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1970s: Junior High Gym Class

The black framed glasses? Welfare glasses. As soon as I saved up enough money to buy wire-rimmed glasses, I ditched the glasses.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I have spent a good bit of my life moving, either from town to town or house to house. In 1971 my Dad moved us from Deshler, Ohio to Findlay, Ohio. I lived in Findlay from 1970-1974. I say “I lived,” because my parents divorced in 1972 and my Dad moved us to Tucson, Arizona in the early spring of 1973. I finished my tenth grade year at Rincon High School in Tucson, and once school was out I moved back to Findlay to live with several families in the church I attended. For a few months in the fall of 1973 I attended Riverdale High School in Mount Blanchard, Ohio, and then I transferred back to  Findlay High School and finished out eleventh grade.

Got all that? Here’s my point in giving you a Bruce Gerencser geography lesson. From 1970-72, eighth and ninth grade, I attended Central Junior High School (which has since been torn down) in Findlay. Two school years, my longest consecutive stretch at one school without a move to a new school district (though we did live in 3 different houses during this time), when I actually had time to make a few friends.

While I am now a 6-foot, 325-pound man, during the two years I spent at Central Junior High, I was 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighed a little over 100 pounds. I was a late bloomer, not reaching my current height until the end of eleventh grade. Needless to say, I was quite conscious of my diminutive size.

Even though I was slight of build, I played city league baseball and basketball. I am left-handed, and being a southpaw gave me a decided advantage when it came to playing baseball and basketball. Even though I loved playing sports, gym class at Central Junior High was one of my least favorite classes.

As I mentioned above, I wasn’t very big and puberty came quite slowly for me. I enjoyed playing the various sports in gym class, but when games were over, came the dreaded mandatory shower. Here I was, a small boy with little underarm or pubic hair, among, what seemed at the time, giants. When I took off my clothes and glanced at other boys in the class, it was quite evident to everyone that I was in every way on the small side. Needless to say, I became quite self-conscious about my body.

The gym teacher was also a coach. He was a rough-and-tumble, crude man, typical of many of the coaches I played for. One day, he walked into the shower room where all of us were showering and he surveyed the mass of the nakedness before him and said, Well, I can tell who is having sex and who isn’t. His inference was clear; those with bigger penises and testicles were the ones having sex. Since I was one of the smallest boys in the class — and I mean small in every way — I was quite embarrassed. I am sure some of the boys thought, and we know who ISN’T having sex.

I was also the only redhead in the class. At the time, I had bright, flaming orange hair that definitely made me stand out. My gym teacher called me Carrot. This only added to my self-consciousness.

One week for gym class, we square danced. The male and female gym classes were joined together for dance lessons. I thought, this will be my chance to touch one of the cheerleaders. Typical, self-conscious boy’s dream, right? Well, my dream became a nightmare because my pastor, Gene Milioni, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, came to the school and raised a ruckus about the dancing. As a result, my parents would not allow me to square dance. Later in the year, Pastor Milioni would complain about the choir singing Jesus Christ Superstar. I was in the choir, and as a result of his complaint, my parents wouldn’t allow me to sing. (Please see Good Independent Baptist Boys Don’t Dance.)

I still remember to this day sitting at the top of the gym bleachers watching my classmates square dance. Next to me were two boys who were believed to be homosexuals. The proof of their homosexuality? They refused to take a shower at the end of gym class. Remember, it was the 70s . . . So there I was with the two “fags” who wouldn’t take a shower.

While I eventually grew up to be a physically fit 6-foot man, endowed well enough to father six children, I have been self-conscious about my body my entire life. Once free of junior high gym class, I never took another communal shower. When it comes to using the bathroom, I always try to use a stall. Just the thought of using a public urinal is enough to shut off the flow. If I have to use a urinal, I make sure no one is nearby. And if a man uses the urinal next to me? It’s like a vise grip on my urethra. It ain’t gonna happen. I have often wondered if my experiences in junior high gym class play a part in my inability to urinate when someone is standing next to me.

I do know that my religious training resulted in an unhealthy view of the human body and sex. The Fundamentalist churches of my youth spent significant time preaching against short skirts, pants on women, long hair on men, and premarital sex. Even masturbation was considered a sin. The body — the flesh — was sinful and corrupt and in need of salvation.

How about you? Were you body self-conscious in school? How did your religious upbringing affect how you viewed your body? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I was raised Catholic and home schooled. Religion didn’t really affect my view of my physical body per se, but it did affect the way I viewed masturbation. I didn’t know what it was called until years after I tried it at age 9, and for the longest time I thought I was the only one who did something like that, and just knew it had to be horribly bad. I thought as a 10 year old that I would go to hell for it. Burn for all of eternity because of something I couldn’t stop myself from doing–and believe me I tried so hard to stop, but I was too mortified to ask anyone for help or tell the priest about it in confession. I thought that my entire life as a good person was a lie because of how “bad” i was when nobody was around. I had a serious guilty feeling every time afterward, and when I realized it would not make sense for a God to create that sort of desire in a person and also punish it, the guilt just sort of vanished. I’m no longer Catholic.

