Tuesday, February 08, 2011

It Gets Better, But ...


What a surprise to get this picture -- click to ENLARGE -- of my junior varsity tennis team in my e-mail yesterday, from the husband of teammate Mike Mishoe, who found the clipping in Myk's (new spelling) "pack rat" collection of mementos. (You may recall the Myk and Andrew made a great "Jerry Maguire"-inspired video for their pre-Prop 8 California wedding reception!)

I'd like to say that the photo of me and my fellow Rhodes Roadrunners brings back a rush of good memories -- I played No. 1 singles and doubles (with Brad) and we won City Championships in 1981-82, after all -- but sadly, it mostly reminds me of the heartless anti-gay bullying I was subjected to by my so-called friends. Ironically, they weren't even "accusing" me of being gay -- directly, at least -- but had decided my 8th-grader friend Greg (right) was a "fag," and wanted me to decide between him and "them." I was stunned -- and devastated. My closest friend on the team at the time was Jim -- we had been virtually inseparable for about a year leading up to this -- yet he ended up spearheading this out-of-left-field ultimatum. Overnight, I went from being a popular part of the gang to having my phone ring at all hours of the night with each team member calling me up and -- in their best "Greg" voice -- asking me if they could come over tonight "to have sex," before bursting into hysterics. I was horrified -- and terrified. (How long before they said something to my family?) Making matters even worse, Coach Puceloski not only did nothing to discourage this behavior, he participated in it. I couldn't understand what was really going on here. Was this their way of telling me they knew I was gay? And even if it wasn't, it made it clear that being gay -- as they had decided Greg most certainly was -- was not acceptable. (Already weighing heavily on my mind was Billie Jean King's shameful palimony-suit filed by her female lover -- which was the first time I actually associated the word "gay" with how I felt.)

Without a second thought, I stood by Greg -- with whom I am still best friends 30 years later -- and that was the end of me. I was completely ostracized from the team, and spent the remaining part of the season sitting alone on the school bus en route to away meets, skipping post-practice outings to Peter Piper Pizza, and attended the awards ceremony with no one on the team uttering a word to me. (Naturally, Brad was given the Player of the Year award.)

Boy In the Tree: The letterman, resting on his laurels in high school

Making matters exponentially worse during this traumatic period was the fact that I was also dealing with the discovery of a huge mass on my left testicle. If I was avoiding the locker room at all costs prior to this, imagine what I was going through now. During a mandatory tennis team physical at school -- all us boys lined up and dropping trou -- the man (a doctor?) with the rubber glove squeezed my abnormal ball and told me I needed to see a urologist "immediately." (I was different, so of course my privates were too, my adolescent brain reasoned, and he could tell I was gay just by looking at me down there.) In my shame and utter fear, I told no one, and then self-diagnosed myself with testicular cancer -- something pro player Butch Waltz had been battling around this time -- and convinced myself it was caused by my disgusting secret, the same secret that cost me all my friends.

For the remaining years of high school, I fended off questions from friends and family about why I wasn't on the tennis team anymore -- tennis was my life, after all -- but I could only make up vague excuses about being "so busy." I also spent the next seven years believing I would likely die in my sleep each night from this slow-growing "tumor," yet I did nothing to stop it. The whole thing is hard to even believe now -- even for me -- but you'd be surprised what fear and self-loathing can do to a kid's mind. The experience was a living nightmare that still colors the way I view the world to this day. Yet eventually I almost felt a strange sense of (faux) superiority because of it, like I knew things "these silly kids" did not (was this wisdom?). I grew increasingly close to my teachers -- whom I viewed as my true friends -- which only further alienated me from my peers. It wasn't until I was 20 years old that I finally got up the nerve to see a doctor -- I hadn't died yet, so figured it was time -- and it turned out I had a varicocele, an unsightly but benign condition caused by an enlargement of the vein that drains the testicle ... that has nothing to do with being gay(!).

Many years later, I learned that Jim -- the homo-hating ringleader whose mother was an Evangelical Christian who would pass out Hostess baked goods (from the day-old store!) to people on the street in an attempt to lure them into her church -- was (you guessed it) a homosexual, and it was only then that the whole thing began to make sense.

