High school tales
Fresh from reading the latest gay coming-of-age bestseller, Barry Lowe reflects on his own coming out journey through high school in the 1960s.
Kylie Minogue is a national treasure. But a literary critic? Corgi Books must think so because there’s Kylie’s opinion emblazoned at the top of the front cover of Terry Ronald’s novel, Becoming Nancy: “I laughed out loud! Terry’s humour translates perfectly to the page and his book is a joy”.
Ronald is a songwriter, producer, and vocal arranger, and now, author. He also wrote songs for the exquisite telly series Beautiful People with which his novel has a lot in common.
Why is it we gay men are such suckers for coming out stories set in high school? Those are usually some of the most traumatic years of our lives, responsible for more than their fair share of self-harm among gay teenagers. They are also the formative years which, for better or for worse, forge the backbone of what we become in later life.
I was reminded of my, in many respects hideous, high school years which encompassed the early 1960s when reading Ronald’s evocation of scholastica circa 1979. Incidentally, Ms. Minogue’s brief critique is so perceptive that I will be likely to sit up and take note of further recommendations in future. Absolutely no sarcasm intended. I read Becoming Nancy in one sitting and did LOL as well as sniffle in a tissue at the thought of those gay kids who are not as resilient as the book’s hero, David, who is cast as ‘Nancy’ in his school’s production of Oliver! and who falls for his fellow schoolie who plays ‘Bill Sykes’.
You needed resilience to survive in the schoolyard when I was growing up. Regardless of furtive, fumbling wanks with some of the school’s bad boys in an era when that old moral catch cry ‘masturbation will send you blind’ still held sway, a few of us were out-ish and if not proud then at least rubbing it in the noses of school authorities, particularly our snarky PE teacher.
We weren’t bullied to the extent that some kids were, and still are today. There was little in the way of physical violence, mainly pushing and shoving, but there was certainly verbal abuse and threats, mostly from the ‘jocks’ (if you could call the school’s sporting elite that), and from the scholastically poor students.
What kept at least two of us going was sex. It was of the most perfunctory kind. What did we know? There was no sex education then, what we learned was from whispers, scraps of information in novels such as Brighton Rock, popular passages easy to find in the dog-eared copies in the school library, and experimentation.
The one thing I was good at in high school was experiments. Not in chemistry, no, with boys. Sexual experiments. Masturbation was a given. Once you hit puberty you were likely to be stroking your way to heaven on a regular basis unless you fell for the moral bullshit about ‘self-pollution’. It’s a bloody wonder any of us grew up healthy in body and mind.
I managed to become such an expert in the art of self-penile-improvement that I became an educator, much sought-after in the change sheds at Bobbin Head where we non-competitive types headed for sports afternoon once a week. Or else, we met in the bushland behind the new swimming pool in the park at Hornsby.
We were ignorant little sods. I knew I had feelings for other boys, I suppose you’d call it a crush, but the law, religion and medicine held that it was impossible for two men to actually fall in love, have a future together. That idea was more fantastical than anything from the pens of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.
As to that much trumpeted cliché: musical theatre. I was much too busy to try out for musicals back then. In fact, I don’t think I knew what a musical was until years later. Besides, you can’t sing with a mouth full of dick. Well, I couldn’t, but play a few bars and I could hum.
Becoming Nancy, published by Corgi Books, is out now.