The Culture of Groping

The women next to us were stunning. Super-model on a magazine cover good-looking.

One, who I called Alice in my head, was in a sleek and snug crystal-colored dress that hugged her frame tightly. Her shoulders and upper chest were bare, showing off her impressive cleavage. Her arms were bare, her makeup light, and her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. She danced effortlessly, arms in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying back and forth. Her handsome husband (both wore wedding rings) stood behind her, wearing a button-down shirt, dark pants, and a jacket. He looked like a Mafia-Man with slicked back hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing build. He watched Alice closely, delighting in her enjoying herself.

The other woman I named Prudence. She was like the hottest librarian I’d ever seen. Tight black sweater, gold necklace, horn-rim glasses, short black skirt, bobbed blonde hair. She danced against a man who must have been 7’1” (like actually this height, I’m not exaggerating), a man who looked like an oil baron of some kind. He danced against a pole and laughed loudly and made fun of the people around them. (“What’s grandma doing over there? You think she’d call the police if I accidentally knocked her down?”) Every time he stood up, the people behind him sighed in frustration, unable to see the stage.

I was there with three gay friends, in a busy 2nd floor concert bar called the Depot in Salt Lake City. The crowd was electric and diverse. Women in their sixties, girls in their late twenties with their reluctant boyfriends, gay men in their 40s, middle-aged lesbian couples, college students, people of every race. I was having a blast people watching. As the opening band finished their set, the club started to get busy, and everyone started to close in toward the stage, pressing against each other, in anticipation for the evening’s main entertainment, the woman they had spent $40 each to see tonight: Elle King.

I’d never been a fan of Elle’s, but I am always happy for new experiences and was thrilled to join my friends. Elle came out in a form-fitting black shirt, black pants held up with a belt and a giant gold belt buckle, and a pink cowboy hat. She had swagger, charisma, and a command of the stage. A few songs in to her set, I leaned in to my friend Cole and said, “I can totally see why you love her. She’s amazing!” There was a smokiness to her voice. She sang blues, old westerns. and love and hate songs, and all of them were delivered with a feminist bend. She sang with sheer girl power, unashamed, and the audience ate it up. I wasn’t liable to go buy her album, but I had to admit, she had some serious charisma and talent when she performed.

A few songs in, I was dancing back and forth near my friends when I felt a hand grab my ass. I turned around in shock and literally didn’t know who had done it. Then another hand grabbed my ass. I turned around and saw Alice, in the crystal-colored gown, smiling. “It wasn’t me!” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “Okay it was me the second time, but the first time, it was him!” She pointed to my other side, where a gay man with far too many piercings stood nearby. He winked. I sighed and turned around. Then another hand grabbed my ass.

I turned back around and Alice was right there. “It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help it!” Then she placed both of her hands on my chest and rubbed them over my shoulders and down my arms. “So good!” she yelled, and her husband started laughing behind her.

Over the next few minutes, Alice went on a groping spree. She grabbed Cole’s ass, then Tyler’s, then Josh’s. The she grabbed the ass of a girl nearby, and then the girl’s boyfriend. She turned around and grabbed the boobs of the woman standing behind her and yelled, “I’m having fun and I’m hot and I can do whatever I want!”

I watched the crowd react to her with curiosity, confusion, anger, and surprise. No one really said anything. Everyone smiled uncomfortably and kind of laughed it off. This gorgeous woman was grabbing everyone in the area as her husband laughed. It was some sort of game. She was pretty and drunk, so we will put up with her groping, we all silently agreed somehow. Alice eventually stopped and then returned to her husband, grinding against him as Elle continued to sing.

The gay man tried to grab my ass again and then pressed himself, but I distanced myself from him, delivering a clear non-verbal message that I wasn’t interested. I remembered a few months before in a club when another man had aggressively groped me in a club even after I told him no multiple times. Here I was in this safe space with a feminist artist, getting groped by a man and a woman both.

