In a Closet in a Dorm
I crouched in my dorm room closet while my roommate Clyde was in the bathroom. After he returned and lay on his bed, reading The Federalist Papers, I bided my time. The longer I waited, the more scared he’d be.
Two minutes. God, it stinks in here, I thought.
Three minutes. Getting hard to breathe.
Four minutes. I can’t stand it much longer.
“RAAAAAH!” I blared as I opened the closet and jumped out.
I could almost see grey hairs sprout as Clyde’s eyes bulged from their sockets.
He returned to his book, trying to act nonchalant. “Ever got caught playing with yourself in a closet?” he asked.
“Safe place, isn’t it?”
Six months earlier, I had graduated from my community college in the Chicago suburbs. With my grades and awards, I could have transferred to just about any college in the country.
I chose East Tennessee State.
What was I thinking?
After living my entire life in the Midwest, I wanted to plunge myself into an entirely different culture – the Bible Belt - and live among their natives. Besides, all accredited colleges are pretty much the same, right?
Johnson City was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever set eyes on. Small mountains bordered the campus and they blazed orange in October. I smelled a spicy-sweet combination of allspice and vanilla in the air – some fragrant bush I’d never been exposed to in Illinois. Southern accents on the girls somehow made them even cuter. I pictured myself someday coming home with one to meet dear old Mom and Dad.
I eagerly anticipated college culture. Dorm conversations into the wee hours about the meaning of existence. Late night pizza runs. Spontaneous road trips. Pranks.
What I found instead was a campus in which most students went home on weekends, businesses closed on “The Lord’s Day,” and mediocre classes were taught by jaded professors stuck in Academic Gehenna. The only partying took place in frat houses. I refused, on principle, to pay for friends.
Most of the friendly-sorts in my dorm were in one – or several – of the Christian clubs. I attended their events. Good clean fun.
But I couldn’t understand their hang-ups. I had learned an African tribal planting dance and showed it to a small gathering outside a women’s dorm. In the dance, you touch one calf to the back of your other leg’s knee, then repeat with the other leg, while putting one hand atop the other and thrusting them downward, as if you’re using a gardening tool to make holes in the ground. It was less erotic than the Hokey Pokey. Darla, the hall’s director and a member of the Faith House, stormed out of the dorm screaming, “Stop! Just stop!”
“Stop that dancing!”
“We have rules about lewd behavior.”
I hadn’t been aware that some Christian denominations consider dancing sinful.
Once at dinner, a group of guys discussed bands. Abe mentioned Queen. “They’re all right,” Jonah said, “but Freddie Mercury was just a f-----t.” He forked a chunk of pork chop into his mouth.
My jaw went slack. “Does it matter that he was gay?” I finally asked.
Jonah looked me sternly in the eyes. “He was a f----t,” he repeated. “And now he’s dead. He’s just a dead f----t. And now he’s burning in Hell.”
“What do you have against gay people?”
“They go against God’s will. AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay.”
“It’s just who they are.”
“It’s a choice.”
“How can you choose who you’re attracted to?” I scanned the cafeteria and spotted a reasonably attractive man. “I mean, I can look at that guy over there in the No Fear shirt and say, ‘that’s a good-looking guy’, but I don’t want to have sex with him.”
I surveyed our table. Although the other guys were nice, they clearly shared Jonah’s mindset.
Eli intervened. “All I know is you’ve got to love the sinner and hate the sin.” The others nodded in agreement.
Later that semester, the school paper ran a story about a student who was also a drag queen. The student had been receiving death threats. I read it while Clyde cut Eli’s hair in our room.
“Surely, you’re against death threats, right?”
“Of course,” Eli said, as Clyde clipped the sides of Eli’s hair. “Although, if he’d just stop dressing as a woman, he’d probably stop getting death threats.”
I had had different early lessons in tolerance.
When I was seven, my older brother loved watching reruns of Soap, the first show with a prominent gay character.
“Mom, what’s gay?” I asked.
“It’s like when a man wants to marry another man.”
“Can they do that?”
“No, but they can be together just like they’re married.”
A few years after that, my brother discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Mom, what’s transsexual?”
“It’s someone who wants to have an operation to change their body from a man to woman or the other way around.”
“Why would they want to do that?” I asked, unable to comprehend.
“Some people just feel they were born into the wrong body.”
And that was that. As good of an explanation as anyone could give in the early ‘80s. I went through junior high and high school aware that gay and transgender people existed, but I was far too self-conscious to dwell on anyone other than myself.
I sensed an odd mix of pride and paranoia on that campus. The region was overwhelmingly Christian, yet they spoke as if they were an oppressed minority. “They won’t let us pray in schools!” “Stores say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’!” “They teach [gasp!] evolution in schools!”
Harlan bought into all of this.
Harlan was 5’ 5”, roly-poly with feathered brown hair, beady eyes, and a contagious baby smile. He worked at the mall at Johnson City, (which was aptly named, “The Mall at Johnson City”). A Spanish major with dog-like hearing, we would entertain ourselves by whispering phrases from farther and farther distances – 20, 30, 40 or more yards at a time, and he would repeat them to us with perfection.
Over time, Harlan’s demeanor became dark. He’d lurch down the hall in his black satin jacket and khakis after work, head down, before quickly closing his door behind him. He’d extend his room’s phone cord into the hallway and whisper three-hour conversations with his hand cupped over the receiver.
One night I walked by the lounge area – a seldom-used alcove that separated the two wings of the dorm. Harlan sat cross-legged on the floor next to the couch.
“Have a seat,” he said.
