Monday, August 22, 2011

The Town I Live In: The President Comes Out

In the Fullerton High School class of 1998, there was at least one kid who pretty much everyone knew was gay. I am a college professor now and, in talking to students, it seems like attitudes toward homosexuality have changed since I was in high school. There are now, I hear, gay clubs at high schools, and students feel more comfortable "coming out" publicly.

But in 1998, at Fullerton Union High School, there were no gay clubs, and anyone who "came out" would almost certainly be ridiculed, or worse.

For nearly all of his high school career, J______ was "in the closet" so to speak. He never talked openly about being gay. But there was something in his mannerisms, in the way that he carried himself, in the (mostly female) friends he had, that strongly suggested he was gay. Everyone suspected. His mannerisms were pretty stereotypically gay. He dressed well. He spoke in what I can only describe as an "effeminate" voice and, to top things off, he had a lisp.

In 1998, 20 years after the Briggs Initiative failed, a high school kid in Fullerton, CA was afraid to "come out." And I don't blame him. Many students, but mostly the "jocks", would ridicule him, would call out his name in an "effeminate" lisping voice. I felt for the guy because we had the same first name and some of my friends were jocks and they would sometimes, joking around, address me in this mocking "gay" voice.

"Shut up!" I would yell back, not because I felt bad for the other Jesse, but because I didn't want to be associated with him. I wasn't gay. I wasn't a "faggot." In my still-developing high school mind, I was unable to truly empathize with gay Jesse. I was too defensive of my own "masculinity."

So what was gay Jesse like? Was he shy, depressed, suicidal, given all the ridicule he endured? No way! He was one of the most outgoing people in school. He even became ASB president senior year. Looking back, I am truly impressed with his courage.

His most courageous moment, by far, was his commencement speech. I heard rumors that school administrators had warned him not to read the speech he originally prepared, fearing for "his safety." Maybe the speech he gave was a milder second draft, but the message was still clear: "It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual. We are all equal," he said. I remember hearing giggles behind me.

"Holy shit," someone whispered, "Did he just say that?"

Jesse's speech was the talk of grad night. Most were shocked. Some, his friends, were not. Some took this as new fodder for ridicule.

But Jesse had made his point, and in a few months he would be leaving for Berkeley where I'm sure he found more acceptance than he found in Fullerton.

My friend recently moved up to San Francisco from Fullerton.

"It's weird," he joked, "I won't be able to say 'faggot' anymore."

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