Jan/Feb 2017 Nonfiction

The Sort of Thing Everyone Knows

by Ian Stoner

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman

From within the bubbles of consensus that sometimes envelop small communities, such as my home town of Mount Vernon, Ohio, it can be difficult to distinguish common sense from ideology, information from prejudice, world from worldview. If these small towns have a sinister side, this is it: disagreement is a great promoter of critical reflection, and for people in general—and children in particular—the absence of disagreement often preempts reflection.

The controversies about values that split Mount Vernon's evangelical community during my elementary school years in the mid-80s, were, in retrospect, bafflingly fine-grained. For example: the face cards in a standard deck were broadly (and mistakenly) assumed to be descended from tarot cards. Are playing cards sufficiently distant from those evil origins that a good Christian can play with them? Should we remove the face cards from the deck, or should we avoid playing cards altogether? My family, along with the other members of the Church of the Nazarene, played Uno exclusively and viewed with suspicion our Baptist neighbors who invited Satan into the sacred precincts of their homes by means of their Bicycle decks.

Another example: what of social dancing? Everyone agreed popular dance styles mimed the tropes of pornography; they shamefully simulated fornication. But what of square dancing, line dancing, and other social dances clearly rooted in folk customs? Are the traditional values embedded in these dances sufficient to neutralize the threat they pose to proper carnal inhibition? Our congregation avoided all forms of social dancing and viewed with suspicion our Baptist neighbors who allowed their children to pair off for the square-dancing unit in PE.

The tonnage of agreement implied by the tiny scope of these disagreements is staggering. Though Mount Vernon's Nazarenes disagreed with its Baptists about face cards, everyone in my childhood's universe agreed tarot cards were a tool of the Devil. No one thought they were innocent or goofy. Everyone I knew believed Satan was a real entity who visited Earth and tempted Christians to sin. Everyone believed Satan-worshipers lived in our midst; they were rumored to slit the throats of babies and black cats on Halloween. A redeemed warlock toured our town's churches, telling the story of his rise to infernal power, his climactic battle with invisible demons—they smashed him against a wall and beat him with a desk drawer—and his subsequent rehabilitation in the love of Christ. The traveling former warlock wasn't just an attraction at the Nazarene church; he drew crowds at the card-playing churches, too.

Though we disagreed with the Baptists about square dancing, everyone agreed the sexually suggestive dancing portrayed in television shows like Fame was a corrupting influence on Christian culture. Everyone agreed these products of the TV studios and "Hollyweird" were calibrated by malevolent secularists for the purpose of corrupting Christian culture. And everyone agreed on the reason why a sexualized culture is a problem: it is because all forms of sex or sex-like behavior are sins, indeed perversions, unless sanctified by Church-administered vows of marriage.

Homophobia is probably an inevitable consequence of any ideological monoculture so conservative about matters of sexual purity that it draws no distinction between cheerleaders and prostitutes in its taxonomy of fallen women. And Mount Vernon in the '80s was a viciously homophobic place. I rarely heard homosexuality mentioned—occasional slurs in the course of rude jokes—but it was nevertheless easy to absorb the views of my community. Somehow I knew homosexuals are men who have sex with men, though to a ten-year-old virgin there's little content in that definition. Easier to understand was the values claim: homosexuals are a moral blight, a human-shaped disease decent folk fight hard to keep out of their communities.

I didn't give this any thought at the time. Of course I didn't. I didn't know any gay people and didn't expect I ever would. If you'd asked me at age ten, I'd have said Satanists were a more pressing threat, and most in my community would have agreed. It was Satan who had the town on edge during Halloween. It was the post-conversion memoirs of Satanists that seeded the reading lists of the midweek study groups. For Nazarenes in the mid-80s, who believed themselves to be engaged in spiritual battle with warlocks embedded in the community like hair woven into fabric, gays and lesbians were akin to orcs and trolls and other storybook monsters: gruesome, sure, but possibly imaginary and definitely distant, and thus amenable to treatment with the occasional exaggerated disgust reaction and accompanying queer joke.

In the spring of 1989 my dad accepted a job offer in Sacramento, California. I was 11, and one Sunday in May I undertook the disheartening task of telling my friends I was leaving, most likely forever. Among my closest friends was Kirk. I broke my news to him after the morning service, while the congregants milled about in the narthex, and he didn't react at all. He walked away in silence and found his father in the nave of the church, near the pulpit.

