Words.

“Mr. Wing, do you know what a homosexual is”?

The 10th grade biology teacher’s voice boomed through the room with this question posed to me; it was his way of gathering control of the class for the next 41 minutes of 6th period and since we were apparently to talk about the importance of the prefix “homo” in the scientific world, the disheveled man apparently thought it humorous to fixate on me and ask this question that carefully treaded a line. The girl to my right, we’ll call her Jeannine, laughed at me. I’m not surprised. She wasn’t known for being an exceptionally nice person. To be fair, it was a nice change of pace to hear her laugh because usually she was crying about something or barking out with a special amount of bitchiness one can find amongst high school sophomores in the 1980s. To my left, my table mate, we’ll call her Lori, whispered “asshole” under her breath, just loud enough for me to hear her word of support. I turned beet red, stammered more than usual trying to formulate something, anything to come out of my mouth, and feverishly wished for the kid at the table in front of me to have a seizure or something. The rest of the class laughed, the word faggot was shared once or twice and I was asked that very same question by various members of that class for the rest of the week. This is the stuff sophomores live for. The teacher had control of the class, I did not, and I was humiliated.

I do not forget these things. It rings as loud in my head in 2021 as it did in late 1983. I imagine most gay men, especially those of us of a certain age, have not forgotten instances like these. This is what we grew up with. Welcome to growing up gay in the Gen X set.

“Well let’s face it, John will have a hard time being gainfully employed”.

Another nugget of wisdom, this time from a fellow classmates in Ethics class, which was in the latter half of my junior year of high school. This time it was 4th period and I really just wanted to go to lunch at 11:04.

“Why not?”, queried the teacher, who, at the beginning of class, had instructed us to arrange our desks in a circle so we could debate things like whether or not a functional homosexual like I apparently was destined to be (calm down Mom, I wasn’t a ‘functional’ homosexual at the time) was a good or bad thing for society. Would our gayness cause the fall of the United States. (Spoiler alert, it did not).

“His mannerisms and way of speaking are going to prevent serious employers from hiring him”, was the response.

I don’t know what happened to that classmate after high school and I don’t really care to Google him to find out. Why waste the bits? Who knows and who cares. In the moment I looked for support from another classmate, we’ll call him Mike, that I really knew “to be on the team” (he is and we actually shared a kiss a couple of years later) but he turned on me with the rest of them, laughed, and made detrimental comments. That was probably the first time in my life that I wondered if I was going to be anything at all and if I wasn’t going to be anything, why continue the charade? Was my life worth anything?

The teacher of that class had to dash off at 11:04 to do some Vice Principal duties, but he checked in with me at the end of class and asked if I was OK. When he saw tears building in my eyes, after the longest 41 minutes I’ve probably endured in my life, he told me I was a good guy and asked another teacher to have a chat with me in his office to get me grounded again. He knew I was mentally not well. I can safely say I probably owe my life to that other teacher. Her name is Karen O’Brien. She taught Special Ed, but through talking with her she helped me find my worth again that day and honestly probably doesn’t even know the depth of the impact she had on me that day. She talked me off a psychological ledge. Years prior to this she had put as her caption under her photo in the yearbook, “People – they fascinate me. I haven’t met one yet that didn’t impress me”. Words to live by. I think of her often. I should probably send her a thank you note someday.

Why do I share this? There’s a number of reasons. First of all, what we say matters. Whether we say it out loud, in print, or anywhere on the Internet, our words are making an impact, whether positive or negative. We might not know it. We don’t know the state of mind of every person that is going to read what we type or listen to what we say. We should never lose sight of this. The two incidents I talk about are from decades ago, yet I remember all of these things as if it took place yesterday. My frame of mind is better about all of this, but I still feel the sting. These things, and countless others during my school years, have made a permanent impact on my life experience. Am I better for it? Over 35 years, I can probably say yes, but it took a lot of soul searching, and that very important talk with teacher Karen O’Brien, to keep me going.

When I hear members of Congress calling one another “Communists” or spouting out provable falsehoods just to rile up a crowd I can’t help but think how much negative impact those words are having on the country. When I see people touting things like “Straight Pride” or all the bad things that will allegedly happen to gay people because of who they are, I worry about those that don’t have a Karen O’Brien talking them off a psychological ledge.

I share these things because the distance of time and the subsequent experience of life has safely moved me beyond these negative events in my life. Weirdly, I’m probably a better and stronger person because of them.

Let’s use the right words. Let’s send positive energy into the world. Let’s not use negativity to command a room. Let’s be one of those people that impress others.

Impress each other in a good way.

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