Reckon He’s Queer?
by Jamie Satcher
Queer: Such a powerful word. One that I spent most of my life hearing, hating, running from, and finally accepting as truth of who I am. Queer: A word of longing and dread. A game of hide and seek. Could this word really be who I am? Curiosity and rejection, all rolled into one. Queer: A word of whispers and fear. Of shouting preachers in southern Baptist churches. A cutting knife that left me afraid of the world for too much of my life. Queer: A word of redemption, pride, and advocacy. Of forming a community of peers and allies. Of being able to say at mid-life, “I am gay,” and learning that the world did not collapse–that better days lay ahead of that declaration. Queer: A word of survival and finding happiness in living.
Growing up in Mississippi, I always knew (and was constantly reminded) that I was different: smart, musical, bookish, and sensitive in a family and community in which those characteristics were considered “sissified.” But there was also a deeper difference, one that I was not able to put a name to until I was older. And, especially in my family, that difference was considered shameful, unspeakable, and irredeemably perverted. I was gay, but would not come to accept that difference until mid-life.
My folks were of the Scots-Irish, Appalachian stock well described in J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy. My mom was 14 when she married my 17-year-old father, and neither was mature enough to manage the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. They divorced when I was too young to remember, leaving my mom with three small children, a 9th grade education, and no job skills.
We were desperately poor. My mother sought a way out of poverty through a revolving door of boyfriends and husbands, always optimistic that each would provide financial and emotional stability for her and her children. These men only offered false promises. They also had one thing in common—they hated me. When I was five, my mother married a man, a violent alcoholic, who would beat me to “toughen him up.” When that marriage ended, my mom was left with a fourth child to raise with no support from his father. Afterwards, and for several years, my mother had an affair with a married man who led her to believe he would divorce his wife and marry her. This boyfriend frightened me, and I remember begging my mother to never marry him. Toward the end of that relationship, in a drunken rage, he made me sit in a chair while pouring a case of beer over my head, one can at a time, calling me a “four-eyed faggot” and shouting “baptize Peter, baptize Paul, baptize Jamie head and all.”
When I was in the 8th grade, my mother married again, and we moved to a small, one-red-light town that had an almost Mayberry feel to it. But it wasn’t Mayberry. This husband turned out to be the monster of all monsters. He hated that I played in the school band, which he proclaimed was for “queers.” I could practice only when he was not home, and then in a cow pasture behind the house. He had a psychiatric disability and liked to boast that he could kill and get away with it. I once intervened when he was hurting my mother, and he choked me until I thought I was going to die.
I was also trying to cope with being bullied at my new school, where I attempted to fit in by playing basketball. After one game, I was surrounded in the locker room by my teammates who taunted me, chanting “queer, queer, queer.” Bullied at school and at home, I ran away as a 14-year-old and was taken in by my schizophrenic grandmother and, later, by my older sister and her husband. I no longer had to contend directly with the craziness of my stepfather, although I struggled with rarely being able to see my mom or younger siblings, and I felt guilty about leaving them to cope with the abuse that continued after I was gone. Things improved at school, mostly because I learned to keep to myself. I was perceived as unapproachable, so I was pretty much left alone.
After finishing high school, I lived as a hermit. Distrustful and afraid of people, I had given up on life because I felt too different from anyone I knew. I worked full time at a grocery store managed by my brother-in-law. My life revolved around work and living, isolated, in a trailer I rented on a farm outside of town. I began to internalize the symptoms of schizophrenia I had seen in my grandmother, and I felt I was being watched and negatively judged by everyone I saw. And that judgement was one word: queer. My sense of being judged wasn’t just in my mind. I knew from coworkers that small-town speculation about me often began with the question, “Reckon he’s queer?” Sometimes, when driving my car through town, younger teenage boys, trying to be cool, would see me and yell “Queer!” Friendless and alone, I trusted no one. I felt trapped and angry, but also helpless about changing my circumstances.
When I was 21, I took a hard look at my life and decided my only ticket out was to go to college and make a better life for myself. I moved into a dorm of the nearby community college, a bit older than the typical freshman, and found a group of friends who embraced me so long as I kept my deepest self a secret, or so I believed. I created a new narrative as straight, but too busy to date, while maintaining an inner life tormented by same-sex attractions. Questions about being queer followed me, though. Some within my group of friends would ask innocently if I was gay, but I was too afraid to answer them truthfully. Others would ask because, as I learned later, they were coming to terms with their own queer identity. Some were malicious. I once found “Jamie Satcher is queer” written on the bathroom wall of one of the buildings on campus, which frightened me. A slightly older man from my hometown, assumed to be gay, was murdered by two hitchhikers he had picked up. One of my community college classmates, who was also from my hometown, pulled me aside and said, “He was like you, and he deserved to die.” I was too stunned to respond, and I retreated further into the closet.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the time of Reagan, the AIDS crisis, and a growing advocacy movement among gay men and lesbians, I remained staunchly closeted, denying my essential self. I knew what was going on in the LGBT world, but it was separate from me. I married, had children, continued with my education, and embarked on my career as a college professor. To the casual observer, I am sure my life looked perfect. I loved being a parent, and I had a wife who loved me despite what she came to refer to as me being “complicated.” I managed my same-sex attractions by numbing my feelings using a combination of alcohol and sleep aids, just enough to take the edge off the despair and anxiety I felt most of the time.
At mid-life, I couldn’t carry on with the discrepancy between who I tried to be and who I was, and I collapsed psychologically and physically. And, I began to heal. I discovered that I had married a woman who loved me enough to set aside her anger and grief and let me go. I found that I had two sons who supported me unconditionally as I began to move from deeply internalized homophobia to embracing my identity as gay. So many of the fears I had about coming out were unfounded, and I finally felt free to be the person I knew myself to be.
Professionally, I began to research attitudes toward gay men and lesbians, and I contributed to the body of literature addressing effective counseling with queer persons. I became actively involved in a state-level counseling advocacy group of LGBT peers and allies, and I found my voice as a presenter at counseling association conferences and workshops promoting awareness of social justice issues relevant to the queer community. Personally, I found happiness in a relationship with a man whose experience of being gay was so mind-blowingly different from mine that he made my healing complete.
Like all the queer people I know, I rejoiced at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. I was not surprised, however, at the backlash of subsequent laws passed allowing for discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religious freedom. I live in Alabama, where I am well aware that many people adhere to faith traditions that denounce “queers” as an abomination. My state’s elected leaders rail against equality and civil rights protections for those of us who are queer. In Alabama, and throughout the Bible Belt south, the road back to harder times is a short drive. Yet, I am not afraid. I have found empowerment and self-acceptance in being queer. Queer as a pejorative has no power over me. Now, my response to “Reckon he’s queer?” is “Yes, absolutely!”
Although I believe harder times will come with a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress, I hope those harder times are the last gasp of a dying breed of older, mostly white and male, Evangelical Christians. Men of my generation and older, of whom I am ashamed. In response to those harder times, I will expand my sphere of influence, confronting (when necessary), educating, informing, and sharing my story both publicly and privately. Equality will prevail, and it will result from the political actions of young Americans, both queer and straight. And I look forward to seeing it in my lifetime.