Learning to hate

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Hate.

Humans are the only species that hates. We dominate. We smother, choke, and silence. Anything that is inconvenient to us. Anything that isn’t like us. Anything that makes us uncomfortable. Even when, especially when, it is within us.

I was raised by a loving mother in a busy family home. She taught me to follow God, to love my neighbor, to be a good and ethical person who is kind and Christlike. Every Sunday, we sat in church and sang songs of the love of God while learning about family, service, eternal bonds, and sacrifice. It was idyllic. It was wonderful. Except I didn’t fit the mold.

I realized early on that I was gay. I didn’t have the words, but I knew I was different as young as age 5. And I learned to hide. I know I didn’t fit. I wasn’t like the other kids around me. God had made me different. The messages of love I was being taught became conditional, based on my ability to conform.

There were no hateful messages delivered across the pulpit in my Mormon congregation. There were no sermons on how gay people should burn in Hell. There was just no mention of gay people at all, anytime, ever. Mumbled conversations in hallways about the AIDS epidemic being a curse from God toward the immoral, yes. But no hate speech against gay people. And this silence spoke volumes.

Instead, there were reinforced narratives. Poster boards showing the paths that everyone takes to get into Heaven. Worthiness. Obedience. Sacrifice. Church attendance, scripture study, repentance, baptism. Ordinations, temple attendance, tithing, two years as a missionary. And then, marriage to a woman and children and service in the church for a lifetime. All to ensure that whatever came next, after this life, would be good. A life with God, rich with blessings and family.

And I didn’t fit into that. Right off, in learning how to blend in, I learned how to deny those deeper parts of myself. Every television show, every story book, every song on the radio reinforced that men were men, and women were women, and men were supposed to be with women. There was no alternative. I knew no gay people. I had no role models for a successful or happy gay life. There was only one path, only one way. And so I learned to hide. To lie. To seek a cure. To try and fix it. All without anyone ever pointing a finger at me that said “You are broken, fix yourself.” They didn’t have to point. I just knew I was broken.

Until I turned 15. When I was 15, I finally asked for help. And a kind religious leader gave me a book that was written by a long-dead Mormon prophet, a book written before I was born. Homosexuality is a sin. A crime next to murder. An abomination. A curse. A curable curse, but a curse nonetheless. It was detestable, horrific, a blight upon the land. I got the message loud and clear. Everything I’d ever worried about myself in silence was confirmed in print. I was broken. I learned to hide even more.

Hate can be subtle. It isn’t always like a fist to the face, sometimes it is more like shadow, creeping over walls and under doors, unseen until you learn to see it clearly. I didn’t fit. I was an abomination. God created me in his image, but he made me different. He loved me without condition, yet I was an abomination. He expected honesty and authenticity in service, yet I didn’t know how to face myself. I had no narrative, no ability to speak truth. And so I hid. In plain sight. For decades. He hated me. Those around me hated me. And I learned, early and deeply, to hate myself.

The boys at school weren’t so subtle. Manhood needed to be proven there. Athletic prowess, an interest in girls, a tolerance for pain, no show of emotions. Be a man. And anyone who wasn’t a man, they got called the humiliating names, the ones that every boy dreaded. Sissy. Fag. Queer. Homo. Fairy. Faggot. Fudgepacker. Playground taunts would go dark and extreme sometimes. “You can’t throw a ball, you fag, go die of AIDS.” Children saying this. Children.

And every word, directed at me or at anyone else, sent quivers through my soul. They shook me to my core. I was so scared of being exposed. What if someone caught me looking at a guy. What if I got a boner at the wrong time. When if I wasn’t good enough, man enough, at any given moment. And so I learned to hide, deeper and darker. I learned to lie even more. In order to survive.

When I mix these three origin stories: the suffer-in-silence child side, the not-man-enough-little-queer-kid side, and the God-created-a-monster side, it boils down a complicated stew of self-hatred. It’s a miracle I survived. It’s a miracle any of us did. I used to shut entire parts of my brain, my body, my psyche, my spirit. I shut them down so I could stop feeling, so I could try to survive. It physically hurt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror and call myself names for not being man enough. I’d sob my eyes out in anguished prayer while begging for a cure. I’d look girls in the eye and tell them that I was interested in them, of course, as I delivered some excuse for not engaging in physical activity with them. I hated myself, because I just knew that everyone hated me.

