Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

high and proud

Still

I had almost forgotten about the pot caramel I ate when it finally kicked in, with a bit of a whoosh, and suddenly the world slowed down around me.

I had just purchased a hand-rolled corn dog, with thick crunchy batter on it and a little cup of ketchup to dip the hot dog in. I’m not usually a hot dog kind of guy, but something about that particular dish at this particular time sounded perfect. I had had a few bites, but when the pot started working, I sat down promptly in the grass and ate the corn dog, slowly, and it felt different on my tongue. It was delicious, and there was nothing in the world besides me and the corn dog.

Then I remembered I was at the Pride Festival in Seattle, Washington. I looked up from the empty corn dog stick in my hand and realized there were thousands of people around me, and I got a huge smile on my face. I closed my eyes and let it wash over me for a while. Deep bass from the speakers on the stage nearby, sounds of laughter and chatter, an entire sea of people making sounds, and I could feel those sounds in my ear canals, in my veins, in my toes, the echoes of them all vibrating within me. It was wonderful.
My fingers felt the blades of cool grass between them. There was a small patch of sun on my right forearm that resonated there. The air felt cool against my skin. I forgot the sounds as I focused on my skin and how it felt there, then, now.
I’ve only used pot a dozen times or so, and it’s always been at home, generally on a night after I haven’t been sleeping well for a few days. I’ve grown to enjoy the way it just relaxes the mind, makes the world still, and makes me sleepy and cuddly and smiley and relaxed. Usually I’m on my couch with some sort of show playing off in the background, and I just lay there smiling until I fall asleep.
But this time I’m in public. I ate the caramel on my walk over to the festival, where I had planned to be with friends. But I couldn’t find my friends, and they weren’t answering texts, and it took the caramel a full 90 minutes to kick in, and now here I was, on a Sunday at 3 pm, high in a park full of people. People were drunk and high all around me, but this was just me in my own relaxed little world.
After a half hour or so, I stood up, and just watched things for a while. Then I felt myself following one instinct at a time, focused on nothing but that instinct, with only a gentle awareness of the rest of the world around me. I wanted to be closer to the music, so I meandered my way through the crowd until I could be close to the stage. I didn’t want to dance, I just wanted to feel the bass up closer. So I did. Then I watched a group of men dancing, and I stood there smiling, enjoying their movements and the joy they were finding in being there. Then I wanted to be closer to the large fountain in the center of the park, so I worked my way there. I let the cool mist of the fountain blow against my skin and I watched the people playing in the water, many of them naked there in public. I remember thinking that took Pride to an entire new level. Then I wanted to be closer to the Space Needle itself, so I worked my way through the crowds and dogs and bikes and people to that direction, and I found a nice concrete step to sit on, and I looked up at the grey-blue sky and admired the massive structure, which had the Pride flag, six colors in a patterned rainbow, flying on the top of it. The whole city was celebrating Pride.
I let my brain travel back in time for a moment, losing itself in history, and I remembered all those LGBT people who came before me. Kicked out of the military, boarded up in mental institutions and given shock therapy and chemical castration tablets, being sent to reparative therapy, being kicked out of homes and churches and businesses and apartments, being told they weren’t normal and natural and that they needed to be cured, being put in prison and put to death. I thought of all those who grew up in shame, who grew up in pain, who learned to hide themselves in plain sight. Then I opened my eyes and saw the flag waving, and I scanned the crowd, seeing each person there individually in that vast swarm of people. Living, loving, celebrating, dancing, eating, laughing, smiling, proud to be alive.
And my smile grew even bigger somehow as I lay back on the steps, grateful to be alive.

Pride

pride-flag-meaning

The year I was born, the first Pride flag flew. It had eight colors on it, each representing an inclusion of human character and history.

Pink represented Sexuality.

Red represented Life.

Orange represented Healing.

Yellow represented Sunlight.

Green represented Nature.

Turquoise represented Magic and Art.

Blue represented Serenity.

Violet represented Spirit.

The flag was commissioned by Harvey Milk, an elected official in San Francisco who served as an openly gay candidate after decades of political activism. He had a large following in his local neighborhood of the Castro, where he legitimized gay relationships and fought tirelessly for equality. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, who drew inspiration from a number of sources.

The flag was first displayed in San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade that year. LGBT people marched in celebration of their lives, the rainbow representing safety and inclusion, sex and love, equality and peace. And then, just a few months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. Orders for the flag sky-rocketed and in time it became a natural symbol for gay Pride.

While LGBT people are not the only group in the world to have suffered simply for being who they are, their struggles can not be overlooked. Over the centuries, they have been hidden, dishonorably discharged, imprisoned, put to death, denied health care, forcibly sterilized, disowned, fired, denied rights, electro-shocked, disenfranchised, ignored, condemned, beaten, murdered, and looked over simply for being attracted to the same gender or for having a different gender identity.

