Safe as Houses
by Joshua Adair
As a third-grader, my classmates started to sense something they considered amiss about me. I was too much like a girl, they told me. This wasn’t news to me: my paternal grandmother had been saying the same thing for at least three years by that point. Her assertions were usually parroted by my great uncle Paul, who always told me I was the kind of boy who “liked to wear silk panties.” I had no idea what he meant at the time, but I knew enough to be afraid of him and his assertions. Even my teacher, Mrs. Ross, told me I had to stop being such a sissy and play with the other boys during recess. Reading during that time, she scolded, was a girl’s activity: “you want to be a normal boy, don’t you?” I didn’t think there was anything particularly abnormal about me, but in the coming years I discovered that my peers and some of my teachers disagreed in the most strenuous terms. Many of them took every chance they got to ridicule and humiliate me. Boys licked their fingers and stuck them on my neck, cackling about how turned on I must be to think they were kissing me; others hit me or threw things at me; some vandalized or stole my possessions.
I learned the value of retreat in those formative years – thanks to a permissive, compassionate mother. I never told her what was happening to me at school because I was embarrassed and humiliated; I did not yet understand that I was not to blame. I don’t know how much she suspected, but whenever I applied for a sick day she approved my request. I don’t think I attended school most Mondays during the third grade as a result. Some mornings I was so choked up at the bus stop that I did not think I would be able to manage going to school – terrified of what lay ahead. I still forced myself to go most days, but in a state of terror. I wasn’t staying to be lazy; I was safe there and able to do my homework and learn. The irony was that I loved school and learning, but I could not focus on those things when fear ruled everything I did and no one seemed to care that I was being mistreated. I could be productive and creative at home – a place I craved – because I was not always on guard and afraid. I feel great sadness even now, decades later, when I think of that kid: sweet and effeminate, kind and open. I never learned how to pretend to be someone else as an act of self-protection and that made me incredibly vulnerable to many.
That situation did not improve as I aged. My classmates grew more vicious and physically abusive as I went silent and withdrew. I believed my silence – my attempts to blend in – would discourage their hateful behavior. I was wrong: the more still I became, the more aggressively they responded. The situation, in many ways, proved animalistic; they sensed my difference and my desire to be ignored and they refused to oblige. Though I will never understand such an impulse, they wanted to see me degraded – perhaps even destroyed. By high school, I realized that I could not live in physical retreat, so I went to school faithfully and I even received perfect attendance several years. I learned a strategy that has helped me ever since: make friends with the popular girls and they will do some of the work of defending you and easing the path. I also fostered an already sizeable dependence upon a rich inner life for survival. I cherished my time at home and felt best when I could abide there, but when I could not I retreated into my mind. By then I had grown accustomed to the world hating me and I rarely ever questioned why. That’s not to say I thought they were right; I just didn’t want to devote any additional energy to creating a logic narrative about their motivations. There is no logic in such obliterative thoughts and actions.
In those pre-internet, pre-cable TV days, I enriched my inner life with books. I spent all my free time at home reading everything I could get my hands on. In those days I knew I liked boys in a way no one thought I should, but I had no idea that there might be books out there that would help me feel less alone. Instead, because my mother believed in the healing and restorative nature of a beautiful, comfortable home, I most often turned to readings about houses. My primary fantasy from childhood forward has always been to own a house; I wanted a beautiful fortress against the world. I didn’t often imagine many people in that fortress because they were frequently so awful. Instead, I imagined a microcosm populated by a select few I could love and trust. I fantasized for a while about becoming Sarah Bishop, wandering off into the wilderness to claim a domestic space of safety, satisfaction, perhaps even tranquility – even if it was in a cave. On the outskirts of the hamlet where we lived sat a tiny five-room house that had long been abandoned; while other kids dreamed about sports teams and rock stars, I imagined reclaiming the cottage and making it my own Thornyhold. I loved any story that involved an old house, antique furnishings, and an intrepid protagonist forging a space for themselves in an inhospitable world.
