Most people have an idea of what a color guard is -- those people who dance around the football field spinning flags, rifles, and sabers alongside the marching band. But ask the average person to tell you what a winter guard is and expect to receive a confused look in reply. At its roots, a winter guard is a color guard that performs a program set to prerecorded music indoors and competes against other groups doing the same during the winter months of the year. But winter guard isn't just a group of people spinning equipment under the fluorescent lights of a gymnasium for an average of five minutes. In truth, it's something much, much more.
Growing up in the tractor-plowed fields of California's Central Valley meant I was rarely exposed to the arts as a young boy. In fact, aside from the few hours of MTV I secretly watched each day after school before my strict Pentecostal Christian parents came home from work, the performing arts were an alien activity. In our small town, boys played sports, watched wrestling on Saturday mornings, and dreamed of driving monster trucks. They didn't spend hours at a time in the library reading books, idolize Debbie Gibson, or obsess over Jem and the Holograms, as I did. And they absolutely never, ever, under any circumstances, danced.
So when I watched the high school color guard perform its winter program in front of my eighth-grade class for the first time during an assembly, a whole new world opened up before my eyes. I stared in awe as both boys and girls, who were dressed in dramatic costumes, appeared to float effortlessly across the floor. Flags rippled through the air in perfect synchronization while Heaven and Hell by Vangelis blared over the gym speakers above. By the time their performance ended I was absolutely giddy with the knowledge that groups like this not only existed, but that one could be found at the very high school I would be attending. There was no question -- I absolutely had to join.
However, it was only after making the final cut at the audition that summer that I learned the winter guard spent the fall months as the color guard, performing parades and field shows alongside the marching band. By September of my freshman year I found myself in a blue spandex jumpsuit topped with gold sequins, dodging spitballs and homophobic slurs hurled by the crowd as I performed with my flag-spinning teammates at football games. It was embarrassing. Not because of the finger-pointing and name-calling that seemed to come from every teenager within a 20-mile radius each time I slipped into to my costume, but because I had witnessed the creative marvel a winter guard could be -- and this was not that.
It was only two months later, after the leaves surrounding the high school stadium had turned from green to a mosaic of yellow, orange, and brown, that I discovered the true heart of a color guard. As we came out to perform our field show for the final time that season, one of the football players from our own school broke our carefully maintained ranks, grabbed my left arm, and snarled, "Are you a fag?"
"Leave me alone!" I shouted, trying my best to press forward, but the meathead only tightened his grip.
Suddenly a flag swung into my field of view, connecting with the side of the aggressive athlete's helmeted head. I turned to see my friend and teammate Emily, who was holding the other end of the pole. "So what if he is," she growled. "We have a show to perform and you haven't won a game all season." As we continued marching onto the field she shouted over her shoulder, "Worry about yourself, asshole!" while the football player stared on in stunned silence. By the time the band began to play, tears had started to fall from my eyes. Not because I was bothered by the jock -- as an effeminate boy, I had dealt with more than my fair share of bullies since the earliest days of grade school -- but because Emily's comment marked the first time I'd heard someone treat my sexuality as a nonissue. Though I had accepted the fact I was gay by the time I was 12 years old, I'd never told another person. Never thought anyone would accept that part of me. Until that point, homosexuality was something I was taught to despise, something people burned in hell for, not something others rushed to defend with the blunt end of a flagpole.
Later that night I came out to Emily, and I laughed when she simply responded with, "I know - and that's awesome." In the months that followed we left the football field behind to compete on the winter guard floor, and I soon began to discover my own athletic ability -- something I was convinced I could never possess after I spent a year playing on a youth soccer team when I was 10 years old. I may not have been able to dribble a ball with skill, but I could leap, turn, and spin a mean rifle, and that instilled a sense of confidence in me I'd never known. Winter guard provided a safe space throughout my high school years where I was not only accepted by my peers for who I was, I was allowed to grow and become a vital part of something bigger than myself.
After graduation, it was my guard instructors Robert and Nicole who encouraged me to audition for the Blue Devils, an Independent World Class winter guard that competed at the highest levels of the activity. It was there I was able to meet and form friendships with gay men my age for the first time, many of whom I remain close with today. Over the three years I spent as a member of the Blue Devils, we accomplished many things I never dreamed I would be a part of. We traveled across the country, performed in front of crowds made up of thousands of cheering fans, and won three consecutive World Championship titles.
Many of the people I bonded with through my experience of spinning flags, rifles, and sabers have been far more than friends throughout my life -- they have been my family. They were the ones who took me in at 19 when my father kicked me out of the house after I came out to him. They were the ones who encouraged me when I decided to return to college at 30 to earn my writing degree, and they are always among the first to congratulate me for even the smallest accomplishments.
Though I haven't performed in a winter guard since 1997, it continues to enrich my life today. For more than 15 years I've remained involved in the activity as an instructor and show designer, where my color guard family has grown to include many wonderful people who were once my students. I've learned there's no substitute for the joy that comes from being a part of that moment when a young person achieves something they once believed impossible. I've also had the honor of seeing hundreds of kids over the years blossom into beautiful young adults, capable of tackling any challenge life throws at them because they were given an outlet that allowed them to shine. But of course I know firsthand the lifelong impact a loving, accepting environment can have on a teenager. It started the day my first instructors taught me how to spin a flag -- and it hasn't stopped yet.
JASE PEEPLES is The Advocate's entertainment editor and the director of the Homestead High School color guard in Cupertino, CA. He lives in San Francisco with his partner. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples