Back here in Montana, my grandfather has been taking stock of things. Though we still don’t have an *official* diagnosis — that will happen Monday — we’ve vacillated between insisting everything will be fine to envisioning the worst possible scenarios.
He has been reflecting a lot. We get hilarious tales of life in the army — how they hid the burned creamed corn from the angry sergeant who’d been looking forward to eating it to how he and his brawny friends harassed the owner of the neighborhood’s first compact car by picking it up and wedging it between trees and dumpsters. He’s supposed to gain weight so we talk a lot about food. And then there was this conversation:
“What exactly is homophobia? Does it mean that you hurt people who are gay?”
I explained that from its greek roots, homophobia is literally fear of those who are homosexual but that it now extends to all QUILTBAG people too. Homophobia can manifest itself in violence or by denying civil rights to that population. He looked concerned.
He went on to explain that at the age of 12, he had moved back to Billings. He lived in a rougher, working-class neighborhood on the North Side. Kids were scrappy there and he was no different. But he felt drawn to new kids and outsiders and there was a migratory tide of those who were different at his elementary school. When Charles came to school for the first day, pops took him under his wing. They proceeded to the park to play ball or participate in whatever boyhood mischief was occurring during that day’s lunchtime. Then they were sitting across from one another at the creek bed when:
“Suddenly, he just crossed over and he gave me a big wet sloppy kiss. So I punched him in the nose and I broke his glasses.”
The principal, Miss Pilgrim, called him into her office. The rumor was that she beat kids with the rubber hose hanging on the wall and pops was sure that that was his fate. However, she simply sat him down and told him how unacceptable his behavior was. He promised not to handle disputes in the same way in the future. Then she asked what precipitated the fight. He told her simply that Charles had kissed him. He said she worked to remain expressionless but that a tiny smile crept up one side of her mouth. She said no more and dismissed him. He said he’d always wondered what her expression meant and now he understood.
“I guess that makes me a homophobe, though I’d never thought of myself as one. In our day, we didn’t say ‘gay’ or ‘fag,’ they said Charles was ‘queer.'”
He began to tear up and I sat silently, watching the guilt work through him. We’d been discussing a gay friend of the family and what a fine man he was, and I could see pops connecting all the dots.
I asked him how many times he’d seen a man be slapped for surprising a woman with a kiss in the same manner, maybe in college or in a bar. And then he thought of a time when he witnessed that, as well, and said that he’d never thought of the two as similar experiences. Surprise kisses, I conjectured, were simply that and could be met with a number of reactions. At that age, a girl might have garnered a similarly negative reaction.
I know that we both hope Charles lived a good and free life. And that the rest of his kisses were less painful.