In these potentially darker days ahead … let’s have some fun, okay? It’s time to dance.
It’s very Summer of 1979 for me when I hear this album, but I’ll try to convey it in a way that I don’t think you’ve ever experienced before. And I’ll tell you why Madleen Kane’s album of that year meant so much to me.
Madleen Kane wasn’t the best singer in the world. She was no Streisand, that’s for sure. But then again, who is? Olivia Newton-John was making waves vocally, too. Madleen was a super-model who turned to music and found a niche for herself in the heady last days of the Disco era.
I’ve always been one of those queer boys who has been immersed in music from an early age. Any kind of music, really. My mother made sure of that. I heard it all. Classical (especially Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Schubert), Country (Freddy Fender, Loretta Lynn, John Denver, and Lynn Anderson), but mostly I was immersed in Broadway, Disco and R&B. I found a particular fondness for ANY music that told stories. Concept albums of the 70s and early 80s were king with me. Disco albums, oddly enough, had them in droves. In my world they took me places that my young queer boy heart needed to go.
During summer vacations, where the morning heat was already a blistering 89 degrees at six AM, I’d make my way from the coolness of my full sized water bed (yeah, you read that one right) to the music room to sing and dance for hours … often eight or nine of them STRAIGHT. Non-stop. I didn’t go outside to play with other kids — what the fuck did they have to contribute to my world? I’d go into our sauna of a music room, close the swinging door dad had up as measly protection from my disco onslaught, and slap on the headphones from early morning. Within an hour I was up on my feet, playing the music out of the speakers (a little softly at first – until the 9 o’clock hour hit, then all bets were off) and started dancing up a storm.
And it was all imaginary – in that near stifling music room of my parent’s house – sealed off from the rest of the world that didn’t understand how to connect with a gay boy.
When I discovered Madleen Kane’s classic Cheri I was beyond elated. It played on the only disco radio station we had in San Diego – K105 FM.
That album was a gayboy’s dream. The first song on the track was Forbidden Love. I knew what she was singing about. The collection of songs on the first side of the album are all tied to one another. They are of longing for that love that you can’t have. This album played through the headphones and speakers so many times that year (and for many years to come) that I know every subtle nuance in the orchestrations. And the arrangements mattered. The strings, horns and were beyond the trash you found on AM radio of the day. Kane’s words were a bold expression of how love should triumph over all. The gentle piano chords during Cheri coming out of the first musical break after the chorus had special choreography all on their own. That subtle chord progression explained the risk queers had in seeking love. I had it all planned out.
Hey, I was fourteen. As a lonely gayboy I needed this shit in the worst way. All of my straight friends were pairing up, I had no one. I had me my disco queens and those women put those words before me. I dreamt of Dancing Kings and wanted to make out with sexy young Princes. These women sang about things that I dare not even say to myself. Forbidden Love became my anthem. It’s the song I carry with me to this day.
My fifteenth birthday was right around the corner. Along with another candle on my cake and my voice finally cracking, I descended along into the last sweltering days of my summer vacation of 1979 and my freshman year of high school. Dark days of HIV/AIDS were ahead for me a few years down the road. But in that moment, I didn’t know. I just wanted to escape, dance and proclaim to a world of my own making how much these words of forbidden love and secret love affairs meant. Everything to me at that point in my life was secretive.
With John Rechy and Gordon Merrick – along with Andrew Holleran, Paul Monette, Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer and the others in my back pack – all wrapped up in book covers made out of paper bags so no one knew what I was reading, I escaped into stories of men who fell in love with other men – the way I wanted to. Their words, paired with these ladies, collectively, they gave me permission to express myself. These weren’t just some random words or notes on a page, some song that a singer sang – they were my heart, sweat and blood I felt coming back to me, pouring out of each and every track or page in a book. These ladies voices of love, seared into my mind and heart and married up with the salacious and soul searching words of men, authors, I admired that filled my teen years. Together they formed the man I was going to become. They never knew it. That wasn’t the point, really. It’s what I needed. It’s what mattered.
From that earliest time when I begged my grandmother to buy me my very first record – a 45rpm of Diana Ross’ Do You Know Where You’re Going To? (a rather prophetic choice, no?) I knew that music would be a heavy influence in my life. It would connect an often disconnected world for me. In them I could escape into what I couldn’t find for myself in the world I saw around me.
I was too young to get into the clubs in San Diego. Those days were still about four years off for me – underage queer clubs were just starting to pop up.
For the time being, I was just starting to get my groove on. Fashion was starting to become important. How I expressed myself really became important – even when I got slapped down for it (disco wear didn’t go down well in my high school – let’s just leave it at that).
But for now, here are a few of the ladies who gave me that sense of expression, they allowed me to soar, encouraged me to revel in who I was becoming. Never to fear who I was, nor to be ashamed of it. It wasn’t always so easy. Many a night I’d spend listening and dancing to them over and over again, if anything to bolster me up to face another hellish day of high school. By the time I was eighteen I’d had a few summer jobs and my music library had already expanded to well over 300 albums, 12″ disco singles and remixes. It was the beginnings of my DJ days that would dominate my life through the 1980s. So here they are – with the undeniable Queen of them all at the top (samples with BUY LINKS in artist name):
Until next time …
– SA C
So, a little Grandma time.
Since the earliest time I can remember, my grandmother was an integral part of my upbringing. Her influence colors what I do to this day some fifty years later. Growing up half-Latino, I was immersed in the culture from my first breath. For Latinos, or as I like to identify now – given my queer life – Latinx, family is everything. So much so, that your decisions in life are sometimes guided by (and even hampered by) what the family will think. Doesn’t mean you don’t buck the system, you just have to be a bit more clever about doing it.
