Journey - Chapter 2
BY JERRY MCKAY
Memories of my early school years are generally positive, but adolescent memory is selective. As might be expected, it is the rare and bizarre events that have stayed with me.
My first two years of education were in one-room schools with one teacher responsible for all eight grades. Mrs. Millar ran a tight ship and yet created a warm environment. There were a lot of open-book exercises and copious copying of notes from the board. If we finished our work, we colored quietly and listened to what was being taught to the upper grades. Our library consisted of ten small shelves behind two doors at the front of the classroom.
Before switching to a modern hand-cranked copier, Mrs. Millar had to use a flexible gelatinous mat that absorbed special ink when dampened. Then the ink was transferred to other paper when it was pressed down onto the surface. No one liked that last copy as the lines were blurred and it was quite faded. There were the very special days when the “film man” from the school board would bring educational movies for us to see. Watching him set up the large film projector was entertainment itself. It was the only time the blinds in the windows were pulled down! The annual Christmas concert we rehearsed and performed for our parents was the highlight of the year.
Apparently skipping was my forte, because I was asked to demonstrate my technique to the grade seven and eight classes. I was proud of my ability and yet embarrassed, especially having to perform in front of the older boys. In addition, there is a one-time event, a bizarre event and one “traumatic” event that I still remember.
There was the afternoon the rabid cat showed up at the edge of the schoolyard. Word spread rapidly. Before the school went into lockdown, we had all gathered to see the mad cat gnawing on the bottom wire of the fence. It was as if we were in an episode from The Twilight Zone. Normalcy returned only after a school official removed the cat.
Then there was the afternoon Dennis, my grade-two classmate, got into trouble for trying to hide in the boy’s toilet during a game of hide and seek. And, no, he didn’t hide in just the boy’s washroom. He hid in the toilet. You might wonder how that could be possible until you knew the toilets were just seats fastened atop large pipes that opened into sewage holding tanks. Fortunately, he was able to hold on until an eighth-grader rescued him from a disgusting fate.
The event that wastraumatic was being given the strap for talking too much to a girl in grade one. We were both to be disciplined. However, when the strap slapped down on my palm with more noise than pain, Darlene burst into tears. Seeing her distress, Mrs. Millar decided it would not be necessary to discipline her in the same way. I couldn’t believe it when we were sent back to our seats. That overt example of inequality scarred me for life!
By the time I was ready for grade three, those one-room schools were no longer used for all eight grades. Instead, the school board decided to gather children from the same grade into one school. That meant busing kids all over the township. Kids from one village ended up in different villages, and family members were separated and sent to different schools. As a result, my sister and I never attended the same school. This new arrangement may have been why grade four was a very difficult year.
That year, I was bussed to a new school and students from neighboring villages joined us. There was a group of four boys, all from the same village, who tormented us. I’m sure they had all failed a grade or two and so were older and bigger than the rest of us. Those bullies liked to constantly “demonstrate” wrestling holds on us smaller guys, use us for various humiliations and generally force us to play in ways we didn`t want to. There was nothing those guys did that interested me. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone to play on the swings with the girls or read a book rather than kill frogs and help torment other children.
The psychological stress from months of anticipating what might happen each new day out behind the school took its toll on me. I started to develop psychosomatic stomach pain every Sunday evening that lasted into Monday morning. Our family doctor finally figured out what was going on. My mother brought the issue up with the teacher, but it didn’t help much. The teacher was nearing retirement, and she had to manage a half dozen over-aged, over-sized Philistines on her own. It wasn’t easy to keep the terror at bay. There was nothing pleasant about that year.
Occasionally, public education and religious instruction came together. This was the case during grades five and six. My fondest memories at that school are of our Friday afternoon religion classes that that teacher included in her Friday curriculum. It was a very simple format. The teacher read a short story from the Bible and drew a simple moral lesson. Then she had us illustrate the lesson in a notebook. I enjoyed those 30 minutes very much.
Nothing notable happened for the next year or so. To say they were normal years only means life was a routine of school, church, and managing the ongoing conflict at home. 1970, however, was the start of a sequence of changes that would continue through the next few years. Before I focus on those changes, I want to bring my sexual orientation into the story.