I thought about Alice and her groping spree, and how everyone just kind of laughed about it uncomfortably and shrugged it off, even though it was very uncomfortable for the most part. I thought of how the tables would turn if it was her husband grabbing people. Both the men and the women would be uncomfortable, outraged. A fight would likely break out. When he yelled, “I’m hot and I can do what I want!” as he grabbed a woman’s boob, he would likely get punched in the face and have the police called on him. Then I wondered how the crowd might respond if they considered her less attractive, or if she wasn’t there with her husband watching over her. How would the other women on dates react? What about the single men?

I realized this was likely rare in clubs, this thing where women groped other men. This woman was clearly drunk and determined to enjoy herself, and she clearly thought it was okay. Gay men grope other gay men far more frequently in clubs and bars. And straight men group women everywhere and seemingly always: women dealt with this at work, at bus stops, in restaurants, while shopping. I can’t imagine. I was feeling violated and impatient after these few encounters. What must it be like for them?

I started to relax a bit, even as the crowd jostled and pushed around me, getting more drunk. The music was good, and I let my body sway with the bass line and enjoyed the people watching. Twenty minutes or so passed, then I felt a hand at my neck. Fingers gripped the collar of my T-shirt, then, before I could even turn around, I felt freezing water pour down my shirt, followed by a few jagged ice cubes. My shirt was tucked into my shorts, and I felt the ice land at my waistline and stop there. As I turned around, I was already untucking the shirt to let the ice fall free to the floor.

My anger spiked as I turned around, already thinking I was glad it was water and not alcohol that had been poured on me. I expected to see the grop-y gay man behind me, but instead I saw Alice. She was holding her plastic cup, now empty, and she was giggling with delight, like she had played the best joke on me. Behind me, her husband was laughing hysterically, as were Prudence and the giant. I was not amused, and I let my anger out in a soft but stern tone, unfiltered.

“What. The. Fuck. You grab me, you grope my friends, repeatedly. You grope everyone around you and think it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny. And now you are fucking pouring ice down my back! Bitch, you don’t know me. Back the fuck off!”

I watched Alice grow pale and back away from me. I hadn’t threatened her or advanced on her, but she knew I was very, very angry. Her husband ushered her behind him and put an arm out toward me to hold me off, although I hadn’t moved. Behind me, the crowd still danced to Elle’s music.

“Hey, whoa, man, back off,” he said.

“Reign her in, dude,” I said with derision. “I didn’t fucking deserve that.” And he quickly moved her away.

I had a hard time enjoying myself after that. I was far too sober for this. I got jostled a bit more by the crowd, but no one else was groping. The wet streak down my back was cold at first, but then just stayed wet and took time to dry. When I lose my temper like that, I immediately get sad and angry at myself. I regretted what I had said, especially the word ‘bitch’, which I try to avoid at all costs. I could have said fewer words and delivered my message effectively. But I also had a right to be angry. The groping had been too much, but the ice water was way over the line.

I drove home thinking of lofty terms like feminism and consent, feeling free and feeling safe. I had been having such a nice time before all that, and the admission had been expensive. I hadn’t asked for that, and it wasn’t warranted.

A few days later, I attended a party with a group of gay men, and told this story. Several of them shared stories about straight women going to gay clubs and groping the gay men while dancing and drinking. Women grinding up on them, women grabbing their hands and placing them forcibly on their breasts, women unzipping their pants. Yet when I asked them, the men each admitted they’d been groped by other men at the clubs far more frequently. It was just that the attention from other men was generally more wanted due to the attraction. And they all agreed that women likely deal with this much more frequently.

I’m left with a lot of thoughts after this experience, but I’ll close with this:

Alice, wherever yo are, I bet you’re a really cool person. You like Elle King, and you can definitely dance, and you seem to have great friends. I bet we could have some fascinating conversations. I bet you deal with a lot of sexual harassment in your day to day life. And I bet it is almost universally unwelcome. Just recognize that I celebrate your  right to go out and have drinks. But if you want to grope someone, or pour ice down their back, stick to the people you know. Because you left me feeling violated and angry. Your actions kind of ruined my night. I had a right to be there just as much as you did. And no matter how hot you think you are, you don’t get to just do what you want. You’re responsible for yourself even when you’re drinking. Actions have consequences, and I was your consequence that night. This is an era where politicians are being removed from office for behavior like this, and you aren’t a TSA agent.

