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Back in the early 1980s, back in the Midwest, saying the words “I’m gay” was both terrifying and exhilarating. The phrase that people liked to use for male jocks and good-time hell-raisers — ‘He’s all boy’ – was never me. But I always tried to be a good boy. To be a pleaser. It wasn’t always easy.
I could see myself somehow disappointing those I admired, and deeply hurting those I loved. There were times it all seemed hopeless. But each time I said those words “I’m gay”, those feelings were replaced with hope, strength, inner peace, and finally pride. I’m gay. Words now that proclaim out loud who I am to the world.
To the kids today who struggle: Give people time. Try to use your fear and your anger in a way that is productive and not hurtful to you or others. And remember for every person who can’t accept you there are dozens right behind them ready to celebrate you.
And for all the special girls in my life – the girls whose love and friendship helped me through, back in the day and now: THANK YOU. I wouldn’t have made it without your acceptance, forgiveness and love. And as they would say in the Midwest, all of you are all girl. I love you.
The smoke was thick; swirling around the glittering disco ball that hung from the ceiling. I’d almost swear there was a fog machine somewhere hidden. Later I would hang my clothes over a chair to air out the stench of cigarettes, which I realized was what really provided that magical effect.
Sylvester, Prince, and Grace Jones blared from the speakers, impossible to resist as that tiny dance floor became packed. Watching men dancing together without any inhibition was fabulous, surreal, and frightening. Inside these walls there was a freedom from out there. Escape, even if just for a few hours, from the suffocating judgment residing in the outside world.
It had been just a handful of weeks since I’d entered through that nondescript wooden bar door. This portal into what – I prayed – would bring me a sense of belonging. How would I know? I wondered if a feeling of liberation would just wash over me suddenly, without warning. Or would be gradual, and one day I’d just say to myself “Oh, when did you arrive?” I was trying to be patient. Trying to find my place in a community I had yet to truly feel a part of.
“Could I buy you a drink?” His voice cut through my concentration as I sat staring at the bar door. Mona was late as usual. Being obsessively punctual was apparently in my DNA. Surrounding myself around girls was as well. Unfortunately, they seemed to always be late. Mona was fabulous with beautiful big eyes and an infectious smile and laugh. I could be myself with Mona. As I nervously looked towards the door he again offered -“I really would love to buy you that drink.” Having cocktails offered and bought served as a perk in this newfound life. A perk for which I was certainly grateful, as I couldn’t afford to buy my own. Turning my attention to the voice on my left, I caught his reflection in the mirror above the bar. I recognized him immediately, causing an unexpected flush running through my cheeks.
Shirts vs. skins, the dreaded words would play over and over in my adolescent head. Gym class was bad enough. The test of masculinity and manhood would be set before me every time I stepped onto that wood floor of Winslow Gymnasium. I wasn’t like the other boys. And though I’d perfected the art of being invisible, my powers were zapped under the bright florescent gymnasium lights. Changing in the locker room combined mildewed sneakers and self-induced terror. I had been reminded my entire life how I was tall like my Uncle Larry and would no doubt inherit his skills on the basketball court. This prediction however would not come to pass. I would fumble and bumble my way about the basketball court. Attempting to fake my way through the drill from Hell. Being pigeon-toed and knock-kneed with arms so long and skinny it seemed my knuckles nearly dragged the floor. The term ”They can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” never applied to me. As having the excuse of gum would have been a luxury.
When choosing teams, the last two picked were always tied between Cecil and me. The team captain would always sigh, “Well, at least Cecil tries”. Watching the other boys peel their shirts off in near celebration of their masculinity was nothing short of astounding. For the next 50 minutes I would run up and down that gym court in a confused state of inadequacy. I didn’t belong here.
On this particular day I’d worn one of my favorite shirts. Brown ribbed with a gold zipper, a far cry from the plaid button down shirts I normally wore. I’d seen a picture of it in a catalogue, fallen in love with it, and was breathless with excitement when Mom ordered it. From the moment I slipped it over my head it felt somehow authentic and right for me. Seldom did anything ever feel right like that. My Father became angry when he thought I was showing any interest in fashion. That was high on his list of ‘Real Men Don’t’. So Mom and I agreed we’d keep this new treasure out of his sight.
