By Isaac Butler
About five and a half years ago, I wrote an essay about being a kid in the gay rights movement in Washington, D.C. and the few months when I came out as gay (despite being, you know, straight). It was actually this essay, in an earlier form, that got me into graduate school but I never found the right home for it and then eventually some things in it stopped being strictly accurate simply due to the passage of time. It mentions, for example, my "upcoming" wedding, which is now over five years in the past.
In thinking about all the progress in LGBT rights over the past few years, I can't help but think about how dumbfounded 13 years old me would've been, had I swooped in and told him what the next twenty years would entail.
It's an older piece, and I don't really write like this anymore, but updating it in terms of post-graduate style etc. would wreck some of what I find charming about it. So instead of doing that, I thought I'd post it here. I hope you enjoy.
GAY LIKE ME
In November of 1993, my thirteenth year on this Earth, I came out of the closet.
It happened on the baseball field, or what passed for it. Perched on the second level of our recently renovated school, the baseball diamond featured a half-hearted backstop and a shrugging attempt at a pitcher’s mound. The field was primarily used for anything-but-baseball; ultimate Frisbee overlapped with touch football, while the brainy kids avoided both and conducted arguments over Animal Farm and Catcher in the Rye.
It was on this field that a group of my classmates cornered me against a chain link fence overlooking the parking lot and finally asked me what the fuck that pin I was wearing was all about. What, this pin? Black italics on a pumpkin background reading Do Not Feed or Tease the Straight People. Yeah, I guess I had some explaining to do.
One week earlier, I stood in Dupont Circle waiting for The Walk Without Fear, an annual march organized around Halloween. As the enclave of middle-class gay life in the heart of northwest D.C., Dupont was a frequent hot spot for gay bashing, particualrly during a holiday when everyone wandered around disguised. The LGBT community tromped from Dupont to Malcolm X Park (a popular after-dark cruising sight) and back to demonstrate that queers were going to live openly and without fear of physical harm.
Three gay friends of mine invited me to come. Hugh, with his curly, purple-dyed hair, and his goth/industrial uniform of combat boots, trench coat and Joy Division t-shirt, served as our ringleader. Charismatic, with a scalpel wit and the crystal blue eyes of a cult leader, Hugh could get me to do just about anything. He was the definition of cool: already in high school, conversant about books and role-playing games and bands that I had never heard of, and possessed of a preternatural ability for seeing and highlighting the absurdities of the grownup world. Also, his Irish expatriate parents let him drink beer.
Two others rounded out our group. The first was Laura, Hugh’s constant companion and best friend, also a year older than me. Gaunt and pale, Laura’s wiry body—decked out in all black with an Ankh necklace, of course—could barely contain her ferocity or her intelligence. Laura was marked as different from the get-go, thanks to a series of childhood throat surgeries that left behind a doctor’s kiss of a scar and a voice like a broken oboe. Laura and Hugh spoke through a thicket of inside jokes—their jointly made wall against a hostile world—made up of song lyrics, references to Love and Rockets and Sandman and unfulfilled crushes on straight classmates.
Lester, the only one of our group who did not go to our school completed our cadre. Lester was a late bloomer; his body looked like an eleven-year-old’s, and he had the high-pitched voice and antic disposition to match. Lester and I hated each other. We were too much alike to ever be true friends.
Hugh, Laura and Lester were all in the half closet. Everyone knew they were gay; no one ever said anything about it.
The fall of 1992 felt like it was going to be a big year for gay rights. We had entered the twilight of the Reagan-Bush years, which many of my gay friends likened to Hitler’s takeover of Germany. After decades of anger (a frequent t-shirt at the Walk read Stonewall Was a Riot, Remember?), we pinned our hopes on Bill Clinton, the odds-on favorite to win the Presidential election. Clinton talked about gays; Al Gore had a good friend who had died of AIDS. Certainly something had to give. The question on everyone’s mind was when.
That night registers now as a series of snapshots: A chaperone, an older gay man, taller than me, his face a mystery. A vigil, holding a candle inside a paper cup to keep the wax from burning my fingers as Hugh and Laura allowed theirs to drip on their hands, proof of their badassery. We looked like carolers, keeping Dupont Circle alight to celebrate Christmas. The chants-- Hey Hey! Ho Ho! George Bush Has Got To Go! And What Do We Want? GAY RIGHTS! When Do We Want Them? NOW! Men lying down in the street and going to join them. Our chaperone’s hand on my shoulder, stopping me: “They’re going to stay like that until they get arrested, we have to move. Now.”
