Looking back at my life, I made it very clear from a young age that I was gayer than Fire Island. My first crush was Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. I would wait until everyone had gone to bed and I would play Radio Disney and pretend I was talking to Aaron Carter (circa Lizzie McGuire).
But at the age of eleven, after an encounter in the bathroom (not a cute kind because 1). Ew, I was a child and 2). It was traumatizing), I learned two things: the word “gay” and that I could never be associated with it. So after being a loud, slightly outgoing, large-toothed child, I withdrew into myself. I shut down everything, and became this shy, quiet kid. I buried any feelings for boys, so deeply and thoroughly that I convinced myself that they didn’t exist.
I went to a tiny, tiny Catholic grammar school, which was, in my mind, a chaotic hellscape of pleated skirts and plaid ties. You think that clichés aren’t actually as bad as they seem, but my school lived up to the hype. And so in a class of nine boys and fourteen girls, a buck-toothed, scrawny, redheaded boy stood out. Spoiler alert, this boy is me.
I had come into the school midway through third-grade, interrupting the placid ecosystem of kids who had known each other since kindergarten. Our school was situated in the center of our community, which was technically a neighborhood of the larger, seedier city, but it had the mentality of a small town. It was an enclave of upper-middle-class, white, Catholic Stepford suburbanites. And I stuck out like a middle finger in a sea of thumbs.
I can’t emphasize how small this world was. The nuns lived across the street from the school in a convent, and the one baseball field was the center of the track team, the little league team and the Boy Scouts. Boys could play baseball, or join Cub Scouts. Girls could play softball, or join Girl Scouts. I would play center-field and focus more on my socks than the ball. And I only wanted those cute little patches at Cub Scouts.
Fortunately (unfortunately) there was one other student at our school, Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt, who was perhaps equally as awfully awkward: Sylvia Mazzarrato. She had the unfortunate luck of coming into the Christ clique even later than I had: fifth grade, which at that point you might as well just tap out. She had wiry black hair, a pronounced underbite, thick Italian brows and coarse hair on her arms. She had the kind of look that I’m sure blossomed from a duckling into a mildly attractive swan, probably on par with 2007 Kim Kardashian.
But while I was quiet and nerdy, Sylvia was loud, spoiled and just a little bit stupid. She didn’t do anything to endear herself to our peers, so she was teased even more than I was. And it was on one particular day in eighth grade that she uttered the line that would stay with me forever.
We were walking down from our classroom in a messy line—as Catholic schoolkids, we were raised on line-walking the way Beverly Hills child stars are raised on lines of cocaine—and the girls were laying into Sylvia as per usual.
In a religious school, homosexuality was the ultimate taboo and insult. We didn’t even realize understand it, and this was in the days of Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell as the ultimate gay icons. Adam Lambert had not yet arrived on the scene. But raised on a healthy diet of Biblical texts, small-town bubbles and that staunch suburban hetero-normativity, these kids were vicious and took no prisoners. Every boy who didn’t watch football was gay. Every girl who didn’t like nail polish was a lesbian.
“Hey, Sylvia,” one of my classmates leered towards Sylvia, her eyes glinting with the gleeful eagerness of all small-town bullies, “Are you a lesbian?”
And sweet, simple, slightly stupid Sylvia, who was always putting her foot in her overbite, retorted back with blind lashing, “I’m not lesbian; I’m Italian.”
The girls roared with laughter, like the ogres disguised by pigtails and knee-socks they were. How stupid, how very stupid, Sylvia was, they were probably thinking. To mix up Lebanese and lesbian.
As a thirteen-year-old, who admittedly was a little gullible and doozy, I didn’t understand the joke fully. I knew that Sylvia had f*cked up, but I didn’t understand. Only now do I realize the joke, and I want to slap those girls and tell them that “lesbian” is derived from the name of the isle of Lesbos, a place in close proximity (relatively) to both Italy, where Sylvia’s father hailed from—he had a restaurant, or something like that—and Lebanon.
At the time, I didn’t say anything, and it’s easy to say more than five years later that I wish I would have. But at the time, I wouldn’t have touched Sylvia with a ten-foot-pole. As the only boy who didn’t like sports, I was already basically Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno.” I wouldn’t risk my fragilely positioned reputation for Sylvia. I didn’t need to have the target on my back bedazzled anymore than it already was.
I can’t remember, but I don’t think that anyone ever asked me outright if I were gay. Which, come to think of it, was probably the biggest indicator that they all thought I was gay. They only asked Sylvia that question to rile her up, to make her mad. But I’m pretty sure they all just thought I was gay and didn’t even see the point in asking.
So since I was never asked that question, and because I wasn’t nearly as witty when I was thirteen as I am now, I never got to have an iconic answer like Sylvia’s. Granted, hers was accidental and due to a not-so-firm grasp on geography, but I want one none the less.
So here are some answers I would say to those eighth grade fuckfaces.
“Yeah, I am gay. Gorgeous And Youthful.”
“Gay? Yes, I am. And you’re ugly. Are we stating facts?”
“MAMA’S QUEER!”—A slightly stronger approach that I don’t know if I can pull off.
“Ask your boyfriend.”—Would’ve work if we hadn’t been in eighth grade and no one would have a boyfriend for another two years and also did I mention my huge teeth? I wasn’t seducing anyone away from girlfriends.
But as a nigh-upon twenty-year-old, I hope I would answer in a way that is befitting of my elegance and grace and just say, “I am. And?” Because that’s one thing I’ve learned since grammar school. Bullying only works if you give them what they want. Bullies thrive on making people uncomfortable, and I’m convinced they are more pathetic and lonely than they make their victims feel. I try not to give people reactions that satiate their small-mindedness, because that’s the best revenge.
Or I would answer with a dirty haiku.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved, who now hopefully can’t sue me!*