Published in The Advocate
My life as a sissy
It is 1967. I am standing on a ball field at a summer camp in Pennsylvania. Actually, not quite on it. Banished to right field -- the location in which I am least likely to ever come in contact with the ball -- I have drifted so far from the action that the colors of a caterpillar in a nearby tree have a greater hold on my attention than the action at the plate.
Then without warning a fly ball hits the caterpillar's tree and comes to rest just inches from my feet. All I need to do is throw the ball to second. Instead I clutch the ball and begin running. The batter is rounding the bases, his team is cheering him on and still I'm running with the ball. "Throw it!" my teammates shout in unison. "Throw it!" But I won't, even though my refusal could cost us the game.
Since my childhood, boys have been telling me I throw like a girl. I now know this has something to do with how I move -- or don't move -- my wrist, and I realize that how one throws a ball makes little difference in the adult world. But back then all I knew was that anytime I threw a ball, somebody would announce instantly, "Bernstein throws like a girl." It was said not matter-of-factly but with contempt. And often other epithets were added: sissy, faggot, fairy. (This was, of course, years before any of us knew what those words actually meant.) The tone of voice made it clear that, even in a pre-pubescent world, a faggot who threw like a girl was the very worst thing any boy could be.
Today I know there's nothing wrong with throwing like a girl -- it works for roughly half of the world's population. But as a kid all I knew was that the way I threw a ball exposed me as unworthy of the respect, friendship, or company of other boys. Just as the ability to play sports is for other boys a lingua franca, allowing them to make friends anywhere, for me the inability was a guarantee of unrestrained opprobrium. Why didn't I learn to throw a ball "like a boy"? Ashamed of my inability, I refused help from my father (lest I humiliate him by exposing my condition) or my gym teachers (grown-up versions of my tormentors). And I'm not sure I can learn. Even now when friends try to teach me, the old technique is so ingrained, so natural that it resists correction.
I came to dread spring and summer, when the warm weather left me two choices: to avoid other boys or risk certain teasing -- socially speaking, suicide or murder. As for other effeminate boys -- and there were a few -- I didn't reach out to them. The fear of drawing even more attention to my inadequacy got in the way.
Readers who want a happy ending will be disappointed. I don't think I'll ever recover fully from the pain of a childhood in which doing the simplest act the only way I knew how turned me into an instant outcast. The effects go deeper than my need to be out of town every time my friends invite me to play softball. A severe lack of self confidence, a persistent self-consciousness about my movements and mannerisms, and a distrust of relationships -- the belief that no matter how well they begin, they can explode in peals of derision at any moment -- are side-effects I am only now outgrowing.
I don't blame the boys who taunted me; they were too young to understand that words can hurt as much as sticks and stones or baseballs. But I can blame a society that allows the strong to torture the weak; my tormentors learned words like "faggot" somewhere. And I can't help wondering how many ballfield bullies, their behavior tolerated or even encouraged by adults, grow up to be gay-bashers.
The adult world is a somewhat safer place. After years of avoiding sports, I took up swimming. I may be an effeminate swimmer -- if there is such a thing -- but it doesn't matter: Oblivious to whether people are looking, I swim solely for my own enjoyment. If anyone says I swim like a girl, I don't even hear it. Earplugs!
And what of today's children? Is there greater tolerance on the playgrounds of the '90s? While contemplating this question, I am leaning against a chain-link fence, watching a dozen or so boys play baseball. To this generation, raised in a world where nonconformity is cool, would my throwing style even matter? Before I have much time to think, a fly ball sails over the fence. Picking it up, I think of running it in the way I used to, but the boys are yelling, "Mister, throw it back." And so I do -- the only way I know how. Like a girl. And they yell back, "Thank you."
Thank you? Didn't they notice? I'm sure they did -- boys always notice. So why didn't they tease me? It might be fear (I'm a lot bigger than they are), or gratitude (I could have run off with their ball), or simply the irrelevance of a 35-year-old man in a suit to a bunch of kids playing baseball. Or it might just be that in 1994 it's okay for a boy to throw like a girl, or any way he can.