It’s tough to talk about, but I once called it quits with one of my very best friends. A and I met one summer in junior high school. He was dating a friend of mine, and I remember being intimidated by his husky voice and a short, but muscular, appearance. He just seemed very solid, and comfortable in his own skin in a way that I wasn’t yet. He didn’t seem at all like the kind of guy my friend would normally date, and he lived in the next town over, so after that initial meeting I wrote him off as someone I’d probably never see again.
A couple of years later, however, A’s parents divorced and he moved a bit closer, which put him in the right zip code to attend my high school. We were both in the JROTC program, since our parents couldn’t afford to send us to college and we both planned to enter the military after high school. From the start, we were close. Both of us were more bookish than athletic, unlike our peers. We didn’t naturally do well at many of the physical class assignments, like running relays or doing trust exercises. But we were both willing to take chances, to take charge, and to ask the questions that put us at the top of the class. We loved the boot camp portions of class, like learning how to do rope climbs, administer first aid, and tie knots. We both also really enjoyed looking our best, so we bonded over ironing our uniforms, blousing our boots, and shining our shoes. Along with four other kids in our class, we were immediately recognized as informal cadre (which became more official through the years in the program).
Besides being members of both the JROTC colorguard and drill teams, for which we traveled to competitions many weekends a year, A and I were also in a lot of the same classes and clubs. We went to a small school, and the group of academically gifted kids was pretty small. There were about 20 of us in my year of school that took many of the same classes together. A and I shared a particular love for our English teacher, who also taught us in Yearbook class (a special class just for the Yearbook staff) and coached us in Quiz Bowl (kind of like team Jeopardy for nerds).
Through the years, we got closer and closer. By high school, A was one of my very best friends. I adored him, and we were never far from each other. We even went on the same school trip to England, Ireland and Wales our senior year, so technically he was one of the first people I ever got drunk with. One of my favorite memories of A was towards the end of senior year. He was always a little like a yappy dog: talk, talk, talk, talk, all the time. He also liked to harp on a point, and one day he just set me off. I can’t even remember what the conversation about, but he pushed me to breaking, and I started choking him in the hall at high school. I fully intended to kill him; I was seeing red, and nothing else. Then he started to laugh at me, and everything was over. It sounds crazy, and it was, but we were both a little nuts. It was part of the weird fun of our relationship.
There was only one problem. A was a closeted gay boy on the brink of manhood. He was also an ultra-conservative Christian, every day becoming more and more of a homophobe. He was teased quite a bit in high school. To my knowledge, nothing that violent or cruel happened; our school was a little different than most, in that the “smart” kids were also the “cool” kids. Neither of us was at the top of the social hierarchy, but we were high enough that we managed to avoid getting picked on too much. The first portion of A’s name had a long “A” sound, so people used to rhyme it with “gay” in an attempt at name-calling. He always just laughed it off, and mostly it did seem like something that guys do to pick on each other in a very basic way, not like he was being singled out for any preferences. Plus, he managed to have a girlfriend for much of high school. Funnily enough, A dated another good friend of mine who later turned out to be a lesbian. Small world.
By the end of high school, A was starting to say derogatory stuff about gay people. He would quote scripture, and talk about how being gay was unnatural, and how gay people were going to burn in hell. The more he talked about it, the more uncomfortable I got. I didn’t know exactly what was bothering me, but I knew I didn’t agree with him. Our community was full of conservative Christians, and the thought that gays were bound for hell wasn’t anything new to me, but I’d never felt that way, and even at 17 I knew I couldn’t stand behind anyone who was determined to be such an asshole. I was surrounded by people who preached WWJD one moment, then used the next breath to spout hate. It wasn’t my scene, then or now.
I left for school in Louisiana, leaving A home in NC. We talked by phone pretty often during the beginning of our freshman year in college, also writing letters and sending postcards in an attempt to keep our friendship alive. But eventually things had to break, and one day while we were talking on the phone, they did. He started talking about how much he hated gay people, and about how awful they were, and full of sin, and how we should kill them. And I just snapped. It finally hit me right then that what really hurt me the most about his hateful talk was that not only was he bashing perfectly good people with complete bullshit, but he was talking about MY BEST FRIEND. For the first time, it just clicked that he was talking about himself, that he was hating himself, and that by listening to him, I was giving him permission to treat himself in a way that I’d never let anyone else treat my best friend. I listened to him until he finally drew a breath, and then told him that I didn’t want to be his friend anymore. I explained how I felt, and why I couldn’t stand by and listen to his diatribes. For a minute he tried to disagree with me, telling me that I should learn more about the bible, and try to get myself right with God. Eventually he just went silent, got huffy, and told me that if that’s what I thought, he didn’t want to be friends anymore, either. He hung up, and just like that, he was no longer my best friend.
A few years later, A came out. Things got a lot worse before they got better, and his life was changed forever. Eventually, he sought me out again. We had a heart-to-heart, and he apologized to me. I told him that I never expected an apology; I just wanted my friend to treat himself with the respect and love he has always deserved. Over the last ten years, A has worked tirelessly to support gay rights. He’s become an outspoken advocate for the LGBT cause, and has made me so proud. I love him so much. But our friendship didn’t survive. We still talk every now and then, and send cards on the holidays, but there’s too much life in between us. I often wish I could have made a different choice. Maybe if I had been older, and better informed, with more experience having gay friends, I would have known what else to say to help him expand his horizons without ending our friendship. But I was young and woefully unprepared. We both were.
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