Open Secret

First in Love: A Valentine's essay by Sean Bugg

I knew two things about my 17-year-old self when I decided to attend a conservative, private Southern college where the students had a well-known antipathy toward homosexuals.

First, based on the evidence of my own body and mind, I knew that no matter how much I’d fought it and tried to change it, I was probably going to end up gay.

Second, I knew that I’d be able to keep it hidden for just four more years until I got out of college.

I was right about the first one.

Almost immediately after arriving at Washington and Lee University, I threw myself into the fraternity rush system. It being the mid-80s, the beer and grain alcohol punch flowed freely through the frat houses where I pretty desperately wanted to find a place to fit in, a place to be the straight college guy I was expected to be.

Funny, then, that I can look at the yearbook picture of me and my Sigma Nu brothers standing on the front porch of the frat house later that year and count seven then-closeted gay guys — eight if I broaden my definition a bit to include the “just curious” — and that’s without knowing much about the juniors and seniors. For a house of 50-odd members, that put us well over the 10 percent homo average.

Lest anyone think this was an anomaly, I can make similar picks in the group pictures of some of the other fraternities, which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone inside or outside the Greek system. The fraternities have to get their social directors, presidents and national office staff members from somewhere.

I didn’t join a fraternity to meet other gay guys — I joined so I wouldn’t be recognized as one. But of course I was, because in a hothouse environment like a Washington and Lee frat with a bunch of other late-teen guys hopped up on hormones, beer and collegiate freedom, your gaydar’s going to start popping like a silver spoon in a microwave.

I was still a pledge as fall rolled in for the first semester of my freshman year. I found myself more and more fascinated with my pledge brother Jim, a shaggy-haired artist type from Maine, who loved to talk about weird-ass artsy and philosophical shit with a thick Northeastern accent that took me forever to get my Kentucky ears accustomed to. I was smitten.

I don’t recall how, one night at a Sigma Nu party, the two of us worked our way through the pink-elephant-lined basement bar and into the shabby, secluded laundry room in the back corner of the house. I don’t remember what we were talking about in our drunken and possibly high state, although I know I was enraptured. I do remember him sitting on the washing machine and me looking in his eyes and the two of us kissing and then my life becoming so very, very different.

I suddenly had a secret life. I was in love, not only with another guy, but with a pledge brother. Given the rank homophobia of many of my pledge brothers — the viciousness of which I wouldn’t truly understand until a couple years later, a story for another day — it was a pretty dangerous secret. But of course it didn’t matter. I was deliriously happy, surreptitiously spending the night in Jim’s private dorm room, exploring all the things I’d thought I wouldn’t know until well past college, learning how it felt to be held by someone you love who loves you back.

It wasn’t easy. We both discovered how jealous each of us felt watching the other dancing and drinking and hanging with the girls we dated to keep up appearances. And no matter how much in love I might have been, I had to tamp it down hard whenever we were in public — never let my gaze linger too long, never let myself touch him in an extra-fraternal way, never let myself say something telling.

I was happy, and I think he was too, but only behind a closed door.

I took Jim home with me that year for winter break, where my whole family took a liking to him. How could they not? He was a slightly oddball charmer with a quick smile who always saw the best in people.

One afternoon, I took him for a walk through my grandfather’s fields, taking pictures of muddy creeks, lightning-struck trees and the occasional weathered animal bones. Walking across a railroad trestle that straddled the creek, we decided to take a low-angle picture of the railroad tracks receding into the horizon.

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He sat on tracks and I sat between his legs, leaning back on him to get myself low for the picture, the ground way below us and the wind blowing through the railroad ties and the threat of snow in the air and there I was under the open sky being held by Jim.

Things didn’t stay perfect because, after all, we were college boys pretending to be things we weren’t. We went on to become full brothers in the fraternity — because the universe has a sense of humor, my badge number turned out to be Lambda 1069 — but we distanced ourselves from each other as we entered our sophomore year, a distance that only grew over time.

An unfair situation, but such is life. The comforting thing about having a first true love is that by definition it implies another love to follow, and for both Jim and me that’s been the case. He’s found his love and happiness in Seattle, and I’ve found mine here in D.C. Yet even in that happiness I can’t forget the secret moment when someone smiled at me and kissed me and I first fell in love.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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