I wish when I said that, the story would immediately veer into the erotic hay barn of sweaty farmhands and overalls and pickup trucks, but it doesn't. Mostly it was about me in suburban Oklahoma City, wearing a yellow dishtowel on my head (my long, blond hair) and singing the theme from Josie and the Pussycats over and over and over again.
I daydreamed through grade school and high school, aced my driver's test, took a girl to the Winter Dance. In 1983, at 15, I found a copy of the Village Voice that had somehow been misdelivered to the magazine section of the Waldenbooks in my usual shopping mall. I bought it for a dollar and spent hours in my bedroom considering every page, and not simply whacking off at the line-art drawings contained in those tiny gay porn theater ads buried deep within. With the hunger of a boy homo trapped in alien lands, I read every freakin' word--the political articles, the incomprehensible (to me) thrift-chic fashion articles, the cuneiform alphabet of ancient personal ads (What's an MWC? And what do they want to do with a BiF?)--and spent an embarrassing amount of time wondering where this "village" of the Village Voice actually was, before it occurred to me that it was a village in the middle of New York City. (Oh, I get it: the Village People.) That's pretty much what it's like to grow up cluelessly gay in Oklahoma (or any such analog).
My credentials growing up sissy and virginal in the cruel heartland are terribly bereft of actual persecution. (A football player called me a fag a few times, but wasn't this less about bullying and more about fact-checking?) I got out on good behavior and moved away to New Orleans, which was gay friendly, but in an overwrought Anne Rice way. I then moved to Los Angeles, which was unfriendly-gay friendly and taught me to soak up style by osmosis--or die trying. I moved to New Mexico, which was gay friendly in a Georgia O'Keeffe way, with a sense of live and let live. I moved and moved and moved.
Now I live in Washington, D.C., a place where everyone's sissy student-council president goes to live, eventually. Sometimes, in Dupont Circle bar talk, I have to make up far worse stories to appease my rapt big-city friends. Luckily, someone always had it worse--in Indiana, or Louisiana, or South Carolina--and they also manage to tell it in a sweetened-tea twang that makes me think of a vending machine outside an auto-parts store. I just step aside and let them do their red-state queer shtick. On paper, Oklahoma is a bad place for gays. There isn't a friendly law on the books. In May, Gov. Brad Henry (a Democrat, last I heard) signed a mean little law that came about because a Seattle couple who'd adopted a baby from Oklahoma wanted both their names on the birth certificate, for quite understandable legal reasons of custody. So they asked the state for a new copy earlier this year, which they eventually got. This outraged Oklahomans, and their state legislature passed a nasty little law that not only forbids gay couples in Oklahoma from adopting, but prevents gay couples elsewhere from adopting (perhaps rescuing) any wide-eyed Oklahoma orphans. And as a nice little add-on, the proponents of the law also worked overtime in their attempt to dismiss adopted-parental rights of any gay or lesbian couples with kids who happen to wind up in Oklahoma, accidentally or not. If you're gay and have adopted kids, they're not your kids when you pass through or, more likely, fly over Oklahoma.
I wish I could work up the outrage necessary here to get mad at Oklahoma, but the fact is, I love it there, even with some legal evidence that the state does not love me back; I failed to thrive there or stick to my roots, and I fail now even as an ex-Oklahoman: I look deep within myself to find past or present resentment for the place, and come up empty. The place exists for me in some way counter to the facts of its intolerance. In saying I am "from" Oklahoma, I am more dependent than ever on the meaning of "from," as in something left behind, years ago. When, in April 1995, I returned to write about the aftermath of the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City, I came across some musty abstract of research about the very meaning of being Oklahoman, and it haunts me still:
"Many people link important themes in their lives to a global sense of being Oklahoman, even to the extent of making Oklahomaness the object of their 'primary role identification,'" wrote anthropologists Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill in 1988. "And when taken to the extreme, this identity becomes a narrow, overly invested, constricted one that feels like a highly defended fortress...."
Timothy McVeigh notwithstanding, the minute I read that passage, I came to understand (and feel newly sympathetic for) my homeland as the "highly defended fortress," one I regard offensively, as an outsider who abandoned (and in many ways renounced) it, and, then again, a place I defend reflexively as a native of it. The real Oklahoma is my exotic secret. I say "Oklahoma" and you think of Rodgers and Hammerstein and getting your ass kicked. You think of doo-doo-head lawmakers trying to take people's babies away from them. Fair enough.
But when I hear the word "Oklahoma," I think of the wondrous green tinge of sky about to unleash a painterly array of tornado colors on a late May afternoon. I think of the sign of the Charcoal Oven drive-thru, a tall, neon chef. I think of water-skiing on a muddy brown lake, deliriously happy. I don't know much about what it's like to live openly gay there in the 21st century, but I know it's more than possible. (Example: Oklahoma City has its own big gay motel, the Habana Inn, right off one of the interstates that runs through the middle of town, and is truly regarded as a vacation destination for working-class gay men from Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, and beyond. It's a '60s-style motel with a big pool, located in the same block as the city's half-dozen or so gay bars. It would blow your mind--if not from the high cruise factor, then just for the sheer tackiness of it. The Habana Inn does not exist in secret. If Oklahoma were really all that bad, the motel would be rubble.)
Oklahoma is complicated. There are two major cross-country arteries that cut through it, Interstate 40 on the east-west track, and Interstate 35 on the north-south. Once in a while, a gay friend will excitedly (and with much American romance) tell me that he's driving from point A to point B and wants some tips on what to do while he's in Oklahoma. I take immediate measure of what kind of friend he is, and what he's really up for. It breaks my heart that I frequently tell him to just keep driving, passing as fast he can through that highly defended fortress, stopping briefly, if he likes, for the memorial that stands where the federal building stood, but skipping the adjacent museum exhibition devoted in part to hope and tolerance.
Little boys in Oklahoma who are currently swishing around the yard wearing dishtowels in hopes of glamour: I worry about you. The lines have been drawn more clearly across this vast and contentious America, and the friendliness and charm of places like Oklahoma is subsiding. Laws are being written. You can stay and fight the good fight, or, like the rest of us, you can get on that interstate and flee. When they opened Indian Territory and Unassigned Lands to settlers on April 22, 1889, settlers trampled one another to get into Oklahoma during the Land Run.
Getting out is so much harder, and you never quite leave it behind.
Hank Stuever's book of essays, Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere (Henry Holt), has just been released. He is a staff writer at the Washington Post.