Growing up, I had a ‘friend’ I’ll call S. The word friend in quotes because in reality it was our parents who were friends. Because of that, and the fact that we were about the same age, and both girls, and lived in a village with few children, we were thrown together a lot. I actually couldn’t stand her. She was a bully, not that bright, and only ever wanted to play with Barbies.
Even though my childhood experiences with S are hardly worth remembering, three incidents stand out in my mind with particular clarity.
First, during the ’70s my grandfather was visiting, and he wanted to buy me a present so he asked what I’d like. I said a Village People album. Go West, bought by my rather bemused grandfather, came with a poster, which of course got a place of honour on my bedroom wall.
Next time S visited, she honed in on the poster and went on a rant about the Village People being gay. She used the word in the most sneering, contemptuous tone. It’s obvious to me now that she’d just found out what it meant and was trying to impress me with her worldly knowledge. I, on the other hand, had no idea what she was talking about, and really didn’t care. Even at a tender, single-digit age, I had dismissed S as an unavoidable waste of time and tended to ignore what she said.
My mother did care, though. She overhead S’s gay-bashing, which went on for quite a while and consisted mostly of saying words like ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ with a curled lip. So after S left, Mom, whom I’m certain would rather have melted into a puddle on the floor, explained what gay meant. It was a beautiful explanation, suited to a young child’s abilities to understand. All she said was “Some men like to be with other men.” I remember thinking two things at the time. One was, “That’s all? What’s the big deal?” And the other was, “If S doesn’t like it, it can’t be a bad thing.”
The second incident involves Star Wars. I had been getting grief from S since the original film was released in 1977, because I was a huge fan, and as far as she was concerned, girls weren’t supposed to like Star Wars. That was a boys’ movie. Remember the Barbies I mentioned earlier? Barbies were girls’ toys, and I wanted to re-enact lightsaber duels, so there was clearly something wrong with me.
Then in 1978, Grease was released, which in S’s world, gave her even more ammunition. Why? Because I had no interest in it, and it was girls’ movie. (Reminder: these are S’s categories, not mine.) I spent from ’78-’80 acting out scenes from Grease with Barbies, playing S’s soundtrack album all the while, because since she was the older of the two of us, she decided what we did.
And then in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back came out, and S went to see it with her older sister. And she enjoyed it! When I pointed out that by her definition it was a boys’ movie, her response was that it was okay because Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were cute.
I don’t remember the exact timing of the third incident. All I can say for sure is that it was sometime after 1980. I know this because November of 1980 was when I realized I don’t believe in God. One day S and I were walking through the village and we cut a corner, walking across a bit of grass between the road and the ditch. I didn’t know at the time that this is public property, and neither did S. She felt guilty and insisted that we stand on the side of the road and recite the Lord’s Prayer because – and I’m not making this up – we had just trespassed. By this time I had started to push back a little bit, and tried to explain to S that that’s not the kind of ‘trespass’ to which the prayer referred, but I might as well have spoken to the patch of grass on which we had just trod.
I finally told her to go ahead, laced my fingers and bowed my head – until she started saying the prayer, at which point I raised my head, unlaced my fingers, and waited for her to finish. She complained that she hadn’t heard me saying the prayer with her, to which I replied that I didn’t feel any need to say it out loud. I refrained from telling her I felt no need to say it silently either, and I even managed not to roll my eyes. But I suspect she realized she was losing her hold over me. Our invitations to ‘come over and play’ became fewer and farther between, and finally in 1986 my parents went to have supper at her parents’ place and I didn’t go because I had band practice, and I was free.
Did being ‘friends’ with S make me the gay-rights-supporting, feminist, atheist that I am today? No. But as much as I disliked spending time with her, there was real value in it. She was a prime example of childhood indoctrination, of someone who doesn’t think critically but simply parrots the views of the authority figures in her life. S spent all her time trying to cram herself into the mould her family, church, and peers told her she should inhabit, and she tried her hardest to drag me in there with her. Because of that, I realized at a very young age that I don’t want to be crammed into a mould. And what’s more, I don’t need to be, either.
The most valuable lessons can come from the least expected sources.