As I said a few posts ago, my mother and father both worked day jobs. So from a very early age my maternal grandmother (and my mother’s sister, mi tia) held enormous influence over my younger years. That’s not to say it wasn’t filled with love and laughter – for there was plenty of that. Being the first grandchild, I was practically inundated with gifts, love and pride. Just the fact I was healthy and breathing seemed to be the only requirement for me to retain that lofty family status. The favorite. Only because I had the luck of the draw to be the first.
My brother (and sister, to a degree) both felt the weight of my being the favorite. I acknowledge that now, but at the time I did everything I could to deny it – even when I knew it to be true.
We had some very quirky things that were customary in our family. Traits that I don’t think many other families had. For instance, it was absolute sacrilege in my family that if Spanish Rice graced the dinner table, there was a complete order to how it was served, if you bucked the system there were repercussions. This came home to roost when my tia invited her then boyfriend, who sadly became her fiancé later – for the man was a compete idiot – and her boyfriend reached over to serve himself a helping of the rice from somewhere in the middle of the dish and the entire family froze on the spot. Conversations ceased, and all eyes moved to my grandmother, who as the grand matriarch of the family, we all gauged how she – and by extension, we – should react. She held up a hand and calmly said, “It’s alright. He doesn’t know.” Why that sticks with me to this day and why I still follow how to serve Spanish Rice in my own home is rather bizarre. But I still do it, confident that if I don’t she’d come from the spirit world and give me a whack across my hands.
It seems like a simple thing. You have a dish to serve at dinner, why not just scoop some up onto your plate, right? Turns out, not so much.
But nothing with our family was quite that simple. Many things were like that.
I’ll give you another: there was a room in my grandmother’s house that had ornate furniture – completely covered in plastic – which was so prevalent at that time, but here’s the thing: we weren’t allowed to go into that room whenever we were at her house. It struck me as rather odd because it was like having a fully decorated room in the house but couldn’t ever enjoy it. And it’s not like we were rich or something. In fact, having a “museum” like room only pointed out the fact that we were rather poor. The lesson to be learned here? Have something nice? You lock it away and don’t let anyone come near it. The only time we ever used the room was during Christmas. In those early childhood years we alternated between everyone coming over to my parents house and going to my grandparents house. It was a very special treat to go there and to sit in the forbidden room.
I never understood that forbidden room as a child until many years later when traveling down the road my grandmother used to take we kids down from my parent’s home in Spring Valley, to her house closer to downtown San Diego. I was on that road with my mother many years later who told me a story about a house very near to a busy traffic corner where we had stopped, waiting for our signal to continue. Oddly enough, we’d been discussing that museum room in her parent’s house the day before where I expressed my confusion over its existence.
“Did you ever wonder why your grandmother had that room in perfect condition? And why you kids were never allowed to go into it?”
Of course I jumped at the chance to hear why that room existed. It was a huge mystery in my childhood.
“Well, sure.” I added, hoping that I’d get some really deep, dark family secret. Ya know, like a body was buried underneath. Something really fucking scary to explain the step one toe in that room and you’ll pull back a stump feeling about it.
“It goes back to a girl that your grandmother went to school with. Her family had money. Your grandmother’s didn’t. But they put on airs that they did. Anyway, your grandma was very envious of this girl. From what I know, the girl didn’t rub your grandmother’s face in it. But because they had it, and it showed in the way they lived, your grandmother coveted that sort of lifestyle and expression of money. Not having it was hard on your grandma.”
I turned to look over my shoulder at the house half a block back from the corner we were sitting at waiting for the light to change. “So, what’s that house have to do with it?”
“That’s where the girl grew up and got married and ended up living. Your grandmother was very jealous of her.”
“Why? It’s not like they were best friends or anything.”
“Because your grandmother had always been like that – obsessed with money and power. It’s why that room is the way it is. If she couldn’t have an entire house like that she would have a room that would say how she wanted others to think of her.”
While I finally had an answer, It made me even more confused on what to do with that information. You have to understand that this revelation from my mother was years after my grandmother’s death. So it wasn’t like I could go ask her for her side of the story. Though, thinking on it now, I am not too sure she would’ve admitted it to me. Yet, I had more than enough examples where I’d experienced my grandmother’s obsession with exerting power and influence – she did it to my grandfather all of his life. She was a very formidable woman. A woman who loved the crap out of me, but also could be equally vicious if she was ever crossed. I was smart enough not to do that so for the most part that pointed barb of hers never was pointed my direction. But I’d seen her do it to others.
From her I learned perception is everything, even above family. Yet, from my mother I learned that you can never control perceptions from others – “…at best, all you can do is mitigate it. You can never control what they think of you.”
Got it – perceptions can be mitigated, but never controlled. A very valuable life lesson.
It’s why I am obsessed with writing about perceptions. They color everything you do, whether you want to acknowledge their presence or not. They are your guiding force. Growing up in a family obsessed with perceptions went a long way to forming the man I’ve become. Comng from the lower end of the middle class, perceptions ruled my entire world. It was also one of the reasons why my mother didn’t want Spanish spoken in the house. She didn’t want her children to deal with having an accent. It was her way of mitigating those very perceptions that could hold us back. So English was the dominant language. So much so, we practically became Anglophiles in the process.
But it wasn’t all about control, power and perceptions. There was a whole lot of love, laughter and amazing food along the way.
From my grandmother I learned my love of Mexican food and cooking. Family recipes and the love she poured into them now flavor what I make for my own family. From her I learned that you didn’t need precious measuring spoons or cups. “God gave you everything you need right here,” she’d tell me holding a cupped hand out in my direction. The message was clear: I’d learn to measure as she had, learning what a tablespoon, teaspoon and such looked like in my own hand. It was a long process, but one that I embraced because I wanted it to taste as good as hers did.
