SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 4, 2017

Hey. Ya Big Homo!

 

A year or two back, it gets harder and harder to remember such things, I wrote a column about the one question I’d been asked far and beyond any other over the course of my life, namely, “Can’t you do anything right?”

            These last couple of days, however, I was reminded there’s another question that as far back as I can recall has run a close second. Despite having been married twice and having always been steadfastly heterosexual, every few years someone will quite unexpectedly ask, “Are you gay?” This confused and amused me for a long time, assuming a cursory inventory of my wardrobe and personal hygiene habits would clearly remove any doubt, at least among thinking people. The standard answer to this fairly blunt personal question has usually been, “Um, no? Why do you ask?” For the record, I am not gay, bi, trans, or any of the other (at last report) two hundred-plus categorized gender affiliations presently rampant in the world. No, I’m just a plain boring standard issue straight white American male. That being said, I have absolutely nothing against gays, do not fear or hate them for what they are, and have always counted gays and lesbians among my closest friends, as they so often turn out to be smarter and funnier than most. Still, thinking about it now, having recently been asked this same question once again, I can understand where the curiosity comes from, I guess, and why there might be some confusion even among gay males. And I don’t mean simply because I’m so gosh-darned good looking.

            So let’s back up and take a look at the evidence.

            In grade school through junior high, I was a small, scrawny, dorky, geeky kid who read a lot and was never interested in sports of any kind. In the schoolyard vernacular of the day, this made me a homo, a queer, a faggot and a pansy. Those were commonplace terms back then, and actually had very little to do with sexual preference. Instead they were applied to anyone who was deemed a little odd somehow. Green Bay had always been a deeply homophobic town, and so anyone who fell outside the standard form of appearance or behavior—that is, anyone who wasn’t an obese, Blatz-swilling Republican Packers fan—was immediately deemed a homosexual. Well into my forties, I couldn’t walk up the sidewalk in Green Bay without someone driving by and screaming “faggot!” out the car window.

            I took it in stride in the early years, accepting the assorted slurs as mere synonyms for “weirdo,” which I couldn’t well deny. Things got a bit more complicated in high school. As a confirmed weirdo, geek and outsider, in tenth grade I gravitated into a small circle of friends made up of the school’s other weirdos, geeks and outsiders. Given the general makeup of the town’s population, there weren’t many of us. There were about seven at the core in a class of over four hundred (not counting a couple of stringers and the three confirmed punk rock kids, who had troubles of their own). Looking back now, I can say three of the seven were flamboyantly gay (though they would never admit it and were likely unaware of it themselves even if everyone else knew), and another two were borderline. Within the circle it was no big deal, we simply accepted everyone’s quirks—even Steve’s massive collection of ABBA albums and Broadway show tunes.

            Outside that circle, however, as an awareness of the existence of a large and vocal gay community entered national mainstream consciousness, things were a bit less forgiving. Since there were three clearly identifiable gay kids of the lisping, fey, limp-wristed variety in the group, the rest of us must be queer, too, right? After all, none of us had a girlfriend and none of us were any good at sports. More damning still, a couple of us were outspoken communists and anarchists. The standard-issue verbal abuse and bullying became a daily obstacle. It didn’t get to me, but only fed my deep hatred of the mainstream and mob mentality. Peter, one of the borderline cases, used to try a little semantic interference in his own defense, telling jocks, “Yeah, I’m a queer homo who is sometimes gay and keeps faggots in the garage.” By this of course he meant he was a strange man who was occasionally happy and kept bundles of kindling wood in his garage, but it didn’t do much to disarm the thugs in the hallways.

            The question of my sexual orientation was never an issue when I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a freak and no one cared. It was a place where anyone who wasn’t a freak in some way became an outcast.

            I’d had a sort-of girlfriend during my senior year of high school, and it turned out she was going to the U of C herself, so we made arrangements to be in the same dorm. But things were always a little uncomfortable and awkward, and she was a devout Catholic, so things had pretty well fizzled by the time we got down there, and despite living a floor apart, we rarely spoke.

One incident in Chicago did raise the question anew when I wrote about it two decades later. I was on my way to the Greyhound station in the Loop to head back to Green Bay for the weekend when I remembered I’d left my bus ticket back at the dorm. I didn’t have a credit card at the time, but I did have my checkbook with me (remember those?). But Greyhound wouldn’t accept personal checks, so I set off on a frantic quest around downtown Chicago in search of any place that might cash a check. Ignorant as I was, I didn’t realize how hopeless a task that was. After being turned away by three check cashing operations and four banks, I was finally approached by a nattily-dressed soft spoken man in his forties in the lobby of yet another bank. He could clearly see how sweaty and anxious I was, offering to help me out. He said he was the manager of still another bank, and would cash my check if I went with him over there. Naive as I was, I agreed. All I knew was that he was the first person who’d offered to help me out. So we got in a cab, and after that I don’t remember a damn thing until I was getting on the bus. I have no idea how much time had passed or what had happened. There was no anal bleeding and my jaw wasn’t sore, but still that incident continues to haunt me. I have no clue what happened between the cab and the bus, it may all have been perfectly innocent, but when I wrote that story everyone jumped to the same conclusion and again the “are you gay” questions began to crop up from people who should have known better by then.

