If you were to forecast the sort of place where a gay kid would be bullied, a town of about 8,000 in farmville Montana would be a good place to guess, right?
Today my Facebook profile picture is this shot of Prince from “Purple Rain” — purple, to commemorate Spirit Day, and “Purple Rain” because the album came out in 1984, when I had just wrapped up my freshman year in a new school, in a town that had seemed light years away from the “big city” (60,000 people!) I had spent my entire life in.
It wasn’t a seamless transition. For example, I creamed out on my 10-speed the first day of school in front of an entire pack of classmates as we trekked over from the high school where we took Spanish first period to the junior high where we’d spend the rest of the day. That tends to haunt the new kid for a while. And the guy one year older who lived next door didn’t speak to me for pretty much the whole time I lived there — although, to be fair, that was the case for his entire family and ours, so it wasn’t like dude-vs.-dude friction. (The youngest daughter was always nice, though.)
But here’s what never happened to the gay kid — or at least this gay kid — in Laurel, Montana: I never got bullied. Not once. No threats, no hate notes, no locker-room weirdness, no smartass remarks.
A little bit of me remains incredulous: From the outside, this sort of place seems tailor-made to breed small minds. Leaf through all four classes in my 1983-84 yearbook and you won’t find a single black student, but you will see a single Chavez, a single Jimenez, a single Riojas and a single Rivera. And Debbie Gunter was Native American, but she was adopted, which was unusual enough. (Total minority rate of school: 1 percent.) And it was a town supported by farming, railroading and a local oil refinery — generally a conservative, if hard-working pack of people.
I think part of it was luck. I got along with the sorta-outcast older stoner girls whose lockers flanked mine. The overweight kid whose dad was a pastor. The band geeks. The popular girls in freshman science class. I was a freaking genius at Spanish and literature and those early science classes, but not some Tracy Flick sort of nutjob, and chances are I’d help you out if you asked for it. Friendly with everybody, best friends with nobody.
(Actually, the popular girls probably saved my ass: They dated upward, so if they liked you enough, their sophomore, junior and even senior boyfriends pretty much left you alone — which is really all any underclassman could hope for, anyway. Especially if you were a 5’3″ 13-year-old who had no interest in sports, who took typing class instead of shop, and whose clothing always matched just-so.)
But I believe most of it came from the values that people get when they’re raised in a true small town — where families run into each other at the IGA, at the Ben Franklin crafts store (which is now closed), at the post office or at church. Where people still do that hand-slightly-raised-off-the-steering-wheel half-wave when they pass each other on two-lane highways. Where the local all-volunteer fire department puts on one of the largest July 4 fireworks displays in the state funded solely by raffle-ticket sales and donations. (Last year’s raffle prizes included a recliner, $400 worth of meat and a guided pheasant hunt.) And where the local weekly newspaper prints even the minute details in the police report and the court report, so you can see who got popped for what. (It’s pretty much required reading, if not the first thing you turn to.)
It’s the sort of place where, as luck would have it, the three classmates who were in charge of RSVPs to my 20-year high school reunion: (1) bought the house I grew up in, when my parents decided to move to a bigger house a few blocks up; (2) ended up marrying my sister’s second husband; and (3) married the next-door neighbor boy and has now taught both my niece and nephew (who are, yep, that same sister’s kids).
My point is: You didn’t get away with shit there without someone finding out about it, and fast. If you pulled a dick move, someone’s sister’s best friend was gonna know someone at the checkout line who’d give her the scoop while she rang up the groceries. The church ladies who came in at the Dairy Queen may have camped out for hours over a single cup of 35¢ coffee you had to refill like a billion times, but they knew the scoop — and were spreading it to anyone who’d listen. In places like this, if you don’t correct your bad behavior, someone will be along soon enough to correct it for you. (Especially if your boss’ daughter’s husband is the chief of police.)
At that 20-year reunion, Funny Michael and I hit the annual July 4 street dance, where pretty much anyone who wants to come home knows he will run into dozens of people he went to school with (for better or worse). While we were in line for the beer truck, I nudged him with my elbow and cocked my head toward something I never thought I would’ve seen there, even then: a couple of barely-drinking-age guys, holding hands all the way up the line. When they got to the front, you can bet the beer vendors gave them hell.
But only because the two hadn’t brought driver’s licenses to prove they were 21, and the vendors had already poured the drafts.
|WHAT SAM WORE: 10-19-10
|The shirt: Long-sleeved button-down from J. Crew outlet, Anthem.
(I have developed a mania for plaid cotton button-down shirts.)
|The pants: 221 Slim Straight Jeans, “Lipservice” wash,
from Lucky Brand, Chandler Fashion Center.
(31-inch waist, people! That’s part of why I bought them.)
|The shoes: CONVERSE (RED) slip-ons custom-created
at the Converse website, a gift from Funny Michael