This story takes place in the year 1986, in the great state of Texas.
When you hear “the great state of Texas,” I expect you to conjure a whole dossier of information, all drawn from the broadest stereotypes and absolutely true: urban cowboys driving luxury trucks to daddy-daughter day at the gun range; quarterbacks so fast they can outrun rape charges; textbooks edited by Creationists; and an exorbitant, state-wide pride in all of this because we’re Texas.
I want to focus on an underexplored corner of the Great Lone Star State trait known as Texas Competitiveness, chronicled most famously in the world of high-school football, where whole towns live or die under Friday Night Lights and…you know the story.
But Texas competitiveness isn’t restricted to just football. This is the state where moms hire hit men to whack their daughter’s cheerleading rivals, where marching bands have generation-spanning blood feuds, where even speech and drama tournaments are occasions for war.
It’s like an inverse of the Napoleon complex, with Texas forever touchy about being so big, and so dumb. This defensiveness shines through the state’s adopted slogan, Don’t Mess with Texas, a phrase born as part of an anti-littering campaign, but quickly taken up as the state’s spiritual motto, a preemptive warning.
My purest engagement with Texas competitiveness came between my sophomore and junior years of high school, when my family moved from the far-west town of El Paso to a larger city in the eastern part of the state. At this time, I was deeply involved with speech and drama, and the move to the bigger city landed me at a perfectly good high school with a perfectly good speech and drama team.
But 20 miles east of this perfectly good school was the school with one of the greatest speech and drama programs in the nation, pumping out state and national champions with legendary regularity. What’s more, I’d met the coach of this triumphant school at that year’s state competition, and he slyly made sure I knew there was a spot for me on their school’s team if I could find a way to attend.
And so it came to pass that I convinced my parents to give custody of me to their friends Mac and Edith, who lived within the boundaries of this desirable district. This was just a technicality. I still lived with my parents in the loser district and made the 45-minute stealth drive to the amazing school each morning.
Once I landed, I was swept up in the speech and drama star-making machinery, which was formidable and relentless. The cornerstone of the program: obsessive practice. We rehearsed before school, after school, and during lunch. On weekends we traveled to regional tournaments, where trophies were won and the school’s mystique was cemented.
A common component of these tournaments was some student-mingling leisure activity—a visit to an amusement park or notable mall—but my new school famously boycotted such communal fun to stay put and practice. Because nothing mattered but winning.
My corner of this world was called Oral Interpretation, which involved a high school kid performing a 10-minute cutting from a great American play, moving only from the waist up and playing all the characters, which are delineated through vocal inflections, facial expressions, and waist-up hand gestures, with dialogue achieved through dueling focal points.
Through these means could a gangly post-adolescent transform themselves into an impressive 10-minute blast of ‘Night, Mother or The Odd Couple or, in my case, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Adding pathos to the equation: The unusual but real brilliance achieved by the best of the interp freaks. Case in point: Ashley Thomas’s Death of a Salesman, performed at national finals in 1987. I don’t care how ridiculous it sounds—that girl was Willy Loman.
Interpretive performance wasn’t a skill that translated naturally to any real-life endeavor, but speech and drama was an invaluable safe haven for me and many other closeted kids in the pre-Ellen bad old days, when the only right way to be gay was to make sure no one ever found out.
Perhaps you’re thinking: Isn’t a gay kid hiding in drama club kind of like a Jewish person hiding in a Klezmer band? Yes, but “hiding” isn’t the right word. Speech and drama provided context, a social setting where those of us required by circumstance to develop plastic personalities could exist without shame, in a world where the ability to replicate and modulate behavior wasn’t evidence of shameful secrets, but a talent to be developed, shared and rewarded.
Along with the never-ending practice and tournaments, certain students were steered into areas of elite training, involving speech and drama summer camps and private coaching. At my new school, this private coaching was provided by a late thirty-something guy who at one time had been employed by the school, but left under mysterious circumstances, and now conducted private coaching in his apartment not far from the school campus. The sketchiness of this scenario was overwhelmed his amazing track record of coaching champions, including a young man who’d grow up to be a TV superstar, and a Broadway ingénue who gushed to The New York Times that she learned everything she knows about acting in high school from this coach.
Before my first private coaching appointment, my mom went with me to this guy’s apartment, to see it and meet him and get whatever motherly sense of okayness she was seeking. Any gaps in her faith were filled in with my enthusiasm, and I soon started visiting this guy—let’s call him Mr. Wagner—at his apartment. Wagner was a little bearded guy with a John Denver-ish vibe, and what happened between us was first recounted in my 1993 solo play Letter to Axl, written when I was 24, and featuring a segment where Axl Rose and I swap stories of our first sexual experiences. From the script:
My first sexual experience…I guess the time when I was six and my brother tricked me into walking around a sporting-goods store breathing through a jock cup doesn't count, huh? He said it was a breather. He said it was a fresh-air breather and it would make me strong. I don't why I believed him. This is the guy who told me that when you're waiting for an elevator, you can push the up button or you can push the down button, but if you push both, you'll crush everyone inside.