I’ll keep my hands to myself. You do the same. And let’s start changing the world around us by starting with ourselves. My sons learned this rule in the first grade. Let’s apply this rule to grown-ups, too.

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The Sexy Cop at Gay Christmas

“Maybe I could actually pull this off,” I told myself, surveying my costume in the mirror.

I’d purchased a “sexy cop” costume for forty dollars at a local costume shop. It came in a small compact plastic back that fastened together with a small snap, like one you’d find on a pair of jeans. When I got home, I opened the back up to look at its contents. A police cap of cheap material with a plastic bill. A small vest that would fit over my shoulders but leave my chest and abdomen exposed. An armband that would go around my bicep, one that read Sheriff on it. A pair of black leather briefs with a zipper along the front. A silver star to pin on the vest, like something my kids might be handed by a cop at a family parade. And finally, a small plastic nightstick, 1920s/Keystone Cops style, one I could twirl around like a baton or perhaps slap against my own hand for emphasis.

I looked at myself in the mirror, turning this way and that. My chest looked good. My arms looked great, especially with that little band to emphasize the definition. My legs were strong. I turned and felt like my ass looked nice as well. Turning back, I realized the zipper over the crotch was a nice touch, kind of left the imagination working. And while I wasn’t super proud of my abdomen, I figured I could just kind of keep my gut sucked in all night at whatever party I was going to and just see how it turned out.

This was my third Halloween since coming out of the closet. I was 34 years old, and while I hadn’t quite achieved the type of body I hoped for, I was in great shape for me. Somewhere along the way, I learned to quit caring what other guys thought about me. I mean, either they were into me or they weren’t. I wasn’t for everyone, nor was everyone for me, and that was fine. I liked my body, especially given the fact that I’d weighed 80 pounds more just a few years before. But still, this was Halloween, and I was going to be wearing a ‘sexy’ costume for the first time, and I didn’t have a ton of body confidence. “Maybe I can’t pull this off,” I muttered, changing back into my regular clothes.

When I first came out, a friend jokingly told me that Halloween was kind of a ‘gay Christmas’, meaning that gay men took it very seriously and went all out. I’d known growing up that there were all kinds of ‘sexy’ costumes for women. But I had no idea how seriously gay men treated this idea of ‘sexy’ costumes. I spent Halloween in 2011 at a gay club called Jam. I wore a costume, something simple and not at all sexy, I think I was a 1930s mobster guy, and I went out dancing with friends that night, and I’d been astounded at the costumes. Sexy Mario? A guy wore a red hat with an M on it, a fake moustache, and a red jockstrap that literally left his ass hanging out. That was it. Sexy Tarzan? A super buff guy in a loincloth, under which he wore nothing. I know because I saw him lift the loincloth several times to show people. Sexy Angel Moroni? A lean, muscled guy who basically wore a diaper, painted himself gold, and carried a plastic trumpet. Man, it really was gay Christmas.

So was I sexy enough to pull off a sexy cop costume? Or should I go back to a more traditional costume, something that covered my body? Ugh. I had to try it. I’d been invited to two Halloween parties, and dagnabit, I was going as a sexy cop.

I showed the costume to a female friend, and she fully encouraged me to go for it. I asked what she was going to be that year: a sexy cat, a sexy witch, a sexy nurse perhaps? She laughed and said she was far too feminist for that. When I suggested she should try maybe a sexy suffragette, or maybe a sexy Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she was not amused.

