MOST LIKELY TO BE REMEMBERED
BY ED MADDEN
Every high school had them, those "Who's Who" lists for the yearbook -- Most Talented, Most Dependable, Most Likely to Succeed. Those designations were measures of how we rated in the high school hierarchy (Most Popular), as well as registers of the dreams of those about to graduate (Most Likely to Be Remembered).
At my 10-year reunion, I think the running joke was the sad story of Most Likely to Succeed. He was in jail at the time. As the story went, he had been convicted of insurance fraud. Inevitably the tellers added that he had also come out of the closet and then been disowned by his parents. So 10 years later, Most Likely to Succeed was a failure: a liar, a crook and a fag.
The story of Most Likely to Succeed -- let's call him Phillip -- obsesses me now because my 20-year reunion is coming up. Like Phillip, I've come out of the closet, and more or less been disavowed by my family. Though I should and do know better, I am haunted by the equation of faggotry and failure in that reunion story. I want to go to the reunion to prove otherwise, but I don't want to go as well.
I don't want to go because that means going home, and going home means coming to terms with so many anxieties, fears and failures. It means confronting the homophobia -- the fear, disgust and hatred -- that suffused the culture I grew up in. And it means coming to terms with the expectations I've failed to meet, and the family I have, in so many ways, lost. Though I am out now, and living happily with my partner of over six years, the impending reunion brings the story of Phillip to mind, a story linking homosexuality to criminality and dishonesty, a story that ties being gay to the failed expectations of both a community and a family.
I remember laughing along nervously at the ironic story of Phillip, as if my laughter might protect me. From what? Suspicion? The same kind of laughter?
At the 10-year reunion, I was closeted. You might say I was both a liar and a fag, a gay man pretending to be otherwise, and given the sodomy laws on the books, a potential criminal as well.
I was slowly starting to come out in Austin, where I was attending graduate school, but I couldn't yet be honest with the folks back home in Arkansas. I went back for the 10-year reunion nervous, single, resolutely closeted. I didn't have the courage yet to come out to my family, some of whom would react with horror and anger when I finally did tell them a few years later -- my brother telling me on the phone that I should lie about myself to my grave, my father writing in a letter that he'd rather I had killed another man than admit that I loved one.
I also didn't have the courage to tell my classmates -- especially the one openly gay classmate (let's call him Matthew), who walked out of the men's restroom at the reunion stunned by the behavior of a married former football jock (we'll call him Rob). Rob accosted him at the urinal with sexual slurs (and with the mistaken assumption that a gay man would like nothing more than to give a blowjob to an unattractive, overweight, ignorant, married man). While Matthew was being harassed in the country club men's room, our classmates danced to blaring classic rock in the banquet room beyond the door.
Less than a month to go, and I wonder if I really want to step back into those contexts as a gay man. There is so much geographic and cultural distance to cross to get to Newport, a small town in northeast Arkansas, stuck in the middle of rice farms, religious fundamentalism and economic depression. So much emotional distance as well. When I go back, I suspect I won't see my parents, though I've written them to let them know I'll be in town. I likely won't see my brother, either, or his wife and children, including the nephew I've seen only in photographs tucked in impersonal Christmas cards.
The fact that one of my classmates (Class Favorite and class president) is also my mother's youngest brother will inevitably make family complications part of the class reunion. Still, there are people I want to see again. And if Phillip and Matthew are there, I want to hear their stories, to know how they survived.
Reminiscing now, I pull a yearbook from my shelf -- senior year, 1981. Among the inscriptions in the back I find: "Eddie -- Well, it looks like we may survive our senior year together after all. It's been a lot of fun. It's all over now and the best is to come. You are a great guy. I wish you the best of luck, luck that you don't need. Friends Always, Phillip."
Beside each of the senior photos there is a quotation, some chosen by the person, some by the yearbook staff. Beside Phillip's senior picture I find the following: "It's better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not."
When I think of Phillip's story, I can't help but think of the political contexts of our senior year, especially the racial high school politics that colored his election as Most Likely to Succeed. Phillip was one of three African Americans among the 29 Who's Who recipients, all elected by the senior class. The other two were Most Athletic, who went on to play college basketball, and Most Likely to Be Remembered, about whom I must admit I remember very little.
