I knew I was attracted to men before I knew I was Attracted To Men. It began at my summer camp, a small wooded refuge tucked away in northern Wisconsin. There, one or two hundred boys or so, from age 9 to 15, played, swam, canoed, sailed, crafted, cooked, gathered, laughed, cried. I crushed. (I did those other things, too.)
I didn’t know how to describe it, so I didn’t. I let it smolder, carrying on summer after summer as I approached hormonal adolescence. We had our social with the girls’ camp. I flung a frisbee around with my friends. We talked about girls back home. “Ah, I’ve got no one,” I said.
I had my eyes on the older kids and, more commonly, the counselors — those who were spending their first one or two summers of college in rural Wisconsin, often sweating and shirtless. In recent months, as I sorted out my sexuality, both privately and publicly, I realized that maybe the reason why I didn’t like camp as much as the others was that, quite simply, I was surrounded by people I was attracted to. That’s pretty hard for the 36 weeks in total I spent as a camper there.
There’s a strange little movie that came out in the mid-1950s called “Tea and Sympathy,” which was adapted from a successful and controversial play that set its aim on crises in masculinity and gay panic. When the film moved from the stage to the screen, MGM, which had won the buying frenzy when the film’s rights were up for sale, struggled to adapt the subject material to something that would pass the stringent censors. Ultimately, the film’s focus changed from a gay student at an all-male prep school to an effeminate, but ultimately straight, student.
I don’t want to pass judgment on the film, mangled by the stifled politics of the conformist 1950s, but “Tea and Sympathy” portrays a spirit and mentality rarely captured so painstakingly accurately. Protagonist Tom Lee’s crippling interiority — he is psychologically tormented for his femininity into submission and silence — far exceeds in severity my experience, but there are some similar strands. I kept to myself, feeling psychologically terrorized by the presence of the hyper-masculine.
And like Tom, I found myself in a strange place in a homosocial setting. I was rarely the object of derision, yet I couldn’t help but feel out of place in my cabin. Everyone was so straight. And not only was I not (though I didn’t quite have the word for it, and I didn’t grasp it), I was an introvert in a small space. There wasn’t much room for me.
One of the centerpieces of “Tea and Sympathy” is the very homoerotic (or at least sounding) hazing sequence, in which the older boys at the school run around and tear off the pajamas of the new students (how heterosexual!). Tom, called “sister boy” by his peers, is “protected” at the event by those who are quicker to see him as a woman than a man. I was included in activities, to be sure, but often my avoidance came from a sexual fear I could not at that time articulate. On the final evening of camp, my penultimate summer at least, the ninth graders (the oldest campers) played a naked basketball game. I avoided it at all costs.
That’s why, after watching “Tea and Sympathy,” I was surprised to find myself gravitating more toward another film, “Everybody Wants Some!!” Put simply, though the two films take place in similar settings, “Tea and Sympathy” is told by an outsider and “Everybody Wants Some!!” is told by an insider, a freshman in the baseball house at a Texas college enjoying his welcome week in 1980. Jake is the perfect freshman for (most of) the guys in the house: He is jovial, funny, pokes fun at the older jocks and hangs with the cool older guys. And yet he knows his place: He submits to the hazing rituals of his house, at the risk of losing his ability to have children, and he follows the older guys around.
But Jake thrives. And the best part is: He does it with his reserve. After the older guys strike out flirting with some girls moving into the dorms, one, played by Zoey Deutch, approaches their car, points to Jake and notes, “I like the quiet guy in the back seat.”
“Everybody Wants Some!!,” perversely I suppose, was a sort of wish fulfillment — an alternate reality in which I was well-liked, I was the heir apparent to the masculine reign, instead of the quiet kid in the corner who was largely ignored. It was fantasy, it was fictional, it was false. It was freedom.