The first party was on a Saturday afternoon. I went in a bit nervous but confident. My best friend Kurt was there, and as I exited the bathroom in my costume, he threw his head back and laughed with joy. “Yes! You did it! And check you out, you sexy, sexy man!” I blushed as others from the party came to look, and I ended up getting plenty of attention that night. I spent the evening snacking, having a few glasses of wine, and feeling a little bit shy as I fended off veiled comments about the nightstick and the handcuffs. And then, at the end of the evening, there was a vote for various costume categories, with prizes awarded at the end. Funniest, most original, etc. And guess who won the sexiest costume award? The hot cop. That’s right, this guy. Maybe it didn’t matter that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 11 years, I still got the award, and it was a nice ego boost. (When you’re a gay dad with young kids, and you have a lot of gay dad friends with older kids, well, this wasn’t so unlikely).

But the next party, that would be the real test. It was a huge house party, with an expected 150 people going. This was a younger crowd, full of athletes and professionals, many of them men who spent hours in the gym every day. This was a party that would start late and go all night. There would likely be drugs in quiet corners, groping and nudity were a given, and I’d expect some guys would have quick sexual encounters behind closed doors. This was the kind of party some of Mormon friends warned me about when they told me not to pursue ‘the gay lifestyle’. It would be out of my element, but I desperately wanted to fit in in this crowd. It was a lifelong need for me to fit in, a primal part of me left over from my adolescent days when I was the gay kid with the straight guys, feeling less than them but in love with them all at once, yet always picked last for every sports team. I needed to fit in here.

The party started at 7 pm, it said on Facebook. So I arrived at 7:02. I was the first guest there. The next few arrived around 8:45. When I’m not careful, the dad part of me shows up very clearly. And so I helped the hosts set up snacks, I had a strong drink that one of them mixed for me, and by the time the party was really going, with loud ‘nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts’ music blaring all over the three story house, I was good and sauced, a rare occasion for me. I chatted a bit, yelling into some guy’s ears, introducing myself to others, dancing a bit in the main room. There were sexy guys everywhere, ripped and toned, with muscles on their muscles, and I felt very exposed in comparison. I drew a few eyes, but the Charlie Brown tree hardly stands out among a forest full of sequoias. Clearly I needed one more drink.

Someone handed me something homemade, and I took it without much of a thought. It was sweet, and I drank it a bit too quickly. It was about 11:30 pm, and the house was full of people. I went back out to the dance floor and saw a sexy construction worker making out with a sexy Superman (he was shirtless with a red S painted on his chest), and the music kept going nn-ts nn-ts nn-ts. I started to dance a little, and then quickly realized that something was very wrong. My head was starting to spin, and my heart was beating faster, and my stomach was seizing a bit.

Now the next day, I would make sense of all of this. I either drank too much too quickly, something I had literally never done before, or that drink I’d been given had been laced with something. It was very likely the second, because I learned later that several other people from the same party had similar side effects, so I’m guessing it was probably something in the drink. Regardless, I had to get out of that room, where the bass was thrumming in my head and in my stomach, and it had to be now.

I fell against a wall and kind of leaned into it down the hallway to the bathroom, where of course the door was locked. I slumped on to the floor and covered my eyes with my hands, and my brain felt like it was swimming around in my head, just turning and turning. The door finally opened and two drunk and giggling gay men, one of them in some sort of sexy Pikachu costume, came stumbling out, and I crawled in, kicked the door closed behind me, managed to lock it, and then proceeded to vomit. And then again, and again. I threw up until there was nothing left to throw up, and then I dry heaved a few times, and sat back against the wall, where my head was still swimming. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but someone finally knocked and shook me to alertness again, and I stood up, flushed the contents of my stomach away, and washed my hands before opening the door.

It was sexy Pikachu again, with yellow ears, yellow briefs with a lightning bolt tail, and a Pokeball hanging from each side of his shorts. “Hey, hot cop costume!” he said, tracing his finger down my stomach and to my leather shorts. While such attention in this setting might welcome in different circumstances, I was seeing four of the shirtless Pokemon bouncing around in the air in front of me, and I simply muttered a thanks while holding on to the wall for support again. I found the stairs and used the banister to pull myself up. There were three bedrooms upstairs and only one was unoccupied. I made my way inside, lay down on the floor by the bed instead of on it for some reason, and watched the dark ceiling twirl above my head as I lay there.