When I went away to college, I imagined that perhaps my dorm room would become a miniature version of such a space. What I found was a continuation of high school, only with communal showers and shared toilets. My dorm mates had no difficulty discerning my queerness and their immediate reaction was to assume that I was ogling them every time I entered the bathroom. For me, they imagined, this space was pornographic in its potential; they never imagined that I loathed entering those places filled with their sneers and cruel quips. I was assaulted in there a number of times: usually by someone stealing my towel and toiletries or by someone urinating directly on me as I used the urinal. Several times I was groped and shoved by men comfortable enough to grab at and humiliate me simultaneously. It did not take long before I developed complex coping mechanisms to avoid those bathrooms as much as possible. I kept an empty milk jug in my dorm room to use as a chamber pot that I would empty in the middle of the night; I would shower at 4 am after everyone had finally collapsed in bed. I crept around campus to use single occupancy bathrooms in other buildings to avoid the degradation that awaited in the one on my floor. I was profoundly depressed and constantly fearful.
During the second half of my undergraduate career, I was able to secure a single dorm room. While no other space on campus was safe, I found respite in that tiny room where I could retreat. As wide as the length of a single bed and not much longer, I wedged a wingback chair and a faux fireplace mantel that I had built with my dad in there to make it homey. In retrospect, this unusual behavior probably only made things worse, but I am also not sure I would have survived without that tiny haven. It was a corner room on the top floor and I crammed it to the gills. Comfortable, but overfull, I ate most of my meals in there and invited my friends to visit – one at a time – and at least for the hours I lived there I was safe and could relax slightly. Danger thrived right outside my door, though, and I rarely returned to my room that someone hadn’t scrawled “faggot” or some other epithet on my dry-erase board. As charming as I had made my nook, I was not sorry to move on from that particular home where I learned to read great literature and to write as a form of activism. That closet of a room helped me come out; it was my space of resistance.
Blackburn College Dorm Room
As a graduate student, I started to conceive of home as a political space, largely from engaging with queer men’s writing. I was used to hearing from my professors that the domestic sphere was the site of much oppression for women, and I know this to be true just as I also knew that home has long been a place of liberation, freedom, and resistance for queers. While it is fashionable to situate the home as part of the private sphere and therefore apolitical, I have always known it to be something else. I was moved by Christopher Reed’s Bloomsbury Rooms, that chronicles that set’s ideas about the power of home as the nexus of creativity and political awareness; I marveled at the ways Edward Carpenter and George Merrill managed to create queer community at Millthorpe; I loved Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin and how at home he felt there for a time. I learned so much from these, and other, queer predecessors of mine; they helped me stitch together a lineage based upon proclivities and sensibilities that allowed me to retreat into my home without abandoning the world. It was during these years, too, that I met my queer writer hero who would offer me a map for living in resistance in a hostile world: Beverley Nichols. Nichols – a prolific novelist, journalist, and dramaturge – produced two “gardening” trilogies – Allways (1930s) and Merry Hall (1950s) – about his exploits buying old houses and restoring them and their gardens to former glory. He styles himself as a self-appointed aristocrat of taste and style, all while offering savagely funny social commentary and precious little practical gardening advice. His foremost claim to fame as a gardener is pioneering the “winter garden” so that flowers – for the dogged gardener – decorate one’s property year-round.