When I next saw Kirk at Wednesday evening services, he pulled me aside and jabbed a finger at me. "Do you know," he said, "that Sacramento is the Homosexual Capital of the World?" I was stunned. Why would my father move us to The Homosexual Capital of the World? Would Lot have torn his children from a God-fearing town and dragged them to Gomorrah? Lot wouldn't, and my father wouldn't. (Right? Right?) I fumbled for words to tell Kirk he was full of shit, but it was clear to us both he had me spooked.

Later that evening I reported to my parents Kirk's indictment of Sacramento. They looked confused for a moment, then laughed. Kirk, or perhaps Kirk's father, had confused his place names and was about 90 miles off-target. Sacramento, they told me, is twice as far from The Homosexual Capital of the World as Mount Vernon is from Columbus. I laughed, too, and went to bed relieved.


In the summer of 1989, while my family loaded a U-Haul and drove it to California, the Personics Corporation of Redwood City was nearing the peak of its hyperbolic four-year rise and fall. Two years before, they had placed kiosks in the lobbies of record stores around California. Customers could use the kiosks to preview a vast library of pop and rock songs, select a sequence of favorites, embellish their track-list with free flourishes including samples of revving chainsaws and flushing toilets, and deliver an order slip to a clerk. A few minutes later, they'd receive a personalized mixtape, the song titles laser-printed on a sky-blue label, the Personics logo stamped in white polka dots that drifted like fluffy little clouds.

The idea of individuality coated Personics's materials like decoupage, from the advertising tag "it's got your name written all over it" to the very name of the company. A cynic might sneer at this branding, when what was on offer was a massively popular product, sold from hundreds of identical kiosks, according to a posted price schedule. The less cynical take is that their branding was a natural outgrowth of Personics's key insight, the truth of which undergirded their early success: second only to the composition of poems, the making of a mixtape is, for a thick swath of teens and 20-somethings, the purest expression of self.

Cynical or not, their success was short-lived. The songs were legally licensed and the tapes soberingly expensive, but the lines at Personics kiosks grew long enough that the record labels got cold feet. Presumably, they worried the revenue stream from Personics's licensing payments would be insufficient to substitute for losses due to teens buying their four favorite songs on one pricey mixtape instead of disgorging enough cash to cover four pricey full-lengths. The majors stopped licensing their hits, and Sony withdrew its entire catalog. Personics, their kiosks stuffed with chaff, staggered, fell, and declared bankruptcy in 1991.

The first Personics tape I ever saw belonged to David N—, an assistant to the Youth Minister at Fremont Presbyterian, the fellowship my parents settled on after months of church-shopping in Sacramento. David was a student at UC Davis. He was good-looking and well-dressed, he had a decent car, idiosyncratic taste in pop music, and informed opinions about Molly Ringwald. Though he was embarrassed about it when he showed it to me and clearly thought it an artifact of immaturity, he had a wallet strapped under his arm like a shoulder holster for a handgun. It impressed me so profoundly, I could think of nothing to say. His Personics tape's personalized label curled slightly at the edges, exposing just enough adhesive to gather a thin border of grime.

Whenever the youth group took a field trip, I made sure I rode in David's car. This was mostly because I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could, but an important secondary factor was that I could always count on finding, in his glovebox, that grimy Personics tape. It comprised four songs: Erasure's "Oh l'Amour," Modern English's "I Melt With You," The Naked Eyes' cover of "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," and New Order's "Blue Monday."

My childhood exposure to pop music in Mount Vernon had been as cramped and hidebound as my exposure to every other facet of pop culture. The only FM station I could pick up in my bedroom was WNZR, the low-power, student-run station of Mount Vernon Nazarene College, whose contemporary Christian programing featured, at its edgiest, the aggressively anti-edgy pop of Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant.

After the move to Sacramento, my musical horizons exploded. Top-40 radio, which was ubiquitous, played Madonna and Technotronic; INXS and Paula Abdul were, all of a sudden, presences in my local culture instead of names pastors cited (and deliberately mispronounced) as vectors of coastal contamination. It was probably the result of a decade of a kind of cultural subsistence diet, but in those days the experience of discovering new music could border on the frightening. When I first heard Depeche Mode, while standing at the skate rental counter ahead of a roller-rink birthday party, I couldn't move. I was briefly paralyzed by the glimpse of musical possibilities I didn't know were possibilities.