I must have stayed in that spot for three hours. At some point, freezing there on the floor in my sexy cop costume, I pulled the comforter off the bed and onto the floor, where I covered myself with it. Shortly after that, two drunk men came in to make out with the door closed, and they continued even after they saw me, perhaps thinking I was asleep, or perhaps just too drunk to care. And then, I fell asleep.

Around 3 am, I woke up on the floor. I’d turned on my side, the sheriff’s star poking hard into my chest, my trusty nightstick still near my fingers somehow, the handcuffs still hanging from the side of my briefs. The room wasn’t spinning, but now my head was thudding terribly. I got up, saw two people sleeping in the bed, and exited the room. I heard someone vomiting in the bathroom, saw about 8 people passed out in various rooms of the house, and realized the music was still playing. Nn-ts, nn-ts, nn-ts. I turned it off, found where I’d stashed my keys, and exited the house. There was more vomit in the driveway.

As I drove home that morning, I thought of my children, and the way they grounded me. Sometimes I resented having all that responsibility. I’d started my life so late. I hadn’t come out until I was 32, which was also the age when I first kissed a man, first had authentic sex, first stopped hating myself. Sometimes I sat around and felt sorry for myself, for all the time I lost. No college parties, no backpacking across Europe, no crazy adventures with a first love. I’d missed my 20s somehow, spent them being a responsible Mormon boy. But an event like this, with loud music and strong booze and promiscuous hook-ups and revealing costumes, well, they might make a fun story to tell one day, but they ultimately weren’t things I really wanted. They were just thinks I thought I wanted. I’d much rather have A drink, hang out with a FEW friends, and be in bed by midnight so I could wake up to the sounds of my children. A night out from time to time would be wonderful, but I certainly didn’t need a headache like this to show me a good time.

I got home, unzipped my leather shorts, un-velcroed my arm band, slipped out of the vest with the sheriff’s star, removed the hat, and hung up the handcuffs and nightstick. Then I slipped on a pair of baggy blue sweat pants and a tent-size T-shirt left over from the days when I used to be fat, popped a few Ibuprofen, and collapsed on the couch, where I would sleep as long as I could. I certainly never wanted another hangover.

I smiled to myself as I fell asleep, though. I’d won a ‘sexiest costume’ award. And I’d gotten drunk at a party. That was enough, once, I told myself as sleep beckoned. That was plenty sexy enough.

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Sunday Night Drunks

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The old man grabbed Mike’s shoulder abruptly, then physically turned Mike to face him. “Saaaaaaaaaay! A little longer with me-saaaaaaaay!” He sang nonsense words in an off-key drawl, trying hard to harmonize with the inane music blaring from the overhead speakers. The words didn’t match at all.

“You know a guy like me and that’s over there,” he nodded his head toward the bar as he slapped Mike’s shoulder a few times, then he stumbled toward his bar stool, sat down, and took a swig of beer. He wore a long sleeve pullover and a ball cap over a pair of beige shorts, and he was likely in his late 60s. He immediately conjured images of Bobby Moynihan’s character Drunk Uncle from Saturday Night Live a few years ago.

Working hard to contain my laughter, I leaned in and whispered in my boyfriend Mike’s ear. “So that just happened.”

He turned to me, mock horror on his face. “What was that?”

And I just grinned. “Clearly, he is very interested in you. He tried serenading you! And then a guy like him and that over there!”

Mike fought off laughter. “What does that even mean?”

A feigned look of seriousness crossed my face. “Look, you have a free pass tonight. If you want to go home with that very handsome man, you are certainly allowed for tonight only.”

“No thank you!” Mike pursed his lips and narrowed his eyebrows, staring me down, then we both burst out laughing.

The bartender, a thick barrel of a man with a full beard, whispered an apology to us. “Guys like that, drunk this early on a Sunday night, well, let’s just say I’ve seen him do worse than that.”

