There's a cute little LGBTQ space in my Dad's hometown. And I started going to karaoke there about six months before the urge to be out and open was so strong. I'm only in town two or so times a year, so it seemed like a sort of vacation to hang out at this gay bar. Like it wasn't my real life.
But last time I was home, back in January, I went several nights to this place. It was here I had my first pass made at me. The guy I was talking to squeezed my leg firmly as he was leaving. I was so titillated and flattered that I totally forgot to react. Maybe it was an invitation, and maybe it was just appreciation. But it was certainly nice. I wanted to dance that night anyway, and the music was just getting started.
A few days later, I had my first drunken make-out session in this place. And then I knew it was all right. It would be all right. And all manner of thing would be all right. Then I knew what I needed to do to be real at long last.
So when I left to come back to Jersey, I emailed the bar. I told them my story. How the community they had established here in this town had assisted me with my decision. How I had been able to come home and be out and open and honest with myself finally. I offered my services to repay this debt. I DJ on the side, and love music. I wanted to entertain their nice, sweet crowd of eclectic queer folx.
To my surprise, they said yes. So I just had my night a few days ago, coming out here to see my family during my spring break. The night was super-fun. Quiet, but the people who were there were appreciative and loved what I was playing. It's not what you hear everyday, especially in Colorado. So they liked it.
I love funk music, anything basically in that style from 1967 to about 1976. I devour it. I study it. I know the histories of the bands and players and the labels. I indulge this love whenever I can. I basically fell in love with this kind of music when I saw Stevie Wonder singing "Superstition" on Sesame Street in 1976 or so. I adore the way hip hop and breakbeat musicians sample these classic riffs and breaks. I glory in its expression of defiance in the wake of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, when the promises of America were once again going to go unfulfilled for black Americans.
I see analogies in its exuberance and satirical edge to the process of LGBTQ+ liberation, and to my own experience as a gay man trying to come out. I identify with its totally sincere cynicism and joy and power and love. That's me. I felt funky in my life. As queer people, we are all funky in some magnificent way. So during this night I could share my love and vision with kindred spirits.
As I stood up at the DJ stand with my laptop, dancing and drinking, and chatting with patrons, I thought about how far I've come in this gay life. Still more or less feeling my way around. Meeting sweet men and other lovely people. Making friends and sharing the spaces in a comradely way. Figuring out who I am and what I like. I'm making headway on these burning questions, and I figure I'd like a boyfriend in about a year's time or so. I'm a relationship person I think.
But this is my life now. My gay life. And I love it more than I've ever appreciated life before. The dark shrouds that tend to cling to me have mostly passed. I think positively and with cautious, hopeful anticipation of the next weird adventure. It's so new to be real and authentic.
My wife said it would make me feel better. Turns out she was right. As usual.
I had been sick, I don't even remember with what. It was 2011. I was newly hired at my job, a freshly minted PhD with an incredibly rare and precious tenure-track job. I was still married, had been for about three years by then. The feelings inside me were started to surge by then. The alienation. The frustration and anger. The disassociation. When we made love, I felt like I was floating outside my body. A puppet of compulsory heterosexuality. Someone I did not know. I never meant to hurt her or anybody else. But I was disappearing.
So laying there on the couch of our apartment, she put on RuPaul's Drag Race on the computer. It was still on Logo then, free on their website with frequent commercials. It was season two, from the previous year. I threw myself into what I saw. Gay men, acting fiercely, performing an amazing art I had only ever heard of. They were funny. They moved their bodies in amazing ways. They shared their pain. They responded to their challenges. Some found victory and some found defeat.
I must have binged that show as much as I could. I could not stop watching it. I pained when Pandora Boxx was eliminated. I loathed Tyra's personality. I curdled in joy at Raven and Jujubee. I took sides in their arguments and rivalries. I played favorites. I was thoroughly lost in its glorious excesses. Artificial reality. Edited within an inch of its life.
But the experience it was sketching was true. Men learning to be their authentic selves through this imposture. This mirror distortion of gender performance. Drag is not meant to be reality either, but the twisting threads of experience that cling to it were absolutely true.
These men's stories stuck with me. They informed me of a world outside what I knew. Where the gayness inside me was all right, open, and free. Bent in a thousand lovely directions and set free. Their tongues spoke in a cant that touched secret stirrings within my heart. The diversity of their achievement and their struggle taught me that there are a million ways to be queer, and that no one can say any of those ways are wrong.
