The only thing worse than looking stupid in high school was looking smart. I was somehow in danger of doing both at once.
In 1979, life is an endless chain of challenges being an overweight, myopic, homosexual teenager in Bakersfield, California.
I am 17 years old, a junior at West High School, and have never been kissed. I wear shirts from Miller’s Outpost and Husky jeans from Sears. My face is round and unsmiling, and the glasses I have chosen from the small selection available at my optometrist’s resemble inverted teardrops embedded in tortoiseshell frames. My hair, unruly and the same color as mud, is piled into mounds separated along an axis bisecting my scalp, more a hedgerow than a hairdo.
I spend my non-school hours watching TV, or rehearsing my role as Oscar Madison in the umpteenth high school production of The Odd Couple, having taken up theatre and chorus as my weapons against the tyranny of a sports-centric environment.
Sex has no part in my life. In fact, I’m shocked when I find that one of my friends has had any. I have managed push those desires so far down that I don’t even fantasize. In that sense, I am already halfway to being a priest, at least as far as my education concerning religion extends.
High school is all about the clique. Sometimes the clique proclaimed its own name, like the unimaginative Sportos. And sometimes the clique had a label applied, as in my own Art Fags. None of us would proclaim ourselves “fags” to the world, or even to each other. There was never any untoward touching or even highly masked flirting going on in the Art Fags, we merely remained above everyone else in our own sad little world, disdainful of every other group because of its higher popularity and seemingly unnatural ability to always be better than we were.
But if there was one overriding quality that linked every Sporto to every Art Fag, it was a deep-abiding love of Jesus Christ and his dad, God. Spirituality, it seemed to me, was as fleeting as fashion. Fear, rather than love, was the enticement to start looking for supernatural help. I had more faith in aliens and The Force than I did in the cross, but peer pressure is an amazing thing.
It all started with a bumper sticker. They spread from cars to street lamps and telephone poles and sidewalks. Eventually, they were blown up into billboards. All they said, in three words printed white on a dark blue background, was I FOUND IT. Viral marketing at its best. It was the rallying cry of a movement to bring people back to the Christian church, or to introduce them to its loving embrace and community of family-oriented good times, and once you accepted it, you were Born Again.
I didn’t really understand what being Born Again meant. Wasn’t birth a horrible experience? There was a lot of crying and spanking and messy afterbirth. You were pulled from somewhere warm and innocent and thrust out into this world, expected immediately to fulfill a role and start along the path of being a constant disappointment to everyone else. Why go through that again? Wasn’t just living in the present world punishment enough?
We didn’t have Goths when I was in high school, so I had to be morose on my own terms.
Being a Christian was suddenly The Thing. Bibles were being carried in backpacks along with Pee-Chee folders and Trapper Keepers. Small circles of Born Agains assembled in the quad during lunch break to witness at each other. Crosses dangled from necks, proclaiming membership in the newest, hottest clique on campus. Everyone wanted in, including me.
My understanding of being a Christian amounted to some desire to be good, often to be chaste, and to refrain from using dirty words or calling people names, none of which seemed to mesh with my understanding of being in high school. It was like Crazyland, where getting up early on Sunday gave you entry to the same club as the cheerleader, the football hero and the school’s student body president.
I figured I could fake it. Jesus seemed like a nice enough dude. Surely he wouldn’t mind if I came along for the ride. So what if I was gay – no one knew, really. I barely knew. I was more chaste than most guys my age. It was all about faith, anyway – something that couldn’t be proven. How much different was that from believing in aliens and earthquake predictions?
I pulled out the dusty old family Bible that had been sitting unused on a bookshelf next to Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, and tried to make sense of its language and violence. I started praying before I went to sleep, folding my hands together and closing my eyes while asking God to please not make me gay.