I don't remember a lot about Phillip, either. I do recall that his elderly father was a minister in the AME church downtown, and that he lived near enough to school to walk. I never went to his house, though, and even though we were friends, I didn't socialize much outside of school. I lived on a farm about 15 miles from town, and attended a church about 25 miles away.
My friendships were centered in extracurricular activities. Phillip and I were both in student government and very interested in politics, especially the current gubernatorial and presidential elections. At the beginning of our senior year, a conservative Republican unknown was challenging our young governor, Bill Clinton (who would lose this one election). Ronald Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter.
My politics were familial as well as partisan, since my mother was volunteering for the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Frank White. Our family conversion from Southern Democrats to Republicans came as part of the cultural wars of the religious right. Like me, Phillip shared his family's political orientation -- though they were liberal Democrats. Phillip and I argued about Clinton and White, Carter and Reagan. The more we argued, the more I grew to like him.
After high school I went on to a small Christian college, where I would continue my Republican politics and my desperate nightly prayers that my developing homosexual desires go away. I dated some, but avoided romantic entanglements that became too physical. (Closeted gay men make good Christian boyfriends.) I also became president of the college's Young Republicans and wrote anti-gay editorial columns for local newspapers. (Turns out, closeted gay men also make the most devout Republicans, and repressed closet cases the most strenuously public of homophobes.) My own experience makes me circumspect and sad when I hear rumors about the closeted Republicans in South Carolina politics, most of them hostile on gay and lesbian issues.
The same fall that Reagan first won -- a few months before AIDS would appear in New York City and transform gay politics in America, and years before either Phillip or I would come out as gay -- my senior class voted on Who's Who. Some politically astute African-American students created an all-black slate of candidates. Since blacks comprised about a third of the class, it made sense to encourage a minority bloc vote to guarantee their representation.
Though they tried to keep the list secret, this secret -- as secrets will -- became public knowledge. When some white students found out about the list, immediately a white counter-slate began circulating. Such was the nature of racial politics in northeast Arkansas in the early 1980s.
I don't remember ever really thinking much about racism among my peers or my own nascent racism until that moment. We knew racism was part of our high school's history. It was an all-white school until integration in the 1960s. The senior prom had been cancelled several years before, supposedly because of a racial incident (a riot that erupted when a black guy tried to dance with a white girl) -- though the cancellation of school-sponsored dances made the local fundamentalists happy as well.
In the yearbook picture, Phillip sits at a desk -- probably some law office the yearbook staff arranged to use -- and the girl who won stands beside him. Directly across the yearbook spread there's a picture of me standing in front of a fireplace beside a classmate. Best All Around, Leigh is in a preppy plaid blazer and pearls, and I'm wearing my favorite corduroy pants and a sweater -- as well as the goofy smile, big glasses, and Barry Manilow hair that embarrass me now.
I hope to see Matthew, if he comes back after the stupid incident at the 10-year reunion. If Phillip was a friend of mine in high school, Matthew wasn't. At the reunion, I was sitting with a small group of women he turned to after the restroom incident, telling us what had just happened, but we weren't really friends.
Matthew, openly gay at our reunion, was effeminate in high school. He took home economics. Though we took art classes together, I didn't want to be his friend. I was afraid of what he represented, his open subversion of social expectations (boys take shop and ag, not home ec).
It's a familiar story in gay culture -- our distance from those who were most like us when we were young. If closet cases project their hatred onto openly gay men in order to live with their own self-loathing, some gay men also project their anxieties about sexual identity onto those who least fit social gender norms. Gay boys, like everyone else, learn to think that being gay means failing at manhood. Fears of effeminacy are a persistent feature among some gay men, especially among the closeted. Notice how many "men for men" personal ads stress "straight-acting" or "no fems." One of the biggest arguments at the first gay pride march in Columbia was whether or not to allow drag queens to participate.
Though I wasn't really feminine, I was no macho man, and my winning Best All Around was a surprise -- the first time it had been won by someone who wasn't also an athlete. My uncle was a star athlete, and his protection in elementary school had gained me some freedom from bullies. My uncle and my brother were both on the football team. I wonder now if it was that fact more than my work as drum major that lent me some standing in the baroque high school hierarchies of popularity.
