I’m From Baldwin, NY.

by jim hlavac

I was extraordinarily lucky in life when it comes to this gay thing. That’s because I’m not sure I was ever “in” so I’m not sure I ever had to “come out.” And yet, even today, with every new hetero I meet I have to “come out” again. I’m over 50 now, been out since a kid, and yet, I still have to “come out.” It’s weird. I am not visibly gay in a stereotypical way, which actually bothers me somewhat. But I was precocious. I recall at Jones Beach, on Long Island, where I grew up, as a 10 year old I used to climb up on lifeguard stands. Those guys were quite handsome in their New York State colors of blue and orange Speedos, or whatever they were called back then. I just had to get a closer look. They’d bring me down and back to the family blanket. I think by the 8th or 9th time this happened my family figured out “Yep, we got one of those.”

There was, however, no animosity, no negativism, not much of anything but a huge loving boisterous immigrant family, the elders yammering in Czech, us kids answering in English. It seemed as if we were at relatives’ houses or they were at ours constantly. I had 30 cousins, a dozen aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even my great-grandparents, whom I recall quite well. It was a warm and fuzzy cocoon. And we had relatives still in Prague, whom had just suffered through the invasion by the Russians in 1968. I don’t think my family was up for any more repression of anyone.

By 7th grade I was already 6 feet tall, growing a beard. Puberty hit early, quick and hard. But still, I knew I was gay, though I don’t think I knew the word, or any word for it. My family didn’t speak of such things, positive or negative. But by 9th grade it was obvious what and whom I was, and I think every kid in school knew, too. I went to junior high in the early 1970s; Stonewall had just happened. More than a few guys thought they were going to harass me. So in two well timed and placed events I let everyone know I was not to be trifled with. “Don’t Tread On Me Either” has been my motto from the beginning.

The first event was spurred when Mike, who lived down the block, taunted me one too many times. So I just turned on him and beat him up. Just pummeled him into the ground and was pounding him down, on his own front lawn. His father and my father came running, and they pulled me off the shocked kid. I was screaming “Call me faggot one more time and I’ll kill you.” My father said to his father, “Don’t harass my son,” or something like that. The second time was a few months later, when a kid named Alan thought he’d take up the cudgel. We were just outside the principal’s office when Alan called me “queer” for the last time. I turned on him and beat him up. I just kept punching him until the teachers and the principal himself pulled me off of him as I was screaming “Call me queer one more time and I’ll kill you.” Everyone got the message, and high school wasn’t so bad.

In 9th grade, in Mr. Ford’s history class, he had us write a paper on oppressed minorities, and of course everyone picked Jews or Blacks or American Indians; the usual. And I wrote about us gay folks. As he handed the papers back to us with our grades on them, (an A, I can tell you) he just said “Well, I never…” and was just flummoxed. But I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to slip by. There was now no doubt in anyone’s mind, and that I would brook no opposition.

In 1973 I started 10th grade and gym class stared me in the face. I couldn’t deal. Not because I was being “fag bashed,” no. For everyone pretty much knew I was the “bashing fag.” Word gets around quickly when the odd happens, I guess. It was a “man bites dog” story, now that I think about it. But no, the locker room, it was too much. So I went to Mr. Gerardi, the head of the gym department. I told him I wanted to be excused from gym class, like, forever. I don’t recall the exact words, but it went something like this:

“Why?”

“I can’t handle the locker room situation.”

“Are you getting into fights?” he asked.

“No.”

“Are you being bothered?”

“No.”

“Um, are you, um, you know, deformed or something.”

“Oh, no.”

“So, what?”

I looked him calmly in the eye, though with a little trepidation, and said “I get too excited in the locker room.”

A sort of silence ensued until he said “Oh, oh, OH! Uh huh, I see, well, then why don’t you just go to the chess club or library, or something, or come in after class starts. Whatever is best for you.”

And so I was excused from gym for the remainder of high school, which was fine by me, for I wasn’t into the sports thing anyway. I wore glasses since I was in kindergarten; I guess it was a good enough excuse for everyone to go by. Why no one in authority did anything, during a time when perhaps we people were whisked off to curing centers or something, I don’t know. Perhaps they called my mother, I don’t know, she never said. But I know what she would have said. “Yep, he is, we know, and it’s okay.”

Early in that school year my oldest cousin, Peggy, was doing ear piercings. It was a hip thing to do. So I got my right ear pierced and put in a little gold stud. Back then, the right ear was the “wrong” ear. It was a symbol someone was gay, supposedly. Guys only got their left ears pierced. I did not. When I went to school that Monday everyone looked and said “You have it in the wrong ear.”

“No I don’t, it’s the right ear.”

“No, you don’t understand, the right ear is the wrong ear.”

“No, you don’t understand, the right ear is the right ear for me.”

So for all of high school, there in the early 1970s, I was the openly gay guy and no one bothered me about it. When Anita Bryant was doing her thing, I even got all my family to write letters to complain. And I think I still have my “Wanted for crimes against humanity” poster with her picture on it, which I had up on my bedroom wall.

But my grandmother did tell me a story about a young man she knew who hung himself, back when she was a girl in the 1920s, because he was “divni” – which is the Czech word for “queer” – and that still upset her decades later. So maybe that’s why my family dealt with it so calmly. But, like I said, I was so fortunate, that today, when I read these stories here, I have to wonder how I did it my way. And it’s so sad that we still have to deal with this nonsense from “those people,” as I call them. Not that I’m heterophobic or anything. Well, okay, maybe just a little.

7 Comments:

  1. Pingback: I’m from Driftwood. Ah, nostalgia « The Daily Mush

  2. WHAT A STORY….!! GREAT GREAT STORY…!!!
    I hope many gay teens and their parents read this great story.
    Being gay is OK !! so they can accept themselves for whatever
    they are with getting support and love from their parents .
    Thank you Baldwin…..

  3. Wow — thanks for sharing such a great story. I had a similar locker room experience when in 9th grade only I didn’t get excused. However, I did get ‘noticed’ and it was what outed me and started a year of severe taunting. It was comforting, though, to read about someone else who faced that situation. Best wishes.

  4. Why the last two sentences? Kind of a slap in the face to all that hetero family that loved you from day one. Oh, and all the heteros out there supporting you now.

  5. Your story is fabulous. I love to hear about supportive families! Thank you for sharing!

  6. *Stands up and starts clapping slowly.
    Entire room starts clapping with me.
    We all start goddamn cheering our asses off.*

  7. Well, it’s years later that I read you comments – I LOVE I’m from Driftwood – and well, yes, I was lucky, and many of us others weren’t – I just happen from time to time use the link to this story to illustrate other ideas in our nation –

    I do wish that very “LGBTIQATSetcetc” (oh I joke about it – I’m from the “gay” era — could have had positive experience – but what I learned from I’m From Driftwood” is that we all did not – but
    Thanks to this site- I have a link to anywhere I need to go…

    Nathan Masske is one of the best young men I’ve ever had the privilege to meet … )

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