In 1984, my Dad won a family vacation to Panama City Beach, Florida. His business card had been drawn as part of a citywide raffle sponsored by our hometown Chamber of Commerce. All of Louisburg’s businesses had fishbowls to collect business cards for this raffle. Dad dropped his business card at our local funeral home.
For Thanksgiving that year, we drove to Florida in the brand new Chevy Celebrity that my parents had recently bought, replacing the much longer Ford LTD. That trip was different and bigger than any previous trip, and on a holiday no less. As we drove, we were able to take in so many sights along the thousand mile trip to our destination. We went to Graceland in Memphis, to the space museum in Huntsville, to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, we roller-skated in Mobile, before arriving at our Oceanside hotel and our humongous room that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City Beach.
While my parents preferred to drive in silence, I begged them turn on the radio. I needed music to underscore this moving scenery. Somewhere near Jackson, Mississippi, I heard him for the very first time. In a song, a jubilant song that sounded like it came from the past—anachronistic and yet completely new. The song was Wake Me Up Before You Go Go and you better believe that it jitterbugged into my brain. It was delectable and like no thing I’d heard. Who was this guy with the stunningly high tenor?
The song ended and the announcer said “that was Wake Me Up Before You Go Go by WHAM!” On that trip to Florida, I only hoped it would come on the radio again and again—which luckily it did. In fact, on that Sunday, November 24, 1984, Casey Kasem announced on America Top 40 that Wake Me Up Before You Go Go was the week’s number one song.
I had to know more about this WHAM!
Who was WHAM!? Was it a man? Was it a band? Were there more songs? I bought a Tiger Beat and saw their name is print. WHAM! The name alone was amazing. Not only was it an onomotapeia. It literally also had an exclamation! Punctuation in a band name? Unprecedented. Then I saw a picture and realized that Wham! was not a him but rather a them-plural. There were two? Two people, two men. Andrew Ridgely, who I’ve never quite figured out what he did, and the other, the voice, the golden-throated star, the one with the perfect honey-haired mullet and bronze tan, George Michael. Their hair was gorgeous, their skin sun-kissed, their eyebrows overarching. They wore big neon shirts, tight pants, and fingerless gloves. They had their ears pierced, which in my school was the ultimate way of proclaiming you were gay—especially if you wore your earring on the right ear-which they did! To me, they weren’t gay, they were just two English lads who didn’t want to work but to have a good time—to sing, dance, and on occasion rap. Like what the heck was rap? It was all so new!
Our family vacation was awesome and much-needed. It had been a particularly rough year for me emotionally starting on November 20, 1983 when I watched the movie, The Day After. By myself. A made-for-TV-movie-event about a nuclear holocaust filmed in my hometown region of Kansas City. Seeing this movie at this age profoundly fucked my life. I was already sensitive, dramatic, and hormonal, but now I was also panicked, morbid, and afraid. After seeing this movie, I was prone to breaking into tears when we passed by roadside nuclear silos—of which we saw several on our road trip. I even freaked out when seeing nuclear warheads on TV. I lived in perpetual fear of nuclear aftermath—which for a 11 year old is A LOT to take on. Here in 1984, the US was in a nuclear arms race with Russia, AIDS and its surrounding hysteria was spreading, and I was in the 7th grade which is in of itself its own terror event.
Most terrifying was gym class that I had at the end of the day, 7th period. This during a time when we were coming into our bodies and by vulnerably sharing our bodies during daily gym class. After running laps, I shower with some twenty other naked boys for the first time. I am pudgy, androgynous and hairless. I am effortlessly effeminate. Here I am shamefully aware of my undeveloped body. I uncover my own burgeoning sexuality as I look to see who has pubic hair yet and what their bodies look like, and how I compare. My eyes have been opened and I am naked and I am ashamed. This is the fallout of puberty.
We make our way out of our clothes and into the steam of the showers. I stand with other boys encircled under the shower heads that hang above us like an umbrella. Some farm boys begin to chant "Pee on Leon, Pee on Leon" before pointing their dicks and aiming their streams on a pimply classmate named Leon and peeing on him and other bullied kids including myself. We yell, slap, fight, and run away, tiptoeing quickly across the cold locker room floor foul with the stench of well-worn tennis shoes, urine, Speed Stick, and cruelty.
Our teacher, a coach, stands behind a half door rolling up towels into whips and snapping us on our wet asses before tossing the towel down to the floor forcing us to bend over and pick it up in front of him. This was my puberty in 1984, in the new wake of AIDS, a nuclear arms race and Just Say No. This is my sexual genesis in the age of fear. But I digress…
WHAM! I loved WHAM! Luckily, they weren’t a one-hit-wonder. Their album, Make It Big was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They made it big—featuring hits Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Freedom, Everything She Wants, and Careless Whisper. In fact, Make It Big wasn’t even their first album. On their debut album, Fantastic, they look like greaser twinks shirtless in black leather motorcycle jackets reclining into each other-shoulder to shoulder. It’s so obviously and teasingly gay--I see that now but then I didn’t see it explicitly. Like maybe not seeing the forest for the trees.
They sang about girls, about everything SHE wants. I thought the gay rumors were nothing more than, well, …careless whispers. These guys were studs who went snow skiing with girlfriends for Christmas and cavorted in speedos and drank umbrella drinks at Club Tropicana. They don’t want to work, or get down in the dirt-these boys had better things to do. They choose to cruise. Their music, their style, their kinship was like religion to me. Their music was a revelation in ways I didn’t even have the capacity or knowledge to fully comprehend at the time.
I’m Your Man is my favorite WHAM! Song. The video features George Michael in leather gloves and gleefully shakes a tambourine as wildly as he shakes his hips.
If you’re gonna do it, do it right!
As I moved into the 8th grade, I endured more bullying ,more name-calling, but I also think that was the year I began to more overtly embrace myself as a part of a culture I had only began to discover from a considerable distance. Under lock and combination of my locker, I had a memento, a glass placard of the group WHAM! That I bought at the State Fair over the summer. This was stuck on the inside of my top locker door, only disclosed in the three minute intervals between classes. Only displayed in glimpses, and at close range.
Something happened that year—I felt emboldened. Maybe it was a first stab at ownership, of fulfilling the label that was bestowed on me. Of claiming an identity—one that was discovered and labeled by bullies but ennobled by both puberty and by the sexual fluidity was hitting the mainstream—by Wham!, by Prince, by Boy George and Culture Club. Even with the pictures of WHAM!, Madonna, Prince, and Mr. Mister in my locker, I wasn’t gay. Even if I dressed up as Boy George that year for Halloween that didn’t mean I was gay.
Regardless, I become an easy target for ridicule. In a small town junior high, nobody gets to hide. Anonymity is a luxury not afforded us by small town life, especially for an outgoing, moody flamer particular about his looks. But the door to my sexuality had begun to become unlocked, in fact, I couldn’t even repress it. I was in no way “straight acting.” Even trying to act straight or straighten up would’ve been an exercise in futility. I couldn’t help but be effeminate. It was natural to me because it was me. And so, from junior high right on through high school, I was called a faggot.
In between classes, I would be harassed.
Fag. Faggot. Faggot. Fag.
They would call and push me into my locker with a shove, a thud, and a WHAM! before carrying on down the hall to class. And there I stood behind the door between the barely open locker I would again look into the glass bearing the image of WHAM! before grabbing my gym bag. One last look at WHAM! Before I would shut my locker door, and roll the combination lock, and walk to class knowing that the door had only just begun to be opened.