At least I didn’t have to learn how to roll the perfect tortilla in three rolls of the pin. My mother learned how to do it that way from her grandmother. If she failed to roll that perfect tortilla by the third roll, she got a rather hard whack on her hand for her “lack of effort” in getting it done. So I counted my blessings that no whacking of the hands happened with my learning how to cook. Refried beans from scratch? Yeah, I did that. Fideo, lord almighty, her fideo was legendary, with my mother’s coming a close second. but I learned that too. Chili Reinos, Spanish Rice, Albondigas, Pozole, Menudo, all of it. From her, more than anyone, my latinx heritage was secured. The latin women of my family ensured my love of my culture. The food, family life, ritual and traditions of our race. Viva la raza and all of that. I have to admit, I didn’t always feel it. Probably the queer kid in me taking root. And it’s a tricky thing for me to embrace wholly even now. I still struggle with it. Mostly because there is still so much of my heritage that stands against who I am. It’s a tough road to walk.
Yet, the food. The food is what brings me back. Every time I have Albondigas, I don’t just think of family, I feel them course through me, their memories and love flavoring the soup with each successive spoonful.
Being the first grandchild, I got to enjoy things my brother and sister didn’t. I get that. I feel a tad guilty for it, but it wasn’t anything I did other than being born first. So one such guilty pleasure was something rather silly but meant the world to a three year old boy: I had a specially crafted seat in my grandparents 1962 Cadillac.
Okay, it wasn’t a special seat made just for me. It was actually a double-wide arm rest but my little butt fit onto it and could nestle myself in the indent where the armrest could be stowed when not in use. So I sort of made it my own seat. Now, this was years before the whole click it or ticket sort of thing. We lived on the edge. Kids riding carefree in the back of pickup trucks with no seat belts, nothing to keep their butts on the bed of the truck. Hell, there were times my brother, sister and I would stand up in the back of my dad’s old Ford pickup, gripping the wrought iron frame he had in the back helping us stay in the damned truck.
My brother and sister probably resented the fact that I was the favorite. No, thinking on it now, there is no probably about it. They definitely did. My grandmother made no bones about it. She came from an era where that happened and no one questioned it. My parents, on the other hand, weren’t so accepting of that sort of tradition. As much as my grandmother was obsessed with perceptions about the family, my father was equally obsessed with each of his children being treated fairly. It had become so lopsided that my parents had a rather large fight with my grandparents that they had to treat the three of their children equally or they wouldn’t see any of us at all.
My mother said that it broke my grandmother’s heart to be given that ultimatum, but it was necessary so that my brother and sister wouldn’t grow up to hate me. I got that and was thankful for my parents having the courage and foresight to nip that one in the bud. The thing is, I don’t know that they were all that successful in detecting when she did favor me. Because I can recall many times she did long after being given that edict from my parents. All it did was serve to drive it underground. She was just more clever on how she gave me a bit more than my brother or sister. On some level I knew it still went on. But I was a kid. You bet your ass I took whatever extra came my way. I’m not proud of that now, it’s just how it played out.
But anyway, back to my custom built seat. The Caddy was a huge influence on me. Later on I’d realize that it, too, was an expression of my grandmother wanting to appear rich when we were anything but. But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was, as a young boy, I had a small throne for the little prince to ride around in. From that I got that a little favoritism went a long way to building confidence. In those early years i felt like I could do anything. I had a confidence that when my grandmother told me I was special and I could do anything, I felt like I really could.
That didn’t last all the way through my childhood. But in those early years, it mattered. And that wasn’t because they stopped believing in me as I grew older. It was just that, as my queer self started to blossom, I realized just how removed I was from all of them. That’s where the self-doubt and hiding from them all began.
Yet, those few years in that Caddy, that specially designed seat my grandmother had made just for me, meant the world. I still can’t see one of those bullet shaped taillights on that car and not feel a bit whimsical for my youth. I’d probably trade a year off my life to be a young boy in that “special seat” one more time.
This last part doesn’t have to do with my grandmother so much as it does the influence she had on our lives.
I’m talking about the years I don’t remember quite as well that haunt my thoughts to this day. These are the earliest years of my life that I’d like to watch like a fly on the wall. Years when I was told that everything that had to do with me as a young boy were celebrated to the nth degree. In the Latin culture, boys are celebrated at birth, girls are lamented. This is because, for my people, boys rule and our lives are generally lived unfettered by “you can’t or you shouldn’t” – where that’s all the girls hear. For girls born into Latin families, their lives are seen as hard and unforgiving. To a great degree, though our family did its level best to keep things as an even playing field. my sister did deal with harsher realities than me. It’s one of the reasons to this day that I admire her so. In that adversity both within the culture and within the family, she found a way to prosper. I am sure she had to work nearly twice as hard as I did. I was there for her in every way I could think of, but I also know how much easier I had it by being born male. I am all too aware of the male privilege that I enjoy. Times are changing, but it didn’t escape my sight that my sister had a much harder time of it. But like those strong women of my Latinx family, my sister gave me probably the greatest gift of all – to never give up despite what life throws at you. Her perseverance in life feeds my own.
Love ya, sis. I think even Grandma would be proud of how we turned out.
Until next time …
There’s been much talk as of late in the blogosphere with queers commenting on when they realized “they knew” … when their bright shiny unicorn buried deep inside of them decided to make itself known.
The funny thing is I think I knew from a very early age. My parents had a lot to deal with when I came along. I was their first, and I was as precocious as all fuck, too. I was speaking full sentences by the age of two. Language came easily to me. By the time I was in the third grade I was testing out with a college level vocabulary.
I mean, how many kids did you know that used facetious in a sentence … (CORRECTLY) while on the playground?! My inner unicorn was LOUD n’ PROUD before there was such a thing. Okay, maybe Stonewall had happened by then. But in my little backwater east county suburb of a conservative Navy town like San Diego, there were no two ways about it – I was odd.