Walking out of the gym I passed one of the teachers. Though I didn’t have his class, I was well aware he knew me. I recognized that glare. It was the same one I’d seen on my father practically every time I passed him in a room. I’d noticed this teacher staring at me many times before, and I’d quickly try to work my magic of becoming invisible. Only this day my magic didn’t work. And within minutes I’d find myself alone with him outside the principal’s office. I felt his total blanket of disgust, from his glaring eyes to that tone of voice. My Father had trained me well to recognize when my presence made others sick.
I choked back tears as he explained my shirt had been unzipped too low and thus was against dress code. I kept repeating over and over in my mind “Real Men Don’t Cry” as he told me, smiling, they had called my father and he was on his way. Taunting me to failure, another tactic he shared with my father. By the time my father arrived, my panic was high pitch and they could both see me shaking. My Father told him he had done the right thing in calling and then cautioned “No one lays a hand on my son”. Moments later I would find myself in the truck, staring straight ahead. Knowing any moment that flat hand would come searing across my cheek, ear and side of my mouth. I’d learned the drill long ago.
Looking past the drink now sitting in front of me, that teacher no longer had the look of disgust I remembered from years ago. He smiled, winked, and asked my name. In those few minutes I wondered if this teacher was still married? Perhaps he too had stepped through that bar door hoping for a few hours of freedom. I wondered if he’d seen something of himself in that little boy so many years ago? Or was his own self-loathing so great that he had to take it out on a child who reminded him of himself? Something perhaps that disgusted him to the point of being deliberately cruel. Something that had nothing to do with me, I realized. Fear and loathing in the closet. I have no idea if he was living an honest life or not. All I knew was that I had to.
I never told him my name. And I didn’t take a sip of that drink sitting in front of me. Without a word I stepped away, only pausing once to look out across that packed dance floor. In spite of all the recent hurt and heartache I’d caused in my search of being honest, I felt the first real stirrings of freedom. Perhaps it might be the right choice after all. I didn’t want to lie about who I was. Not to the people I loved. Not to live in some town where I would have to hide all my life. Willing yourself to invisibility wears you down. And those who truly disapprove eventually find a way of seeing you anyway. Better to be able to see yourself honestly and with love.
All those boys danced in that smoky fog under that disco light. A few dancing with shirts off, tucked into their jean hip pocket. I was reminded of ‘Shirts vs. Skin’ from so long ago. I felt myself wondering… When? When will it all transform and change for me? Are those feelings of authenticity and freedom right here? Maybe they were just waiting for me to find them….
See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle
But just remember, darling, all the while
You belong to me
What a blessing to be able to still hear your voice. Thats a blessing I refuse to take for granted. Happy Mothers Day…
They take the love that they can find
And if love takes them in
They take the love that they can find
And hope it comes again
Glorious morning run…
Nothing compares to the bright-eyed wonder of a child. Seeing everything for the 1st time. You suddenly begin to remember and feel that child inside yourself.
Oliver Van Zackham…
Thats the ‘Wonder Of You’
Impatiently looking through the stainless steel slide, her vocabulary was peppered with profanity. “Hey man, where the Fuck’s my twice-baked potato?” The cooks looked at each other and attempted their best ‘I’m ignoring you’ stance. But she was impossible to ignore. Suddenly the entire kitchen burst into laughter. Helena was hysterical, no matter how hard she tried to play it down. Shag haircut and headband tied around her forehead, giving Olivia Newton-John – the It girl of the moment – a run for her money. Helena was far from having the All-American look. Her dark exotic Asian beauty was a sight to behold in those blonde and bland days.
Helena’s first question to me was ‘what’s your name?’ Her second question was ‘Are you flaming?’ I quickly learned flaming was her term of endearment for gay men. I was attempting to carve out a new identity for myself, but I was also learning that old habits linger. Wanting to be the perfect boy had morphed into trying to be the perfect gay man. Only I hadn’t figured out that in order to be the perfect gay man, one must first be comfortable in saying ‘I’m gay’. So my best confessional tone and nod of head yes was met with a boisterous “Hey man, what the fuck you whispering for? So happy your flaming!!! We can hang out.”
