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 …
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.
[embedplusvideo height=”637″ width=”810″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1UcZw64″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/bDHWvnNRv_U?fs=1&vq=hd720″ vars=”ytid=bDHWvnNRv_U&width=810&height=637&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=1&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=¬es=” id=”ep5306″ /]
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,
Years: 1972, 78, 81, 82 and 84.
Ages: 8, 13, 17, 18, 20.
Place: San Diego, CA USA
I’m gay. I’ve never made bones about it. I remember being fascinated by boys from a very early age. Didn’t know what that meant back then, but yeah, big queer boy me. Boys like Vincent, Gregory, Raymond, Neil (sweet holy Jesus, NEIL – I crushed HARD on that boy) as well as others in my class and at school.
After my year of kindergarten at Highlands, I was able to be relocated from the first grade on at La Presa Elementary which was directly across Jamacha Boulevard from our house (Jamacha, if you’ll recall from my previous posts, is the main four lane thoroughfare that ran perpendicular to our street – the one where people drove 50 mph down that street and kids would still dash across it to short-cut not having to walk an extra couple of blocks further to an actual traffic signal cross-walk). Youth being eight bags of stupid and all.
Anyway, my life at La Presa was a mixed bag. For the most part, I loved going there. The teachers I had were all amazing in their own way – even Mr. Tibbitts in my sixth grade year who had his growly bear (read: brown) suit that when he wore it we were on notice not to fuck with him that day ’cause he was in a baaaaaaaad mood. But yeah, for the most part my years at that school were fairly golden.
I had friends. Well, kids I got along with. I wouldn’t say we were “friends” in the strictest sense. More like agreeable playmates. Because even then I was singled out as being different. I was not only bright and delighted in making my thoughts known (even back then I didn’t hide my opinions) and loved to demonstrate my mental prowess with the teachers and class, but I was always, always, always trying to be nice to everyone. It wasn’t easy. Somehow I broke a rule for boys that I never knew existed. I dunno, maybe I missed a boyhood meeting and that memo never made it to my house with a great big ol’ “where the fuck were you? we had some serious shit to discuss …” attached to it?
Anyway, my über smartypants ways didn’t win me any big awards with the guys at my school. I was an insufferable know-it-all, I suppose. But I think most gayboys are. It’s our defense mechanism that is trying desperately to kick in and somehow send a big ol’ signal that you better not fuck with us. When all it does is say please, fuck with us. [You can insert your eye roll here – ’cause it’s what I’m doing.]
I was also artistic in every sense of the word. I knew every song from all the classic Broadway musicals – like The Sound of Music (I was a snob about it, too – only the Julie Andrews version. Mary Martin’s singing drove me up the fucking wall – even at six or seven). I just couldn’t handle Ms. Martin’s constant sliding into every damned note she sang. It wasn’t a style, it was a sloppy way of singing, is what it was.
But I knew how to sing them all (King and I, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, and My Fair Lady, you name it – I had them ALL memorized).
I got to demonstrate this early on in life when in the third grade, Mrs. Sowers, who I thought was a dead ringer for Barbra Streisand (and she could play the piano REALLY well – an added bonus for a burgeoning gayboy like me!), would have music time and I sang my ever-loving-heart out. I knew passages to songs that no kid in their right mind would ever know. Sore thumb doesn’t begin to describe it. I was a boy soprano of the highest order. Right up there in that vocal register that Julie loved to sing. Lord, it’s a good thing I hadn’t heard Queen of the Night by Mozart at that stage or I’d’ve driven my family bonkers. I could easily assail into that whistle register that some boy sopranos had in spades. I was right there with them. And I sure as hell knew how to use it.
Anyway, Mrs. Sowers loved that I was a precocious little singer and didn’t mind in the least to lead the class on Do-Re-Mi and even sang the introduction that Julie sings before the part everyone else knows so well …
Yeah, the kids hated my ass whenever we got to that song. Me? I loved it. I got to be Julie for fuck sake! I had SUCH a boy crush for Christopher Plummer as the Captain. Still do. I watch that movie for him, don’tcha know. The songs are the icing on the cake (and yeah, even to this day I can’t watch the damned movie without singing along). But when the Captain is on the tube, yowsah – I am on full-on crush mode.
