Jesse Fowler was the Rosa Parks of Lexington, Virginia. In a way, he one-upped her. He got the bus driver fired. Jesse was the town faggot, and much of what I know about dignity came from him.
Jesse was a senior when I was a freshman. We walked home from school together and, upon parting, I'd run home to write down everything he said. I worked feverishly to make his vocabulary my own. From him I learned to properly use the words *tragic, *fierce, and *drama. I learned to begin, whenever possible, all sentences with *Child.
Jesse had an infinite wardrobe of black clothing and a different hairstyle every two weeks. He often chided me for my "boy hair," and sometimes crimped my bangs, prompting my father to ask me if I'd been hanging out with the Fowler boy again. "Yes," I replied at supper. "And child, he's fierce."
I met Jesse the summer before high school. I was 13 and working on the tech crew of Henry Street Playhouse. A number of adults were asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Jesse sat down, crossed his legs, lit a cigarette and said "I know what you're gonna be when you grow up."
What I didn't know then was how much Jesse would help me grow up. One day, as we neared the corner of Houston Street where he walked east and I walked west, a school bus came to a stop. The bus was full of elementary school children. Instantly, dozens of them stuck their heads out the windows and screamed "faggot." Jesse looked right at them and held his middle finger in the air for a solid minute. It felt like a lifetime. "I don't have enough middle fingers for these children," he said.
I asked him where they learned that word. "The bus driver tells them to call me that," he said. "It happens every day."
"Come with me," he said.
We walked to his house. I felt like I was going backstage. He'd painted his entire room black. Jesse had been through a phase where he dressed as Boy George; he'd done a stint as Robert Smith of the Cure; that day, he was looking one hell of a lot like Siouxsie Sioux. Throughout each transformation, he was unequivocally Jesse.
At that point, I was 14 and hadn't even begun to come out, although I had a boyfriend. Jesse sat me on the bed and said, "Pay attention." He put the needle down on Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" and watched my face change as I first heard Jimmy Somerville's voice. "The love that you need will never be found at home," Jimmy sang. My soul already knew the song.
Jesse danced in the mirror. He'd taught the entire school to dance. The only problem was that our high school's soundtrack was Hank Williams, Jr.; Jesse' soundtrack was Depeche Mode.
One of his signature expressions was "I am not afraid." That day, after being called "faggot" by dozens of screaming children, Jesse positioned me in front of the mirror. He taught me to make wide circles with my arm. Three circles and a snap, he said. Snap on the word not. I am not (snap) afraid."
Later, Jesse went to the school board office and filed a complaint that eventually got that bus driver fired. "I hope the bitch gets her food stamps," he said. It was the sweetest vengeance a small town queer could imagine in the late 80s.
Ten years later, I've grown up into the raging queer that Jesse envisioned. I take him with me wherever I go -- his pointy black boots, chemically damaged hair, and middle finger. When all was said and done, Jesse just wanted to walk home in peace. Now he lives in New York.
Recently, I met a version of Jesse in a butch girl's body. She was in the bathroom at Lilith Fair, an all-day concert of music by women. The concert was infested with dykes and the boys who love them. Like Jesse, she was just moving from point A to point B. Like Jesse, she had a stubby middle finger for anyone who got in her way.
The line to the women's room was a serpentine mob. The men's room, as usual, was half-empty. Men took all of eight seconds each to drain the beer from their guts in a row of urinals, while some of the more pee-shy locked themselves into stalls.
The heat index that day was 105 , and I could let my sisters sweat no longer. I approached the line of women and said, "The men's room is free. I'll stand guard outside the stalls if y'all want to use them." It was the least I could do as an earthy dyke in a boy's body. Some of the women just looked at me. But others, noticing the plastic barrettes in my hair, realized that I probably wasn't a *Hustler-reading heterosexual man looking for a cheap thrill. About five women accepted the invitation.
As we were walking in, a few men catcalled, and most of the men at the urinals zipped up in record speed. More than likely, they feared the "six inch average" mythology might be challenged.
Just when I thought I'd done my part to create a little peace between genders, a meteor came whizzing by, heading straight for the urinals. She was cussing like a dip-spitting hillbilly grandmother and shoved at least four men out of her way. Her name was Kelly, and she was a 21 year-old dyke-in-progress with a baby face. In fact, she looked a bit like the drummer for Hanson.
"Betcha can't stand up and pee," said one shirtless straight boy.
"Yeah? How much?" Kelly fired back. Before you could say "Leslie Feinberg," Kelly was collecting singles from dazed onlookers. After pocketing six folded dollar bills, she dropped her pants to the floor, straddled the urinal, and went about her business. She didn't spill a drop.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" asked one of the gamblers.
"My wife taught me," Kelly bellowed in a basement baritone.
I feared for Kelly in that moment. Giving a room full of straight boys an opening like that can get you killed in some places. But she's an authentic spirit, like Jesse. The bravest of angels often travel with dignity as their only weapon.
Smiles crept onto the faces of her audience, around a dozen teenage boys. But they weren't smiles of titillation, because Kelly wasn't the kind of lesbian straight boys rent girl-girl videos to gawk at. This baby butch would have the toughest leather daddy in the world whimpering "Mommy..."
No, their smiles were dare I say it? -- respectful. The boys on the playground had issued a challenge and a girl had shown them up. And the boys loved every minute of it.
Not one of them called her a dyke or even snickered. As Kelly swaggered out of the bathroom, those boys lined up to give her high-fives.
I could hear the angels snapping...
Kirk Read is the Editor at Our Own, Virginia's statewide LGBT monthly.