Being a young teen at a gay rights march in those days meant you were a star. People saw you as a symbol of progress. If a kid can be comfortable being gay or being around gays, maybe things were getting better after all, no matter how much damage Congress wanted to inflict. Unlike many gays today, most of the men and women at the Walk Without Fear only found a vocabulary to describe themselves later in life. They watched their friends die as their country looked on with barely an ounce of compassion. Yet here were these children with their pink triangles and their rainbow stickers making the love sign.
During the march, a stranger gave me the pin, a little gift for joining in the fight. Do Not Feed or Tease The Straight People. I sat at home in my bedroom and stared at this mysterious little trinket. What was I going to do with it? The pin sat in a drawer in my bedside table for about a week, until finally I affixed it to my JanSport in between getting out of my parent’s car and the school’s front door. Once they noticed it, my classmates were taken aback. What did this mean? Was I calling them zoo animals? Wasn’t this gesture a bit rude, one of my teachers wondered—a bit aggressive? Finally four kids cornered me on the playground, determined to get to the bottom of it all.
“What’s that pin for, anyway?”
“What do you fucking think it’s for, retard?”
“Why would you want to say something like that?”
“No, seriously, are you like gay?”
Moment of truth time. “I’m—uh, I’m bisexual. But I like men better.”
There was one problem, or course. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t bisexual. And I knew it then as well as I do now. It was all a lie.
My coming out stunt was merely the latest drop in a roiling sea that followed me through my education. Starting in the 3rd grade, most days at school followed a simple pattern. My classmates would mock me until I reached a breaking point at which point I would get so upset that I caused a disruption large enough to get in trouble. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There are any number reasons as to why people singled me out. For one thing, I was a Christian Scientist in a school with a 70% Jewish population. Never mind that my mother was Jewish. Christian Science is a very strange and, for most people, unsettling religion, based largely on prayer healing. People who follow Christian Science—and I was very devout as a child—don’t believe the material world exists; they don’t go to doctors and they don’t get vaccinated. Early on, much of the mockery that set off my hair-trigger sensitivities focused on my religious faith. Eventually, though, the grounds for the taunting became that I was so easy to provoke. A feedback loop of mockery started; I was attacked for being a “spaz”, which then caused me to “spaz out”. It was ingenius, really. Few people are more inventive than children who want to hurt other children.
Not only was I a confirmed spaz, I was also a proud, self-described weirdo. Gonzo was my favorite Muppet. I sang loudly in the school hallways as I walked down them. I memorized Monty Python and Firesign Theater routines from cassette tapes and recited them without prompting and out of context. I worshipped artifacts that washed ashore from the sea of my parents’ tastes onto the islands of my loneliness: Tom Leher, Simon & Garfunkel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Yellow Submarine. I did not know how to be “with it,” and in reaction I claimed loudly (and falsely) that I didn’t want to be.
The play-by-play generally went something like this: Assume a 4th grade homeroom. Institutional blue carpeting. Distracted teacher. Greek Myth-themed board game. I roll the dice and land on a square: You find a healing potion, advance two spaces.
“Hey, you can’t move forward.”
“What? Why not? It says move forward two spaces.”
“You’re a Christian Scientist. Christian Scientists can’t use healing potions. You have to pray if you’re injured.”
“That’s not how the game works.”
“It’s how the game works if you’re a Christian Scientist. I wouldn’t want you to violate your beliefs.”
“It’s not a big deal. Don’t be such a spaz.”
Spaz. Here it comes. I stand up, upend the board game and storm out of homeroom, throwing a chair against a wall as I depart. My classmates try to conceal their laughter as they wait for the teacher to send me to the Principal’s office.
The school never punished the other kids. It was a private school that had dug itself into a financial pit and decided to get itself out by relaxing the “personality requirements” for wealthier students. The school began admitting what my parents derisively called The Potomac Crowd: the uber-privileged Washington Insider set, whose members barreled through life entitled to just about anything from mega Bar Mitzvahs to immunity from punishment. Tuition went up, financial aid went down, the school got noticeably less diverse and even—gasp!—some Republican kids started attending.
