When I was a kid, the adults all told me that I would grow up, go to work in the factory, then "find a nice girl" and get married. Abandoning boyhood "pals" for a heterosexual destiny was a fact of life, as inevitable as the sunrise. I kept looking for someone -- anyone -- who managed to escape, and spent their life with a same-sex partner, or failing that, alone.
But it was fruitless. Occasionally I thought I found someone, but no:
The "old lady schoolteachers" down the street? Widows living together to save on rent.
My judo instructor -- married to a woman.
My 6th grade science teacher? Had a girlfriend, and hoped to marry soon.
I never even noticed Brother Byron (not his real name or photo). He was my Uncle Paul's age, about 12 years older than me, tall and thin, with a sandy hair, a long solemn face, and glasses that gave him a somewhat sinister look. One imagined that he had lots of secrets at home.
I didn't see Brother Byron much: he didn't teach Sunday school or lead a youth group. As church treasurer, he sometimes lectured us in a slow, precise tone on the importance of tithing: 10% of your allowance into the offering plate, and another 10% in your Alabaster Box.
And he was head usher, so I remember him running around during services, finding hymnals, collecting offerings, rarely sitting still to listen to a sermon.
I assumed that he was married, like the other Carlsons, like everyone else in church. His wife must be off somewhere preparing for choir practice or Missionary Society.
I dropped out of the Nazarene church during college, and then I moved to West Hollywood, and forgot about Brother Byron. But at Christmastime in 1993, I was back in Rock Island, and for some reason I was glancing through the church directory, and there was Brother Byron, a single Mr. amid the endless Mr. and Mrs. listings. He lived alone!
"Is Brother Byron widowed?" I asked my mother.
"No, no...he never married."
Never married? I wondered: was he gay? And how could I find out?
"Do you give him anything for Christmas? A card, or a fruitcake, or something?"
"Well, we didn't until just recently," Mom said. "But since your father started working as an usher, Brother Byron is like his boss, so every year I bake him some cookies."
"Um...this year could I deliver them?"
She didn't know what I was planning.
He answered the door in a t-shirt and shorts, a mop in his hand -- he had been cleaning. First gay test: neat and tidy. The shorts displayed an impressive bulge, and without his glasses, he looked rather handsome.
"Hi, remember me? Boomer, from church -- Frank Davis' son."
He stared suspiciously. "Um...yes, of course. How are you? Living in California, I hear."
"Yep. Summer time, 365 days a year! My Mom sent you some Christmas cookies." I passed the bag over. Our hands touched briefly.
"Tell your mother Thank you."
He was about to slam the door! "Um...it was a nice day, so I jogged over, and now I'm about to die of thirst. Could I trouble you for a glass of water?"
Staring doubtfully, Brother Byron held the door open.
I made a fuss over his living room full of Shaker furniture, quilted rugs, and photographs of dour Carlson ancestors. Second gay test: good taste in home decor!
He led me into the kitchen and poured my glass of water from the sink. I reached out for the glass -- and "clumsily" spilled it all over my sweatshirt.
"No big deal. I'll pop it in the drier for 20 minutes, and it will be good as new."
"Well -- if it's no trouble." I ripped off my sweatshirt, flexing as much as possible. His eyes widened.
Third gay test: gets turned on by muscles.
Definitely gay! But did he know it?
He disappeared into the laundry room. When he returned, I said "Well, we've got 20 minutes to kill. Maybe I could see more of your house? I love the Shaker decor."
"You know about Shaker furniture? I'm impressed." He smiled for the first time. "Ok, the grand tour will start with the parlor..."
"Après vous, monsieur." I took his arm and squeezed his bicep.
He immediately swung around. "What are you..."
Uh-oh, I blew it! I thought. Now the whole church will hear that Frank Davis's son goes around trying to pick up Carlsons!
But instead of yelling, he lay his flat palm against my chest.
He was gay, and knew it.
But how did he stand the Nazarene church?
Right after high school, you were placed in the College and Career Sunday school class, where you stayed until you got married. If you never married, you stayed there, year after year, listening to the same lessons on "starting out in life" over and over again.
And the sermons! Preachers often screamed about how God put us on this "terrible old world" for two reasons only: to win souls, and to marry and produce children. If you weren't married, you needed to stop shirking your duty and obey the Will of God! Who could stand listening to that three times a week?
Turns out that the church treasurer was excused from Sunday school class to do financial things, and the head usher had to rush around during the services instead of listening to the sermon. Very clever!
But why did Brother Byron stay in a church that hated him?
His reply was simple: "They don't hate me. They hate who they think I am."
As far as I know, he's still in the church.