One word was enough to destroy his life…
“Bury your gays” is the trope in fiction which rules that gay characters die (frequently by their own hand) before the end of the story. Especially prevalent until the mid-20th century (when authors like Marijane Meaker and Ann Bannon had their characters emerge somewhat worse for the wear but at least still alive), one of the best known examples remains Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, in which two female school teachers are hounded by gossip that ends up in tragedy.
Lynn Hall, who mainly seems known for her horse-books and dog-books, seems like an odd choice for basically retelling the same story with young men in a high school setting, but ending with a climax that is rather jaw-dropping.
The Plot: Tom Naylor and his recently-divorced mother have moved from Chicago to her ancestral home of Buck Creek, Iowa and opened a local antique shop. Despite showing up halfway into his Junior year, Tom seems to have fit in with relative ease, effortlessly making new friends, becoming a top student and distinguishing himself as a musical talent. His comparative sophistication has also inspired many crushes amongst the female underclassman, and he himself is feeling confident about the possibility that Karen, a girl of similar interests and talent, might return his interest.
As summer vacation draws to a close, the only sour note is that Tom feels like he made a social misstep by hanging around with his neighbor, trashy Floyd Schleffe, the kind of tubby, slow-witted loser who Richard Peck pegged as a secret Hitler fanboy. Having a better sense of his social prospects in Buck Creek, Tom is now annoyed by Floyd’s adoration and constant demands on his attention.
Floyd gets the call from the school principal that he flunked all his classes and in the fall will be a freshman yet again, and when he turns up on Tom’s doorstep for some commiseration, is brushed off. He cheers up somewhat when he gets the news from the male town gossip that Ward Alexander has been discharged from the Air Force for “medical reasons” but really because
“That kid’s fruity, always was. Queer as a three-dollar bill.”
Meanwhile Ward has turned up at the Naylors’ antique store, looking for kerosene lanterns, and Tom immediately senses that Ward is a kindred spirit, continuing their conversation at the local hotel/bar/laundromat that serves as the town’s only gathering place for teenagers:
He knew he was not just making conversation with a customer and he knew Ward Alexander knew it too.
If this man wanted to prolong their visit, as Tom did, that must mean Ward was also aware of potential friendship.
In spite of the probably half-dozen years’ difference in their ages and experiences, in spite of the fact that he had to order pop instead of beer, Tom felt absolutely equal. He felt appreciated. He felt the communion of another mind equal to his own.
Unfortunately, the spurned Floyd is also hanging out there, and spots them together, and the wheels start turning:
If Ward Alexander was a homo, and if Tom Naylor and Ward were such big buddies all of a sudden…
The possibility delighted him as much as it repulsed him. His thoughts raced. If Tom is THAT way, then it’s no wonder he’d rather be with Ward than me. I’m not sissy enough for him.
He smiled. The burden of his inferiority was suddenly much lighter.
Floyd takes malicious joy in sharing that news with anyone who will listen, starting with Amber, the classmate whose bedroom window he spends his evenings peeping into. Amber has been harboring an unrequited crush on Tom and is only too eager to believe that is why he’s not interested in her. In fact, as the entire town starts hearing whispers about Tom and Ward, everyone from the lonely middle-aged barmaid at the hotel to the high school principal use the gossip to feel better about their own failures and disappointments in life.
Tom remains blissfully unaware of the talk, as he and Ward become closer as the summer ends, and Tom spends all his free time helping Ward fix up the abandoned one-room school house on the family property, confessing that he needs the solitude because he is writing A VERY SERIOUS NOVEL.
Tom only starts to sense something is off when he returns to school for his senior year and finds his former friends treating him very coolly, and Karen expresses both shock and disgust in turning down a date with him. His teachers are also treating him differently, the “mod” journalism teacher desperately trying to quiet giggles when Tom uses the word “queer” in class, while the PE coach freaks out when Tom congratulates a classmate on a good game with a friendly punch in the arm, ordering him to “keep his hands off the other boys.” When his mother starts dating a local dentist, he is baffled by the side-eye the man seems to be giving him.
