Medford is a small city now but when I was growing up it was a small town. It was a small town surrounded by even smaller towns, all set amidst what seemed like endless forests. Lumber mills and pear orchards littered the landscape, both economically essential at the time and both ephemeral. The mills are mostly closed now that the forests are depleted and protected, and many of the orchards have been cut down and turned into suburban housing.
I grew up in the middle of one of those orchards, at least for my first five years. When we left the old Harry & David farmhouse of my early childhood we moved into the center of Medford, into a big old stucco house set right against the freeway. We were a big family, though, and dad was a teacher so all-in-all it was a good fit.
When you were a kid your life was defined by which school you attended in the long progression from grade school to junior high, through mid high and on to senior high. It was a strange system where grades were split into distinct schools, which meant your final two years, 11th and 12th grades, were spent at Medford Senior High School, which took in all of the students from town and the surrounding smaller towns that didn’t warrant their own high schools.
My graduating class had 562 students and since we were lined up for graduation by height I was about the 556th to receive my diploma. As far as I knew I was the only gay person in the entire student body. The funny thing , though maybe it’s not surprising, was that two of my close friends were gay, though none of us admitted this to each other until our freshman year in college. As I look back I can still remember the feeling of fear, the sense that somehow people knew and were talking about me behind my back.
I was a geek and also a person of color in a town that was overwhelmingly white, so I was saved from having to display interest in girls or perform for their attention as other guys did. Of those 562 students I was the only one of African-American descent and though that might seem to set me apart from my peers it was always my sexual orientation that made me feel different. Not bad, as I’d never had a problem with it personally, but set apart, as if I was a spectator at a game I didn’t want to play.
We did play Dungeons and Dragons, though, my friends and I. Like I said, I was a geek and my asexual game playing persona was a safety barrier between me and the hormonal world I lived in. I can still remember the guys I liked – Dave and Randy, Tom and Tracey – but I only ever gave them sidelong glances, furtive looks that I fervently hoped would not be returned and never were.
My senior year I asked a girl, a popular girl I knew from sitting next to her in Physics, if she would sign my yearbook. I remember that she smiled and that she had braces. When she handed it back I read what she had wrote: “To one of the cutest guys in school…” I was puzzled and wondered if she had me confused with someone else, though she had written my name correctly.
I left Medford my freshman year and went to the University of Oregon, where I started the process of coming out to friends and family. The funniest reaction was from my friend Molly who I’d known since 6th grade, back at Jefferson Elementary. Driving home from an Adam Ant concert, she and I alone in her car with our other friends strategically piled into a different car, I worked up the nerve to say, “You see Molly, I’m gay.” Her immediate reaction was to turn away from the road and say with a bright look, “Really? With who?” I was taken aback – I suppose because I’d never really been gay with anyone, not like she meant, as if the act was what defined you and not the years of confusion and wonderment and fear and resolve. But in this as with all my friends and family, without exception, I was very lucky because their confusion and wonder, their fear for me and resolute love, didn’t waiver despite the fact they hadn’t guessed and hadn’t known.
If I could go back to that old Medford, back to say hello to my tall, gawky, geeky self, I’d just smile and tell myself that everything was ok. That maybe people knew and maybe they didn’t, but that it didn’t really matter. That it was better to relax and just enjoy the days, simple days with simple cares in a small town that would always be with me, however far away I went, however large the city where I ended up. That I’d never escape Medford but not to be afraid because one day I wouldn’t want to.