The Potomac Crowd crested over our hapless teachers. Our school’s biggest point of pride was its status as the first integrated school in the D.C. area. We called our teachers by their first names; they weren’t used to disciplining students, and some students couldn’t be disciplined because there was a new high school to build and the school needed their tuition and their parents’ donations. One student was expelled after bringing a pellet gun to school, six months after I reported him for menacing me with a box cutter. A consortium of wealthy parents pressured the school to let him back in, and the school caved, sending a letter to the student body that cited his “sterling social record” as the reason for their turn-around.
Not that I had much right to complain. The school’s lax discipline was the only reason I could remain there. Any other school would have thrown me out for my furniture-tossing routine the third time it happened, rather than permitting it to continue into the 7th grade.
I had only two friends, fellow residents on the Island of Misfit Toys. David Hanlon was a red headed musical genius who adored the same comics, books and music that I loved. We met at a Halloween party in the 3rd grade where, unbeknownst to us, we had both been brought to meet each other. A mutual friend of our parents had suggested that their two sensitive loner sons might hit it off. He was dressed as Harpo Marx. I was dressed as a tube of toothpaste. We played X-Men for three hours. A year later, he transferred to my school. The other friend was Andrew Clute. Andrew was a blond and good-looking, and lived a rich life of fantasy which in an adult would probably be called pathological lying. He was a stalwart friend, though. And besides, he had a cracked cable box on which we could watch the Spice channel.
Christian Scientists don’t go to doctors, let alone psychiatrists, so I made regular trips to Practitioners, religious consultants who help Christian Scientists use prayer and Bible study to heal themselves. My faith gradually diminished as I sat in musty studies talking to earnest elderly ladies (including my own grandmother) about the Book of Matthew and the life of Mary Baker Eddy. Somehow, this would heal me of the illness of Junior High. It never worked.
There aren’t very many advantages to being a Christian Scientist. Studies show that you’ll live a shorter life. You get diseases like the mumps that other kids get immunized for. No one understands your faith, and they mock you for it. One great advantage, however, is that you can get out of school by pretending to be sick very easily. Your parents have no objective measurement to figure out if you are lying or not, and you don’t have to suffer through an unpleasant doctor’s appointment for your trouble. I perfected a Ferris Bueller act to get out of going to school, which worked until I got greedy and tried pulling it once a week.
Things got worse at school and at home. Seventh grade loomed, likely disastrous. Things with David and Andrew weren’t working out. Tripartite friendships are almost impossible to sustain. Alliances shift. Power adjusts. Needs fluctuate. Our three-man gang was a fortress against the outside world, but we were the enemies within, enacting our anger and our need for control on each other. The cycle of mockery-spazout-punishment continued apace. By Christmas break, I had regular dreams of gangs of teenagers invading my house to kill me; I was afraid to be left alone at night. No one knew what to do with me.
No one save Stacy, my drama teacher, who loved me dearly. I got along better with adults than children, and was Stacy’s favorite student. As an outcast, I had no social cache to protect, and thus dove into whatever cornball world of make believe she conjured up for us that day. My steady diet of Piers Anthony, Ursula LeGuin, Spider-Man and Nintendo probably helped, too.
Stacy saw that I was creative, and she informed me that a theater in Washington had posted an open casting call for 12-year-old boys to play the role of Jason in William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettoland, a musical about homosexuality, the AIDS crisis and the American family. Falsettoland is the third part of a trilogy of one-act musicals about a man named Marvin, his wife Trina and his son, Jason. In the previous two parts (In Trousers and March of the Falsettos), Marvin leaves his wife Trina for a man named Whizzer. Meanwhile, Trina falls in love with Marvin’s (now former) psychiatrist, Mendel. Marvin and Whizzer break up; Trina and Mendel get married. Jason worries that he’s gay and discovers that he isn’t.
In Falsettoland, the year is 1982. Marvin and Trina bicker over Jason’s impending Bar Mitzvah, while Marvin and Whizzer get back together. Whizzer suddenly gets ill from a mysterious illness—something contagious, something that spreads from one man to another. Jason has his Bar Mitzvah in Whizzer’s hospital room, Whizzer dies during Jason’s Torah portion as he sings the word “father” in Hebrew. Marvin and Whizzer’s ghost sing a duet about their love and his death. Do you regret? I’d do it again. I’d like to believe that I’d do it again. And again. And again.
