By Waylon Hedegaard
I have just read a book that affected me unlike anything in years…perhaps ever. Riveted, I tackled it in less than eighteen hours.
Being from North Dakota, one could hardly avoid hearing about Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land. However, as with any lover of books, my list of what to read is always packed with neglected prospects. Yet, when Renee began talking about Boys and Oil as we lay next to each other in bed, I could resist no longer. I downloaded the Kindle version at 3:00 pm and finished it at 8:15 the next morning. I struggled several times to work on my own writing, but after ten minutes of staring futilely at my laptop, the Kindle was in hand once more.
Taylor’s North Dakota memoir is the pain of human existence amid the poetry of natural beauty. The love for North Dakota’s land shines from every page. One can feel prairie breezes through the hair, and smell the wildflowers. But this loveliness is nestled within an alienation from the people who inhabit the same land.
I found myself laughing out loud in parts and with tears in my eyes in others. It is a touching and difficult story about growing up gay in the land of my childhood. It is a book that everyone should read, yet I almost feel Taylor wrote it for me, as if he knew me and what I had also been through.
I’m not gay. This is not my coming out story. I will never fully comprehend the loneliness of what the author went through, but I understand the pain of small towns all too well. When people tell me they would love to live in a small town, I look on them with the same horror as wanting to live with grizzlies. If you don’t fit in, small towns are the loneliest places to grow up.
Like Taylor, I was always different as a boy and rarely found my niche. During my school years, I never cared for sports. I preferred the company of girls rather than boys. I loved reading science fiction and fantasy or about science and nature. When I was bored, I used to read random encyclopedias for hours. Small town North Dakota does not have a place for those like me. Yet, I can’t even imagine the isolation of being gay in the same place. Yet for this, Boys and Oil is an unclouded window.
And it made me feel so very much! Brorby’s desire to be accepted was a magnified view of my own memories.
Brorby did not just grow up in a small town like mine, he grew up in the same town I did, Center, North Dakota. We were only 15 years apart. He describes the same streets I walked. He speaks of the same houses and the people. Like Taylor, I spent untold hours playing up and down Square Butte Creek, or swimming in Nelson Lake, a body of water so warm from the adjacent Minnkota Power Station that you often had to get out to cool off. Years before Taylor, I wandered the same fields and pastures, feeling more comfortable away from others. Later, I worked the lion’s share of my life in the coal fired power plants in and around Center, the same plants where his relations worked. The surnames throughout the book are the same I grew up hearing, from my parents or older sisters, the same names I heard at work in the elevators or over the PA systems.
I understand that one can feel alienated growing up anywhere, but towns like Center are different. They specialize in isolation. Center was a village that skyrocketed in population because of the power plants built in the area in the 60s and 70s. The immigrants who moved in, like my family, were from every state and from every background. And as is so common in construction towns, more men than women arrived, and only some brought families. Amid the unsettled population, a new pecking order was always being reestablished. Arguments, fights and alcoholism were common. So was cruelty, which was long in departing after the population settled down.
Small towns have memory. There’s a type of PTSD that permeates the streets like a stain. The callousness soaks into the culture, pervading the water and air until it is a part of the community’s fabric. Babies drink it in their milk. Older children try it on for size on the playgrounds. People who have long lived there do not understand that other places are different. A new normal settled in.
I’m not claiming that people from Center are bad people, far from it. I love and have loved dozens from there. It’s just that children growing up in Center had more to prove and had to prove it more often. Though it is an anomaly, it’s a common one through the Midwest.
The last thing a child with feelings of alienation wants is to prove themselves over and over.
Though straight, I was enough of an outsider to feel what Taylor went through. Not all of it, for certain. There are things I can never know. Yet I had enough of a taste to weep for him in his suffering and isolation. The book’s alienation was a familiar flavor.
It brought another feeling as well: guilt. Throughout the book, I often wondered where I was during pivotal moments of Taylor’s life… or where would I have been? Both literally and morally. When kids in Center picked on him, screaming out gay slurs, or when he struggled after being outed to his parents, where was I standing? The answer is a testament to human isolation: not that far away. Physically, I often stood within a few blocks and a dozen years.
But a more important question is where would I have morally stood at different points in his life? In my memories, I find myself too often on the wrong side of morality. I’d love to imagine I could have been there to defend Taylor from the bullies or reach out during his lack of acceptance. But my more honest side must admit that I might just be the one to throw the abuse and rejection. I was the oppressor as much as the oppressed, doing anything to take the attention off of my own differences.
Like many, I grew up in a religious and homophobic family. These were my dark ages, before any redemption. Worse, I picked on those smaller than myself to counteract the terrible feelings I had when bullied. The abuse I received, I handed back out to those weaker than myself. When a bully tore me down, I tried to build myself back by tearing off pieces of others. I was too much of a coward to stand up for what I should have.
One could argue that at that time, I didn’t know any better. Yet I did! I felt every ounce of pain I caused to others. I was just afraid.
I have struggled for years to make up for that cowardice in my past.
So when Taylor writes about the rejection of his parents and other family, I can feel a great deal of sadness and anger, but I can’t hate them. With only a small twist of fate, I would have been them.
My name is Waylon Hedegaard. I have been a bigot… and still am in part. But I am trying! Oh, I am trying!
We all have a journey in our lives to move from the people of our birth to the people we should be. The journey is not fast or easy or without pain. Genuine change is agony.
For different reasons, I also have a broken relationship with my family. Most times, it is the very change I underwent that lay at the root of the issue. I can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch the mockery of LGBTQ folk, or of immigrants or people of color, or the repression of women. I have evolved, and that has often caused irreconcilable differences.
But it’s more than that. Once we tread these paths of separation, it is often beyond our capability to return. The gravity of our anger and distance pulls us further from our origins. Even when we are unhappy with our initial decisions or the anger surrounding them, the inertia of life continues to separate us.
There is an entropy to all relationships.
Humans are not salmon. We cannot swim up the streams of time to the places of our youth. We must continue down our endless river, making what lives we can where we are. Time and circumstance have flung us from the solar system of our birth. We exist on the edge of an expanding universe. Our past is beyond reach, existing only in memory.
I feel many may take Boys and Oil hard: family, relatives, and friends. Some of those might be reading this now. I get it. Perhaps you didn’t understand at the time. Maybe you saw it happen differently. Maybe you’d make different decisions now.
I understand what it’s like to regret… either the ways things happened or the things I said or did.
We are all flawed beings.
But we can change. We can become kinder and more accepting. We can love our children without conditions.
Boys and Oil is a devastating demonstration of what happens when we don’t.
April 23rd 2023
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