I nodded my head when a truly Born Again person cited the teachings of Jesus in everyday conversation. I began looking at crosses as an apt fashion statement and I even thought about dating outside my gender. In my head, I became a Christian, even though I barely understood the feeling that holding Jesus in your heart seemed to have for others.
A couple of weeks into my newfound calling, I was attending a Southern Baptist church with my choir friends, Rob and Cindy. They were the children of the church’s pastor, whom I had met on several occasions, having been invited to Christian dinner in their Christian house, enjoying the feeling of closing my eyes and praying over food, as long as all I had to say was “Amen” at the end.
The sermon that morning was long and dull, and I only paid attention to a little of it. It was really hot in the church, and we were all sitting in hard, wooden pews, which I was told was to help us keep alert and pay attention. Comfortable seating, it tuned out, was a tool of the devil. Apparently, so was air conditioning. The pastor wasn’t exactly preaching fire and brimstone, but I got the impression that God wasn’t interested in my comfort. God, it seemed to me, was pissed off.
I started to sweat. I could feel it crawling down the spine of my back and seeping between my butt cheeks. I began to feel eyes on me, as if they all knew there was a heathen within their midst – a liar and a deceiver – a living breathing tool of Satan who was here not to worship but to fit in.
The sermon droned on – something about baptismal waters and this John guy and Jesus and probably his mom and maybe his dad, though it seemed like no one much cared about his father since his Father had laid claim to him. Poor Joseph, I thought, a man made into a footnote just because he couldn’t afford a nice hotel room during a busy night.
We all dipped our heads. We were finally at the end of the morning’s long and detailed listing of everything that was wrong with us, and why exactly we wouldn’t be getting into heaven.
I wasn’t sure I believed in heaven, but if it was there, I intended to pay it a visit. Who had I killed? Who had I harmed? I wasn’t even having sex with anyone. This didn’t seem fair at all.
“If any one of you,” the pastor intoned, “has not welcomed Jesus into your heart and accepted everlasting forgiveness in the baptismal waters, look to me now and be saved.”
Really? That was it? That was all it took? I looked up, surprised.
And he was looking back, directly at me.
I didn’t have to look around to realize that no other eyes in the entire church had raised themselves to this entreaty. Just mine. Looking at just him. Just us, the preacher and the heretic, eye to eye in the Southern Baptist church in a silent struggle between faith and falsehood.
I lowered my head again. Had I any foresight, I may have been a bit more surreptitious in my head-nodding, but as it was, I had managed to draw attention to myself by thrusting my noggin around like a puppet, so that everyone else in my pew –the pastor’s children and my other new Christ-centric friends, with whom I had only moments before sung about lambs and flocks and suchlike, and how we are all so much in love with the Jesus and devoted to his everlastingness and his dad, and we’re all, like, so totally into him – had all seen my actions. With a simple gesture, I’d revealed myself as the only nonbeliever in the building.
Jesus wasn’t in my heart. He wasn’t in any of my internal organs at all, not even in my pancreas just a little bit. He was a nice enough guy, said some good things, made sense a lot of the time, from what I had gathered. He certainly managed to talk a great many of my friends into believing that He was the passage to eternal salvation and a life after death among the clouds with so many other good people who had managed to get themselves dunked under water or had eaten a tasty Jesus-flavored wafer.
I was just a sexually confused teenaged boy with the attention span of a gnat and a fear of self-discovery. When it came down to me and the pastor, eye to eye across that hot expanse of the faithful, and the sight of that Plexiglas tank behind him awaiting my sinful flesh, the idea that I could do anything I wanted to as long as I agreed to a dunking was too much.
That was my last visit to church as an interested party. Jesus would have to look elsewhere for another disciple. I would be blissfully free of ties to any religious affiliation from then on.
Eventually I’d find comfort in the very chaotic nature of life. That confrontation with my fears of the unknown made me realize that the unknown was my religion, and that just because I lacked answers to the big questions didn’t mean I had to seek them out. The questions answered themselves, simply by existing.