When I was in high school, I did my best to not stand out. I was struggling with the question of "Am I gay, or not?" and didn't want to have the answer literally beaten out of me. My fear left me standing quietly by as friends were bullied, harassed both verbally and physically, called names and what not. If I stepped forward, I'd become a target.
In my silence, I retreated to the safety of books. The complete works of Edgar Allen Poe. The fanciful world of J. R. R. Tolkein. The ancient mythology of The Illiad and The Odyssey. The futuristic tales of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Anything I could get my hands on that would insulate me from the world "out there." It became my "Calgon, take me away" escape.
Little did I realize at the time that in reading I was learning to write. Oh, I knew my letters, the proper use of grammar, and could write complete sentences. Even had pretty good cursive penmanship. What I mean is that I was learning to write. Similies and metaphores, using imagery to paint a picture with a thousand words - or less. And in doing so, I had unwittingly found my voice.
But even that voice was, in my mind, silent. I believed that nobody could hear me. That I remained invisible, flying under the radar like a stealth bomber.
That is, until the last day of high school, back in May 1983. I'd been put in an advanced placement English class my last year, though I couldn't understand why. But on that final day, my teacher, Mrs. Marcheta Huerter, called me aside as my classmates ran from the room, whooping and hollering with glee. Mrs. Huerter looked me in the eyes and said, quite bluntly, "Never stop writing." Her words have stayed with me all these years.
Sadly, I got sidetracked. I majored in Geology in college, not realizing that Texas A&M University didn't have the program I'd been wanting. I wasn't writing, and didn't undrestand it was the path I should have taken. I finally accepted my orientation the summer after my sophomore year, and that made all the difference.
My junior year, Fall 1986, I changed my major to Psychology - just for the inside joke of having once worked with rocks, and would now work with the rocks in peoples' heads. I took a bunch of classes as electives - including a creative writing poetry course. I wrote freely about my first boyfriend in a number of my poems, and had no rejection from the professor or my classmates. I received praise for the vivid imagery or the powerful emotions my poems could invoke.
In February 1987, I had a shock. My first - and only - boyfriend showed up at my door, four months after I'd ended the relationship. He was sobbing heavily, gasping for breath between the sobs, not wanting to believe what others were telling him - that he had AIDS. I could tell that he did, his body wasted to skin and bones. I gave him comfort, knowing that would be me in the not-too-distant future.
I searched for places to get tested and made a list. From that came my first attempt to use my written voice to make a difference. I wrote an editorial article about the importance for everybody - gay and straight - to get tested for HIV, and submitted it to the Texas A&M student newspaper, The Battalion. I didn't expect they would actually print it, A&M being a very conservative university.
April 8, 1987, my article appeared. Inside front page, left hand side, starting just above the fold. It was surreal. Everywhere I went on campus that day I noticed people reading my words. Nobody ever spent that much time on the editorial page before. My words could effect change.
Fast-forward to 1996. I had been working for the university since mid-'87 and changed departments. My new job was providing computer support to the English Department. I was surrounded by faculty and graduate students who had devoted their lives to literature - as well as language and film. When I learned that the professor of the poetry writing course I'd taken ten years earlier was still in the department, I approached her. She remembered me and my work, and asked if I still had one poem in particular - she wanted a copy. I was overjoyed to know that somebody had noticed me.
In the course of settling into my new job, I wrote a number of memos to the department members, letting them know who I was and what I hoped to do for them. Apparently, a few of the tenured faculty believed that I was an upper-level English professor hoping to qualify for tenure one day. When they learned that I'd had three years of college - toward science, no less - and dropped out, they were stunned. How could a man who never pursued a degree in English - or Liberal Arts - write as well as I did? Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), I was flattered.
Sadly, in 2000, my thirteen-year relationship ended with a bang. Don't worry - nobody got shot. More the bang of the door slamming when I kicked his cheating ass out of the house and out of my life. I realized that we never had any gay friends, and it was something I knew I needed. I ended up founding a professional organization at Texas A&M for queer faculty, staff and graduate students, as well as queer professionals in the community. As first President, I wrote many emails to the group. I was often chastised for being "too verbose". What writer wouldn't take that as a compliment? I would always respond, "Was the message clear to you? Did it leave you with any questions on my opionion or reasoning? If you understood it, and everybody else understood, then the verbosity was exactly what was needed." The "complaints" soon died down.
Now, after twenty-five years of living with HIV, I've found my mind to be less focused, and the vast vocabulary that used to be ever-present has seemingly vanished. I struggle to write, even more to stay on topic. It's taken me over a week to write this, as I'm less certain of myself and what I've written. If I've meandered in this, I do apologize. But it's why I keep writing. To recover that written voice I'd treasured so much throughout my life. The hope that, through this, I'll find what I've lost.
All because my high school English teacher, Marcheta Huerter, told me to never stop writing.