13 min

Art class of hard knocks

Glittering, sequin-encrusted pain & happiness

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. Heart-warming stories of queer acceptance in schools and bone-chilling news of a murderous hate crime inspire David Bateman to revisit the years he was bullied as a teenager. Credit: Maurice Vellekoop
A friend who recently moved from the cheerless wetlands of the west coast to the relatively unpopulated, oil-drenched terrain just east of the Rockies told me that her 15-year-old daughter was attending a performing arts high school — quite the change from the conservative institution she previously attended. She told her mother — a lesbian novelist of passionate, thinly disguised autobiographical fiction and phantasmagoric gender-bending young adult fiction — that she saw same-sex couples kissing in the hallways and felt more comfortable wearing less conservative kinds of clothing to school now. I recently saw her at a Hindu wedding where I was the host. She wore a little black dress tastefully marked by vivacious floral designs. My jealousy was palpable. I craved an identical frock and an identical figure. I settled for shots of a rose petal-infused vodka called Pinky. 
When I visited my friend and her daughter recently, we drove by the high school and I shouted, something to the effect, “You have no idea what we went through so you could make out in the halls!” Although sympathetic, Sapphic mom pressed the accelerator and we sped away.
Supportive lesbian moms are a constant reminder of some of the things I would have liked to have shared with my mother. Like Queen Victoria, mommy dearest never figured out what lesbians do in bed and found the unimagined idea repulsive. If she had any idea what I did in the sack she would have thrown up. As far as my clothing choices went, she kept her dresses in the spare closet I shared with my brother. Not such a good idea, keeping your girlish garments so close to my bed, making the closet such a fashionable place for me to try on the gender that suited my pre-adolescent psyche. And my father often said to me, “Get your hair cut, you’re starting to look like a fruit.” And my closeted late uncle — that’s a whole other queer story. 
In my quest to make sense of life, I often think of Charles Busch’s impeccable camp aesthetic and the ways in which mothers have borne the brunt of certain aspects of gay sensibility in darkly hilarious yet ultimately loving ways. In Die Mommy Die Busch plays, in drag, a mother described by her son as, “nothing more than a cheap, hopped-up nymphomaniac.” Strangely enough, I find comfort in that line as I proudly define parts of my self as booze-infused and sex-obsessed. As far as my love for my mother is concerned, it was huge and never-ending. But she could have been a little more helpful when I repeated Grade 9 and dreaded every lunch period. I escaped to the library, an intellectually crazed site to which I attribute my formerly 87-pound teenage frame. I didn’t eat lunch for six years because I was too afraid to go to the cafeteria and face the homophobic bullies.
Hearing from my author friend about the state of high schools in some Canadian cities made me happy, and even a little weepy in a cathartic way. It also made me feel old, like I missed the boat by 40-odd years. Later that same week, I felt very sad when I heard about the killing of a young man close to where I live in downtown Toronto. Grateful for the strides in gay liberation over the past four decades, I am still wary of the idea of my own gay “gratitude” in a city and a world where we can marry our same-sex partners but be censored by morning television when we try to kiss them on stage or screen. We can have our cake but we’re not allowed to eat it too. We can marry and we can be murdered.
Despite police reports, I felt instantly that the murder of 27-year-old Christopher Skinner was a hate crime. From the online photos the victim appears to have been an attractive boyish blond. Would his killers have treated a larger, more masculine individual in the same way? But that’s my personal bias. Having been a boyish, blond twentysomething once myself, a long time ago, I have had my fill of threatening encounters on the streets of Toronto and in the classrooms of other smaller Canadian cities. At 53, I still get the odd nasty remark, and it never ceases to amaze me. People still seek out femininity in men and mock it — or worse, physically destroy it. Feminine men are not the only men — gay or otherwise — who are victims of senseless hate crimes. But they are the ones I identify with most. I can feel grateful that I’ve never been victimized as brutally as one young man was in downtown Toronto not so long ago. But again, gratitude seems a strange word for a response to a basic human right — to be safe. Bless his spirit, and the kindness Christopher Skinner showed others in his life. We keep being reminded, in such terrible ways, that despite considerable progress, we still have such a long way to go. 