At auditions for Falsettoland, I sang two songs: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Comedy Tonight.” For variety, I suppose.
I landed a callback audition, this time for the show’s director, Joy Zinoman. A diplomat’s wife, fluent in Mandarin, with a salt-and-pepper bob and a heavy smoking habit, Joy founded the Studio Theater and was in the midst of guiding it through a massive capital campaign to purchase its building. She asked me about school, I sang my songs again. They taught me 16 bars of “The Miracle of Judaism, Part I,” where Jason debates who to invite to his Bar Mitzvah: the sexy (shiksa) bad girls or the good girls he can bring home to mama.
Back at school a week later, my mother pulled me out of class. Her office clothes were visible beneath an unbuttoned overcoat and she was out of breath. But she was smiling. And then she sang. She sang to me in the same hallways I embarrassed myself by singing in, belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” My mother can’t sing to save her life. I didn’t mind. I was in. Following a whirlwind of contract signing, a passel of acting classes and negotiating schedules with my school, I was a professional actor before turning 13.
I was the youngest person involved in the show. I had little craft. I didn't know my place in the pecking order. I didn't know I couldn’t ask the other actors questions about their characters or performances. I didn't know people took saying Macbeth seriously. I learned. Quick.
At our first rehearsal, I met Romaine Fruge, the actor playing the part of Whizzer. Everything about Romaine was incredible and new, from his peculiar lettuce name and his Centurion good looks to his New York area code and his status as the first openly gay person I ever met. He fascinated me. I had just learned there was such a thing as homosexuality when preparing for my audition, and now here one was! A real live homosexual! I followed him around the dingy, beige rehearsal room like a mad scientist observing his most wondrous creation until he asked me—politely but firmly— to give him some space.
Romaine wasn’t the only gay man I met doing the show. The stage manager, the backstage crew, the light board operator and the dramaturge—not to mention most of our audience—were all queer as soup sandwiches.
This was how I came to understand AIDS. I knew what AIDS was, of course, but I had never met anyone who had it, much less watched a loved one die from it. On a visceral level I was unaware of the waking nightmare that reduced people to incontinent skeletons, shivering, afraid. A nightmare that seemingly came out of nowhere and killed you several years after whatever mistake or twist of fate gave it to you. A nightmare that was destroying theater in America from the inside out, taking some of its most promising artists before their time. A nightmare that was being neglected because of who it killed. A nightmare that our President didn’t want to talk about. A nightmare that was front and center in our show.
Falsettoland was a hit. A big hit. It ran for a hundred performances. People recognized me in the street and asked me for my autograph. One night, the Gay and Lesbian Square Dancing League of Washington came to see the show, and we performed in front of a voluntarily sex-segregated crowd. I was interviewed, twice for The Washington Post and once for The New York Times. This seven-character show featuring (to quote its opening number) “homosexuals, women and children, short insomniacs and a teeny-tiny band,” was exploding out from a small 200-seat theater into the gay centers of Washington, D.C., and they were responding in force.
I also started meeting gay kids my age. Laura and Hugh were a year ahead of me in school, about to depart for the high school across town, a move that felt like the Jews leaving Egypt for the Land of Milk and Honey. Everyone who hated the middle school wanted to go to the high school, which was large enough for kids to find their niche. Hugh introduced me to Lester, and we immediately did the opposite of hitting it off. My number of friends more than doubled; I once had two, now I had five. If I included the adults I met working in theater, I had a whole group of people who cared about me.
Abruptly, I stopped crying in school. I stopped throwing things. I stopped being hurt that people didn’t like me. I got political. I got angry. And I started looking for ways to provoke them right back.
This all happened in the early 1990s. Gays could be thrown in jail for having consensual sex in the District of Columbia. Homosexuality wasn’t talked about in the news, it wasn’t talked about in books I was reading and it wasn’t talked about in school, even in Sex Ed at a proudly progressive institution. Hugh and Laura told me that at the high school, gay and gay-friendly students and teachers had to meet in secret, first as the “Chess Club” and then—when they discovered that some students might come to a Chess Club meeting expecting to play Chess— as the “Philosophy Club,” a name certain to scare off the curious.
