Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Secret Message of "Brian Gives Free LBJs"

Rock Island, July 1981

After reading my post on  "The Secret Message" you probably thought that the graffiti "Brian gives free LBJs" referred to some sort of sexual act.  But the real meaning was something much more profound.

I found out in the spring of 1981, my junior year at Augustana.  A student who was from Chicago, like Brian, said that in his grade school, the older boys would force or bribe the younger boys to run errands and do chores for them,  like the "fags" of British boarding school (possibly the origin of the derogatory term for gay men).

 It was called "doing a LBJ" or "giving a LBJ," after President Lyndon Baines Johnson (he didn't know why).

That summer, the famous summer of 1981, I looked up Brian, an undergraduate drama major at Carthage College.  We had a pizza at Happy Joe's, and then parked on the levee and watched the cars glistening by on the Centennial Bridge.  I talked about the day we  found Brian scrubbing at the graffiti on the wall of Washington Junior High, and how I had just discovered that a LBJ meant a chore.

"But I don't understand why a Mean Boy would write 'Brian gives free LBJs.'  What's so bad about doing free chores?"

Brian hesitated for only a moment.  "They weren't bad.  The big boys were cute, and sometimes they would let me hang out with them.  Sometimes we would hug.  I liked the way a big guy's arms felt around me. . .I wanted that. . ."

My face reddened as I realized that he was revealing something very personal.   "Um...did you ever find out who wrote it?"

"You know what? I’ve never told anybody this before, but it was me. I wrote it.”

His face was turned away, toward the  rushing river. “Why would you write 'Brian gives free lbjs’ about yourself?”

“I don’t know. I was a mixed up kid, I guess. That’s why I was trying to erase it."

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That you’re gay."

Brian stared at me for a moment, small and fragile, alone. Then he was angry. “I am not!” he exclaimed.  “Maybe I was a confused kid, but no way am I gay!”

"Ok, ok, whatever," I said.  "But do you still like it when big guys hug you?"

I didn't wait for him to answer.

Brian and I dated a few times during the very busy summer of 1981, but that night was more about friendship, and recognition, and belonging.

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