He saw my heart; I was staring at his crotch

The Goodwill store is crazy busy—there’s a storewide half-off sale today. The checkout lines stretch from here to next Sunday. My husband Dave saunters over. I signal I’m ready to go.

Dave gestures behind him. “See that man way over there, next to the guy in the red coat?”

I scan the crowd.

“He’s in the far checkout lane, towards the back.”

“White shirt and bow tie? College age?”

“That’s him. I was walking past and he stopped me. Said, ‘You spoke in my social work class last semester. I want to thank you. You changed my life.’

“Really?” I take another look. “How cool. Great. I’m glad he said something to you.”

“That’s for you, too. For both of us. We both would have spoken to that class.”

Dave’s right. We’re often asked to address social work and psychology classes at area colleges and universities. We go as the featured couple or as co-participants in panel discussions. We tell our coming out stories. We talk about what it is for us to be gay in this time and place. We answer questions. Any more, students are generally receptive.

“I wonder which class it was,” I say. “I don’t recognize him. I wonder what he heard that made such an impact. I think you should go over and ask him to elaborate.”

To my surprise, Dave agrees. He’s bolder than I and more socially adept. I tag along. He taps the young man on the shoulder. “We were wondering: could you say a little more about your story?”love peace goodwill

Joe College obliges, and as he starts talking I’m able to place him: The Man With the Crotch. Drop-dead gorgeous, dark eyes, Adonis face, olive shirt unzipped to offer a tantalizing glimpse of his chest, tight red jeans, stylish leather shoes. Devastatingly handsome. I wanted to spend the entire period looking—no, gawking—at him. I restrained myself. Whenever I addressed the class I avoided looking his way for fear I’d babble. Not easy to do. He sat directly in front of me, legs spread wide. When I wasn’t talking, I looked down. At his crotch.

After class, Dave and I compared notes.

“He’s so cute.” (We both knew who I was talking about.)

“Adorable. I just wanted to stare at him.”

“Me, too. In fact, I did stare. At his crotch.”

“Do you think he’s gay?”

We thought we’d never really know, but here we are, getting it straight from the source.

Not that it’s been easy for him. He grew up in foster care, was told to hide his sexual orientation—“otherwise you’ll never be adopted.”

Indeed, his family of origin severed all ties with him when they learned he’s gay, booted him back into the foster care system. Eventually the couple he calls his grandparents adopted him.

“And they’re fine with my being gay. They love me, as do my amazing friends.” He turns and points to a motley crew of students behind him. They look our way and grin. They’re a diverse lot—race, gender, body type. All friendly.

Good. He surrounds himself with supportive people.

He says what meant so much to him when we spoke in class was the obvious love Dave and I share. “I was right there with you, crying when you cried, listening to every word, seeing two men who really love each other. You guys changed my life.”

My mind flashes to Bob and Bruce, Larry and Larry. Early in our coming out Dave and I saw seperately in these two couples proof positive that long-term gay relationships do exist and can be richly rewarding. Knowing this gave us something to shoot for, confidence we could.

I hope that’s where Joe College is now—buoyed by hope, poised to call into being then will into reality a love-filled life.

“Can I hug you guys?” he asks.

Zowie.

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Sootprints in fnow

We live so much of our lives without telling anyone. But not when we walk through a snowy landscape. Several inches of new snow fell last night and I’m taking advantage of the afternoon light to traipse amongst the trees. I can see by the deer’s cloven hoof prints the place it leaped the fence. There’s the rabbit’s dash-dash-dot and the raccoon’s little paw print. Here a mouse scrimshandered a thin line atop the snow, then tunneled down under. (Such a little creature to face the great winter.) The squirrel’s bounding trail of double dots connects one tree to another, then explodes in a mess of dirt and torn-up earth where it retrieved a buried nut from the frozen ground. Great galumphing footprints behind me testify to my own passage through this little piece of the world.

Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

Traces of my presence—and yours—are not always so visible as footprints in snow, though they may linger after we’ve passed.

Recently my husband Dave and I watched the 1970 film “The Boys in the Band.” We’d heard of it but never seen it on stage or screen. The show opened Off-Broadway in 1968. Says playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, “…it certainly started a new era in American drama, and was an immense contribution in American literature because it’s so unapologetically gay.”

The action centers around nine men at a birthday party. It’s funny, sad and suspenseful all at the same time. The friends trade vicious cut-downs almost as a matter of course. This put me off on a first viewing. Why must they be so negative towards themselves and each other? I’ve watched it four more times, however, and come to appreciate its humor, heart and snapshot of pre-Stonewall gay life.

