Last night I was catching up with some friends on Facebook -- and by catching up I mean browsing their profiles and taking note of things they have changed since last I looked. One such profile I perused belongs to Courtney, my high school girlfriend for most of 9th and 10th grades.
Courtney is smart and full of life. We met because we were both "gifted track" in school -- a particularly Southern/God-centered way of saying "nerdy." She convinced me to get involved in theater; she regularly vied for top spots in plays in musicals. One of our first dates involved crafting "roller whigs" out of toiler paper rolls and tin foil for the "Beauty School Dropout" sequence in "Grease."
Courtney and I were best friends, partners in crime in a town that had little room for our kinds -- dreamy, pushy, argumentative and at least one of us a little gay.
I don't know if others use this term, but now that I'm slightly older than "young adult," I've come to refer to 14, 15, 16-year-old gays (or apparent gays) as gaybies. It brings a smile to my face.
And I know we're all aware of the (somewhat dismissive) term beard -- that supposedly insignificant other who hides one's true feelings and orientation, a term typically associated with the women who date closeted gay men.
Well, I wanted to take a moment to honor and acknowledge the "beards" of the world who enter a young gay man's life -- a gayby, if you will -- at a time when neither really knows what roles they're playing for each other.
I wasn't a sure fire gay when Courtney and I met, became friends and then starting "going together," the dating phrase of my day. I had thoughts of boys -- had had thoughts of boys for a very long time -- but I had no way of wrapping all that up into a neat gay package.
And I loved girls and longed to be with them. I had many girlfriends in elementary and middle schools. Before high school, girls especially liked to "date" me, as I didn't waste their time with baseball games and other nonsense, but was more than happy to accompany them to the mall.
At a time when being a "know-it-all" in a town where education was little emphasized, I felt that kind of ostracization more pointedly than any anti-gay one. So I gravitated to girls like Courtney -- smart, fierce, willing to put herself out there. We co-chaired committees together, ran a student newspaper, schemed about National Honor Society recognitions and other things I'm now embarrassed to claim interest in.
I would say she was more sexually advanced than I was, but maybe she was just more secure in her sexuality. Unlike the stereotypical notion of 15-year-old girls as scared of sex and sexuality, she was more than happy to make out, fool around, etc. And I, unlike many of the gays I know now, never needed to be repulsed by women in order to define my own sexuality.
We lost our virginities to each other. Yet as I thought harder and harder about my attractions to boys, I felt less and less comfortable holding her hand. During the last few months of our relationship, I started chatting in "m4m chat rooms" on AOL. Back then we were on a 28.8 modem or some such thing, hooked in through the phone line, so when Courtney would call to set up a date or just to say hi, she often broke the line when I was knee deep in conversation with some gay stranger, and I would get mad and make excuses as to why I couldn't talk to her.
At the time, it didn't occur to me how contradictory all of that was, because, truly, I wasn't hiding my "sexual orientation" from her or anyone else -- merely keeping my (shocking, shameful) thoughts to myself.
Meanwhile Courtney was dealing with her own pressures. Raised in a Catholic family with two older siblings, both in long-term, serious relationships, she always wanted us to seem exactly as serious and devoted as her older brother and sister were with their significant others, despite the fact that we were 15 and 16-years-old. We fought about how many times I had to go to family functions, like a couple in their 20s.
In some ways, it was equally important for her to have a boyfriend as it was for me to have a girlfriend. Boys did sometimes accuse me of being gay, to which I could easily respond, "How can you be gay when you have a girlfriend!?"
Courtney, for her part, was seen as too brash and brazen to be a cool girl. She put too much of herself out there, and therefore opened herself up to all kinds of vulnerabilities. As a friend and a boyfriend, I lent some validation to her flamboyant personality. She wasn't too different to have what others had, in other words. Neither of us were.
Eventually we broke up, but not explicitly because I was coming out. That didn't happen for months later. And Courtney was one of the first people I told. You see, as you might imagine, after the initial shock of the break up wore off, we settled back into being what we really were -- great, essential friends to one another.
Courtney took it well, of course. Hey, she finally had a real, gay friend! Something she always thought she'd have one day. The first order of business was to pull out our yearbook and see what boys we both thought were cute. We agreed on most.
Having thought about it for a while, she said, "You know, it's better this way, you like boys and all. Since you won't date girls anymore, I won't have to compare myself to anyone else like me. In that way, it's perfect!"
So it all worked out, but I want to say this:
Courtney and I (and so many of the other gayby-beard couples out there) were working things out those first few years of high school we could barely comprehend, so there's little blame to be laid on anyone's sides. But I know it must have been hard pushing so much heterosexual love and attention on someone who ultimately didn't feel it in the same way and didn't want it in the same way.
I didn't understand that particular kind of pain until I had my first puppy love with a real live gayby of my own -- the same summer that I came out. There are very few things that are worse, if you ask me, and for that I will always be sorry, even if I didn't intend it to happen in the first place.
So for all you beards out there who neither asked to cover for someone nor understand that that's what you're doing, thank you, for in the end you are truly great friends. And for all the gays who are knowingly covering themselves with someone else's feelings, shame on you, for that's an experience that no person should willingly inflict on another.