Thursday, April 17, 2003

Note: this piece is kind of half-baked, I think. But I'm worked on it on-and-off for two days, and now the oven's shut off, and I still want to serve it, so here goes. I may flesh it out and give up a "director's cut" in the future (which probably means I won't). Comments to the usual address.


I so vividly recall watching my first Grammy ceremony in 1984. Eurythmics were performing “Sweet Dreams,” with Annie Lennox in her full-on Elvis P. drag. My Mom said to me, slightly alarmed, “is that a boy or a girl?” ”Mom,” I sneered as only a teenage would-be hipster can, “it’s a girl, of course. It’s Annie Lennox. This is Eurythmics, they’re up for Best New Artist!” They didn’t win, of course; that honor went to fellow gender-bender Boy George and his group Culture Club, who were presented the award live via satellite from London by Joan Rivers, back when she was still kinda funny and semi-outrageous. George’s acceptance speech is forever imprinted on my memory:

Thank you, America. You’ve got taste, wit, and you know a good drag queen when you see one.

I was enthralled that this huge popstar had the balls to say such a thing on national television! I was a big CC fan anyway; that only deepened after this moment. One of my favorite singers had all but come right out and announced that he was gay! It was an unbelievably thrilling moment for a geeky, lonely 13-year-old farm boy who thought he was the only one anywhere.

Just this week, I finally got my copy of the reissue of Will Fellows’ Farm Boys (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) from my homo book club (Insight Out). I love this book, for one simple reason: these guys are in many ways a lot like me. I grew up on a farm in northern Indiana, which we moved to soon after I’d turned 4. My family stayed there for 20 years. Sometimes, I loved Maple Lane Farm, and am very fortunate to have had it as a part of my youth: the endless yard for running and playing, the huge wraparound concrete porch (the farmhouse was over 100 years old) for games requiring a firm surface (and for writing in colored chalk), my mother’s enormous gardens, which I loathed helping her weed but which gave us bounties upon bounties of food for years on end (to this day I’m amazed that most people I meet have never had rhubarb, a staple of my childhood diet).

The flipside was being a “thoughtful, sensitive” boy in a largely rough-and-tumble rural environment. I spent two years, for example, in 4-H. My chosen area was cooking. Suffice it to say, the fellow members of the Future Livestockers club were not very impressed by my demonstration on how to properly sift flour. [One of them actually showed us how to castrate a boar; I nearly passed out.] And I often loathed being a farm boy: baling hay in 90+-degree heat? But there are books to be read! Once I started junior high, which involved a bus ride into a town of 6,000, it just got worse. The last thing I wanted to do was shovel manure or feed calves at 430am – what if the “town kids” smelled the farm on my clothes? I rather would’ve died. As it, our junior high then combined four elementary schools, three of which were in town; only ours, Laketon, was a “country” school. The town kids, then, were already predisposed to dislike the Laketon kids. The last thing I wanted to do was give them more grist for their mill of adolescent cruelty.

I never developed a work ethic commensurate with growing up on a farm. I’ve always known that I was a city boy at heart, and moving as I did 3 years ago to Norfolk, VA only proves it. Knowing that I was gay – which I knew by the age of 11 – didn’t help matters. Fortunately, I was never ashamed of it. But I knew to make sure it wasn’t public information, either. It seemed to go against everything I learned in school, from my parents, in church, so I hid it, and in essence, hid myself for my last six years of school. I was firmly convinced I was the only one. That’s why the (seemingly) sudden stardom of Boy George came as such a relief, such a rush. Finally, an, er, role model. Someone who showed that you didn’t have to be heterosexual to be popular and successful. I didn’t dress like him, or affect any of his mannerisms, but I did get every record I could, and laid my hands on all of his press clippings (limited largely to Rolling Stone and something called Smash Hits or Top Hits, which had lyrics to current pop hits and photos of the stars accompanying them).

Later there came Pete Burns, Morrissey, Bob Mould, Elton John, Michael Stipe… but the Boy was the first, and he told dreaming farm boys all over the midwest of the U.S. that you could be gay and still give everyone the finger. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

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