|"When did you know?" That was the question Michelangelo
Signorile asked the audience on his Sirius Satellite Radio program. Many
callers responded that it wasn't until they were older that they knew of
their homosexuality, and yet they had always known. That condition applies
to me, as well, and that is why I am comfortable with the term queer. As
a child, I knew something made me different from the other boys, though
I didn't connect it with any special attraction to them. My first crushes
were boys I saw on television, though I did not think of them as crushes.
One was on the actor who played Dennis the Menace. I built a shrine to him
in my bedroom closet. How ironic! When I saw him at the Gimbels Thanksgiving
Day parade, I had my parents get me a pair of red earmuffs, exactly like
the ones he wore in the parade. I had another crush on Tommy Kirk who acted
in a number of Disney movies. Since then, I have heard rumors about him,
but I don't know if they are true.
I do remember wishing in second grade that I could be a girl, but that was only because I wanted the other boys to stop beating me up. My gender identity has always been and continues to be male. One year, I did dress up as an old lady for Halloween, but I quickly gave up on high heel shoes.
In junior high I started seeing boys and girls pair off and realizing I wasn't developing the same interest in girls that the other boys had. Instead, I developed a serous crush on one of the PE teachers. Everyday, he wore a pair of white tennis shorts and a blue, nylon windbreaker over a plain, white tee shirt. The first day I saw him, my heart started to beat faster and I felt faint. It was lunch time, and I saw him walk across the blacktop from the boys gym to the cafeteria. I soon discovered that he made the same walk every day, and I positioned myself at the outside picnic tables to eat my lunch and watch him pass by. I was especially turned on by his well tanned and muscular legs. He had dark eyes and a lantern jaw. The rumor going around school was that he was having an affair with an attractive female English teacher, which I am sure wasn't true. My compulsion to see him led me to the locker room in the morning to peak at him changing clothes in the gym teachers' office. He soon found me out and closed the door before changing. I discovered he played basketball in the recreation center next to school. He played once a week after school, and I positioned myself in a place where I could reach into my pocket and play pocket pool. Then one afternoon, someone whispered in my ear that my activity was quite noticeable, and I left embarrassed.
My self-knowledge as a homosexual came as I learned about the word and what it meant. The first discussions I heard about homosexuals were on the talk radio station my mother listened to regularly. No one said exactly what homosexuals did, but I quickly figured out it was not good. It wasn't long before I realized that they were talking about me. Worse, since I did not know anyone else like me, I guessed I was a part of a very small minority.
I kept my secret to myself. I didn't want my parents think they were failures by creating a defective boy. Still, my sexual impulses were impossible to control. When I discovered masturbation, it was not much different from the way heterosexual boys discovered it then. The difference was I was looking at the pictures of men in their underwear in the Sears catalogs. Then there was football. I watched a small Black & White TV in my bedroom with the sound turned all the way down. I was thrilled by the players in their tight pants and was even more excited when they patted each other on the ass. I don't see as much butt patting on football games now since much of the time between plays is filled with instant replays. Basketball players wore shorts and engaged in a fair amount of ass patting, as well. Today's baggy uniforms are not as much fun as the thigh-revealing shorts of the Sixties.
My own ineptness at sports reinforced my self-image as damaged goods, especially any sport that required upper body strength and hand/eye coordination. I was not so bad with my legs and enjoyed soccer, but I was a total flop at baseball, basketball, and football. Until I was about 16, I was quite overweight. My early attempts at dieting were failures. I ended up getting so depressed, I stopped caring whether I lived or died. I lost my appetite and just wanted to be alone. I started taking the dog on long walks. I walked for miles every weekend. I walked alone to school and back during the week. After awhile, I wasn't so depressed. The exercise actually made me feel good, and I ended up loosing a lot of weight. Though I have gained a bit back in middle age, I am in better shape than I was as a teen. I credit my regular walking and bicycling for keeping me fit, both physically and mentally.
1969 was a pivotal year for me. It was the first time I saw a positive statement on homosexuality and the first time I considered coming out. I was nineteen years old. As I mentioned in my adoption story, I was gay bashed in gym class at a New Jersey high school; so bad I wanted to flee back to California. I moved back to San Diego in January, 1969. Though I had no real job and only the $2,000 my parents gave me to relocate, I decided to take spring break off for a trip to San Francisco. I spent much of the week alone, doing a lot of walking and sightseeing. I wish now that I had discovered the Castro, but unfortunately I didn't. What I did discover was a copy of the Berkeley Barb with a story about gay liberation. The proponents of gay lib defended their lives as normal. I wanted to go find them, but I was still too scared.
