Comic Book Pen Pal

(Wherein Wonder Woman introduces me to my first gay man and it goes badly)

By Neil Ellis Orts

Back in the pre-internet days, the main way that comics fans communicated with each other—-or for some isolated comics fans, the only way we knew others existed—was via the letter columns in the back of the comic books themselves. I had a couple of letters published in the fanzine the Comic Reader, but the only letter I ever had published in a comic book was in Wonder Woman #278, cover dated April, 1981. It was a brief, inconsequential note that basically praised everything going on in the magazine at the time (with more words going to the Huntress backup series than to Wonder Woman herself), but it led to a brief pen-pal relationship that continues to confound and haunt me.

A little context is in order. When that letter was published, I was a junior in high school. I knew a few other people who read comics but none of my closest friends did. It was my own personal, semi-private hobby. It was a rural, central Texas community, and while I had a close group of friends, I don’t think any of us would say were the “cool kids.” We were more the smart, nice kids, never in any trouble of any kind. I was very involved in my church’s youth group, Luther League, and I spent a lot of time drawing and making up stories about superheroes, both those owned by DC and my own creations. Even though I’d been called “gay” since junior high, it never occurred to me that it was true. I was, after all, part of the smart, nice, and religious kids and my working definition of “gay” was “a man who had sex with men.” I wasn’t having sex with anyone, so I couldn’t possibly be gay. I certainly knew no one who identified as gay.

Fast forward to December of 1982. I was just finishing up my first semester at Southwest Texas State University (which has since dropped the “southwest” from its name). I came home to find a letter from someone I’d never heard of before, from Portland, Oregon. He listed four reasons for writing to me. First was that “we read the same comics.” He specified that he wasn’t a collector but his roommate was. Second was that he had attended college in Austin and recognized the name of my very small “town” (really a farming and ranching community which I sometimes describe as “a post office and a couple of beer joints”). Third, my surname interested him and he wanted to know the national origin of it. Fourth, “I’d like to become your pen-pal and friend.”

It was a bit funny to me, that he was reading a comic that was nearly two years old and decided to write to someone who had written a bit of a puff piece to Wonder Woman. It was also a little bit exciting. It was a connection with a comics reader. His final paragraph wished me a “nice Christmas” with the hope that I would “remember Whose birthday it is.” My mother gave me a look of uncertainty about all this, but I answered the letter.

Of course, I have very little recollection and no record of what I wrote. I do have the three page, typed letter he wrote in return, included in a Christmas card. I must have commented on favorite comics characters and pop music tastes—he states he has little use for Robin or Jimmy Olsen but likes Spider-Man and he lists a few singers he likes while telling me I could keep my Crystal Gayle. He also tells me he doesn’t own a TV and doesn’t like current movies, dismissing modern actors as holding no candle to Clark Gable, Jimmy Steward, Grace Kelly, and a few others. He said he was a “Roman Catholic Christian,” primarily because he venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus.

A particularly curious paragraph reads:

Sure, I’m a fan of the horror genre. I live in 1982 and what species of God behaves more horrible than man does today? Vincent Price like Edgar Alan [sic] Poe, seem like angels of mercy compared to Ronald Reagan Sr. (may be your president but not mine, I didn’t vote or pray for his election!)

That’s the most “liberal” thing he may have ever said in the course of our correspondence, as I’ll show.

Additional context: I was really quite conservative back in 1982. I was pro-Reagan, pro-life, and generally all about the right-wing agenda—as long as it was labeled “Christian.” I was profoundly naïve in these matters, trusting more or less anyone who came with a Bible verse to explain things. I would question and even argue some points, but my predisposition was towards the more rigid interpretation of things. This seems to be what happens to some of us who grow up in more liberal religious denominations and decide, in our teen years, that we want to start taking our faith “seriously.”

Then there’s a paragraph about age and gender. I may have asked how old he was because there’s this slightly defensive bit about age hang-ups and presuppositions about my intentions. “Must I be under 25 before you’ll consider being my friend? Must I have a sex-change to be acceptable to you?” My naiveté overlooked this, I guess. Today, I would see them as red flags.

