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.