Writing my book, Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover, reminded me of just how lonely I was in high school. All I wanted was someone to talk with who understood what I was going through. I knew that I wasn’t the only gay person on the planet, but I was in the middle of fucking nowhere and this was in the day before the Internet, so all I had were those people who were around me. And as near as I can tell, even now, I was the only gay person in my graduating class of 153 people. Just me. I had so much I had to keep inside, had to keep hidden from everyone around me for fear that they would discover my secret and would exile me even more than I had already exiled myself. Sure, I had friends, but they were, from my point of view, all superficial friends because none of them knew the real me. I couldn’t tell any of them what I was thinking or feeling or craving. To do so would have been the kiss of death.
Gay kids learn early how to be good actors. We learn the roles that we’re expected to play and we play them 24/7. And we survive because we know that there is something beyond the present moment. We keep our eye on the prize, we keep our eye on what’s next, on what’s coming down the road, no matter how lonely it is at the moment, no matter how brutal it is at the moment. There is always something more, around the corner, over the hill.
Despite all of my precautions, one day my father showed a person I thought was my friend some pictures. Mixed in with them was a picture that I hated and wanted destroyed. The picture was one Christmas morning and showed me holding and looking at a doll my sister had received as a present. It was innocent enough, but my “friend” spread word of that picture far and wide and before long I was being teased and taunted everywhere. It got horrible. One day as I was walking into a new fast food restaurant with my family I was absolutely horrified to look down at the sidewalk and see that someone had written in the concrete before it set “Robbie Michaels is a fag”. I was horrified and wanted to run away and hide. My parents saw it. My sister saw it. I certainly saw it. But none of us spoke of it. It was just like so much of my life – it was there but no one spoke of it.
My school was very small. Everyone was related to everyone in one way or another. Everyone knew everyone else. We’d all gone to school together since kindergarten. Nonetheless, after that, my life was a living hell and I just trudged through miserably day after day, all the time keeping my eye on the prize that I was someday before long going to get the hell out of there. I knew that 90% of those I graduated with were never going to go anywhere beyond our little valley. They’d stay right there, get some woman pregnant and get married at 18 and be miserable and make one another miserable for a few years until they divorced and moved on to do the same thing again. Only a few got out, and while I shouldn’t be happy in anyone else’s misery, I must admit that whenever I got back to visit my parents and see some of the people I went to school with, I walk a little taller and prouder because I had the wherewithal to get the hell out and make something of myself while all they did was to stay and be miserable.
The Internet has been the most glorious thing for gay youth in rural areas. When my nephew came out to his parents at 16 I was so proud of him (and a bit jealous!). Like me, he knew who he was from the earliest memory. But he had the Internet and was able to talk with others online. He had a boyfriend at 16. He had lots of friends. He had sex. It was amazing. I was so thankful that his generation has had the ability to connect with others regardless of where they are, no matter how rural an area they might live in.