We both ordered a gin and tonic, then sat down at an empty table to sip our drinks and chat. The bar was mostly empty. After a long weekend of hanging out with the kids, running errands, and working in the house, we thought we might head down to the local gay bar, the Sun Trapp, for an evening drink. I wanted to go early, Mike wanted to go late. It was a holiday weekend, I reasoned, so maybe it would be busy early, giving that Labor Day was the next day. So we compromised and arrived at the bar at 9:30. He was right, it was dead.

Random conversation between us varied from topic to topic. We discussed guys we used to date, our high school graduations, and what we had looked like as teenagers. We laughed at old family stories and held hands across the table. I watched through the window to where a solo man, clearly very drunk, gyrated on a dance floor all by himself to a techno-version of some song that should never have had a techno-version of it made. All in all, it was a lovely evening. I commented on how this didn’t feel like Salt Lake City, this felt like some small town gay bar in an unfamiliar place on a week night. And we laughed about that as we finished our drinks.

A half hour passed as we chit-chatted, and we decided we could do one more drink before heading home for the night. (I had to work in the morning, but he’d get to sleep in). We went back up to the bar to wait our turn, then heard a man walk up behind us.

He made a clicking sound with his tongue, appraising us uncomfortably, then he walked up to the side and looked us over. “Well, Charlie,” he said to his friend at the bar, “look at these gents. They don’t have an ounce of fat on them! Not that I’m complaining!” Mike gave an awkward laugh and avoided eye contact as the man continued. He clearly hadn’t looked closely, as there is at least one ounce of fat on me. “I mean, I don’t mean to be friendly, but as much as I enjoyed the view from the back, look at the view from over here! I better not be too friendly, Charlie, or the next words to come out of my mouth will be ‘drop your pants!'”

Mike gave me a look that indicated he wanted to roll his eyes. Just then the bartender indicated to the drunk old man that had been singing that his cab had arrived.

“I ain’t gettin’ in no cab!” he slurred. “I know I ordered it, but I ain’t going! And I ain’t cut off, even if you say I am or was!” He struggled to stand up from his stool, clearly outraged in his drunken stupor.

The new man continued speaking, and I finally looked over at him. He looked like a hippie, with a bandana around his head, and a long beard that extended past his rib cage. His face was old and weathered. He wore a baggy t-shirt to hide his ample stomach, and a pair of jean shorts.

“Not that anyone is asking me, but a few years back, I up and quit everything and now I’m driving a truck! I can have anybody I want back there. A while back, my brother-in-law told me he needed to find me a girlfriend, but I just told him, I don’t need no girlfriend, I just need me a sex slave! He called me crass, but I’m not afraid to say it! I’m 63 years old, what do I have to lose! Nobody wants any of this anyway! Now I just gotta find somebody who does!”

My attention went back to the previously singing man. “I’m not going, I say! I want one more!”

By the time I could turn back, the truck driver was hitting on a girl who had lined up behind me at the bar. “Well now, a pretty girl like you needs a drink! What do you want, honey?”

We left shortly after that and headed home. I contemplated all of the little bars in all of the little towns around the world, all with drunks just like these guys, early on a Sunday night, flirting blatantly with whoever walked in front of them. It was entertaining, but heartbreaking also in its way.

Sober and content, I drove toward home, jabbing Mike with my elbow.

“You were very popular this evening!”

He wasn’t flattered. Not at all.

A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

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The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

A Place I Used To Live

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Back then, the word ‘Gay’ was tossed to the side, put in a dark place in my brain. It represented selfishness, debauchery, sin, darkness, and evil. It belonged on a list of words that represented similar ideals, words like Abortion, Alcohol, War, AIDs, Drunkenness, and Democrat.

I had been raised to love all people, it’s true, and I was taught that God loved all people the same, but still, those who were Gay, those who chose such a lifestyle, they were to be kept at arm’s length, they belonged over there somewhere. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could tell them with words that I loved everyone, but I was not to allow them to influence me, to be a part of my life, or I could be tempted too far, influenced too much.

