As a student at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Georgia, I was not exactly bursting with school spirit. In fact, I spent a lot of time imaging that I had a “doomsday button” on the corner of my desk. But I certainly hated Brookwood, our rival school. It was the more affluent school, with (I swear) chandeliers in the cafeteria and a nearly undefeated football record. I competed against a lot of snobs from Brookwood in debate tournaments; I remember one girl lamenting “We didn’t win a single trophy last time. We’re BROOKWOOD. That does NOT happen.” Even now this sort of makes me want to hit myself (or her) in the head with a text book.
I was the only person at South who worked at the Fuddruckers on Scenic Highway in 1997. Everyone else went to Brookwood. This restaurant was not the easiest place in the world for a gay person to fit in. I happen to be straight, but I found this out firsthand.
My job at Fuddrucker’s was “Guest Service Relations,” a position so useless it no longer exists. Most of my job was refilling salt shakers (the bottom half of any given shaker had probably been there since day 1) and giving customers someone to complain to – and they had plenty to complain about. It was not a well-run place.
I was only an employee there for a couple of months, but looking back it seems like ages. I remember half of the people I worked with; the one I liked best was a long-haired, no-good kid who said that his parents were kicking him out the day they turned 18 so they could start recovering. Most of the other employees thought he was a heavy metal-loving Satanist. In reality, he was a classic rock guy; he and I spent a lot of time quoting “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel and getting on the intercom after hours and pretending to be God (“Attention Fuddruckers…this is God…I urge you all to take up Buddhism….”)
I was also said to be a devil worshipper, and had the added fun one of being three people there was who was widely rumored to be gay. All three of us had a hard time with it, but we didn’t band together in a show of solidarity or anything. In fact, the three of us genuinely hated each other.
The first guy was one of my fellow Guest Service Relations workers. He spoke in somewhat of an effeminite voice, so much so that I was pretty sure he was gay myself. I remember that he called napkins “napoupons,” for some reason. He had an interesting trick for dealing with accusations of being gay: when accused, he would offer to kiss any girl who happened to be present. For some reason, this deflected all doubters. “I thought he was gay,” one girl said, “but he’ll kiss any girl any time.” Apparently, this girl was operating under the impression that gay men will shrivel up and die if their lips touch those of a girl.
Guy #2, a cook (I think) exhibited similar stereotypically “gay” mannerisms, but deflected the rumors by being the most homophobic sumbitch alive. This two month period when I worked with him happened to be the period when Ellen Degenerous came out of the closet, so the subject of whether all gay people were going to hell came up a lot. He was quite insistent that they were.
I remember one girl (who, incidentally, I could not personally stand) trying to defend homosexuality to guy #2. I jumped into the conversation right around the time he said “There’s no such thing as gay love. It’s not love, it’s perversion!”
“No, she said, sometimes…”
“You’re not supposed to stick things in that hole,” he said. “It’s wrong. It’s why being gay is a sin.”
“Well, guys and girls do the same thing,” said the girl. “Is being straight a sin?”
He continued to act disgusted.
I don’t remember anyone’s names from that place (just the faces and occasionally a first name), so I can’t look any of them up. However, I would not be at all surprised to find that both of those guys were happily out of the closet now.
Personally, their reasons for thinking I was guy revolved around two things: 1. I didn’t think all gays were going to hell and didn’t join in on the “it’s disgusting” chats, and 2: I had curly hair.
“It’s natural,” I said. “It’s not like I put it in curlers or anything.”
“Mine is too,” said another guy. “But I do the right thing and cut it off!”
I noticed that a lot of the guys there — really, almost everyone but the long-haired guy — had a buzz cut. Anything but the GI Joe look was un-American. I can only guess what these guys would have said about the Beatles’ haircuts a few decades before.
It got a bit uglier than just being picked on — one guy even took to chasing me around with, knives following me out to my car, and generally stalking me. Most of the staff (including the girl who’d defended homosexuality to guy #2 and had seemed friendly enough) helped him out. The manager wouldn’t fire him, even after he did things that resulted in me getting hurt and threatened to do worse.
Once when he threatened to kill me, I alluded to the fact that if I made one phone call, he could end up in jail “and find out what a real gay guy looks like.”
I’m not really proud of that one, looking back, but it shut him up for a minute.
Meanwhile, he had his gangster-wannabe friends (one of whom went by the name of Boat Show) come in as customers to give me a hard time, and decided that I should refer to all other employees as “sir” or “ma’am.” I never once did. These people were not knights of realm.
Eventually I told the manager to fire the guy right that second or I’d quit. He wouldn’t, so I gave him my notice and found another job (this was the Clinton era — EVERY restaurant was hiring). I didn’t really expect that the staff at my job at Po’ Folks, which catered to hicks specifically, would be any more progressive, but the job at Fuddruckers sucked, the manager (who horrified me by saying “I see a lot of myself in you, SJ”) was kind of an idiot, and it’s just not pleasant to work in a place where people think it’s funny when a guy chases your around with butcher’s knives and expects you to call him “sir.”