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    I don’t think it made me think my body looked bad or anything; it was more like I felt disconnected from it. Let’s face it when you grow up being taught modesty and chastity you shut down a lot of feelings or least feeling guilty about it. Now I wear what I want and figure that being a sexual human being is a part of biological wiring but some of the ideas still stick with me. Wearing a bikini the first time was kind of weird until I realized pretty much everyone else was wearing it too. Masturbation was never talked about really in regards to women but I always got the impression that it wasn’t right. Stirring up lusts….blah, blah you know the drill.

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        I was also thinking about the fact that it made me feel like everything was about men. Cover up lest the men see your body and be tempted. Save yourself for your future husband. When you’re married make sure you have sex when your husband wants. *Shudder*

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    Everything is dirty and wicked. Well, that pretty much sums it up for a kid just growing into his body in adolescence… that is, if they are being taught by Bible-thumpers… You cannot look, cannot feel, cannot desire or wish and when you get a spontaneous erection, it is probably a demon indwelling. Holy fuck my brain Batman!
    In grade nine, I walked the halls of the school and had to dart into bathrooms because I would suddenly suffer panic and nausea. I was sure I would upchuck and had to escape. Gawd nipped at my heels like the miserable dog.
    Religion like the Independent Fellowship of Baptists is a legal torture that is tax-free. Start a church to hurt people and hit the lottery!

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    You look very cute with the BCGs (military term – Birth Control Glasses – standard issue in the military), but it wasn’t much better in Catholic school except we were forced to square dance and do calisthenics to a very ancient song called ‘Wooly Bully’ – – The gym uniforms were the worst and stunk no matter how often you washed them. The showers didn’t work 3/4 of the time. But gym class didn’t affect my ideas about my body. I got my negative ideas by people comparing me to my beautiful perfect could have been a model mother. Plus magazines like Cosmo and the ads of the 60s and 70s

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    Bruce, it’s interesting how your middle school gym experience tracks with my own. Our gym teacher, “Coach,” informed the class that showers were required and that if we didn’t take one, “then we’d know!” That’s a quote etched in my memory from 40 years ago and the implication was clear – if you didn’t shower, you were gay. Of course I pushed down my apprehension and showered in what we called the “naked herd room.” It was my first experience seeing that many people without their clothes on and certainly the first time anyone had seen ME. My Southern Baptist upbringing had tried to do its worst by instilling in me a sense of right and wrong when it came to the human form but this exercise, showering en masse with my friends, was somehow ok. Honestly, I don’t recall being too traumatized by the experience and actually, in my adult years, came to enjoy social nudism. Perhaps it’s the same inquisitive, open-mindedness that drove me away from the church that allowed me to explore the “goodness” and “badness” of the human form and come to the conclusion that there is nothing to fear from nudity at all. I lost my religion and my body shame since then; I call it a win-win!

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    That’s a dangerous question to ask, Bruce. There are many things in childhood that were hard. My father was a minister. No dancing, no movies, no theatre, sex is evil, be a man, you can’t dress like that, you have to look a certain way, no long hair, homosexuality. (and therefor bisexuality) is perverted. They prayed over me constantly and wanted to take me to psychiatrists so I could be fixed. My parents could not even talk about sex so they gave me books to read.

    To be fair, in the 70s and 80s the rest of the world was not much better for people who were non-binary and not straight. Living in small towns in West Virginia did not help. I attended a Christian college in Ohio, because non-Christian schools were too Worldly. My new found freedom allowed me to stop attending church regularly, but the rules had been driven into me from a young age and were reinforced by the college.

    So I suppressed my love of dance and theater and learned how appear to be a,straight, married family man. I attended church but found it lacking. Years of searching for god and guilt over who I really was resulted in complete silence from god. I did not put my children through the same life and encouraged them to seek their own path, whatever that would be. After my divorce we continued to attend Church since their mother wanted this , but I encouraged they make their own choices and think critically.

    In my,late 30’s the internet led me to realize there are others like me, but it took me another 15 years to undo the damage done to me by my Christian indoctrination of my younger days.

    Now I am the person I was born to be. I no longer hide or feel guilt for how I am. My father is 93 and mother is 88 and still hold the same values. I have not come out to them, because there is no point, it would only cause them pain. My brothers and sisters probably have suspicions but I’ve confirmed nothing. I honestly don’t think any of them would react well if I came out to family. I personally do not care what my siblings think, but say nothing to avoid hurting my parents.

    At this point I consider teaching and enforcing Christian dogma on a child as abusive. Christian parents are harming their children when they are overly strict, even if the parents do not realize the harm they are doing. But I know it can lead to a lifetime of struggle and pain.

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    I was a supply (substitute) teacher for two days in a school. The first morning assembly included two local police officers giving advice to the 5-7yos on road safety. One asked a question and hands shot up to give the answer. She pointed at a girl but not accurately enough as the boy with red hair next to her answered. The police officer said ‘No, not you sonny, the ugly one, I meant the girl next to you.’ The little boy was very quiet all morning and blurted out to me, ‘She said I was ugly.’ I tried to reassure him. It made me vow to myself never to make even the most innocent of comments about a child’s appearance. I worried and wonder if that one thoughtless. throwaway remark had a massive impact on that poor child’s life, as you experienced, Bruce.

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Bruce Gerencser