— Hints of Orientation
My response to those flashes of awareness was to push everything to the back of my mind and return to whatever we were doing. As a pre-teen, all of the biological and environmental factors that go into shaping one’s sexual orientation and identity were already in motion. Events from my formative years are easy to describe, but it is not so easy to articulate my awareness of my sexual orientation and how I experienced it. I was already aware of feeling different, however, and was troubled by those feelings. I want to highlight some external events in my life, as well as aspects of my personality which seem innate as they relate to my orientation. They become important in years to follow as I struggled to make sense of my experience emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. They also played into what I would be told caused homosexuality and what a “cure” would involve.
I was immersed in a heterosexual environment. Though bizarre and dysfunctional at times, the adults around me all modeled heterosexual interaction. Even though my parents’ relationship was clearly strained, I could see that they were attracted to the opposite sex. Opposite sex modeling was the only thing I knew.
As with a few boys, I have learned, I had instances of “show and tell” with a neighborhood friend during my pubescent years, and there were a couple of sleepovers when we ”fooled around.” He was barely one year older than I. For me, those “experimental” events were little more than extensions of our general mucking about. I could say that they were intriguing moments and that perhaps they provided me with some degree of comfort or made up for some intimacy I was lacking at home, but it seems a stretch to say they caused my orientation. I have often wondered what impact they had on my friend. I do know, however, that as an adult he was heterosexual. Years later, I learned that another friend, with whom there had been no “show-and-tell” experiences, did identify as gay.
The only other incident of a sexual nature was with one of the bullies in grade four. The one involved had, in fact, always been more protective of me than the others, and he was never as mean. I was ten going on eleven and he was probably a year older. He liked to draw my attention, during class, to the fact that he had an erection, of sorts, hidden under his hand below his pants pocket. This didn’t happen often, and he probably did the same with others.
Why do I remember this? Two reasons come to mind. One was fear. I was afraid the teacher would see what he was doing and we would get into trouble. The other reason is because I felt some attraction to him, and this, too, frightened me. Perhaps my attraction was nothing more than liking the fact that he shared this risky secret with me, that he liked me in some way. Nothing more ever came of those in-class demonstrations, and as with my “show-and-tell” neighborhood friend, I know my bully friend was heterosexual as an adult.
I must stress that, beyond these experiences, there were no incidents of sexual abuse with an adult.
My earliest awareness of same-gender attraction or “being different” usually came up unexpectedly. They were during moments of contrast with what other boys my age said or did.
In grade five and six, the other boys talked about girls and we played silly little games. Following the lead of friends, in class and during our school bus rides to and from school, I “selected” girls to pass notes to, indicating that I liked them. It was nice to get similar notes in return, but those adolescent games held no meaning for me. I know that exchanging similar notes with my male classmates would have been more captivating. When some classmate made a comment about Mary’s boobs, it was then that I was awkwardly aware of my lack of interest in those things. At the same time, I knew I found Johnny strangely appealing in some intangible way.
During my summer camp years, I felt that same draw to certain guys, especially the “older” camp counselors. They were always appealing in ways the sixteen-year-old female counselors were not. It was not a sexual interest. I just found those young men physically attractive and more interesting than the girls.
Then there were those Sears catalogues. Whether one is heterosexual or homosexual, I think most young men, especially those in isolated rural areas, remember the arrival of the Sears or Eaton’s mail-order catalogue. Not only did they have pictures of potential Christmas gifts, they had those clothing sections. I felt nothing as I glanced through the women’s section but I was sheepishly aware of wanting to linger in the men's section. Sometimes I would deliberately stay in the women’s section trying to be attracted. There was no overt sexual fantasy associated with those pictures of young men in their T-shirts and Stanfield briefs, yet I was confused and frustrated over why they were so appealing. I know it was the shape of the body that was appealing. The hour-glass figure of the female body never caught my attention like the broad shoulders and slim waist of the male figures. If I had been subjected to those government military tests designed to weed out homosexuals, I’m sure that my young eyes would have dilated in that telling way.
The reason for this appeal was a mystery. I would hazard to guess that it would be just as difficult for my heterosexual male friends to explain how and why they felt as they did when glancing through the women’s section of those catalogues.
In the mid to late sixties, as I was passing through puberty, there was nothing on the three TV stations we could pick up on our black and white television that even hinted at homosexuality. Husbands and wives did not even sleep in the same bed in TV programs at that time, and the words pregnant ;and ;pregnancy were just coming off the “offensive” word lists. But again, I remember finding some boys on some shows distractingly appealing.
