Boys on the Side
D. Gilson

I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle.

— Anne Sexton

Nick came to freshman composition in a baggy Taco Bell t-shirt and too-short Umbro shorts. He wore this every Tuesday and Thursday, even as fall became winter, when he came to class decidedly less. Nick’s eyes were brilliantly green and perpetually glossy behind his shaggy bed head. On our first day, Nick explained he came from trailer trash in the wrong suburb of this college town, and that his favorite poem—I will never forget this—was Anne Sexton’s “Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.” It’s a horrible poem, but daring, I suppose, and especially daring for a poor skater boy at a second-tier state school to admit knowing, let alone loving, in a room full of boys from better towns on basketball scholarships.

Fuck slugs and snails and puppy dog tails. Here, a failed thesis: Sensitive boys, we are made of our mothers’ intuitions. We are all drawn to strong women. Like Nick to Sexton, or Woody Allen to Diane Keaton, or me to Britney Spears, or an infinite number of queers to Diana Ross, Elizabeth Bishop, and Hillary Clinton, we are all drawn to the fire of beautiful, intricate women. We are our mother’s boys. Look at the movies we love: Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, Waiting to Exhale. I’m thinking now of 1995’s Boys on the Side. Scorned Whoopi Goldberg (Jane, dyke), Drew Barrymore (Holly, bubblegum), and Mary-Louise Parker (Robin, AIDS), drive a minivan from Pittsburgh to Arizona following the accidental murder of Holly’s woman-beating, drug-dealing boyfriend. In a word, my friend Howard would say, fabulous. It’s campy and poignant and the perfect movie for gay men. We, I suspect, get it.

Just across the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, where Holly murders her lover in Boys on the Side, is the immaculately manicured campus of Chatham University on what was once the estate of Andrew Mellon. Since its founding in 1869, Chatham College has been, and continues to be, an all women’s institution. After my stint as a graduate assistant at Missouri State University, where Nick was my student, I came to Chatham University as a teaching fellow working towards an MFA in poetry. On the first day of classes, I faced a room of curious stares from a variety of young women, from inner-city public school graduates to wealthy descendants of the Carnegies; men on this campus, even among faculty, are rare. I stood there thinking of another movie, Mean Girls. Giving her student a pep talk before the state math competition, Tina Fey tells Lindsay Lohan: “There’s nothing to break your focus, because not one of those Marymount boys is cute.” At Chatham, unlike at Missouri, there was nothing to break my focus.

In a 1983 issue of College English, John Rouse suggests, “Surely there is a seductive element in the relations we have with students, in our effort to help these younger ones enter into new experience, or take it in.” [1] To be fair, I was only 22 when Nick was my freshman writing student, and he only 19. He reminded me of—he very well could have been—my boyfriend just a few years prior. Nick came to my office hours only once, days before Christmas break. I was surprised when anyone showed up at my office, tucked in the top floor of Pummil Hall with moldy ceiling tiles and stained, dung-colored carpet. It was the first time I’d seen Nick in almost three weeks and I was surprised, too, by what he wore. Not the usual slouchy tee and soccer shorts. No, Nick knocked on the door in a white Oxford with sweat stains around the neck, fat corduroy pants a few sizes too big, and his long hair pulled back into a hairband. He plopped onto the chair across from me, folded his hands on my desk as if in prayer, and said, I’m here to talk to you about my grade. I stared at Nick’s temples, wondering if he borrowed the headband from his girlfriend.

At Chatham I was assigned to teach Fundamentals in Critical Theory, a joke that begins something like a faggot, thirteen lesbians, and Sigmund Freud walk into a bar. Where my students at the state school had been meek or disinterested, the women at Chatham were Janes, Hollys, and Robins driving minivans through the desert and pushing back against every idea I, or the theorists we read, brought to the proverbial table. Here, a bias: Margaret was earnest but appeared meek; she was nondescript, really, with shoulder length brown hair wet from her morning shower and pulled back into a ponytail; she played field hockey for the school, I think, but wasn’t a star player; Margaret sat in the third row of desks beside the window, a forgettable geography on the map of any classroom. With equally unremarkable expectations, I assigned Margaret to lead discussion on psychoanalytic theory. Basically, she began, Freud was full of bullshit. She gave a rousing narration of women rejecting the phallus, from Sappho to Toni Morrison, in under ten minutes. I was impressed. More importantly, Margaret was right.