Damn, he is a fuck stud of a man. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe him.
See what I mean?
Anyway, the overriding point I am trying to make here was that my queerness was set from a very early part of my young gayboy life. I didn’t run from it. I embraced it – once I knew what “it” was.
So where do the girls come into this? And how did they cloud the issue? First off, let me clarify something here that I think is very noteworthy: sexuality is a very sticky wicket (yeah, I went there with the double entendre), in that even when you know who and what you are, there are always exceptions. Recently both Ricky Martin and Jussie Smollett, both self identifying gay men, said that they were definitively gay but wouldn’t rule out a relationship (sexual or otherwise) with a woman. That’s were the queer factor kicks in for we gayboys. Now, admittedly, not every gay boy feels this way.
I’ve had small conversations and FB exchanges with an established gay porn star (and prolific business man), Antonio BIaggi (if you don’t know who he is I recommend you look him up – ’cause uh, yeah, yowsah doesn’t begin to cover him). I’ve followed him on Facebook and follow his twitter and blogs. He’s not only a prolific gay porn star, but he’s a great human being and a champion of animal rights. But even he, a self-identifying gay man in a sex oriented business (he recently branched out into fashion), recently posted he went to a straight strip club and found one of the girls there hotter than shit and he said he’d entertain “doing her.” So see? Not so cut and dry.
The point I am trying to make is that even when you self-identify as something, the lines are often blurred on where gay ends and something else begins. Not for every queer boy, but yeah, it happens. And that’s where I was – er, uh, am. It still is.
That was me in my early queer kid years. Girls, especially tomboy girls, confused the hell out of me. I had two such friends/playmates I’d hang around with at recess: Norma and Silvia. Both were definitely girls in that they didn’t have short hair cuts (they both had long hair – Norma’s was dishwater blond and Silvia’s was a very curly dark brown). They were nice to me and we got along. Oddly enough, they both came from a very strict household and generally wasn’t allowed to see or go over to other school friends houses once school was over. That didn’t mean I didn’t break that rule with them at their parent’s house, we just had to be clever about it – doing so before they came home from work.
Norma wasn’t overly pretty – in fact you might say she was rather non-descript. She had straight eyebrows (literally, they had NO arch to them at all), they were slightly bushy (this was before Brooke Shields made it a thing with Blue Lagoon), and she wore clothes that had been in fashion at least a few years before. Never anything current. I remember when she first came to our school in the third grade she wore a simple dress that definitely had a thrift store look about it that was a drab brown with four pockets on it – each pocket had a word embroidered on it – Handy, Candy, Daddy, Mommy. The kids teased her mercilessly by singing a made up song – “Handy Candy Daddy, Handy Candy Mommy” – I am sure she hated it. She never wore the damned thing again after that day.
Anyway, Norma (and Silvia) were sort of havens of safety for me. I could hang out with them at school and eventually I would go over to their houses and, by the sixth and seventh grades, I’d go there and just do stuff.
But here’s where the other part eked its way into my queer world. Both girls kind of got me excited. And by excited I meant in that way that young boys get excited about being alone around girls. I admit it. I wanted to fuck them both. I’d seen Playboy by this time, I wasn’t so off the fucking mark I didn’t know what went where and why. But here’s the deal that took me a while to sort it: looking back I can see that they both were very boyish in their body types. Neither girl were buxom in the remotest sense. They had very boyish looking bodies. Norma was the friskiest of the two – Silvia was far more prudish as she was a Latina from a very strict Catholic family. I was raised Catholic, too, so I got that. Silvia also had four older brothers that I did NOT want to tangle with. So I kept things cool there. Didn’t mean I didn’t want it, though.
But Norma, yeah, for some odd reason she turned my crank. I’d heard from other guys that she was already having sex. She was thirteen at this point. Her father was a piece of work and her mother was a vicious bitch so I can see where that aggression to do something was probably eating away at her to stick it to her parents. Sex, I guess, was a good way to go. We messed around a bit. She seemed to like me – god only knows why, it was pretty clear I wasn’t into girls in that way. Every kid who knew me sort of knew it. Yet, there I was, with a girl, and we were – close.