Between 1963 and 1965, the CBC pro duced one hundred episodes of The Forest Rangers.I loved the series because it was set around a wonderful old wooden fort with a large gate and high walls and stairs that took you up to the clubhouse on the second level. Every episode was a new mini-mystery or adventure waiting to be solved. I was 9 when the series ended, but it went into endless re-runs. The show stands out in my memory because the older I got the more distressingly appealing several of the characters became, especially slim and tanned junior forest ranger Pete!
In addition to those memories, there were aspects of my personality that, although based in stereotypes, portrayed a picture of those with a certain kind of orientation.
In elementary school, games that involved hard fast moving objects had no interest for me. Doing well in cursive writing was important, and I took the time to carefully color the illustrations in my notebooks. I was always conscious of my appearance and wanted the colors of my clothes to go well together. I didn't like wrinkles in my shirts, either. I had little or no interest in small engines or cars. In general, I liked beautiful things: flowers on the table and candles at sunset. These characteristics seemed to flow naturally from within.
What may be less noticeable is how I experienced my body or how I carried myself.
In most situations, I can “pass” for straight. However, if you knew me well or had watched me, you might have become aware of mannerisms that are more feminine, as they say. I have always been aware of this, even though I never consciously tried to imitate mannerisms that would be called feminine.
During summer camp days, I remember standing with a group chatting about something important and trying to make a point. Out of the blue, someone said, “Don’t stand like a woman.” I think I had my hands on my hips in a womanly way in his mind. I was stunned by the comment and ever after wondered who decided how someone is supposed to stand, sit, or move their body. If I was comfortable crossing my legs when I was sitting, whose concern was that!
Grandmother & uncle
Whatever the case, there is something very natural about the way I positioned or carried my body that was not cultivated, yet did not fit the so-called norm for “real” men. I know how to use an axe, however, so keep your distance.
As a fifteen-year-old, I was well aware of the generally accepted male/female role distinctions, but in my mind, they were silly. This is why, when my father's mother died in 1972, and my uncle was left on the farm to fend for himself, I volunteered to stay with him for a while to help out. Although I could have helped with outdoor chores, as I had helped him in the fields and the barn over the years, I offered to do what my uncle needed help with the most—the cooking and cleaning. I could do it almost as well as my grandmother, having watched her so many times. I didn't feel feminine helping in this way. It felt very natural, and I enjoyed it. Besides, it was something I thought Jesus would have done.
Wouldn't it be ironic if emulating Jesus brought out my feminine side and inadvertently nurtured my orientation! This may sound farfetched to some, but not many years later this kind of logic would be suggested to me as being part the cause of my homosexuality.
—The Beginning of Angst
Every awareness of same-sex attraction created angst, and I know why. One cannot grow up in a heterosexual environment and not become aware of how odd or different one’s feelings are compared to the boys and men around you. This was not the only source of my distress, however.
When I was ten, eleven, and twelve, I was using those reading schedules that challenged you to read the entire Bible in a year. Doing so meant that by January 20, I reached the story of Sodom. If I maintained that reading schedule, I read Leviticus chapter 18 by the 20th of February.
The average person would have read those chapters and not given them much thought dismissing the text as odd or disgusting yet irrelevant to their experience. Not so for me. As a child who was reading the Bible regularly and took it seriously, I made a connection between those texts and the strange feelings and attractions I had. My uninformed reading of scripture collided with my feelings and intensified my distress.
I say “uninformed” reading because there is so much more going on in the Sodom story, for example, than what first meets the eye. If I had kept up with my read-the-Bible-in-a-year schedule, I would have reached Ezekiel chapter 16 by mid-September. Like most enthusiasts, however, even I had given up by that point. Had I continued to read, at the very least, I would have discovered what Ezekiel said Sodom’s horrible sin was. Verse 50 is revealing:
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore, I did away with them as you have seen.”
Even though verse 50 lists several explicit reasons as to what was wrong with that city— reasons you seldom hear trumpeted in sermons—it would have taken more study and maturity than I was able to muster at the time to understand the context for the detestable things Ezekiel alluded to.
The entire chapter of Ezekiel 16 is devoted to detailing Israel’s history of idolatry which focuses on abandoning God and playing a harlot with other nations. Israel's harlotry included all kinds of sexualized rituals and practices not known to me. Ezekiel gives the distinct impression that Israel practiced idolatry with more gusto than the nations around it.
