Note: all names and key identifying information have been changed. Except for Alaskan politician Loren Leman, who is an asshole.
My sister was gay—not me. That’s what I told the handsome leader of the House of Representatives. This was during Lobby Hour, that private and essential time where (so we were told) the real deals got made. Each of us were to introduce at least two bills during our congressional session. My proposed bills were about recycling glass and marriage equality. “She’s gay,” I repeated to the Speaker, “and to be honest, it breaks my heart that she can’t adopt kids or enjoy any of the other 1,138 federal rights that come along with a legally-recognized marriage.” This was 2007, when only Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage.
The House Speaker was my age, 17, but with a sinewy body shaped by skiing, hockey, and baseball. His birthright was to be devastatingly attractive. I, meanwhile, was a gangly tennis kid who liked drama and debate; I was a member of Green Club, Key Club, and an officer for RARE-T, which stood for Reducing AIDS-Risks Effectively in Teens. My hair was brown and bushy because I feared barbers after watching Sweeney Todd.
The Speaker’s beautiful green eyes looked at me with patient sympathy. “I hear you,” he said. “But I don’t think the time is right.”
His name was Kevin Olsen, and he was my superior in every way.
I only had the confidence to run for Clerk of the House of Representatives—an uncontested post. Kevin didn’t only run for Speaker of the House—he won, defeating five other boys in the general election. Kevin lived in Anchorage’s wealthy Southside and attended South High School, which had more resources than any private school in Alaska. Also known as Hillside, this serene area oscillates swirls of evergreens, jutting umber cliffs, and thunderous mountains; everything is pointed south to Turnagain Arm, home of Belugas and Orcas; the drive along Turnagain is routinely voted as one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S. Kevin’s family had lived in Alaska for generations and maintained high Norwegian foreheads. My ethnically-mixed family was scattered around California, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina. In Anchorage, I attended Dimond High, far more diverse than South on every demographic indicator. I was too ashamed to admit at the time that I lived at the very bottom of the economic rung at Dimond. I lived with my mother in a one-bedroom apartment off Spenard Road where we hopped over used needles in the hallway while balancing groceries of microwavable oatmeal packets and pre-made salad kits. Where Kevin’s family had generous views of the ocean, our one window was a rectangular slit scuffed by neglect that looked out on to two blue dumpsters.
But I was a proud kid and kept my mouth shut. I suggested cafes for study sessions or a friend’s house to watch a movie because mine was still undergoing renovations. I dressed respectably, took many APs, and joined every club that would have me. People didn’t have to think I was rich, but they wouldn’t view me as poor (even when I ended up using my college funds to pay my mother’s rent, I did not consider myself poor). When I wrote a college admissions essay, I didn’t consider that for years I had been raised by a single mother, that I struggled with my sexuality in a deeply homophobic state, that I never quite fit anywhere as a mixie, or that I managed to take five AP classes and work a minimum-wage job in the hope of attending their university. Nope. I wrote about my love for figure skating. I presented what I thought they thought was the best of me, not the actual me who had dealt with a fair number of challenges. Ironically, admission officers likely viewed me as a rich white teenage pansy with access to elite therapists, which was, in a way, what I aspired towards.
Signing up for Boys State was part of my plan to escape working class life. A beloved history teacher, Mr. Luke, recommended that I apply. He said I would learn valuable lessons about the role of government while adding a respectable feather to my cap. I was flattered to be accepted, as each school could only send two representatives. Later, I’d learn that Boys State in Alaska, with its 50 or so participants, is something of a joke. In Texas, the competition within schools is bloody, and the state convention sees thousands of eager participants. Yet the debates in the smaller Alaskan convention were fierce in their own way. Even though it was all pretend—the legislative process, acting like men when we were boys—some of the discussions could feel like a matter of life or death. Of course, they felt that way because they were.
Kevin, sighing, finally agreed to bring up my “gay bill” at the next House meeting. He repeated that he didn’t think it would pass. I repeated the lie that my sister was a lesbian. Her existence behooved me to at least try to pass a measure toward equality.