Hate.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned to hear and share the stories of others. My story is my own, but it is in no way unique. There are millions of other gay Mormons from across the decades who learned to be silent like I was, who learned to believe God hated them. They considered suicide, and in some cases completed it. They submitted themselves to therapy practices that promised a cure. They got electro-shocked, harming their brains in the hope of reducing or eliminating their sexual attractions. They got married and then cheated on their wives, hoping to never get caught. They were excommunicated, disowned, extorted by the police, and assaulted for being gay. In the worst cases, they were killed, by men who learned to hate other men for being gay.

And it isn’t limited to Mormons. Gay people in every corner of the world, in every country, culture, religion, and time period, have learned the same hate. In some culture, the hate comes from God and religion. In others, it is societal norms or government practices. Hatred has become generational. It’s in the DNA of gay people. It crosses every border and barrier. It is the shadow on the wall, the one I forget to look for sometimes.

I’ve been out of the closet for eight years now, and I love my life. My home, my job, my partner, my children.  I see a future for myself, where I once saw no future. And in my work as a therapist, and as a storyteller, I’ve learned to embrace the stories of queer people as they begin to sort all of this out and learn how to love themselves. They began to see clearly how they learned how to hide in their own homes. And then they start to look at the world around them and figure out how to live in it, how to understand and even embrace the hate and use it to propel themselves forward. It is an epic and exhausting journey, and one that gets easier with time.

And I don’t hate that at all.

In fact, I love it.

Love.

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5 Hate Crimes

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I’ve spent a lot of time recently researching gay hate crimes, especially those based here in Utah. Across history, there have been far more than you think, and most of them are never reported as hate crimes. As I talk about this research with others, I find how little understanding there is regarding what a hate crime actually is.

A hate crime is defined quite simply as “a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.” A crime. A crime can be a robbery, an assault, a sexual assault, any form of abuse, vandalism, battery, unjust denial of rights, unfair discrimination or harassment in the workplace or community, or murder.

When people do think of ‘gay hate crimes’, they tend to only think of “gay-bashing”, in which someone is beat or harmed for being gay, or, in extreme cases, murder. And they usually think of young gay men, not transgender women. They don’t think of rape or abuse or discrimination. And when you ask people to list victims of hate crime, generally only one name comes to mind: Matthew Shephard.

It’s important to understand hate crimes so that we can work to not only educate about them and prevent them, but to prosecute people accordingly. There is a substantial difference between a violent crime against a person, and a violent crime against a person who is targeted because of their minority status. We must protect our citizens, no matter who they love or what religion they practice or what gender identity they embrace.

Below are five brief examples of different kinds of hate crimes. And while you may think that cases like this are rare, chances are you personally know someone who has been the victim of more than one of these crimes, and chances are you personally know at least one person who has committed one of these crimes.

