Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Unhappy Days

We were two deeply hurt persons. I was in that curious space of fearing that I was gay, knowing that I was gay, being absolutely convinced that I couldn’t be gay, worried that my parents would find out….

…that I was gay.

How was all this contradictory thinking possible? That, Dear Reader, is precisely the point: I was all over the map, which meant that confusion and fear ruled the day. Or rather the long days that stretched into years.

A young man showed me, some years ago, the photo his mother had taken of him and his boyfriend sleeping together in a hammock in their backyard. It was remarkable on many levels: that he had been comfortable enough to expose his intimacy so casually to his parents. That his mother had thought it charming, and had taken the photo. And lastly, for me, was that the young man had found nothing remarkable about his mother taking the photo. He valued it for nothing else than the memory of that day, and of that love.

For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, it was all very different. We enjoyed the doubtful pleasure of being both sick and criminal. So you got it from both ends: you were going to have bitchy, short-term relationships for the rest of your life, since everybody knew that male homosexuals had fragile egos, and could never sustain a relationship permanently.

That, of course, was for the liberals, who were pitying us. Ah, but the conservatives knew better: we were not sick, we were disgusting, and if caught had to be taken away, put before the judge, and charged. That, then, would get into the newspapers. So there would come the knock on the apartment door: hadn’t you signed a lease in which you agreed not to engage in “immoral behavior?”

You probably hadn’t, since who ever reads a legal contract? You were busy trying to figure out how you were going to pay for the apartment, and how you could sneak in your lover. Yes, that’s what we did, and if you were slightly effeminate—or he was—the tongues would wag.

In fact, I had read the contract, and protested the “immorality” clause. Which had led my landlord to demand just what in hell I was planning to do? Surely I didn’t do anything immoral, nor was I planning to, right? Or did I?

I caved and signed the thing.

One stopped noticing it, after a while. Friends would make fag jokes—you would laugh. People who were more obviously gay would be singled out, and jeered at—you would join in. The people who were most homophobic, of course, were most likely to be secretly gay.

There weren’t many places to go. There were the parks, but that was tricky: that really good-looking guy—was he really gay? Or was he a cop. Oh, and he’s early twenties and got the body of a Greek god, and you’re mid-forties, and your belly shows it. But he’s definitely cruising you, and what if he just is into older guys? Are you going to pass up….

Wait—another possibility. What if he’s straight? ‘Cause then it was two things: he’s going to jump you, slash your face up with a knife, break some bones, and—worst case—well, remember Matt Shepherd? You know, left to die on a barbed wire fence in Colorado?

Oh, but then again, it may just be a robbery. Which, of course, you would report if you were out at night returning home from your church’s choir practice. But do you really want to explain to the police what you were doing at Hoyt Park at 11 o’clock at night. So it was, as the old saying had it, easier than stealing candy….

Of course, now you think maybe it’s too complicated, too risky, and besides, Hoyt park in the middle of the night in January? You’re going to expose your private parts to that?

The bar! Oh wait—wasn’t it raided last week? You know, the typical scene: cops coming in the front door, the gay guys rushing out the back door. Oh, or jumping out the bathroom window, since it’s surprising how agile you can be when the cops are at the door…

That left the dirty bookstore, since by the sixties, there were two or three in Madison, Wisconsin. The first, on the main drag, had the glass windows painted out, and also the First Amendment painted in full on one of the windows. Yes, it was a heady combination of high-minded liberal thinking and good old-fashioned smut.

The front of the store sold the magazines, the paraphernalia, the “novelties” and, later, either the 8 mm films or, later., the VHS tapes. And you had cruised the Goodwill store for a film projector, undoubtedly donated by some suburban dad who had no more use for home movies. Had the children grown, or had the divorce occurred? Anyway, it was there, and even on your student budget, you could buy it.

Or, of course, you could go into the backroom of the porn shop. There, the management had put in booths. You would close the door, put the five dollars of quarter you had bought by your side, and then stick the first quarter into the slot of the machine on the wall. The projector was behind you; the grainy film would unravel on the white screen on the back of the door. After a minute or two, the film would stop: it was time to insert another quarter or two….

This is not that sort of blog, so I won’t be too explicit. I do bring you, however, two facts: there were large holes cut between the booths, and do I have to tell you they were at waist high? Oh, and the management at one of the joints had thoughtfully hung up a paper towel rack—it even occasionally had the towels themselves!

That was your life, and is it any wonder that many of us just decided to skip the whole thing? My cello teacher was a beloved conductor of the local youth orchestra, he never married, and he lived with his mother. I am sure his mother is dead, now. I’m also sure that he is still living with his mother. In one sense at least.

So one misstep, and you lost quite a bit. There was your job, of course, since even if all you did was add up sales figures, well, who wants to work with a fag? The apartment was gone, too, and that would be interesting, explaining the reference of you past landlord to your potential future one. You family would be appalled, and you tried to imagine, would it be moral indignation, shame, social ostracism, or horror? And which would be worse?

In the midst of all this, it occurred to me: I could just fade away from the family. After all, if I didn’t call, didn’t visit, wouldn’t they just, well, forget about that third son? Oh yes, now what was his name? So I began priming the well by being just a bit cool, when my mother called.

She, of course, was in panic. Was I on drugs? What had she done? Or had I, as I finally came up with, just awoken from a nap, and was groggy?

The depression started. I planned my suicide. And I told my friend—yes, that friend from the first paragraph of this post. Well, I told her about the suicide, even though I knew or sensed….

…that she was in worse trouble than I.