Although born in Detroit, I was in Flint, Michigan for kindergarten through third grade.
During that time I was very aware of my attraction to the bodies of older men. I didn’t nurture such thoughts, and no one around me talked about sexuality.
My first source of excitement was my older brother’s neighborhood friend, Eric. As a young teenager, he was tall, had wavy blond hair, and when he shot hoops in his driveway, he wore a tank top. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, but I wasn’t sure why. I was afraid of the intensity of my attraction, as it was a new emotion for me. I wasn’t attracted to my brother, but his friendship with Eric increased the amount of time I got to watch him in that tank top. “Pick me up, Eric. Pick me up.”
In that same time period, this best little Irish Catholic, parochial school angel was in Florida with my family for Christmas. One day, a friend of my father’s, whose name was Mr. Strong, took off his clothes and put on his bathing suit at the same time and place as my younger brother and I. He didn’t turn around when he took off his underwear as I was accustomed to doing. I snuck a look at his body, his hairy chest, his pubic hair, and his penis, and it was as if a huge wave hit me full force. I was mesmerized. I wanted the moment to last forever.
Later that day, when our family and Mr. Strong’s family were on a pleasure boat, I jumped on Mr. Strong’s lap before his son got the chance. My dad was sitting across from us, his lap empty, and I remember feeling guilty, and not wanting to hurt my father’s feelings. So, I eventually climbed down. But for the time I was in Mr. Strong’s lap, and felt the warmth of his adult male body, with his hairy arms around me so that I didn’t fall off, I was in a heavenly place I’d never been before.
Dad had many friends who came to the house with their wives, or alone, for drinks and cards. I had my favorites, like Mr. Mitchell. I also was attracted to the father of my friend, Todd. Once when we were playing cards, my leg rubbed against his and shock waves electrified my entire body. I wanted more. Please, let’s touch again.
I knew not to mention these feelings to anyone. A good boy like me wasn’t supposed to have such thoughts or feelings. When I went to confession, which we did as first graders, I’d tell the priest that I had impure thoughts. He never pursued it. What could a 7-year-old be thinking about that was “impure?”
I’ve been a homosexual my entire life, including when I was a youngster, and I needed help understanding my attractions. What do you call them and where do they come from? Are they normal? Will I outgrow them? Am I a bad boy despite my intense spiritual relationship with God? And, was it a sin for me to look at the scantily clad body of Jesus hanging on the cross in Church, and at pictures of St. Sebastian whose near-naked body was shot with arrows?
The Florida Legislature and governor believe that children like me shouldn’t hear the word “gay” in school from kindergarten through third grade because it will confuse them, and make them want to experiment. They also don’t want them to learn about gender identity because it will make the boys want to be a girl. Some of them probably actually believe they’re doing a good thing, but that’s because they don’t know the stories of boys and girls like me. They haven’t heard the stories of children who knew from the get-go that they were attracted to their own sex, or born in the wrong body.
In my book for children who are age 4 to 10, a little girl asks her cousin “What’s ‘gay?’” A mourning dove that was listening in tells them, “It’s a way to love.” Wow! My life from kindergarten through third grade would have been a lot less stressful, a lot happier, and a lot more open if I and all of my classmates learned that “gay” is just a way to love. Other birds start chiming in telling the children that boys and boys, and girls and girls can play house together, and that there are gay animals too, such as a moose named Larry. If I had that book read to me by my teacher at that time in my life, I would have been much more likely to tell my mom and dad that I was attracted to older men.
My mother suspected as much but never said anything. She thought that if she kept her eye on me, and protected me from the wrong people, I’d eventually enter the seminary to become a priest, or get married to one of my many girlfriends. When I was in fourth grade, and we moved to Grand Blanc, I clearly remember my mother saying, “Stay away from the next-door neighbor’s son.” She never said why, until later in life she told me he was gay. Can you imagine that if I knew as a 10-year-old that “gay” was “a way to love,” I’d have made a beeline to the neighbor’s house and asked their adult son tons of questions. But I was being protected against myself.
You may feel these words are harsh, but I’ve come to believe that I was the victim of child abuse. I was abused because no one would help me understand my feelings. There were no laws forbidding teachers from talking about being gay, but in the 1950s no one ever mentioned the word, especially the nuns who taught me. Every example that was given to me in my classroom “Think and Do” books was about a heterosexual family. I easily picked up that if I ever spoke about my feelings there would be harsh consequences. But that didn’t stop me from being attracted to Eric, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Strong, Todd’s dad, and dozens of other men on television. I’m grateful to them all for being in my memories the men who helped me awaken to my sexual orientation.
Please say “gay” to children. Telling them that it’s a way to love won’t confuse them, nor will it make them gay. It will assure them that if they are attracted to people of the same sex they are normal, and good, and much loved.
Those of you who are gay or transgender, and can recall your childhood feelings of awareness, please tell your stories. Write them on social media. Help others understand why forbidding teachers to talk to youngsters about sexual orientation or gender identity, does the children great harm. It’s abuse.
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.