Sweetgum’s Own Voice

anxiety, sex

Author’s Note:
In a previous post, I introduced a character from my past named “Derek.” That’s not his real name, and so I’m not sure why I broke from the established (by me) convention of naming my characters after trees. I’ve done it with all the women, but not all the men. Admitting this makes me feel sexist. But instead of going back and editing the last essay to “correct” my error in judgment, I’m just going to ask for forgiveness. I’ll openly say I made a mistake, okay? Furthermore, Derek will now be known as Sweetgum, but it’s the same dude.

The cheerleading squad held tryouts in the fall and announced their picks before winter break. The new lineup became active at the start of the spring term and remained through the next semester. This meant outgoing seniors never cheered the second half of their last year. But they still painted their faces and attended spirit events.

I don’t know if this is the established schedule for high school cheerleading, or if it was just that way at my school. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but nobody asked my opinion.

During our junior year, Sweetgum and two of his buddies decided to reboot the tradition of yell leaders, the name given to male cheerleaders. We hadn’t had any of these in about four years, which means our class had gone through high school having never seen any yell leaders on campus.

It doesn’t matter that they existed at many of the other seventeen area high schools we played sports against. And it didn’t matter that men had been part of cheering squads traditionally for as long as there were cheering squads – which was what, decades? Maybe a couple centuries? I’m not going to waste my time doing the research.

But as far as the bullies were concerned, Sweetgum and his friends were weirdo jerk faggots. Why? Because cheerleaders were girls. Their chief tormentor was Sandy Smith, a soft-bodied rich kid too entitled and undeserving for a pseudonym (maybe Crabgrass applies, but at least crabgrass is useful). Sandy was a vile child who thought he was super fashionable because he shaved the lower ¾ of his head all the way around and dressed in a manner that probably annoyed his parents. He wore “shreds,” extra wide-leg jeans with the bottom hems cut off and left to fray, and oversize polo shirts (barf) to go along with his spaghetti string gold chain necklace. The kid had big teeth and tracks of braces and to imagine this pineapple head brat as a bully now is laughable. Thinking he and his friends are now all likely parents is a scary thought.

At some schools, the cheerleaders represent the elite mean girl super hot and popular visible top notch of the social structure. But at other schools, it’s just an elective club populated by some cliquish subculture or minority who like to dance and wear uniforms and flirt with jocks. My school was somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer to the first one.

The ladies on the team welcomed Sweetgum and the other two, for no other reason, than because it was nice to get some solid stalks for the base of their pyramids. They were neither attracted to or repulsed by these boys, whom they immediately adopted like younger step brothers (but not in the cliché pornographic sense, trust me).

The irony, of course, is that Sweetgum and his buds joined the squad because they wanted to be visible and get closer to girls. It was the opposite of the toxic masculinity tossed at them from Sandy and company. I truly believe if they were actually out gay men Sandy would have been too intimidated by their confidence to talk trash to them.

But it was insecurity on both sides – Sandy’s taking the form of overcompensation, while Sweetgum risked nothing to taste the sweat of the angels – that made them adversaries. They were the same, now that I think about it, except Sweetgum was courageous at a time when conformity amounted to safety.

I no longer remember the point, if I ever had one. I’m sure neither of these guys remember any of this, which makes me wonder why I’m thinking about it at all.

Maybe the answer lies in a speech Sweetgum delivered at the end of his run. I guess the idea was to encourage underclassmen recruits to keep the tradition of cheerleading in pants alive. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything,” Sweetgum said. He said other things about it being fun and good exercise and all that, but this is the line that stands out. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything.”

This was probably true, but who knows? Some people certainly said that being a boy cheerleader was an indication of homosexuality. There is plenty of room for a debate about gender expectations and assumed sexual orientation and all viewed through a contemporary lens. But I’m not going to indulge in that at the moment.

I will ask, why did Sweetgum think it was important to add this? It’s ridiculous. And I’ll say I know with almost certainty that Sweetgum did not mull it over first. He wasn’t the type to think before he spoke, or consider the words he said for long afterwards either.