BIG ol’ rainbow shooting out my ass Unicorn odd.
Mom said my dad always knew about me – even before I was born. Now, mind you, this was before they used the term gay, so this had to be a fairly odd conversation to have between my uber Catholic mother and my reservation born n’ bred father. But somehow they got through it.
So I have often pondered, when the subject came up, just when I knew I was that way.
While I don’t think I thought of boys sexually from the time I was six or seven, I knew that boys held a certain fascination for me. I didn’t want to run around and rough house play like they did. No, I wanted to let them do that and then come back to the play house the girls were using so I could make them dinner and stuff. I like taking care of guys – always have. But not mother them … it wasn’t like that. At least not the way I saw it.
So while I can certainly point to moments in my young queer boy life that said I was solidly in the boy-of-the-month card carrying fan club, it didn’t take on any sexual context until puberty hit. Until then it was just very strong feelings I had for the boys around me. Girls were someone you could talk to and connect emotionally about stuff. That was about the extent of my need or use for them. Nice to chat with, laugh with, watch boys with, but beyond that they got a big ol’ shrug out of me. And let’s be honest, they were the competition as far as I was concerned.
But boy howdy did I gush about some of the boys in my school. Vincent, Gregory, Bobby (yes, that Bobby who I grew up with and I’ve written about here on the Quill before), Bob (another Robert in my life – there were many of them – it was a popular name, I guess). There were so many of them over the years. Neil … Jesus, on the fucking mountain … Neil! Junior high crush of the fucking year! And the dude was packing – jussayin. You bet your ass I looked. Okay, I’ll put that memory away for now. It’s probably better for this post that I do.
So yeah, I can definitely say that I knew I was different from other boys (who were interested in girls) from a very early age.
I can recall that as a five year old my gayness factor skyrocketed (even if I didn’t really have a word for it) when I saw Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. I don’t know why the first line she uttered began to define my fey ways, but it did. Barbra became a goddess to me – even back then. Hell, she still is now. Even as cliche as that sounds.
So when did the sexuality of it all come about? When did I realize that what I wanted from boys could be more than gushy feelings? When did I realize that what I felt was … gay?
That’s simple. I know exactly when it happened.
At around 5:30pm on the Merv Griffin Show and the guest? Donna Summer.
The song? Love to Love You, Baby
It was 1976 and I was twelve. But for a gayboy like me to hear a song that unabashedly sexual in nature sorta reset my queer clock. For some reason the moans Donna poured into that song flipped that switch in me and I knew what those sounds she was making were about. I wouldn’t experience them for myself for another four years but – from her lips to my ears – I got it.
Thus began my love for dance music, Donna Summer (I was an epically huge fan – even met her on a couple of occasions) and my burgeoning gayness.
Side note: yeah, I remember the backlash against her when she supposedly said about gays and the bible. We all make mistakes and the truth of it is I saw for myself that she wasn’t that way. She spent enormous amounts of time speaking with gay men who still loved her but were dealing with HIV/AIDS and it was quite obvious that they were dealing with it. Donna only showed incredible compassion and love for a fan who it meant a great deal that they got to speak with her. So to the gays who kicked her unnecessarily during those dark days, I saw differently for myself. End of story.
I was often asked by straight guys (including my own father) I knew who were aware of my gay ways, why did I have such a fascination for women vocalists and dance (disco, soul, R&B, etc) music when most of them were listening to male rock singers?
Well the dance music thing was fairly simple – being a QoC (Queer of Color) – my Latino blood pretty much dictated that dancing was in the cards for me. I probably came out of my mother’s womb dancing. Soul, R&B, disco, you name it … they were always a part of the musical tapestry in our home. Everyone in my family knew how to dance. I just did it with greater style – or so I was often told.
But the women singer thing … that’s a bit harder for me to nail. I suppose because I never really gave it any thought. I guess it was because they often sang about the men in their lives and those songs spoke to me. When France Joli (a lovely Canadian singer who I discovered that was around my age and had a career at the age of 15 just blew my socks off – God, how I love her) sang “Come To Me” I was right there with her. So much so, that when I wrote my first novel I made damned sure my main character Elliot Donahey heard her song when the love of his life, Marco Sforza, seduces him (in Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot).
These women sang about things that had started to make themselves known to a young gayboy like me. How my feelings for men – often unrequited – only served to make me yearn for them even more.
By the time I was twelve I already had a very large vinyl collection of disco, soul and R&B singers. And yeah, 98% of them were women. Sex sold, and as a hormonally flushed teenage boy, I was an avid buyer. These women gave me my young gayboy voice in those early formative years.
Don’t even bring up the duet between Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer in the Spring of 1979 … I lost my shit over that song for weeks. So much so that by the fourth or fifth week of my playing No More Tears (Enough is Enough) my mother pretty much said the same thing – “Enough already … play something else!” (The link below is a VERY RARE capture of the actual recording session where you can hear all of the harmonies between all of the singers – sans the music – truly an interesting version to listen to).
So, instead of playing something else, as she suggested, I just put the headphones on and danced my ever-loving gayboy ass off.
Yet there was one album that defined how I saw romance as a gayboy. Again, it was Donna Summer who gave it to me: her seminal album, Once Upon A Time …
This concept album (which were all the rage in the late seventies and early eighties) is still on my absolute must haves. It had everything and said everything to me. I know that album backwards and forwards and every little nuance buried in between.
