By Michael Billy
I was 14 years old and just dipping my toes into the role I would play in my high school years, the gay kid. It was 1996 and Wilson Cruz’s role in the hit series “My So Called Life” had broken ground on finally making not only queer teens visible but latino queer teens as well. Before that, gay was a thing I would hear adults joke about or something my mom would warn me about.
We had a neighbor named Jimmie who lived a couple buildings down from us. Looking back, his skin was impeccable, I loved everything he wore and he played piano! I mean, who wouldn’t like a guy like that? Like many queer kids, before I realized I was too, I gravitated towards gay men whether I knew it or not. I was maybe 11 or 12 and I would strike up conversation with this guy. Nicest guy, completely harmless. And I thought it was so cool that I could walk by his apartment and hear him playing and singing like a real entertainer. He ended up being a music teacher but in my head, this guy was George Michael. I remember my mom saying to me one day that I shouldn’t go by there anymore. I asked her why and her response was, “Well, that Jimmie has a lot of his friends over.”
That was it. That’s all she had. I couldn’t understand it and can’t fathom what she could have been trying to elude to. I’ve asked her as an adult and she doesn’t remember but I wonder if at the time she was warning me because she thought that when gay people have friends over, they do something weird and ritualistic that straight people don’t do. Well, yeah we do…lots of things.
It was the school years of 1995-1996, I was in 8th grade when I said it to myself for the first time. I’ll never forget that year. I came out first to the mirror in the bathroom at our home. My family shared a bathroom, and for those of you who had to share a single bathroom, there isn’t much privacy. Not much time or privacy at all for the dramatic pause and lighting adjustment a queer teen requires for his first coming out. But boy when I came out, I came out full speed. Not to be crude, but I was on a dick within a month. That summer of 1996 was the best childhood summer I had ever had. Not because I finally came out to myself but because I had spent the entire summer blowing my straight best friend. Best.Summer.Ever. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to that later on.
We grew up in Teaneck New Jersey, 5 minutes outside of Manhattan, right over the GWB, take Route 4 to Teaneck Road but go slow off the exit because it’s a tight turn. If you go past the 2nd diner, you have gone too far. Teaneck was an extremely diverse suburb to grow up in, known for being the first to integrate schools and equally famous for the infamous police shooting of Phillip Panell, an unarmed black teen. A liberal town with many Jews and strong communities of color. It was a much different place than from the rest of Bergen County, economically diverse and rich in culture.
1996, I was just 14 years old. It was the year of gay sex and the year where I experienced my first life altering trauma. No, not swallowing. I had been walking along this fence that separated the football field from the school. It was a gothic school known as “the castle on the hill.” It sat atop a tall hill in town that looked over the surrounding neighborhoods and local highway. Directly in front were courtyards, as one would find in a castle. And what lay directly in front of that was a beautiful football field. Now Im not one for football, let alone sports. But this was a beautiful football field.
Don’t get me wrong here, I realize the cliche of a gay cisgender male not liking sports. I just don’t give a fuck. It’s rooted in some very real pain for many in our queer and trans community. Sports was a place where toxic masculinity thrived on anything that could have been “other” than their selves. And on the other hand, it’s world games that often unites a country and its people. Sports for me is a familiar feeling of loving something for what it could be, not necessarily for what it is today.
It was a beautiful September day as I remember it. Light jacket weather meant the school would allow us to have lunch outside. Anywhere really, the courtyards directly in front of the castle was often too close so many gravitated to the gates that separated it from the football field. Hundreds of kids at a time, all ages. We only had 2 periods for lunch which meant half the entire school ate together. Hundreds of high school kids, many of which I had known in middle school and from around town. Lunch time was already the scariest time of day aside from nightly family dinners. Both featured word and phrase choices that were new to me at that age. I had made it all the way through lunch that day completely unscathed. When I heard the bell ring I knew I was safe, time to herd us back in and back under some good ol adult supervision.
And that’s when it happened. I had been walking along the stadium side of the gate. Book bag over one shoulder, a red Toad The Wet Sprocket T-shirt with a flannel shirt worn over it, open enough to see the band logo. That first year in high school you have to do your best to send out a signal to the click you want to be a part of. I didn’t know where I fit in but I wasn’t into hip-hop yet, I didn’t play hackie sack and queer clicks weren’t a thing yet. So I went with a mashup of grunge and theater kid. Not to get sidetracked but just trying to paint a picture.