To be honest, I don’t think it meant anything to her. Not really. She was already frisky with boys at that point. I think I was just another boy for her to flip the bird to her parents (she got pregnant fairly early in life, too). But she wasn’t the only one.
I even had a girlfriend in high school for about a week (okay, it was a bit longer, but, my point being: it was brief). She was a lovely Italian girl whose entire multi-generational family lived within a one mile radius of her house. Talk about intense. The first time I went to her house they were all there. Yeah, no pressure. Thank God my parents brought me up with some solid good manners. I liked Carolina. I truly did. I just didn’t know how to tell her that my head and heart wasn’t into her sort of plumbing. It was a very awkward time for me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We went to a school dance together – Sadie Hawkins. The pictures are somewhere at my parent’s house and she gifted me with a silver bracelet that was engraved. Jesus, no pressure there, either.
My sister had a friend in high school (this was in my senior year and my sister was a freshman) whose name was Stacy. Stacy was hot for me – again, why, I have no idea – because at this point I was definitely GAY with big bright letters and flashing light bulbs and feathers and sequins. Hell, at that point I was going out to under-aged queer clubs.
She fascinated me. I couldn’t sort it. Why me? I was obviously gay. Now, mind you, this was at the height of the eighties New Romance movement. I was already gender bending it with guyliner and makeup. Boy George, Peter Burns and Adam Ant were my fashion gods. Maybe that was it. She was into my shit because I was already out and proud and had makeup to prove it. Nothing came of it. But it did garner my attention.
So fast-forward it a bit and there was a girl at the nightclub I went to – Studio 9 – that was a definite gay club. Boys would show up there clutching their girlfriends hands so tightly while the rest of us gayboys were placing bets how many days of coming to the club that he’d ditch the bitch and be sucking face with some other boy. It happened – A LOT …
Well, Rebecca was into me in a big way. I liked her. She was extremely pretty and very fun to be around. She’d often snake up to me, we’d dance off and on. She was close. She was cock blocking me with other boys, that’s for sure. I don’t know how or why but one night we decided to go driving around for a bit of a break. I think it was to get some booze because she had a fake ID. She was 20 and I was 18. She had dark blue-black hair that was cut in that Vidal Sassoon cut that was all the rage for girls in that era. She was glam, had a strong fashion sense, and was very forward with her sexuality. Somehow I found that alluring. Anyway, she suggested that we go get something for the gang to drink and I said I’d go with her. In truth, she wanted to have sex. We ended up in the queer section of Balboa Park in downtown San Diego (an area that was a long one-way loop that the fags and dykes called “the fruit loop”). It was a big cruising spot for gay men (and dykes hung out there, too, during the day) to hook up and have sex either in the bushes or in the lone bathroom at the far end of the loop.
Somehow we managed to drive there and park. We made out. She was very aggressive. It sort of turned me on. I don’t know if it was because we were in the gay part of the park and there I was making out with a girl or not, but we never did the actual deed. A lot of heavy petting and foreplay (rubbing through clothes and such) and yeah the windows got steamier than fuck. But no real shit happened. It wasn’t like I didn’t want it. I was bone hard through it all and she was definitely into my junk.
I can’t deny it, she turned my crank. But it didn’t happen. I think I broke it off. She giggled, we kissed some more and then went and got the booze and hooked up with our friends to party the night away in the parking lot behind the nightclub. She stuck by me most of the night. Then she never went back again. I never saw her. I knew she was close to turning 21 so maybe she just gave up the underage thing and moved on. I don’t know. I never told anyone about it. I never have even mentioned it in passing to either of my long term partners (my boyfriend of 10 years or my current husband of 20). This is the first time I’ve put it out there in the universe. But yeah, girls do sometimes eke into a gayboy’s life and muck things up.
The odd thing about it all? Back when I was sixteen and I read the Peter and Charlie series by Gordon Merrick, he introduced a woman into Peter and Charlie’s romance and made it a threesome (there was even a child in the mix later on in the series and both queer men had fucked her that night (Charlie’s perverted idea and he made his boyfriend Peter do it so they wouldn’t know whose kid it really was (the story was set in the early part of the 1900’s when it was not possible to test for paternity)). Anyway, I remember becoming so incensed when Charlie did that to Peter – forced him to have sex with her (he got Peter all hot and bothered and then had him fuck her to climax) that I kept inwardly screaming NO, NO, NO! I hated that she was involved in their lives. I was distraught because it was telling me that via Charlie’s POV that they could ONLY be a happy queer couple if they did the straight thing between Charlie and this woman he’d brought into their lives. To this day I can’t even write or say her name because those emotions were so strong back then that I still get pent up about it.