I have been a poet/performance artist, writing semi-autobiographical monologues, for two decades. It seems like an odd thing to do, but I have so few employable skills. I do have a bound copy of my dissertation that I use to support a clip-on lamp by my bedside until I can figure out how to convert it into a toilet roll dispenser. I teach literature infrequently and write theatre reviews. 
Everyday life can be gloriously banal at the best of times, until you hear a story of light-operatic proportions about how things may have changed for the better; or much worse, when you’re reduced to tears by news of another vicious hate crime. You try to carry on with a positive outlook. It’s difficult. I look to other artists for inspiration and hope, finding queer affirmation in the most unexpected places. When I reread the line, “Whenever I see a rainbow in the sky, I see an angel being raped,” from Karen Finley’s collected writings, I am reminded of how words can be crafted into sharp, intrusive images that make us think of the immense pain and beauty of life. So, too, the uplifting and humorous insights, in the face of emotional doom, that Spalding Gray so subtly introduced in his work, even though he ended sadly in a suicide that he had long predicted for himself. 
Gray and Finley, formative influences for a generation of artists, expose the confessional as a truly queer art form that exposes identity in a raw, startling way. On a very basic level, queerness is predicated upon forms of honesty that reveal some of our deepest fears and desires. When I reread Gray’s thoughts on high school, I immediately bond with the musings of a straight man with decidedly queer pain as he exposes the underbelly of a segment of society we are all scarred by, but are so often unwilling to share in any inclusive manner.
“I fantasize about going back to high school with the knowledge I have now,” Gray wrote. “I would shine. I would have a good time. I would have a girlfriend. I think that’s where a lot of my pain comes from. I think I never had any teenage years to go back to.”
If I had proudly proclaimed my effeminacy or kissed another boy in high school I wonder if anyone would have killed me? At least the art teacher would have sympathized.
It would have been a shocking event in mid-’70s small-town Ontario. I felt all this fear and desire at the same time that a married gym teacher was plying young men with alcohol at weekend sports events, then making sexual advances in their hotel rooms when they were drunk and passed out. I always lusted after him in my heart and pelvis — his bulging muscles and his round buttocks in sweat pants. I felt left out when I heard the news of his inappropriate actions. Apparently he left the high school I attended after being found out and got another job in Belleville. Good old Belleville!
Despite my misplaced desire, I don’t condone the gym teacher’s actions, but I do see them within an immense milieu of sexual oppression and my own ongoing sense of sheer physical longing. It is no easy task to manage fear, lust and an overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous in a rapidly aging, HIV-infected body. But I am up for the challenge.
During my teens, I felt all of this fear and desire at the same time that my history teacher invited me to his house when his wife was out. I had lost my father in a car accident: He died on an icy road on the way home from a ski resort. Under the guise of mentoring me, Mr History sat me down in his recreation room, closed the drapes, and proceeded to make a pass at me that I was not expecting and successfully resisted by saying I just couldn’t do such a thing with a married man. As if. 
I wasn’t attracted to him, or his robin’s-egg-blue loafers that matched the trousers he wore to school. (I would later learn to overcome my phobia about coloured shoes.) He told me that after every class he had with me, in my tight acid-wash jeans in the front row, just before lunch, he would go home and “whack off.” It was weird to hear my teacher, twice my age, use the term “whack off.” It seemed antiquated. His wife, my guidance teacher, told me, in a slightly indignant manner, that I could never be the interior decorator I dreamed of being because my math skills were so poor I wouldn’t be able to measure drapes or carpet. She looked just like her husband in drag but a little more masculine. She was a strong, handsome woman who could have been my best friend had she been a dyke in an inner-city alternative-arts school in the 21st century. But it was not the right time or the right place for either one of us. As for her husband, his timing was off and I was in no mood.
