In his book, Ohio native writes about growing up Black and gay in the ‘60s
Dwayne Ratleff grew up Black during the turbulent Civil Rights era while trying to discover his gender identity and still survive an abusive stepfather.
“I realized on a fundamental level my country hated my guts,” he said. “Fundamentally, that's the truth. I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. I decided I was not going to hate me, too, and that empowered me so much.”
He explores that childhood in his combination memoir and novel, Dancing to the Lyrics, much of which takes place in his birthplace of Bellefontaine, Ohio.
“I have family in Delaware, Urbana, Cleveland, Columbus,” he said. Although today he lives in California, he said, “If it wasn't for COVID, I would be coming back for my family reunion… which we've had for the last 70 years.”
Although his immediate family moved to Baltimore when he was five, he still came back every summer to visit throughout the 1980s.
“It's so funny because -- despite being in all those other places -- [I still have] Midwestern values,” he said. “So much so that I actually married a fellow Midwesterner. It really never leaves you.”
Switching up gender roles
In the book, he recounts knowing from an early age that he was gay.
“I was actually pretty good at sports,” he said. “But when the boys wanted to play baseball, I said, ‘I'm gonna play with the girls.’ It was really kind of hard for people to pin me down. If I didn't like [something], I just switched up the gender roles and went where I wanted to. The sexual part of being gay didn't come into being until [my] teens.”
By that time, he had moved to Connecticut.
“I was one of a handful of Black kids, and nobody else I knew was gay,” he said. “So, I had no peers [and] no peer pressure. I didn't have a family that was telling me, ‘You had to be this or do this,’ I was free to be who I wanted.”
He says that was a contrast to Bellefontaine which “has a decent Black population, but I'm related to everyone,” he said. And it was also quite different from Baltimore, which was still unofficially segregated in the late 1960s.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on my mother's birthday,” he said. “I remember because we're watching TV, we had just turned off the lights so my mother can blow out the candles, and she blew out the candles and Walter Cronkite came on and announced that he had been shot. It was just so surreal.”
In the aftermath, Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew ordered schools closed. That’s all in the book, since Ratleff feels history has minimized how traumatic that experience was for kids at the time.
“I remember thousands and thousands of white soldiers coming to the city with bayonets,” he said. “You see things like that in Ukraine or other places, but the average suburban white American doesn't see that [here]. They came to our school and ordered us out.”
'Fahrenheit 451' today
Ratleff is already planning a podcast in the future and possibly a second book. He said simply finishing this book was an accomplishment given the challenges he’s faced in the years after the ones in Dancing to the Lyrics. He didn’t learn to read until he was 11, he’s lived with HIV for the past three decades and a car accident left him unable to type with more than one finger. When pondering whether the book could be banned for its LGBT theme, he said, “That's so sad because it says more about people banning books than it does about me. I mean, it's like [Fahrenheit 451], but without the fire.”
Unlike when he was growing up — when books with LGBT content were few and far between — Ratleff said today’s kids at least still have the internet to learn about sensitive topics.
“We're going through a dark time, but I think the Internet will be able to keep it going. I'm not trying to minimize [book banning], but there's workarounds. We shouldn't have to work around.”
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