Studio 54 debuted, Donna Summer oozed disco sex, and Saturday Night Fever introduced me to polyester boogie nights.
It was also the year of my rhinestone-studded pants, and my brief professional writing career.
The rhinestone-studded pants were an unfortunate fashion risk that I took while attempting to fit into junior high school. Apparently, disco fever had not taken hold as quickly in Greensboro, North Carolina as it had in New York. The pants earned me the title of tackiest dresser, and taught me an important lesson: To fit in, I would have to look like everyone else.
If there was anyone who did not look like everyone else, it was Mr. Dickinson, my Social Studies teacher. With shoulder length brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and a hint of five o’clock stubble, his looks were singularly distracting. I had learned from Catholic school that my thoughts about him were immoral, but God would just have to forgive me. Not that I would ever divulge those thoughts in the confessional booth.
Mr. Dickinson, an avid environmentalist, gave us an assignment to enter an essay writing contest. The theme was “Wildlife needs you!” Yes! I thought to myself. Here was my chance to impress him.
During that entire hour of class, I poured my heart into writing about beautiful oak trees with Spanish moss, soaring eagles, and purple mountain majesties. It was a masterpiece so expressive, so well-crafted, that he would have no choice but to proclaim his love for me. He would do this discreetly, of course, probably by passing me a note.
As Mr. Dickinson walked by and collected our papers, I beamed with pride and looked over at Darnell-The-Jock’s one-sentence scribbled work: “Wildlife can suck my big fat…” And then it hit me. Darnell had taken this theme in a direction I could not have imagined. If that was what he thought about the assignment, how ridiculous was I going to look?
I won first place. But there was no impassioned note from Mr. Dickinson declaring “I love you! If you love me, check this box.” What I did receive were two tickets to the Greensboro Natural Science Center, and social suicide delivered via an announcement of my achievement on the school PA system. Second important lesson: To fit in, I had to think and act like everyone else.
My brief writing career ended. Writing about what I knew would divulge the secret I had to keep. Being Gay was not an option. In order to survive, I had to keep my thoughts to myself.
And that is what I did for 30 more years: survived. But after all those years, the secret became too heavy to bear. Just saying three words — “I am Gay” — allowed all of the other words to come spilling out. Life, it turned out, could be so much more than survival. It could be downright wonderful. I met and married a man who rivaled all that I imagined my life with Mr. Dickinson could be.
Writers write about what they know. And what I know is a variation on my ninth grade theme paper: “Life needs you.” Life needs every unique individual. When I write about my everyday laughter, loves, and neuroses in an authentic and humorous way, I validate who I am and celebrate what I have found.
I write for the ninth grade boy who wonders if he will ever find love.
I write so that others will do more than survive.
I write so that others will live.