Profiles in Courage

By Jeff Walsh, October 1995

Matt Marco, 22, of Washington, D.C.

Matt Marco was everything a student should be.

In his Edwardsville, Ill., high school, he was a chairperson on the student council and a member of the National Honor Society, drama club, chess club and French club.

"I had the basic overachiever resume," Marco says. "I was very well-known, very well-liked and I was going to be a foreign exchange student to France my senior year."

Marco's plans were interrupted when, at 16, he told his younger brother a secret -- he was gay.

In the coming weeks, his family shunned him, his father attempted to kill him and Marco began a journey of self-acceptance, queer activism, starting his own queer youth zine and finding a family and unconditional love.

"My Deepest Darkest Secret"

Marco's self-acceptance of being gay started several months before his life flew into disarray. At the end of his sophomore year, he first "caught himself" acting on his gay impulses. "I was in this gym class, and I used to see this boy. I used to watch him go into the locker room and his locker was not too far in from the door. I knew that if I waited a specific period of time when I walked into the door, I would see him naked or near-naked. And I subconsciously was sitting there looking at my watch waiting for 60 seconds to pass, and then I would walk in."

The second or third time Marco did this, he figured out why he was doing it. "I was like 'Omigod, Matt, look at what you're doing,'" he recalls. "It was just a real reality check for me. I did absolutely nothing after that immediately." He stopped waiting to see the naked boy and just finished out his school year. When summer arrived, he decided to not repress his feelings. "I just allowed myself to feel the feelings that I had, and that was incredibly empowering for me," he says. "Just to have tangible emotions that I could deal with. I didn't do any major analyzing of it, I just allowed myself to feel it, and that was amazing."

When he began his junior year, he hit the books again. But this time, it was personal. "I started doing some research in libraries, and I found out that approximately 10 percent of the population was gay," he says. "I read everything I could get my hands on. I took what applied to me the most and discarded the bullshit that's out there."

But when Marco tried to apply the 10 percent figure in his own personal life, it didn't work out. The high school he attended had a population of 1,600 students, or 160 gay and lesbian students. Yet, he didn't know anyone. "160 students is more than the band and student council combined," he says. "I know everyone on student council, and I know everyone in band. But I don't know one single other gay or lesbian person.

"This distressed me a whole lot," he says. "It made me very angry and it made me very sad. It frustrated me. How on Earth can I grow up in a society that would isolate me so completely because of something so natural?"

His questions first frustrated him, then they made him angry.

"I grew up in this community. I grew up in this town. This is where I went to high school. This is where I went to grade school," he says. "This is my blood here, and they've separated me and all of you other students from the knowledge of one another. How can that happen? What type of conspiracy does it take to do something like that?

"I had no connection (to other gay students) and couldn't get a connection because I would have risked coming out or being exposed," he says. "I had no answers for this. I was in a complete Catch-22. I actually looked myself in the mirror and said 'Matt, I'm gay' and I had nothing to do after that. I couldn't come out to anybody else, I couldn't talk to anybody else, and here I was with this huge dilemma on my hands."

In the midst of Marco's isolation and desperation, he wrote a poem he titled "My Deepest Darkest Secret," which he gave to two of his English teachers. His first teacher handed it back to him quickly and offered him extra credit for it. "She patted me on my head and sent me on my way," Marco says. "She had absolutely no clue. It was kind of cryptic."

The second teacher, though, had the poem for about a month. When she returned it, she told him she would stand behind him no matter what decisions he made in life and that she thought he was a great kid.

She figured out his secret.

"Somebody knows"

"I just absolutely shut down for the rest of the day," Marco says. "I went through the rest of my day by automation, because I was like 'Omigod, somebody knows. A teacher knows.'"

But he needed to be sure. After class he went and asked her if she knew what the poem was about. "She didn't give me a real direct response, but somewhere in what she said there was a definite 'yes.'" The teacher then started writing down off the top of her head some places for gay youth in St. Louis. It was that youth group where Marco would eventually come out of the closet and meet his boyfriend. But his teacher's help didn't stop there.

"The next day, she came to class and gave me $10 in quarters, a phone number (of the man who runs a local gay youth group) and sent me on an errand for the entire class period. For an hour, I sat and talked with my first openly gay person in my whole life. I owe a whole heck of a lot to both that teacher and (the youth group leader)."

Each year, Marco celebrates that day, the first Thursday after Thanksgiving, as his coming out day. A few months later, Marco told his brother he was gay, and his parents quickly found out.

Marco no longer refers to his family by traditional names such as parents, mother, father or brother anymore. He calls his parents his genetic contributors, "which is what they are. They are nothing more and nothing less." His brother, hence, is a genetic sibling.

"I told my genetic sibling who was younger than me and he was freaked out by the situation," Marco says. "He ran five or seven miles into town to his best friend's house. We lived out in the country on a farm. My female genetic contributor had to go pick him up because his best friend's father called to get a hold of my female genetic contributor. He was pretty hysterical.