Meanwhile, Floyd is gleefully making up more rumors about all of the things Tom and Ward are probably doing in the time they’re spending together at Ward’s place.
Ward catches on way quicker than Tom, mysteriously promising him that no matter how bad things get he will always have a friend him and a place at renovated schoolhouse.
Things finally come to light after Tom plays flawlessly at the regional musical competition and is selected to compete at the state finals. Called into the principal’s office just before Christmas, he’s told that he is barred from traveling with the other students to the competition because he’s had too many complaints from parents about a known homosexual staying overnight with their precious children.
Tom is baffled, explaining that he is totally not gay, but the principal tells him he will forfeit his place in the competition because everyone thinks he is, so he probably is. Right?
The adults in charge are a cowardly lot, even as Tom’s music teacher half-heartedly protests the decision, it is mainly because Tom is the best student he’s ever had and wants the personal glory of bringing in a state champion and pat himself on the back for being more open-minded than the rest of the two-horse town:
Now his liberal attitudes were being tested. In light of this new knowledge about Tom, he weighed his own feelings about the boy and decided, with a small glow of pleasure, that it made no difference to him whether Tom’s private life was normal or not.
Taking to his bed during Christmas vacation with a mysterious ailment, Tom starts to wonder is people are seeing in him something he hasn’t seen in himself- maybe you become gay if a whole bunch of people suddenly think you’re gay?
Ward is one of his few visitors, and even after he receives both a vest and an inscribed book of Haikus from him as a Christmas present, he still hasn’t put two and two together. Ward finally comes out with it and tells him that YES he was discharged from the air force for being GAY, and also he loves Tom.
But the message is kind of muddied by the fact that Ward’s definition of homosexuality has less to do with romantic attraction towards other men, and more about women being too NEEDY when he has to concentrate on serious man-stuff like writing a very serious novel, and his love for Tom is only the purest kind of likeminded souls recognizing each other. Or something. Definitely not sexual attraction.
Tom freaks out (of course) and cuts Ward out of his life, and plots the counterattack on his reputation, deciding the best course of action is to get a girlfriend or (better yet) a whole bunch of girlfriends. Returning to school, he tries to put this plan into action, but even Amber turns him down. Eventually he has one disastrous date with Amber’s chubby friend Meredith, which concludes with Tom deciding that Meredith is too nice a person to use.
Now a full-on pariah, Tom finds himself missing Ward’s friendship more and more, as school becomes more and more insufferable. Desperately, he writes to his father, asking if he can move back to Chicago to live with him and finish out the school year, but his Dad turns him down.
At the end of the semester the Principal tells him that he’s failed too many classes to graduate and will have to repeat his senior year. At the end of the day he finds Floyd waiting for him in his truck, gloating that now Tom is as much of a failure as he is.
Enraged by Floyd’s taunts from the passenger seat, Tom begins speeding, recklessly taking a sharp turn and crashing into a utility pole…
So even in 1972, are we still burying our (accused) gays?
Uh, not so fast, actually. Coming to in a hospital room…
Some things he just knew. He knew the bandages over his eyes were just temporary and he was not blind; he knew he would mend, that it was just a matter of broken ribs, collarbone, and ankle, and some bad scalp wounds. Nothing that would not heal.
He knew Floyd was dead.
HOLY SHIT!!!! DID THE AUTHOR JUST BURY THE TORMENTOR????
While some brief lip service is paid to the fact that Tom will always feel bad about how Floyd got killed, more attention is paid to someone else:
Tom heard footsteps, felt someone near his bed.
“I didn’t think they were ever going to let me see you.”
Tom reached for his friend’s hand.
“Ward. I’m glad you came.”
Honestly? I feel slightly morally conflicted about how gleeful I am that Floyd got killed off. But he was really terrible. Also, pretty excited about the idea of an alternative universe where instead of “bury your gays” the trope was “malicious gossip punished by sudden death.”