Published on November 28th, 2012 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles2
Dancing Queen (Chapter One) Lost In The Shuffle
by Skip Hodge
“He who travels fast, travels alone. But he who travels far, travels in the company of others.”
Growing up in the Midwest I led a fairly sheltered life. Although a rural upbringing has its advantages, I always longed for a life in the Big City. I wanted to surf in the ocean off L.A. or ride a cable car to school in San Francisco. I yearned to shop the crowded intersection at Times Square or bask in the sun off Miami Beach. But more than any one (or all) of these things put together, I simply wanted to get lost in the shuffle of everyday life. I fantasized about a world where I wasn’t tethered by the bonds of conformity or societal expectations. Yet, after experiencing all of these things a little later in life (and then some) I find myself back in the arms that bore me so many years ago. Older, yes. Wiser, I hope. But mostly, more content than ever. Yes, it’s good to be home.
Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa to a pair of high school sweethearts my birth on the cusp of summer bought the child head-count to four. Preceded by two sisters and a brother a year older it wasn’t long before I was displaced as the youngest by a surprise set of preemies. The surprise I speak of was not so much my parents as it was my own. No longer the baby, I was sandwiched between three boys (the eldest and a set of twins) and the dynamics of birth order had officially begun. At two years of age a calculated move was made to shorten my fathers commute and give space to our growing family. Our new home was less than a mile (as the crow flies) from the river that separated our two states as we settled in Nebraska’s oldest township of Bellevue. Four additional siblings were added in the years that followed bringing our household to an even dozen. Ten children and two adults living in a five bedroom house with two bathrooms. All achieved before my mother celebrated her thirtieth birthday. Needless to say, Catholicism and it’s teachings were thriving in the heartland.
I learned from an early age to leave the sorting of “would be” alpha males and females to the powers that be within our pack. Rather than risk injury (bodily or otherwise) I adopted a neutral approach by watching from the sidelines whenever possible. Unfortunately, this strategy wouldn’t go unnoticed by parents raised in a world where “boys were boys,” “girls were girls” and “boys who acted like girls” were not tolerated. Perhaps they, like most parents of gender confused children blindly believed this early stage in my arrested development would pass. No doubt they also supported the power of prayer given to them as practicing Catholics. I can certainly attest to the ever present guilt associated within it’s dogma. Whatever the case, their patience was wearing thin and the dilemma of what to do would soon be negotiated.
Surprisingly to some (mainly heterosexuals), I honestly cannot remember a time when I wasn’t gay. Although it would be years until I became sexually active, the writing (in bold magenta script underlined in chartreuse) was always on the wall of my auspicious undoing. My earliest recollections are of the countless Christmases of my youth where I sat brooding over the gift of another shiny red truck while my sisters unwrapped the Barbies and Easy-Bake ovens I’d specifically requested in my letter to Santa. Apparently, I hadn’t made the “nice” list yet again. It wasn’t until later I learned that he, along with the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy were simply my well-intentioned parents incognito. But still they persevered with hope as blind as Mr. Magoo while I continued to raise eyebrows at home and in public with my increasingly worrisome evolution.
As each child reached school age my parents continued our baptismal rite (and right) by enrolling us in Catholic school where we attended church by the same name every Sunday. Self expression through clothing was out of the question as we were each fitted in standard uniform upon registration. Boys were outfitted in navy trousers, light blue shirts and a clip-on bow tie while the girls were dressed in colorful plaid jumpers with white blouses that peeked out from underneath their bibs. Even at the precocious age of six, stylistically, I felt cheated. I secretly pined for the pattern, color and pleats given to the girls. I wanted the option to wear tights or knee-highs with patent mary janes. I longed to feel the wind on my legs and twirl to my heart’s content at recess every day. But society along with my parents, the nuns, Catholicism and its teachings would have none of it. Luckily, or unluckily depending on which school of thought one adhered to (no pun intended) I would g et my wish. By the age of nine with five children failing in their studies and the added expense of a growing family we switched to the public school system. Crisis averted. Or so I thought!