Funny thing, that, right? I mean, given everything else I’ve put down here.
Yet I find it a bit odd that sex is one thing for me, love is another. You can have both at the same time and it’s fucking fan-tab-u-lous, but I can definitely separate the two (something I’ll address in another post later on in this series). Sex and love are exchangeable and transferable in my world. I don’t require both to get it on. I have it within me to fuck someone or someones (which has happened on multiple occasions – again, for another posting) and not have it mean anything other than the pure hedonistic pleasure of it all.
Anyway, each time I was with a girl after I read that in the Charlie and Peter series – some part of me would think of that woman in those stories fucking up their perfect gay romance that I would put the skids on whatever girl had crossed paths with me. Odd how literature can affect you like that, isn’t it? Books have always done that for me. While I love film (and television), books still rule my world. I’ve always been a lover of words. They were my first boyfriend, really. As a pre-teen, there were moments where sex was definitely eking its way into my world.
Sex and sexuality isn’t so cut and dry. I don’t self-identify as bi or pan. Not that I have anything wrong with those identifications. I just know the only person I could love has to be a man. It’s just deeply entrenched in who I am. But, like Ricky, Jussie and Antonio, I know that there are exceptions to those rules where sex is involved. I rail at the whole “gay for you” trope (even if I have my own story about that – which I’ll detail in another post). But I’ve come close to the opposite, too. There were girls in my past that I could say, with a slight nod to it being fleeting and probably wouldn’t stick in the long run – that I could “go straight for you.”
I watch porn. I watch it regularly. I get off on it. I make no bones about that, either. No shame in it from my perspective. I interact with porn stars from time to time as well. It’s a part of my queer life (hell, it’s no surprise when I say men in general are drawn to porn – I think we’re wired to be very visually stimulated). Testosterone is a very potent thing. I even watch and get off on straight and bisexual porn and have found it very stimulating. Trans porn, too – though that’s a bit harder to find. I am not so rigid where sex is concerned. But love? Now that’s another matter altogether.
But I’ll save that for another time.
Year: Summer of 1980
Place: San Diego, California
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
– Lewis Carroll
Talking was big in my family. We could never complain that we didn’t communicate. We did. And sometimes at volumes that would shake the rafters, too. So when I first heard this poem by Carroll, it said something to me. The desperate things listed in that stanza sort of represented the randomness of talks that went on in my house.
My childhood was a mixed bag of good and bad, not too far removed, I suspect, from most kids my age. My coming out was a slow meandering process. Oh, there was a moment when I said the words, “I’m gay. I like boys.” I even said it to my father, no less. But you’d have to understand my family. We were not the usual, everyday, hum-drum average Americana family.
And by meandering I mean it took me a long time to get to where I said those words. But it wasn’t like I’d kept it secret, either. Like I wasn’t dropping clues along the way. I mean, even I could see where I was heading. And, to be absolutely clear, it wasn’t from some deep-seated fear that my parents would lose their shit over my saying so, either. My parents were beyond cool and supportive, so much so that our house was the de-facto “Kool-Aid™” house (that’s a reference that perhaps only peeps my age might get, and just the Americans, at that). It meant that every kid in the neighborhood was at your place. We were that house.
And the parents of our friends were just fine with my parents watching over us all. To be clear, it was a gaggle of kids, up to twenty or so at a given time. Not just one or two (though that sometimes happened, too). My parents ran the house with a firm hand that every child has the right to express themselves – and in safety, too. No judgments, other than you better not be hurting someone else while you were busy expressing yourself or there’d be swift action from my parents on that topic. But our friends knew our house was a very safe place. And we could explore anything we wanted to (within reason – though to be honest, that gamut was fairly wide as my father and his twenty-two brothers and sisters always got into trouble on the reservation (in Wisconsin and in Washington state). My dad was full-blown Rez kid. And yeah, you read that one right – twenty-three kids, eighteen of whom found their way to adulthood. My mom, on the other hand, was a cloistered (nearly nun-like) woman. Their marriage was a learning experience for us all – but in the best way possible. It’s a family joke that when we have a family reunion we have to rent Rhode Island. Our family is that big – on both sides.
