These are the only things I know about my tenth-grade Health class, South Carolina, c. 1989.
- It was held in the same room in which I had taken seventh-grade Life Science and in which I was also taking tenth-grade Biology. I remember where I sat in Life Science and where I sat in Biology but not where I sat in Health.
- Our teacher, who was also the girls’ volleyball coach, had long, straight, blonde hair. I don’t even remember having the impression that she was a lesbian, which, come on, girls’ volleyball coach.
- If I hadn’t done so very many hideously embarrassing things in my life, my final project would definitely rank among the most hideously embarrassing things I have ever done.
I assume we had spent the semester studying whatever kids studied in the eighties in Health class, Staying Healthy, Not Smoking, Not Getting Pregnant, whatever, I don’t know. But when Ms. WhateverHerNameWas told us that we had to do a final project, the topic I chose was Self-Esteem.
For my project, I made a mix tape.
If I remember correctly, this was when I was still buying cassette tapes because I believed that CDs were a fad, so my originals were other cassette tapes, which I put into my mother’s double-cassette-player and recorded onto new tapes Jesus Christ how the fuck did we stand it?
The title of the mix tape should have been Things That Help Me Not Go Batshit Insane While I Wait Till I Graduate and Can Get the Fuck Out of My Small Southern Town and Move Somewhere Normal Where There Are Gay People. Of course there were gay people in my small Southern town, some of whom I was friends with, but you know what I mean.
An alternative but just as appropriate title for the mix tape would have been I Am Sad and Sensitive and No One Will Ever Love Me.
Neither of those, however, is what I actually called the mix tape.
What I actually called the mix tape was Whispers: Steps Along the Path to an Understanding of the Joy of Life.
I got “Whispers” from the name of a hair salon in town, the full name of which was Whispers Hair in Motion. I had been there once and the experience had been terrifying, because the ancient (probably twenty? a well-preserved twenty-three?) guy doing my hair flirtatiously blew my crotch dry and invited me to his apartment to get a massage, which, ew, come on, I was fifteen. But even though I had been traumatized by my visit to Whispers Hair in Motion, it still apparently gave me the perfect name for my mix tape.
Anyway, there was music on this mix tape—including, I’m quite certain, the Pachelbel Canon in D—but, since I knew that making a mix tape of just songs about Self-Esteem wasn’t going to get me an A+, there were also interspersed readings. Whispers, now with even more fagginess! There was a little of this sentimental pap, a little of that treacly pablum, something from Tales of the City, probably something from Auntie Mame, and something from oh God the rest is obviously so much worse even than the Pachelbel Canon in D that I have repressed the memory, but I was still lacking the pièce de résistance that would make Whispers the masterpiece to earn me a grade of A+.
And then I read The Lord Won’t Mind.
I have no earthly idea where I came by my copy, which is no longer in my possession. Tales of the City I had bought at the mall, either at Walden Books (RIP) or at B. Dalton Books (RIP), but my memory of The Lord Won’t Mind is of a used paperback with yellowed pages and a cover that was coming off, and Walden and B. Dalton only sold new books. There were no used bookstores in town. Perhaps I clicked my heels three times together and a fairy godmother visited me and I woke up one morning to find it in the bathroom next to my acne cream.
In any case, The Lord Won’t Mind was written by one Gordon Merrick and published in 1970, a year after the Stonewall riots (an event of which I don’t think I’d yet heard). The Amazon blurb for the most recent edition reads as follows:
Charlie Mills always played the role of the good grandson, and his grandmother rewarded him for it handsomely in the form of all the gifts, money, and attention a boy could want. Entering college in the late 1930s, Charlie just has to keep doing what his grandmother expects of him in order to continue to receive her gifts. He has to find a nice girl, get married, and have a few kids. Then one summer, he meets Peter Martin.