Another football player once drew a foppish caricature of me on the front of my notebook: in my drum major attire, plumed hat and bell-bottoms. I kept it with my other memorabilia. Though I liked him, he could be an incredible jerk. When a classmate turned him down sexually, he painted on the town's water tower that she was a slut. He wrote sarcastically in my yearbook, "Eddie, dear sweet Eddie. You have been so good this year, I don't know what I'm going to do without you. [something scratched out] Have fun at Christian college with all the other Jack's and Joe's." What did he scratch out? Or did I scratch it out 20 years ago, afraid of what he suggested?
I never had sex in high school, but I learned a lot about sex in high school -- not in sex education classes. I remember a few days on the mechanics of reproduction during 10th-grade biology class, after which all the fundamentalist boys sat in the back of the room and discussed whether or not they were still virgins if they only had oral sex. (In rural Arkansas, before Clinton's Monica, the consensus was yes.) No, it wasn't in sex ed that I learned about sex. It was from the stories that circulated through the halls, like the story of Phillip that would be repeated at my last reunion.
One story was the story of Memphis. Anyone in rural Arkansas or Texas -- I bet South Carolina, too -- knows the importance of the high school football team to the local community. Newport was no different. A winning team can get all kinds of perks from the local booster club, including team trips to bowl games. One year the team went to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl. During that trip, a rich boy (a benchwarmer courting approval) hired a prostitute for the team to share. A couple of the good Christian boys on the team -- one of them told me this story -- only had oral sex with her, to stay virgins, since that's not real sex. He also explained that they only had oral sex to protect them from disease.
Another team trip was to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Joe was the hero of this story, which was told over and over again in my high school. Apparently the boys were set free, and several quickly hit the local porn theaters. Joe went to a theater, and while he was there, doing whatever he was doing there, a man approached him and offered a blowjob.
Outraged, Joe started a fight. As the story went, he picked up the faggot and threw him through a glass window at the back of the theater. The other guys on the team told this story of homosexual panic with a sense of awe.
After I left town for college, I remember hearing the story of one of the football boosters, a sweet and popular unmarried man who worked at the county courthouse. He was a devoted fan of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks and he was also a member of the local booster club. (Was this hyperbolic fandom a kind of compensation, a performative masculinity?) An investigation of county financial mismanagement revealed that he had been stealing from county coffers -- the money funneled to two men with whom he'd been having sex. Was it extortion, blackmail, pay for favors? I don't know. I do know it was a very public story that linked homosexuality, again, to dishonesty, criminality, and failure. I do know he was forced to leave town. I don't know if he ever went back.
Because of such stories, I think adult gays and lesbians have a responsibility to the youth who follow us. We have a responsibility to tell our stories and live our lives in ways that will make a difference for those growing up gay and lesbian now. Most of us grew up in families and schools that did not and sometimes still do not accept us, affirm us or support us. That is why I support the local gay and lesbian community center here in Columbia, which provides a safe meeting place for a number of gay and lesbian organizations, including a support group for gay and lesbian youth.
It is why I support the Teach Tolerance Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provides educational materials to parents and teachers to address prejudices related to race, religion, gender, disability and sexual orientation. It's also why I'm going back to my reunion, in a small town in rural Arkansas, where inevitably there is another kid like me.
When I got the reunion questionnaire this summer, I filled it out with care. Spouse, if married. I put Bert's name, though we've never had a wedding. Would you live your senior year over again? No. The thing you've learned in the last 20 years. The importance of honesty and integrity. The thing that most surprised you. Meeting a sweet young man from Mississippi who makes the best damn chocolate pecan pie I've ever tasted.
The questionnaires will be distributed at the reunion, not before. Though gossip spreads quickly (and I know well how wickedly efficient gossip, especially church gossip, can be), I don't know who will know what changes I've made when I walk through the door with Bert at a small pre-reunion party. I don't know who will avoid me, or who will welcome me when I walk with him into my 20-year high school reunion.
But I think it important that I go.
Ed Madden is a poet and teacher who moved to Columbia in 1994 after completing seminary and doctoral degrees in Austin, Tx.