My first sexual experience—with another person, duh—happened when I was a senior in high school, with a teacher of mine. Well, he wasn't formally employed by the school—anymore—but I'd work with him outside of school on speech and drama stuff. And somehow we'd always get to talking about sex: what I'd done, what I hadn't done, what I'd like to do.
And one time he said, "Well, if you ever want to know what oral sex feels like, just let me know." And I chose to ignore this for a while, until one night I said, "So, if we were to do this, would you turn off the lights?"
And I guess he chose to only hear the second half of that sentence because he got up and he turned off the lights. And that was that. And even though what we did was technically illegal, I want to stress that I did not feel put-upon in the least. I just thought, "Hey, free blowjob!"
And he got me a great scholarship to a summer acting camp.
All of this is true, and for a long time the Letter to Axl version of the story was the only one that existed. I understood what transpired was technically improper, but I’d done what I wanted to do, and in my mind, it was just an experience. (My mom, however, heard this story for the first time in Letter to Axl and was horrified, and carries around guilt and shame to this day. And I’m like, don’t beat yourself up, I was a very persuasive liar.)
And the world turned. Sometime around 2008 or so, I found myself back at my old high school alma mater, where an old friend of mine was now part of the legendary speech and drama coaching staff and invited me to meet the senior drama students.
At the time of this nostalgia visit, I was 38, roughly the same age as Wagner was at the time of his blowing me. And the senior class I was visiting was filled with 17-year-olds, the same age I was at the time of the Wagner shenanigans. And remembering these facts while pointing my 38-year-old eyes at a 17-year-old human made me want to vomit. They looked like infants, hatchlings, something to protect, not objectify. Here was the vantage point that revealed the wrongness—of course the 17-year-old feels flattered and adult and up for adapting to any and all weirdness in the name of experience, which is why actual adults with good boundaries are so crucial.
What ultimately drove home the shittiness of the Wagner affair was the spirit of exploitation that fueled the whole thing. Wagner counted on me being damaged in all the ways that growing up gay in 1980s Texas damaged queer kids. He counted on my isolation, my diminished expectations, and my internalized homophobia—of course I'd never tell because doing so would out me.
Wagner could’ve been my first gay mentor and role model, instead of confirmation of the worst gay stereotypes I’d been fed my whole life. But it was a different time. In the mid 1980s, gays were still a generally despised minority, with no established place in society, no clear path forward to lives of contentment, and AIDS making short work of so many who dared to live out and proud. Is it any surprise that gay men’s morality might be warped to rationalize taking what you can get when you can get it?
It was a different time, and it should be noted that the same year Wagner was slurping in my lap, a twenty-something future mayor was allegedly having his own experiences paying high-school-aged boys for sex, but where I got free tuition to a swanky drama camp, Ed Murray’s alleged targets were allegedly paid very small amounts of cash. It was a different time, and I wonder how much situational pederasty was colored by AIDS panic—in a world of potentially deadly sex, patronizing younger, less experienced partners was probably on the safer end of the spectrum.
Noting “it was a different time” is interesting on an anthropological level but it doesn’t mean shit morally. Yes, it sucks that, during a certain period of history, gay men’s prospects were so dire that they felt justified in preying on each other. But that doesn’t make it right or excusable, it just makes certain situations understandable, and certain allegations believable.
Anyway, the result of this new perspective on the Wagner story was a drive to right the historical record, and communicate my new reading of what transpired to the other participant. I found Wagner listed among the faculty of a small college in the West. I called the office phone number, a receptionist forwarded me to Wagner’s voicemail and I left a message, identifying myself, reminding him how we knew each other, and communicating something along the lines of “I just wanted to cast an official retroactive 'no' vote on what went down when I was in high school. It wasn’t particularly damaging, just creepy as fuck and, you know, against the law. Anyway, just wanted you to know, hope you’re staying legal, goodbye.”
I never heard back, but I felt better. The one remaining twist came when I shared this whole saga with a Texas lawyer friend, who was horrified and noted it wasn’t too late to take action. When I tried to wave her off, she said, “Just think about it. Think about what you’d want out of the school to correct this.”
So I thought about it, and as I did, my mind kept wandering past Mr. Wagner to the person who’d introduced me to Wagner—the school’s official drama coach, a nationally beloved educator and speech and drama legend. When this coach died in the early aughts, they named the school’s new theater building after him. Still, it’s safe to say this celebrated educator was one of the people who knew why Wagner was no longer employed by the school, who at the very least had heard talk of Wagner’s history of shenanigans, and who still sent me alone to Wagner’s apartment so I could learn how to win more trophies.
This was gross, and trying to imagine how I’d want the school to right this wrong, my only thought was, “Don’t let something like this happen again.” But of course times had changed, and the world now has natural safeguards against the isolation and ostracism that allowed what happened with me. My old high school now has a gay-straight student alliance and out gay teachers, and society offers numerous paths to contentment for self-respecting gay folk who can keep their hands off minors.
So the best I could think of was forcing them to strip the creepy drama coach’s name from his namesake building and replace it with something of my choosing. Here’s hoping the Castro-Stonewall-RuPaul’s Drag Race Fabulatorium for the Performing Arts fits on the marquee.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. To submit a story or note one you've seen that deserves more notice, contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.616.2035.