Because I never knew about Ezekiel’s insights, and I never spoke about these things to anyone, I wondered, in the secret places of my heart, if there was something about me that deserved destruction by fire. The awakening and intensification of my attraction combined with my uninformed Bible reading created feelings of fear, guilt, and shame.
In fact, I was thinking and feeling all of this when I was baptized. I remember hoping that after I came up out of the water that I wouldn’t feel the way I had before going under the water. When I came up out of the water, it was only a few minutes before I knew nothing had changed. I could not understand why.
As I moved on into my teen years a very private psychological pain started to take hold of me. I continued to function quite well outwardly, but I was slowly breaking up internally and disconnecting emotionally from the world around me.
I return now to 1970 and the changes in my life that started to unfold.
In July of that year, I entered my teen years with all the challenges that accompany those changes. That fall, the school board closed all of those one-room schools, and we were bused into nearby towns to join the town kids in their multi-room schools. Although it was exciting, it was stressful. From one room with one teacher we moved from class to class taking different subjects from different teachers. At noon, the schoolyard had 300 kids to navigate instead of 30. Most notably, it was my introduction to highly structured sports in gymnasiums, which I hated.
Five months later, on the same day in the winter of 1970, both of my mother’s parents died of natural causes. My grandmother was dying in the hospital of cancer, but my grandfather died at home five hours before she did. The end result was that we moved into my mother's parents’ house in the same town as my new school. Although it was only a four-mile relocation, overnight we went from being country folk to town folk with hot running water, a paved driveway, and stores within walking distance. My sister and I no longer needed to take a bus to get to school, and church was in the same town.
Grade eight was a difficult year academically. I know my concentration was affected by the ongoing stress at home and my growing discomfort and preoccupation over my feelings. Even though I struggled academically, I managed to complete the year. My social life was becoming more of a challenge, as well.
We were just beginning our teen years; yet, the expectation of male/female interaction was already increasing at school. The grade-eight students got to have dances at school on Friday afternoon after classes finished. Occasionally, I participated, but I didn’t really want to attend. Everything I did was tempered by my religious convictions, and I was trying to take my relationship with Jesus seriously.
I was uneasy about going to those dances because I believed dancing was wrong. I continued to “think about” girls and did dance with Sarah once or twice. I even managed to kiss one neighborhood girl, but there were no sparks! From late fall to early spring, when the sun set early on Friday evening, I just wanted to go home to keep the Sabbath rather than slow dance with a girl I supposedly liked. As I look back on these events, I can see how my beliefs were actually making it easier for me to ignore what was going on in this fundamental area of my life. It was the beginning of what would go on for years.
The first year of high school was not traumatic, but neither was it memorable. In fact, I don't remember much at all. It was one block from home, so I got to come home for lunch. That I liked. There was one male classmate with whom I would have liked to hang around because he was a quiet guy, but he lived in the country. I remember only one girl. She was teased because of her appearance, and that troubled me.
Like grade eight, high school gym class was the worst period of the week. There were more contact and team sports: wrestling, lacrosse, and of course football and hockey. Even if I had shown an interest, I was usually the last or second last to be picked because of my size. Back then activities like cross-country skiing or tennis were not a part of school sports programs. I would have enjoyed those. I might have joined the ski club, but it was expensive and the ski trips were always on Sabbath, so I refused to sign up.
I hated the smell of the gym, and the change rooms and communal showers made me anxious. I was a little guy, rather bashful and a late bloomer, but the real problem was those feelings. Being in grade nine meant there were the more developed guys from grade eleven or twelve running about in their towels or less. I felt a deep discomfort and fear because of wanting to peek. The attraction was distressing, but knowing I felt no attraction toward any of the girls was even more distressing. The why questions that would hound me for years to come, were beginning to take up more and more of my psychological energy. Why do I feel this way? Why doesn't God take this away? Why don't I like girls? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
As my first year of high school came to an end, a way out of everything that stressed me—family and those attracttions—seemed to open up. The Adventist church has one of the largest private school systems in the world, and there happened to be a boarding school three hours away in Oshawa, Ontario. Although this meant paying for private tuition, my parents agreed to let me go. I was so excited. That summer was spent registering and getting ready for the biggest adventure of my life.