That was the year I came close to being drafted. That summer, I took a bus with other young men to Los Angeles where we were subjected to a pre-induction physical. I was so terrified I just wanted to get away, even if I did leave with a 1-A draft status. We were herded into a big, windowless building with different colored lines running along the center of maze-like aisles. Directions were barked at us, "Follow the red line until you get to the blue line. Then follow the blue line." We followed the lines in and out of various cubicles and up and down an unknown number of staircases. I quickly lost track of what floor I was on or which way was north. We were advised not to make trouble for the authorities, lest we be kept overnight in some rat infested motel and subjected to even worse treatment the next day. One of the first stops was a classroom where we sat at school desks and filled out a detailed questionnaire. There on the form was the question about homosexual attractions. I realized then that by answering truthfully, I would stay out the military. Back then, I wasn't sure if I was a pacifist. I was sure that if I was drafted into the military I would not get out of it alive.
Well I chickened out and lied. Even if I survived the rats, what would happen to me after that? Was it true that I would never be able to find a job? I thought about the derisive comments made on the talk shows I heard. Could I live the rest of my life facing that kind of rejection? I left the building with the 1-A status and determination to get a college deferment. On the bus home, an unusual aroma hit my nose. It was pot smoke. In the back of the bus a small group was smoking a joint. I had never been around pot before and was amazed that they did not get busted. Meanwhile in New York that summer, the modern gay rights movement was developing from the Stonewall riots. Somehow that news never made it to rural San Diego County.
It wasn't until I got to college that I finally discovered sex, drugs and Rock & Roll. I did make some friends at my junior college and developed another serious crush on one. I feared he would find me out and reject me. I wanted to keep his friendship so bad I decided to find a girlfriend. It wasn't easy, but I thought that I could teach myself to find women as sexually attractive as men. Then I found the woman I would end up marrying. Melissa and I were taking an elective English class, studying the poetry of rock lyrics. These were the days of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and CSN&Y. As extra-curricular activity, the teacher hosted parties at his house where we could drink wine and listen to music. That's when I got into a conversation with Melissa who was rather tipsy from the wine. She was also very funny, and we ended up going out together. The first thing we discovered was that we shared the same birthday, March 30, 1950. We then discovered we had other interests in common, especially spirituality and politics. We became good friends, and I wished we could become lovers. Alas, the attraction I felt never became sexual. After awhile, I thought this was probably my only chance to end my loneliness. We got married on our birthdays in 1972.
By the end of 1974, I was the father of a beautiful daughter. For all my disappointments with my marriage, I am proud of my service as a father. These were the early days of Lamaze, and I was insistent on being in the delivery room for the birth. The doctors kept forcing me to sit down. They were afraid I would faint, fall over, and hurt myself. I wanted to stand up so I could get a better view. Ironically, I do have a weak stomach when it comes to blood, but this was different. This was the blood of life beginning, not ending. Witnessing the births of both my daughters have been the most blessed events of my life.
As we moved around, I lost contact with my friends in junior college, but my attraction to other men continued. I began to make a fool of myself with some. I fell in love with a young surfer we met in a political campaign, but, as with my friends in college, he was straight. We were living in Ocean Beach, a progressive neighborhood of San Diego. The funky beach community attracted college students who wanted to end war and create a new society based on equality and social justice. They created institutions such as OB People's Food and the Free School. I noticed a small gay community developing, too, with a local gay newspaper being published out of a storefront. The urge to come out became stronger. One stupid thing I did was having a one night stand with another woman in hopes that Melissa would feel comfortable sleeping with other men. It only led to a nasty fight that I totally deserved.