A lot of kids can’t connect with their parents. But every damned kid who came to our house connected with mine. “Your parents are so cool” was a very common and recurring theme throughout my life. It still is today.
So I was in the MOST supportive environment a burgeoning gay kid could be. So why’d it take me so damned long to say those words? I mean, I’d figured it out fairly well by the time I was eight or nine. Not the sexual aspect so much as that boys were infinitely more interesting to me. I knew it back then. Probably even earlier but I just hadn’t fingered it as a strong theme in my young life. And there were a few girls along the way who totally screwed with my blossoming fabulous gayboy life. So it definitely took me a while to get there.
So why were my parents so accepting and supportive? That had to do with my father.
My dad wasn’t a scholarly man. He’d only made it to the eighth grade on the Rez and then had to find work to help supporting the large family. It was fairly commonplace for guys in his situation. But what made my father mythic in my eyes was that while he wasn’t so book smart, he was one shrewd and savvy man who had the street smarts to see right through people and situations. He even ended up going to night school and got his high school diploma in 1972. As a young boy it was sorta cool to see my dad do the graduation thing (the school had a ceremony for the adults in his class). I got to keep the cheap satin-like robe and hat and wore the shit out of it for YEARS after. I loved to run through the house or outside with it on and it billowed in the breeze.
From that point on, my dad was a voracious reader, whatever he could get his hands on. I saw that words mattered to him. It was a very big influence on me and why, from a very young age, I cultivated words no other kid my age would use. Part of this was helped along by my mother, from around when I was at the age of five when I was already reading and writing quite a bit. Not long essays, mind you, but still had started to find words of great interest to me. I was a very precocious child, especially with the written word. The dictionary was one of my favorite books. It was a catalog of words and ideas for me. My mother recognized this and we played a nightly game where she would find difficult words for a five year old (like facetious or impenetrable … things like that) and would challenge me to find them in the dictionary and to re-write the definition. By the time she came home, I had to spell it and to try to use it in a sentence. This went on for years. It was one of the cool things I did with my mom. My dad was always around when I would “give my report” of what I’d discovered. I had so much love for my super-involved parents.
Yet, through it all, there was always a look in my father’s eye. It had been there all along. For the longest time I never knew what I did that brought it out in him. I knew was never in trouble when I saw him look at me that certain way. My fear was that he was judging something, taking stock of some measure of me, and the jury was still out. It wasn’t until I said those infamous words (well, to me, at any rate) that my mother provided clarity on it.
“It was because your father knew two things when I became pregnant with you. The first was he knew I was pregnant before I did. He told me so. The second was that he knew you were going to be gay.” (Well, she used that word when I was a teenager, but I don’t know if they used that word when I was still a collection of growing cells in my mother’s womb.)
My dad and I had a special relationship, too. From the time I came home with them from the hospital, I preferred contact with my father. Whenever I cried as a baby, I only fell asleep and was comforted if I was in his arms or asleep on his chest. It didn’t help my father and his sleep patterns much. In fact, he said to my mother on more than one occasion that he nearly freaked out when we were both napping together (with me on his chest) and he would wake with a start because he thought I was slipping off of him.
So there was no separation, no bad and distant relationship with my father like all those psycho faux doctors used to say back then that distant fathers were the reason why boys like me sought comfort and sexual relations with men/boys because of that missed connection. I was waist deep in love with my father. He was epic in my eyes. He was a fair and honest man. I couldn’t respect him more. And I’d like to think I made him proud as his son. He said so. I wanted to believe that. But the gay thing was a sticking point – not with him. That was all me.
So that occasional (but persistent over the years) look my father would give me was his polling whatever I was up to, probably trying to gauge if he was right about me all along or not. I think he knew well in advance I was before we ever had that talk. And in my family we talked about everything. Nothing was off the table. Well, except for inane gibberish. My parents couldn’t tolerate what they called “stupid talk.” You know, unsupportable positions in conversations. We kids could bring to my parents whatever we wanted to – no judgments. None whatsoever. Total safe zone.
