Aug 23, 2013

Fall 1975: Swishes: An Aversion to Muscles and Women

When I first arrived at Rocky High for 10th grade in August 1975, I was impressed.  It rose like a fantasy-world castle on the western summit of the Hill, just north of the statue of Chief Black Hawk.  There were lots of interesting classes like Quad Cities History, Arthurian Legends, Archaeology, and Latin.  And there were hundreds of cute boys!  I watched shirtless guys perform in South Pacific from the orchestra pit; I measured Rocks (athletes) for uniforms as an athletic trainer; I had lunch with the King of Sweden.

But soon I realized that Rocky High was not a castle but a fortress, a bulwark against an unnamed evil.

One night in September, Darry made use of his new learner’s permit to drive us to Happy Joe’s, the pizza place that only high schoolers went to. After we found a booth and sat down, we saw Warren Hodge (not his real name), the cute blackhaired cellist who was in charge of our lunchtime crowd, sitting at a small table with his Just Friend Colleen.   The guy second from the right looks like him.

He was gesturing angrily, so I left Darry looking at a menu and went over to see what he wanted.



“Are you from East Moline, Spazz?” he yelled, standing to make himself heard over the noise.
“What’s bugging you?” I asked.
“What’s bugging me is two guys  -- neither of them Rocks -- in Happy Joe’s – alone -- at night!”
“Boomer doesn’t know any better,” Colleen said, mollifying. She reached out a chubby hand to touch Warren’s arm. “It’s not his fault.”
“Ok, so now he knows better! Get out now, and don’t let me catch you doing it again!”
“What’s not my fault?” I asked, still not comprehending.
“Look -- if you and your buddy-buddy are so strung out for pizza, invite someone else – a Rock -- a girl -- your Mommy if you have to. But never just two guys. What will people think, if we see you in a booth at Happy Joe’s, at 8:00 pm, with a guy?”

“Why would they care? And what’s so jazzed about 8:00 pm? Would 7:30 be ok?”

Overcome by my stupidity, Warren sat down again. He dropped his head into his hands and moaned  “Why do we let tenth-grade Spazzes into our Crowd?”

Colleen touched my wrist. “It’s an important rule. Haven’t you heard it yet?”
“I’ve only heard rules about dating girls.”
“Well, there are rules about boys, too!"
Fascinated, I said “Lay it on me, Mr. Wizard. What do I need to know to date boys?”
“Don’t get smart!”

Colleen turned to me. “Ok, so never go out at night with just another guy. Invite a Rock or a girl, or go in a group. On account of if it’s just the two guys, and neither are Rocks, people might think you’re. . .you know.” She displayed a wrist hanging loosely from her hand.

“I know what?
“Pardon my French,” Warren said, “But people will think you’re a Swish, ok?”
I had never heard the term "Swish" before -- people usually just said "That Way." Warren and Colleen had to explain it to me.

Every boy occasionally slipped up and acted like a girl,  and the Fairies of junior high pretended to be girls, getting good grades or disliking sports -- to the consternation of junior high bullies like Dick Sunstrom -- but Swishes (called Fags on TV) weren't pretending.  They actually were girls, or rather a bizarre hybrid, physiologically male but far more feminine than any real girl.  They reeked of perfume and face powder, and wore low-cut evening gowns with strands of pearls, and carried handbags, and called you "Thweetie" in a baby-doll lisp.

No one ever suggested that Swishes might desire sex, with mortal men or with each other. A year later, when I heard the term "gay" for the first time, I didn't immediately make the connection.

How could boys and men, drawn to the masculine, revolted by the feminine, ever become Swishes?  You could turn by choice, a suicidal rejection of the masculine, but most commonly you turned by force.  Swishes took perverse delight in creating more of their kind, so they lurked in bars, in alleys, in deserted hallways, waiting, ready to pounce.  All it took was a touch of a limp, many-ringed hand on your shoulder or a few lisping words whispered in the ear like an incantation.

How could you distinguish a Swish from a mortal?  They could hide their most blatantly feminine traits, but it was impossible to hide:
1. Their violent aversion to women (they wouldn't even be in the same room with a woman, if they could help it)
2. Their intense hatred of Rocks, especially the most muscular (they wouldn't even pass the locker room, if they could help it).

So naturally I demonstrated that I wasn't a Swish by sitting with girls at the lunch table, and by going out to dinners and movies every weekend with the most muscular Rocks I could find.