Kevin was right. “House Bill 7: Bringing Marriage Equality to Alaska” was the very first bill to be axed, receiving only two out of 20 votes in the House of Representatives. The only other vote in favor came from Kevin. It was a brave move on his part, but I also realize the risk was low for Kevin. In the dorms, he had already established himself as a Lothario. He claimed he had been doing it since 13, shared stratagems on finding the g-spot, and regaled the guys with tales of picking out pubes from his braces and dealing with “Dorito pussy.”
I had no similar stories (thank God), and my indifference toward sexual tall tales hinted that I was off. I was squeamish about changing in the dorm and snuck out early for a 5am shower. While the guys played hacky sack and football on their break, I walked solo through the woods. I proposed the marriage equality bill at the start of the third day of Boys State. At lunch, everyone was talking about the proposed bills, and I overheard laughter about “some fag bill” in the House.
The seven-day sleep-away camp that is Boys State is a crockpot mash of teenage self-regard and percolating insecurity: drama, along with the civic lessons, is inevitable. Boys State is sponsored by The American Legion, a U.S. veterans association that claims political neutrality. But in Wasilla, Alaska, home of Sarah Palin and site of the 2007 Alaska Boys State, the organization was staunchly conservative. I had no idea about American Legion before joining, and I doubt I would have gone had I known who would come speak at us. Still, the conservative environ did surprise me at times with some honest talk about race, immigration, and climate change. By the end of the week, the House of Representatives even agreed to pass a tepidly-worded resolution in support of gay marriage. Resolutions were just for the record. They spelled out intentions and utopian possibilities. Resolutions wouldn’t, like bills that passed both chambers of congress, be sent to the national headquarters of American Legion. The resolution went something like:
- Whereas the time is not yet right to overturn the prohibition of gay marriage in the State of Alaska.
- Whereas further discussion on this subject is warranted in order to create a more perfect Union.
- Whereas those who consent to be in same-sex relationships would benefit from…
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all from my week at Boys State was that Seth, my best friend and co-representative from our school, would stop speaking to me.
In all of the AP classes at Dimond, Seth was the only black student. We had met freshman year after I made some crack about our algebra textbook and he laughed Sprite through his nose. We became fast friends and study partners, walking to the Taco Bell on Jewel Lake Road, quizzing each other with flashcards on European history in empty classrooms. We were regarded as too nice to pick on and too nerdy to invite to parties. I can’t recall many specific conversations with Seth; I mostly remember the feeling of loud laughter at everything, this comforting warmth that I had a friend who liked and valued me, even if he didn’t understand me entirely. Our mutual sense of otherness led us to a sensitive and caring friendship. But perhaps our rapport wasn’t particularly deep because it was based on what we stood against rather than what we stood for, more of a reactive than generative friendship.
We were against boorishness, bullying, and what we viewed as gross stupidity. We both loathed the first two days of Boys State. We hated the 6am pounding at the door to wake up and run laps around the grounds. We hated the gruff veterans, all plaid-clad white men with mustaches, saying that we needed to do at least 40 push-ups if we wanted to be “red-blooded American men.” The veterans’ names were replaced by whatever rank they were honorably discharged with: Sergeant Jacobs, Private Hamilton, Captain Harris. Our least favorite was Sergeant Steed, who asked everyone in a lecherous manner whether they had a girlfriend. After our mandated morning exercises, Sergeant Steed played the “Taps” salute on a bugle while we saluted a rising U.S. flag. I made an exasperated look at Seth and, seeing his struggle not to laugh, elongated my face to more tragicomic expressions, which doubled his muted laughter.
It was clear at the welcome dinner that Seth and I were outliers. A teen from Utqiaġvik (Barrow) wanted to become an engineer for ConocoPhillips, the biggest oil company in Alaska; he hated environmental policies like ANWR that valued wild animals above people. A kid from Palmer owned over 60 guns and was saving for a flamethrower. One gentle soul from Kenai offered us an illustrated flipbook arguing that the world would end on 12.12.12.