I always say coming out is not like flicking on a light switch. I was still stuck in a habitual place for many more years. I was loyal to her. I wanted to protect her and keep her safe. Don't think I am trying to make myself any kind of hero here — I failed her in a thousand ways. I failed myself as well.
Eventually she left and that was the way it had to be. I could see no other way. I didn't want to sneak. And I didn't want to lie. If I was going to be out — it would be fully out and proud. It would take a lot longer to be able to speak my truth.
And RuPaul was on every year after. As the show I grew, I grew. Every day a little closer. I could taste those words as they filled my mouth. Me. My truth. Until it rolled off the tongue...
The Tinder boy was already an hour late.
It was my first connection on the dating app and I really should have known better. The chatting had only been so-so, but his picture was cute, and what I knew about him seemed appealing. I had been advised by friends to just ask for what I wanted. So I proposed the meet-up at U-Bar. But he never showed, and then only texted he had forgotten about it three hours later.
I did what I supposed to do for the most part. I insisted on a public meetup (a must if you're going to do online dating). I had a plan to get home no matter what happened. I intended to pay my own way and let him take care of himself. I brought protection just in case. I was going to move forward because I wanted to and not because I was obligated or intoxicated. I have needs but I also have standards: I want to remember my first time with a man, and I want him to be sweet and solicitous.
Old me would have felt wretched and rejected and humiliated. That night I didn't even think twice about it and turned to my neighbor at the bar and started to talk. He seemed much more interesting. Put together. Successful. And handsome! And we just talked and flirted mildly. I touched his leg with my knee. I casually touched his back. It felt natural to do and neighborly.
We only half-watched the Super Bowl while chatting about travel and art. It was not really going to go anywhere it seemed. Just comradely really. We were fellow travelers in this big gay world. And I felt restored by the brief connection.
I got his number and a very chaste kiss when he decided it was time to go home. It was Sunday night after all. We both had work the next day. Maybe he'll call and maybe he won't. It's up to him. I would be flattered if he wanted to do something later, but my life does not depend upon it. I'll meet other fellow travelers on my journey and some of them will want to rub bodies together. Eventually.
My path is precious to me, and there is no point in hurrying along without control. Just let things happen in their due course. It's much more important to me to learn about this fabulous new world and meet people along the way. My body tells me it's more important to be seen, addressed, welcomed by others.
PS) Another friend of mine tells me that nine out of ten Tinder dates are no-shows. So I know it's not me but them. Why be on a site to meet new people if you don't actually meet them? And really if you think about it the whole thing is set up to make prospects as disposable as possible, sorted just on the most superficial of traits. I value myself much better than that.
The drag queen decided she was going to teach me to sing.
Two weeks ago, during my first visit to the Gayborhood I met this fierce lady, name of Carmen Can-Too. We've become close since then. I was in her apartment on a Saturday night with a karaoke machine. We had been hanging out all day so she could take some pictures of me for my online dating profile. We talked and smoked and cried and told each other stories of our life. Before I know it out comes the vodka and the microphone. And we sang. She listened to my offerings and liked my voice, but she said that she had notes for me. And boy did she ever. There was one song in particular she wanted to hear over and over again, until I felt it, remembered the words, and hit all the notes in as sweet and true a voice as possible.
I'm a big guy and I have a really loud deep baritone voice. I talk too loud most of the time. It comes in handy in my job as a professor at Local State University. And I love singing at karaoke, even though most songs are pitched at tenor or above. I had to learn to go higher than I might like. I even have an improbable falsetto. But I always try to sing louder than the music instead of letting the microphone do the work. So she was trying to teach me to go softer and hit the notes in my pitch range more truly. Breathe better.
Her singing instructions were an invitation of another sort. Stop singing the person you think you have to be. Sing the man you really are. Let them hear your true self, your unique savor of the notes and the words. Teach them what you stand for. So I got to hear this song over and over again, until it started to become my own. I've always loved it forever and loved the lyrics, but I never really thought about them very much.
The song is "Rainbow Connection" sung by Kermit the Frog in the original Muppet Movie from 1979. It's cute and sweet as all get-out, and it presents an adorable contrast to my usual fare of punk songs and hip hop.
I sang it over and over again, trying hard to follow her directions, and I found myself crying —voice heaving a bit to fight it — as I thought about what this song was saying. Especially the final verse, which goes:
Have you been fast asleep
And have you heard voices,
I've heard them calling my name,
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors,
The voice might be one and the same.
