Do you know who this person is?

Michael G. Williams (Durham, NC)

Those are the words my father spoke as he held up a copy of my hometown newspaper. It was early 1992 and I was a high school senior deep in enemy territory. My parents were fundamentalists. My sisters had moved on into their adult lives. My family’s only friends were relatives and the people who went to their church, two circles nearly entirely overlapping on the Venn diagram. In many ways, we lived in a walled city and that day’s paper had been an artillery shell sailing in.


No, I should back up. I’m making it sound like we lived in cult-like isolation and that isn’t true. Well, it’s mostly true, but it’s more complicated than that. To paint the home my parents made for us in flatly negative rhetoric would be a terrible lie. I grew up happy. My parents weren’t rich but we did more than okay. We certainly didn’t lack for anything. My mother is a terrible spendthrift, something I certainly got honest, and so we usually had a bunch of nice stuff and zero money. We went to the beach every year, though we were routinely reminded the behaviors we observed were not the way people live if they love Jesus. We laughed all the time. My parents are loving people. My mother is of the old school of Southern charm, so she shoveled homemade biscuits down us and played just enough Pinochle to maintain her reputation as a small town card shark. My father has a dry, subtle wit and an air of quietly philosophizing. She likes Nicholas Sparks’ books – I can’t quite bring myself to call them novels – and he would read the telephone directory if it were written by John Grisham. If there’s ever a film adaptation of a best-selling book about a lawyer who finds love where he least expects it while framed for a terrible crime, my parents will die of sheer unironic pleasure.


They encouraged my sisters and me to excel. They sent me to trumpet lessons because I thought trumpet players looked cool. When it turned out I was pretty good, they couldn’t stop singing my praises. They pushed my sisters to advance their educations and to have careers – and to become wives and mothers. We were to go run around in the woods, to find things out for ourselves, to have secrets, to fall down, to get in trouble, to set ourselves challenges and conquer them.


We were never to take any ill treatment from another. My father’s advice from early on was, never start a fight but always finish it. When I was very young, I busted a kid’s lip because he kept calling me names. My mother bought me a Kit Kat bar as a reward. “Never let people push you around,” she said to me. “Always look out for Number One.”


My parents expected great things from us. It wasn’t the same as being pressured: not exactly. Our parents made it clear they loved us, and had confidence in us, and that we would prove ourselves worthy. Anything less than an exuberant effort was considered wasted potential, explicitly a sin. We were expected to assert ourselves over the various domains of our lives, to be the winners. It was our world, and everyone else was just living in it. I was to bust that kid’s lip if he mouthed off too many times.


The world was our oyster but we were confined to its shell. I grew up in the mountains, where Asheville was considered the big city: unsafe, with sidewalks and buses and too much traffic and people with crazy ideas. Every danger imaginable lurked beyond our rural hamlet’s borders and those hobgoblins of fear multiplied with every season. My mother warned me I should never use my car’s horn because someone might get the road rage and shoot me. When a cousin – not by blood my mother is always quick to say – had a mental breakdown and went on a rampage my father sat up all night in the dark with a loaded rifle across his lap and a wad of Red Man chewing tobacco in his cheek. “I reckon if a tree branch had moved,” he said to me, “I’d have shot out the window to get it.” We had strict curfews. They waited up for us. I was not given my own keys to the house until I was sixteen. I was expected to conquer yonder hill, yes, but I was to stay a little bit dependent and a little bit afraid.


So there my mother and father were, working like mad to build around us a wall of comfort and support, digging a deep moat of fundamentalist faith, and trying like hell to keep us inside. They had been over that wall before – had lived elsewhere, had seen some of the world – and they regarded it with deep suspicion. The other side of the wall was full of the singing of sirens.


I never had a problem trying to live up to my parents’ expectations. I bought the whole anything-less-than-100%-is-a-sin thing hook, line, and sinker. I was no good at sports, but I was great at music. I got fantastic grades. I blew the tops off the new standardized tests. Enthusiasm was easy and my parents rewarded it with constant praise. My problem was, I never got the whole “a little bit afraid” thing. Oh, I felt afraid, yes, I just never made peace with it. My reflex reaction to fear had been observed – and rewarded – early. Whenever I felt threatened, I tried to appease whoever threatened me. When that didn’t work I would bust that threat’s lip wide open.