In one scene the embittered Michael confronts his college roommate about the latter’s reaction to a mutual friend’s coming out.

“You couldn’t take it, so you destroyed the friendship and your friend along with it,” Michael says. “To this day he remembers the treatment and scars he got from you.”

This line sticks with me. Even today, the coming out process for many LGBT people is fraught with peril and littered with former friendships. This was true of my experience. My life has been shaped by a society that had no place—no word, even—for someone like me. I carry the scars of my late parents’ eventual and tentative tolerance of me. They were unable to fully embrace me as their son once they learned I am gay.

Yet others trail healing in their wake. When I came out at 35 my grandmother was 90 years old and the one person in my family of origin who accepted me without reservation. My mind goes to this scene:  Dave and I sit with Grandma in the church she’s attended for nearly 60 years. The pews and paneling are of ash; the aisles carpeted in red with tiny flecks of black. Frosted glass windows discourage daydreaming. Today is Communion Sunday. Grandma learns Dave and I will not be offered the sacrament. Incensed, this little white-haired lady puts away her usual smile and marches up the center aisle, leading Dave and me out of the building.

This memory of my grandmother’s show of support nurtures and sustains me years after her death. As she well knew, people do not remember what you do or say, so much as they remember how you make them feel. Grandma made me feel like a million bucks. No, she made me feel loved.

Love. Such a little thing to arm ourselves with as we face the great cold. And best shared with another—person, animal, plant, planet. For no matter how many our footsteps upon the earth, our trail is soon ended. A few generations pass; the snow melts and all trace of us is gone.

I Did.

I Did.

 

Did I grow up hearing the word “gay” mostly on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons as in,

            When you’re with the Flintstones

            Have a yabba-dabba-doo time

            A dabba-doo time

            You’ll have a gay old time

and notice that a gay old time week in and week out involved a grown man getting locked out of his own house and hammering at the door to be let back in?

I did.

Did I make my way through the world compliant and quiet, the middle child, a people-pleaser who valued appearances because they helped keep the peace and make folks happy?

lonely tall boy in spaceI did.

Did I embrace the Bible thumping tenets of my family with a fervor all my own, label my same-sex attraction sinful temptation fanned by the flames of hell, plead with God to remove from me the stubborn desire to lust after other boys, promise to read my Bible two hours every day, never backtalk my mother and become a missionary when I grew up, if only I could be cured?

I did.

Did I hear whispered that homosexuals are monsters, child molesters with horns and red eyes who lisp and can’t hit a baseball, and know for a fact I wasn’t one of those even though the part about the baseball fit?

I did.

Did I lean on my reputation as the shy studious type to avoid dating women in high school and college as much as possible?

I did.

Did I learn to live in my body as in a house divided, keep at arm’s length the despicable part of me that lusted after men, assure myself this wasn’t the real me, and succeed so well that as a college senior I could find excuses to bathe whenever our floor’s resident Greek god padded his way down the hall to the group showers wrapped only in a towel, and envy the towel, yet banish from consciousness the idea I might be gay?

I did.

Did I marry a hard-headed woman in the sincere belief I was doing what was right, honorable and holy, and in the hope she would save me from myself only to learn she did not have the power to change me?

I did.

Did I become father to three sons, change diapers, read stories, play Robin Hood, sing songs, make funny voices and discover that parenthood, while demanding, did not lessen my attraction to men nor its accompanying self-hatred?

I did.

Did I finally devise a way to kill myself and test it on several small animals to make sure it worked?

I did.

I did all this and more. And although I peered into the void, I did not follow through with my planned suicide. After I composed my final farewell, I made a small choice for life, postponed my death for an hour, then a day, a week. (At such times grace may be measured in minutes.)

Even as I believed hope was gone and all was finished, a whole new world was waiting to be born—a world I had never dared imagine, never heard described in positive terms, never believed would receive, bless and nurture the likes of me. A world in which I am acceptable as I am, loved without having to change, remake or undo myself. Nowadays I often see it reflected in my gay friends and chosen family, in our shared laughter, warm embraces, genuine regard.

Here’s the thing: this world had been there all along. It had been and was and is within me. Within each one of us. The path is uncharted, the way perilous, the door hidden, the night dark. Yet life endures, cloaks itself even in catastrophe, calls to us ever and anon, in tones loud and soft. May we with courage listen, respond, reach deep, take hold the key, unlock and pry open the door, step into All that awaits us there.

 

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This piece appears in Flying Island Journal, May 2014

Ilustration: Spooky Dad at flickr