This album is everything to me. It was written by Donna Summer and her production team as a theater piece. There were talks along the way in her career of bringing it to the stage as a play. It would definitely work. While there are definitely dance numbers in this work, the scope of the songs is very broad. Some of the most interesting ballads I’ve ever heard exist on this album. For a young 13 year old this album wasn’t an easy sell for my parents. It was a double-length LP to begin with – which meant that it was EXPENSIVE. Nearly $20. In the late 1970s that was truly asking quite a lot. I had to bust my ass with chores around the house to scrounge up the cash. Lucky for me my birthday came along half way to my goal so I put it out there to anyone in my family who listened (and you can bet your ass I made DAMNED sure they heard me) that all I wanted was THAT ALBUM.
My parents came through for me. I got the album and disappeared from family life for the better part of that summer listening to it. We had a music room in our house and I’d go in there from the time I got up each morning and I’d dance, sing and strut my shit to this album as if I were on Broadway. Eating didn’t even enter my thoughts when I had that album on. I’d start in the morning and by the time I was ready for a breather it was dinner time. My mom always said that room would be steaming up like a sauna.
“Open some damned windows …”
I visualized the whole damned thing. I even invented a story I could weave to tie the songs together. No other album ignited my imagination (back then, or since) than that album. The music slightly dated in that late 1970s way (it was released in 1977) but I think they still hold up today. I hope that Donna’s daughter, Mimi, can realize this collection of songs on the stage at some point.
What I didn’t realize until now (as I write this post), is that this album also sparked my interest in storytelling. My interest in crafting a story around this concept album started it all. That is truly astounding that I didn’t put it together until now, nearly forty years later!
So maybe this whole gay thing was just my way to find my voice. My big gay unicorn voice. And somehow these bold women helped me sort that out when I was just so confused on why I felt what I was feeling. Boys rocked my world. They also were my worst nightmares. Music, escaping into that land of dance and song, is what kept me going. It’s where I licked wounds. It’s where I dreamt of boys to come, imagined love, lamented breakups that hadn’t happened yet but I knew would be coming my way. It’s where I crushed hard, where I sang and danced my ever loving ass off. So yeah, Love to Love You, Baby is where it began for me. That’s when my fascination with boys became real. It’s when it all started to make sense. And that feeling is what kept me dancing.
Even now, I catch myself dancing to a tune from that era … and that little gayboy me still is in there wiggling away – still hopeful, still wanting to find his way in Boytown, USA. Last Dance hasn’t been called. I still got plenty moves in me yet. Dance on, lil gay unicorn, dance on.
Age: 18 to Present
Year(s): 1982 to Present
Location: San Diego, CA USA
“Who me? Why, I’m Josie Nero, and this is my half-sistah, Miss Wilhelmina Wilhamont. She will, but I won’t.”
Let me start off by saying that this entry is pure fluff.
But meaningful fluff in every way that it can be, if there can be such a thing. Because this series of posts deals with one of the dearest and most amazing man I know. My love for him knows no bounds. Mostly, because he and I have explored life’s many places, both good and horribly bad, over the years. To hear him tell it:
“You plopped yourself down next to me at the gay part of Balboa Park (lovingly called the “Fruit Loop”), introduced yourself, and haven’t shut up for the next ## years.”
Those hashtags/pound symbols are part of the gag. You see, I am not allowed to say how long we’ve known each other. Because a true lady never reveals her age. And Miss Nero is nothing if she isn’t a lady, first and foremost.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, Josie Nero and Wilhelmina Wilhamont are our showgirl (drag) personas. Yeah I did a bit of drag back in the day. But Jeffrey was a pro at it. I was complete amateur by comparison. We even invented our complete drag persona lives with those names (we’re gay, we sort of have to do the complete fleshing out of these women’s lives or we’d have to turn in our toaster ovens and gay cards).
Josie was a star of stage and screen. She was cut from the same mold as Judy Garland (Jeffrey’s all time favorite), with a bit of classic Doris Day, and Cyd Charisse thrown into the mix. Willy, on the other hand, was the product of an illicit affair of Josie’s father with a chorus girl from uptown in Harlem. But thankfully, Willy was light skinned enough that she could pass. Josie and Willy went everywhere together. Josie was a respectable, extravagant lady. While Willy was the hard partier. Hence, the “she will, but I won’t” part of the opening quote.
You see, Jeffrey was a classically trained ballet dancer, an accomplished tap dancer, and can belt out the classic American songbook better than most of those old Hollywood types. He even knows the really obscure songs. He could act brilliantly on the stage, too. He was beyond the triple threat. I’ve always admired his talent.
And c’mon, It was the eighties. Queer boys finally had license to wear makeup thanks to Boy George and Adam Ant. And boy howdy, did we ever take advantage of that.
You see, Jeffrey came into my life precisely when I needed him most. I was 18 and he was 15 going on 16 (but with a maturity far beyond my years). From that time, he has always been my rock. He’s been my one constant. We have an ebb and flow between us that is completely undeniable. He is my life long bestie, the person I’ve told my deepest fears to, the one who knows how to emotively cut me faster than anyone alive. As I am sure I do him. We’ve never withheld from each other because we’ve built a trust to speak plainly and not judge. Well, not too much, at any rate.
Ever seen the movie Beaches?
With Barbara Hershey as the respectable lady, and Bette Midler as the brassy and ballsy one? That’s Jeffrey and me in a nutshell. The scene I play below is the best example of how deep our friendship goes. Because we know each other almost better than we know ourselves. We saw this movie together (which I’ll get to later on) when it came out. We bawled like a muthafucker during this film. A chick flick, and two queer boys. What’re the odds that it’d hit home? While the scene I’ve included below is caustic, it completely laid out before Jeffrey and me just how deep we had already dived into each other’s lives by that point.
But I’m racing ahead. For a bit of fluff, this one is a bit harder to nail down.
