For Gay Pride, 2016
I was fourteen when my dad came out on a cold winter day in January, 1979.
My father, mother, older brother, and I gathered in our decidedly 1970s living room with its unfortunate avocado-and-brown plaid couches while my parents announced, tearfully, that they were divorcing. The couches alone would have been reason enough to leave. I won’t even get into the wall-to-wall carpeting. Then my father dropped his bombshell: “I am a homosexual.” And just like that, my world was divided into a “before” and “after.”
I say my father came out, though, technically, it was only to us and it was with the fearful edict that we couldn’t tell anyone else that my father was gay. This portion of himself, of us, had to remain a secret for safety’s sake. My father worked in the church. He would lose his job if his orientation were known. Or worse could happen. The “worse could happen” wasn’t filled in for us, but we were old enough to extrapolate.
It was the first time I understood what being closeted meant, what it cost. It was also the first time I understood that to be LGBTQ meant also to feel fundamentally unsafe in the larger, hostile world.
Back then, as a young teenager in the pre-rainbow flag, “Modern Family” days, I didn’t really know what being gay was beyond some theoretical category that belonged to other people—people who were not my father. Now, I was looking for an education. The few (possibly, vaguely) LGBTQ characters I’d encountered in books often met horrible ends. It seemed there was no safety in fiction. For a nanosecond, there was a gay character on TV: Billy Crystal as “Soap’s” Jodie Dallas. But most of the series saw him falling in love with women or living an asexual life, so, yeah. Problematic, as they say. The message to me? A gay man isn’t safe enough for TV, and TV is no safe place for anyone LGBTQ.
A few months prior to my father’s coming out, the openly gay civil rights leader and city supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated in his San Francisco office. P.S. You’re not safe at work. My father had been dishonorably discharged from the army after serving in Korea because he was caught kissing a man. He was not safe from his own side in the military. As the editor of the Presbyterian newspaper for the Synod (governing body) of the Sun, my father wrote impassioned, often fiery editorials about social issues. He was not short of courage when it came to his opinions. But he could not be an openly gay man around his colleagues. People he worked with. People he loved and cared about who, presumably (and demonstrably), cared about him. People who worked within the church who also cared about civil rights and social justice. People who, if they’d known his status, would’ve fired him.
He had precedent for that fear. When he was the minister of Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, he’d confided in his pastoral counselor, and that man, in turn, ratted him out to the Session. My father was not safe with a man who claimed to be his safe place, though, fortunately, he was supported by the the lovely and loving people of that church. (Woodlawn, by coincidence, was started by a minister named Marshall Herff Applewhite, Sr., whose son, a closeted, tormented man named Herff Applewhite, Jr. went on to lead the suicide cult, Heaven’s Gate, to their Nike-clad deaths. In case you were wondering what a lifetime of self-loathing and feeling unsafe can do to a fragile, deeply conflicted person.) And how did my father come to that January morning confession to us all? He had been arrested by an undercover cop in Dallas in what we would now call entrapment. He got arrested for being gay. He got arrested for being.
By the time I was in high school, my dad lived in Dallas with his boyfriend, John, in their condo—a word that seemed exciting and exotic to me—a place with a community pool, a VHS player, and two glorious ferns worthy of their own reality show. John owned some apartments in Oak Lawn, the heart of Gay Dallas, and often, the three of us would go walking around that neighborhood together. I learned so much it was like having new eyes every time. I learned about drag. I learned covert slang and wink-and-grin trash talk that made me feel training-wheels transgressive. I learned that the Turtle Creek Chorale was basically a gay men’s chorus in all but name. (Names—not safe.) One of my dad’s friends, a makeup artist at Neiman’s, taught me how to properly contour. Another of his lesbian friends and I discussed running track. At parties in their home, I saw LGBTQ couples hold hands and hug for the first time. I saw them gently touching partners’ backs and asking if he or she needed anything from the kitchen. I accidentally spied my father and John kissing. I understood my father to be human and sexual. Oak Lawn was the first place I remember as being a relatively “safe place” for my father, my stepfather, and, by extension, me. I came to know it as a place where truths were known and there was no performance to give. No cover needed. Once, we went to clean out one of John’s rental apartments that had been vacated. As we did the walk-through of the tiny space, I imagined myself moving in. I imagined living there in the small, beating heart of a place where it seemed okay to be fully yourself. Sitting in those Oak Lawn restaurants, my dad and I shared a joke based on an old “Shoe” cartoon. When a particularly handsome man walked past, one of us would raise an eyebrow, grin and say, “I’ll flip you for him,” and the other would answer, “No thanks. My back still hurts from the last time.”
