1964: Growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s was what they call a character-building experience. For anyone like me, with a deeply hidden attraction to members of my own sex, it involved a constant cloaking of my true nature.
It wasn’t yet clear to me that I might become or was gay. After all, for hormonal reasons, my attraction to the golden boy in our class, Andy Howell, was not sexual in nature. It was merely adoration.
“There is still time,” I would tell myself, “to outgrow these infatuations and find the right girl who’ll spark my interest in the opposite sex.”
Andy was the coach’s son and grew up to be the star athlete in several sports. In addition to being handsome, with sandy brown hair, blue eyes and an athletic body, he had charisma and was the embodiment of the classic all-American boy. He was also the boy with whom I had played doctor behind a tree during kindergarten recess when I was five and was my first conscious memory of my attraction to boys.
Andy never displayed the slightest reciprocal interest in me, beyond the usual roughhousing and mutual sports fixation. But, he did remain part of the core group of friends with whom I played baseball in Pony League, joined the Boy Scouts, and went on Jamboree camping expeditions. He was also part of the group of male friends I invited out to our rambling plantation in the panhandle of Florida for a sleep-over on my birthday each year.
At that time, we owned an 800-acre Black Angus cattle ranch about 5 miles outside of Bonifay. I also belonged to the local 4-H club, so when I turned ten my dad gave me a calf, which I raised, fed, and groomed, and then showed competitively at the county and state fairs. For the next five years, until my dad sold our ranch and moved us north, I was given a new calf on each birthday and showed my steers at various fairs throughout the tri-state region of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. When I was not quite twelve, in 1964, my steer won the Grand Champion prize at the Fat Stock Show at the Florida State Fair in Tampa, out of 120 from all over the state. And, with my still under-sized, 5’1″ stature and winning ways with adults, I managed to win the “Best Showmanship” award in the process.
On the night of my twelfth birthday sleepover, my dad came in with distraught news: the pregnant cow that was due to give birth to my next calf had delivered, but the new-born had emerged from the womb missing an anus. The poor thing had to be put down. That news put a bit of a damper on our mood. But somehow between talking about giving birth and jokes about missing assholes, our talk turned to sex and finally about jerking off.
“Why don’t we all do it together?” Someone blurted out, “First one to cum wins!”
“Fuck!” I thought to myself. Not only was I beginning to fear I might be gay, but I worried the other boys would figure out that seeing near-naked boys masturbating meant a lot more to me than it did to them.
I was also self-conscious of the fact that I hadn’t yet figured out the mechanics of jerking off or cumming myself. I’d heard the other boys talk about whacking off and how pleasurable the results were, so, following their general instructions in the privacy of my bedroom, I’d tried it—stroking my dick one or two dozen times and waiting for “it” to happen. But nothing ever did. I didn’t know what was wrong. And now I was going to have to perform in front of a live audience!
I was petrified. Luckily, as the host, I knew I was tasked to make it happen and took control of the situation, instructing everyone to put a group of chairs in a circle, then to pull down their pants and start doing it.
“I’ll watch the door!” I said, insisting that my parents could walk in at any time.
The others bought my ruse and quickly got down to business. I stood near the door half pretending to watch the hallway, as they beat their meat. But, my eyes were glued to the ten naked boys. As they stroked harder and harder, my heart beat fast… One by one each of them groaned and shot. With the mixture of euphoria and exhaustion, no one stopped to ask when I was going to do it—like most guys, they more were concerned about their own pleasure than mine.
Later that night, after the others had gone to sleep, I decided to try again, having now observed the mechanics of it all. Lying on my bed in the dark, I stroked and stroked, thinking about Andy Howell, crotch exposed and shooting his load. I came explosively and released tension in my body that had been building for a long time. I was terrified—that I, for the first time, knew my attraction to boys was really more than adoration, yet also excited that I had measured up to the others and was now “a man.” I was so thrilled, in fact, that I woke up some of the other boys to share my exciting news.
And that was how boys learned to do it in the Florida panhandle in 1964.
My family moved away from rural Florida in 1967, shortly after I had turned 15. I decided then, that none of my friends could ever know my secret, as that area was and still is today, hyper-conservative and virulently homophobic. As a result, I let the friendships with my childhood friends in Bonifay lapse and steered clear of the area and them for decades.
But with the arrival of Facebook and its ubiquitous reach, I was eventually and inadvertently reconnected to many of those old friends. By the time that happened, in 2007, I was comfortable with my identity as an out gay man. So, when we updated each other on our lives, I told each of them matter-of-factly that I was gay, and at that point lived in Manhattan with my partner of seven years.
By then, none of my friends were bothered by this and most took it in stride. The most interesting reaction I got was from Bill Howell, my best friend from that time and cousin to Andy – the “golden boy.”
“Do you remember when we all used to attend your sleepovers and beat off together?” he said, bringing up our jerk-off sessions. “Wow! Wasn’t that something? I had wondered if I might be gay around that time, but eventually decided it wasn’t for me.”
For him, it hadn’t been a big deal—it was just something to consider and rule out. But for me, by contrast, it was a big scarlet letter—to be hidden at all costs. As a result, it took decades to purge myself of the resulting internalized homophobia that I had built up.
On a lighter note, I consider that first circle jerk as the source of my voyeuristic nature—I probably wouldn’t have taken so many photos of hot men over the next 40 years, if I’d lowered my pants then and participated in that communal rite of passage.