Peter is everything that Charlie has ever wanted. Despite all the obstacles, Charlie immediately craves and pursues Peter, who happily obliges him. As they grow closer, Charlie is forced to choose between two options: complying with the expectations of society and family, or following the call of true love. In this, the first book of the Charlie & Peter Trilogy, Gordon Merrick creates an enduring portrait of two young men deeply in love, and the tribulations they endure to express themselves and maintain their relationship.
The Lord Won’t Mind was trash, pure and simple. It was not particularly well written. The characters are racist and misogynistic and there’s a magical Negress. Charlie is—I haven’t reread it for years, so I should offer the caveat that I could be remembering this wrong—a thoroughly selfish, unpleasant, violent fellow who treats Peter like garbage for much of the story.
And I couldn’t put it down, because they spent the whole book fucking.
Here was literature (solve for some value of “literature”), a work that I might find on the shelves of a bookstore and legally buy instead of having to sneak it out of the magazine store under my shirt because I was too young but dropping a five on the floor before I left because stealing was wrong, and there were two guys. Fucking. On page twenty-two, at that. (Also roughly every ten pages after that.)
Not kissing, like James Wilby and Hugh Grant did in Maurice, which was fine but whatever, I didn’t get it at the time, and not coyly connoting sexuality without denoting it, like in E.F. Benson’s brilliant Lucia books, but actually cock-in-ass (well, “he slid his sex between the buttocks”) fucking. Gay men fucking, not men and women fucking, which was a thing that belonged on some planet in another solar system, but people like me.
Now, I knew about gay fucking. I mean, I knew that gay people did it. I didn’t have any explicit interest in it myself; my masturbatory fantasies at the time were astonishingly tame. (One day when I was twelve my mother walked in on me jacking off to The Love Boat.) But fucking was in the set of things with whose existence I was familiar.
What fucking wasn’t was real.
Look, I was a lonely, alienated kid with no friends. There was nowhere in this world that I felt I belonged. So I found another world where I did: books. Whatever, I’m not going to go into a whole thing about this, because probably every single person reading Queer Romance Month was the same lonely, alienated kid, or close enough to understand exactly what I’m talking about.
Reading about fucking in literature made it real.
So I devoured The Lord Won’t Mind. I reread it. I wanted to be Charlie. I wanted to be Peter. I reread it again. I reread it again, just the parts with the fucking. It transformed my understanding of the world.
So I put it in my Health class project.
The damn thing was called Whispers: Steps Along the Path to an Understanding of the Joy of Life, after all, right? Well, reading about Charlie fucking Peter (never the other way around) definitely got me closer to an understanding of the joy of life.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the courage to include a reading of page 22 in Whispers. No, I just used the line that gave the book its title. Somewhere in the middle of the book, Peter is at a party with, among other people, the magical Negress, and she’s talking about Charlie, and she says—the book is in my house somewhere but there’s no way I’ll be able to find it before this is due so I just bought it on Kindle so I could look this up—“ Of course, he has his ways that some folks don’t understand, but I don’t know. I say, if it’s love, the Lord won’t mind. There’s enough hate in the world.”
But when I read those words in my just-broken voice onto the half-blank tape that sat turning in my mother’s double-cassette recorder, what I was really saying was, “OMG FUCKING IS REAL!!!!!” And that did more for my self-esteem than probably anything else on the tape, with the possible exception, naturally, of the Pachelbel Canon in D.
The morning it was due I went to school with a bounce in my step, a twinkle in my eye, and sodomy on my mind.
I got an A+.
And fucking is real..
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About Joel Derfner
Joel is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts. Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise).
He is one of the writers of Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint.
In a city that never was, sex, scandal, and swordplay combine in a melodrama of manners that returns readers to the beloved world of Ellen Kushner’s LGBT fantasy classic, Swordspoint. A dance of betrayal and treachery begins when a Duchess, a scholar, a Duke, a genius, and a visitor from across the sea are brought together by long-buried lies.
Written by: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover.