I hear the boys stampeding towards the locker room, the shards of their shouts and high-pitched laughter ricocheting down the cinder block corridor, rending the meditative quiet of the pool that accompanied me during my workout. The loudest of the pack burst in first, just as I finish toweling off; they strip to their swim suits and dash for the showers. By the time I lace up my sneakers, the lone stragglers have arrived, quietly shuffling in on their own, one or two with a scowl that suggests the idea of going to swim camp wasn’t theirs.
I watch them as they exit the showers to cross the obligatory foot pool out to the main pool area. Some start with a running jump and splash into the ankle-deep water, others noisily slosh their way across, like soldiers fording a steam. And then there’s the boy, one of the stragglers, fair-skinned and slight in build, who eases his left foot in first as if to test the water—though he should know by now it’s always ice cold—and then tiptoes through the water for the rest of the distance.
There’s one in every summer camp and Cub Scout troop, the reticent puppy of the litter, the boy who doesn’t like playing rough or getting dirty, who hangs back and off-center, giving wide berth to the other, more rambunctious boys. By now it’s habit, inscribed in his body, though he can’t be more than 10 years old.
I know because I was one of those boys.
I was vaguely aware I was different from other boys my age, sometimes because I was told so by adults, like the time a teacher took me aside after recess to explain that boys don’t play jump rope, as I had been doing with the girls at recess, and that I should join the other boys in my class who played stickball at the other end of the street.
I knew there were boys like my cousin Gary, who played baseball and wasn’t afraid of the dogs my grandfather kept chained on a runner and would even crawl into their doghouse on a dare, and boys like me, who never went near them and would disappear at the first signs of an impromptu touch football game being organized. There were boys who skipped Mass and cursed and hung out at the sweet shop after school, and there were boys like me, who were altar boys and rummaged the stacks of the city library after school.
Until middle school being different was never a source of pain or discomfort. I didn’t always fit in, but it didn’t matter. Though I envied the ease my brother and cousins had in the presence of my uncles—and their dexterity with bats and balls and gloves—I didn’t want to be like them. My mother told me I was a happy child and judging from my own recollections of those years, I have no reason to doubt her. I was, to borrow language I would not have used or understood at the time, comfortable in my skin.
But that all changed when we moved from the city and I was plunked into the 6th grade of the local public school, where I encountered Jamie Marsh.
I can’t remember the first time he called me a faggot. He called me it so many times during the next two years that all the scenes have merged into one. I tell myself I should be able to remember, since I would have been so shocked to hear it. No one had ever called me names before and besides, I was sure there was nothing girlish about me. Because that was what faggots were, I thought, boys who acted like girls, sick and shameful creatures.
To my horror, he called me it the next day and then again and again. I had only been at this school for a few weeks and was just starting to make friends. Who would want to be friends with a faggot? Would Todd, who was the first and the best friend I had made at school, would he still want to be seen with me?
I lay awake at night trying to discover what it was that Jamie saw in me that I couldn’t see. There must have been a reason he had singled me out. It couldn’t have been because I was scrawny or smart or hopeless at basketball. Todd was all that, too, and he was no tougher than me. And if anyone was girlish, it would have been Billy, with his longish, wispy hair and gentle voice. Why me and not him?
If I had looked harder, of course, I would have seen signs of a more radical difference. I would have remembered how I lingered in the company of a young uncle who looked like James Dean, how I lay awake one night in our attic dormer listening to the breathing of a handsome distant cousin who had come to spend a week at our summer house. But this was before desire had become palpable, before my differentness had acquired the mass and contours of something more fundamental than taste or interests.
Jamie’s taunts shattered the enchanted innocence that had been my world in the city, and made me conscious of myself in ways I hadn’t been before. I became watchful of how I talked and walked and moved my body. But try as I might I could never identify the trace of faggot in my voice or gesture that perhaps he saw. Even after I came out I continued to think it was my vulnerability—and not any mark of effeminacy—that caught the attention of my demon, who, like most bullies, had a sixth sense for knowing which boy wouldn’t fight back.
Until last year, that is, when my youngest brother Daniel sent me an envelope of photos. They were in a box of memorabilia he had found among my father’s belongings when cleaning the attic.
The pictures bear the marks of their age—the scalloped borders and faded greys, the date scribbled in ink on the back–and they seem somehow more reliable documentary evidence than the unblemished digital record of our lives we now have. One of them was taken at our summer house. I must be about 10. My brother Charlie is on my right, leaning into the picture, taking on the camera like a lineman at scrimmage; in front of us is Daniel, still a toddler, with his round face and enormous eyes locked in a gaze of bewilderment. And then there’s me.
I’m standing tall as if at attention and squinting, my head held high with a broad but tight smile, and, yes, looking a bit prissy, too, like a boy who’d tiptoe through the foot pool. And then another picture, this time at Confirmation. I’m in a white suit, kneeling before a card table my mother had set up in the living room and draped with white cloth. I’m looking down into the missal I hold in my hands, a mix of devotion and delight on my face. I realize this is the boy that Jamie saw, a willowy angel who would run away from a fight.
I remembered these pictures a month or so ago when I came across a photo of five-year-old Prince George. It was taken at an airport in Germany, a military one I think, because he’s just stepped into a helicopter. He’s dressed in a neat, checkered shirt and short pants, his legs together, slightly bent at the knees, his arms drawn equally close to the side. His hands are cupping his cheeks, as if to contain the delight swelling within him. He’s utterly, endearingly, contagiously thrilled to be there. It’s not the way most boys would react, but there’s no self-consciousness, much less self-censorship to him. He’s genuinely tickled pink.
It’s a picture many gay men, myself now included, can identify with. As Louis Staples wrote in the New Statesmen, the affinity has very little to do with the young prince’s sexual orientation but with our own recollections of an age of innocence, “those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly.”
We can never regain that innocence, nor should we want to, for doing so would be nothing more than self-willed blindness, depriving us of the ability to see the hate and structures of prejudice that still impinge on our liberty. But it is one of the great gifts of coming out that we gradually free ourselves from the need to be watchful and feel again that enchantment of being alright in our skin.