When I was 13 years old, my hair was a mess. It looked like on the left side, a big hair explosion, I’m sorry, on the right side a big hair explosion, and then like this hair wave that kind of came over down this way and it wasn’t that I styled it that way, it was just that I woke up, and was like, “Eh, hair’s done, I’m done, I’m going to school, everything’s fine.” I just didn’t care. And it was long enough actually at some points that I could actually floss between my front two teeth. I was 13 and I didn’t care, it was funny and whatever. Speaking of my teeth, one half of my front two teeth is fake because it chipped off during childhood and stuff like that happens. Actually, it chipped off because one of my brothers was chasing me around a pool table. And I have three older brothers actually and I’m the youngest of four, and they’re all about six feet tall. And I’m…not six feet tall. But I got all their hand-me-down clothes so all my shirts were a little bit too big. So there I was, terrible hair, shirts that were too big, a weird half-toothed smile and grin and I didn’t care because I was just a carefree young child. And another thing is that I talked a whole lot. Even in elementary school, my grades…elementary grades, who cares about that, but my Conduct grades were a little lower than all my other grades because I would talk in class all the time. So there I am, happy, and happy-go-lucky, and big innocent smile, and innocence personified, and I walked into the first day of high school.
And I went into English class, Freshman year, Day 1, and English was always my favorite subject, and I sat down at the back left corner of the room, I always like to have a nice vantage point, and the teacher, a new teacher, again I have three older brothers so I always knew the teachers, it’s a very small community, I’m from Driftwood, Texas, very small town. And it was this new teacher, Ms. Summers. And she was calling roll and she got to my name and I was like, “Here!” And she looked at me and she was like, “Are you male or female?”
And the class reaction was a lot like that, it was chuckles but it wasn’t directed at me, it was directed at the teacher, like, “Oh my God, we’ve known Nathan forever and his name is ‘Nathan.’”
And the worst part was that I actually had to answer and it took a lot of strength to just say “male” and I’m so glad “male” is only one syllable because I don’t know if I could have made out another syllable. And from that day I started to change and soon after I parted my hair in the middle. This is the 90s so that’s butching it up a little bit. So I started being a little more mindful of what I was wearing and how I was presenting. And what she did with that one completely inappropriate question changed me and shook me to my core. And I started policing what I said and what I did.
And one day in that class we were doing vocabulary words and all the words and definitions were on the chalkboard and you just take turns, each student takes turns, reads a word and the definition, and I counted ahead to see what my word was going to be. And it was “vague”. And I was like, “Oh, God, don’t say ‘vogue’, don’t say ‘vogue’, don’t say ‘vogue’, please don’t say ‘vogue’ because it’s Madonna and Madonna is ‘gay’” and that’s how afraid I was of being even associated with being gay or feminine or anything, I didn’t even want to say the name of a Madonna song. And it got to me and of course I said “vogue.” Because I said it in my mind so many times and I messed up. And she was like, “It’s ‘vague’ and I was like, “I know, I just messed up.”
In that class she gave us an assignment and it was, “Find a speech, it can be fiction, it can be nonfiction, whatever, find a speech by a popular person and write an essay about it. And something else about me as a child and very much so today also, I love X-Men. It’s very close to my heart. And one of my brothers and I would drive every single Wednesday, all the way into Austin, go to Comicave which I would eventually work at later, and get all the new comics and sometimes we would be so excited that he would be driving home and I would read the comics out loud to him because we just couldn’t wait.
So one day I was sitting at home reading comic books, reading X-Men, and there was a speech that Professor X, the leader of the X-men, and a quick lesson about the X-Men is that they get their powers, their mutant abilities, at puberty. And it was created and written by a Jewish man in 1963 so there are a lot of parallels and very intentional metaphors of any ostracized group for being different. If you’re different, you’re an outcast. So, I read this speech by Professor X that he gave to this huge crowd in Central Park and he was telling everybody what connects us all as people. And he said no matter how different you are, whether you’re black or white, whether you’re Jewish, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re homosexual–woop! woop!–I was like, gasp! And this was six years before coming out, I was not even ready to admit to myself that I was gay, but I knew that I was different. And I was like, “Oh, I think I’m going to remember that for later and also I think I found my speech to write about.”
So writing the speech was the easiest thing in the world because it all came from the heart and from passion, and “Yeah, Ms. Summers, I’m going to write this thing about you and you need to learn about accepting people who are different.” So I wrote the essay and it came time to turn it in. And it was the beginning of class and she was like, “Okay, everyone turn in your essays.”
And I was like, “What have I done? I was afraid to say the word ‘vogue’ and here I’m writing this whole essay that has the word ‘homosexual’ in it, whoa, that’s a big leap.”
And the thing about being gay and closeted, especially as a young teen, you don’t have any advisors to talk to. I didn’t have my parents or my brothers or any friends to talk my feelings about or talk about my feelings or help me or coach me in this. So walking up to turn my essay in to the desk, it was just me, with Professor X at my side, and I walked up and I put the essay on the desk, and we made eye contact just as we did the first day of school. And I didn’t say anything, I just dropped it off, but I thought, “You need to read this essay.” And I walked back and that was it. And it was the day I remember first ever being a brave gay man. And that young scared teenage boy is still to this day a big role model to me.
And here I am, many years later, and I now part my hair to the side, it’s a little long, there’s no hair explosion, I don’t floss with my hair anymore, I promise. But one thing that has changed is that the way I try to talk about acceptance and empathy and understanding and compassion is not through metaphors or mutants, it’s through microphones and speaking louder. And the one thing I also hope is that the message is more direct and more clear and more loud, and a little less vogue. I mean, vague.