Perhaps it is because of the enormity of what Jeffrey and I have shared over the years. Some thought early on that when we would go clubbing (as we invariably always arrived together) that we were together. But Jesus in the nine levels of hell, that would NEVER work. Not that I don’t love him, because I do. And I trust him. Still do. Over the many years (that I am restricted from sharing, but feel free to do the math yourself) we have known each other, we have had any number of years where we lived in different parts of the country, not spoken a word to each other for months at a time but when we reconnect, it is as if the conversation never ended. Do you have one of those friends? A friend that you happened upon in some odd, random way and the universe put something together that was permanent from the moment it started. Maybe even before. Destiny and all that rot. It’s kinda like that.
And I am not being flowery. But you’d have to understand Jeffrey (and by extension, me).
When we met, we didn’t have any mutual friends. At this point in time, I had just started to go to Studio 9 (an underage gay nightclub near the gay part of town). I made a few friends but was still feeling my way in this new big gay world.
I’ve written a tiny bit about this before, but when I found out about Studio 9 via the San Diego Update (a freebie gay paper I found at the F Street Bookstore – don’t let the name fool ya, it was a porn shop), I knew I had to go. It was the summer after I’d graduated from high school. I was an East County boy, out in the big city. Okay, San Diego is a series of bunched up suburbs that run smack up against San Diego downtown proper – so it’s not like I was some country bumpkin.
I remember that night, I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t even know anyone gay. I mean, I did, back in high school – well, sorta. They weren’t open and out, but I had my suspicions. But they weren’t there on that night. It was just me. By myself. Alone. Standing across the six-lane street (yeah it was a REALLY wide street) watching kids my age going in and out of the club. They were all dressed rather trendy for that time – 1982. New Romance was just starting to make itself known. Culture Club hadn’t hit yet. So androgyny was just starting to make thread its way into mainstream culture. But the kids across that wide street from me, they were really embracing all of that. And there I was. I think I had dark brown corduroy pants, some rather plain button down shirt, a Members Only jacket and some penny loafers – with pennies in them – my dad told me about that part. I was a rube. Nothing short of it. And worse yet, I knew it.
I never went in that first night. I never worked up the courage. But Studio was open every day except Mondays. So, it being a Thursday night, I decided I would push myself and go inside the next night. And if things went well, then I’d go the full weekend. Well, that first night I was there things were lopsided. Very Batman (the vintage Adam West version) villain lair sort of lopsided. Everything was askew for me. I didn’t feel like I had an equal footing. The kids there all seemed to act like they knew one another. I didn’t know anyone. So I ordered a Diet Coke and sort of hung out along one side of the dance floor on a chrome bar stool and just boy watched. It was all so new to me. But the longer I stayed, the more comfortable I became. Mostly because I knew I was in a safe place. There was a muscular bouncer at the door. But he was sweet to talk to. And I had to remind myself that all those boys were just like me. I was home.
I don’t really recall if it was that first night I saw Jeffrey or not. I think it was. My aunt (who had more gay friends than you could count) had told me that the gays liked to congregate at the Fruit Loop by day, cruise, check each other out, get together (what the kids call hooking up now), and whatever. Then at night the kids would hit Studio 9 and the older guys would hit any of the other bars around the downtown area. What I do remember is that Jeffrey was there, and he caught my interest from the moment I saw him. But not in a boyfriend sort of way. He is extremely good looking. I’ve always thought so. But I was rather taken with how he carried himself, how he knew precisely what to wear, how to act, how to chat people up – all of it. There was a magic to him that I wanted to be a part of. I saw that everyone he hung around with laughed an awful lot. I knew he was my link to everything gay.
I needed that link. I needed it desperately.
So I boy watched for the rest of the night. I didn’t dance with anyone, I was too intimidated to do that. Not that I couldn’t dance. I’m half-Latino – it’s sorta in our genes. We come out of our mother’s wombs dancing. I did make a new friend by the name of Robert. He was a latino boy like me, so we sort of connected on that level. He also said he was going to the park the next day. He asked me if I wanted to meet him there. I was beyond elated. But I tried to play it cool, even though inside I was screaming like a teenage girl going to her favorite rock concert and scoring backstage passes! I had a way in. Things were starting to click. We said our goodnights and I remember watching everyone head down to the local Denny’s that was just down the hill from where the club was. But I was tired. I decided to head home and get a good night’s sleep. It wouldn’t take me long to learn that the wind down from the club at Denny’s into the wee-hours of the morning was part of the ritual. That was Jeffrey, too.
The next day, I called in sick to work – I was working for a gift store in a new mall. I really didn’t care if I got fired because going to the park was far more important. I was building my queer boy social life. I had priorities. As a matter of record, I didn’t get fired. They were actually going to release me anyway because things were rather slow that day. So a win-win. I stopped at a deli half-way from my parents house in East County, and, with lunch in hand, I made my way to Balboa Park. The map below gives you a small idea of what that part of the park is like. (You enter on the lower half of that loop and proceed from left to right and circle back around along the top of that map below. Though, in reality, the elevation is reversed. The part you entered of the loop was higher ground than the return trip along the other part of that road.
Personally, on a side note, I love that since the queers took over this section of the park, San Diego Pride has held Pride there for nearly forty years. Seeing how I met one of the most important people in my life there, I kinda love that it’s still our turf.
So I parked somewhere along the loop, got out and spied Jeffrey (I didn’t know his name then) sitting with the same crew he was at the club with the previous night. But I was in luck. Because my friend Robert seemed to know some of the people that Jeffrey knew. He waved at me when he saw me walk up. So I sort of meandered over there like it was all happenstance, when it was nothing of the kind. I’d like to say my nerves didn’t show, but I think they did. In a big old epic way.
I sat down, very near where Jeffrey sat. Ever the gentleman, because Jeffrey is all about doing the polite, right thing, he introduced himself. And true to form, that was all I needed. I pretty much didn’t shut up the rest of the afternoon. Fucking verbal diarrhea, I am sure. But somehow I got them to laugh, to accept me. Eventually, as the afternoon wound down, the topic of going to the club that night came up, he turned to me and asked if I was going. I said yes and he said we should all meet up there that night.