Did it get better? It most definitely did. Still, the stories I hear about today do not sound that much different from what I went through 30 years ago -- when my sexuality left me feeling abandoned and allowed me to ignore serious concerns about my health in what a friend later called a "passive suicide attempt" -- and that really breaks my heart, all over again.

Footnote: Last summer, after years of residual fear, embarrassment and procrastination, I finally decided to have my varicocele -- the biggest my surgeon claims he'd ever seen (gee, thanks!) -- removed. Decades in the making and what happened? The surgery failed. It somehow seemed fitting, so I just had to laugh. (It's a complicated procedure and these things happen sometimes.) I'm slated to return to the operating room a week from Thursday, though, to finally put that demon to rest. Wish me luck! Perhaps Jim will be waiting for me in the recovery room.

(Follow me on Twitter HERE.)

21 comments:

Jay said...

thanks for sharing that, Kenneth. You are a brave soul. Good luck with your surgery next week...we need you here!!

Dave in Texas said...

Flashback to the mid-70's when I had a similar episode of bullying that made me go from a popular outgoing teen to being very quiet and, well, not so popular. It took years to get over it. How many kids (and adults), that bully others they suspect are gay, later come out as gay themselves? It usually has to do with them dealing with their own sexuality. I'm glad you stood by your friend, and even happier that you remain friends today.

Chad said...

Thanks for sharing this story, Kenneth. I learn more and more about you through this blog. Best wishes for a smooth operation and speedy recovery!

Marcus said...

This is a very sad story, but I have to tell you that you and your teammates were some of the cutest boys I've ever seen! Did you go to West Beverly High? :-)

mattrett said...

And in those skintight slacks I always thought it just meant you were hung! :0) I have that, too, though it's not very visible. I have some rather atrosh varicose veins on one leg, though, and that's the same thing I believe (though not the same). I wish you well on your surgery and I know it will be a success.

This story is amazing, by the way. I never did an IT GETS BETTER video partly because my history is so mundane, but yours is a great story. Did you ever reconnect with Jim and find out what his thoughts are now?

Very sleepy australian said...

:( It's so sad that you dropped out of the tennis team because of this, I'm thankful that teachers during my time in high school would not react in the same manner as your coach. Good on you for sticking by your friend!

nojarama said...

Thanx for the story. I think the sad reality is, most kids, at some point, have to endure some sort of "gay" harassment/bullying (especially in junior/middle school- not that it's right, I think the insecurity of most boys (and some girls) use it as an easy way to raise their own self-worth) regardless of whether or not they actually are "family". I, of course, got loads of it (harrassment), even in elementary school. But, as I grew, I became very much deflective of it & I actually would turn it around & spit it back (pun intended) in their faces (if I even cared). Luckily, I hung around the "misfits" in my school, so they taught me the art of verbal abuse- since my skinny ass was no match for the husky hecklers). My favorite responses in high school were: "Fag?!! Where?!! I need a date for prom!!!" and "If you don't stop talking shit about me, I'm gonna tell everyone WE'RE sleeping together". I also proudly told anyone who would start in on me that they'd best watch their backs, as I was sleeping with the entire football team & they don't like to share. I, was also VERY lucky to have soooo many friends defend me throughout the decades. I tell them thank you every time I see them. Ironically, most say that they were proud of my braveness and for standing my ground & keeping my originality & self-worth the priority even at a young age. Glad you're getting your "rocks" checked too!

MG said...

"...but you'd be surprised what fear and self-loathing can do to a kid's mind."

This sticks out and makes me sad. It sums up what kids go through because of bullies.

Brad G. said...

Hi Kenny,

I am deeply saddened to hear how difficult this period of time in your life was. I have few memories of that team, other than winning the city title with you, and I'm sure that's partly because I did not face the judgement and bullying that you did. Knowing that such treatment often stems out of deep insecurities, confusion or questions about the bully does little to mitigate the damage it can cause.

Best of luck to you during your surgery and congratulations on your success.


Regards,

Brad Gantt

Anonymous said...

