I met Michael* when I was fifteen, at a summer music camp. We didn’t become best buds, but we did become friends, and that friendship stayed in place when we went to the same college three years later. We were in the same degree program, and had nearly every core class together. We never became “tight,” but we did help each other out. We’d take over for each other when a particular soloist we accompanied had become just too much, and we always made sure to give each other a boost in the sea of criticism that could be the music program at times. We had eachother’s back.
I knew Michael was gay from the day I met him, but it didn’t matter. He was my friend. He didn’t come out to me until a few years ago, but I’ve always treasured his friendship, and the day he came out to me, I treasured his honesty for the gift it was.
Four years ago today, I remember the whispers.
My college campus was small– around 4,500 students, total, so it wasn’t that difficult to at least recognize everyone even if you didn’t know him or her. I knew the names of everyone in my major– and I knew the names of most of those who were studying speech, art, or music. It was a small, tight-nit community. We were hard on each other, as the competition could get intense. When two sopranos go for the same lead in a musical… that’s not something you want to witness. But, we were close. Friendly, even, when there weren’t any auditions.
Our tight-nit community, however, was a strangely public one. We were the performers on campus. The college had a bazillion required activities, and most of them were Arts related. There were vespers, where the speech and music major would put on an hour-long religious spectacle. There was the once-a-semester Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganza.
Then, there was church.
Attending the college’s church was mandatory. You could “check in sick” and skip church, but you’d be required to attend a video recording of it the next Saturday, so most people rarely “checked in” on Sunday. They put up with the monotonous, televised, rote-like-clockwork service and then took a nap. However, music majors were required to perform at least once, sometimes twice, in church– for a grade. A few of us got “famous” that way. There was the impressively deep bass singer who became famous for singing “Mary, Did you Know?” There was the spectacularly talented young man that everyone knew, and simply being a peripheral friend made you popular by association.
It was eleven weeks before we were all supposed to graduate. We were working on our shows and our recitals like deranged maniacs whose life depended on this single, solitary event (it rather did). We were all losing our minds in one way or another, and trying to get each other through this grueling process.
So when two of my friends in the music program were “kicked out,” many of the music majors were left feeling bereft. These two young men had been two of the most supportive people in the program. In an environment where backbiting and maliciousness can sometimes run amok, losing the positive influence of these two. . . it wasn’t devastating, but they were missed.
Over my years at this college, I’d known a lot of people who got “kicked out.” Some reasons “made sense,” after a fashion. Sometimes that person “obviously deserved it” because they’d committed some heinous violation that was quite obviously against the rules you just don’t go around breaking– like my roommates who persisted in having some strange version of threesome phonesex on speaker while I was in the room (getting them kicked out hadn’t been my goal– I’d just wanted a new room, ‘cuz that was uncomfortable. However, I’d had to explain why I wanted a new room, so...) Sometimes the reason was absolutely ridiculous– like the young man who got kicked out for “disturbing a public gathering”– he threw a paper airplane before a church service started. Sometimes the reason was absolutely insane– like one girl who got kicked out for kissing her boyfriend over the summer when she was not on campus, leaving a love letter in her boyfriend’s mailbox, and the boyfriend’s ex going through his mail and then turning the new girlfriend in. The ex-girlfriend was rewarded for her faithfulness to the school, even though she’d committed a felony to do it.
However serious or ridiculous the reason was, long story short, the people on campus usually knew what it was. It’s difficult to keep secrets, and the kicking-out process in a brutalizing, time-consuming thing. By the time that person is kicked out, the Scarlet A is fixed in place.
But for my friends… no one really knew why.
So, the rumors started.
And, because they were music majors, most of the rumors had to do with their sexual orientation. The Arts already made a man “effeminate” by default, and in fundamentalism, “effeminate” is a hair’s breadth short of being “rainbow gay.”
I was in my first-hour class the first time I heard one of the rumors. Supposedly, the two men had gotten caught making out in a maintenance closet.
I was five the first time I ever stood up to a bully. There was a black boy a few doors down from me, and he was constantly getting picked on by a group of three older white boys. Looking back, I’m pretty sure one of the boy’s father was a white supremacist– but when I was five, I had no idea what racism was. All I knew was that they were picking on him, and that was mean. I stood up for him one day– and ended up with gum in my hair, spit in my eye, and sand in my underwear. I spent every day for the rest of that summer hiding underneath the playground equipment– with the boy I’d stood up for.
My tendency to bite off more than I could chew in defense of someone I cared about, or who I felt didn’t deserve it, only got stronger as I got older. I punched three separate boys at 8, 11, and 14 for daring to make fun of by baby sister. I told off Richard* who was making fun of George* because of his last name. I befriended a little girl in kindergarten who had a port wine stain and no one else would talk to her. I slapped the boy I had a crush on in first grade because he’d knocked over my block tower for being “taller than his.”
But four years at a fundamentalist Christian college had silenced me.
When that belligerent, bigoted young man started hootin’ and hollerin’ about my friends, I said nothing. I sat in my chair, kept my eyes fixed squarely on the front of the room, and remained silent.
That silence felt like it was burning me from the inside out. I desperately wanted to march to the back of that room and give him a big, loud, angry piece of my mind. I wanted to slap him for airing his bigotry. I wanted to tell every person who was laughing exactly who they were laughing at, and that no one deserved that. I wanted to tell them all that what they were doing was wrong.
I didn’t. I didn’t say anything over the next few weeks as the rumors became more flagrant.
I was afraid. Afraid of the administration coming after me for defending him. I was afraid that they would suspect that I knew Michael was gay, and that they would kick me out, too, for not turning him in years ago, like I should have– like the rules required me to. I was afraid that if I defended him, that some of the people who knew me would judge me for not “taking a stance against sin.”
I was afraid of myself.
I lived in doubt for those weeks– wasn’t I supposed to be shocked and horrified by his sin? Wasn’t I supposed to agree that the administration had done the right thing by kicking him out? Wasn’t I supposed to be happy that “the truth had found him out”?
Conflicted doesn’t begin to explain what I was feeling. I missed my friend– one of the only people who had a kind word for me after I’d survived another terrifying performance. I missed the person who agreed to usher my recital, and was there for me when I finally came offstage and instantly collapsed.
And I was ashamed for not being brave enough– to not being who I knew I’ve always been. For not defending him. For not speaking up against all the wrong.
So, today, four years later, I’m apologizing, Michael– and I promise it won’t happen again.