I've heard it too many times to ignore it
It's something that I'm supposed to be,
It just hit me like a ton of bricks, thinking about the source of those voices and their pesterings all those years. Me lonely and sad for so long, thinking that the night time was the only time I could be true to myself. Going to bed in compulsory straightness but dreaming big Busby Berkeley dreams — only to wake up straight again. Again and again, over and over. For thirty-four years. I learned to dread the sound of my alarm clock, and I never could foresee remit from this fate.
And there was Kermit all along, he and the Muppets reminding me of a truth so simple that it's tragically easy to miss. Be you. Be weird. Be true. Let it all out. Make the outcome even stranger than the premise. My favorite Muppet was always Gonzo the Great. He was so flamboyant and bigger than life, totally a queer character — he had nonconforming desires, he was fierce and totally convinced of his greatness. Though he always failed to achieve his fantasies, he always tried the next time in as weird a fashion as possible. The effort was what made him great.
So I guess the big question I have is that I believed everything else that the Muppets said. So why didn't I hear this part — the part that really mattered to my life — until now?
I try not to regret a youth lost in pursuit of somebody else's life. It was mostly my fault anyways. How can I ruin what's left of whatever with sadness, when there's so much out there to do? I can't. Bitterness would be fatal at this late stage in life.
Carmen Can-Too is one of my best friends, and three weeks ago I hadn't even dared to go out to meet anybody. Life changes and speedily. And it's never too late to be the person you deserve to be.
The voices have been calling me a very long time. Those queer voices (we contain multitudes, so there's never just one). Calling me home. I pretended I didn't hear them for a long time. Explored what I could. Admired what I could take in of gay culture from a distance. Loved queer and gender-ambiguous artists and musicians. But I tried to keep it at a distance. Told myself it was natural to feel these things. (Turns out it is, but that's another story...) That I was home in a drab, safe, straight world, and that my invisibility was just because there was something wrong with me.
There were always invitations to be myself. Kind and gentle men at the dance club I frequented in college were always interested. (Warren if you're out there, I made the wrong choice. DM me dahling!) Women who cultivate friendships with gay men tried to cultivate me (And I loved them for trying). But I'd always blush and thank them for being so sweet and go back into the isolation tank. Out and about but always self-deluded about who I really was. It was not a recipe for happiness. There were a few rare occasions I found myself kissing boys and really liking it. But something, some fear, some shame would always push me back to where I felt so wretched and alienated.
Of course when I was younger, gay men were still being decimated by AIDS. So there were fears. But my high school seemed to tolerate the out gay people who were there, so I never witnessed homophobic bullying. Society's thresholds of shame were enough to keep me in the sunken place. At odds with my body and my sense of right. Turns out I was letting the potential disasters keep me from feeling the joys...
After a divorce following eight years of marriage to a woman, I knew the queerness in me had contributed to this painful situation. I loved her, but I knew there was something else inside me. Something that would never be happy as long as that inauthenticity was there. My body longed to be true. Reality was slipping away. It threatened to swallow me whole. The prospect of another failed marriage was too much to bear. I knew I wasn't getting younger or any less gay. The time to act was now.
I spent two years in the darkness along the way. I convinced myself I was far too old to come out now. That no man would be interested in me. That clubs only played music I didn't like. That I was too drab to make it in a world of fabulous and fierce gay people. Nobody needed to tell me these things. I was my own prison guard.
But that changed. I dared to go out to a wonderful LGBT establishment when I was home for the holidays. At once something was happening. People seemed to see me. Talk to me. Welcome me home. I suddenly realized that there was this huge queer family out there, and they've been wondering where I've been all this time. I even got to kiss a cute boy for the first time in forever. Those kisses were welcome, desperately needed, drunken, and totally stupid — but nonetheless they were an imperative. What feels better, SG, safety or love? Choose now!
I chose the route of love. And that must be what we all choose who tread these roads. Connection as an authentic human being is worth everything else. Just because you've done something for 34 years doesn't make it right. It's never too late to be real. You owe it to yourself.
The nice people at NJGayLIfe.com were kind enough to allow me to share my journey with you all. This blog will cover many things I am interested in, but tend on focus on the closet and what it is like to be middle-aged and out and proud for the first time. There may be sad truths here, but there will also be much joy. I feel like a 19-year-old again, and I intend to make the most of my exploration and discovery — and ultimately find the love that makes me feel the happiest I ever have felt.
I live in South Jersey, but can often be found around Philly. If you see me come say hi. I'll be the short, fat guinea pig sitting on the bar. I'm bright orange, tough to miss. While you're there, please buy me a drink. This gig pays nothing.