"When my genetic female contributor came home, she knew the whole story," he says. "At first, she didn't want to speak to me at all. I had to force a conversation with her. The conversation was not one of the most easiest in the world. She did a lot of denying it.

"She accused me of doing this as a means to get attention, as a prank, nothing more than just being rebellious," Marco recalls. "She equated it with me having not cut my hair the year before.

"She had actually asked me before (if he was gay) a couple times and I denied it, because I wasn't ready to come out. When I came out to my sibling, what I said was 'What she's been saying or asking about, it's true,'" he says. "At the time I said it, it was in confidence in my bedroom, and my boyfriend at the time was there. And he (my genetic sibling) just kind of wigged out.

"The next day his best friend told the entire junior high and that didn't make things easy on him," Marco says. "As a result of all this ridicule, I would verge to say he suffered something similar to a mental breakdown. But it was due to jointly to both the ridicule at school and the encouragement he got from my male genetic contributor. He was actually being encouraged to run away, to make himself a problem."

Marco's parents were divorced at that time and the boys lived with their mother. His father attempted to use his younger brother to disrupt the family in an attempt to get custody of him. But, Marco says, his father's influence only helped Marco's younger brother go to the hospital.

"He (Marco's brother) absolutely was wigging out, and during that time, the only words he would say to me were 'faggot' and if I was lucky, he would say 'Shut up, faggot,'" Marco says.

Oddly enough, the rumors of Marco's sexuality never drifted from the junior high school to the high school, although the buildings stood side by side. So, while his younger brother was dealing with grief about having a gay brother, Marco was not confronted about the rumors at all. But when his father found out about his brother going to the hospital, and why, things got much worse.

"He's Mormon and manic-depressive," Marco says of his father. "Those two factors, I think, were directly responsible for his homophobia to the degree that it went to."

According to Marco, his father drove out by their house and stopped at a nearby gas station. He called Marco's mother and told her that he had a gun and that he was going to kill them all, "because it was better than enduring the torment and allowing things to happen the way they were."

All three family members separately went into hiding that weekend to avoid being killed. It was shortly after that time that Marco's mother withdrew him from the foreign exchange program, which Marco says would have made a considerable difference in his life.

She also made a decision that nearly ended his life. She sent him to live with his father.

"I will kill you"

"I don't know what on earth could possibly have possessed this woman to do that," Marco says. "She knew that he was a dangerous man. She knew he was homophobic. She knew he was unfit as a father. She knew this man had the ability to put an end to my life."

Marco stayed with his father for a week. At the end of the week, his father tried to kill him. Marco doesn't talk about the incident anymore, but last year he appeared on the Donahue talk show. That was the last time he told the story of what happened to him.

"Donahue was a means of a release for me," Marco says. "I don't really have any more reason to tell it. It hurts to tell it, and I don't want to go through that any more."

Here is the excerpt from the Donahue transcript where Marco talked about the incident:

"My father is Mormon and I was there for one week. At the end of the week, he said it was his duty as a God-fearing American citizen not to allow homosexuality into his household. He threw me out of the house physically. We ended up in the snow. My neck was between his legs and he was squeezing very tightly. He told me to say something to him, I don't remember exactly what. I would have said anything at that point in time just to get him off me. He said to say this or I will kill you. I brought you into this world and I can take you out. I passed out thinking I'm not going to wake up because I could not get anything out of my throat because he was squeezing so tightly ... I am an activist today on the basis of things that happened to me previously. This is the reason that I am what I am today, and I see a reason for change."

Marco never saw his father after he blacked out. Seven years later, he has never saw, talked to or tried to contact his family again. He says he never will.

At the end of the Donahue show, an audience member asked him if he would ever reconcile with or contact his family. Marco said no, and the audience let out a collective sigh.

"I'm confused by people who ever ask that, and a little frustrated and insulted by it," Marco said. "The man tried to kill me, and that can never be forgiven. Anybody that doesn't understand that is severely ignorant or stupid. He tried to take away my life after I had saved it, and went through great pains to save it.

"It was an accident that that teacher had the guts to do what she did, but had she not, I probably would have died by my own hand," he says. "That was prevented, and after that was prevented, it faced serious jeopardy again by somebody who is supposed to be a nurturer and a caretaker. Death is the opposite of life, they tried to inflict a death upon me. They have nothing to do with my life. They have no right to my life. It's like asking Jews to forgive Hitler. What right has anybody to think that there should be some reconciliation there?

"I think it's a definite example of where taking our family values goes way to far," he says. "I'm very much for family values but only where a family exists."

Starting from scratch

Marco lived on his own in the St. Louis area for a while, still going to school. Eventually, he graduated high school and went to Southern Illinois University, where he started a gay student group. Marco started the group even before he was a student, because he refused to go to a school that didn't have one.

At 17, Marco started helping to organize the 1993 March on Washington. For two years, he attended national steering committee meetings all over the country. He was the youngest member of the national steering committee. He eventually was one of the people who carried the banner in the front of the political march, next to Cybill Shepherd.