  1. Mike and Brad walked down the road hand in hand, chatting idly about their days, when the older man saw them. He crossed the street and began to taunt the gay couple softly with hateful words. He walked just a few feet behind them, muttering “faggots” and “sissies” and he told them quietly that they weren’t safe there, that they should go back where they came from, that he and his friends would teach them a lesson if they ever returned. He kept his voice low so no one else could here. The man followed them for two full blocks as they walked swiftly, hearts pounding and hands clutched tightly, hoping they were safe before he finally turned away.
  2. Jan was only out as bisexual to a few friends in college. She had a boyfriend now, but in high school she’d had a girlfriend, and she got different things from her relationships with women than she did with men. She’d had two drinks at the party when Adam started bragging to Jan that she wouldn’t like chicks if she had had a real man. She tried laughing it off, but he wouldn’t let it drop. And she didn’t notice when he dropped the GHB into her drink. Later, he got her alone and she lay unconscious while he raped her in her own bed. The next morning, when she woke up, he was still next to her.
  3. Tyler’s dad hit him for the first time when he was 6 years old. Tyler had been mimicking the moves of the dancers on television, and his dad angrily struck him, saying no son of his would grow up to be a fag. Throughout the rest of his childhood, Tyler learned to act tough, to pretend to be interested in sports, and to always talk about the girls he liked, because the moment his dad saw any sort of “weakness” or femininity, Tyler ended up hit. When Tyler was 12, Tyler’s mother told him to just wait until he was 18, then he could finally be himself out on his own, but that seemed like an eternity away, and his nose was bloody now from the latest blow, and he wondered if the world would be a better place without him in it.
  4. Jacqueline knew it was dangerous to walk home by herself, she’d heard the stories. But it was midnight and she had to work in the morning, and she didn’t want to  stay out with her friends until the club closed. Tonight she was in a gorgeous black dress with heels, and she had on a gorgeous blonde wig with red fingernails and lipstick; she felt like a million bucks. In the morning, she would just be Jack again and back at her desk job, where her coworkers had no idea she was really a woman inside. Jacqueline stepped into the crosswalk in front of her building when the car hit her. She never knew who it was inside it, but she hit the ground and moments later felt the car back over her again, and then again before it drove away. She heard the man yell “FAG!” as he drove away, and then she fell unconscious, head bleeding and bones broken. She lay there for several minutes before someone noticed and called the ambulance.
  5. Alison looked at the picture of her wife and newborn son on her desk at work and she smiled. She had never believed a life like this was possible, her legally married with a son at home, in a beautiful apartment in the city and with a job as a paralegal that she loved. That afternoon, she was called into the Human Resources office, where the director informed her that there had been… complaints… (there had been such weight to that word) about Alison flaunting her lifestyle in the office. It was bad for morale, she was told, and it was affecting productivity. The company regretted it, she was told, but they felt it was best for Alison to pack up her things and look for work in an environment that was more supportive of Alison’s lifestyle (that word again). Alison placed her family picture in the cardboard box of belongings and walked out, tears streaming down her face.

At this point in my life, I know hundreds of LGBT people. Very few of those I know have been the victims of violent or blatant hate crimes. But nearly everyone I know has experienced discrimination in some form for being gay–the dirty looks from people on the street, the hateful words from family members, or the refusal of service at a restaurant. It has never been easier for LGBT people to find love and acceptance. But hate crimes still happen, and our history is full of them. It’s important to talk about them, to understand where we come from, and to open dialogues about the dangers we face.

Because every human deserves to feel safe and to have basic protections in place.

 

Rock Hudson liked blonde boys

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Rock Hudson grew up when men were men.

And he liked men who were men.

Masculine men. Blonde, blue-eyed military men. Men with strong chests and big shoulders, big biceps and strong backs, thick legs and firm butts. Men who could drink themselves under the table, who liked steak and potatoes, and who looked incredible without ever having to set foot in the gym. Men who could hack down a tree with an axe. Men who pursued women, yet still liked men on the side. Men with power and ambition, and who knew how to get ahead. Men who held a cigarette between their index finger and thumb and smoked the masculine way. The straighter and more masculine the man, the more Rock Hudson wanted them to be gay.

When Roy Fitzgerald first became Rock Hudson, the stage name slected for him by an older gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson who knew good looks when he saw them, he was a fish out of water. He had fooled around with boys in the Navy, but it was all very hush-hush, and Hollywood was full of gay men. He realized he turned heads. Even with his ill-fitting clothing (he was 6 foot 5) and his body odor (he refused to wear deodorant, considering it effeminate), he approached Hollywood with a wonder. How had he gone from small-town America with a doting mother and an abusive stepfather to a world like this?

And after he became an international movie star and sex symbol, he had a big house on a hill and a fast car and the men were suddenly everywhere. But he realized rather quickly that being a movie star can be intimidating to others. Men were shocked that Rock Hudson actually wanted to be with him, and they got shy when things turned sexual.

Though he may not have started with one, Rock Hudson developed an ego. He expected people to take notice when he walked by, wanted their attention and applause. He settled down a few times with a few different blonde boys, men who were the right balance of physically perfect, driven, masculine, playful, and devoted to him. Men who were discreet in public, and affectionate in private.

He even married a woman once, Phyllis, just to see if he could. And he loved her, he did, but there were men out there, so many men.

Ego seems to come at a price, however, for when someone feels they are the most important person in the room, those someones tend to doom themselves to quite a bit of loneliness. No one can match the ego, and so no one can feel the void. And so there was the sex, and the alcohol, and the nicotine, and the cocaine, and the trips around the world. But the void just kept screaming.

