasn’t and I know there are kids who feel the way I felt. Even with all of the progress we’ve made. Even with all of the victories we’ve had.

Kids are who they are. Teaching them about queer people doesn’t make them queer. Teaching them about straight people doesn’t make them straight. Instead, laws like “Don’t Say Gay,” which are now being pushed in at least a dozen other states besides Florida, teach kids that being queer is not only not OK, it’s so offensive and dangerous we have to do whatever we can to not talk or know about it. And that has very real consequences.

I know. I lived through it. But just barely. But nearly not. And too many others like me didn’t make it. Too many others like me won’t make it.

So, we must do something about it.

I have been so moved by the kids ― queer and not queer ― in this country who have walked out of their schools in protest of these laws, and who have taught classes on queer history in their history classes despite the trouble it could cause.

They are who I wish I had been ― but this is not who they should have to be or how they should be spending their young lives.

They should be anywhere doing anything but fighting to tell and hear the stories of the queer people ― famous or unknown, courageous or petrified, triumphant or forgotten ― who have existed on this planet since this planet has existed.

They should be anywhere doing anything but fighting to exist exactly as who they are, wherever they are.

These kids are growing up in a different world ― an objectively more diverse world with more examples of who and how to be than I had, and that comforts and excites me. But we haven’t won ― we have so much more work to do and our enemies are furiously working to see that we don’t do it. That we never feel seen or safe. And, unfortunately, too many of them hold positions of power and they are cruel and crafty enough to not only stop us, but to also force us backward.

The author in his hometown in 2021.
The author in his hometown in 2021.

Courtesy of Noah Michelson

From now on, when someone says we shouldn’t say gay (and trans and lesbian and bisexual and queer and all the other words they’re scared of) ― say it anyway. Say it louder and more often than you might have if things were otherwise. Say it to your elected officials. Say it to yourself when you’re voting for your elected officials. Say it to your kids. Say it whenever you can and especially wherever they say you shouldn’t or can’t. Tell them you can. Tell them you will. Tell them you never won’t.

Tell them how we’ve heard this story before and it does not ― we will not let it ― end the way they think it will or want it to.

Tell them this story you heard about this kid in Wisconsin who wanted to die a few decades ago because he was made to believe he was a sin, a slur, a scourge ― completely unworthy of anything resembling goodness or grace or a day without the deepest kind of despair.

And then tell them how he lived ― tell them how alive he is right this very minute despite all of the silence and the sorrow and the terror he was steeped in.

Tell them he is finally, most days, happy, but it took too many years and too many tears to get here.

Tell them that while it might sound like a miracle, there are no miracles ― there’s just the truth.

Tell them the truth is we have come too far and we refuse to ever go back.

Noah Michelson is the head of HuffPost Personal and the host of “D Is For Desire,” HuffPost’s love and sex podcast. He joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch and oversee the site’s first vertical dedicated to queer issues, Queer Voices, and went on to oversee all of HuffPost’s community sections before pivoting to create and run HuffPost Personal in 2018. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University and has served as a commentator for MSNBC, the BBC, Entertainment Tonight, Current TV, Fuse, SiriusXM and HuffPost Live. You can find more from him on Twitter and Instagram.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.