Less than three months after Falsettoland closed, David Hanlon and I were both cast in Quilt: A Musical Celebration, a musical about the AIDS Quilt, which was scheduled to visit Washington right when the show opened. The musical was made up of vignettes, each inspired by a panel of the Quilt. David and I split the role of a kid who stages a puppet show to raise money to make a Quilt square for Liberace. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense and I was terrible in it, but there were some great songs. Political songs. Angry songs. Provocative songs. I went from singing Simon & Garfunkel in the hallways to shouting a song whose chorus was ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT AIDS!
I started to get questions about my sexuality. I was talking about homosexuality constantly, even more so than the handful of out kids at the High School. The Sex Ed teacher wouldn’t bring it up, so I did—so many times that I got hauled into the principal’s office just to make sure “everything was okay” and that I wasn’t “having any problems.” Let’s face it: I fit the profile. An exuberant musical theater actor with gay friends who talked about AIDS all the time.? A social outcast who showed no outward interest in girls? A young teen who is friends with a group of grown gay men? Come on.
My parents made polite, oblique inquiries about my leanings until finally, while she was washing the dishes one night, I asked my mom: “what would you say if I told you I was gay?”
The kitchen was dark, with only the fluorescent bulb over the sink alight, my mother’s hair haloed in its harsh whiteness. She paused, but didn’t turn around to face me, holding a plate in one hand and a sponge in the other.
“What would I say?”
“Are you telling me you’re—”
“No, no. I’m just wondering. The thought had to, you know, cross your mind at some point.”
My mom returned to the plate. “Yeah, sweetie, it’s crossed my mind. Uh…I guess, uh, I guess I would worry about your safety, and your happiness. I’d worry that people would hurt you for who you are and that your life would be difficult being gay at your age. But, uh, that would be my only concern.”
“Okay,” I said, retreating upstairs to do homework.
During the whole conversation, we never made eye contact.
The shameful truth is that to my super-privileged self, gay people were extraordinarily glamorous. Or, if you must, fabulous. To come from the hell they no doubt must’ve come from, I assumed, and to be so talented, and outspoken, and funny, and such good singers! And the love sign we flahsed at marches matched the one Spider-Man made while spinning his webs! I heard a woman on the Metro declare that the only areas of D.C. worth going to were the ones filled with gay men because gay men created culture and my heart swelled with pride. Not Gay Pride, since I wasn’t gay, but pride that I agreed with her and I knew where the gay people were! Hanging out with gays I could get some of their unprivileged fairy dust to rub off on me, and make my unexceptional rich kid life more “interesting.”
My older sister called me out on this a few years ago, when our younger brother (who actually is gay) sprained his ankle and chose to spend a week in a wheelchair. When he was in middle and high school, Lee joined a theatre troupe called Deaf Access and—like myself with homosexuality—began talking up disabled rights issues the same way that most kids his age talked about Pearl Jam. I was making fun of his hyperbolic reaction to his hurt ankle when I said, unkindly, “God, all his life, Lee has wanted to be handicapped.”
“That’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you were 13, you wanted to be gay more than anything in the world.”
“I… uh, that’s not true! It’s just that everyone thought I was gay so I started thinking I must be gay too!”
Her eyes narrowed to little slits. “Uh-huh.”
I deserved her skepticism. I knew I wasn’t gay, but I desperately wanted to have my outsider status stem from something inherently differentabout me. I wasn’t poor like Bill, the other student in my class everyone mocked. Bill had second-hand clothes and big, boxy glasses, like a scientist circa 1956. His mother was a ballet teacher; his father was so behind on child support payments that they had to garnish his wages. I resembled the Potomac Kids far more than I didn’t, and on some level I knew it. I wanted to reject their world by embracing another, but I couldn’t fully join that alien land that I visited, the one that had helped me grow, treated me like a star and gave me a suit of armor to help me survive the outside world.
The odd thing about trying to outrage people by confirming something they already think about you is that it isn’t particularly outrageous. Within a week, no one was talking about the fact that I had recently come out with a statement as preposterous as “I’m bisexual. But I like men better.” No one cared. No one other than me.
This nonchalance toward my fauxmosexuality was a godsend for two reasons. First, Hugh and Laura, both of whom knew I was straight, never heard about it; it could have cost me their friendship. It also meant that over time I wouldn’t have to keep up a front of being gay. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to stay at a school for five years where everyone actually cared about the fact that I was gay, given that I really, really wanted to make out with girls.