A few years into making movies, Rock Hudson had to realize that there was always a next day. After months of being paid a million dollars to laugh with Elizabeth Taylor or to strong-arm Doris Day, there were the quiet months at home before the next movie came along. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were the sex symbol movie stars, and the character actors who supported them. And then a new era came along, when the character actors who weren’t sex symbols started getting the top billing. The public suddenly wanted to see Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, not Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

And the void got louder and still couldn’t be filled.

And like any human, Rock Hudson was complicated. He was giving and kind, young at heart, insatiable. He didn’t trust easily, and when he did he trusted well, yet broken trust could be impossible to regain. After a few years in the business, he could brilliantly convey emotion on the big screen, yet he couldn’t share his feelings even with his lovers and closest friends.

Rock Hudson lived his life in the closet, denying rumors of his attractions to men right up until the very end. In the last months of his life, as he lay weak and dying from AIDS, he wanted his story to be told. He hired a biographer, he encouraged his friends to be open with their hearts and stories, he came out publicly as homosexual, though he had denied the same claim for decades before it.

And at the end, at the age of 59, he was weak and small, though still 6 foot 5, and he went out of the world as quietly as he had entered.

In the end, like so many stars, he got what he wanted… he made sure the world would remember Rock Hudson, the identity created for himself.

But I would much rather remember Roy Fitzgerald.

a room full of gay Mormon fathers

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I should have been nervous. There was something poetic about the entire thing.

When I had first come out of the closet five years ago and moved to Utah, my friends Troy and Ryan, two gay fathers who had been together for years and had raised their kids together, offered me a place to stay in their basement for a time. My first two painful and liberating months in Utah had been spent here before I got a place of my own.

And now I stood in the same basement, a place I hadn’t been back to since I left it, and I was talking about my experiences with a room full of gay fathers.

I looked around the room at these men, all of them Mormon, or formerly Mormon, like me; all of them fathers who had been married to women, like me, though I only have two children and some of these men have five or seven or ten. Some were just barely out to themselves, some had just told their wives, some had just moved out on their own, and some had been out for a few years but still sought fellowship. Men in their 20s all the way up to their 70s.

I took myself back to that place in my mind, when the pain had been so raw and real, when even a conversation with someone about being gay brought me solace. All those years of silence, suffering on my own, just knowing that no one would understand. All those years with secrets. All those years desiring to come out of the closet and so very afraid that if I did, the consequences for my family and my loved ones would be devastating. Imagine telling the spouse you’ve built a life with that you are gay. I took time to remember the difficult months after my big announcement, and how it redefined every relationship in my life, and how I had to learn how to feel and have friends and to see the world with new eyes. It had all been so raw.

I’ve shared my story widely at this point, hundreds of times, to groups of students, to peers, on my blog, to friends, to men I’ve tried dating. And it’s difficult to understand if you didn’t grow up Mormon. Yet these men sitting and standing before me, dozens of them, they are all in the same place that I was just a few years ago.

And so we talked. I shared my story, and the story of nearly all the gay people I know. We talked about growing up and realizing you are different from others, learning how to blend in and hide by forming a secret self deep down within to cope. We talked about wasted efforts in curing a condition that can’t be cured by begging God for it and being great and stalwart Mormon men. We talked our decisions to marry women, and how that had been the only option. We talked about being let down by our religion, and about being fathers. We talked about the risks and benefits of coming out, how it would affect our primary relationships. We talked about hurting our loved ones when we didn’t mean to. We talked about navigating separation and divorce and how to be kind and fair at the same time. We talked about coming out to our children, our parents, our friends. We talked about the differences between guilt and shame, and how only guilt is healthy for we are all of us individuals with worth. We talked about integrity, and how lying to ourselves can be just as damaging as lying to others. We talked about spirituality, and embracing the things in our life that bring us peace, even if that means leaving the religion. We talked about hope, and love, and faith, and sex. We talked about the difficult process of facing puberty emotions as adults, because we never went through it as teens. We talked about heartbreak and sadness and joy and elation. We talked about how coming out did not not make life magically easy, but how it did make life so much more vibrant and wonderful. We talked about the history of religion and culture and policy and how they have influenced our heritages and histories. And we talked about the wonderful, delicious, and painful cost of authenticity.

