Growing Up Gay in Harper Lee's Maycomb

I remember the southern edges of Monroe County quite like Harper Lee describes them in the first chapter of "Go Set a Watchman" -- though, of course, she refers to the Alabama county where we both grew up as the fictional Maycomb. The pine wilds at the beginning of the coastal plain, where loggers lost themselves in pursuit of rare virgin timber, were only ever briefly interrupted by the cotton or peanut field, a gas station or the lone overgrown shotgun house of some disreputable relative long dead. To grow up there as a "millennial" -- on land my grandfather bought after World War II, on land my father and mother built their own house and barn -- was to grow up out of time. The world extended no further than the edge of the dirt road, the universe no more infinite than the fields of kudzu overtaking the hills past Peterman.

I lived the life of Maycomb even as I read about it in To Kill a Mockingbird. When I performed as a child in Monroeville's world-famous play of the novel -- first as Dill, then as Jem -- I acted out the words of Ms. Lee's world while still navigating the vague, unspoken laws of its real-life counterpart. After performances in the humid month of May, when the azaleas began to bloom, I would sneak to the Old Courthouse's third-floor storage rooms and read the girl parts -- Scout, Miss Maudie and my odd favorite, Mayella.

"Your ma'am-in' and Miss Mayella-in' me won't come to nothing, Mr. Finch!" I said and pantomimed her rush off the stand, imagining myself in the faded yellow dress reserved for the actress.

Like Tom Robinson, I felt sorry for Mayella -- and I could never understand why. A decade later, living the life of an openly gay man in the heart of New York, I see her clearly now as what I saw her then -- my first look at a queer character. Perhaps not queer in her sexuality, but in her desperation to break taboo -- malicious as she was, she had reached across the oppressive silence of Maycomb to grasp at a chance of true compassion. She had sinned against the core of the town's unuttered laws, and I childishly echoed her cries with a gnawing sense that this girl -- this "villain" -- shared something with me that I too could not dare utter.

A decade later, my mother has begun to tell me of other men and women from Monroe County who "never married" -- the polite reference to gays and lesbians among the small-town South. Musicians and artists, teachers and judges, uncles and cousins -- mentors all who had guided me my whole life and to whom I had felt such a mysterious connection. Only after I left for good did I see the shadows hanging over their lives -- and that endured over mine for many years after the red dirt had finally been kicked off my shoes.

Now, staring outside at the Brooklyn night sky, I too look for a watchman -- a familiar light in a glittering chaos of illuminated towers far taller than the Old Courthouse clock. Despite everything, I too seek a guide back into the blind innocence of a childhood when the hope for the "normal" life was quite real -- and its abandonment, cruelly punished. I have looked and looked and realized that the watchman too is like those other lights -- beautiful from a distance like the many-named stars but ultimately perilous to the touch.

Ms. Lee may have found her watchman, but the queer children of Maycomb and of all the forgotten rural lands that dot our republic have no watchman. They must carry their own light, care for it, give it fuel when it burns low and tame it when its scorching heat begins to engulf their lives. As Scout -- now Jean Louise -- pulls into the station, she may recapture the dream of Maycomb that was hers and yet was a silent nightmare for others.

I cannot walk the path back to Maycomb, but maybe someday I can walk the path back to Monroeville. What future will my light illuminate? How have the lives of so many queer people, silenced by taboo, gone on to reflect the great changes the nation is now experiencing? I can only hope that my light -- bright as the bonfires and harvest moons and Friday night football lights I remember -- will be welcomed into a new, yet familiar, constellation.