Gay is now a lot more mainstream, of course. Maybe it’s not en vogue exactly, but marginalized voices are almost di rigueur for the storytelling industries. I don’t have a problem with that because I understand the importance of optics. And I believe in equal rights. Also freedom from social stigmas, inasmuch as this is possible, would be nice.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never been one to make much association between arbitrary activities and sexuality or sexual orientation anyway. Sexual activities might suggest one’s sexuality, but other activities? One sport versus another? Theater? Look, I worked as a Beauty Advisor and Makeup Artist for seven years. There are not many straight men doing that. Mostly it’s women. And plenty of these women, and many gay men assumed I was gay simply for being there. I wrote a whole big blog about it asserting my straightness, though I sometimes wish I hadn’t done that. I sometimes wish I was more gay, though I do recognize the fluidity of the spectrum much more now. Can one be more gay? Or less gay?

The associations have never made much sense. What’s a man’s man? What’s a sissy? Is it how you look, how you talk, what you do, who you do it with?
Is it emotional literacy relevant? Real men can cry, right? What’s a real man, though?

Cisgender heterosexual (usually white) men seem to be the ones committing the most acts of domestic terrorism in America. Is that a reach? I’m not saying it’s because they’re closeted gay or anything like that. I am observing that they don’t seem to know how to relate to each other in a philadelphian way.

A guy like Sweetgum – who by the way later joined the military after dropping out of a very good California State University – is not likely to become a mass shooter. Why? I don’t know. But I know he’s not an alienated dude.

Nuclear Family


There were two other speakers at my grandmother’s funeral. One was my aunt (by marriage) whose own mother had vanished into vagrancy many years ago. She shared some heartwarming words about how my grandmother acted as a surrogate to her daughters, my cousins, and how lovely that was for them.

The other was my brother, who I think wanted to show off his public speaking skills as much as anything else. His meandering comments could be reduced to his matching first and last lines, “She was my bubbie.” As touching as that sounds, there really wasn’t that much emotion in it.

Or maybe I’m just saying that because he doesn’t seem all that capable of much emotion. We haven’t spoken in about 3½ years.

One of my earliest memories is of lying on the floor with my cheek pressed against the carpet, staring into the light coming from the gap beneath the door to my brother’s room. Inside, he was playing Hot Wheels with the neighbor boy, who was also his age. They had a lot of cars between them, and I, on the outside, had one, that I drove along the perimeter as if I was trying to find a way into a secure military base or something.

The sight of this display broke my mother’s heart, so she asked my father to ask my brother if I could join him and his friend. I was maybe three years old, which would have made them six. I have no idea if they let me play with them, but I doubt they did so enthusiastically.

My therapist said this is a great scene and I should include it in a book or something. I tried to put it into a recent manuscript, but it felt forced. Feels like it fits right here, though.

Another famous family story is about my brother and this same neighbor boy. My mom bought a big cookie for him, but since his friend was there, she split up the cookie for them to share as a snack. My brother threw a tantrum and refused to take his share. He wanted either all of it or none of it.

About thirty years later, after my brother had freaked out about not getting to go to a restaurant of his choice and then lamenting the devastating unfairness of it again the next day, my mother retold the cookie story, explaining that he’s always been like this. My brother’s response? That clearly my mom did not love him enough because she’d given away resources to someone else’s child. I guess that’s just always who he’s been.

I’m not saying any of these stories cause anxiety, but they certainly do not alleviate it either. There are probably some indications of anxiety disorder in the way I reacted about these sorts of situations. Social anxiety has likely always been present.

When I was seven I was diagnosed with an unusual mental capacity. People like me were classified at the time as highly gifted. Professionals believed our condition was best treated by placing us in special schools.