I made sure to take advantage of that at every turn. Like our having “the talk” (about sex and where babies came from) when I was five. Yes, FIVE. My mother only today remarked as we reminisced about this very moment in our past how she inwardly thought ”Oh shit, we’re here already?” My barely three year old brother and two year old sister looked at my parents with wide-eyed amazement. And I didn’t want some kiddie version of the events. When I asked I was rather assertive that I wanted the truth. I always been like that.
So, without going into some long, boring medical harangue, she simply explained that I was what they called a natural birth. My mother said my birth was, relatively speaking, fairly good – even if I liked room service so much I wanted to say an extra month (I was due in July but was born in August).
“You just slid right out.” (Meaning through the birth canal)
To which my brother said, “See B, you slid out and I slid out.” No doubt my brother thought slides were actually involved in the birthing of babies. I don’t recall if my mom corrected him on this point at that age or not.
For the record, my brother was a BIG baby. There was no sliding out for him. He was full on C-Section – eleven pounds, nine ounces of C-Section. I wasn’t tiny either, for that matter: nine pounds, two ounces. So, that part of “the talk” happened when I was five. But nothing was held back from us. If my parents thought we had an honest question, it deserved an honest (if age context aware) answer.
I should point out that there was very little that was sacred or not to be spoken of in our home. Every topic was on the table – and invariably was talked about. Kids who ate dinner at our house got an earful. We even once had a debate on the birth of words (lexicography) and how they came to be. This was encapsulated with the familial classic line from my mother:
“I mean, who got to call a rose a rose? What if they had called it shit? Oooh, this is a lovely smelling shit. I want a bouquet of this shit.”
We laughed for a good five minutes on that one alone. A girl who lived down the street, named Kelly who we’d known all of our lives, was there for that dinner. I’d like to say she was shocked by the subject matter, but she’d been around us since she was like four or five. She was right in the thick of things and laughed right along with us.
“Think how funny it’d be if people wrinkled their nose and said, ’Ew, did you smell this rose? That’s some nasty assed rose.’”
You get the picture.
So why this meandering to get to the point of when I admitted to my father I was gay? Because it’s indicative of how things worked for my young gayboy life. It was all happenstance, with minor milestones along the way. That’s not to say it was boring. My life was definitely not boring. I was keen enough to notice that.
You see I worked up the courage to say those words to my father because of the books I’d been reading of late.
It started after a family visit to the local mall that had sprung up a few years before. It was one of those new indoor malls people were raving about. In a warm weather city like San Diego, anything indoors, in the comfort of air-conditioning, during the oppressively hot summers was a welcomed thing. I went to the mall with my family on a particularly hot afternoon when we were trying to escape the heat.
Once we entered the mall I broke away rather quickly. My family didn’t have any reason to guess where I was off to – the bookstore – where else? It was a home away from home. I was always in there, usually looking through the SciFi and Fantasy section. This time, however, I couldn’t find anything that satisfied. About an hour into perusing the shelves and lightly reading a book here or there I was growing restless that I couldn’t find any resolution to my quest for some new place to mentally escape into.
So I began wandering around elsewhere, going through other shelves. Eventually I happened along the self-help and then onto literature. I had no way of knowing as I fingered books along the literature shelves that I stopped on a book with a salacious title: The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy.
Within its pages the possibilities of what had been stirring in my mind and body (through intensely avid self-exploration) had been percolating, bubbling up from time to time as my teenaged testosterone practically poured from my pores.
2:25 P.M. The Pier.
Jim twisted his body away from the young man’s spidery touch. Not yet. He wanted more sun …
… He looks into the gutted pier. Years ago it supported a carnival street, brazen in its garish tackiness, a discord of colors and “architecture” waning furiously. …
… A gladiator, Jim stares at the arena under the pier. … He sees shapes of vague geometry. … Jim moves fully into exile country. Just as he knew, there are many other outlaws here. At least six shadows materialize into bodies as they glide closer like hypnotized birds. Against a pole, two men are pasted to each other. Muted sighs and moans blend with the lapping sound of the ocean beyond.