            When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 1984, I had another girlfriend waiting for me. She’d been part of that geek circle in high school. That entire high school crowd was living in the same apartment complex in Madison when I arrived, so that’s where I landed as well. That Steve was clearly hoping I’d turn out to be gay was evident, and an undisguised rivalry developed between him and the woman in question. After a few months things with the woman turned creepy and sour and eventually imploded. Steve was very happy about this, and we started making plans to spend the summer traveling Europe. We even had our plane tickets and Eurail passes. To me it was simply a matter of two old friends taking a crazy jaunt abroad, but thinking back on it now I suspect Steve may have had other intentions.

            Then Grinch showed up on the scene, we undertook our spree of petty crime and media pranksterism, and those European plans imploded as well. In fact Steve wanted nothing more to do with me after I started running wild with Grinch, and we didn’t speak for five years afterward.

            (I’ve written about this before, but in 1990 while visiting Steve in Columbus, he finally came out to me. It was a big deal to him, something he’d only recently come to recognize and accept, but my response was, “Yeah, so? I knew that back in tenth grade.”)

            Despite being an evil nihilistic sociopath, and despite having served a stint in the Army, it must be said that Grinch was very, um, pretty. He went to the occasional dance club, spent a summer earning extra money as a male stripper, and on one of our nightly wanderings in search of trouble he suggested we pop into a gay leather bar just to see what would happen (nothing did). But he had an endless string of girlfriends. Even that didn’t stop the occasional whisper. I, meanwhile, had a total of three dates when I was in college, all of them disastrous in one way or another. Most notably for our purposes here, the question of my affiliation was raised again after I ignored the unabashed advances of a large, loud and obnoxious woman I’d met in one of my classes. We’d gone out for dinner, and afterward she followed me back to my apartment, and wouldn’t leave. She sprawled on the mattress as I sat in the corner drinking wine out of a tin cup. She finally left about three a.m., calling the next day to ask if I was gay. I told her no, but refrained from adding, “I just have a little taste, is all.”

            Oh, and then there was Chris. He was an openly gay grad student who wanted to be an avant-garde theater director and did an amazing Kate Smith impersonation. Grinch and I hung out with him a lot because, again, he was smart and funny. We even appeared in a performance piece he directed. His own intentions toward me were a bit less subtle than Steve’s. He gave me a rose once, as well as a pornographic story he’d written. Yes, well, I wasn’t offended by any of it, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

            I guess also not helping matters at the time or in later years when I mentioned it to people was my decision to take a job at a gay porn shop, where I was one of two straight employees. My mindset at the time insisted I take the sleaziest job imaginable, and given Madison at the time, “gay porn shop clerk” was pretty much it. Christ, the more I think on all this the more things pop up, which isn’t helping my case at all. A couple of years later in Philly I was living with a woman, my future ex-wife, whose anti-sexuality views only grew more radical and angry with time. She did love hanging around gay men, though, including Chris (whom we visited when he was living in New York), Steve (who would be the best man at our wedding), and the members of a Philly metal band I wrote about quite a bit, though I wasn’t aware they were all gay until a bit later. She was a huge Allen Ginsberg fan, and at one point strongly encouraged me to apply for a job as his personal assistant, knowing full well what that would entail. I didn’t apply for the job, particularly after having my own uncomfortable encounter with Mr. Ginsberg at a reading he gave at the University of Pennsylvania.

            Oh, then there was the creepy guy in Philly who used to hang around the used book stand where I was working. He was deeply into the occult and black magic. He was also openly gay and a violent racist. On one occasion he asked for my date of birth, then went home and worked up an extensive and detailed astrological chart for me. Wish I still had it, given how fantastically wrong it all was. One night he invited me out for coffee after work, and I accepted. Yes, he was creepy and, I thought, potentially dangerous, but in that he was interesting. After the coffee he asked if I wanted to see his collection of Satanic arcana back at his house, and I stupidly agreed again. The “arcana” in question turned out to be a pentagram painted on the floor and a whole bunch of those little metal Dungeons and dragons figures. He offered me a drink, and things quickly became extremely weird. Fortunately it didn’t take long for me to realize that one, I’d been dosed and two, he’d removed one of my shoes and socks and was fondling my foot. I fled, somehow made it the ten blocks back to my apartment, and spent the rest of the night puking.

            I could go on, I suppose—I haven’t even gotten to New York yet—but there’s little point. Simple fact is people have a tendency to jump to all sorts of conclusions about all sorts of things based on circumstance, accident, and association. Most such conclusions are wildly misguided, but just try telling that to the people doing the jumping. Especially when they’re drunk. For my part I don’t give a good goddamn what anyone chooses to do with his or her own genitalia, so long as they keep me out of it. I still have a number of close gay friends of assorted persuasions who, these days anyway, know better.

            I don’t really care what stupid people say or think—caring about it is a waste of time—but I do still pine for the days when being called a faggot simply meant I was a weirdo.

 

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