I sat on the hard, grey carpeted floor, the scratchy brick wall propping my back.
“What’d you think of that program tonight at Faith House?”
That night the Faith House held its weekly meeting. I had attended the Faith House less and less often, as fire and brimstone sermons became more frequent.
A common ritual at Faith House was someone would speak about a sinful past, such as drunkenness or premarital sex, but through Jesus, they had been saved. This night’s topic was homosexuality.
“I think you know where I stand, Harlan.”
“What did you think when I said I knew for a fact that it was going on at our campus?”
“It goes on everywhere.”
He pointed to himself. I realized he couldn’t say the words. It was as if saying them out loud was the actual closet door – the one thing that separated a gay person from someone who does gay acts.
“I don’t care. You’re still my friend,” I said.
“Are you gay?” he asked.
“Well, you give off gaydar. You know that, right?”
“What’s gaydar?” I asked.
“It’s a vibe you give off that makes people think you’re gay. You’re in really good shape, you use hair gel, you’re smart.”
“Not because I’m never with a girl?”
“Pfft!” he spat. “A lot of gay guys have girlfriends. That’s called a beard. You know – a disguise.”
“Do you want one to disguise that you’re gay?”
He put his finger to his lips to silence me. “Don’t call me gay,” he whispered. “I’ve just made some poor choices.”
“You feel bad that you’re attracted to men?”
He leaned so far to his left, he lay on the floor. He looked down one side of the hallway, then rolled over and looked down the other. He rolled back up into sitting position.
His beady eyes stared into mine and his lips pursed. “I’m waiting on test results.” His eyes glistened as they sank to the floor. He sniffled. A single tear ran down his left cheek.
In my ignorance, I wondered if tears carried HIV.
I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, man.”
A month prior, Clyde had put up a poster in our room. A black-and-white public service announcement. The kind that is typically seen in a high school nurse’s office, with wisdom, like a rendering of a fetus smoking, or a teen girl holding a baby with the caption, “Change the world, not diapers.” Clyde’s poster showed the front, minus the head, of a young woman in a chair, legs crossed, with the caption, “There’s a simple way to prevent AIDS.” Easy answer.
I had so much confusion then. At the time HIV was practically a death sentence. People, from celebrities to a French teacher at my high school, were dying at alarming rates. Treatments were hit-or-miss.
I also knew that, fair or not, the most impacted group was gay men.
Harlan told me how he hid. His family didn’t know. Guys in the dorm didn’t know. He was careful to compartmentalize his life. The only ones who knew were the men – most of whom he didn’t know, his Pastor Jim, and now me.
I had met Pastor Jim once. I made it a policy to accept invitations in order to collect experiences. Looking back, that policy had gotten me into far too many boring church services, with false promises that I’d “visit again real soon!”
Pastor Jim was proud that he wasn’t a bigot. In the Sunday school prior to the service, he went on a far limb and boldly stated that racism was wrong. To give an example, he said he approved of interracial marriage “in some cases.”
“What did Pastor Jim say?” I asked.
“He told me that Jesus loves me, but I must stop. He gave me this.” He pulled back his left sleeve to reveal a thick rubber band around his wrist. “See what it says there? Romans 6:23. Every time I get an urge, I-” he pulled up on the band and let it smack his wrist, leaving a red mark.
I could see the letters, its black ink smudged.
“Romans 6:23. For the wages of sin is death,” he said, placing a finger on his right temple. “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, understanding the basics of Christianity, but not its intricacies.
“It means if you sin, you will die.”
“Harlan, we’re all going to die.”
“No, I mean you will die die. You’ll be cast into the fires of Hell.” He sniffled. “I don’t wanna die,” he sobbed, like a baby starting a tantrum. “I don’t wanna go to Hell, Bob. I don’t want you to, neither!”
A week after he came out to me, Harlan sat in my room. He stared at the tiled floor. “I had another relapse,” he said. Then he pulled the rubber band and let it smack his already-welted wrist. “I gotta wait another six weeks to find the results.” He slowly shook his head. His voice was deeper, raw from crying. “I hate myself.”
We sat in heavy silence. After a full minute, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
We sat in silence for another minute, then he said, “Three weeks ago, I was at the clinic. They had to freeze genital warts off me with liquid nitrogen. Do you know how incredibly painful that is? Otis was there. He held me down while they did it.”
“A nice guy?”
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”
“Why don’t you date him?”
“I can’t, and you know why.”
Six weeks later, I stood in my dorm, door open, speaking on the phone to a girl who had zero interest in me.
Harlan knocked. He mouthed, “It’s not positive,” and made a plus sign with his fingers while shaking his head. Then he made a negative sign with one finger, nodded his head, and mouthed, “It’s negative!” His baby smile was back.
That was the last time we spoke about it. At the start of the next semester, I noticed the rubber band was gone. By the end of the semester, I graduated. I lost contact with Harlan for good.
More than 25 years later, I watched Boy Erased, a movie about a young man who was put through conversion therapy. Afterward, I got snoopy. I found Harlan on Facebook. He looks happy. He still has feathered hair, beady eyes, and that same baby smile. Behind him in the picture is a man - I wonder if it’s Otis.
I also looked up Darla, the hall director who wouldn’t let me dance. Her most recent post is a lovely picture of her, holding a bouquet, beaming, with her smiling wife of fifteen years standing at her side.
In college, I never had meaningful conversations about existence. I didn’t go on any spontaneous road trips, and I didn’t bring home a belle to dear old Mom and Dad.
But I did prank someone by coming out of a closet, and hopefully, I made it easier for someone to peek out of theirs.