When I was about 12, my family moved from the bedroom community of North Augusta, SC to the truly rural town of Edgefield. It felt like 40 miles and 400 years away from the 60s suburbia I had known. This was 1972 and the Edgefield boys had crew cuts and shot guns and went huntin’ before school. When I swished into 7th grade with my Bobby Sherman haircut and Trapper Keeper, I was a prime target. I was miserable and quickly learned to suppress anything that made me different. I began a years-long (and unsuccessful) effort to become a heterosexual. I didn’t quite know what sissy, fag, and queer meant, but whatever it was, it made people hate me so I had to be something else. Looking back, I certainly wasn’t the only homosexual in town. There were many others, but I was blind to them, with one exception. I’ll call him Butch, although his real name was actually even more masculine than that. He was about 60 when I was 12 and I remember him flouncing around town in a caftan and eyeliner. He cleaned house and catered tea parties for little old ladies and is credited with single-handedly introducing watercress sandwiches into Edgefield society. It was mostly Methodist and Episcopal ladies who hired him. A man in make-up was a bit much for the Baptist Ladies.
Of course, everyone in town laughed at Butch behind his back. Ladies would serve his famous cheese straws and giggle about what a “character” he was. The men weren’t nearly that kind. I avoided Butch at all costs because he scared me to death. I didn’t want to be around him or even be in the same room when people talked about him. I felt exposed, like he knew my secret. I’m sure he did, but he never said a word to me other than a polite greeting. I would much rather be around the cruel boys in crew cuts than Butch. It was acceptable to be associated with the crew cut boys. Nobody but old ladies associated with fags like Butch.
At the same time, there was a plumber in town named Al who everyone, including my father, did business with. He was a classic good ol’ boy and knew his plumbing. One day, when I was a teenager, I was with my parents, driving out in the country, miles from anywhere. My father pointed out a small house set far back from the road.
“That’s where Al and Butch live.” my father said.
“They live there together?” I said.
My mother giggled. That was the end of the conversation. I was stunned and somehow understood what was going on, although I certainly didn’t speak of it. I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the years as I struggled with my own coming out. I’m still not sure why my father pointed out the house to me. There were so many closeted gays in that town, myself included, yet Butch and Al figured out a way to live honestly and openly together. Nobody ever bothered them, as far as I know. Butch was the object of scorn and laughter but, mostly people left him alone. I suppose he was so outrageous by local standards that people didn’t know what to do with him. As a kid, he was the last person I wanted to be like, but in retrospect, he was the bravest person in town.