Here’s another chapter from my book about my brother. I’m not breaking the text up with subheadings like a regular post. This is not a final draft, so there may be some overwriting and rough spots. Let me know your thoughts, particularly if something is unclear or doesn’t work. All feedback, both positive and negative, is appreciated.
Chapter: The Big Reveal
When I was around twenty-three, I picked up the ringing phone in my townhouse one Saturday afternoon; my sister Bridget dispensed with the normal pleasantries and said she had something to tell me. The tone of her voice oscillated between gossipy excitement and shock. An alarmist by nature, I sat up on my bed, where I had been lounging.
“Oh my God, I think Kevie is gay,” she blurted out.
Of all the possible scenarios racing through my head such as salacious affairs, unexpected divorces, or heinous crimes — that wasn’t one of them. My stunted big-brother instinct to protect a sibling kicked in. No way our little brother was gay. Even though I was jealous of Kevin’s good looks, I took a certain brotherly pride in seeing him with beautiful young women who stared doe-eyed at him.
“Don’t be stupid,” I snorted dismissively. “He’s not gay; he’s shy.”
But Bridget stood by her reporting.
Now don’t misunderstand my reaction; it wasn’t homophobic (okay — it was a little homophobic but not as bad as it would have been years before). By that time in the early 90s, gay rights had definitely made inroads into the culture as attitudes slowly changed, and I had jettisoned a lot of erroneous nonsense about homosexuality. I felt pretty certain that homosexuals were born, not made, though I still thought of it as a genetic error that might be medically fixable at some point. Obviously, my enlightenment still had a ways to go.
So when my sister revealed her suspicion, did I rise to the occasion like a champion of tolerance and acceptance? Fuck no. I took on the role of a seasoned defense attorney attacking a hostile witness as I asked her if Kevin had told her he was gay. She said no and I pounced.
“Okay, how do you know he’s gay then?”
“Because I was helping mom flip his mattress today and we found a magazine under it. And it was full of naked guys!”
There is a reason I’m not a lawyer because my sister had just counter-punched me into near silence. My weak follow up was their discovery didn’t prove anything.
“Sean! It was called Inches!”
I banged the heel of my clenched left fist painfully against my eye socket in a vain attempt to poke myself in my mind’s eye and prevent any more unwanted images from popping into my head. A disconcerting whirlpool of emotional instability spun me around. Our humdrum family now had something novel in it, but I didn’t feel ready. I felt a twinge of hypocritical guilt. As far as my views on sexual orientation, I considered myself to be a fairly enlightened and accepting person, but at that moment, my sister’s revelation put my beliefs to the test, and I was failing it. Other people had gay brothers, and that was great. But not me. Kevin couldn’t be gay. Could he?
I briefly wondered if all those times punching him in the balls as a kid had had any effect.
When you consider my reaction, you have to keep in mind the era when I grew up. In the 70s and 80s, being gay — or even being suspected of being gay — really sucked if you were under the spotlight. In most areas of the country, being gay brought a lot of unwanted attention along with varying degrees of revulsion and hostility. Some states still criminalized certain aspects of homosexuality. Plenty of people openly cracked jokes about gays or mocked them. Some openly harassed them. Some physically attacked them. Popular culture typically depicted gay men as either a lisping, limp-wristed effeminate or a muscular leather boy in chaps and a vest sporting a handlebar mustache, a guy who’d have his way with you, whether you were into it or not, if you walked into the wrong bar. Basically, in the parlance of the day, you were a twinkle-toed fairy or in the Village People. Gays weren’t real people, they were caricatures, and it seemed to be okay to make fun of them and tell fag jokes — hell, as a teen, I laughed at those jokes and retold them. My only defense lies in my immaturity and the culture at the time. But I didn’t personally know any gay people (well, I did, I just didn’t realize it then) and they were just jokes, though I did feel bad if people directed their sharp barbs against an actual person. Of course, I didn’t saying anything in their defense because then people might start thinking I was gay, and I’d had enough of that as a young teen.