When I heard he had died I didn’t feel sad, or happy. As they say in A Chorus Line, “I dug right down to the bottom of my heart… and I felt nothing,” so “I cried.” The faint sadness that I experienced was more nostalgic self-pity than anything else. I wanted to go back to high school and defiantly kiss someone as muscular and handsome as the gym teacher just to see how much had changed. I suspect that the performing-arts high school in a frosty Albertan city would be a safer place to belatedly enact my delicious little revenge fantasy.
As a teenager I was terrified if a bully decided to harass me — usually an attractive, muscular, popular young bully who I desired, which made matters worse. I have always been attracted to devastatingly handsome assholes. Despite their unkindness, I cannot see past their brawn. Well, I can see past it but I can’t resist it. I go to Remington’s the odd time and forgo the assholes for a little impersonal, fabulous lap dancing from a kind, expensive stranger. Does that sound a little sad? It’s not. Trust me.
Some of those high-school bullies surfaced in my mid-20s at parties. Some were losing their hair but not their figures. They would swagger up, beer in tow, smiling cat-like, start to chat, and ultimately apologize for being so mean to me. I would shyly thank them and let it go. I wanted to tell them how awful it had been, then ask them to have sex with me if they really wanted to apologize in a gentlemanly manner. I didn’t mind them being straight. So long as they did a good job of faking it in bed, that would be enough for me. 
Not all of the bullies have been apologetic. After high school I became friends with one bully’s cousin. He told me that his near relation still hated me for being gay. Recently I went to a memorial luncheon for my friend’s mother. The cousin was there. We immediately recognized each other but never spoke a word. His disregard for me seemed palpable. I just stood and chatted, monopolized the buffet, ate finger-food and funny little sandwiches, stuffed chunks of over-processed cheese into my soggy gullet, and ignored him, except for the odd glimpse at his slightly haggard but still handsome face and his shapely physique. I undressed him with my eyes averted. A memorial for a dear friend’s mother is not the place for obvious seduction, or so I am told. Rather, I stared covetously at the vintage dresses the deceased woman had made; her son had lovingly displayed them around the recreation room of the seniors complex where she had lived. And her son isn’t even gay. There is hope for straight men after all.
Perhaps the bully cousin doesn’t hate me at all anymore. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to say. Shall I give him the benefit of the doubt? Sure, why not, once hell freezes over and I’ve had a few more centuries of vampiric bitterness in which to cool down. 
There were young men during my high-school daze who were sympathetic, but their kindness seemed overwhelmed by my fear, and theirs, of being too nice to the femmey homo. As the late, great Miss Goodwill once said, not in drag, “I’m too feminine to be a female impersonator.” I was too feminine as a teenager to be believed in. So I was bullied. Even the sympathizers had to play the role of oppressor to a degree, to fade into the macho woodwork of those hallways. They would share mild acts of kindness sparingly and covertly, in art class or, if they met me downhill skiing on winter weekends, they would get on the T-bar with me and chat about something sporty, asking me how I had learned to parallel so expertly. (It came naturally, keeping my knees so close together in tight stretch pants and shooshing down the slopes like some small, curvaceous, wide-eyed mincing snow bunny. I was in heaven.) I wish they’d kissed me across the vertical bar of that frigid ski lift and toppled, thigh to thigh, into a snow bank with me. Now I hope, so many years later, that one of them lives with his same-sex lover in an apartment near Church and Wellesley and secretly pines for me the odd time. Isn’t that romantic? 
As Spalding Gray put it in his performance piece It’s a Slippery Slope, “The greatest thing that happens to me when I’m skiing is the harmony. The only time I was ever present in my body was in sex, performing, drugs, and with the sea. Skiing became the new and healthy way of being present — although I don’t know if it’s healthy. I could sever my spinal cord.” 
As for my OCD tendency (Orange County Disorder) to tell sexually explicit monologues and revisit teenaged traumas, I still wonder where I found the half-crazed courage to do paintings of tables with male genitals as a final Grade 13 art project. When the teacher saw them he laughed supportively and said, “Finally! It’s what I’ve always expected from you.” 
God bless all the art teachers. Where do they get their nerve? 