Knowing that a loose circle of ghostly figures is focusing on him as he stands in a pocket of dim light, Jim pulls out his cock as if to piss. Quickly, a tall slender young outlaw holds Jim’s cock. … For seconds only, Jim inches farther into the dim-lit cave within the darker cave, so that his gleaming body being adored will be visible like a pornographic photograph.
This was pornographic poetry. There was a carnal cadence to it. My mouth watered, my pits became moist, a flush of blood coursed throughout my body.
My hands were shaking as I read these words. I began to sweat all over. I looked up from the page and glanced around, sure that everyone in the store was staring at the teenage kid discovering his sexual awakening from these bold words about sex between men. It was no longer conceptual in my mind. Here I had in my hands words that completely turned every terrible and horrific word about who and what I was turned on its head. How? Because this man survived. He survived and wrote about our experiences. With furtive glances around I continued to read as Jim (or as he sometimes calls himself Mat, sometimes Jerry, sometimes John) continued his next sexual conquest. One after another. It was gritty, carnal work. I’d never really seen porn, well, definitely not gay porn at this point, but this was somehow more salacious and tantalizing than what I imagined porn being. I knew I had to have this book. Part of me was frightened about what was within its pages; the other part of me couldn’t wait to devour every sexually charged moment. It wasn’t that I wanted to go out and replicate every part of it, but just that I would know the possibilities, of what sex between men could mean, was truly earth shattering.
It was then that my sister showed up and startled the shit out of me. It was as if I’d been in the shower doing my teenage boyhood pleasures and labelling it under the guise of ablutions and my sister suddenly whipped the curtain aside at the height of my pleasures.
I nearly dropped the damned book. It took me about a second or two to realize she would have no idea what I’d been reading.
“C’mon. Mom and Dad said to come get you. We’re going to get something for dinner.”
Shit! I didn’t have any of my money with me (this was before ATM cards and things of that nature). I needed cash to get the book. After shooing my sister out of the bookstore, I scrambled to find a place to hide the fucking book (literally, a ‘fucking’ book). I think, if I remember correctly, I hid it behind some gardening books. I knew I had to come back when I remembered to bring my wallet with me and buy it.
I did, a day or two later. I made a paper bag cover for it so I could read it anywhere I went. I read that damned thing in nearly one sitting – taking a short nap to recoup and then finished it in the early morning hours, only to reread it again the next morning.
After about a week of this, I wanted more of what he had out there. I began to search him out. On one such afternoon scouring the shelves for more of his books, I happened on a title that at first made me recoil (mostly for its religious overtones – which I had started to pull back from) only to find that I kept coming back to it over and over again. Finally, and thankfully, I gave in and pulled it from the shelf. I remember it being just above my head and I leaned to the right as I angled it from its resting place. As soon as I saw the cover I became overwhelmed and quickly pulled it down and began to scour its pages like a parched man to water.
Peter lifted his arms in the air and wriggled his body in closer against Charlie’s, making a deep animal growl of lust and longing in his throat. He dropped his hands on Charlie’s shoulders, still growling, and kneaded his neck with strong fingers and ran them through his hair. “I know,” he said, smiling into Charlie’s eyes. “I love everything about you. Your looks, of course, your huge cock, but lots more than that. I love everything you say, I love your voice, I love the way your lip curls here when you smile.” He put a finger on the spot. “And that’s just the beginning. That’s just the first day. Think of all the other things I’ll find to love. Golly, when I got out of that train this morning and saw you, I knew something tremendous was happening. Darling, dearest love, dearest, beautiful lover, precious love, my champ.” The words poured from him in a gentle croon as if they had been locked away for years, saved up for this occasion.
As I turned the pages I saw that this had a completely different tone. This stirred me in another way. This was the love between those men I’d been religiously rereading about Rechy’s semi-autobiographical exploits (it was label as a sexual documentary) but now it had the romantic leanings. It was set in a time period where there was still a grace in speech and manner in the upper classes.
I’ve mentioned this before both on my blog, and on the podcast: but Rechy satiated my lust while Merrick warmed and filled my heart. Together these men and their words gave me a reprieve from the hurt and loneliness that overwhelmed me at school.