In junior high, my bashful nature made me a natural candidate for teens looking to hassle someone for being gay. Filled with raging hormones, I obsessed over girls but could not act directly on it due to my crippling shyness, intense sensitivity to embarrassment, and an acute awareness of my gawkiness. (Age 12 to 16 was not kind to me). I perfected what I thought was a stealth approach to girls. By being in their proximity, I assumed the girls would detect my natural animal magnetism (which of course I assumed I had hidden beneath my ill-fitting clothes, bad haircut, and prominent Adam’s apple). The Universe quickly disabused me of that notion with a soul-destroying experience where one of my 7th-grade crushes, Alicia, preemptively gave me my first ever ‘We can be friends’ talk in front of other students when I got the courage to sit behind her during free time. She shut that shit down before I even got started. Crushed, from then on, I went to extremes to feign disinterest in girls to avoid further humiliation, which ironically got me targeted for even more humiliation as a potential homo.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Have questions or need help? PFLAG is an international support group of LGBTQ, families, friends, and allies committed to advancing equality through support, education, and advocacy.[/perfectpullquote]
Because the major job requirement for being a boy in junior high is being an asshole, some of my classmates enjoyed exposing my shyness and making me uncomfortable with prying questions about my nonexistent romantic life. For added hilarity, in front of our female classmates, they would press me to declare which girl I liked. Dying of embarrassment, I would try to play it off, which invariably led to someone asking me accusingly if I was a faggot. To get them to leave me alone, I felt compelled to tell them how much I hated gay people. It’s not something I’m proud of, but at the time, I would have disowned my own family to get those bastards to leave me alone. And while I didn’t hate gay people as a teen, I did somewhat fear the unknown. I worried about the myth that being around a homosexual could make you gay, as if they had the vampiric power to turn an unwilling person into one of their own kind.
Anyway, by my early twenties, I’d come a long way in my evolution as a human being. Just not quite far enough. Now, my sister’s revelation had me stuck in a groove, as my brain skipped and repeated like a scratched record.
“I don’t know, man,” I muttered to her. “Do you really think he’s gay?”
Bridge let a sliver of doubt into her voice.
“I think so. I don’t know. The only thing I know is I saw naked men with big willies!”
At that, I cringed as an unwanted image of my brother cavorting with naked guys flitted through my head. I quickly hustled everyone offstage.
Okay, I had to admit to myself, maybe he was gay.
“What did Mom say?”
Over the phone, I could practically sense my sister rolling her eyes.
“What do you think? We put the magazine back and flipped the mattress. She didn’t say a word.”
Yep, that was a quintessential Mom response for something out of her comfort zone, that she needed to think about and process. Pretend nothing happened or if it was too serious to overlook, then hand it off to my dad to do the dirty work. A classic example occurred during the summer of my thirteenth year when her snooping uncovered my share of the porn mags that my brother and his friend, James Zeier, had found in an abandoned suitcase while dumpster diving. Being a newspaper boy, I had brashly hidden a few of the magazines in the delivery bags on my bike so I had easy access to reading material, figuring my mother would be none the wiser. I never found out how she uncovered my scheme — probably some slight change in behavior that set off her mom detector — but she never said a word to me. Instead, she quietly summoned dad home from work to ambush me while she retreated across the street to Mrs. Zeier’s, presumably for a cup of tea to soothe her nerves while dad dealt with his degenerate eldest child.
But this new discovery, this was way beyond a simple dirty magazine. This had universe-altering implications; I had no idea how my dad would react when he found out, but I feared not well. So far, the lack of a sonic boom from his head going supernova confirmed that my mom had not yet mentioned anything about it to him. Personally, I doubted she ever would. Not only was my dad retired military with twenty-eight years of service under his belt, but he came from hillbilly country in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia — not exactly a liberal hotbed. And while he was not an inflexible conservative, he was not exactly on the cutting edge of social evolution either. I didn’t know where he stood on the whole gay thing, but I suspected it would not be at the front of a Gay Pride Parade.
When we were growing up, neither of my parents had ever mentioned homosexuality in any context at all. I’d once heard my mom’s friend make an off-handed complaint about “queers” during a holiday dinner, but my mother, unfailingly polite, had neither condoned her friend’s comment nor rebuked her and simply went about as if she hadn’t heard it. The possible fireworks when my dad found out about Kevin — I didn’t even want to think about. And I sure as fuck wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up.
I didn’t find out until years later, but my mom did ask my sister to inquire about the magazine. With the chance to come out of the closet and confide in his closest sibling, Kevin ducked back in and denied ownership of Inches. A senior in high school, he wasn’t ready to deal with his homosexuality. Taking a page out of my playbook, he blamed someone else for the magazine, telling Bridget that our childhood friend Dean Seyfferle had asked him to stash it for him — Kevin claimed to have obliged and then forgotten about it. Now, Dean had stayed over our house a million times since first grade and old man Seyfferle was a church-going Catholic known to apply the belt if his boys didn’t toe the line, so the explanation seemed somewhat plausible, and my sister readily accepted it. The only person not happy with the “Dean is gay” storyline was Dean, who, 30 years later, still occasionally bitches about being framed.
