Growing Up Gay in Rural West Virginia

Growing up gay in Nolan, West Virginia, which is in the heart of Appalachia, during the 1960s was like being banished to one of the inner circles of Dante’s inferno. Pop culture has eschewed the theme of homosexuality in Appalachia except for the film Deliverance, which isn’t a very encouraging depiction.

At the age of six, I started attending Nolan Elementary School. The school was a three-story cinderblock building, and each grade huddled into a single classroom. My first grade classroom had green walls, unfinished wood floors, and a single window. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Reed, was short and overweight. She had an alabaster face, and a thick mane of black hair. Mrs. Reed looked like she applied her mottled makeup with a trowel, and she wore very bright, red lipstick, which imparted the facial appearance of a circus clown.

Mrs. Reed was kind and warm-hearted, but she occasionally remarked that I was “too pretty to be a boy.” Her remarks cut like a dagger, even though I had absolutely no awareness of my homosexuality when I was six years old.

The remainder of elementary school was very difficult for me, because a gaggle of fifth- and sixth-graders started to bully me. They said I looked like a girl or talked like a girl. They would routinely shove me as I walked down the hallway. At recess, I was especially prone to being bullied, and I quickly learned not to stray too far from our teacher.

Elementary school, unfortunately, was merely a dress rehearsal for high school. As a freshman at Williamson High School, I was repeatedly called a “faggot” and “queer,” and during class I would be subjected to barrages of spitballs. I quickly discovered that I was especially vulnerable to being beaten up and bullied in the bathroom, so I absolutely avoided the bathroom during the break between classes, using it only when excused during class time.

Although it was in vogue to ridicule me at high school, two of my fellow freshmen, Jimmy and Rod, took considerable glee in my torment. Jimmy was short and chubby, and Rod was tall, slender, and handsome. Jimmy’s father owned a grocery store, and he wore stylish clothes that included a seemingly endless array of Polo shirts. Despite Jimmy’s dapper exterior, he had a molten rage roiling inside of him. I’ll never understand if it was nature or nurture or, perhaps, both that filled Jimmy with such hatred.

A month or so into my freshman year, I wandered into the bathroom after school had been adjourned for the day, so I presumed I would be safe. But Jimmy and Rod suddenly bounded into the bathroom and blocked the door. They roughed me up, and Jimmy said, “I know you want me.” As they paused to laugh and admire their handiwork, I bolted out of bathroom. After that experience, I would only use the bathrooms in an adjacent building that housed the school’s administrative offices.

Despite feeling like an utter outcast at Williamson High School, I mustered the pluck to sign up for the school band in my freshman year. Although my forte was the piano, I had also learned to play the trumpet and the band needed trumpet players. In addition to being taunted by the boys in the band, the band director, who also coached various sports, ridiculed me too. After he started to habitually call me a “sissy,” I quit the band. Because high school was so difficult for me, I was an average student.

When I was fifteen, I belatedly came to the realization that I was gay. I say belatedly, because it was quite evident to everyone else around me. The primary reason I locked away my homosexuality in the distant recesses of my mind is that every Sunday morning I attended Nolan Freewill Baptist Church, where it was emphatically declared that homosexuality was unequivocally evil and every homosexual had a one-way, non-stop ticket to hell. My father’s credo, which was nearly indistinguishable from that of the Ku Klux Klan, also deemed homosexuals to be the most malignant form of life on the planet. Although I had become extremely incredulous of the beliefs expounded by Nolan Freewill Baptist Church and by my father, their opinions regarding homosexuality had nonetheless left an indelible blueprint on my young psyche.

I graduated from high school with minimal fanfare—I didn’t even attend the graduation ceremony. As a pre-graduation present, my mother bought me a red Toyota Celica that I drove back and forth from school in the latter half of my senior year, and I was ecstatic to see Williamson High School ebbing in its rearview mirror on my final day of high school. I had never managed to shake the overwhelming angst that seized me each morning when I awoke to attend one more day at Williamson High School—I felt like I was waking up in the middle of traffic every morning.