In 1980, Melissa and I moved to the Bay Area. (There is more about that in The Dog That Ate Stalin.) Outside of OB, San Diego was a rather boring place to live. There was not much going on culturally. With the passing of Proposition 13 (the Jarvis Amendment), budget cuts to San Diego Transit rendered the system unusable. If there was nothing good playing at the Strand, forget trying to see a movie somewhere else if you didn't have a functioning car. Line 35 to OB stopped running after 8:30 pm. The Bay Area transit systems were hit by Prop. 13, as well, but they were in a lot better shape. In San Francisco, the Castro's reputation as a gay Mecca was well established. I found myself being called to Mecca.
In Berkeley, I hoped to become car-free. My morning bicycle ride to work in Richmond included a stop at the news racks to get my media fix. I could boast that I rode a bicycle every morning to Albany to pick up that day's New York Times. It was in my morning Times where I first read of a mysterious disease that was killing gay people. Then there were more stories about this disease that was being spread among homosexual men, but no one knew how. The mystery was scary enough to keep me in the closet for the rest if the decade.
As the mystery of AIDS and how it was spread was finally being solved, I was now approaching 40. Our family decided to have a second child, but things were different this time. Melissa and housemate Bob became romantically involved. I realized I could come out without having Melissa feel abandoned. Yet I wondered if I had become too old to find my own soul mate.
Still, the pressure of staying in the closet became unbearable to the point where I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. On March 30, 1990. Melissa and I were celebrating our 40th birthdays. That same day, the Claremont Hotel was celebrating its 75th anniversary and offered rooms for $75 for the night. I booked a room and planned to have a celebration there. Instead, the whole evening fizzled. No one wanted to come to our room. Melissa said she was too tired and just wanted to sleep. It turned into the worst birthday of my life.
Shortly after that, I was working on a job with mostly young, heterosexual men. They were liberal in politics, but I wasn't sure how liberal they were about a gay co-worker. One day, we were together on a car trip across town. They were completely uninhibited in their expressions of desire for the attractive women they saw walking down the street. Meanwhile, every time we passed a hot guy, I sat in cold silence. After I came home, I finally decided to be silent no more.
Melissa was the first person I told, of course. I promised to work things out. I was committed to stay in the house and help raise our second daughter. We actually stayed married for another decade and finally divorced when she decided to marry Bob. I told my biological parents the Campbells in 1993. They were not happy to hear the news, but I am glad I was able to tell them before they both died. For me, that did provide some closure. After visiting my parents, I boarded an Amtrak train to participate in the march for gay rights in Washington.
Since coming out, I had one relationship that lasted several months and a few one night stands. Counseling at Berkeley's Pacific Center helped a lot, and I attended a support group there for married gay men. As I write this, I am not in a relationship. I would be pleasantly surprised if the right man came around now.
As a formerly married man and as a father, I discovered coming out wasn't something I could just do once. I have to keep coming out. People assume I am heterosexual until I tell them I'm not. When is the appropriate time to bring it up with people I just met or with new co-workers? I am generally a private person anyway. I didn't know how to respond to a former supervisor who said she wanted to find me a girlfriend.
Add to that, I must confess I have very defective gay genes. I have no decorating or fashion sense. I don't like to shop. I am not hot for Judy Garland, although I listened to Barbra Streisand when I was a teen, but that was because I had very conservative music tastes. And I have no Gaydar. I was surprised when Star Trek's Mr. Sulu came out. I guess I was the last one to know.
I may never have the opportunity to find and marry the love of my life, but I do strongly support the legalization of same sex marriage so that future generations will enjoy what my generation has been denied. I get especially angry when someone says we are demanding "special rights." The people with special rights continue to be the heterosexuals. No one questions their rights to create a family.
Fortunately, attitudes about gays and lesbians have changed since the time I was a young man. More people understand that sexual orientation is biologically determined. I had no more of a choice becoming homosexual than as I did becoming left-handed. I know eventually attitudes will change in support of marriage. I am especially happy to have found a spiritual community that has embraced its gay and lesbian congregants. In that, I am quite fortunate. I remember once attending a comedy show with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. During an intermission, we found one of the Sisters walking ahead of us in her fishnet stockings, stiletto heals, and long, dangling crucifix. Bob, who like me is an ex-Catholic, called out to her, "Forgive me Sister for I have sinned." She turned around, gave out a loud sigh, and replied, "Oh, you haven't sinned, honey." Someday all faiths will acknowledge that unselfishly given love can never be a sinful act. Real sin exists in the absence of love and in the denial of another's humanity.
Coming Out at 40