My sheltered Midwestern bubble was about to be burst. I had no idea or experience with Asian culture outside of late-night Anna May Wong and Charlie Chan movies. Helena seemed to delight in my inexperience and loved to tease me about my general ignorance about things. When Helena announced her roommate was moving out she told me to move on in – she would be delighted to have a “Flamer” as a roommate. I had to begrudgingly decline. My busboy income could hardly afford her upper scale apartment. My current residence, downtown in the drug area, was so infested with roaches I’d taken to sleeping in my clothes with the lights on. Helena simply wasn’t having it. “What the Fuck man, pay when and what you can afford- after all, we’re family.” Her wish of living with a Flamer was coming true.
I arrived at Helena’s apartment with just a few boxes of clothing, my half of the bunk bed my brother and I had shared as boys, and a very large stack of Cher posters. I quickly realized how fortuitous my new living arrangment would be. Going through the front door I couldn’t help notice there were beads. Bamboo and wood beads. Crystal beads. Every few feet more beads. This maze of beads… Helena loved beads. I always knew when she was making her way to my room because the beads would start swinging and slapping the walls.
Helena also loved red. Everything was red. There were red silk sofas and red lacquered cabinets combined with dragons, and woven baskets with peacock feathers. Helena’s surroundings were as exotic and forthright as she was.
There also seemed to be clothes EVERYWHERE. There were clothes on hangers, clothes in dry cleaner bags, piles of clothes in every corner. An ironing board and iron was standing at attention at the foot of her bed. I soon learned that this was a permanent fixture.
I also quickly learned that being a beautiful glamorous woman doesn’t allow much time for housekeeping. Perfect makeup and hair comes first. And being tidy and keeping a house clean was such a deep part of my own personality. So, my first day off I decided to do Helena and myself a big favor. I would do what my mom always called a deep clean. Doing a deep clean was ingrained in me as part of my Midwestern culture and upbringing. And no deep clean was complete without a bucket of bleach water. I’d watched ma-maw dozens of times: ¾ Clorox bleach diluted in one-gallon water. I could feel the excitement build. What can I say? I simply loved to clean.
Helena had so many things in the apartment that were unfamiliar to me. One of them was a figurine of a man sitting with his palm up. I didn’t know it was Buddha. I had never heard of Buddha. However, Buddha looked really dusty when I spotted him sitting prominently on the shelf. And boy, did he ever bubble in that bucket of bleach water! Needless to say when Helena came home to bubbling Buddha, the beads hit the wall…. HARD!!! I could only plead ignorance, and Helena laughingly forgave me.
There was much to learn and much to love during my time living with Helena. Despite our broad cultural differences, her generosity and heart knew no bounds. Attempting to carve out a new identity left me many times hiding out in my bedroom. I would retreat, feeling that I was never going to be able to navigate my new world. It was easier to hide. Helena wasn’t having it. “What the Fuck you doing in here alone?” Alone time or personal space was simply not on her radar.
Many were the nights I’d come home after double shifts, knowing Helena was sleeping with the sinuous sounds of Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb wafting from her bedroom. “Guilty” was her favorite sleeping tool and with the arm up on her stereo, that vinyl would play continuously into morning. Sitting alone in the room of red, Buddha would watch from a safe non-cleaning bucket distance. I was making a new life. I would think to myself, ‘maybe, just maybe, you’re going to be okay, Eddie’
Then, a roar from the parking lot. Three matching trans Ams would pull in side by side. Almost simultaneously with the engine roar, I would hear slapping beads and scuffing feet from Helena’s room. Within seconds, she would have fried rice sizzling on her wok, and Eric, Norman, and Allen- her brothers – would be laughing and talking over each other. Speaking their own language and not English, I had not a clue to what was being said. Suddenly the familiar “What the Fuck man, grab a bowl and have some rice” cut through the confusion. And as I found my place at the dining room table I looked around. At that moment and time this was my family. Buddha-blessed and filled with love, Helena helped bring me ‘out’ into my new life.
‘Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
When it’s authentic you love forever…