I knew I was queer from early on. I also knew being queer in that place, with those people, was forbidden. Other people could tell it about me. There’s a difference between hateful and unobservant. I tried to make up for being gay by being exceptional in every other regard and, frankly, most of the time I succeeded. When that didn’t work, when my parents or their religion tried to make me feel bad about it, they sparked a flame of righteous indignation and curiosity. In 7th grade I found out I was not the only boy in the world who liked other boys (and will thus forever be indebted to ‘80s talk show host Phil Donahue). In 8th grade – 1987 – I found out I wasn’t even the only one at my school when a boy came out and wound up being run out of town, followed by another in 10th grade and another in 11th. I was under constant suspicion as one of the likely gays of my school but that cover of being good at things – my suit of armor crafted from blue ribbons – was enough to keep me from getting my ass kicked.


I had many amazing experiences in my pursuit of being too good to judge but it was extraordinarily taxing. By the time my senior year rolled around I was a jumble of anger and absolute certainty in my own rightness. I despised the rampant anti-intellectualism of my town. I loathed the chosen ignorance, the fashionable public performances of racism and misogyny and homophobia. I hated the haters. I wanted to force the people around me to feel bad the way they had made me feel bad.


My choices were limited, though. Conformity and self-imposed censorship are symptoms of the enforced détente we call “politeness” and my sleepy little mountain home placed an immeasurable premium on politeness. I had ACT UP sensibilities but I lived in an HRC town. I did what I could, but all my snark, all my sarcasm, all my quiet reading of utopian science fiction about diverse populations, all my furtive glances, all my unsuccessful cruising, all my lurking in the shadows of a queer subculture concealed just out of sight around me: they felt great and they changed me but I was not changing the world. My isolated acts of verbal and sexual rebellion were pebbles cast at oceans: tiny ripples that would never disrupt society’s waves.


So I began to think of the entrenched homophobia around me as a domain to conquer, another challenge to overcome by creative means. I’d been trained for that from birth.


My senior year I let one of my oldest and closest friends interview me about being gay in our town. It was printed in our local newspaper, which set aside one section for local journalism students every week. When it was Stephanie’s turn, I was her story. She published it using a pseudonym for me, of course, and she lied and told everyone the “David” whom she interviewed went to a school other than ours, but she ran all of her questions and all of my answers verbatim. That was my anger on the page. Those were my words.


Those were my word choices, my turns of phrase.


One of my sisters read the interview the morning it was printed, called the other of our sisters, and said, “Have you read the paper? Do you know who that is? That’s Michael.” They both recognized me. She said she couldn’t help hearing it in my voice.


That afternoon my father called me into the kitchen, sat me down, held up the newspaper to that page and said, “Do you know who this person is?”


“Me?” I asked. There was a long moment, a second that stretched interminably before us. Cracks in the earth’s mantle between us – the normal tensions and stresses of parents and child – puffed dust into the air and expanded into chasms with no end to their depths. The look on my father’s face – a pinch of Red Man held halfway to his mouth – was too much. I couldn’t do it. Years of seething against their religion and against the town where we lived and the people and the chortling, pig-faced, genetic anemia, and I couldn’t do it.


I didn’t have the guts. He was my father and I had always tried to overcome his prejudice by excelling, not by rebellion. Oh, I rebelled – I had defied countless teachers, gotten substitutes fired, had my way – but I couldn’t’ rebel against him. I could only try to impress.


“No,” I said, as though still finishing my thought, “I don’t know who that is.”


I watched my father take a long breath. My mother slowly returned to whatever she was doing. We were quiet for a long time.


“Well,” my father said, “You should stay away from him, whoever he is.”