It had begun. I was in for the best damned adventure my young gayboy life was about to begin. I had me a magical friend. Someone who I admired. We talked about so much that afternoon. He kids me about it, but there was an instant connection. Well, at least from me. Funny, how we’ve never really talked about that. It just was, and is.
But we’re just getting started here. And there are just so many stories to tell. But I know which one I’ll impart first. And it colors everything – the first time Jeffrey met my family. No amount of talking could prepare him for that.
Stay tuned … I’ll continue this over the next several nights because this post is a long one, but essential in how I became the man I am today. Jeffrey plays a very vital role in all of that.
Until next time …
Year: 1978 and 1979
Age: 15 and 16
Location: Monte Vista High School – Spring Valley, CA (suburb of San Diego County), USA
This was a hard one to post. It won’t be filled with tons of pictures or graphics. I don’t know that it will be very long. But it is important.
Queer boys are belittled, abused, assaulted (verbally and often, physically) and shamed by our straight (if myopic and fearful) counterparts as we go through those four long years of hell known as high school.
I am not sure what it was like for lesbians. I knew some dykes in my teen years at Monte Vista. Some of them were way butcher than I was. One I even had a crush on until I found out that he was actually a she. Blew my young gayboy concept of attraction right out of the water. She went by Mal but I found out a few days after my very first drama class (in my freshman year) that it was short for Molly. M-O instead of M-A as I’d assumed when I heard it. I just thought it was some random queer guy who had a very distinctive name. She had the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen to that point in my life. And she was a very cool person to talk to. Very, very level-headed. I wasn’t as close to her as I would’ve liked, but she was always fair and very open with me. I admired that.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that as a young queer boy in school, I learned very quickly that I needed to shore up my reactions to things. I needed to keep my head down, eyes to the ground and not be ostentatious about anything. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Drama and Choir were safe havens for a gayboy. The arts in general were safe ground to be different, no matter what that meant. We were creative people. We got that life moved beyond the binary. Well, that was more speaking from my drama class than it ever was from choir. Choir was run by a Mormon Elder from the church right next door to the high school.
Drama, on the other hand, was where you could let your hair down; you could be whoever the fuck you were. My fantasy boyfriend, Tim, and his clique were there. I loved being in that room. Some of the coolest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet came from that room. We’re scattered to the winds now, but it was uber cool when it was in play back then.
I got along. I did the best I could not to be noticed – even if I was the gay kid who liked disco when punk and new wave were the rising thing in everyone’s mind. My freshman year was enlightening. For the most part I avoided being bullied too much. I learned to stick to either the drama or choir rooms on breaks. Roaming about in the halls or sitting out in the large quad between the gymnasium and the lunch room wasn’t always the best thing for a boy like me. Funny thing was, choir was right next to the lunch lines so you had to navigate rough waters to get to your safe haven island. That was until I learned that there was a back door to the choir room that would completely sidestep running the jock-laden lunch line gauntlet.
I was a quick study. I had to be to survive.
But I got through my freshman year. I got to watch some really brilliant kids in their senior year step up and be absolutely brilliant on stage in our little drama plays. Our drama class was taught by a man who had the distinction of being in Ben Hur with Charleton Heston. He’s one of the charioteers in the big race – he’s highlighted for all of like three seconds of film but still he was in it and I was in his class.
That was sort of cool. His daughter went to our school and she was magnificently talented – she reminded me of Stockard Channing or Elizabeth McGovern, both in stature and in the way she could carry a role to absolute perfection. She was kind, too. I remember that about her. She was very kind and extremely giving whenever I shared the stage with her. It occurred to me that it never cost her anything in her performance. That was my take away from being in that class with her. It’s something I carry to this day: cheering others on in the arts takes nothing away from what you do. I got that from Reagan (pronounced REE-gan not like the President). Regan was epic and so fucking cool.
I remember being so impressed with her father. He related a story to us that stuck with me to this very day. He said as an actor your job is to listen and assimilate everything about you. You needed to soak it all up. He then told us a story that happened to him while he was in the restroom at some fancy hotel in downtown San Diego.
“I was in there doing my business when the door to the stall next to me banged open startling me. The guy ambled in and I could hear him literally slump onto the toilet. I couldn’t tell if he bothered to unzip or pull his pants down or anything because he was mumbling to himself, ‘I can’t believe it’s over.’ Then he began to sob. Words would pop out of his mouth, words of lost love, of absolute devastation like I’d never heard from other man before. I began to imagine some sort of row that happened in the restaurant between him and his wife or girlfriend. He went on about how they’d have to part and divide everything. He spent a great deal of time lamenting that he probably wasn’t going to get the family dog. He was devastated. I was enthralled. Here was the complete desolation of someone’s life and I knew I needed to absorb what he was going through because it was something that was raw and deeply felt. I allowed myself to imagine the conversation that led to this moment in his life when he said something that completely turned my world upside-down. He said, ‘I just don’t know what I’ll do without my beloved Hank. Oh, Hank, why’d you have to leave me?’ I was floored. It never occurred to me that he was a gay man. His voice, his mannerisms, from what I could hear, led me to believe he was a strapping guy and it was a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend sort of thing. That twist, that simple revelation taught me more about the human condition than any acting class I’d ever taken – and I’d been with the masters: Strasberg, all of them, you name it. But Hank’s ex-boyfriend upended them all. That’s what this class is about. Revelation. Exposing the very inside of you to find the human truth.”
Big words, and a very powerful story to impart in my freshman year.