This accomplishment proves both poetic and apt as a metaphor for queer resistance and survival: though the world appears bent upon telling us we cannot survive, we do so – even flourishing at times – despite the inhospitable environment. As a de facto criminal under the 1885 Labouchere Amendment, Nichols took to his various homes and his writings about them to mount his resistance. While he could not publicly admit his homosexuality for fear of prosecution, he does little to hide it in his quasi-fictional narratives. Instead, he proudly exhibits his queerness:
Whatever opinion I may have of my talents, I have never taken them to include the power to write a love story. A normal love story, that is to say. A passionate interlude with a crocus, maybe; an enslavement to a Siamese cat or a heartbreak over a cocker spaniel. Yes. One day I might even describe the peculiar feelings I have about a certain Chippendale chair; when anybody sits on it I feel as if I were witnessing the rape of a beloved. But normal boy-meets-girl stuff…no. It would all be most tiresome and embarrassing. (Merry Hall 263)
And yet, if one looks closely, Nichols’s real-life partner, Cyril Butcher, appears throughout his writing, teasing readers with possibility and what might even have been labeled perversity by some. Nichols acknowledges, even celebrates, his difference as a kind of queer ‘Lord of the Manor’ who presides over a community largely populated by single people. Among their numbers are the poor, the elderly, the same-sex attracted, and other societal outcasts. Queer community, Nichols suggests through humor and creativity, embraces difference and possibility; we protect our own and must remain unafraid to fight for ourselves. Above all, he does so with style and compassion – though peppered liberally with bitchy quips and faux exasperation. His words gave me a lifeline, a model, and a way forward.
I wrote a large part of my dissertation about the queer sanctuary I believe Nichols masterminds in his novels, based upon his real life endeavors of an identical nature. His life was not easy and he suffered tremendous stress as a minority coping with a hostile dominant culture. He did not hide, though he did retreat into his home frequently. I have published about his work a number of times and I never fail to marvel at his moxie in forever toeing the line of exposure and punishment; he was a self-possessed and bold queer who catered to his strengths. He infiltrated readers’ homes with a vision of queer community crafted to expand the far-too-restrictive parameters of the society in which he lived, making queerness relatable and endearing. His work, which is often relegated to the “garden writing” section and dismissed as frivolous, feminine fare speaks to me in a profound way as serious social protest voiced in a register that does not resonate with everyone, but I believe his trilogies offer priceless insight about the potential power of home amidst attempts to silence, if not eradicate, us.
In 2015, my partner and I bought a large Craftsman-style house built in 1925 and completely renovated it, almost single-handedly. This is our first house together, and we labored intensely to craft it into the kind of place we could love. Our friends and families marveled at the enormity of our undertaking as we undid years of neglect and abuse, as the house had served as a college rental for nearly thirty years. We were undeterred, though, because it featured a large living room, dining room, and kitchen and the price was right thanks to all the labor it demanded. It is the kind of place made for inviting others in and making them comfortable. I imagined us as the latest in a long line of queer forebears fortunate enough to claim space and transform it into a sanctuary. Our lives in an extremely conservative Bible Belt town in the rural upper South have often seemed more like something out of the 50s than a part of the 21st century and, as far as we know, we’re one of only a handful of queer couples living together in the area. In other words, our existence alone draws criticism and rebuke – our public proclamation of coupledom and permanence via home ownership makes a loud proclamation of the political importance of home.
We labored ceaselessly for months to whip the house into shape and when it was nearly done in the early fall of 2015, we agreed to open it to the public for the local Women’s Club’s holiday Tour of Homes. Numerous folks came through that day and confronted our reality. After that, we hosted my department’s faculty for our annual party; we organized community happy hours on Friday evenings during the summer. We were highly visible members of the community unafraid to engage with neighbors and passers-by. We even won “Yard of the Month” earlier this year for our landscaping and manicuring efforts. Our names and address have appeared multiple times in the local newspaper and in the last year countless folks have toured our property and followed our renovation closely for a variety of reasons. While I am not one to venture out willingly to bars and restaurants – they tend to be as perilous as the school settings I describe earlier in this essay – I risk inviting people into the home we have made beautiful, comfortable, and welcoming and where I now frequently read and write. I often retreat here from the dangerous world, but only temporarily and never with a mind to keep others out. It’s here, though, that, at least for now, I can control what happens and my partner and I can deliver a counternarrative about the value and depth of queer existence. I feel acute fear these days at the insecurity our recent election has caused and I am frightened at the prospect of what’s to come, but I still find myself remembering that in spite of it all I have always created home in the face of hatred and adverse settings. I have turned to my queer predecessors and their writing and navigated a path. If worse comes – as many of us dread it will – I plan to draw upon those resources for as long as possible and I recommend you do the same.