Now, as a middle-aged man, I struggle with the knowledge that I have still not told a single family member that I’m HIV-positive, only friends I consider to be my real family. I’ve performed a 20-minute monologue about being infected to rooms filled with laughing strangers. Perhaps I’ll tell the blood relations eventually. In the meantime, I cannot begin to fathom the possibility of their sympathy and potential apologies for not being there for me, or worse, the chance that they may not applaud. Some of them openly mocked my goddess-given femininity in my youth, barely supporting me in my choices to pursue the arts — not to mention the fact that a chunk of them voted for Stephen Harper and persuaded me to attend a rally on the eve of his election when all I wanted to do was sip wine, smile and ignore their retirement-fed cravings for privatized healthcare.
A spattering of relatives tried to support me in my youth, but like the few supportive classmates, they were frightened too. Infrequently in touch over email or by phone, some of them still argue against same-sex marriage. Others try to sympathize but clearly doubt my retrospective appraisal of the homophobia I felt as a child. “Oh no, not dear Aunt Mary. She was a very tolerant person for her time.” If that was the case then why did she torment me with sarcastic reports of Anita Bryant during her homophobic Florida-orange-juice-pie-in-the-face heyday? 
One close relative has said he was sorry repeatedly but claims he must have been brainwashed and could not have really meant to be such a nasty homophobe in my presence. Brainwashed? I have a bit of Javex I rarely use if you need to fix that. 
The vitriol and humour that coexist in my art, like the emotions that run through the bodies of those of us who have had to endure forms of sexual oppression, is released in an onslaught of onstage cathartic verbiage — like an orgy. Some clap their hands, laughing wildly, with tears in their eyes, ticket stubs in their pockets. Others are terminally tired of the tedious tell-alls. You cannot please all the people all the time.
Frankly, who wants to dwell on all this sad stuff anyway? In the words of a Margo Channing admirer, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent!” Why bathe in bitterness when one can simply revel in stories of same-sex teen couples kissing in the halls of an Alberta high school and be happy for the lesbian and gay couples who have been able to marry? Why? Because after a lifetime of hate and unfair legal prohibitions against same-sex union and justice, it’s way more fun to remember the bad old days in a bitchy, vengeful manner — more fun than always being the forgiving soul who feels that those terrible people from the past just didn’t know any better and that the times, they are a changin’. 
As we resist the mainstream tendency to homogenize queerness into a universal experience, we may feel compelled to explore the gaps and conflicts within straight identities that queerness frequently strives to embrace, dissect and parody in a fabulous array of sight and sound. When Dame Edna Everage says something nasty and then follows it with, “I meant that lovingly, not the way it was intended,” I think of all the wonderful drag performances I have seen and how I came out to my mother just prior to a Rusty Ryan drag show. He noticed us standing by the stage, glanced at me, then looked at mother and said, “Is this your little boy?” 
A few years later I took her to see Craig Russell and she asked me, “Do you think he’s gay?” As Tallulah Bankhead once said, “How the fuck should I know? He’s never sucked my cock.” The direct, stylishly vulgar way of speaking that some queer performers engage in mimics, in glittering sequin-encrusted ways, the kinds of oppressive remarks and experiences many of us were often subjected to in our youth. We reappropriate the rude and attempt to render it ridiculous — and sublime.
People call me a sourpuss sometimes, lovingly I hope. But I’m a very happy sourpuss. I spend time trying to find queerness in the most unexpected places. It can be a liberating act. Revisiting high school bullies can be both fulfilling and painful. Exposing the past in humorous ways softens the blow of memory and takes me into celebratory worlds of performative promise. Counting blessings in a violent world can become a daily chore. The list is endless. I can feel complicated joy for married same-sex couples in all their matrimonial bliss, and question the institution as it homogenizes love and romance into a neat little package. I envy aging starlets who get to play all the roles god created for me. I visit relatives, suffer through their politics, and remember that Karen Finley once said that at a certain point the only good reason for visiting relatives is to get new material for a monologue. 

And if I want sympathy for past trauma, I can take the advice of brilliant tell-all artist David Sedaris. “If you’re looking for sympathy,” he wrote in Barrel Fever and Other Stories, “you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.”