Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

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When Worlds Collide

Collide

“Chad, I hope you don’t mind terribly, but may I ask you a personal question?”

Art, my Airbnb houseguest, looked uncomfortable as stood near the kitchen table. He was wearing a white button down shirt, blue and red patriotic suspenders, black pants, a stringy western tie, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. He took his hat off and held it in one hand, avoiding eye contact. His hair was wispy, stringy, combed over from one side to the other to make it look as if he had more hair than he did, and it was a bright startling white. His face was wrinkled, his hands knobby and covered in liver spots. But he was surprisingly spry for 85, here in town to compete in a square dancing competition. I had immediately liked him when I met him a few days before.

“Sure, Art, go ahead. I’m a pretty open book.” I was sitting at the table writing, with soft music playing, an apple ale cracked open as my fingers clacked on the keyboard. I was in a tanktop and sweatpants, and had the windows open behind me to let in the fresh rainy summer air.

“Well, it’s just, well, you’re single, right?”

“Mm-hmm.” I nodded once taking a sip of the ale.

“And–well, I don’t think you told me this, so I hope it isn’t intrusive, but your profile said you are gay, right?”

I smiled. He still hadn’t made eye contact. “Yes, I’m gay.”

“So you date men. But you aren’t in a relationship.”

“That’s correct.” I wondered why he was so nervous, and I wondered briefly if he was flirting. He was a perfectly nice man, but 85 was a little past my dating age range.

“Well, uh–“, he finally looked up at me. “Well, when I was using the kitchen earlier, I noticed that you had some drawings on your fridge by, uh, they look to be done by kids. And then I saw that you have some children’s toys over in the corner there, like a doll and some dinosaurs and such. I just wondered, uh, why you have those things here.”

I smiled again. “Well, Art, that’s because I have children. Two sons, ages 7 and almost 5.”

His eyes widened in genuine surprise.”You’re gay and you have children?” His voice was shocked and his face went a little pale.

“Yes, that’s correct. They live here part of the time.”

He held his cowboy hat in his hands. “Well, my goodness. Worlds collide.”

I tilted my head curiously. “What do you mean, worlds collide?”

He looked up, thinking before he spoke. “You just have to understand, I grew up in a different age. Back then, it’s just–well, you didn’t get to be gay and have kids both. Gay people hid. Or they moved to big cities to be around other gay people, where they wouldn’t be harassed. Seeing a man say he’s gay who also has kids, that’s what I mean. Two worlds colliding.”

I thought a moment. “I bet you knew a lot more gay parents than you thought you did. A lot of gay men and women married the opposite sex in order to have families, or to hide, or because they didn’t think they had any other choice.”

He seemed a bit frustrated and clutched his hat tighter. “Well, yes, but those ones might have liked men, but they weren’t gay. They weren’t walking around talking about being gay.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s fair. It is different now, though. A lot of people still hide being gay. But gay people can get married now. I have a sister who has a wife. And I have gay friends who adopt kids and are foster parents, all of that. The world is changing.”

Art looked at the floor, sad for a moment, then looked back up to me. “Well, you are a lucky man. Thank you for answering my questions. I thought maybe you just liked playing with children’s toys. I’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning. Good night, Chad.”

He turned to head back down to his rented space downstairs. “Good night, Art.”

Worlds collide, I thought. Such a dramatic turn of phrase. And I turned back to my keyboard.

the coexistence of Christianity and homosexuality

I didn’t expect this, not at all.

It is my last day in Los Angeles and I want an adventure, but a quiet one. I’ve been walking the streets, reading, thinking. The biggest thing I needed from this trip was just the opportunity to be anonymous, to be lost in a sea of people. I didn’t need dancing and adrenaline, fancy food or beaches. I needed fresh air and a sea full of people to quiet my brain and balance my spirit. I have been walking streets and following the directions of my heart strings for a few days. My feet are blistered and my shoulders knotted, but I feel wonderful and quiet and at peace. And now I have one day left.

And so I considered my options and chose the Getty. After a long bus ride (well over an hour to go just 10 miles or so), I rode a long shuttle up to the top of a hill and a collection of ornate white buildings and gardens form the J. Paul Getty Museum, an art gallery that is free to the public. Set up in 1954, it has houses variable galleries for people to walk through.