Bridget had easily embraced Kevin’s denial, but her friend Tess, always a straight shooter with a 24/7 bullshit detector, kept telling her that Kevin had to be gay. Eventually, my sister pressed him on it and he confessed, though he promised her to silence. And she kept that promise because she sure as hell never bothered following up and letting me in on it. No, I had to confirm it myself.
In hindsight, Kevin’s response to Bridget made total sense. Being Irish Catholics (Dad was a convert, so he didn’t really count), our culture had hardcoded shame into our core, so anything potentially immoral or uncomfortable, we avoided discussing or acknowledging due to the inevitable embarrassment (or fear of being implicated). Our mom, a very loving person, wanted us to be able to confide in her, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t. She would sometimes talk about delicate things like sex in a very general way, such as “Sex between married people is a very beautiful thing.” She couldn’t even tell us about where babies came from but made Bridget and I watch an ABC AfterSchool Special: My Mom’s Having a Baby, while she disappeared over to Mrs. Zeirer’s for a cup of tea. (Actually, by the time my dad passed away, I was 45 and still waiting for my official sex talk). Whenever one of these conversations threatened to break out, I made sure to not to respond in any fashion to deprive it of fuel. Standard protocol involving anything verboten was to keep your head down and your mouth closed and hope it went away quickly. And if someone accused you of anything you denied it — even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In fact, the more evidence the accuser had, the harder you denied it and the more indignant you became as you tried to deflect blame. We would have made excellent politicians when it came to handling scandals.
Anyway, as my phone conversation with Bridget began to wind down, I thoughtlessly blurted out how unfair life was: “You know if God was going to make Kevin gay, why couldn’t he at least swap our looks instead of wasting them on him?”
“Don’t be silly,” said my sister giving me a reality check, “Kevie needs to get dates too.”
Huh, well, I had never thought about it that way. Chalk me up for selfish and ignorant. But her comment brought up uncomfortable thoughts about my brother and his possible relationships. That would be weird around the holidays. But I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
After Bridge and I hung up, I kept thinking about it. My brother was gay. My brother was fucking gay! I couldn’t get over it. When I told my coworker and occasional lover (a complicated relationship that I naturally kept hidden from my family), who’d been around a lot of gay men in her former career as a makeup artist, she confessed she hadn’t picked up on Kevin’s sexuality.
Nothing happened right away after our conversation. On my next visit to my parents, I waited till no one was around and cautiously looked under Kevin’s mattress and sure enough, the boner mag was still there.
I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out how to get Kevin to fess up that he was gay. The thought of just walking up and asking him never occurred to me. Maybe they did that in other families, but not in the Layton household. We weren’t wired that way. As much as I hated myself for it, I always had to subtly crab-walk my way into a delicate conversation. No, instead I would need to set a trap and lure Kevin into it. So, I fell back on a ruse I’d recently used on my friend Gary Eberhard to get him to admit to me that his older brother Larry was gay, something I’d suspected since junior high. Basically, I told Gary about a fake science fiction story I was supposedly writing where the protagonist was a gay teen whose parents forced him against his will to undergo a gene therapy procedure that made him straight. My fake story had worked then, so I figured I’d give it another shot.
That shot took a while in coming. Kevin had graduated high school and never seemed to be around. By then, I’d moved into another townhouse with my co-worker/occasional paramour and finally, my brother decided to stop by to hang out, which was unusual. I figured I’d never have a better chance, so I waited for the perfect moment to tell him about my story, but I ended up having to awkwardly shoehorn it into the conversation. My brother listened and I could tell he was thinking and then the magic happened: He admitted to me he was gay. It was a huge step forward — even though I’d basically had to trick him into it.
His relief that I didn’t attack him or even say anything snarky was almost tangible. I told him it was cool and that I’d support him and he thanked me.
“Okay, but you’re sure you’re gay then?” (I just had to be sure.)
“Well, as sure as wanting to have sex with other guys makes me,” he answered dryly, and I felt my face redden. Touché.
As we talked, I reminded him about the porn stash he’d found as a kid and how the neighborhood boys would gather in the park with Hustlers and Penthouses for an obscene reading session. He’d appeared to be ogling the naked ladies with the rest of us.
“I was looking at Captain Beaver,” he replied, referring to a faux porno superhero in one of the photospreads who’d used his giant, capitalist dong to defeat two female Communist soldiers from North Korean and force them into orgasmic surrender.