To me, it was Wonderland. In Wonderland, we were looser. Happier. Freer.
I was a teen girl who often felt as if she were not enough. I feared judgment because I was already so self-critical. It didn’t always feel safe inside my own mind which was restless and full of yearning and dreams and aching vulnerabilities. I was a teenager in full. Many of the people my father knew, the people I met, had been rejected by families, communities, employers, hometowns, and religions. John had come out to his family, and his ex-wife had barred him from ever seeing their three daughters. She’d had no trouble legally cutting off his contact. I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for him to be Extra Dad to my brother and me, seeing in us, as he must have, what could not be with his own children. Finding no safe haven, the members of my father and stepfather’s community founded their own. And ironically, among men and women who had experienced such a lack of security, I felt loved and accepted. I felt safe.
It was a feeling I took with me when I moved to Austin years later. There, for a time, I lived with my best gay buds, Ed and Norbert. We threw elaborate parties and sang along to Grace Jones and quoted “Highlander” to each other. It was a more liberal environment than my hometown had been. I worked in an Austin café with an openly gay woman, Brenda. She and her girlfriend Elizabeth helped me move, hauling my vintage 1930s dresser with the giant, moon-shaped mirror onto the back of their pick-up not just once, but twice. We drank beer and smoked cigarettes on the tailgate of that same truck under Texas stars and traded jokes over large plastic tubs of shredded cheese in the café’s summer- sun bright kitchen. When I’d get dressed up for a night out, Bren would whistle appreciatively and call me “Baby Bonnie Raitt.” When she and Elizabeth broke up, Brenda cried on my shoulder. We were all young and figuring shit out. We gave each other safe passage to do so.
Still. There were touches of danger, even in Austin. When our landlord stopped by, Ed and I had to pretend that we were engaged, and Norbert made himself scarce. Lined up outside The Boathouse, Austin’s preeminent gay club, you learned to look past the occasional scowls and disapproving stares of the people passing by. There was sometimes a sense that you could be one drunken frat boy away from violence. But inside? Oh, shit, man. It was on. You could wear feathers and glitter, duct-taped clothing, skater kid regalia, preppy-to-the-hilt or B-52’s-worthy, vintage 1950’s housewife dresses (Hi.), your hair gelled into elaborate systems of self-expression. Twirling under those lights, with Tears for Fears or Flock of Seagulls blaring through the speakers, we were beyond: Beyond gender, beyond judgment. We were becoming. We simply were. It was home and we were safe within its walls.
And then AIDS hit, our safety snatched away, and I learned just how fragile that freedom was. People were dying from this terrifying epidemic, and instead of getting help, they were being attacked and blamed for it. Suddenly, if you were LGBTQ, it wasn’t even safe to get sick. The community created its own safe spaces—Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, God’s Love We Deliver. It fought back: We will not let you kill us with your indifference or hate. When I was fourteen, I was told there was safety in silence. ACT UP’s motto, “Silence = Death,” became the new war cry. There’s safety in numbers. There’s safety in being loud and visible. In refusing to go away, in refusing to die quietly.
