Ten rules for navigating—and surviving—gay adolescent hell.
Anybody who’s ever wondered just how long gay kids have been falling for straight kids need only take a closer squint at Mercutio, who somehow managed to glide through all fifteen years of his life without ever ungluing himself from Romeo’s side. Furthermore, he had impeccable taste in clothes, a dancer’s body, and a passion for Queen Mab—who, to this day, bears a suspicious resemblance to Bette Midler. It’s not like you needed a road map to figure out what was going on.
Mercutio, of course, wound up on the wrong end of a rapier before he had a chance to pitch the advantages of same-sex domestic partner benefits to Romeo—and the rest of us have been striking out just as prosaically ever since. So how come we still insist on romancing our straight best friends at least once between Winnie the Pooh and college? Because we thrive on irony? (Yes.) Because it’s good practice for the real deal? (Yes.) Because a broken heart is so irresistibly theatrical? (Absolutely. “Oh, my man, I love him so. He’ll never know….”)
Falling in love with Philip was definitely not on my agenda in October of my senior year. He was a 17-year-old godling from France who’d become the envy of the entire senior class, and I was a 17-year-old dork from Maryland who’d become the poster boy for Queer Bashing 101. (I’m still not sure how they figured out I was gay before I knew it myself, though I suspect the Ethel Merman thing may have had something to do with it.) Neither one of us remembers how we met; one minute he was asking me if he could borrow a dollar, and an instant later we were Phil-and-Steve (I always gave him top billing because he was way too cute not to have it). This unexpected development threw the bashers for a loop—in order to score points with Philip, they suddenly had to go through me first. Which meant acquiring a hasty tolerance for Gypsy, Mame and Funny Girl. Revenge is always sweet, but it takes a gay kid to make it musical.
I had no idea that Cupid had just shot me in the ass until Friday evening, November 14. I was in the midst of plowing through a novel I’d recently discovered (Valley of the Dolls, in case it matters) when I realized I’d read the same paragraph nine times without registering a word—because all that kept spinning through my head were images of Philip’s twinkly eyes whenever he’d glance at me across a classroom, and the thermonuclear one-dimple grin that could melt plutonium.
Welcome to Gay Adolescent Hell.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
(Note: since this is autobiographical, it’s about boys. But the formulas work the same way for girls—all you have to do is switch the pronouns and add Lesbian hair.)
1. Practice typing his name in 46 different fonts (including Japanese).
We didn’t have iPads yet, so we did the best we could with ballpoint pens and notebook paper. I was more prolific than most: Every one of my essays was originally titled “Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip Philip.”
2. If you run into each other in the gym, avoid the showers as though they were radioactive. You really don’t need a pulmonary embolism at 17.
As soon as I found out that Philip was a swimmer who wore Speedos, I chose track—which was as geographically far from the pool as I could get. On one occasion I ran a ninety-minute mile in the pouring rain just to make absolutely certain he’d already left the locker room.
3. Don’t help him audition for a part in the school play, because you’re only going to wind up being cast with him.
This is especially painful when the play in question is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the two of you have to spend six weeks together in tights. “Lysander, yield thy crazed title to my certain right,” snarled Philip, poking me with a foil. “If thou say so, withdraw and prove it too,” I glowered back, poking him in return. One such rehearsal resulted in an impromptu tickling match—which I needed like a hole in the head.
4. Don’t waste your time searching for tiny clues that he’s really gay. He isn’t. Just because he’s heard of Barbra Streisand doesn’t mean he secretly wants to kiss you. Fidel Castro’s heard of her too.
When we listened to The Grateful Dead and discovered “Uncle John’s Band” together, it became “our song.” Swiss Miss and chocolate chip cookies in the snow comprised “our menu,” and after stumbling across ‘ubiquitous’ on the senior English vocabulary list, we adopted it on the spot as “our word.” Philip didn’t seem to understand that these little landmarks meant he was supposed to ask me to marry him.
5. When he meets a girl he really likes, don’t say stinky things about her to change his mind—he’ll only get suspicious. Instead, help him plan his romance step-by-step, and when he wins her over (they always do), make yourself absolutely indispensable to her.
Nancy knew inside of nineteen seconds that I was in love with her boyfriend—but since I played my cards right, she kept my secret. This sort of unexpected bonding was nothing new; straight women and gay men have been confiding in each other ever since Guenevere (Julie Andrews in the musical) and Lancelot (Robert Goulet) figured out that they both had the same kind of long-range plans for Richard Burton.
6. Be careful when you buy him birthday presents—you don’t want to tip your hand.
The label-maker he’s coveted, the new copy of Abbey Road, and the dozen boxes of chocolate chip cookies (half of which he’s going to share with you anyway) are relatively benign; the slim volume of poems entitled You’re My Friend So I Brought You This Book isn’t. Can you spell “dead giveaway”?
7. When the nearby girls’ school asks for boy volunteers to help build the sets for a production of Brigadoon, stick cotton in your ears during rehearsals.
Brigadoon was written five years before you were born. Which means that the song “Almost Like Being in Love” was not inspired by you and Philip. Do the math, dude.
8. If you’re wondering whether being in love with your best friend means you’ve finally come out to yourself, the answer is yes.
I had two choices: I could either pretend I was straight and forget about Philip, or keep Philip and admit the obvious. Talk about a no-brainer.
9. When you tell him the truth, don’t be pissed off if he guesses it first.
Philip confessed that he’d begun to get the hint about an hour and a half after we’d met—but it didn’t make any difference because nobody had ever loved him so unconditionally before. “And I love you too,” he said. “It’s just in a different category.” Somehow I felt cheated out of my big scene.
10. Don’t be surprised if you remain best friends for the rest of your lives.
Philip is married, has two kids, and lives in Philadelphia. We still listen to “Uncle John’s Band” and we still say ‘ubiquitous’ to each other. As a matter of fact, I e- mailed him the first draft of this column and received the following reply: “Lose the Ethel Merman bit. You’re dating yourself. And by the way—that was half a lifetime ago. Get a grip already. Love, Phil.”
Sure, it was hell—but the memories have always been worth it. And eventually we all outgrow the need to fall in love with our straight friends. Most of the time. I mean, sort of. Well, okay, there was this one occasion when my new dentist turned out to be a relentlessly breathtaking and irredeemably heterosexual Japanese American who left me no choice but to fake a pain in an upper left molar just so I could stare up into those big brown eyes during the four visits it took him to complete the root canal I didn’t need.
But that’s another story.