Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Proof It Gets Better

One of my closest friends in high school school was gay.

He wasn't out back then, but we all knew Shane was gay. There was a tight crew of about 5 of us, plus many more of his close friends, and we all knew and nobody gave a crap. It elicited a big fat shrug from us. We didn't try to force him out, we played along with his girl-crushes and we not only tolerated his deep love and affection for Madonna and the endless loop of Like A Prayer and Erotica, we embraced it.

We rolled through our late high school years doing what teenagers do - not taking school very seriously but taking ourselves very seriously.

We were regulars at a diner in town called Alice's, and we spent hours upon hours there drinking coffee (black, like our deep, dark souls) and eating cheesecake (hey, even very serious teenagers have a softspot for cherry topping, ok?!) and discussing life's more significant topics, such as new music, the school's hotties and our high school's theater production of To Kill A Mockingbird, which if we all didn't get a part then life was seriously effed up!

When it got late enough we forked our friends' yards (take that, ya bastards!) and expressed ourselves by dying our hair, driving too fast down residential and country roads and participating in all manner of recreational trespassing and alcohol abuse. (And by alcohol abuse I mean I couldn't drink anything stronger than a wine cooler or 'Seriously guys, I am gonna throw up RIGHT NOW!')

But under the surface of all that teen angst was some real, well, teen angst. We all had our problems to confront. And our friend Shane had problems we hardly even considered. Because even though we didn't care he was gay, other people certainly did, and that culture made him terrified to tell us, his family, the school and... oh god, what if his dad found out.

Life certainly seemed simple. And yet, here was this 16-year-old wrestling with some real life shit.

Shane had some dark secrets and a world awareness that went through him like wrecking ball at times.

In the fall of our senior year of high school he tried to kill himself. There were lots of pills, an ambulance ride to the hospital, and an extended stay at the mental health hospital. Word spread like wildfire at a party most of us were at that night - Shane's been taken to the hospital for a suicide attempt - and that's when shit got real.

The guy who's default was to make self-deprecating jokes and provide hilarious and scathing commentary on all manner of high-school ridiculousness had tried to kill himself? What. The. Hell.

The reasons were many. He was closeted, afraid of who he really was, what it meant and the facade he'd built. Plus he was nursing a broken heart. The rest of us when we were heart broken could at least be open about it and cry on the shoulders of friends. Not him.

When I went to see him the next day in the hospital he had a temporary tattoo of a skull and crossbones stuck to his forehead.

Well, that's a good sign, I thought. And when I went to visit him in the mental health clinic a week later we plotted what we'd do when he got out. Obviously he'd get to ride shotgun in my car from now on. Obviously.

But we didn't talk about what landed him there or why he did it or even if he'd try it again. We'd had dinner together the night before the attempt at my favorite restaurant and the only thing I said at the mental health clinic in reference to what was really happening was a dry, "Was it something I said at dinner?"

To which he replied, "I shouldn't have gotten the veal."

Fortunately, he survived and pressed on and life got a little easier to deal with and our freshman year of college he came out.

We all shrugged when he told us. If anything, we under-reacted. We were trying to show him we didn't care that he was gay because, well, we didn't care that he was gay, but looking back, maybe we should have given it more weight given how difficult it was for him. But we were 18. Plus, we were really, really cool.

A few years later Shane and I were roommates my senior year of college. As in, he slept on the top bunk and I slept on the bottom bunk in an apartment above the campus laundry mat. (We went to school together Kindergarten through college... and I am proud to say I knocked him down with my swing in kindergarten for trying to kiss me, which we later decided was probably what made him gay in the first place.)

We stayed up until 3 a.m. most mornings, still drinking coffee, still dying our hair, and occasionally debating, "If you could take a pill that would make you straight, would you take it?"

The answer was no.

But I know a lot of young and closeted gay folks would say yes. Why wouldn't they want life to be that much easier.

I like to think folks have become more open-minded, more accepting, happy even that Glee is on the air, but when I think about hypocritical megachurch "converts," gay-rights legislation haters, don't ask-don't tell, the ban on gay marriage, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised about the recent spate of gay teens killing themselves.

And yet, somehow, I am. Often I forget what hate-filled, ignorant, awful little trolls people can be. And I forget what it would be like to be a vulnerable gay teenager amongst those haters and imposters.

Today Shane's Facebook status reminded everyone to wear purple. Then there was another update with a list of names, mine included, and the message that he's proof life gets better. His dark tour through the recesses of hate and suicide attempts was almost 20 years ago. I'd nearly forgotten all about it.

Then I remembered, the list of names were of those people who supported and visited him when the skull and crossbones was still stuck to his forehead and he was still afraid to be who he is today.

I am proud to be on that list. I am proud that even at a young age I knew better than a lot of the people today who sit in positions of religious and political power in this country.

And I am proud... wait a second... that rat bastard gave me second billing... Oh hell no! But look, what's this... A picture of us from prom, where I look fantastic, and he looks like a game show host!

If I lived closer I'd fork his yard.

Proof it gets better, and friends are forever.

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