This post is a personal “Rainbow Flag” story, prompted by a post by Kelly over at the blog Rambling along in life requesting readers to post the Rainbow Flag photo, and tell a personal story. June being Pride month it is the time to share the gay rainbow and stories related to coming out, being in the closet, and pride in general. Each of us has many such stories, especially if over a certain age. This is one of my stories, and takes place in high school back in small-town Maryland.
To set the scene, this was before Queer as Folk, before even the gay characters on Dynasty. In fact this was before Showtime and HBO, back in the lost age of over-the-air TV and three (or four when the weather was right) channels to choose from.
Which is my way of saying, we weren’t getting the message that gay-is-OK.
I was in the ninth grade, in our school system the first year of high school, and I was all excited about it. The school was large-ish for our area, on the order of six hundred or so students, so out of that pool I met a few people who had similar interests, which when you are that age is a big deal.
The high school drew on several junior highs in the area, so I was able to meet new friends from all over the southern part of our county – a good thing for me because my own junior high had not been a hot-bed of like-minded people. I endured junior high school mainly on the basis of band (I liked the teacher), and gym – paradoxically since I was hardly an athlete; it was just I really enjoyed playing with the athletes. Ah, junior high wrestling practices LOL!
When I entered high school, somehow I entered a micro-clique of (what now would be called geeks) math and science-liking guys and gals. Well, one gal, Eleanor who actually was brilliant. The rest of us were just interested. Anyway, it was a very small clique, Eleanor, me, plus David, Max and Eric. Eleanor was from my junior high so I knew her but David, Max and Eric were new to me, all having come from different schools. Eric in fact was a military brat whose parents had moved to the area over the summer.
We had a math team, chess club, all the geek accoutrements of that pre-internet era. Oh, we had a computer – an HP timesharing (hah, look it up young’un!) ‘mainframe’ running some sort of BASIC OS. We would spend lunches in the counseling office, which had the only terminal. The purpose of the computer was to help students do research for college, but this being way before any public networks, we used it for games and to practice programming.
Whenever the jocks and cheerleaders were able to finagle a school-wide pep rally (often) we all went to study hall instead, and played chess, or military strategy games if the monitor went out. That was our big middle finger to the popular kids.
Now amidst all of this I was the closeted teen, and from a family that, due to my mother’s mental illness, was ostracized by other families that knew of her condition (this was also before therapy was popular – think Eagleton). So I always walked a fine line between trying to have friends, and getting “too close” to people because I had double secrets and desperately wanted to keep them. Even then I was not sure that my friends wouldn’t have been OK with the gay thing, but surely my family would not have been.
So while I got to know these friends in school I never spent much time with them out of school, calling on the one family phone and such. (Remember – no IM, no mobile phones, texting, emails!).
So it came to me as a complete surprise the morning in the spring semester of ninth grade, when the principal came on and announced after the Pledge of Allegiance that our fellow student, Eric, had been killed in an accident the day before. We were all shocked, especially my micro-clique; more so when it leaked out that he had actually killed himself with a rifle in his own garage the day before. Everyone agreed Eric had seemed so happy, had been such a great student, had such a great family. I was quite affected, I think this the first time someone I knew died; my grandfathers had both already passed away when I was too young to know them.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized Eric had been setting off my gaydar before the term was probably even coined. I’ll never know if he actually was gay, going through the same angst of trying to keep his secret, or possibly trying to figure out how he could change himself to be ‘normal.’ I have wondered if this might have been what caused his suicide.
But whether or not that was the root of Eric’s suicide that day, I do know that the suicide rate is incredibly high among gay teens and it’s not hard to see why. Although times are changing, acceptance is growing, and teens have access now via many new types of media to information that can possibly save their lives; LGBT teens grow up in households that at best can hardly understand them, and at worst are toxic.
So my Pride message this month is really to the straight community: to pass the word that your acceptance of us ‘mos as a normal and welcome part of your lives might actually, and unknowingly, be a lifesaver for someone.
And this is an appropriate place for a link to a couple or important organizations, The Trevor Project which combats LGBT youth suicide nationally, and LYRIC, the Lavender Youth Resource and Information Center which is here in the Castro.
And I dedicate this post to Eric, wherever he may be now, knowing that whatever problems he struggled with, his friends loved and still miss him.