I was not the most masculine cut figure in my youth. Overly sensitive to my own food intake I feared taking too much, taking away food from others. This is a fear the poor in families know all too well. My frame was alarmingly thin that I attempted to hide in layers of oversized thrift store clothing. To top this off I exhibited a type of posture, speech and movement considered, well, effeminate by my peers. Instead of hiding this trait, I nervously accentuated it, thinking that at least with some it gave me acceptance.
Generally a dirty blond from the many hours spent in a swimming pool, this hair contained pronounced cowlicks impossible to hide. Yet hide them my mother tried. It seemed to become her goal for a certain period of my childhood to ruin my existence through my hair. This disastrous obsession centered around a very faulty conclusion on her part. This thinking was that all I needed to solve my cowlicks was to have curly hair. At first she did the perms herself, making me grow my hair out long enough so that she could put curlers in them. That was, until she burned my scalp. It was then that she decided a professional needed to be consulted. Off to the beauty parlor I went. Sitting amongst the women getting their hair colored and styled was a boy with the beginning stages of acne waiting for his curlers to set.
I both resented the intrusion and felt exhilarated. I knew that when I got caught putting on mother’s pantyhose I would get punished, but here I was doing something to my hair, which was semi-permanent (pun intended). It was something that men just did not do in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Being a child is a very dangerous existence. How does anyone actually survive? It appears that there are a million things conspiring against us to make us implode during this impressionable time in life. It also seems that much of these experiences compose influential memories and are worked out in our relationships for the remainder of our adult life. Usually, we say that violence is something that we hope to protect our children. Yet, like sponges, children take from their environment the things, good and bad, that can be carried like a treasure or tumor into the future to explain this world.
I have an inordinate fascination with violence, and it’s influence upon me. I am interested in violence’s banal existence in and amongst us, as well as, its influence on our actions and reactions.
When I think about all those children in Syria who have witnessed 100,000 deaths and the countless maiming of relatives, friends and family by millions of tons of munitions. Where does that get filed? Will it be an experience creating an unending cycle of psychotic rage? Can it produce the revulsion toward authoritarian power needed to stop violence? What effect will it have on those children, their community and their world?
It is in childhood I had my most impressionable experiences with violence. In midget football I realized that when I bloodied the nose of the quarterback in a game I was celebrated, but if I did it in the hallway of school I was punished. I also learned that there was a violent rhetoric of masculinity.
In truth, I did not even understand the homosexuality I was often accused of by my peers (something that persisted as a suspicion well into college). I was in a fairly sheltered Nebraska fundamentalist group that rarely talked positively about sex in public. It appeared by that characterization of sex in my childhood homosexuality was the pinnacle of how sex itself was bad, dangerous and evil.
It was words sometimes accompanied by a shove that became a constant. “Faggot!” That was the term used to my face or called from a group in a speeding car. Accompanied by laughter or derision this word was used often in my presence.
I was stunned by the level of hatred and became more protective of sharing real feelings about sex. Knowing that those who preached weekly buttressed the violent reaction to homosexuality by those catcalling me left me feeling I was unable to access God, that who I was at my core was so evil that I was permanently blocked from the access of the divine. It left me with ambiguity, a feeling of fearful uncertainty.
I found myself an awkward child plunging headlong into adolescence with an inherited faith that could neither coherently nor adequately explain the direction I was headed. In addition fundamentalists are not joiners by nature. It is the separatist tendency and illusionary purity of belief giving this sociological grouping its distinctiveness.
This isolation gave its members a certain suspicion of “outside the church” activities arbitrarily deemed secular and not religious. In that world, those who attend the Boy Scouts or the YMCA inhabited a mysterious spiritual realm. Often a Christian alternative was formed or participation in these groups was used as a tool of evangelism. It was the forming of the right transitions from boyhood into manhood that was essential to a new generation of fundamental patriarchs. So, my church participated in a faux Christian Boy Scout program called “Boys Brigade.”
Weekly wearing grey uniforms with patches each of us boys stood lined up in a four-sided formation to replicate the walls of a fort. Hands folded on our chest we sang our communal creed. It went, “Bright and keen for Christ our savior is our motto true, we will try to live for him in everything we do.” Then the evenings were filled with extended manly lessons, activities and games.
Various men from the church rotated in leadership and my father was there when not at work. It was there I learned that I must memorize scriptures for when the Soviet Union attacked and took away our Bibles in the end times. It also was where I learned how to knot a line and start a campfire.
It was during one of those evenings in that church basement’s linoleum that I learned a valuable lesson about violence, power and control. I remember it scantily, but clear images return to me constantly. We were sitting in lines awaiting an activity when the person parallel to me began to harass me.
“Hey curly! Are you a queer? Ha ha ha!” he said. His smirk belied an implicit superiority and a clear disdain come with his words. I don’t know why, but this time I either lacked the humor to see the joke or had just been pushed a little too far. With a shove I answer, “why don’t you just shut up?!”
It was uncharacteristic for me at that age to stand up, to confront or to have any other reaction but cowering. I learned this from the whippings I received from my father with a barbershop razor strap. Whether it was my father’s hand, a razor strap or violence from someone else I trusted, I had learned the art of avoidance of conflict.
Justice for my act was swift. I immediately felt pain in my scalp and the uneasy feeling of being lifted off the ground. As I screamed I could see the bulky forearm of my father in my peripheral vision lifting me up and leading me out of the fellowship hall. There was an uneasy silence in the room as my father led me away by my hair. I forgot about the pain and saw it replaced with a shame and deep embarrassment.
I honestly do not remember the content of what my father said, but knew that I was never going to succeed at this game. I would never be successful at their definition of masculinity, success or Christianity. So, I gave up. From that moment forward I assumed I would be a failure. That there was something so deeply flawed within me that I could never succeed no matter hard I worked to overcome this inherent sinfulness. Life would be a series of people pleasing from the stranger all the way up to the divine.
From that moment forward, God became the hand who pulled violently at my curly locks, lifting me painfully from the floor, the sneering catcalling peer or the condemning preacher. No matter how I tried I knew I was an unredeemable wretch.
Although, my views of my own sexuality and God have changed over time I must admit that I am still fearful of exposing myself to misunderstandings. Those who do not know me I am happily married to the Christian Writer Carol Howard Merritt for over 20 years. This monologue presents a snapshot and not the whole story of my sexuality or my views on God.