Having free reign over clothing proved to be more of a challenge than expected. Especially with a limited wardrobe. Although each school age child would be outfitted with at least one or two new ensembles each fall, a family on a budget as large as ours was often dependent on the charity of others. Relatives, our church, friends of the family and neighborhood parents with older children rallied behind us as they recognized our plight. It wouldn’t be long before my mother was forced to abandon her two youngest to daycare as she joined my father in providing income and stability to our aging household. Being one of the older boys had it’s advantages as we sifted through the brown paper bags of clothing. Color, style, pattern and print (the more garish, the better where I was concerned) were quickly absorbed into the drawers I shared with my older brother. Since I hadn’t been taught to match clothing as of yet, nothing was off limits in my first attempts at creating the smartest looks. Plaid shorts with a polka dot turtleneck? Cool! Striped bell bottoms with a paisley button down? Groovy! It took a shouting match with a girl two years my senior across neighboring yards to bring me to my senses. Somewhere in the increasingly heated exchange of verbal volley the sixth grader shouted out, “You can’t even match your clothes!” Huh? In an instant I was dumbfounded into submission and the fight was all but lost. Score; Sally-1, Steve-0. Those six words had cut me to the very core of my uber-sensitive, future fabulous being and I was determined to get to the bottom of her meaning. I abruptly turned heel and sought counsel from another “gal-pal” my own age. With a quick lesson in the art of blending color, print, material and texture a spark became a flame overnight. Matching pieces from head to toe became my obsession and fashion mutated into another outlet of my repressed sexuality as I outwardly (and inwardly) rebelled against the boundaries placed by a community I began to loathe.
Public School began and with it, my problems. While the other boys were getting dirty in a game of dodge ball or tag on the playground, I was busy playing hopscotch or skipping rope with the girls. Kids can be cruel and it wasn’t long before my given name was replaced by epithets such as “sissy” and “fairy.” Although outwardly I kept up a strong demeanor by reciting the earliest learned form of self-defense, “sticks and stones” (two hands on hips), inwardly I was hurting. Undeterred however, I forged ahead into the uncharted waters of self-ostracism that awaited. Cleanliness and order quickly became my modus operandi at home and in public. Showers were out of the question. Long bubble baths and the occasional sneak from my older sisters stash of herbal essences shampoo left me feeling invigorated and attractive. As indoor and outdoor chores were divvied up among siblings, I quickly seized the opportunity to stay inside by taking sole responsibility for upkeep of the bed room I shared with three brothers nearest in age. Many a weekend was spent in the solitude of those basement walls fancying myself a modern day “Cinderfella” as I swept, mopped, dusted and straightened while humming, “Someday my prince will come.” Or better yet, the recently watched Rogers and Hammerstein version starring Lesley Ann Warren singing “In my own little corner.” The words of which I could relate to on so many levels.
In my own little corner
In my own little chair
I can be whatever
I want to be
On the wings of my fancy
I can fly anywhere
And the world
Will open its arms to me
I’m a girl men go mad for
Love’s a game I can play
With a cool and confident
Kind of air
Just as long as I stay
In my own little corner
In my own little chair
Fantasy had become my only escape in a world that adhered to heterosexual teachings and I was forced to adapt. I learned to guard my secret in both fear and shame. And wouldn’t you know it, any hope of rescue by a fairy godmother who magically appeared in an aura of sparkly blue light was snuffed out years earlier. Damn! I so wanted a new dress!
In the winter of my tenth year I was approached by my oldest sister with a plan that featured the two of us in a solo dance number she wanted to perform at Christmas that year. Just her and I in a carefully choreographed celebration of the swinging sixties. The audience would be our fellow siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I readily accepted and rehearsals began immediately. Every day after school she would teach me the dances she’d absorbed from watching American Bandstand ritualistically on Saturdays. I surprised us both by being a quick study and born natural at nearly everything she threw my direction. The pony, the jerk, the swim, the monkey and countless others were incorporated into our impending debut. Careful consideration went into every piece of production from music to costumes. Christmas day could not come soon enough and I was giddy with anticipation at the arrival of our unwitting spectators. When the day finally arrived we donne d our costumes as everyone gathered in the living room for our “Holiday Spectacular.” You could hear a pin drop as we took our places and the pre-cued eight-track was inserted into my parents new stereo system. The music began and with it, my heart soared. Sonny and Cher belted their top ten billboard hit “The Beat Goes On” from the hi-fi speakers as we matched their cadence with every move, shake and twist of our pre-adolescent bodies. Somehow having an audience made it feel as if I were hearing the song for the very first time and the music poured from every ounce of my 4’10” frame. I couldn’t help but notice my joy was matched in the surrounding faces as an uncle captured the spectacle from his 8 mm Kodak. The three minutes and eighteen seconds was over much too soon but the “beat” went on inside me like never before. I had my first taste of the spotlight, and I was hooked!
Steven Hodge (aka Skip) is a retired Flight Attendant who overcame his early struggles with addiction over twenty eight years ago. Although he emphasizes his journey is far from complete, he has experienced the world in a way that most of us only dream of. He has returned to his roots in the Midwest to pursue a career in writing and be close to family. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska. (PS-He is Single!)