As I wrote today, I realized that the story of my experience as a gay PCV was not complete without the telling of the life that led up to that adventure, so instead of this series being about merely the “education of a gay PCV,” it really tells of the “education”–the formation of the character–of a gay man during a time of social upheaval and liberation and which happens to include the Peace Corps.  It is becoming more of a life memoir than one strictly about my experience in the Peace Corps.  And to that, part of me says, “Oh, no!!”  Before I started blogging I always told myself that such writers simply believed the world revolved around themselves and that nobody else could possibly care about what they had to say.  And now here I am indulging myself right along with the worst of them.  I rationalize with what another blogging friend once told me:  “It’s your blog, Ralph.  You can do whatever you damn well please!”  So here we are.  If you’re reading, you have my boundless gratitude.

Socially, I was something of a late bloomer.  Oh, you’d have never known that from all the friends and the real  fun I had through high school, but a strict control over the expression of my “true” self, learned via the casual sadism that only kids can inflict upon each other, caused me to clamp down upon any show of exuberance or true joy.  These were considered “sissy” attributes, and socialization from my earliest years taught me that these were emotions I was not  “supposed” to have.  I was aware even then that I was living my life on two distinct levels: to some, particularly the boys in gym class who tormented me for not being able to do the things they could do, I was the object of daily derision, which in retrospect I see I completely internalized.  Outside of gym I was a handsome kid with a good sense of fun. I reveled in all the hallway friendships I made and the large group of kids I became a part of.  We were our own alternative to the A-list jocks and cheerleaders who rejected us, and with whom we knew we couldn’t compete, anyway.  We were both girls and boys, and we “dated,” pairing off like grownups to go to dances and parties. The Fairfax County, Va., system at the time was set up so that you attended only two schools during your entire public school career:  “elementary” was grades 1 through 7, and “high school” grades 8 through 12.  From the 9th grade on, I went to every junior-senior prom, invited in 9th and 10th grades by older girls.  So, on that purely social level I was a huge success.  But self-hatred, and that instinctive fear of inadvertently loosening the death-grip on “the real me,” the reviled girly-boy, reigned.  Mind you, sex itself had no place in my life at that time.  The word “gay,” while common in show business circles for decades, had not yet entered general usage, and I wouldn’t have known what to do with it if it had.  I’d heard the word “queer” occasionally as I grew up and at some point learned its meaning during a secret foray into my parents’ sex manuals, but I didn’t apply it to myself–it was an ugly word and besides, I was no sissy.  Every day I expended huge amounts of emotional energy not to be!   No, I was just “different,” and so were all my friends.  A little light came on when, in 1966, Leonard Cohen finally wrote a book with a title I could apply to myself and my cohort with pleasure:  “Beautiful Losers.”  Given the rogue’s gallery that made up the “winners,” it was clear that losers were much better company.

I carried these hard-won tightrope skills with me to college.  I was the first in my family to attend any post-secondary school, so we were ignorant of what university life was about.  I knew I didn’t want to go to my state school, the University of Virginia, because it had a “southern gentleman” tradition that even extended to requiring coats and ties for class.  That was not me.  So we shopped for price, and landed on the University of Kentucky at Lexington, where out-of-state tuition and room and board combined were cheaper than tuition alone  for in-state students at UVa.

Kentucky was a shock to my strait-jacketed psyche.  I was thrown into dorm life among hundreds of hormonal boys free of parental restriction for the first time.  Kentucky bourbon flowed through the dorm like the nearby river, also named after the Commonwealth.  If a Virginia gentleman I was not, I sure wasn’t a Kentucky booze hound, either.  My asexual security blanket of non-threatening beautiful losers wasn’t there to cosset me, so I clammed up.  Since I didn’t have a happy social life to lift me out of my self doubt, I dwelled on what was wrong with me and spent most of my time living in my recent past, maintaining a lively correspondence with friends back in Virginia.  Still, some of the guys started to single me out as an interesting and worthwhile friend.  I was “from D.C.,” which gave me a certain cachet, and my lazy-student Fairfax County 2.0 average still put me head and shoulders above my southern peers academically, so I was also seen by some as a fount of knowledge.  My tightly-controlled, quiet way even worked in my favor, giving me a veneer of what looked like wisdom.  And there was music.  I played the guitar and had a voice back then like a male Joan Baez, and that was admired even by some of the grossest party boys.

But I’d made a decision.  Kentucky was not for me, I told my parents.  I spent that entire semester writing them dramatic and I’m sure heart-rending letters about how much I “hated” it there and wanted to come back home.   So my mother and father drove back to Lexington in December, 1964, and bundled me and my belongings into the Rambler station wagon to take me back where I belonged, under their roof.   They were overjoyed to have me back in the fold and to be able to save all that money on college room and board.   My mother beamed as I climbed into the back seat, and with sudden, blinding clarity, I watched myself slam the door on a life I had begun to enjoy, and on an identity that for the first time actually seemed to  fit.  I sank back, realizing I’d made the biggest mistake of my 20-year-old life.

More to come.