As I said, I’ve carried that with me to this very day. I build my characters in my stories with that very concept in mind. I love character studies. It is the subtle nuances of who they are that are often the most powerful.
So, when did I become a dick, and who is Richard in all of this, right?
I’m coming to it.
Richard was, by all accounts, a very queer boy. He was taller than most – which didn’t help him blend in. He wore clothes that were at least five years behind everyone else. He had a very large, dramatic looking nose. I think back on it now and I sort of liked that about him. He had a style that was odd, and his dramatic, very Jewish features were captivating in their own way. He wore a dark corduroy jacket with dark leather lapels and large buttons no matter the weather. It could be 98 degrees outside and he would wear that damned jacket. His hair was moppish, dark brown, curly and slightly greasy. None of this helped so he could blend in. To be honest, he did nothing but stick out, in all the wrong possible ways.
He tried to be friends with me. He even took choir one semester so he could get to know other kids who were “more open” and “accepting” – sad fact of the matter was, no one was as open as all that. And I don’t think it was anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head. No one I knew of pointed to him and said Jew or Kike. To be honest, I don’t think any sort of that talk ever surfaced throughout most of my years in high school. In fact, there was only one heated debate that raged about religion but that was an isolated incident involving the choir singing at the benediction of the outgoing senior class. And that was the only time that religion became a topic of debate. So I don’t think anti-Semitism played a factor. I know it wasn’t for me.
What was a factor? That he couldn’t blend in more. He was an odd boy. A nice boy, but odd. I tried to connect with him; I did. But even for a queer boy like me surrounded by other odd kids – the outliers – Richard was further left of field than all of us put together. He was in another galaxy far, far away. And not a cool one like those of the Star Wars saga – which was all the rage at that time.
And here’s the thing, I knew I was awful to him sometimes. I knew I said things that were hurtful and not very nice. I hated myself the moment I said them, and even apologized numerous times afterwards. But I suppose hurtful things, apologized too many times, only pointed out how insincere my apologies really were since I hadn’t evolved to stop doing or saying these things to him.
The part I didn’t want to face? The part that was all on me but I couldn’t admit it? He was queer with a capital Q. In BIG BOLD LETTERS with light bulbs flashing and radio announcers relaying every faggoty move he made. He was like me. Only I did my best to hide it, to blend in. He didn’t. He got a lot of shit for it, too. I shoulda been there for him. I regret that more than I can ever say. It’s one of the reasons I champion queer and outlier kids now. Richard is the reason I fight for queer youth and I am so passionate about helping them.
I spied Richard getting bullied by a group of jocks one afternoon. He saw me watching from the far side of the large courtyard. He knew I saw him getting picked on. I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t say anything. I just moved on and did my damnedest to forget it.
He didn’t come back after that day. I think his parents pulled him out of our school and sent him somewhere else. I remember being so angry with myself for not saying anything, for not going to get someone who could help if I was too afraid to step up to the plate and help him. I never got to apologize when it mattered most. He was gone. He never came back. I don’t even know how badly he was picked on that afternoon. They could’ve fucked him up good. It was that bad.
I don’t know if he’s still around. So much happened with the AIDS and HIV stuff in the 80s and 90s. I don’t know if he felt so bullied that he did something drastic. I’d like to think he was strong enough to rise up and become something great and fulfilling. That’s my hope for him, at least. I knew he was uber smart, and actually had a very dry wit. Oddly enough, he taught me the value of wit under duress. He gave me that. What did I ever give him? Hope and my absolute shame that I was never the friend and ally he wanted in school.
I often say I was supported by my friends and family as I came into my own queer/bent ways. But I always felt disconnected because they had a life I didn’t get to have. I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school. I didn’t date. None of that happened until I actually left high school. What would’ve had hurt if I had opened up to Richard? I might’ve made a lifelong friend. I might’ve gotten to really know one of the coolest guys on the planet.
But I chickened out.
I was the dick.
After he left, I vowed I wouldn’t do that again. That thinking often got me into some very uncomfortable situations, but Richard’s look, those eyes as he was fearful of what those jocks were going to do to him still haunt me to this day. Queer kids abandoned by their family and friends, forced to live on the streets, by their wits, often trading their bodies and pieces of their souls just to get by, it’s Richard’s eyes that say that to me. It’s what’s behind a lot of what I am writing. In many, many ways, I am still atoning for abandoning him when he probably needed a friend most.
I thought of looking him up. I searched his name on the internet. Oddly enough there is a guy who lives here in San Francisco (where I live) who has the same name, is around my age and looks quite a bit like I remember him (only older). I don’t know if it’s him. I fantasize it is. He seems happy in the pictures I’ve spied on Facebook and other social media. But there is some part of me that says – maybe it’s not him. Maybe he never made it this far. And that cuts. I still emotively bleed from that.
It’s not my proudest moment. It’s actually one of my more painful ones.
In this way, it is the mea culpa of all mea culpas of my life:
I’m sorry, Richard, that I wasn’t the friend you deserved. I am sorry that I wasn’t strong enough for both of us. I knew you were like me. I knew you were, deep down, so fucking amazing and I was just scared. I wanted to hide, to blend in, but you were fierce and fearless. You didn’t care what others thought. Well, you played it that way. But being queer myself, I knew what those eyes were telling me all along.
And they motivate me now to write the things I do. Much of what I do, of what my characters go through comes from that singular moment when I chose poorly.
It is a regret I will take with me when I leave this planet. It is a price I wish I could repay a thousand times over.
Hugs to you, wherever you are. And hey, if it turns out you are that guy in SF, maybe I’ll have that chance to say all of these things to you in person. I’d like to think I am strong enough for that. Time will tell. Until then, I’ll wait, and watch and see if I can determine if you are him or not. It’d be a lot to throw at someone who wasn’t who I thought he was, so I want to be sure.
Until next time,