All four of the songs on David's Personics tape were, for me, in this vista-opening class. They were all songs that made me feel there were dimensions of the universe, both inside and out, that had been invisible to me in my hymn-limited world.

I gathered my courage and, after a few car trips with David, asked to borrow the tape. He ejected it, snapped it into its case, and handed it to me as if it were no big thing. It was a big thing, though. It must have been because 1) those Personics tapes were expensive and 2) that whole purest-expression-of-self thing. I took it home, blew into the cassette deck of my tiny, front-loading boombox, and played it. I played it until my parents begged for mercy, then played it quieter. At night, the boombox muffled under the bedspread, I played it quieter still.

All four songs amazed me, but there's no doubt that Erasure's "Oh l'Amour" was my favorite. That was the one I rewound and listened to many times before I let the tape play out. Though at the time I'd have been powerless to articulate my reasons for loving that song, it's relatively easy to do now, drawing on the vocabulary of pop critics. Here are a few of the many things that make "Oh l'Amour" a great song: it's clever and it modulates tension well. The warm harmonies of Andy Bell's acapella intro play hard against Vince Clarke's icy synths, which crash in just before the implied beat demands them. It withholds chord changes, finally offering up its lone minor chord like a gift. And the quaver in Andy's voice when he sings "I hurt inside out"—well, if it doesn't break your heart a little bit, you're a monster.

I kept David's Personics tape for a few weeks and returned it unharmed. I had big plans to recreate it for myself, but at age 12 I had no way to get to Tower Records and its Personics kiosk, and by the time my parents allowed me more freedom on my bicycle, the kiosks had vanished. It took me years to collect those songs on their own cassettes, but waiting on them was no great sacrifice. After borrowing David's tape, those four songs, "Oh l'Amour" most of all, were etched so deeply in my memory, I could identify them at an instant and replay them in my mind.


At Fremont Presbyterian, the most beloved summertime tradition among the children participating in the youth programs was the ice-cream social. Staff and volunteers would jerry-rig a trough from sawhorses and a length of rain gutter, then fill it with a heterogeneous slurry of ice creams and ice-cream toppings. The kids lined up on either side, waited for the command from the youth minister, then ate themselves frantically to exhaustion while the adults hung back and averted their eyes.

The summer of 1991 was my second summer at Fremont. The scene was this: I was about to undertake high school, Erasure had just released a new single titled "Chorus," and the annual ice-cream social was in the works. I had volunteered to help set up the rain-gutter trough, and so when the appointed Sunday came, I stuck around after church. To kill some time I walked across the street to Cookie's Drive-In for a basket of fries and then over to the used record store, where I browsed the cassettes for a while. When I returned to the church campus, I was delighted to find David already there, his trunk loaded with ice cream.

Now, "Chorus" was the first Erasure song whose release I was able to look forward to, to feel anxious about, and it was the first single for which I performed pop-fan sacraments like staying up late the night before its release to record its debut broadcast at 12:01. In the end, I didn't love "Chorus," but I did like it okay, and I certainly listened to it a lot. I knew the words, and I had noticed something interesting: the lyrics are mostly semi-nonsense about idyllic scenes—fish slumber in the sea, birds trill to the backing of bells—and then all of a sudden, in the bridge, Andy sings "We'll all be waiting, some are praying / for a time when no one's cheating." Cheating? Where the heck did that come from?

That a song that didn't seem to have anything at all to do with relationships veered into the territory of infidelity gave me the key to what I took to be a unifying theory of Erasure, which in turn gave me the first thing I could say about pop music that was anything other than a ditzy, solipsistic "I like it" or "I don't like it." And here, back on the lawn of Fremont Presbyterian, standing amidst sawhorses, rain gutter, and cardboard tubs of cheap ice cream, was David, the Earth's person I would most like to impress with an insight about pop music. He waved me over to help ferry another load of ice cream from his car. As we stood, peering into the trunk, I said, "Did you ever notice how almost every Erasure song is about cheating and heartbreak? I wonder who broke Andy's heart, and what she thinks when she hears Erasure on the radio."