While this sounds like the start of an origin installment in a tent pole movie franchise, I assure you it’s true. But unlike within the pages of the X-Men, which I read feverishly at the time, we did not have any magical powers, other than, in some cases, an advanced sense of observation and uncanny recall. In my case, there was also emotional acuity without literacy, totally unrefined and without guidance on how to manage my talents, such that they were.

I began my new school in third grade and quickly made friends. However, we were not afforded our own clandestine institution like the one Professor X created for his students. There were two classrooms for us freaks inside a larger school for normals, or as we called them, nons (they called us gifties).

Two years later, we were producing a video of a mock news program that would come complete with fake ads and promos for other shows we thought we might make some day. While blocking a scene, an older kid kicked my feet out from under me, causing me to fall flat on my face. Naturally, I was mortified, so I walked off the project.

The best thing I could think to do was choose not to participate. I didn’t tell anyone why because I didn’t want to relive the embarrassment of the moment, which absolutely included my reaction to the bullying as much as the bullying itself.

As a result, the pretty young blonde teacher chose not to have me back in her class the following year. That was to be my last year at this school, which meant I was to spend it in the other class, to be taught by the ugly old mean black-haired beast. This might not have been so bad if the rest of my friends were with me. But no, my inner circle was back in the light while I got pushed into the shadows. The X-Men may be freaks, but they stick together.

To combat this injustice, I opted out of all activities in the new class. During group reading, I closed the book and pushed it away. This was a class of good children, terrified into obedience by a fear of not getting into a good college, so they were rather fascinated with my stubborn rebelliousness.

Fearing I’d win friends and influence people with my lack of cooperation, the mean teacher sent me off to specialists. There they subjected me to reading tests. Once it was determined that my decision not to read in class was not in any way related to an inability to read, I was sent for a psychiatric evaluation. Further humiliation ensued as it was then determined I might be an unsafe child for my combination of anger and intellect.

From there I was sent to another classroom that served as a holding chamber for truly dangerous kids. It was somewhere beneath remedial education in a windowless bunker. They’d placed drawings of the outside world on the walls to look like windows, but even the drawings had bars over them. It was like daycare for early arsonists, vandals, and assailants. It might have even said that on the door. These were children that are allowed crayons, but not pencils, if you get what I mean.

My parents saw an easy fix to all this. Just put me back in the other room, surrounded by sunshine and rainbows, and most importantly, common adoration. But no, the administrators believed it was better to indoctrinate me into the bureaucratic nature of society as we knew it. For those who choose not to follow the proscribed rules, the institution offers a heavy fist, a steel door, and unsympathetic ears. Alienation. Get. Used. To. It. This is America. American education.

“This all sounds like a social problem,” my dad said, enunciating the word as if it were as trivial as the thread count on a soon-to-be discarded old sheet. “Just do your work and get out.” He could plan his idle time a year in advance, scarcely seeing friends every few months by appointment only. He could also outline a menu for every meal he’d eat the following month and stick to it without any thought of spontaneity. As far as I know, he’s never experienced heightened levels of anxiety.

My dismayed mom read aloud from a report in which a school counselor of some sort had deemed me a “sullen child.” Clearly, there was an issue at school because I wasn’t sullen at home. Sullen wasn’t even a word we knew, although I knew I did not like being defined as sullen by some jerk who didn’t even know me.

My brother, of course, picked up on this and tortured me with the term whenever he could. Whether I was actually in a bad mood or just sitting quietly, my brother would declare, “The sullen boy, the sullen boy is here, there sullen boy is here being sullen.” He sort of made a song out of it.

As the older sibling, he enjoyed the power he had over me immensely. A power that came simply from being born earlier, being ahead developmentally. It took me a while to catch on that he wasn’t smarter or stronger, just older and bigger.

Transparency: My brother believes we’re not speaking because he’s angry that I lied to him about something that cost him $3k. I did not lie to him, but I was wrong. I believe we were both wrong. Anyway, he doesn’t want the money. He wants me to grovel, to beg for his forgiveness. He wants to return to a dynamic where he can lord over me and I’m not interested in that.