As I made my way back to class along the gate, I heard from behind me, “There goes the faggot.” Let’s pause here. The word “faggot” used today would stand out as it is not as widely used as it used to be, say in 1996. So back then, it was no surprise that one would hear this regardless of if they were queer or not. So having heard the word before, either shouted at me, to me or around me; I processed the likely suspects. It wasn’t my grandma or middle school guidance councilor, so something serious was afoot.
My book bag was knocked off my shoulder with one swift move. This guy had definitely done this before. I noticed right away that he was rolling deep with about ten other guys with him. Now the rest of the story is pretty rough but before it got brutal there was this one magical moment that I’ll never forget. It’s just this small something I noticed before the brutality of the attack began. While he and his buddies began kicking and punching I noticed that this guy was only hitting me with one hand. And in the other hand, there it was. He was gay bashing me with one hand while eating a strawberry shortcake ice cream on a stick with the other, the gayest of all childhood ice creams. As brutal and life altering as that day was, he was just a kid. And the gift of that particular moment was my first experience applying comedy to remedy tragedy.
They punched and they kicked yelling the questions, Are you the fag? Is that you? You a faggot? How forward. I remember what my thought was in that exact moment. I remember most of those moments. I thought, Yes, I am that faggot. Everything moved quickly after that, although each second that went by till it ended felt like a lifetime. At this point, they were crowding tightly around my body. There was no more room to close in on me. The panic. I was no longer in control. I closed my eyes. And when I opened them I was no longer in my own body.
I remember shifting from my own point of view, what was being seen through my eyes to then feeling like I was no longer in my own body. That I was beside myself, now watching as true self. It didn’t feel the same. It was as if I was watching from a security camera that was placed in the middle of the air, just floating there. What I saw was an arial view. The picture was hazy and didn’t have all of its color.
I’m going to take a moment here and do my best to explain what I saw. I figure since it’s my book, I have a little license to veer off topic from time to time. When I was a boy we had those massive televisions with antenna on it. And in order for the picture to work you would have to bang the top of the television or play with the antenna. If the VCR was broken, you’d bang the top of it. Say the Word Processor wasn’t working; you’d bang the top of it. It seemed that no matter what the 1980’s household problem was, hitting something hard was always one solution to a problem. The picture on those televisions, it always took some time for the picture signal to come through.
That’s how I saw it. It was static, this mixture of high and low frequency while a clear picture slowly started to appear. First, shapes, of what could be people.
They kicked, they punched, they yelled. They surrounded me tightly as I closed my eyes. They pushed my conscious physical body till my back was pressed up against it. The next logical Step would be to hold me down as if I was fighting back to begin with. My left and right arm extended out. My body held up above the ground high enough to see over their heads.
Here’s a moment, a cherished moment of mine. As they lifted me up and against the gate there was this moment of total peace. I looked out and saw hundreds of students, many I grew up with, just stand there and watch. Each one of them, mouths a gape. No one stepped in.
I was given a divine gift that day. Staring over their heads and out into the onlookers. It came to me so clear, I needed to learn the lesson that we have a responsibility towards each other. That there must be a love that binds us. An inherent love, connected conscious.
After they took their shots they dropped my body to the ground. I look up and guess what, mother fucker was still holding the ice cream. The ground was dirt and gravel that I could taste in my mouth. The taste of dry chalk. Up until that day, I can’t remember if I had ever even tasted dirt. I laid there for what could only have been 30 seconds but fuck, did it feel like s lifetime.
The next thing I remember was this loud grinding against the pavement. It was familiar, but I couldn’t put it together. What else could be happening out there while I had my eyes closed. The sound of metal was getting closer, now nearly at my feet. I was lifted into the air, I struggled, naturally. Knowing that nothing good could come of this.
For a brief moment I felt like I was crowd surfing. Then I began to feel my legs dip down. It was a trash can they were dragging over to me. And they were going to throw me in it. They chanted disjointly, kill the faggot, throw him down the stadium, throw him down the stairs. Then the bell rang. And it finally ended. They dropped my body to the ground with a thud, and walked away. From start to finish it could only have lasted 3 minutes.
As I write this, I realize that I have never as an adult thought about how long this thing actually was. 3 minutes, if that, would alter my life forever.
3 minutes at age 14, is when I had the experience of becoming a victim for the first time.
In 3 minutes at age 14, I had the blessed experience of having my dignity stripped from me.
I got to experience what it was like to be trash and less than. Living through that moment has been one of the greatest privilege’s of my life.