In 2002 I graduated from the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities with a South Carolina public high school degree and a certificate of completion in Creative Writing. Virginia Uldrick, founding president of the Governor's School, forgot to give me my certificate for coming out.
It was an honest mistake. The relatively progressive attitude toward queer students at the South Carolina school amounted to letting them be. We had no GSA -- I didn't know what they were at the time -- nor did we observe the National Day of Silence, National Coming Out Day or what have you. But we could breathe and if we were dating a fellow student or just sleeping with someone, we could reasonably assume that if we ran into another (straight) student downtown they would not deride or attack us. Most of us couldn't say that about the high schools we'd come from.
The Governor's School, from here on out referred to as SCGSAH, was in its second year when I enrolled as a junior. Virginia and her band of brothers (mostly wealthy old white women) had fought for 20+ years to turn the summer arts program into a full-time, residential public arts school open to all South Carolinians they deemed worthy of attending (by way of a fairly vigorous audition process for such a start-up, Deep South arts school, at least).
I felt blessed, as most of us did, to get accepted. SCGSAH is located in Greenville, SC- a strange city in the northwest corner of SC boasting the state's only reputable college (Furman University) as well as the infamous Bob Jones University. On Main Street, you were just as likely to get handed a zine as you were a religious tract (unless you were Catholic, which is a story for another post...).
I also felt blessed to finally have a chance to come out of the closet. I'd been wrestling with my sexuality for a few years, having a girlfriend most of the time. SCGSAH presented the perfect opportunity. Not only would I be moving two and a half hours away from home, living full-time in Greenville, but I'd be around a bunch of artsy kids who I assumed to either be queer as well or totally cool with it.
The summer before I started SCGSAH, I told my ex-girlfriend, my sister and my mom that I was gay. My ex-girlfriend, who should have always just been my best friend, said she was glad I was gay because it meant she'd never have to compare herself to another girlfriend of mine (a comment you've got to love). My sister was fine, barely skipped a beat. My mother, well- she cried. She forecast, without malice, a life of disappointment and premature death through AIDS.
With a range of emotions from the most important people in my life sending me off, I got to SCGSAH fully intending to be out and proud. Then I met Wade, the first real live gay I'd ever come across. Wade was fabulous and muscular and wore one-shoulder tops and bedazzled jeans- and he scared the living daylights out of me. He tried to tuck me in at night.
I thought, Do I have to be Wade to be gay? Maybe I'm not gay. Not sophisticated enough yet to separate gender expressions from sexual orientation, I assumed I must be bisexual if I didn't feel that flamboyant. So that's what I told people -- the ones who asked.
I had one more girlfriend, which threw my mom and my sister for a loop. I don't know how she identifies today so I won't use her name, but I distinctly remember the day she approached me in the cafeteria and told me she was bisexual too. She liked me, she said, because I was funny and nice and bisexual like she was. She thought we'd understand each other and get along. I liked her too and so we gave it a shot -- my last three months, so far as I can tell, of dating women.
In the spring, my fellow creative writing students, most of whom I'd gotten off to a rocky start with, had become better friends. On a bus ride to a local college where we headed to see a poet read, one of my classmates cornered me and said flatly, "So what team do you play on?" The question caught me off guard, but as is my nature I just spilled the beans, explaining most of what I just wrote here. My friend shrugged and said cool and then everyone else was cool. Among the students, the attitude toward us gaybies was pretty much...hey, cool.
So cool that in October of my senior year I convinced a few of my friends (or they convinced me -- I won't pretend to remember) to celebrate National Coming Out Day in semi-guerrilla fashion.
We got white tank tops and fabric paint and wrote on mine "I'M COMING OUT!" a la Diana Ross and on theirs we wrote "WE BROUGHT HIM OUT!" We then accessorized in loosely 80's garb and then stormed the campus- dancing around and singing until we ended up in the library's computer lab (a popular hang out), where we found the infamous tune online and played it super loud on the computers as we danced and danced and danced.
Since then, I've spoken about being gay to a room full of cadets at West Point, served as a representative of the queer community at my college when harassment has been reported, and traveled around the country as a professional homosexual coming out, out, out, out and out- but none of these experiences have been as thrilling or sweet as the time my wacky art school friends and I made tank tops and danced around campus at the tiny age of 17.
I owe a lot to SCGSAH, despite its lack of outright support and acknowledgment of its queer students, and the wonderful people that taught and studied there. They are some of my best friends to this day and on this National Coming Out Day I want to celebrate them.