Let’s face it. For most people, high school pretty well sucked.
An alienating, socially tense, awkward time, high school is the source of much teenage angst — and a source of revenue for psychiatrists counselling 40-year-old patients with regressive adolescent issues. High school is the stuff of social anxieties about being naked in math class, but also about bullies, peer pressure and fitting in.
It’s even worse when you look around the halls, put your nose to the air, sniff the heavy scent of adolescent hormonal tension and realize what you want is not what your parents were warning about when they gave you “the talk.”
Fact of the matter is, queer kids don’t get “the talk.” We get an approximation of what we are expected to want from well meaning parents, who tell us about the birds and the bees — but make no reference to any potential bee-on-bee, bird-on-bird action that may follow.
High school sexual education fails us as well. As a public-school kid growing up in Belleville, the only sex-ed I got was in Grade 9, during the mandatory gym class everyone takes. It was a three-week course, one week of which was devoted to the sexual aspects, such as sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, and the rest to anatomy, mental health and drug issues.
My high school was built the during the Cold War. It was largely windowless, the idea being that radiation from Soviet nukes would not be able to penetrate the solid concrete wall, and so the classroom was more like a crypt, hot and close and dark. Sitting there in that pale, unpainted room, surrounded by gloom and the giggles of other students, we were shown pictures of male and female genitalia, discussed AIDS and the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases and instructed on various contraceptive devices and alternatives to sexual intercourse, including oral sex and abstinence. During the nervous, relative silence of these lessons, I can remember looking up at the blackboard and thinking something that, at the time, seemed absurd.
Can you get AIDS from eating pussy?
It seemed obscene — far too obscene a question to ask. Yet I was thinking about it — if I were to go down on a girl, could I get a disease? Could a guy get herpes (or gonorrhea or anything else) from another guy, for that matter?
I never asked. I couldn’t bear it. No mention was ever made of homosexuality during sex ed, and so I was too afraid to bring it up. Belleville is a small town and I was only 14. My gym teacher, who taught the class, was the archetypal phys-ed teacher, stocky and red-skinned from too much sun, with legs like two tree trunks. How could I ask her about eating pussy, when the word lesbian or gay or even queer had never even been mentioned?
I was in steadfast denial about being gay, convinced my curiosity was purely in the interest of science (yes… umm… science). Still, I never asked. I simply couldn’t. How can you ask about girl-on-girl action in high school?
Several years later, there was a huge uproar amongst my peers. It seemed that a gay boy from a neighbouring (albeit Catholic) school had purchased two tickets for his prom and showed up with his boyfriend on the appointed night. When they arrived at the door, they were refused entrance because their homosexuality was considered “inappropriate.” The word “faggot” was tossed around in sly, greasy tones. Later that year, two girls came out as lesbians, and announced that they were dating. They were met with relative tolerance on the surface but the words “dyke” and “carpet-licker” soon trailed behind them wherever they went like a stigmatic miasma.
When I was a really small child, I had one of those old-style wooden pegboards with the little pieces that came in different shapes and sizes. You had to fit them into the right slots. It was smooth and painted in bright, primary colours, smelled like a wet wood even when it was dry, and playing with it made my fingers smell that way too. It was supposed to teach you that a square was a square and circle was a circle, although the only thing that I, at age three or four (or rather, what I remember of age three or four) gathered was certain shapes and colours had to go with the same shapes and colours, or else. Or else it didn’t fit. Or else it looked funny. Or else it wasn’t right.
When I got older and my face became muddled with acne and my parents put me through the excruciating five years that was braces, I came to understand that high school was a lot like that, too.
High school, regardless of your sexual preference, is generally a time of great emotional turmoil, rampant sexual tension, and general misery for all parties. Everyone is trying to get a shape, which means getting into a snug little hole, pegged safely and neatly in, where you are cozily lulled into security by that wet-wood and lead-paint smell. Everyone had — or wanted to have — a shape and a space to fit into.
Being queer in high school is like being a decahedron in a cube’s world. There isn’t a space on the peg board already allotted for a decahedron (possibly because the shape is awkward and complicated and very different from the more primary shapes. Also, it might be because it’s rather difficult to say.) No, there’s no space for a decahedron, and a decahedron certainly won’t fit into one of those other, pre-drilled spaces.
So you simply have to carve one out, inch-by-inch, cutting into that dry wood with the wet wood smell, and make your own hole for your own peg.