Towards the end, he tells me he has made a “willing commitment to Jesus to remain single and abstain from emotional involvements with women.” He blames the “current ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] trend” as why he’d make a terrible husband. “Thus, you lucky being, I am one of the few male virgins you may ever know!”

Yes, there were more clues than one as to what lay ahead. But again: naiveté.

I don’t know what I was doing the month of December, but I’m sure I was busy running around with high school friends, all of us back from our first semester at college. Before returning to college, though, I had a third, brief letter, dated January 3, 1983.

My feelings are hurt! I sent you a nice Christmas card and a long letter and you never bothered to reply!

The rest of the page tells me his mother died before Christmas and basically accused me of being thoughtless and self-centered for not having written him when he could have used a letter from me. He lists general life concerns, including unemployment. “Gotta be a comic nut or a female to hold your interest it seems!”

Had I not already written and sent a letter, I don’t know how I would have responded to this one, but I shortly received another letter, dated January 7, 1983. He references a letter from me, which I’d dated December 22, then 29, and was postmarked January 4. He opens with stating he thought I was angry with him for being a male who wanted to get close to me. What follows on the next four, hand-written pages, wavers paragraph to paragraph between vaguely flirtatious lines (“I bet with a little effort and desire you could become one of my ‘best’ and ‘prompt’ pen-pals!!”) and fairly overt misogyny (references to “emotional scars” inflicted by women and a determination, on the advice of “religious and doctors,” to avoid close relationships with women).  The latter is ironic, given we “met” in the back pages of a Wonder Woman comic. The Virgin Mary appears to be the exception to this rule as he gives a vigorous defense of her in another paragraph. I must have compared her to other important biblical personages like Abraham and Moses, which in my pen-pal’s view, was a huge error.

Still more context: In 1983, my brand of Lutheran had been ordaining women for just over a decade and I was yet to meet a woman pastor. There were vestigial conversations around the biblical foundations for women’s ordinations and I was somewhat taken with the argument that the twelve disciples were all men. In my current situation, a member of an Episcopal congregation with a quite wonderful female rector, it’s painful to remember thinking like this, but I did. For that reason, I was probably much less alarmed by my pen-pal’s misogyny then than I would be now.

Another interesting paragraph in this fourth letter was that he answers my question about his age with an attempt at a joke. He first states that he was born in 1073 B.C. with subsequent jokes about the difficulties of keeping up with language through the centuries. Then he finally gives me an apparently true statement in the form of a math problem. He states he was 36 in 1973, when he first entered college. Despite his earlier question about my age hang-ups, it seems pretty clear who had them.

I may have passively decided to let this correspondence go, I don’t remember, but the next letter I have from him is undated but postmarked May 18, 1983. He opens with: “Guess I’m on your shit list because I prefer not to write to or be involved with women? If I’d been girl crazy, I’d never have written to you.”

What follows changes in tone from paragraph to paragraph, including asking what I thought of Marvel canceling Ghost Rider, a comic I never read and so I’m sure I never mentioned. He restates the loss of his mother back in December and the loss of an uncle in February. He mentions the weather in Portland—-steady rain for several weeks. There’s a tentative plan to move back east with a plan to stop in Texas to see me, “ . . . but I don’t think you can handle having a man love you! So I won’t!” He closes with a request for an explanation as to why I put him on my “shit-list.” It’s short, only a page and a half, handwritten.

The next week, he sent another letter, undated but postmarked May 25. Again, he asks why I’m angry with him. What was I afraid of? From there, he writes this brief paragraph:

If you’ve never had sex with another dude before how can you think, feel or say you don’t like it? Bet I could make you feel real good!!

I clearly remember being at home, sitting cross-legged on my bed, when I read those lines. I dropped the letter. It was something I think I may have anticipated, but was still not ready to read it. He quickly added that it wasn’t only sex that interested him about me, but the youth and intellect in the—I should state, very few—letters that I’d sent him. We hadn’t even exchanged photos.

I didn’t answer this letter immediately. It was confusing to me, perhaps titillating. I think I may have shown it to my two best friends at the time, but no one else. I did eventually talk with a high school Sunday school teacher I’d had, the fellow who sent me down the road of taking my faith “more seriously.” I told him about this pen-pal and his most recent letter and asked him for help in how I might respond. Again, I have no record of what I wrote, but I’m sure it was a listing of what we gay Christians now refer to as the “clobber passages,” the very few places where same-sex intercourse is mentioned in the Bible and, of course, condemned.