Humor me: Straight men ruin most things. They’re competitive. And I think this drive in straight men to be at the top, alone, is in part what brings women and gay men together. Our mother’s children, we are drawn to the films of strong women time and time again. In his book Working Like a Homosexual, film scholar Matthew Tinkcom explains, “The link between queer men and female stars occurs through a perception on the part of the queer fan that glamour marks the achievement of becoming through the expense of labor something that he is not allowed—that is, the privilege of representation.” [2] Tinkcom goes on to link capital accumulation to vehement patriarchy, which serves no one, of course. But his last point, that gay men watching female stars provides “the privilege of representation” seems, perhaps, outdated. Gay men are everywhere now on television and silver screen. Yet, we still turn to these women and their movies.

Like me, watching Boys on the Side in the living room of my Washington apartment in 2014. Beyond the window, a gay soccer league holds their Saturday afternoon match. But my attention isn’t there, on the glistening bodies of men in shorts with sculpted calf muscles. It’s on Whoopi and Drew and especially Mary-Louise. I love their world without men. I love that they fight, yes, but espouse loyalty in spades. For much of the second half of the film, Jane and Robin are at odds, scorned lovers of sorts, until Holly gets arrested, taken back to Pittsburgh, and put on trial for the murder of her dead-woman-beating-drug-dealing-baby-daddy. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the film, Robin shows up unexpectedly and confronts Jane on the steps of the courthouse: All right, this is the situation. I am still angry…Holly is just as much my responsibility as everyone else’s, and so are you. Because you are my family and I love you. At our best moments, gay men can relate to women in this way: we understand the necessity of uniting against patriarchy and the havoc it reeks on our world. We like a mission, a rally, a road trip. A family, my friend Will always reminds me, we choose.

Forgive me, the poet, for this underwhelming volta: At Chatham, thirteen women and I, in a room without reliable heat or air conditioning but with windows overlooking the east end of Pittsburgh, had hard conversations. I know now, and yes, how petty it seems, that for my part this was because there were no boys around. No one’s affection for which I fought. We tried harder. We are all a little bit Whoopi Goldberg, Drew Barrymore, and Mary-Louise Parker—better for pushing boys to the side. We are all our mother’s children.

And now that I teach both men and women again, I know to push everyone harder, something I fear boys are still not used to, especially straight ones. When Nick visited my office, I said I hadn’t seen him in weeks, but this was a lie. He had not been to class, yes, but I had seen him the week before at a bar downtown, The Outland Ballroom. Had I known Nick was in a band? I think he wrote an essay about this, but I didn’t know he’d be strumming bass that night. I had been fighting with my on-again, off-again, then-very-off boyfriend. Anna, a fellow graduate assistant who had just broken up with her girlfriend, suggested we drink. So we did. To excess, out of plastic cups with melting ice and too much cheap vodka that tasted like charcoal. From stage Nick saw us and waved. I waved back and leaned over to Anna, whispering-not-whispering, Isn’t he fucking cute?

Nick came up to the bar after their set. Nick, my boy, I said, knowing I was sloppy, too drunk to be talking to a student, way too drunk to be talking to a student on whom I had a crush. Yes, Captain? he asked me, using the nickname my students had taken to calling me under his charge. I’ve been thinking about that poem. It’s total shit, but there’s that quatrain that slays me every time. I raised my plastic cup. The boys and girls are one tonight. / They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies. Vodka and cranberry juice sloshed over my cup’s rim, trickling down my arm and dripping onto Nick’s shoulder. They take off shoes. They turn off the light. / The glimmering creatures are full of lies. Nick, smarter than I’m giving him credit for, got up. I’ll come by your office hours soon, if that’s okay. He left.

I gave Nick an A-. At best, he deserved a low B. Probably a C. He was average. He got more than he deserved because I was embarrassed. Sexton ends her ballad: They are eating each other. They are overfed. / At night, alone, I marry the bed. She’s not talking about teaching, but here’s what I know now: I wouldn’t make the same mistake today. Humor me: boys are overfed. My students deserve to be pushed harder. Something I learned at Chatham, where a faggot, thirteen women, Sigmund Freud, Whoopi, Drew, and Mary-Louise all walked into a bar. We are all our mother’s children. Thank god, we are.




[1] John Rouse, “An Erotics of Teaching,” College English 45.6 (1983): 535.
[2] Matthew Tinkcom, Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema (Durham: Duke UP, 2002), 84
D. Gilson is the author of Crush (Punctum Books, 2014), with Will Stockton; Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Prize. He is a PhD candidate in American literature and cultural studies at The George Washington University, and his work has appeared in PANK, Indiana Review, and The Rumpus. Find D. at