he defies you still
A homeroom in a Catholic High School in South Philadelphia. The boy sits quietly in the first aisle, third desk, reading a book. He does not look up, not even for a moment. He is hoping no one will remember he is sitting there. He wishes he were invisible. The teacher is not yet in the classroom so the other boys are talking and laughing loudly.
Suddenly a voice from beside him: “Hey, you’re a faggot, ain’t ya?”
The boy does not answer. He goes on reading his book, or rather pretending he is reading his book. It is impossible to actually read the book now.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!”
The boy still does not look up. He is so scared his heart is thumping madly; it feels like it is leaping out of his chest and into his throat. But he can’t look up.
“Faggot, I’m talking to you!”
To look up is to meet the eyes of the tormentor.
Suddenly, a sharpened pencil point is thrust into the boy’s arm. He jolts, shaking off the pencil, aware that there is blood seeping from the wound.
“What did you do that for?” he asks timidly.
“Cause I hate faggots,” the other boy says, laughing. Some other boys begin to laugh, too. A symphony of laughter. The boys feels as if he’s going to cry. But he must not cry. Must not cry. So he holds back the tears and tries to read the book again. He must read the book. Read the book.
When the teacher arrives a few minutes later, the class quiets down. The boy does not tell the teacher what has happened. He spits on the wound to clean it, dabbing it with a tissue until the bleeding stops. For weeks he fears some dreadful infection from the lead in the pencil point.
The boy is walking home from school. A group of boys (two, maybe three, he is not certain) grab him from behind, drag him into an alley and beat him up. When he gets home, he races up to his room, refusing dinner (“I don’t feel good,” he tells his Italian Mamma through the locked door) and spends the night alone in the dark wishing he would die….
These are not fictitious accounts — I was that boy. Having been branded a sissy by neighborhood children because I preferred jump rope to baseball and dolls to playing soldiers, I was often taunted with “hey sissy” or “hey faggot” or “yoo hoo honey” (in a mocking voice) when I left the house.
To avoid harassment, I spent many summers alone in my room, I went out on rainy days when the street was empty.
I came to like being alone. I didn’t need anyone, I told myself over and over again. I was an island. Contact with others meant pain. Alone, I was protected. I began writing poems, then short stories. There was no reason to go outside anymore. I had a world of my own.
In the schoolyard today/ they’ll single you out/ Their laughter will leave your ears ringing/ like the church bells/ which once awed me2
School was one of the more painful experiences of my youth. The neighborhood bullies could be avoided. The taunts of the children living in those endless repetitive row houses could be evaded by staying in my room. But school was something I had to face day after day for some two hundred mornings a year.
I had few friends in school. I was a pariah. Some kids would talk to me, but few wanted to be known as my close friend. Afraid of labels. If I was a sissy, then he had to be a sissy, too. I was condemned to loneliness.
Fortunately, a new boy moved into our neighborhood and befriended me; he wasn’t afraid of the labels. He protected me when the other guys threatened to beat me up. He walked me home from school; he broke through the terrible loneliness. We were in the third or fourth grade at the time.
We spent a summer or two together. Then his parents sent him to camp and I was once again confined to my room.
High school lunchroom. The boy sits at a table near the back of the room. Without warning, his lunch bag is grabbed and tossed to another table. Someone opens it and confiscates a package of Tastykakes; another boy takes the sandwich. The empty bag is tossed back to the boy who stares at it, dumbfounded. He should be used to this; it has happened before.
Someone screams, “faggot,” laughing. There is always laughter. It does not annoy him anymore.
There is no teacher nearby. There is never a teacher around. And what would the boy say if there were? Could he report the crime? He would be jumped after school if he did. Besides, it would be his word against theirs. Teachers never noticed anything. They never heard the taunts. Never heard the word, “faggot.” They were the great deaf mutes, pillars of indifference; a sissy’s pain was not relevant to history and geography and god made me to love honor and obey him, amen.
High school Religion class. Someone has a copy of Playboy. Farther N. is not in the room yet, he’s late, as usual. Someone taps the boy roughly on the shoulder. He turns. A finger points to the centerfold model, pink fleshy body, thin and sleek. Almost painted. Not real. The other boy asks, mocking voice, “Hey, does she turn you on? Look at those tits!”
The boy smiles, nodding meekly; turns away.
The other boy jabs him harder on the shoulder, “Hey, whatsamatter, don’t you like girls?”
Laughter. Thousands of mouths; unbearable din of laughter. In the arena: thumbs down. Don’t spare the queer.
“Wanna suck my dick? Huh? That turn you on, faggot?!”
The laughter seems to go on forever.
Behind you the sound of their laughter/ echoes a million times/ in a soundless place/ They watch how you walk/sit/stand/breathe3
What did being a sissy really mean? It was a way of walking (from the hips rather than the shoulders); it was a way of talking (often with a lisp or in a high pitched voice); it was a way of relating to others (gently, not wanting to fight, or hurt anyone’s feelings). It was being intelligent (“an egghead,” they called it sometimes); getting good grades. It meant not being interested in sports, not playing football in the street after school; not discussing teams and scores and playoffs.
And it involved not showing a fervent interest in girls, not talking about scoring with tits or Playboy centerfolds. Not concealing pictures of naked women in your history book or porno in your locker.
On the other hand, anyone could be a “faggot.” It was a catch-all. If you did something that didn’t conform to what was the acceptable behavior of the group, then you risked being called a faggot. If you didn’t get along with the “in” crowd, you were a faggot. It was the most commonly used putdown. It kept guys in line. They became angry when somebody called them a faggot. More fights started over someone calling someone else a faggot than anything else. The word had power. It toppled the male ego, shattered his delicate facade, violated the image he projected.