“You can’t leave me alone with any of these psychos,” Seth whispered to me.
Sadly, we were assigned different dorms. Seth was irate. “They can’t even let us pick our own beds? What’s next, you can only wipe your butt counterclockwise?”
That night, we fell asleep texting each other about the various inanities we were witnessing. The next morning, we learned that boys from the same school couldn’t be in the same chamber of congress, which meant our separation was to continue. Seth was assigned to the Senate; I got the House of Representatives. We considered calling our moms to pick us up.
I didn’t try to speak with anyone in the House, partially in protest of American Legion*, partially in solidarity with Seth. But Seth, for reasons I still don’t grasp, ran for a key leadership role: party Whip. By that second night, he was invited to a campfire on the other side of the lake, far from the adults. He texted me the update and invited me to join, adding if you want to, I guess. I spent that night in my assigned bunk, and when boys walked in for whatever reason, I faked sleep.
By the third morning, everyone greeted Seth by name. He never clued me into what transformed him into an overnight sensation, and I never asked. During the morning bugle salute, I crossed my eyes and made a worm-like motion with my neck. He glared at me and spat: “Have some respect.”
I didn’t see him at breakfast or lunch.
The third day of Boys State proceeded like any other day in congress. We presented and debated bills. We had computer time for research, which most spent on ESPN or Facebook. We met in committees for Energy, Transportation, Education. We had at least three honored speakers a day, ranging from the Mayor of Wasilla to the Alaska State of Office of Veterans Affair Director. During Lobby Hour, we were encouraged to speak with our colleagues in the senate (i.e., the other side of someone’s sprawling house) to build “coalitions.” Seth hadn’t responded to my latest text and since he had missed two free meals, I walked over to the Senate to check in on how he was surviving.
While the House was located in a large basement, the Senate was on the second floor overlooking the lake. I opened a gilt door with a large, silver-plated handle. Seth was talking amiably to two of his Senate peers. I approached. He caught my eye and quickly said, “Excuse me, I need to catch up with my Dimond peer.”
I ignored the slight, joking instead about how the other half live in the Senate. Seth asked to speak outside.
I had come out to Seth the summer prior. At the time, I read his reaction as generous: “Okay, interesting, you know I don’t really believe in that, but you have to follow your truth. Thanks for telling me.” While I was one of two out kids in a school of 2,000, I wasn’t one to flaunt anything and I was largely ignored or privately ridiculed, which meant Seth was never pushed to choose between his friend and his morals.
A few weeks after coming out, Seth asked during one of our walks why I couldn’t keep “the gay thing” to myself until we graduated.
“You’re just making things harder for yourself,” he said. “School’s hard enough. Why add more pressure.”
I was at a loss for how he couldn’t grasp this essential part of my identity. “It’s who I am,” I settled on. “It’s like you trying not to be black.”
He guffawed. “That’s not the same.”
“How? You can’t change it, it’s shaped your life since you were little.”
“Matt, you can’t compare being black to being gay. Black people have had it worse.”
As Seth’s vocabulary for sexuality was underdeveloped, so was mine for race. “Hello,” I replied. “Heard of Matthew Shepard? You know what the Nazi did to gay people during The Holocaust, —”
And so on.
Now a year later at Boys State, neither of us had progressed very far.
“Why would you bring up a gay bill?” Seth asked me. “You know where we’re at. You know people are going to have questions about me if they know you’re gay.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Tell me,” he continued, “Why did you bring this up?”
“Because it’s an important issue and an important part of who I am.”
“Seriously Matt, you want to be seen as gay here? It’s not the most important thing about you. You don’t see me making bills for reparations.”
“Well, you should.”
He blew his lips.
“You’re really not practical.”