David glanced at me. "Well," he said, "whoever it is, it's probably a 'he.'"

This was characteristic of David's gentle approach to correcting childish ignorance. In response to a 12-year-old face teetering on the brink of humiliation, split into thirds of confusion, embarrassment, and alarm, he mentioned, clearly and unambiguously, but casually, as if it were the sort of thing we both already knew, because it's the sort of thing everyone knows, that Andy Bell is gay.

I felt a blossoming variation of the kind of gastric clampdown that follows an accidental swallow of rotten milk. I thought, for a slo-mo moment, I was going to vomit the French fries I'd eaten earlier.

If you've ever heard Erasure's songs, or seen their videos, or read an article about them in a music magazine, or eavesdropped on discussions of their place in pop, then you might have read these last few paragraphs as the overlong punchline of a cheap joke. Because how could anyone, ever, have been in the dark about Erasure? But such were my blind spots, and this was a crisis. "Oh l'Amour" still topped my list of favorites, but there was no way I could continue to listen to it if each play triggered a fresh wave of nausea at the thought of Andy's homosexuality. And so I found myself in the kind of stark practical dilemma that almost never occurs in real life: either my horror of gay people would have to go, or Erasure would.

As soon as I could, which was late that same day, I closed myself up in my room to think it over. All afternoon, I'd felt things looked grim for Erasure. Surely it would be much easier to stop listening to them than it would be to abandon a whole set of interconnected beliefs about god, nature, morality, and homosexuality.

But what were my beliefs about homosexuality, anyway? I'd never had occasion to take an inventory, because they'd never been challenged. I had a visceral conviction there was something disgusting about homosexuality, and that this disgust had a moral dimension and was not a simple each-to-own matter of taste. But viscera were all I had. It wasn't clear to me how to complete the sentence, "Homosexuality is wrong because..."

I had a sense of the wrong-making aspects of some immoral actions. It's wrong to cause pain. Lying to people is almost always wrong. Destroying things, at least in the absence of a constructive reason, is wrong. By any of these standards could it possibly matter whether Andy Bell wants to kiss girls or boys? I couldn't see how. If Andy and another boy made out, who would be hurt? Who would be deceived? What would be destroyed? As soon as I stopped to think about it, this much seemed clear: the wrongness of homosexuality was not entailed by any of the moral principles I already knew and accepted.

Once upon a time, walking beside my mom in the grocery store, I grabbed and ate a handful of grapes. She explained to me that this was a bad thing to do, much as it's a bad thing to take my friend's toys without permission. Though the grapes didn't belong to someone else in quite the same way my friend's toys belong to someone else, they definitely weren't mine to take and eat. That made sense. Could I conjure up an analogous lesson for myself, now? If I couldn't directly articulate the problem with boys kissing boys, could I at least think up a familiar transgression I could offer as an example of the species of immorality Erasure instantiates? I racked my brain and came up with nothing. If homosexuality is wrong, it's wrong for some new and special kind of reason—a mysterious reason disconnected from other aspects of my moral life.

And so, in the end, the cognitive component of my transition away from fear of gay people was easy, for I was unwilling to sacrifice the clear and present joy of Erasure's songs on the altar of special and mysterious moral reasons. Let the hem-hawers hem-haw; in the absence of a decent explanation, I prefered to keep my tapes.

It took time for my affective responses to catch up with my new convictions. (This is a euphemistic way of saying that for a longish while, I felt queasy when I listened to Erasure.) It was during this period, when a gap opened up between the things I believed to be true and the disgust that still snarled my guts, that Erasure made the biggest difference. It was my history with "Oh l'Amour" and the prospect of reclaiming an unspoiled enjoyment that provided the motivation to endure the queasiness, to remind myself my guts were unreliable, confused, mistaken. It was my history with "Oh l'Amour" that kept me playing those still-upsetting tapes.

Practice worked, as it usually does. When the Pet Shop Boys came out two years later, I barely felt a twinge. And when, not so long after that, friends and acquaintances in my cohort started coming out, I was prepared to experience those events as the moments of peace and relief they usually were, free of any ghosts of evangelical angst.

So, thanks, Erasure; thanks Vince and Andy. If everyone could have similar guides through those quagmires of confusion in which questions appear morally vexed—when, in fact, they emphatically aren't—we all would be happier people and the planet a lovelier place.


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