In the 1980’s when I was emerging into my own sexuality, I might greet a friend by calling him fag, like, “What’s up fag?” Which was enough to get you a frog on the arm and a return shot of “nothing fag.” This was just adolescent business as usual in central Florida and probably every other community in America. Adolescent boys are nothing if not repugnant, ignorant, fetid assemblages of mucous and ill-intent. In the complex rules of middle school, boys whom one was not friends with were not fags, but homos, as in, “What’s up homo?” followed by slapping whatever the homo might be holding in his arms to the floor in the hall- books, Trapper-keepers, cartons of half-drunk chocolate milk, pink Hostess coconut snowballs. This might result in retaliative homo-calling (I’m not the homo, you’re the homo), pretty standard and unoriginal stuff between dullard tweens.
And thus the days did pass.
By the 1990’s I was here in Tallahassee, enrolled in a University, and working at a restaurant known as a refuge of employment for gay and otherwise outcast members of society who were turned away from more traditional venues of employment, such as everywhere. I remember the day I was hired, having spent dollars I could not afford on a cup of gazpacho served in an octagonal glass bowl that I slurped nervously watching the clock and wondering if I had been forgotten. After the tomato had crusted to the bowl and I had drank much more coffee than recommended, the owner sat down with me, looked at my application stacked with pancake house and Chinese restaurant experience, and she hired me. I worked there until I left town almost five years later. Gay was normal at Food Glorious Food. Normal and fiercely defended. When I get nostalgic about my college years, it is never school I think of, but pulling all-nighters making pita chips for a wedding party of 300, and taking my orders from a smart and exacting lesbian who indulged us boys our buffoonery and chided us towards sophistication.
I learned from the owner of that place, and my friends there, that it was not enough to refrain from persecuting gay people, but that an active role in the advocacy of their rights and protection was a moral obligation, and that choosing not to do so was persecution itself.
By the year 2000, I was working in a place that housed teenagers in crisis. Homeless, angry, scared, defiant runaways who came in every form, including the old familiar stinky, lumpy, fuzz on their teeth adolescent boy form. It turns out lots of kids end up in runaway shelters because they are gay, or to be more specific, gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, intersex, two-spirit, and every other sub-category of not straight and conformed to gender stereotypes.
But now I’m getting preachy, which is so boring.
I learned to protect these kids from other kids, my own staff, and themselves. Some were bright and resilient, capable, intrepid believers in themselves. Others spent their free time in their rooms scratching into their arms with safety pins, or trying to set themselves on fire with curling irons, which never worked and left an acrid burnt foil smell in the building for days.
I watched a young woman transcend her physical male body and become who she was in the confused and chaotic safety of our building. For me it was a logistical issue, which bathroom can she use and who can be her roommate? For others it was an ideological war to stop her at all costs.
She ran away to New York days before she turned 18 and got help from this place. Years later I met the woman who picked up where I left off, and we shared a cigarette outside a hotel in Portland, OR and hugged like proud parents.
Now I have friends who I still, after all I have learned, think of as my gay friends, which means I am not done growing yet, but there is still hope for me, because they are gracious and understanding with me, and far too patient with all of us.