There were angry letters to the editor. A teacher I had previously idolized made explicit and deeply insulting jokes about “David” and then looked me right in the eye while the other kids laughed. We never spoke directly to one another again. Other queer kids called Stephanie and asked if they could talk to me, and so I met my first boyfriend. Through calls to Stephanie and letters to the newspaper I got offers of friendly advice, of shoulders to cry on, of prayers for my soul, of people who wanted to cast out the demon of homosexuality. I called an evangelist who did a Sunday morning hellfire and brimstone routine on the local channel. I told him he would be in Hell before I would, but I did it from a payphone outside of town.


That summer my parents forbade me getting a job waiting tables because, as my father put it, “Ninety percent of the men in that industry are queer as a three-dollar bill.” It was the first time I heard that phrase.


For years I looked back with shame on that day. My upbringing convinced me I could meet any challenge, overcome any test. I often felt I had committed something like a sin when, at 17, I could not conquer my own family, my parents’ home.


I became an activist. I liberated myself from my parents’ religion and rejected the concept of “sin” even as I lobbied higher-ups in their church on behalf of the queer youth in their congregations. I was a writer for The Lambda, UNC’s queer monthly magazine. I went to Pride when it was a march, not a parade. I volunteered as a “peacekeeper” for those marches, which meant I wore a special shirt and essentially volunteered to be the first one beaten up. I ran for Student Congress as openly gay. I was in the cabinets of multiple Student Body Presidents. I stood in The Pit and argued the Bible with traveling preachers. I came out swinging every chance I got. I went in search of the straight world’s lip and I tried to bust it.


I got a job waiting tables.


I wore a tee shirt to Thanksgiving with a three-dollar bill on the chest – but I wore another shirt buttoned over it.


Of course I eventually came out. I came out repeatedly, in fact, as my parents had a gift for pretending previous comings out had never happened. Those cracks between us that showed in the space between “me?” and “no” on that winter afternoon widened over time into real problems. By the time I was 30 we were speaking maybe every six months and only long enough for them to ask about religion or to ignore my boyfriend’s name, and then we were done again until the next major food holiday.


We patched things up eventually, but in the grand Southern tradition of never talking about what was being patched up. My sister graduated from college in her 40’s. My parents had to meet my boyfriend and be polite because it was my sister’s big day and they couldn’t make a scene. It turned out everyone was fine with everyone. Now they’re back to singing my praises for every little thing. I’m a distance runner and they constantly ask about my next race. “I tell everyone who’ll listen,” my father says, “Just how proud I am of what you do.”


My parents never again mentioned that newspaper interview and I have not gone out of my way to tell them what they already know: that it was me, that those were my words, that everyone who read it heard them spoken in my voice. When I was a teenager I did not have the guts to rebel against my parents – not directly, not that moment of that day – and as an adult I don’t feel the need. The world has moved on without them. They still toil to keep out the hobgoblins of fear, most of whom it turned out were simply agents of progress. Instead of making me angry it makes me feel pity for them. My parents huddle behind sandbags filled with Fox News. The less they like the world around them, the deeper they retreat into fundamentalism. When I was young I thought I needed to fix that in them. Now I realize I just need them to respect that I am not, at least in that specific way, broken by virtue of being different. Now they treat me with respect. They stopped asking about religion. If they fail to rise to the challenge of the world – or me – being different from what they hoped, well, that’s their wasted potential, not mine.


My mother once told me, years later, they knew I was gay when I was eleven. They knew before I did. I thought she was going to apologize for all the anti-queer prejudice they doled out, but no, and I’ve never asked them to do so. What would be the point? Maybe that I’m writing this means I should ask them. Maybe it means I do still need to conquer that final domain.


Or maybe the challenge set before me, the test I’m trying to overcome, is to look forward rather than back. It isn’t that I failed to rebel against my parents when my big chance presented itself. I did rebel: by going to school where I wanted, by doing what I wanted, by getting that job waiting tables. I acted out, but I did it by acting instead of reacting. My parents tried to carve out a niche in the chaos of the world and retreat into it and I have rejected that. Instead, I have carved my initials into the bark of this hateful, frightening, intolerant and unjust world wherever and whenever I have the chance.


Twenty years later it’s my world. They’re just living in it.