Writer and filmmaker John Waters usually keeps it on the light side when he chats with his fans on Zoom.
But during a recent Q&A session with alumni and parents from a school he attended in Baltimore, one participant asked a question with serious overtones, and he gave a serious answer in return.
The question was: What can grade schools do today to “help and support” LGBTQ students?
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Waters, known for movies in which the adolescents often act more like adults than the adults do, and for famously confronting “Homer’s Phobia” on The Simpsons in 1997, didn’t hesitate.
“I always wonder, when I look back, how many kids turned out to be gay,” he said. “How to help them? Well, you just talk about it. You know, in school, to mention it. Because when I went there, it was never mentioned. You could never talk about it. It was impossible. It was illegal.”
Waters said today’s grade school students are much savvier about LGBTQ issues than students were in the 1950s, largely because of television.
“It’s such a different time,” he said. “The kids today, I think they see it on TV every day. There’s a gay character on every show possible, right? It used to be the love that dares not speak its name. Now it’s the love that can’t shut up.”
What a school can do, he said, is find ways to build on the conversations that students already are having outside the classroom.
“As a gay person, I always joke gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start,” he said. “So I think as long as it’s talked about, that’s the most important thing. That it’s not hidden. That it’s treated as if it’s normal. It’s like being blond. It’s being left-handed. I think you’re born that way. I don’t think that anybody chooses to be gay or straight. I don’t think they do.”
Waters said he’s done his own survey to find out if people are born gay or choose to be gay, by asking about gay people who suffer memory loss.
“People I know that work with Alzheimer’s patients, I always ask them: Do [the patients] ever forget they’re gay or straight? Never.“
Waters also said he believes kids today don’t put labels on people the way his generation did. He suggested they’re more open to what comes along and there aren’t just two teams the way his school had the Crickets and the Hoppers.
“Today with kids, gay or straight, they don’t even think there’s such a thing,” he said, starting to talk like a sixth-grader. “Well maybe if this one’s cute enough, or maybe if this one’s smart enough, I’m open. Today, it’s not like Crickets and Hoppers.”
The setting for this discussion was a fundraiser for Calvert School, a private school in Baltimore that Waters attended from grades one to six, from 1952 to 1958. The school usually has an in-person fundraiser called Night on the Town. But during the pandemic, when it couldn’t have a large gathering, it held a virtual fundraiser and asked Waters to be the guest speaker, answering questions about his life and career during an hour-long Q&A session for anyone who paid to watch.
Many were there primarily to support the school, hear about Waters’ experience as a student there, reminisce and maybe say hello if they were in his class or an extra in one of his productions. They weren’t necessarily diehard fans who know every line of his movies by heart (although they did have questions about Divine.) Waters said it brought back a lot of memories: “I feel like I’ve been sent to the principal’s office.”
In between tales about sleepovers, fingerpainting and Mr. Perry the gym teacher, there were more serious questions about adolescence and growing up “different.” Waters grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Lutherville, a suburb north of Baltimore, and was the first of four children.
“I was born six weeks too early,” he said, “so basically I was already causing trouble.”
Questioners seemed eager to hear about his own adolescence and how that influenced his books and movies. Waters obliged with a frank account of what it was like to go to school in an era before LGBTQ was part of the lexicon. He didn’t explicitly talk about being gay. But he did talk about being “different” and not liking sports the way other boys did.
“I must say it was hard for me, too, to be a kid, to be an adolescent,” he admitted. “Because your hormones are crazy like everything’s crazy. You make decisions in one day. You’re trying to be accepted but you don’t want this, you don’t want that. It is a very, very emotional time. It’s hell for most people.”
Waters said he always wondered about the kids who never seemed to have any worries.
“Anybody who got through their teens with no problem,” he said, “must be really dull. I always say the prom queen and the football star, the day they left high school, their life went down. The kids that got in trouble, they have the interesting lives later, a lot of them.”
Waters said he believes that much of the way kids turn out is a result of what their parents encouraged them to do and how they resolved their differences.
“You can’t order up your kids and you can’t order up your parents,” he said. “If you still hate your parents at 50, something’s wrong. Get over it. Everybody’s dealt a hand. It’s not fair. There’s no such thing as karma. It is not fair. But once you realize that, you have to accept it for what it is.”
His advice for parents is to make the most of what you have.
“I always tell parents, OK, so your daughter tattooed her whole face. Maybe she’ll open a tattoo parlor in Paris. You have to work with what you’ve got.”
Ultimately, he said, he doesn’t believe anyone is beyond redemption.
“I don’t give up on people. I think there’s a reason why everybody acts the way they do, no matter how screwed up it is. But you don’t get to use that forever. At a certain point, you’ve got to take responsibility. This is what you’ve got. This is what’s inside you. Deal with it in some way.”
In the end, Waters credits his parents for trying to understand him and not giving up on him.
“My parents didn’t keep me locked in a box under the bed,” he said. “If they had, I probably would be a lot more screwed up. And I get why people are.”
He said he knows his parents were “mortified” and “humiliated” by his early films. “But they gave me the freedom to do them.”