My fists clenched. “Just because someone at your school is gay doesn’t mean everyone will think you’re gay. And that’s just what I am, right? Not your friend, just your peer.”
I laughed and turned on my heels.
“Yo Matt calm down, let’s talk, c’mon.”
I turned around. My vision blurred. “Matt, we’re tight. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m just saying that I think I have a good thing going on here. That’s not always the case for black men. I want to make this work, and it’s not going to work if everyone thinks, you know.”
He made a scissors motion.
“What, that we’re lesbians?”
He chuckled. “No no, you know. Like that.”
He flipped both wrists
My throat constricted. “You know that MLK poster Mr. Luke has up? ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
Seth wrinkled his nose. “Don’t quote MLK at me.”
My voice made a harrumph sound. I stormed away and spent the rest of Lobby Hour in the woods, cursing Seth, American Legion, and furiously wiping my eyes.
Loren Leman was the marquee speaker of 2007 Alaska Boys State. As an Alaska State Representative turned Senator from 1989 to 2002, the staunch Republican was best known for spearheading Measure 2, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The proposal won by an overwhelming margin on November 3, 1998. Alaska retains the dubious honor of being the first state in the union to fear gay people so much that it took the trouble of changing its constitution to resist the idea that queer people were equal to straight people.
For this final speaker, most of the boys dressed up with a button-down and tie. I wore a maroon hoodie. Yes, I had forgotten to pack a nice t-shirt, but mostly I wanted to signal that I disagreed with Leman. I was annotating books like The New Gay Teenager by Ritch C. Savin-Williams; The Autobiography of Malcom-X; Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians V. The Supreme Court by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price; Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I favored gay marriage, the right to choose, a shrinking military budget; I thought the climate crisis was the issue, that the UN was vital, that paths toward satisfying employment were the best way to lower recidivism. Loren Leman stood for everything I was against.
Still, I told myself to keep an open mind. Leman had been lieutenant governor from 2002
to 2006. Even if he served under the disgraced Governor Frank Murkowski, who defined nepotism when he appointed his daughter, Lisa, to an open senate seat, Leman had a lot of experience in government. Surely—he would teach me something.
Leman was scheduled to orate from the Senate chambers, which were larger and prettier than the House floor. The room was packed. Many of the veterans had invited their friends and neighbors. I sat in the very back row, close to the exit. Seth, I noticed, was in the front row. I crossed one leg over the other, tight as I could, no longer caring – in fact, hoping – that Leman would view me as a fairy. My notebook was open. I still find hope in this position: someone with their pen at the ready.
Leman was 50 minutes late. No one left the Senate floor. Some boys were told “to just hold it.” When Leman finally arrived, he bounced down the center aisle like the star batter approaching his plate. The crowd rose to applaud him. I pretended that I was tying my shoe and stayed seated.
For 30 intense minutes, Leman bloviated about state rights, how guns make people safer, how the millennial generation needed to quit complaining, obey their parents, and never hesitate to sacrifice for the good of the country. His gestures had a rasping, panicky quality; they betrayed a profound paranoia that could only be stabilized through the submission of others. His contorted speech cherry picked data and relied on circular logic. There was a hellish dryness to him, like an inquisitor who couldn’t be satiated until everyone believed exactly as he did, who was ready to burn all who disagreed.
Of Russian-Alutiiq ancestry, Leman was the first Native Alaskan to hold state office. His voting record for big business and weakened civil liberties exemplifies that coming from a marginalized community doesn’t automatically mean that one will do good by that community. I wondered what happened in his life to make him think that subjugation was the ideal form of governance. Years later, I’d hear Toni Morrison analyze the tortured logic and miserable emotive drive powering racism in America: “If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” This will to dominate had subsumed Mr. Leman. He was not a man who lived in a world where humans were complex beings whose meaningful lives necessitated a system that cherished that complexity; he was a petty tyrant with a fractured ego who viewed people as tools to swell his ego, fools fit to sacrifice for profit.
