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.

Sick & Twisted


My first job after graduation was at a radio station, but that was still in my little college town and I continued taking classes even though I’d already completed a degree program. I was also still living the college lifestyle, so that felt almost like an extension of my education.

When I got back to the big city (LA) I was lost and I was probably depressed. That’s why I went off to promote a stupid little traveling film festival for a few weeks. I actually wrote, “I don’t get too fucked up much anymore,” in the cover letter. The interview was in San Diego and they offered me the job right away.

The festival itself was actually a collection of independently produced animated shorts. My job was to go into record stores, book stores, coffee shops, cafes, and anywhere else friendly to weird independent art and leave a stack of fliers. They were not actually fliers, though, they were programs featuring the contents of our show. If possible, I’d see if I could put up a poster in the window. We’d also go to college campuses and hand our materials directly to people walking by.

It took me a while to realize what we were really doing there. Promoting the show, raising awareness about our presence in town, sure, but that’s too simplistic. A good street team saturates the market past the tipping point where anyone who might be interested in seeing what this is all about tells themselves to go check it out. That it feels like maybe the universe is insisting they attend the show. They do this by using personal contact as much as possible.

This is more costly but much easier to achieve in real life. Or it was, anyway. I’m not sure how often small outfits use this kind of promotion anymore. Like I said, it’s costly. I was paid a per diem plus transport and lodging on top of my hourly rate. These guys had the capital to make such investments.

At the time it seemed inefficient to me. Would we have been better off getting some air time on the radio? Was a television commercial spot even an option? This was the fall 2002, so online marketing was an infant. There was no social media to speak of. Our website was horrible.

What was the best way to attract 10k people to visit the cinema during our 2-3 week run there?

Handing out fliers didn’t do much for me, but one day while I was on the campus of a community college, I ran into a former classmate from high school. He was also handing out fliers, but the difference was he was in full Marine dress, and his fliers were for recruitment.

We got to talking in what I thought was a real moment. There had been no contact between us in at least five years. There was no Facebook or anything else to see what we’d been up to. I asked him what he thought about the possibility of George W. Bush taking us to war in Iraq. He basically just shrugged and said you have to do what the boss tells you to do. I didn’t realize that having served for the past four plus years, he’d probably moved up into a position that would not put him near combat right away, if ever, but I’m not really sure if that’s true. What I do know is that this kid acted really interested in the weird movies I was promoting and why I was promoting them.

I also mentioned to him that I was looking to get into writing. He told me that if I really wanted to write something meaningful, then I should join up. The stories were on the front lines. He was not wrong, but I was dismissive. Of course.

The thing is, if I didn’t join the military to fight for freedom (or revenge) after September 11, 2001, I wasn’t going to join in October of 2002 to overthrow Saddam Hussein as an excuse for hunting for Osama Bin Laden. But I often think that maybe I should have. If I had survived without getting my arms and legs blown off, or at least keeping my mind intact, I could have come out and gone to grad school for free. Then I’d have all sorts of job opportunities with military training and could possibly have transitioned into government and eventually consulting. Maybe then I could have had a stint as the White House Press Secretary or something. And become a news entertainment talking head.

Despite all that, the thing I really took away from this moment was the direct communication I shared with this fellow face to face. Because he did come to our show, along with a couple of his military buddies. They bought tickets. Whether this was in extended effort to get me on the hook is not relevant.

There was a breakthrough. At first, and for a while afterward, I was offended that this sincere moment had been a ruse, a shifty sales pitch. Now I know that’s just the law of the land. Exploitation. Are you raising money to make a film or are you raising money to make lunch? There’s really no difference going in.

The humanity of that moment remains, exactly because there was humanity in it, as sick and twisted as it was by reducing each other to marks. It does not exist in the emptiness of liking a post, or even RSVPing to an evite or on an event page. There is no weight in clicks.


This is probably true for most writers because, while people are obviously attracted to fame and success, the same principle works in reverse.