"The March is supposed to change people to become more politically active in some way," Marco says. "It either brings people further or out, or changes them to be more productive in their lives as gay individuals." For Marco, the march showed him a gay life beyond the rural Midwest. He also wanted to become more of an activist.

"I was a full-time activist as much as one can be without being paid as an activist," Marco says. "At the March, I decided I wanted to move to DC with the intent of getting a job with NGLTF (National Gay Lesbian Task Force) or HRCF (Human Rights Campaign Fund), because they're the only way to be employed full-time as a gay activist."

Marco was staying with a gay couple during the March. The couple were friends with the person who ran the St. Louis gay youth group. "When I came to the March, they allowed me to stay with them as a temporary measure," he says. "I had no idea until maybe six hours before I was getting ready to fly back that I wanted to stay in DC.

"During the time that I was staying there, we developed a very close relationship," he says, "but in addition to developing such a close relationship, we nicknamed each other "Mom," "Dad" and "Son." And it really stuck after a while, because we had come to realize that we really were a family. We were doing everything that families are supposed to do. They nurtured me, cared for me. We all loved each other very much, and still do. To this day, we go on vacations together."

"They are two very nurturing, loving individuals that participate in my life to a pretty heavy degree," he says. "One's Jim and one's Deacon. I call them Mom and Dad, Jim's Mom and Deacon's Dad."

The couple didn't charge him rent, gave him a job at their gay bookstore, and even gave him an allowance. Shortly afterward, he had his own apartment and something he barely remembered having previously in his life -- unconditional love.

"That is something I think everyone's entitled to, but something very few people really have," he says, "and it's a miracle in my life. I think everybody should have the ability to experience unconditional love for an indefinite period of time. It's one of the most beautiful things that exists. Very few people really know about it, but I found it and I'm sticking with it for everything it's worth. These people are really special in my life."

So much so that Marco and the couple are looking into making their relationship legal by having them adopt Marco. Marco also started his own gay youth magazine while living in DC.

"I have a family today because I worked very hard to find people who know about compassion, loving, consideration and caring," he says. "I'm learning from them how to do that now. They're teaching me to be a human being again.

"When I first moved here, I was a hard-nosed little kid. I didn't know patience, moderation to any degree, anything that had to do with tact, and I didn't want to know. I was at odds with everything," he says. "A really bizarre thing tends to happen when you have unconditional love in your life. It takes you to an area where not everything has to be a fight, and not everything has to be an attack. There are times when you can take things slower, just because in the long run it will be better.

"The holidays are so much different," he says. "Holidays, to a lot of people, represent an incredibly stressful time where people are supposed to come together in the name of family and don't really love each other. When there's an actual family going on, the holidays are real beautiful experiences. They're completely different from the reality of what typical holidays are about. When they are the ideal, there's not words. You get warm, cozy feelings."

Having the last word (and the first dance)

When Marco was still in St. Louis, one thing he wanted to do is take his then-boyfriend to the prom. But Marco was far more openly gay than his boyfriend. "I was coming out at a completely different speed than he was," Marco says. "I was light speed, and he was in a Model T. I think I had much more of a reason to be radical.

"I wanted to go to the prom. He didn't want to go because he didn't want to endure the hardship. I just wanted to go because it was a natural thing," he says.

Marco also admits there was a "tidbit" of wanting to disrupt the natural order of things - "in a way, because the natural order of things had burned me pretty bad."

He told a school counselor of his intention to bring his boyfriend to the prom. The principal found out, and didn't want another problem with the prom this year. The previous year a high school dropout allegedly murdered someone in the school's National Honor Society who was tutoring the dropout's sister. The dropout wanted to take his girlfriend to the prom the year before, he was still going through his court case at the time.

"I was actually compared to this murderer. He said, last year I had to deal with this guy coming to prom, and this year I have to deal with a homosexual coming to prom," Marco recalls. "I think that's a phenomenal comparison."

Marco's being so openly gay eventually ended his relationship. So, the prom was never to happen.

But does he blame his then-teenaged friends for any homophobia they may have had?

"I blame society itself," he says, "and I blame the town of Edwardsville for that portion of what I went through. For the classmates that knew me before I came out, and the classmates that know me after I've come out, they have no excuse not to educate themselves to not be homophobic. And if they still are to this day, yes, I do blame them."

This year, however, Marco attended his five-year class reunion, which he says was phenomenal. "I went with a guy that I was dating, and we were the first couple on the floor for a slow dance." he says. "It took about two minutes for anybody else to come to the floor, but eventually one by one people started coming on. From what I understand, the whole place wasn't sure how to handle it. Were they going to threaten to beat me up, or going to boycott? I think I disrupted a couple of things."

So, Marco finally got to stand up and be counted among his class as an openly gay man. And he finally got his "prom."

"That's a really beautiful resolution to look at it that way. More than anything, I was declaring by going to my reunion that I was a student of Edwardsville High School, that I was a product of that environment, and I take pride in that. I am an Edwardsville High School student and that makes me happy."

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
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