After the presentation ended, many of the men approached me one on one with questions. “How do I tell my children that I’m gay when my wife thinks I’m evil?” “My mom told me it would have been easier for me to die in a car accident than to be gay. How can I ever forgive her?” “My church leaders think I’m being selfish. They say that the peace and acceptance I find among gay men is me being influenced by the devil.” “How can I choose between the life I have created with my family, my wife and children, and one that means I’m gay and single and divorced? How can I do that?” “I thought it was supposed to get easier. Why does it hurt so much?”

And then we broke for lunch. We talked, and laughed, and shared with each other.

As I left, a hundred stories from my own journey came to mind. All the love I received after coming out, and the 20 or so times people reacted really terribly and painfully. I thought of the people in my life, the love that I feel for myself and my sons and my friends. I thought of how Megan (my ex-wife) and I are so much happier now, but how we had to go through those hard times first.

And as I drove away, tears rolled down my cheeks, for these men and for their wives and children and families, and for myself. And I looked to the horizon, ready for all of the joy and love and integrity and authenticity ahead.

homosexuals on Nickelodean

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When I was 13 years old, I watched Nick at Nite nearly every night. Classic television shows, hilarious and entertaining. And I sought out other classic shows, watching them wherever I could. The Jeffersons. The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Brady Bunch. Bewitched. My Three Sons. The Donna Reed Show. Hollywood Squares. I Dream of Jeannie. The F Troop. Get Smart. The Carol Burnett Show. I Love Lucy. 

I didn’t watch a lot of modern television at the time. I was a good little Mormon kid who tried to keep things clean in my head and heart, and shows like Blossom and Friends were just too racy.

It must have been obvious to at least  few people that I was gay. I hated sports and was excessively creative, writing stories and planning parties, designing family activities and making treasure hunts for friends. Looking back, the signs were so clear. I looked longingly at boys in my class that I had a crush on quietly while the straight guys were cracking sex jokes about the girls they liked. In my mind, I had plans for a happy little Mormon home growing up, where I would have a wife and kids and pictures of Jesus and the temple on the wall.

And then Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet, and the world went nuts. Then Rosie O’Donnell. There must have been more, but the public controversy surrounding these two was enormous, they were names known in my household, and the world around me, in my small Mormon community, acted with disgust. I heard rumors about Ricky Martin, but no he couldn’t be gay.

More stars started coming out of the closet, and there was a general feeling of ‘ew, gross’ from everyone around. My ears perked up, and I began to associate, even more, with homosexuality being something disgusting, which meant I was disgusting. There were rumors about a couple down the street being gay, two women who lived together, and the kids in my high school scoffed. There was talk from people at church about God creating AIDS to help wipe out the gay population.

And adults longed for the morality of Hollywood years ago, with wholesome movies and movie stars who promoted family values. Only, some of these famous stars began dying of AIDS, and their attractions to men were being revealed. Rock Hudson. Liberace. Anthony Perkins. Freddie Mercury. And Robert Reed.

I had felt like I was the only one in the entire world. I had no idea my sister one bedroom over was also gay. I had no idea friends in my high school were gay. I had no idea that the world estimated 10 per cent of the population was gay.

But Robert Reed? Mike Brady, the father on the Brady Bunch, was gay. The epic father figure of the family that showed up in everyone’s households for decades, he was gay. I filed that away in my brain, unable to process it, for a very long time.

And it was only this past year that I dusted it off, and I began researching. Turns out I wasn’t alone at all. All those shows I grew up watching? They were full of gay people, and I had no idea.

Dick Sargent, who played Darren Stevens on Bewitched, was gay. Richard Deacon, who played Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show, was gay. Paul Lynde, who played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, was gay. Sherman Helmsley, who played George Jefferson on the Jeffersons, was gay. George Maharis of Route 66, Charles Nelson Reilly of What’s My Line?, Richard Chamberlain of Dr. Kildare, Maurice Evans of Bewitched, Edward Mulhare of the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nancy Kulp of the Beverly Hillbillies, Alan Sues on Laugh-In, Hayden Rorke on I Dream of Jeannie, George Takei on Star Trek, Jim Nabors on Gomer Pyle. And more and more and more.

The list of Hollywood stars grows even longer.