A few years ago, my best friend came out to his family at the age of 40. Ahmad is a first-generation Palestinian-American who grew up in suburban Chicago. Ahmad is the oldest son of two immigrants who gradually built a successful grocery store business and fought to “protect’ the inside of their house from the modernity of early-70’s America. His parents raised their children to believe that the world outside their home and grocery store, outside the sphere of their familial embrace, was frightening, deadly and not to be trusted. Given their extreme outsider status as Palestinians at that time, this wariness of the new world around them was justified, but the world inside the family was just as dangerous. His mother was abusive and frequently accused her children of having illicit sex with little evidence or cause. His father was cruel and distant. He grew up regularly being called faggot and enduring beatings by his several younger brothers
The threat of violence—inextricably linked to Ahmad’s homosexuality—hovered at the edges of his life, always just backstage, waiting for its big entrance. As the only one of his brothers singled out for taunting and abuse based on alleged faggotry, Ahmad believes that everyone always knew he was gay. So he fled. He fled Chicago. He fled his family and his old life to start again in New York City, a place filled with people escaping their old lives and threats of violence to start anew. My own ancestors came to New York and settled in Manhattan Beach for that reason, fleeing pogroms in the late 19th century.
Ahmad was the only one of his family to get out. A few of his adult siblings still live in their parent’s house.
Several years after Ahmad moved out of his parents’ house—which he describes as “like 16th century Palestine”—he moved in with an Arab-American secret boyfriend. They joined the long, unfortunate tradition of gay couples living together in fear as “roommates.” I asked Ahmad what the fear was, what would have happened had his family found out that his roommate was his boyfriend. “They probably would’ve killed him,” he replied, matter-of-fact. That boyfriend is now married to an Arab woman, he and Ahmad no longer speak.
It took Ahmad 15 years in New York to build the life that provided him the freedom to come out to his family. When it happened, his parents told him that he had been led astray, should never have left home, should move back to Chicago and acquire a wife like the one they had tried to arrange for him when he was young. It was hardly the reaction he had hoped for, but he didn’t come out for them; he did it for himself.
When we talk about Ahmad’s childhood on the phone or over brunch or on the subway, I feel ashamed of my own adolescent identity politics dilettantism. For him, the journey to come out of the closet was a harrowing, decades-long struggle. For me, it was a way to provoke some assholes and prove a point about discrimination against gays and lesbians. Ahmad came out of the closet in order to be himself. I came out of the closet to flee myself and the privilege I was ashamed of. I did it never doubting for a second that I would be safe. That I would face no serious repercussions. That I wouldn’t be expelled from school. That I wouldn’t be physically assaulted. I was already a social outcast with little to lose when I “came out.” If Ahmad had come out when he was my age, he could have lost his life.
Six months after I came out of the closet, I entered a class in Shakespearean Acting for young teens. We learned the basics of scansion and diction from a not particularly talented ensemble member of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre named Catherine Frye. Catherine was held in high esteem because she was British. She resembled a bird with reading glasses dressed in librarian’s clothes, and was barely able to hide her lack of enthusiasm for putting her young charges through their paces. The class was held in a well-appointed living room that someone emptied of furniture before we came in every Saturday. We declaimed the Bard’s words surrounded by tasteful carpets, dark wood accents, and an upright piano no one used.
I hated the class. Wasn’t I already a professional actor by now? I had been in a hit show that had run for a hundred performances. The musical about the AIDS Quilt had led to marching with panels from the Quilt in Bill Clinton’s inaugural procession, during which I made the love sign to Al Gore and he made it back to me on national television. I had just finished another stint at the Studio in the play Imagine Drowning. Yet here I was, learning nothing. Also, class meant hanging around with a new group of people my own age..
One day, as we sang “Under The Greenwood Tree” from As You Like It while prancing about in a circle, one of the two other boys in the class said to me, “Oh look, we’re like the gay rights march!” He was probably trying to be nice, to make a friend with another boy in a theater class by asking me to recognize that the only thing faggier than taking theater class is singing and dancing while taking theater class.
He didn’t know who he was messing with.
