Remember Your First Queer Crush?
Author: John Casey
I was popular in our grade school class at St. Teresa in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, which probably numbered about less than 50 students. We were together for eight years of our lives. I was liked mostly because I was a funny kid, and that pretty much defined why I was also popular, and the perennial class clown in high school and even in college. It certainly wasn’t due to my looks and athleticism.
My very first crush in grade school had both, and I was always excited to be around him. He was a star, and I was fortunate to be part of his galaxy. He was my best friend for a time. I remember how enthusiastic I would be when we had playdates – it wasn’t called that back then, but I guess that’s what they were. I even had a song that I claimed for us.
It seems so corny now, but it was a record by Terry Jacks called “Seasons in the Sun.” I had it on a vinyl 45 RPM, and always imagined us together when the refrain would play, “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun.” I would play that record over, and over, and over again on my battery-operated Panasonic turntable.
And I tried to make us better acquainted through music. He joined the band. So I did too. He chose an impossible instrument to play. So I, of course, chose the same one, and the instrument and I were a disaster together. He mastered it, and in my clumsiness and ineptitude, I made a mockery of it. In fact, during our first band performance – and my last – our music teacher told me to just pretend I was playing the instrument. “Don’t make any noise,” he warned.
All in the name of infatuation, or fascination or fixation?
I was so awkward around him sometimes because, while I knew I liked him. I couldn’t figure out why, and was sure that he didn’t feel the same way. But what way was that?
He talked about girls all the time, and so I did too, just so I could be like him; however, when some classmates would get together for a party and we’d play spin the bottle, I went begrudgingly into the closet to kiss the girls. It just felt so forced. But he seemed to love it, and so I tried to convince myself that I did too.
Why have all these feelings and memories been unearthed as of late? I recently binge watched Hulu’s Emmy-nominated comedy series Pen15, and it’s brilliant! I can’t remember the last time I doubled over with laughter at a sitcom. And, I can’t remember a show that made me think back on those days of my embryonic sexuality.
Briefly, the show deals with two awkward seventh-graders who are BFFs, Anna and Maya, played marvelously by the show’s creators, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine.
As a 57-year-old man, I had to get over the fact that I was watching two girls reveal the brutal honesty and horror of discovering themselves. They talk openly and wildly about their interest in boys, practice making out on bedposts, and discuss their private parts in hilarious detail. But there’s nothing that I can recall on television or film that depicts the discomfiture of being seventh-graders quite so masterfully.
In that gawky way we used to do, Maya makes her classmate Gabe (played terrifically by teen actor Dylan Gage) her boyfriend; yet, Gabe seems to have an interest in another boy, his best friend Sam, and that weirdness is played to perfection by Gage.
And watching Maya push herself on Gabe, and Gabe trying to deflect her come-ons brought it all back to me. If you had a feeling you were different in grade school, watching this show will bring it all back to you as well.
I spoke with out screenwriter Josh Levine, one of the queer writers who helped develop the character of Gabe, and asked him how much of that character might have been based on his own personal experiences. “There were definitely parts of my life that went into the character of Gabe. What was so special about developing the series and the characters is that Maya, Anna and Sam (Zvibleman the show’s other creator and director) always asked the writers and the team, ‘what is the memory here?’”
Subsequently, Levine said that the cast and crew all shared a lot of their memories from those later years in grade school. “It’s so nice to hear that the show brought up memories for you,” Levine said to me after I explained to him my first realization of liking a boy. “To be sure, the show crosses generations. And one of the things for me was definitely having those same feelings at that age. Just knowing that there was something different, and not understanding what it is.”
Levine said it was important to give Gabe that moment of discovery that makes him question his sexuality. “He didn’t decide he was gay. He knew he was looking at boys, but didn’t know what that meant like we all did. And he still liked girls. For Gabe he likes Maya for her talent and personality, and it’s easy at that age to mistake that for love.”
The other issue is the heteronormative pressure that society puts on kids. “Gabe looks at Sam in a different way, but leans into Maya because he feels like that’s what he’s supposed to. Things may have changed somewhat in the last 20 years, but for most kids, there’s confusion and pressure to act a certain way.”
Then I spoke to one of the other writers on the show, Gabe Liedman. And my first question was, “Is Gabe in the show you?” “That is me,” he responded with a chuckle. “When we started the show we decided we wanted to have a little gay boy. Back then, it was a different era of acceptance, so this is like a time capsule.”
Liedman pointed out that like his namesake on the show, he was the class clown, who had love stories under the surface with his guy friends. “Remembering those first feelings, it’s a scary and secret time and the show’s creators really handled all of that so tenderly.”
I asked Liedman if he sat down with Gage, and talked to him about his own life and personal experiences. “I did sit down with him. When we began shooting in the school that we used, I told him, ‘You’re character is gay, we don’t know if you’re gay in your life, but you’re only 12 so you probably don’t even know what that is,’ and he pretty much stopped me right there.”
Gage’s nonchalant reaction to Liedman was priceless. “He said, ‘I get it, I know what gay means, I’m not homophobic.’ What a really brave, smart and modern kid. When I was his age, I didn’t know what anything meant,” Liedman said with a laugh. “Dylan really brought so much to the character.”
Liedman hinted that there are eight more episodes coming for the hit show that will most likely launch later this year on Hulu. I asked him, without giving anything away, if we will see more of Gabe and story lines about his bewilderment with his sexuality? “Gabe will definitely be a major part, and fabric of show, and we will see more of this wonderful, tender little closeted gay kid, like some of us used to be.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: John Casey