These were words that literally (beyond the figurative “literature” nature of the work) saved me. They saved me from feeling and thinking the worst of myself. I owe these men my young gayboy life. Nothing short of it. When words came my way from nasty, scared-of-anything-that-wasn’t-like-them straight boys (who oddly enough, weren’t always so straight and narrow – but that’s for another time, too), who found it necessary to belittle me, spurn me, cast me out away from them and rattle my world.
You’d think friends, family and a supportive home environment would help that. To a small degree, it did. But only just so. What I needed was connection. What I needed more than anything else was not to feel alone. To feel like I was not the only gay in the village. I didn’t have that. The boys who I thought might be like me kept me at arm’s length as well. So there was an in crowd there that even I couldn’t penetrate.
But those words from Merrick and Rechy informed me. They were my light; they were the passion for my own life, for thinking that if I could just get to the other side, I’d be okay. So when days were tough because I was teased, I took refuge in their words. Those paper bag covered words, hidden from everyone, were alive in my head and heart. So their words helped me lick wounds and try to get through another day.
All of this, the discoveries that I found within those pages were what were rolling around in my head when I found myself eating lunch with my father. I don’t know if my mom and dad had worked it out to have her take my brother and sister out to the store so he could talk to me about it, but somehow it was just him and me.
So there we were, eating somewhat silently when he asked those words that would shift things irretrievably from how it was before. A definite milestone.
“So is there something you want to tell me?”
Yeah, that made the bite of sandwich I had just taken suddenly swell to the size of our cat in my throat. And for the record, we had a big fucking cat.
“Uh, like what?”
He sighed. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“What? About my liking boys and not girls?”
“Yeah, I do. I’m gay.”
It was silent as we ate some more. His eyes would search out mine; there was no malice there. No disgust. Inside, I lost my appetite, but I kept eating because it was something to do – eat up nervous energy in the form of a deli sandwich and chips.
After letting me stew in my anxiety for a bit, he finally gave me a release.
“You know, sex with a woman is an amazing thing.” He looked at me and then shrugged as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and said words that totally amazed me: “But I suppose it could be just as amazing with another man, too. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone and no one is hurting you, and you’re happy, that’s all I ask for. It’s all your mother and I want for you. For all you kids.”
That was it. That was my epic coming out. No drama. No rattling and screaming and hurtful words. My parents are truly the coolest parents on the planet. That’s why when people say it now, I get where that’s coming from. Believe me I totally appreciated hearing it and was proud of that each time it came my way.
Despite all of this, despite the love I had from them, from my friends who sort of figured me out, I still felt this disconnectedness from everything around me. Only those books, and the people I held dear, kept me going. Those books said to me one thing that was irrefutable: a life outside of the thirty-seven levels of hell in high school was not only possible, it was a foregone conclusion – if I made it through my final year of high school.
It was the summer of my junior year. I was half-way through my four years of high school. I looked back on the previous two years. It had been tough. I had endured verbal abuse and down-cast eyes from many kids over the years since the third grade. The last two years were the most brutal, because now it had a sexual edge to it. But you see, I knew that I would have a way out. Sure, having family and friends who still loved and cared about me gave me a leg up when I felt the lowest. They helped. It all did.
This was the beginning of my writing career. It would take me several years to actually start to pen something, but the power of those men’s stories planted the seed that words, words that I’d been cultivating since I was a boy, had power. On some level something started to germinate. When I was bullied, I would use words as my weapon. It didn’t always work, but it did often enough to let me know words did have power. I had to learn to master it, harness it, make it something I could truly use to keep me safe.
But I also learned, through my non-scholarly, but infinitely wise, father that how you used them mattered.
His compassion and empathy for my oh fuck me, I’m really gonna do this moment made me realize just how lucky I was. He was the true measure of a man to me. When others questioned my masculinity, I realized just how fucked up their view was. I’d seen the best. I don’t think I always told him that as often as I should. But he was.
Love ya, Pops. I’d give just about anything to have five minutes more with you, just to explain how much your empathy for your eldest son when I needed it most, mattered in ways that have lasted my lifetime. I try to be that guy every damned day. I’m not always so successful, but it gives me something to shoot for, a goal that lights my way. In that, even though you’ve been gone for over seventeen years now, it’s like I still have you here with me.
Moments of what contentment that I can only imagine I felt in my baby boy body napping on his father’s chest. And that’s the most amazing feeling of all.