Somehow it brings me comfort, looking back to those days a lonely teenager and feeling all alone, realizing that the old television shows I found comfort in were full of gay people. I wasn’t quite so alone after all.

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.

 

the Supper Club

empty-stage-and-micThe walls are purple, and I think what an interesting choice.

I can picture Liberace on the stage years ago, Freddie Mercury and Mae West and Judy Garland and Cher and the Solid Gold Dancers and Joan Rivers, perhaps Merv Griffin and Paul Lynde. I can picture the crowds of men in Palm Springs, gay men who are out and proud, laughing with the wine and beer flowing. Drag shows and thick curtains, late nights and cocaine, alcohol and dancing.

I imagine what Palm Springs must have been like back then, the freedom, the glamour of it all, out and gay, colorful and sexy and exhausting, all those men tired of hiding and now there and free to be themselves.

I’m in a “supper club” in early January, 2016, in Palm Springs, California, and a smile comes to my face as I picture what this place used to be, and then I look at what it is now. Times have changed. Gay people are out everywhere, and with new phone apps they no longer have to go to clubs and bars and health spas to meet each other. But this place has that feel to it, still here, still entertainment-focused, but with such a different feel.

I look over the crowd. Mostly older, and an even mix of gay and straight couples, most of them likely tourists here on the close of their vacations. A couple in their 70s with Irish accents sits at the table next to me, both small and thin, and they have finished a bottle of wine between them. At the table just behind me, an older gay man is loudly telling his friends about meeting a younger man “on the Internet”, something he apparently vowed he would never do, and he boasts at how the sex was amazing. An older couple sits behind me, a man and a woman, who are talking to their gorgeous adult daughter, lauding her for her success as an interior designer.

The waiter makes his way from table to table, clearing plates and refilling drinks. I order something yummy and sweet and cleverly named, and my date gets a glass of wine, and it’s clear the show is about to start. I haven’t been to a stand-up comedy performance in years. My date and I have been seated right next to the stage. I take a sip of my drink and lean over, whispering, “you know the comedian is totally going to make fun of us, right?”

A few minutes later, a woman in her early 50s comes on stage and delivers her routine, something you can tell she has done for years before. She cracks jokes about her difficult past, her daughter being on the straight and narrow, and her judgmental mother who now has selective Alzheimer’s, and closes with a long joke about her grandmother giving her sex advice. It’s corny and fun, and I find myself laughing good-naturedly.

A heavyset man in his late forties comes out next, with his opening line “Hello, gays and gals, I’m only gay on the weekends.” He tells jokes about growing up Jewish and gay and spends plenty of time looking around the crowd, interacting with them and making fun of them. Most of the crowd is buzzed on alcohol now and they are laughing hysterically at the jokes made at their own expense. The elderly Irish couple keep speaking loudly, interrupting his routine, and the comedian takes it in stride, teasing them but being sweet and kind.

“Well, now, who do we have here?” The comedian takes a look at my date and I at our table. “They put you two right up front for me, how nice.” Throughout the evening, he keeps referencing us, talking about us in between his jokes. “I can’t decide which one I want to take home and tie to a chair. Either of you want to volunteer?” Another time, he winks at me, and says “See you after the show.”

Toward the end of his routine, the comedian performs a hilarious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, as if an overly excited auditioner on a reality television show were singing it. He steps off the stage and promptly sits in my laugh, wooing me a bit to the delight of the audience.

And then soon the show is over. The supper club with the purple walls begins to clear out as people gather their coats, empty their drinks, and head to the door, laughing. I take a moment to sit there, surveying the room, wondering about the history of the place again, getting lost in time for a moment. I once had a psychic tell me that when I enter a building, I bear with me the entire history of the place and the people who dwelt there, and a smile crosses my face as I realize that I’m doing it again, whatever it is.

On my way out, I stop to shake the comedian’s hand, expecting him to flirt again, but he is suddenly very  mild-mannered. He shakes my hand, gives a grin, and says, “I hope you enjoyed the show”, and I realize that he is very different off-stage than he was on.

I take one last look at the purple walls, feeling all of the joy that has been had here, and I wonder what the room is like when it is quiet, when the business closes and all that is left is the history of the night before and the coming of the next show. I carry that history with me as I step into the chilly air outside.