It seems I got that letter off to him sometime in July, because before he could get it, I had a seventh letter from him, postmarked July 22. In it, he again demands a reason for my not writing. “Surely you aren’t still thinking only females are worthwhile?” He talks about teenaged “whores” who are spreading venereal disease and having children with drug-related birth defects. He condemns the ERA again, for the rise in divorce and abortions, and for why men are out of work (“If women stayed home where they belonged . . .”).

He must have received my clobber-passage letter the day he sent the above, as the eighth and final letter from him is postmarked July 23. It is understandably full of defensiveness and hurt and not a little petulance. “OK! Judge me, condemn me and don’t write. I’ll manage to get by. I did for 44 years before I wrote to you in the first place.”

One brief paragraph rings true from both our points of view:

The only truth in your letter is: “I’m just not sure how to deal with this.” (referring to my being gay)

That was a main truth in his rebuttal, too.

It’s interesting to me that he never defends being gay. Being a good Roman Catholic, he never says being gay isn’t a sin, but does defends himself with “I still am a Christian, still a human being that sins like any other human being.” Now, 35 years later, I smile at the irony that he closes with the true statement that Jesus didn’t break bread with the perfect, but with sinners like him. I wonder if ever included his hypothetical teenaged “whores” at this table with Jesus or just the male sinners.

I don’t believe I ever answered this letter and I never received another from him. Reading them today is painful. I see in his letters a disconnected, unhappy, but risk-taking man who saw his only connections in pen-pals (he mentioned having others besides me—I wonder how those played out). Part of me feels badly for not being the prompt pen-pal he clearly expected. Part of me is worried for the other young men he contacted (he had said they were my age at the time and younger). I dislike my younger self for being so anti-gay and hurtful under the guise of Christian faith. I’m angry and sad about our mutual lack of self-awareness—his failure to see his expectations were his and not mine, my naiveté in seeing his more troubling attitudes as merely opinions. I was only 19, literally fresh off the farm and partially still there, but I wish I would have been better with him, know that I wasn’t equipped to be, and can’t quite completely let myself off the hook for not being so. His angry advice that “If you you don’t need pen-pals cease writing letters to comics” struck me as ridiculous and yet left me feeling complicit in all of it.

This exchange had definite impact on my own coming out. Being one of the few encounters with gay men that I’d ever had, his misogyny was huge in my coming to terms with my own sexuality. I didn’t want to become a woman-hating gay man. His dislike of women’s equality (“. . . if there’s to be two male roles in my home it might as well be two men!!”) made me worry that if I embraced my own “’homosexual tendencies,” I’d slip into similar attitudes. I’ve always had close friendships with women and didn’t want to risk those relationships.

Obviously, so much of these attitudes is nonsense and would be more laughable if not for . . . well, if not for all the above.

Out of curiosity, I did a web search for him. His name was unique enough that it was easy enough to find his obituary. He died in 2007. The scant information in the obituary lines up with the scant personal information in his letters. He was no longer in Oregon. He was Roman Catholic to the end and received a funeral mass. There is no “survived by” notice, only notice of family members that preceded him in death.

What would I do if he were alive? Probably nothing. He would be 80 now, and who knows what might have transpired in his life. Might he have had an unrecognized love? Or did he become more rigidly Roman Catholic and give up trying to love other men? I don’t think I want to find out, even if I could.

What I do know is that from nearly every angle, we failed. From the angle of feminist icon Wonder Woman, neither of us was fully embracing of women’s gifts to the world, reducing them to their gender and biological functions. The lesser degree to which I did that doesn’t absolve me of the ways I did. From the perspective of our shared Christian faith, we failed in communicating love, forgiveness, and grace.

At this point, I can only hope he experienced peace in his remaining years. I write this in search of my own.

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer, living in Houston, Texas. His writing has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, and general interest magazines. His novella, Cary and John, was published in 2014. He has recently turned to playwriting.

June 2, 2017
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