On my last day, when I left the place for the last time, a handful of the employees gathered at the front door to shout “get out of here, you queer!” in unison as I walked to my car.
I sometimes wish I’d said something profound or something that made them feel a bit guilty, but my actual response – “fuck me running, you chickenshit bastards” — was all I could think up at the time.
I never saw any of those people again.
Nor have I heard hide nor hair from the group in my algebra class who one day came to class in homemade “stay straight” t-shirts covered in slogans such as “we hate fags” and made plans to sing “Dixie” outside of the trailer that served as a classroom for a teacher widely rumored to be gay (the school had outgrown itself; there were about 50 trailers serving as classrooms. That they were building a new gym, but not new classrooms, tells a lot about that school). They spent the whole class thinking up other hateful things to write on each other’s shirts. Just to see how they’d react and register my disapproval, I suggested they add a swastika.
They were baffled by this. Though these guys made no secret of being racist, anti-semitic, and anti-everything else, it had genuinely never occurred to them that being anti-gay was a form of prejudice, too. After all, the general consensus among people was all that gay men were child molesters, or, at the very least, rapists who lurked in the shadows to prey on any man fool enough to go into a big city alone after dark.
In the middle of all this I did know one person who claimed to be bisexual — a rather confused young man who rode my same bus. He was an outspoken neo nazi (though he thought the phrase was “hail Hitler,” not “heil.”), had purple hair and was operating under the odd misconception that he wouldn’t have been forced onto the first train out of Berlin.
I was actually sort of friendly with another guy who claimed to be a nazi. When you actually talked to him, you found that he didn’t really follow the ideology — he was just rebelling and looking for a way to fit in, really, and some local racist punks gave him a place. I thought it was important that people besides the other local nazis be friendly to him. We liked some of the same music and I was able to point out the giant holes in his logic without seeming like I was threatening him. I wish I’d done more.
When I look back now at the people I sat with in other classes (who never missed a chance to rail against “fags”) (sometimes using that exact word to quote their minister), I’m surprised at how many of the people I argued with seemed, in retrospect, like they were probably not being honest with themselves (indeed, I later heard that one or two had come out). I feel terrible for them. They were gay in a town where ministers apparently had no qualms about using the word “fag,” and where people thought that gay bashing was no more “hateful” than Brookwood-bashing. Where local groups sent out mailers accusing the mayor of being a “sodomite.” Of COURSE they tried their hardest to be dishonest with themselves — I can only imagine the stress they were under. Most people weren’t getting online yet; finding friends among whom they could be honest with themselves was not an option, and must have seemed totally impossible.
I ended up leaving the school after junior year and going to the local “alternative” school where the pregnant girls and burnouts went. I loved it there. It was a whole school full of freaks. Some kids there were openly gay. Others were openly pagan. There were rednecks there, too, but they weren’t running the place like they seemed to at South in those days. There were no sports, no proms, no clubs, no social curriculum of any kind. It was like escaping to Wonderland to me. The school treated us like adults and expected us to act like it. We did.
Not every student has the option of going to such a place, but at least the internet gives us all a place to go. Everyone can find like-minded people going through the same things online, and watch TV shows where gay teenagers deal with the same things they’re going through. At the very least, gay teenagers are being told that “it gets better” and there a million ways for them to find that they’re not alone.
We have a long way to go, but so many things happening today would have been unthinkable when I was in high school. There’s a reason the anti-gay lobby is scrambling to get their laws and restrictions on the books now. They know that in another 10 years, they won’t have a chance. The anti-gay brigade needs to decide what side of history they want to be on.
As for those guys in high school, I can’t find most of them online. I don’t remember their names. But I know that at least a few are out of the closet now. The neo nazi from the bus is probably married with kids and working at the bank, and I hope the one from my chemistry class got it out of his system, too. “Boat Show” might still be a douche bag, but I’ll bet he feels like an idiot whenever anyone reminds him that he used to think he was a real gangster. I can’t say for sure, because I honestly don’t remember most of their names. And they probably don’t remember mine, or the fact that I was a complete dork who only occasionally had the balls to stand up for myself or others. When high school ends, it ENDS. Thank god.
- SJ Adams
SJ Adams is the author of SPARKS: The Epic, Completely True Blue (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie, about a Full House-obsessed lesbian who attempts to deal with a crush on her religious best friend by embarking on a holy quest with a couple of misfits who’ve invented a religion of their own. Due November 8th from Flux. SJ is also a high-ranking member of the Smart Aleck Staff, who worked with Adam Selzer on THE SMART ALECK’S GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY and the upcoming Smart Aleck Study Guides. http://sjadamsbooks.blogspot.com