The fact that we were having our first, real adult conversation — albeit a kind of a weird one — felt liberating. I felt we’d made a breakthrough in our relationship as brothers and as human beings. With the floodgates now open, I asked him when he knew he was gay or if he’d always known.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I didn’t know I was gay as a kid because I didn’t even know what being gay was, but I knew I was different. I was never interested in girls.”
“And you don’t like sports.”
“Ha. Very funny.”
“But you do like musicals — but I like musicals too.”
“You are such an idiot.”
In high school, he said he’d tried to fake liking girls and gone on a couple of dates, but felt no attraction and never slept with one. He’d felt fraudulent and uncomfortable trying to avoid intimate situations without blowing his cover and making some poor girl miserable.
Then I asked him if it was a choice.
His tone became agitated as bitterness crept into his voice.
“Do you really think I would choose to be gay? Would you? Why would I choose this lifestyle just so people can hate me? I fucking hate being gay,” he said. “I just want to be like everyone else. You know, have a family. But I’m just not attracted to women.”
I mentioned that I’d worked with a gay guy at America West Airlines who told me that being gay was a choice. He claimed he’d consciously decided on homosexuality after he got out of the Navy and had divorced his wife. But the guy was a sociopath and done some evil shit, like wooing a nineteen-year-old who was freshly out of the closet while neglecting to mention he’d just found out he was HIV. So I didn’t trust anything he said.
“That pisses me off,” Kevin said his eyes flashing in annoyance. “He’s not gay; he’s bisexual. He can make a choice. I can’t unless I want to live a lie.”
Kev talked about the torture of keeping his secret, of being afraid to tell others he was gay because of how they might react. How some people ostracized him when they found out.
The amount of self-loathing touched a chord in me and I wished I could make things right for my little brother, so he’d be happy. But there was nothing I could do except tell him he had to learn to be happy with who he was.
Years later he would tell me how lonely and confused he’d been at that time because he had no one to talk to. He didn’t know how to be gay. He had no mentors, no gay friends. Afraid and hating himself, he had started relying on drugs more. His friends, the kids we’d grown up with, drifted away because he’d taken his partying to the next level and began using meth; some simply couldn’t accept his sexuality or didn’t know how to deal with it. His isolation became pronounced. By the time he was old enough, terrified, he got up the courage and went to a gay bar, alone. And that’s really kicked his drinking and meth use into high gear.
“Everyone I met was partying. I thought that’s just what gay culture was about. Having fun and using meth. I didn’t know any gay people who were successful and led regular lives. I fell in with the wrong crowd.”
But that lay in the future. While we chatted in my townhouse, Kevin became wistful about the family he would never have and an imaginary daughter he would have doted over.
“She’d be adorable, and I’d name her Violet,” he sighed.
At the time, the name sounded old-fashioned to me.
“Violet? Lucky for her you won’t be having kids.”
He punched me hard in the shoulder.
“Ooo, why do you make me hate you?”
Actually, what I’d almost said out of reflex before I caught myself was “Violet? That is so gay!” Which might have elevated the punch into a headlock.
Suddenly, it dawned on me I was going to have to start policing my vocabulary. I used the words fag and gay a lot. Not in reference to homosexuals — but just as general insults or in reference to someone being dumb or a douche bag. Now there would be no more utterances of “Quit being gay” or walking into a room and saying “So what are you fags up to?” Obviously, things were going to have to change.
Then it was time to get down to brass tacks.
“What are you going to do — are you going to tell mom and dad?”
Kevin got animated.
“Fuck no! Mom would want me to talk to a priest. And I don’t know what Dad would do. Probably disown me.”
And that was the great unanswered question. What would Dad do?
“I think mom already knows,” I warned him, though obviously, I knew she’d found the magazine. (Bridget would tell me years later that she had already sat down and told Mom, who’d quietly accepted it without really saying much.)
“She probably does. Just promise me you won’t open your big fucking mouth around Dad.”
The implication that I was the weak link mildly offended me, but I had to admit there was a precedence of weasely behavior in my past. So I agreed not to say anything — not that there was any danger of that happening in this particular case. I began telling him what I would do if I were him, which always got under his skin, and he told me to shut up, he’d figure it out.
“I’m not joking. Do NOT say anything to Dad! I’m going to do it when I’m ready.”
Apparently, doing it on his own time meant never because a couple of years later, the fact that Kevin was gay was still the elephant hiding in the closet when it came to my father.
But by that time, the family had bigger things to worry about because Kevin had developed a full-blown drug problem.
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