My prom date was gay.
But I didn’t know it. Not that it really mattered; we were best pals without dates who were game for some bad dance music, spicy Chinese food and an excuse to dress in evening wear. Besides, it was the South and sexual orientation was not often discussed.
It was only later after he had attended college in Pennsylvania that I learned that he was gay.
In college, I crushed on a guy who had already traveled the world, wore earrings and loved used book stores. I dreamed we would escape to Iceland one day, listening to the Sugarcubes and purchasing abstract art.
Later, my prom date dated my college crush, and I realized at the same time that both were gay. #Smallworld.
I never considered what their closeted, romantic dreams were until a few weeks ago when I saw an indie film, “Last Summer,” which tells the story of two teenage gay boys in the South. Then an epiphany. While I was crushing on them, they were longing for the cute boy at the ice cream shop.
“They probably didn’t have the summer like Luke and Jonah,” Mark Thiedeman, the movie’s director and writer, told me.
Probably not. Luke and Jonah’s world is lush and dreamy. Thiedeman tells the story of the pair’s final summer together as Jonah prepares to leave home for life in the big city. (Much like my prom date.) Meanwhile, Luke faces a hesitant future and impending pressures of adulthood.
They live in a timeless world of baseball fields, church on Sunday mornings and soda shops amid seemingly conservative values. It could be 2013, 1987 or 1969. It’s a movie without political conflict. Luke and Jonah never face adversity or bullying. Instead, as Thiedeman says, “they fit directly into the fabric of their all-American town.” And, like any classic summer love affair, they simply long for each other.
The film, which premiered at the Little Rock Film Festival, will also screen at OutFest in Los Angeles in July. The fact that a movie like this was even shown at a popular film festival in the Bible Belt South shows how far we’ve come.
Of course, homosexuality has always existed in the South, but for decades it was talked about in hushed tones or with a wink, wink. Even as a kid, I knew in a roundabout way what gay was yet that word was never muttered.
One of my mom’s male best friends from childhood was gay. Tommy, a hair dresser, wore his jet black hair so teased that it would make a member of KISS green with envy and lined his eyes with kohl long before it became chic on men like Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes I’m not sure if I knew that Tommy was “gay” but I definitely knew he wasn’t like my dad’s friends.
At school everybody threw around the words “faggot” or “fag” as general terms of abuse for everyone, not as expressions of accuracy. But call me stupid, it never occurred to me that boys, or girls for that matter, sitting next to me in French class would be gay. Sure, there was my loner guy friend who loved Morrissey and would sit in cemeteries listening to The Smiths, but my gaydar had yet to be activated.
But that was the John Hughes ’80s when the boy always got the girl, the girl was always fashionably cool, and girls dreamt of Jake Ryan sitting in the middle of the table with them on their birthdays. And so did some boys.
This is 2013, and films like “Last Summer,” thankfully now, remind a new generation that in the end the boy may lose the boy, but at least he had a chance with him.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for Reuters, TakePart, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.