He was tough. Without feeling. Faggot cut through all of this. It made him vulnerable. Feminine. And feminine was the worst thing he could possibly be. Girls were fine for fucking, but no boy in his right mind wanted to be like them. A boy was the opposite of girl. He wasn’t feminine. He was not feeling. He was not weak.
Just look at the gym teacher who growled like a dog; or the priest with the black belt who threw kids against the wall in rage when they didn’t know their Latin. They were men, they got respect.
But not the Physics teacher who preached pacifism during lectures on the nature of atoms. Everybody knew what he was — and why he believed in the antiwar movement.
My parents only knew that the neighborhood kids called me names. They begged me to act more like the other boys. Once my father lectured me on how to walk right. I’m still not clear on what that means. Not from the hips, I guess. Don’t swish like faggots do.
A nun in elementary school told my mother at Open House that there was “something wrong” with me. I had draped my sweater over my shoulder like a girl, she said. I was a smart kid, no complaints about my grades, but I should know better than to wear my sweater like a girl!
My mother stood there, mute. I wanted her to say something, to chastise this nun, to curse her in Italian, to defend me. But how could she? This was a nun talking — representative of Jesus, protector of all that was good and decent.
An uncle once told me I should start “acting like a boy.” Everybody seemed ashamed of me. And I guess I was ashamed of myself, too. It was impossible not to be.
Priest: Do you like girls, Mark?
Priest: I mean really like them?
Mark: Yeah — they’re okay.
Priest: There’s a role they play in your salvation. Do you understand it?
Priest: You’ve got to like girls. Even if you should decide to enter the seminary, it’s important to keep in mind god’s plan for a man and a woman.4
Catholicism of course condemned homosexuality. Effeminacy was tolerated as long as the effeminate person did not admit to being gay. Thus, priests could be effeminate because they weren’t gay.
As a sissy, I could count on no support from the church. A male’s sole purpose was to father children — souls for the church to save. The only hope a homosexual had of attaining salvation was by remaining totally celibate. Don’t even think of touching another boy. Don’t even think of thinking of touching another boy.
To think of a sin was a sin. And to sin was to put a mark upon the soul. Sin — if it was a serious offense against god — led to hell. There was no way around it. If you sinned, you were doomed.
Realizing I was gay was not an easy task. Although I knew I was attached to boys by the time I was about eleven, I didn’t connect this attraction to homosexuality. I was not queer. Not I. I was merely appreciating a boy’s good looks, his fine features, his proportions. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t appreciate a girl’s looks in the same way. There was no twitching in my thighs when I gazed upon a beautiful girl. I wasn’t queer.
I resisted that label — queer — for the longest time. Even when everything pointed to it, I refused to accept it. I was certainly not queer. Not I.
We sat through endless English classes, and History courses about the wars between men who weren’t allowed to love each other. No gay history was every taught. No history faces you this morning. You’re just a faggot. Homosexuals had never contributed to the human race. God destroyed the queers in Sodom and Gomorrah.
We learned about Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein — but never that they were queer. They were not queer. Walt Whitman, the “father of American poetry,” was not queer. No one was queer. I was alone, totally unique. One of a kind. Were there others like me somewhere? Another planet, perhaps?
In school, they never talked of the queers. They did not exist. The only hint we got of this other species was in Religion class. And even then it was clouded in mystery — never spelled out. It was a sin. Like masturbation. Like looking at Playboy and getting a hard-on. A sin.
Once a progressive priest in senior year Religion class actually mentioned homosexuality — he said the word — but he was into Erich Fromm, into homosexuals as pathetic and sick. Fixated at some early stage; penis, anal, whatever. Only heterosexuals passed on to the nirvana of sexual development.
No other images from the halls of the Catholic high school except those that the other boys knew: swishy faggot sucking cock in an alley somewhere, grabbing crotches in the bathroom. Never mentioning how much straight boys craved blowjobs, it was part of the secret.
It was all a secret. You were not supposed to talk about the queers. Whisper maybe. Laugh about them, yes. But don’t be open, honest; don’t try to understand. Don’t cite their accomplishments. No history faces you this morning. You’re just a faggot/ faggot/ no history/ just a faggot
The boy marching down the Parkway. Hundreds of queers. Signs proclaiming gay pride. Speakers. Tables with literature from gay groups. A miracle, he is thinking. Tears are coming loose now. Someone hugs him.
You could not control / the sissy in me/ nor could you exorcise him/ nor electrocute him/ You declared him illegal illegitimate/ insane and immature/
But he defies you still5
- From the poem “faggot” by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, published in GPU News, Sept. 1979
- From the play Judgment of the Roaches by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, produced in Philadelphia at the Gay Community Center, the Painted Bride Arts Center and the University of Pennsylvania; aired over WXPN-FM in four parts; and presented at the Lesbian/Gay Conference in Norfolk, VA, July 1980.
- From the poem, “Sissy Poem,” published in Magic Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Spruce Street Press, 1976)
originally published in Radical Teacher, 1982 and since reprinted in several anthologies, including Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study; Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing; Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology; Intersections of Gender, Race, and Class; Introduction to Sociology I: A Diversity Reader; Men Freeing Men (both the English and Japanese translation); Gender: a reader for writers; and soon to be published in Race, Class and Gender, 10e.
Also used in a stage work called He Defies You Still, Memoirs of a Sissy, adapted from my work by Jessa Carlstrom at Bailiwick Repertory in Chicago in July 2003.