I was about eight when I found out I was probably gay. My neighbor from across the street, Rod Hedges, came over and saw a Helen Reddy album on my turntable.
“What is this gay stuff?” he said as he read the list of songs. “I Am Woman?”
He was almost doubled over with laughter. Mortified, I tried to recover.
“Shut up” I grabbed the cover. “That’s just one of the songs. Look here, there’s Delta Dawn and That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady.”
I slowed down a little.
“…and I Don’t Know How to Love…” my voice trailed off without saying “Him.”
“Man I think you must be a fag” Rod declared.
I had never heard the word before so I decided to ask my mom.
She hesitated a bit.
“Rod doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It doesn’t mean anything bad. People sometimes use it as a way to describe having to do something they don’t want to do. Like ‘I have to do chores all day today. What a fag’.’”
“Well that’s a good word to know” I said. “I can use that.”
My mom could see the future.
“No! Don’t. Only people from Britain should use it.”
Even better. Not only was I going to introduce my friends to a new word, it was pretty much a foreign language.
A few days later our third grade P. E. teacher told us we were going to play four square. I looked over at Ricky Meador and rolled my eyes.
“What a fag” I said.
Apparently my teacher wasn’t familiar with the British definition.
Upon learning it is a sexual orientation, I concluded that I am not, in fact, gay. Not that I did much to dispel the rumor.
My dad owned an interior design firm and my frequent means of transportation was one of his work vans with “Tom Hoch Interior Designs” scripted on the doors. Too small for sports, I joined our theater department, The Queen’s Players. (You can’t make this shit up). I spent many a weekend night driving that van, the remnants of my base makeup still visible, listening to songs like Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. Needless to say, I didn’t have many passengers.
I’m married with three kids, and the vicissitudes of life have roughened my outer shell, so I’m not mistaken for being gay any more (except when I use words like “vicissitude”).
I’d like to tell you that my own experience makes me less likely to assign labels to other people. Not true. I can size you up and brand you in about the amount of time it took you to read this sentence. I do it all the time. I suspect you do too.
We take the most complex organisms in the universe-people-and make them one dimensional. Homeless people are lazy. Black people are scary. Men who tear up at family reunion videos are weenies. (Hey, I had something in my eye). Gay people are sinners. Muslims are terrorists. Soldiers are bloodthirsty. The mailman is creepy.
As a lawyer, it is a strategy I employ professionally. If I can make a jury believe you are defined by a single act, I win. Politicians do it. Businesses do it. Religions do it. Families do it. Couples do it.
We even do it to ourselves. We label ourselves conservative or liberal or Christian or atheist; superior, inferior, wretched, perfect. No matter the belief or the brand, labels limit us. They narrow our point of view. They deprive us of the lush gift of a diverse and beautiful humanity.
What a fag.