Hey, So does it seem like you have 3 balls? Just wondering, I met a guy who said he had three and I could feel three but maybe it was this?

Sam said...

Thanks for sharing this story that I am sure so many others can relate to. It does get better. Just wish you would have been able to join the ATP!

robb said...

thank you for sharing, kenneth. good luck with the surgery. hopefully everything will work out this time.

author said...

Thank-you for sharing your story...

I am sending you a big hug...

(((Kenneth)))

Good luck with the surgery next week (please take care of yourself!)

xo

Shane

Henry Holland said...

I really want to cry after reading that. My parents gently chide me for being a misanthrope but damn! people can be cruel animals for no good reason. As Sartre has a character in his play No Exit say:

Hell is other people

I avoided the gay rumors by being an-uber jock in high school. It helped that I really did love watching and playing baseball, basketball and hockey, but I also used it as a shield. I still get horrible pangs of guilt --I'm 51 now-- about how I said nothing when some other kid was getting the "You're a fag!" treatment because it might lead to questions about me. The whole Kurt/Karofsky storyline on Glee just kills me.

Thanks for your story, Kenneth, I love your blog. Please take care and good luck with your upcoming surgery.

CAM Jr said...

Powerful story. It makes it glaringly clear to me now why you're sometimes overly critical of others. In laymen's terms, "Hurt people, hurt people." Honestly, man, it DOES get better---if you WANT it to!

Steve said...

Intriguing story.

I'm a few years older, and as we've discussed in the past, tennis was my life, too, and as an eventual very good public courts player, I put a different "spin" on my situation.

In high school, despite compiling rankings of the pro, a certifiable "Rain Man" on all results and players (which continued), I truly wasn't quite ready to be a player on the high school team, so I told myself, perhaps to avoid any uncomfortable and potentially anti-gay scenarios.

After high school, when I started to become ridiculously good (writer's embellishment), I found myself duty bound to defeat all my straight opponents, which was, really, all of them in my circle. I felt any losses to any of them would be a disgrace to the gay club, and when the losses occurred, I was devastated. When I'd win, it was often with a sense of relief.

This nonsense mentality at its best, gave me some euphoric and sanctimonious enjoyment out of beating the "gay haters," (only a couple of them really would toss about a slur).

Conversely, whenever there would be an occasional match against someone whom I presumed to be gay, I became even MORE tense on court because I would be hiding my secret, simultaneously embarrassed by my opponent, and even more wickedly self-loathing, I believed that there was no room for another fag player besides me.

It's astounding what a little lob in the afternoon can do to a lad.

BC said...

Thanks for sharing your childhood story. Very touching. I too had a varicocele as a child, self-diagnosed myself with testicular cancer and was afraid to tell anyone about it. I did however get it removed when I was 13 and I'm happy to report to that my balls have been the same size ever since. So good luck next week!

John said...

We've all got a story, but you seem to do a great job telling yours. I just hate that you put yourself out there and some people still feel the need to poke. Glad you made it through, and good luck with the surgery.

Marc said...

A friend of mine -- who's also a psychologist -- says that most gay men were essentially robbed of their adolescence by traumas like this. (I was singled out for abuse in 7th grade, and was never the same after that.)

We lost almost 10 years of our lives as a result -- which might explain why we always look 10 years younger, but that's another story.

So what do we do now? I don't really have the answer, but they say living well is the best revenge. Maybe enjoying life and being a good, strong, wise, healthy, compassionate person is revenge enough for me. With occasional trips to Paris and Acapulco thrown in.

And I think I'll leave my varicocele alone while I wait for your results. (Dude, where are the before-and-after pics? Your site metrics would go through the roof!)

Anonymous said...

Good luck on Thursday. Thanks for the story, it was an interesting read.

Ung said...

Great story... I can relate on many levels... BTW, your friend Greg was obviously a Chrissy Evert fan. He had the classic Chrissy hand to the side, racket back with minimal topspin grip... I know many gay players of a certain age with the exact same technique... :-) ... If you ever come to Fort Lauderdale look me up. We have a great group of guys who play very competitive tennis at the local clubs down here.

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