And so, when I arrived in Philadelphia in early 1999, at age 20, I got off the subway with my new companion, Elder Shoney, and I wheeled my suitcase behind me down the concrete paths toward my new home. I had a backpack over my shoulder, filled with my scriptures and journals, and containing a glass jar in which my pet fish Caliban lived. (The fist was against the rules, shhh. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have pets.) Sweat dripped down my back, under my white shirt and garments. Although I had been a missionary for a full year at this point, I hadn’t ever been to a city this size, and it was completely overwhelming.

I looked like I was 16 then. I was sad inside, shut down, fractured. I was going through the motions, embracing the ideals I was raised with. Prayer, scripture study, knocking doors, teaching when I could, more prayer, more study. I knew I was gay by then, but I had long given up finding a cure.

Elder Shoney and I walked through the narrow streets of Germantown, and I realized that I saw no white people here. There were black people everywhere, women, children, grandparents, families. I occasionally saw someone Hispanic. But no white people there, just us, just these two young boys. We walked farther, past storefronts covered in graffiti, with garage door-style bars that would lock securely to the ground at night to protect from theft and vandalism. Elder Shoney told me that we should be in by dark every night, “cause that’s when it gets dangerous in the streets here.”

We walked over a street and into the nicer area of town, where the houses shifted from stacked row homes into larger structures with porches, windows, and backyards. A kind and successful black attorney owned the home where we would live. I wheeled my suitcase up the front steps of the house then carried it inside, up two more flights of stairs, to the apartment where I would spend the following nine months. I wasn’t excited,  I wasn’t scared, I was just ready to continue the monotonous daily work of the missionary for another year until I could finally go home and start my life.

Fast forward to 2018.

20 years later, I found this same house, the one I lived in back then. I stood on the sidewalk in front of it. On one side of me stood my sister Sheri, my gay sister, taking a few days away from her wife to come and see me during my vacation in Philadelphia. On the other side of me stood my boyfriend.

“This is where I lived,” I told them. “For nine months. I thought I would be here four, maybe six maximum, but some special circumstances kept me here for nine, then I finished my mission out in northern Delaware. Twenty years ago. Man, twenty years.

“That’s the mailbox where I’d get between two and eight letters per day, making my companions jealous. I walked up and down this street hundreds of times. Down there, I would catch the train to the subway to the bus that would take us to church, and it would take an hour each way. That two mile radius over there contains what we naively called ‘the ghetto’, filled with these beautiful African American families, and so many churches, and so much poverty. It was so unsafe for us! There are good people here, of course, but there are also gangs, and we had no protection and no training.”

My mind raced with the memories. “I lived here with four different companions. Elder Shoney, who was a basically like a brother to me; we had so much fun. Elder Borne, my greenie, who was so clearly gay; we knew each other were gay, and we were both so depressed; he thought our home here was such a disgusting mess until he saw where the other missionaries lived; he threatened to throw himself off the roof just so he would have a reason to go home, and eventually he did, and when he left, I just stopped caring.  Elder Donner, who was such as asshole, so holier-than-thou, so bossy; he once kicked a door while yelling ‘Fuck you, Anderson!’, and that was the day I got mugged and knocked unconscious. Elder Sanders, who was so-so nerdy and hilarious.

“I baptized three people in this city. William, a 13-year old boy whose mom had died and whose dad was in jail, and his grandmother Clarice, the woman raising him. She was so sweet, and she had no teeth, and she wanted her grandson to have a church to go to every week with kids like him. (Boy did she pick the wrong one). And I baptized Nyoka, a gorgeous college student. I don’t know where any of them are now.”

I went quiet for a moment and turned around, pointing down the street. “See that hair salon? That used to be St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas. We went to so many churches here! I learned so much about religion! Race! Privilege! Life and ethics and fairness. This city taught me so much, but I was a scrawny little Mormon white closeted kid here, with no perspective, no experience. What was I doing here?”