I step away from the crowd’s direction off the shuttle, wanting to be alone with my thoughts. I walk over a cactus garden, look at outdoor sculptures, and get a cup of coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor vending station. It is a picture perfect April day in California, with hills rolling in every direction, dotted with large and opulent homes, and the busy cluster of Los Angeles far in the distance.

After a time, I make my way inside. There are people everywhere. I see college students, families with young children, mothers and daughters, grandparents, gay couples, straight couples, lesbian couples, people from varying ethnicities many not speaking English. They move through the Getty at varying speeds, some stopping to talk in the center of rooms, some staring for ten minutes at one painting, some taking a photo of everything they pass, some speeding through and never looking up from their phones, some asking the staff detailed questions about the works of art.

I spend a long time in a series of galleries devoted to art work from the 1400s through the 1600s, most of it dedicated to the life of Christ. Many of the paintings are extremely explicit. The virgin Mary holds the Christ child with one hand and squirts milk out of her exposed breast into his mouth with the other hand. The devil stands over a group of humans who are engaged in a full on orgy, complete with exposed genetalia. A man slides a hand under a woman’s robe as it falls off of her, baby cherubs flying in the sky. Christ lies on the cross with open wounds, blood draining from his hands and side and head and feet as a group of women sob beneath him.

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I spend two hours in this first gallery, contemplating history, and wondering on the impact of Christianity on the lives and societies of humans, forming churches, pressing morals, setting trends, and influencing governments. I look at this detailed art, its rich and beautiful history, the textures and talents of it all, and feel overwhelmed.

I move into the next bustling gallery, full of photographs in black and white. It’s a startling shift. The images are beautiful. A powerful black male in profile. A stunning naked woman, arms stretched to the sky. A close-up on a drifting sheen of smoke. The photographs hang in every direction, and I wonder about their origins.

I find a sign that tells me all about the photographers/artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. It tells of their origins, their art and photography, their careers. They were lovers in New York City, it says, until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 65, and then Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42.

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My mind was spinning. I turned back around and saw the gallery with new eyes, the black and white stills framed in every direction. The same people buzzed through every which way. Couples, straight and gay. Grandparents, adults, children. They gave the gallery every bit the attention that the did the Christian arts and the gardens. My ears perked up, trained to be ready for people muttering about a gay couple getting their own gallery, about the immorality of it all. I wait for someone to be disgusted. And no one is.

What has Utah done to me, I wonder. I remember seeing a ballet just a few weeks ago with two women kissing in the number, and many in the audience turning away, scoffing in disgust, refusing to clap. I remember walking around town holding hands with a guy I was dating and people averting their eyes or giving looks of shock and disgust.

And then I stand here in this spot, in between the arts of Christianity and still photographs. Both galleries have nudity. Both are considered art. Both tell the stories of their painters. These two worlds that Utah tries to balance, art and art, Christianity with homosexuality, and yet here families and children walk through comfortably without notice.

I breathe in deeply, my heart full, and feel a few small tears in my eyes. This is what I needed, a chance to see life here, like this.

It is a feeling I will carry with me when I return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Scrumptious

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“Well, aren’t you just Mister Scrumptious?”

The older man had followed me into the dry sauna, where I had taken a seat on the upper bench, arranging my towel to cover myself comfortably. My skin broke out in a blissfully hot sweat right away in the scorching heat. I took a swig from my water bottle.

“You really are very scrumptious.”

I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge the first statement before he spoke again. This time I looked over, and nodded, muttering a thank you. He was likely in his late 60s, thin white hair brushed over his scalp. Wearing only a towel, the man was barely 5 feet 5 inches, his skin a bit sallow and spotted. He had on a pair of thick glasses that were fogged up, and I realized there was no way he could see me nod, so I said thank you a bit louder, then settled back against the wall, closing my eyes.

I breathed the hot air into my lungs, then held it there for a moment, clearing my head of the world outside. I was facing some big decisions in my life soon and it felt wonderful just to shut my brain off.

“Do you mind if I touch you a bit, Mister Scrumptious?”

I tilted my head slightly, curious and confused at this particular combination of words I had never expected to be spoken aloud. I kept my eyes closed. “Um, no thank you. But thank you for the offer.”

