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In Russellville, Alabama during the early 1970s, the worst thing a kid could call another kid was “Jerry Moody.” As in, “Stop acting like a Jerry Moody.” Or, “Joey Manley is a Jerry Moody.” We didn’t know what it meant. We didn’t even realize, at first, that it was somebody’s name. “Jerrymoody,” all one word, was just a bad thing to be. Mood Rings came out about that time, and one of the colors they could turn was “Moody.” You wanted to avoid that color at all costs.

Later, I learned that what people meant when they said “Jerry Moody” was: queer.

Jerry Moody, in addition to being a curse word, was also an actual human being, about twenty years older than me. I only saw the real Jerry Moody once, walking his mother (I think) home from the library. He didn’t look at me. He looked at the ground. He held her arm.

I spoke to my own mom about him on my recent visit home. We had pulled out her old yearbook to find a photograph of Gustav Hasford (another famous outcast from mom’s generation in Russellville, albeit for completely different reasons) and, turning a random page, there he was: a geeky, scrawny kid with dark, thick glasses.

Under his photo: Jerry Moody.

For a kid of my generation, of my neighborhood, that’s like seeing a picture of somebody with the word “Faggot” under it. Seriously. His name was my first introduction to the very concept.

“How did people find out he was gay?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if he was,” she said.

She told me that she had, weirdly enough, had a conversation with my cousin Shirley about Jerry Moody. Shirley, the oldest daughter of my mom’s oldest sister, is only three years younger than my mom, and has always seemed more like an Aunt to me than a cousin. “Kids used to throw rocks at him,” Shirley said. “When I think about that, it tears me up. He had a terrible life.”

I don’t know if Jerry Moody was really gay. I don’t know if he’s still alive. I don’t know how his name came to mean what it did. But I do know that I am one of him. I knew it the first time somebody called me it. Maybe because our initials were the same. Maybe because I just sensed that it meant: doesn’t belong here. And I knew that I didn’t belong there. (Note: I feel less strongly anti-Russellville, the farther it recedes into my past). I do know that, like Shirley told my mom, he had a terrible life — and you know what else I know? I know that I didn’t.

I expect that it is because people like him came before me (he didn’t leave, he didn’t kill himself, he walked his mother home from the library — these things are actually heroic, when you think about what he was up against) that I was able to live my life relatively peacefully, in Russellville, and then other places. He gave a name to what I was, and bore the brunt of that — whether he wanted to, or not.

Thank you, Jerry Moody, wherever you are, whatever you were.