By the Q&A, I zoned out. I was feeling defeated by a descending truth: Alaska had chosen this short-sighted manic as a leader for over 15 years. Like it or not, the craven intolerance Loren Leman embodied was a perfect reflection of my home.
I came to when I heard Seth’s voice. He was standing up, like all the other respectful boys had, and asked Mr. Leman to relay his proudest achievement as an Alaskan representative. Leman nodded affirmatively once. His response was immediate: “Leading the effort to define marriage between one man and one woman. I proposed that bill in the Senate, and we took it to the voters, who affirmed what we knew all along: marriage outside of the traditional family is the most dangerous attack to the very foundation of American society—”
He railed on for two minutes, eventually referring to conversion and shock therapy as remedies the state should offer.
My blood boiled. I glowered from the back of the room. But rather than speaking up, I sunk deeper in my chair.
Leman asked Seth if that answered his question.
Seth had remained standing the entire time. “It certainly does,” Seth replied. “Thank you, Sir.”
Boys State leads to Boys Nation. Each state sends two delegates to this national conference where the whole legislative process is repeated. In 2007, Alaska sent a dumb but affable jock named Dan, and the Speaker of the House, Kevin—he of the “Dorito pussy” jokes. From days four to seven, Seth avoided me, which perhaps helped him win the honor of alternate senator from the great state of Alaska.
Seth and I would repair our friendship that fall, but we never quite recovered from Boys State. My week-long getaway with American Legion wouldn’t earn me any scholarships and likely damaged my prospects with the very liberal colleges I ended up applying to. I left with a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution, which I kept for years, at times reading it during my lunch break from a slew of minimum wage jobs, admiring the founding language and vision, and wondering how any of those hopes could be realized when our system of governance seemed so exquisitely fucked.
I would run into Mr. Loren Leman years later at The Hilton Anchorage, where I worked as a front desk attendant. This was during the 2012 Alaska Republican Party Convention, hosted at Hilton. A disgruntled presence charged my way. After a few days at the front desk, I had learned to sense the guests whose appearance would be foul. I took a deep breath, and feigned fascination with my computer.
A briefcase swung onto the high-counter top, plopping itself over the edge and nudging my computer. I looked up, smiling, to see a fuming Loren Leman. The veins in his temples pulsated like snakes. His eyes bore into me. He seemed ready and willing to strangulate me if the next word out of my mouth was not exactly what he wanted.
“We have a big problem,” he announced. He had applied two name tags to himself, spelling out his name in all caps as LOREN/LEMAN. “The printer is not working. This is unacceptable during a convention. We are paying good money to be here and we expect the facilities to work. What are you going to do about it? This needs to be fixed right now.”
I gazed at him, savoring the idea that I knew him, but he knew nothing about me. This was the he-man who believed the world was his to control; he would never be satisfied with life as there would always be people to resist his control. At his core, he was still a scared little boy who believed he could trust no one and that everything was out to get him. There was something deeply pitiful about a person whose life was a series of spiteful offensives, who could “only be tall because somebody’s on their knees,” who threw a tantrum because a hotel printer was on the fritz.
My smile grew.
I began to laugh, then quickly covered my mouth, and faked a cough.
His eyes grew wide. From the depths of his diaphragm, he intoned: “Are you going to fix this or not?”
His jowls danced like a perturbed turkey.
“Yes, Mr. Leman,” I replied, tucking in my toes to hold my laughter, “Let me see what I can do.”
*The organization is officially called The American Legion, but many people shortened it to the Legion or American Legion. I don’t currently have a clear reason to use one form over the other.
Matthew Frye Castillo teaches professional and creative writing at Lehman College, City University of New York. He is the author of One Headlight: An Alaskan Memoir (Cirque Press 2021) and has published fiction, essays, and poetry in dozens of media outlets and literary journals. He lives in Astoria, Queens with his partner, and is rebuilding a childhood house in Lazy Mountain, Alaska.
Image: “Tell Me Again” by Andy Fogle