by Elliot Wasserman
During my years in public school, certain boys were singled out for ridicule simply because they displayed qualities stereotypically defined as gay or effeminate. A boy who lisped and couldn’t show a chipped tooth or braces as the cause was guilty. Any boy who cried whose injury was not clearly as visible to the observer as is a broken limb or a squashed and profusely bleeding nose was guilty. A high-pitched voice (such as I had as a boy) or a hand that hung from a suspiciously limp wrist could convict you as “wrong.” Any sign of physical delicacy marked you as queer. Once, without knowing it, I received a “test” from another boy who asked me if my nails were clean. I held my hand out in front of me and looked at my straightened fingers, arched slightly back under the tension of inspection. I was immediately cautioned by the boy not to do it that way. He explained that a man would turn his hand over and examine his nails with his fingers curled in toward the palm. A “homo” would hold out his hands like fans, as I had. Was I a “homo”? The “test” was a way of cautioning me not to make such a simple mistake.
I took note that girls could carry their books against their chest or canted out from their waist, but boys had to sling them under their arms in a less comfortable manner. I learned that wearing a shirt with a “fruit loop” on the back was a bad sign, and if you did wear one, another boy might cut it off with a scissors for your own good or just rip it off leaving you with a torn garment. Otherwise you were a “fruit.” It was ridiculous. We were acting silly. We were all scared.
We were also scared because the grown-ups, the teachers, knew that certain boys were selected for ridicule and often provided tacit approval. A physical education teacher who chuckled at a boy’s weak and unnatural throwing motion during a softball practice could, by his subtle smirk, feed that boy to the wolves; and those boys knew they could not appeal for protection to most teachers, not from “a little hazing.” That was meant to correct their behavior, to toughen them up. Learn to stand up for yourself, we were told: be a man. If the lessons recited in this play’s boarding school seem extreme, we must see in them some of the origins of our own.
Some in society believe it is helpful to define in order to judge sexual preference, as if they were articulating a list of existential choices. But the gender definition that so constrains serves only those who seek to constrain, for it does not countenance the longing of others. In truth people need no help “feeling” sexual preference, anymore than I needed to learn the proper way to carry my books or examine my fingernails. In our most passive state, inhaling, exhaling, we desire something. We don’t choose to desire it.
Four boys in this play are inhaling and exhaling Romeo and Juliet. They are breathing the most beautiful, lyrical poetry in our language and finding in it the pure truth of what they deeply feel. Shakespeare does not teach them to feel that truth, but he provides them the means to express it. I’m not surprised. Where better to discover our humanity? Who could give it greater voice or more proper definiton?