For my father, there was no safety from AIDS. He’d hidden his status from us for six years. Six. Years. For three months, my brother and I watched him waste away to a husk of himself. But there was “family”—a parade of new “aunts” and “uncles” coming in with open arms and hugs and “whatever you need.” The actual Gay Men’s Chorus of Fort Collins, Colorado—name out and proud—dedicated their December concert to my father. Sometime near the end of that Sunday evening concert, while fifty or so voices soared in defiance of a world that seemed hell bent on taking away their right ever to feel safe and good, my father died peacefully, his own soul taking flight.
He wanted his obituary to be a declaration. He wanted it known that he was a gay man who’d died of AIDS. A last political act. But other family members feared the repercussions of that announcement in the communities where they lived, where they might face prejudice, unlike me in New York City. In the end, one obituary carried the truth; the rest hid it. Even in death, it wasn’t safe for my father to be himself.
This weekend is Gay Pride. Last year during Pride, the United States Supreme Court finally recognized marriage equality. This year, there are forty-nine people dead in a gay nightclub in Orlando, victims of a madman with an assault rifle and a seemingly endless supply of bullets and hate, some of it, possibly, internalized hate. They are victims of the same hostile world that kept my father’s life a secret. Meanwhile, there are political representatives who have voted against LGBTQ rights at every turn and every level (Bathrooms? Really?) now co-opting this tragedy so that they can use it to legislate further hate against yet another marginalized population. And I don’t for a moment believe that these same representatives won’t go back to trying to push the LGBTQ population into the deepest closets they can find the next time they get hysterical about who can pee where.
The Dead can’t fight back anymore. It’s up to us. You know what makes us safer? Being LOUD. Louder than the hate. So loud we drown the hate out. Being VISIBLE. We should celebrate the victories. Blow the parade whistles. Shout and sing. Hug and kiss. Dance in every club. But also this: Anger is appropriate. We should get and stay mad. Write your representatives. Make them accountable. Keep up to date on legislation in your state. And please, please, please VOTE. We can’t afford apathy now. No. Safety isn’t a guarantee for any one of us in this life. But it’s a daily fight for some, and it takes all of us to make a change not just in legislation but in the worn-out yet sadly tenacious notion of identity as threat. It takes all of us to make the world less threatening for every LGBTQ kid coming up and out. If you want to do something in honor of those forty-nine people, in honor of Pride, but you don’t know what to do, here are some places that will be happy to help you:
Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org/
The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/?gclid=CMLs0pyvw80CFclkhgodSiUEtw
Transgender Equality Organization: http://www.transequality.org/
A couple of weeks before I got the call to go to my father’s bedside in Colorado, I spent Labor Day weekend at Wigstock, the delightfully uninhibited drag festival presided over by the legendary Lady Bunny that for more than a decade was a NYC mainstay. We were down at the Christopher Street piers: Ed; our Texas drag performer friend, Kyle; my husband, Barry, and I. The sun reflected off the Hudson like tiny disco balls. The piers were packed and hot. Onstage, the performers tore it up. My favorite, a vaguely Martha Graham-ish Flloyd, lip synched to Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” which none of us had heard yet, and it blew our minds. Lady Bunny told raunchy jokes. It was the loudest, biggest party I’d ever attended. Later, when we’d had too much sun, we retreated to The Duplex, a club in Sheridan Square that was a stone’s throw from the historic Stonewall Inn. The entire joint was hopping. Music blasted at nosebleed-level decibels. The policy was dance or leave, basically. So we danced. We danced till we sweated through our shirts, till our hair was sopping wet. People danced on tables, on chairs. They probably would’ve danced on the windowsills if they could have. We were nose-to-nose with strangers until there were no strangers left, just one great gyrating sea of smiling faces and red ribbons. We’d already learned how to say “fuck you” to the things that would steal away our happiness.
Yeah? You think your hate is a match for our love? THIS love? Fuck off. Hey, DJ: TURN. IT. UP!
This is our truth. This is our love. This is our Wonderland, our home. We will fight like hell to keep it whole. We will fight like hell to keep making it safe. Stay and dance or get the fuck out.
We ain’t going anywhere.