For a moment his remark hung in space like a fermata between measures in a song, I considered telling him I was gay. I hadn’t been living that lie with any enthusiasm for quite some time. The pin that started it all collected dust in my bedside table; Please Don’t Feed or Tease the Straight People in pumpkin and black became Some of My Best Friends Are Gay in black and white. The musical about the AIDS Quilt had long closed, and the Quilt itself in all its horrific, tragic grandeur had been packed up and shipped off to somewhere else.
I had learned by now not to make big scenes lest I get in trouble. I leaned in and whispered, “go fuck yourself” as harshly as I could under my breath so Catherine wouldn’t hear. He responded by telling gay jokes around me whenever possible for the next eight weeks.
There was one upside to the class, however. I met and fell in love with a lanky brainiac named Dorothy.
Dorothy was taller and smarter than me, and she knew all the antiquated references to things like Monty Python and Simon and Garfunkel that I had acquired on the Island of Misfit Toys. Most importantly, we had just met. She had not known me since kindergarten like every other kid I knew. She didn’t know the embarrassing stories of chair discus, of tears, of near-autistic hallway singing habits. She had, however, read my interviews in The Washington Post. I could recast myself not as the Depressed Outsider but as the Bold Artsy Loner. Soon after I decided not to tell my male classmate that I was queer, she and I began dating. I went from being my eighth grade class’s only gay student to its only one with a girlfriend in less than a year.
In May, as the fetid, swampy summer began devouring D.C.’s gorgeous spring, the Capitol City played host to the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. In stark contrast to the candlelit solemnity of the Walk Without Fear, the March on Washington was a joyous, chaotic, sweaty mess. My firiends and I once again marched, and once again people looked to us and smiled, and gave us pro-gay merchandise, and cheered us on. This time instead of a pin, I got a roll of stickers telling people to boycott Colorado, which I then affixed to most of my binders and my backpack.
The March on Washington was the last gay rights march I attended for a long time. With Clinton in office I thought I could relax. A decade earlier, our president had willfully ignored AIDS, letting it kill tens of thousands of people. Now we had a leader who “got it” on a deep level. I thought that a popular Democratic president with a popular Democratic congress ensured that soon the walls surrounding gay rights would crumble for good.
I was optimistic, upbeat; I thought we had won, I thought we had momentum to carry us through the battles ahead. I thought I wasn’t needed anymore. I was wrong, but at the time, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and The Defense of Marriage Act weren’t even on the horizon. The battle for marriage equality wasn’t on many people’s radar. The biggest issues were forcing Colorado to repeal its recently passed anti-gay laws and convincing the Supreme Court to strike down provisions against consensual sodomy.
So we marched, holding placards, singing songs, chanting, laughing, sweating. We held our hands aloft with thumbs, index fingers and pinkies extended, a one-word gesture from American Sign Language: Love.
Last week, Ahmad called me from Chicago, looking for a moment of escape from his family. Shortly after Ahmad came out to his parents, his father’s mind began to deteriorate. Demented and largely incapable of expression for well over a year now, Ahmad’s father has finally moved to hospice care, and it seems the end is near.
Despite their past and despite Ahmad living further away from home than any of his siblings, he spends more time taking care of his father than anyone else. Ahmad flies home regularly and sits with his father, making sure that his father has Arabic music that he enjoys in the CD player in his bedroom, keeping him company and trying to make a dying, scared shell of a man comfortable in his final days.
It took a year of visits home, but Ahmad achieved something he never thought possible: he has forgiven his parents. They have not asked for this gift, nor is it clear they know of its existence, but it is an extraordinary act of love. I ask him if being there in Chicago is what he really wants to do, if he really thinks they deserve his love or his time, considering the hell they created for him. “I’ve made my peace with all that,” he tells me. “I just feel that I am in a different place. I’m in my forties, I’m in graduate school; it’s difficult to be angry with my father anymore when I see the state he’s in. I’m ready to be a different person with all of this.” Then he tells me about how one of his older brothers kept calling him a “fucking faggot” over and over again while their dying father lay asleep on a hospital bed between them.
When Ahmad returns from Chicago, we’ll get back to the work at hand. Seventeen years after my coming out stunt, I will walk down the aisle at my wedding. Musical genius David Hanlon will play the ceremony. Ahmad will stand behind me, in a very ordinary act of love, as my best man.