I turned back to the house, letting the memories wash over me. I put my arm around my boyfriend, pulling him in close. Sheri and I talked casually about all of the changes we had been through. And then we turned away, hungry, ready for lunch somewhere.

I turned back to the house, giving it one last look. It didn’t feel like home. It never had. It was just some place I used to live.

Boozed

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My brother vomited on me when I was 7.

He came into the room drunk, at age 15, and vomited sticky alcohol on my bed, where I’d been sleeping. When I jumped out of bed, I landed in more of it, slipping in it and landing on the floor.

Twenty years later, I was working as a substance abuse professional  in a drug and alcohol treatment center on a reservation, primarily treating Native American clients. Despite having never tasted alcohol or drugs in any form, I assessed my clients on their alcohol struggles, pretending I was an expert. Teaching my group of adolescent males one evening, I assigned them to draw a picture of their first experience with alcohol, using markers, crayons, and colored pencils. On my blank sheet of paper, I drew a childlike image of my seven-year old self being vomited on.

During my time as a substance abuse professional, I saw some of the worst consequences of drug and alcohol dependency. Men who violently harmed others while using. Drunk driving related accidents that resulted in death. Children taken away by Child Protective Services due to parents using drugs in front of them. Sexual assaults. Prison sentences. And I saw the injustices of the system, stacked against the offender who has no money, endless lists of court requirements to accomplish that make holding a job and having family responsibilities impossible.

These experiences shaped my religious and cultural beliefs: that alcohol was bad, bad, bad. Growing up Mormon, I learned about the Word of Wisdom, a religious teaching that teaches Church members to avoid alcohol, drugs, and coffee. The teaching was pretty direct, but the culture that formed around it was one of distaste, disgust, and condemnation. I saw those who chose to drink alcohol, or worse, do drugs, as selfish, poor decision makers with little self-control who needed to make better choices and be called to repentance.

And then it was suddenly Christmas Day, 2011, and I tried my first sip of alcohol, a frothy taste of spiked egg nog. I was 33 years old. The drink was good, tasty, and I remember getting a feeling of anticlimactic awareness afterwards; I drank and everything in the world was still fine. A few weeks later, I tried my first vodka-cranberry, and a few weeks after that my first rum-and-coke. They were delicious and made me feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed. It took me longer to try beer and wine, hard alcohol and various mixed drinks. And I learned a very simple lesson: drinking alcohol is fun so long as you drink smart and responsibly.

I’ve come to love that loose relaxed feeling a drink can bring, like all the little wires of stress in my brain unravel and I just want to smile. It’s like slipping into a hot bath tub, that initial rush. Yet many make that fatal mistake of drinking more and more to prolong the result, but more leads to dizziness, muddled thoughts, electric brain and poor equilibrium and decision-making.

I’m 37 now and I still approach the world with a certain amount of naivete and innocence, but I do take care of myself. Last night, I went out dancing with a few friends. I had two drinks during the course of the evening, and smiled and relaxed and danced. And then I was done drinking and had water instead. I watched as some of the people around me started to get sloppy, slouching against walls, unable to stand up straight or walk well. I watched some get flirtatious with others, making their dates or spouses jealous. One man flirted with me aggressively until I rebuffed him, and I saw him ten minutes later drunk and asleep on a corner floor.

Many members of my family still have a very negative reaction to the idea of drinking. A beer in the fridge or a public mention of an alcoholic beverage elicits a sad, ashamed face, like the ones I give when I hear about some sort of deep offense or betrayal.

In most areas of my life, I dwell comfortably in the middle, on my own terms. I like alcohol, carefully paced and planned for, and enjoy the relaxation and sunny outlook it can bring. I prepare before I drink, making sure I’m hydrated and fed, and that I’ve exercised earlier in the day. Yet I get weary of those who drink too much or who don’t take care of themselves. Drinking responsibly means self-care before and after and arranging rides home.

My relationship with alcohol has changed a lot over the years. It can literally destroy. But a drink now and then is nothing to be ashamed over.