Back in my youth, when people still wore buttons declaring their political and sociological allegiances, I had a pin that read, “How Dare You Assume I’m Heterosexual!” Whenever I wore it, my friend Ian would peer at it and declare, in his best Bette Davis voice, “As if for a minute anyone would!”
Perhaps that why every time National Coming Out Day rolls around, and we recognize the importance of reminding family and friends that they shouldn’t treat straight as the default orientation, I always think of Marijane Meaker’s brilliant and hilarious 1972 novel, Shockproof Sydney Skate.
In Shockproof Sydney Skate, the eponymous character is a 17-year-old boy who loves to read, to chase girls, and to spy on his mother, M.E. Shepley Skate. Like many only children, he keeps things to himself—including the fact that he knows his mother is a lesbian. As the novel begins, Sydney is listening to his mother’s telephone conversation, and as usual, she is speaking in a code that he broke when he was 8 years old.
Carl was Corita of Judy and Corita, if the discussion was about Judy and Corita. But if the discussion was about Judy and Judy’s drinking, Judy could become Judd, as in the sentence, “I had a hell of a time getting Judd out of the Running Footman last night.”
George was Gloria of Gloria and Liz, but Liz could easily become Lew if they weren’t talking about Gloria and were discussing Liz’s old affair with the wife of a famous politician.
Edie was Eddie of Eddie and Leonard.
Mary was Martin of Martin and Ralph.
Vickie was Victor of Victor and Paul.
But if it were Eddie, Martin or Victor talking, Leonard, Ralph and Paul could quickly become Laura, Ruth and Pauline.
Of course, Shep uses the code to protect her son from concepts beyond his ken—she thinks he’s intelligent but not sophisticated—but she’s also responding to ambient homophobia. She’s a successful casting director at a large ad agency who travels in sophisticated circles, but she still finds her gender-switching code necessary at the office. And although her pockets and handbags are always full of matchbooks from the glamorous restaurants and bars she frequents, she takes great care to hide the matches she picks up at Stay, a lesbian bar.
Over the course of the summer before he heads off to college, Sydney falls for Alison Gray, the Bryn Mawr girl his mother is also courting, an awkward situation. In this novel, though, it leads to a breakthrough for Skate family relations: Sydney finally lets his mother know that he understands what’s going on, and Shep drops her code. In other words, they stop lying to each other, the key to the coming-out process.
Shockproof Sydney Skate and Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, a memoir of her relationship with writer Patricia Highsmith, are the only hard-copy books currently in print that bear Marijane Meaker’s name, but she wrote dozens under pseudonyms, including lesbian pulps as Vin Packer and young-adult novels as M.E. Kerr. It seems fitting that this funny, touching book about setting aside polite pretense and acknowledging the truth about complicated relationships should have her real name on the cover.