Sunday, August 26, 2007


The summer before I turned nine, we moved to Dilley, Texas, which is about 70 miles south of San Antonio. That summer is when I named myself as a Lesbian, and also when I began writing poetry. To paraphrase Dickens, our years in Dilley were the best of times and the worst of times. But this story will be about dolls, and identity, and Bobby Proctor.

By the time was nine, I had a stack of dolls. I do mean stack: I shoved them in a corner and never played with them. I had an original Chatty Cathy with a big square cut from her chest and glued back on, the result of my father's repair of her voicebox; a Chatty Baby and a Little Chatty Brother (flaxen and with a fixed blue gaze just like the Children of the Damned); Tiny Tears; Thumbelina; a "walking doll" with a carriage and her little brother from the late 1950s; a cowgirl doll I called Peggy; a Barbie which was the one I loathed the most; a Cherokee doll (whose skin paint kept flaking off); a monkey doll with a peeled banana forever in his fist; and a Madame Alexander doll sent to me by my Aunt Sarah, whose name was Ginny. I was not allowed to have plush animals because they thought I was allergic to them.

When Aunt Sarah sent me the Madame Alexander doll, she called not long afterward to ask how I liked it. I must have been honest, because from then on, she sent me books (Born Free, Sherlock Holmes, an American Heritage dictionary, Kon Tiki, The Sword in the Stone) that are still among my treasured possessions. Aunt Sarah listened. No one else did, not about the dolls.

Just as it was demanded of me that I like and play with dolls, it was also mandatory that when I grew up, I would get married. A woman was not really a woman if she didn't get married. Although I knew I was a Lesbian (I had the word, thanks to my mother), I had no expectation of getting to live as one. Indeed, I didn't know it was an option. So I worried about it much of the time: When would I finally have to give in and marry? And who would I be saddled with?

That small town was racially segregated by the railroad tracks. Everyone on "our" side of the tracks was white. Also on "our" side were the schools, the municipal offices, the Protestant churches, and the hospital. On "their" side were the Catholic churches, "their" grocery stories, and far more residents than on our side. It was mostly a farming community, so a lot of the kids lived out in the country and were bused in.

Bill and I were new kids, and he wasn't in school yet. But even when I started school, I was an outsider for a long time because Dilley didn't have a lot of new people coming through, I was skinny and wheezed all the time, my clothes were poor, and, the worst sin of all, I was smart. Freakishly smart.

Teachers adored me, which didn't help my social life at all. My fourth grade teacher, though, Frances Wilmeth, found out I liked to write and asked to read some of my stories and poems. She made a big fuss about it and told me I must never stop writing. Thank you, Ms. Wilmeth.

For a long time, Bill and I played with each other, since other kids weren't interested in me and he had no school connections yet. But after a few months, a boy two years older than me, a lofty sixth-grader, wandered down the street and came up to us where we were acting out one of my scripts in the yard. He asked if he could join in. I said sure. After that, Bobby Proctor came to play with us every Saturday, sometimes after school on weekdays, and all the next summer, day after day.

Bobby was 11 and on the brink of puberty but fighting it. He was funny and smart, and he allowed me to be in charge of our adventures. He had big dark lashes, skin that tanned easily, and a fluid way of walking. He was much more expressive with his hands and face than other boys. When we played Tarzan, he begged to be Jane, leaving me the plum role of King of Beasts and Bill got to choose between Cheetah or Boy. When we played Daniel Boone, I was Dan'l, Bobby was Jemima and Bill was Mingo. When we played Batman, Bill was Robin and Bobby was Catwoman. You get the drift.

Bobby let me write the screenplays, but he came up with his own voices and costumes. He began hauling his older sister's dresses and scarves to our house, things she had outgrown. We found a hiding place for them in the barn, and when he dressed up, we stuck to the side yard behind the oleander hedge where we weren't visible from the street. Often when he pulled off his shirt in the barn to slither into a slinky dress, there were bruises all over his chest and arms. He said the other boys didn't like him. I couldn't imagine why.

There were other kids who were freaks, outsiders. Sometimes it was because of class, not gender. And there was one girl, Penny Drew, whose family was well-off and religious but that didn't make her popular, either. She was in the same Baptist girls' club as me, GA's, and I was both attracted to her and frightened of her. She was Bobby's age, and what adults said about her is that she "out of control". She had been a change-of-life baby, and they said she was spoiled. She didn't seem spoiled to me, she seemed furious.

One day I realized I could marry Bobby. We got along just fine, and he would never try to be romantic with me, I knew it in my gut. I didn't mention it to him; I didn't think I had to. The solution was just obvious.

At the start of the next summer, Bobby's voice started changing and the long bones of his arms and legs began to grow. He was miserable about it. One day he saw the stack of dolls in the corner of our dining room where I slept and asked me why I had them piled up like that. I told him I didn't like them.

The next time he came to play, he had an ax hidden under his shirt. He suggested we form a club called the Doll Choppers Club. He and Bill were a lot more into it than I was, but I agreed, and for the first time, Bobby took charge. He wrote long rants that we had to chant in the field behind the barn, diatribes about how stupid grown-ups were and the horrors of "dressing up" -- not his kind of dressing up, with make-up and wigs, but the uniforms adults demanded from you. Then we'd take one of my dolls and chop its head off. Bobby would dance around wildly, holding the head by its nylon hair and screaming. After we were done, we'd dig a hole and bury the doll in one place, the head in another.

When I wound up with just the walking doll (which was too large to sneak outside) and her baby brother left, my mother finally noticed. I lied, saying I had no idea where my dolls were, but Bill caved and told her the whole thing. The Doll Choppers Club came to a screeching halt. And right after that, Bobby began junior high. He didn't come to play much after that. I started hearing other kids whisper and giggle about him, that he was a sissy. I didn't defend him. They wouldn't have listened to me, anyhow.

Right before we moved from Dilley, Penny Drew's father was found dead in his house from a shotgun blast at pointblank range. The murderer had killed him during broad daylight, and it was rumored that Penny had walked home from school for lunch that day. Penny left the Baptist Church but she was not arrested or charged. The murder remained unsolved.

At thirteen, I found out about Greenwich Village and the fact that women like me lived there with each other. I had a place to go when I got old enough. Feminism arrived and gave me a passport out of marriage. We moved away from Dilley and I never heard from anyone there again.

Until eight years ago, when I walked into a crowded party here in Austin and a friend from across the room yelled my name, my real name, the name I had as a girl. A fat gay man sitting at my elbow looked startled and said "That's odd. I used to know a girl by that name in Dilley, Texas."

No, it wasn't Bobby, it was one of his best friends, Rodney. Rodney remembered me, though try as I might, I've never conjured an image of him from back then. Part of what he remembered about me was that my older brother was hated by everyone else in high school for being a violent bully and a liar, and he said he wondered what kind of hell I lived in. He said Bobby worried about me.

Bobby moved to Houston after high school and became a dancer in a gay club. He had a good time of it until AIDS hit. He died in 1989, and is buried back in Dilley.

Rodney told me about all the other kids in that town who turned out to be queer. It was an astonishing number. I had had no idea how I was surrounded. Rodney and Bobby were part of a little clique that helped each other survive high school. Their other best friend was Penny Drew.

Penny's father was molesting her. She finally blew his brains out. The sheriff and town elite all knew what had happened, and covered it up so she wouldn't go to jail. That's how small towns deal with deviance -- they ignore it until it reaches a certain point, and then, when somebody blows, they close ranks against the justice system. Penny now lives about 45 minutes from me. We haven't talked; I'm not sure what I'd say, except, I'm glad you survived. I bet she didn't like dolls either.

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