“What, you don’t like to be touched?” His voice was a mix of determination and frustration.

“Everyone likes to be touched sometimes. But I don’t want to be touched right now.” I felt my stomach contort with a laugh.

“Well, then, what are you looking for?” Now he sounded annoyed.

“I’m not looking for anything. Just relaxation. I’m here with some friends.”

The man paused, quiet for a moment, and he lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, your friends aren’t here now, but I am, Mister Scrumptious.”

This time I laughed out loud. He was certainly persistent. “I think my friends are out in the hot tub. Thank you again, but I’m just here to relax.”

“Oh come on, who comes to a bath house just to relax. Everyone here is looking for something.” His voice took on a whiny pout now.

I sat up and faced the man, who still had his fogged glasses on. He had his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. What was I doing here, I wondered. I was here in Denver on a road trip with a few friends from Salt Lake City, all of us formerly Mormon, all of us fathers through our previous marriages to women. Despite being in our 30s and 40s, we were still learning about gay culture, being gay, and how the gay community interacts. We had been sitting in our hotel room. Someone had mentioned a bathhouse and we had all curiously agreed that going to one would be a learning experience. After all, there are thousands of bath houses across the world, in every major city.

It was a Sunday afternoon when we found the facility, tucked into a back residential neighborhood, a single sign discreetly placed revealing its location. We had parked our car in the parking lot, which was tucked away from view, and entered the main room, a dark small space with a front desk attendant tucked behind a security glass window. The man had explained that only members could enter the bath house, and that we could purchase an annual membership for 25 dollars, plus a mandatory locker rental fee each time we used the facility. We paid for memberships, rented a locker, and were given a single key to an assigned locker along with a plain white towel.

We had entered the locker room, all of us curious about the new experience, stripped down, and put on our towels. I wandered through the building, exploring. The main floor had vending machines for snacks, coffee, and water. Down a long hallway, there were individual rooms that could be rented (higher priced than the lockers), each small with an individual bed and television (used for pornography). A few of the rooms had the doors slightly ajar and I could see men inside, their doors left open on purpose as they clearly hoped for some company. A small swimming pool and two hot tubs were available, one indoors and one out on a patio over a small grassy yard, as well as three separate saunas, dry and wet. A room sat off to one side with benches, and pornography played on a large screen.

A long stairway went down to the lower level, a basement where long darkened hallways twisted and turned in a maze-like pattern that was intentionally disorienting, leaning toward men being able to meet anonymously for sex. Various rooms were set up with bunks, benches, slings, and holes in walls. A few men stood in their towels in darkened corners, hoping to meet someone.

Outside in the hot tub, I had ruminated with my friends about the history of gay men. Millions of men who grew up in secret, telling no one about their attraction to other men. Connections to other men, including through sex, had to be carefully protected, discreet and anonymous, to protect families and careers. For decades, men had only met other men in public parks designated as gay meet-up spaces, at bars, or at bathhouses. Now, post-2010, being out as a gay man was much easier. Meeting other gay men through phone apps, dating sites, or public events was commonplace. Yet clearly there was still an appeal, a fascination for bath houses, the potential for anonymous sex away from prying eyes.

“Men do like their sex,” I had said. “In fact, if women enjoyed bath houses, straight men would be in these places all the time. Straight men use coercion and violence in the name of sexual gratification, yet places like this inspire such discomfort to others, hidden in plain site.”

We had had a long discussion about our former lives and where we were now.

And then I had walked to the sauna. I looked back at the older man with the fogged glasses, there waiting for me to show interest in him. I certainly wasn’t looking for random sex with an older man in a sauna, much as that might frustrate him.

“Honestly, sir, I really just here to relax.”

He got the flirtatious tone back in his voice, not missing a beat. “Well, I can help with that.”

My word. “Sir, really, you’re very nice but I’m not interested in that right now. We can have a conversation if you like, but I’m not looking for a hook-up.”

The man got up, tightened his towel around his waist, and headed toward the sauna exit. “Well, all right, Mister Scrumptious. But if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You’ll know where to find me.”

I thought of the man in the basement maze below and laughed to myself again as I leaned my head against the wall, thinking of humans and their history, and my place in all of it.