The rainbow flag now shows six stripes (hot pink and turquoise having been removed years ago, primarily due to the availability of the fabric at the time). It is hung in windows throughout in businesses and homes around the world, it is placed on the bumpers of cars, it is hung from flagpoles in public buildings, and it sends a message, quietly and colorfully, that all are welcome within, that LGBT people are celebrated instead of just being tolerated, that equality is a guiding principle of that home or building or community. A simple message, and profound.

This weekend in Salt Lake City, is the Pride festival. The rainbow flag can be seen everywhere. A festival occupies a major section of the city, where booths filled with food and advertisements, political endorsements and inclusive religious communities, free hugs from gay Mormons and free condoms from sexually affirming clinics, will be on display for families. Tomorrow morning, an hours-long parade will march through the streets, with businesses and organizations, clubs and churches, will march and sing and ride on floats, all with messages of love and inclusion. It isn’t about “gay agendas” or “gay lifestyles” or “religious tolerance and discrimination”. It isn’t about overt public sexual expressions or loose and scandalous morals. It is about respect for individuals who have a history that dates back to the beginnings of the world and factors into every society, every community, every family and culture.

Gay Pride is about Sexuality. And Life. And Healing. And Sunlight. And Nature. And Magic. And Serenity. And Spirit.

For me, Gay Pride is about loving who I am exactly as I am. It is about my first kiss with a man at age 32 and feeling my heart and spirit come alive. It is about holding the hands of my sons in a public park, where we will play catch and hide-and-seek, and them knowing that I am gay. It is about the tears I used to shed during my evening prayers, asking God for a cure. It is about hundreds of gay fathers marching in the streets of Seattle while thousands of people cheered for us in every direction. It is about standing tall and proud, not broken, and being lost in a see of humanity, shades of every color and aspects of every gender in each and every person. It is about dancing, arms spread wide, while music resonates within me and light washes over me. It is about learning where I have come from, and barely understanding where I am going. It is about falling in love, and having my heart broken, and standing back up again. It is about joining with my brothers and sisters, cis- and transgender, and standing tall, hand in hand, united despite our differences.

A stranger asked me yesterday, in kindness, how I would define my “gay lifestyle.” I smiled because I’ve been asked that question before, far too many times. And my answer was simple.

“My gay lifestyle is a lot like your straight lifestyle. I get up and brew my coffee. I exercise. I go to my office where I try to help others. I write and read in my spare time. I watch movies. I travel. I spend time with my friends. I raise my children to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted young men. I pay my bills. And I date men.”

The man sat back, surprised for moment, and then made eye contact with me and nodded.

“We really aren’t that different, are we?”

 

Lesbians and grossed out gays

We-Can-Do-It-Rosie-the-Riveter-Wallpaper-2

“What are you reading?”

I looked over from my book to the man on the treadmill next to me. The gym was crowded and smelled like sweat and machines, a familiar smell in the winter months in Utah. Air pollution was particularly bad today, given the inversion, and I had come inside to shake my headache and get my blood flowing and heart pumping.

While doing a warm-up on the treadmill, stretching my joints out along with each muscle and tendon, I had set my current biography up on the stand, a book I was loving.

“Oh, it’s a book about Sally Ride.”

“Who the hell is Sally Ride?”

The man had his ball cap turned slightly to the side. I wondered if he was trying to flirt in some brash way.

“She was the first American woman in space, back in the 80s. She was pretty amazing. A real revolutionary.”

“Sounds boring as all hell.” He looked at me as if trying to challenge my enthusiasm for the book.

“She was also a lesbian, though that wasn’t revealed publicly until after her death. She was with her partner for 30 years.”

“So how is that supposed to make her special.” He said it like a statement not a question.

“Well, I’ve been researching a lot of LGBT history lately. It’s kind of hidden in our society. Like I had heard of Sally Ride, but never knew she was lesbian. I heard of Alan Turing, but never knew he was gay. I think Ride was pretty incredible.”

The guy finally looked away, pushing some button on his treadmill to slow his speed. “I think lesbians are pretty disgusting.”

I gave him a disconsolate look. “What, why? What makes lesbians disgusting?”

He lowered the incline on his treadmill as well as I kept going. “I like dudes. Masculine dudes. Lesbians are gross. Vaginas are gross.”

I sighed and gave a half-laugh. I pictured all of the gay dating profiles I had seen over the years that said things like Man seeking masculine men. Masc for masc, no fems. I thought about informing this man that he didn’t have to be sexually attracted to women in order to respect and understand them. The hyper-masculinity of male culture drives me nuts, whether in the straight world or in the gay one.

I thought about my sister Sheri and her wife Heather, and wondered how often they faced this kind of attitude from gay men, men who were supposed to be their allies in the fight for equality. I knew the shaming words against transgender people from gay men was even worse. Lesbians are hyper-sexualized by straight men and shunned by gay men. The whole thing just reeks of patriarchy.

“I love lesbians.” I looked away as he stared at me in shock.

“Bull. How could you possibly love lesbians? You’re gay.”

“I know a lot of lesbians, dozens and dozens of them. And I genuinely like every one of them that I know. They are good people, smart, dedicated, talented, genuinely nice people. I could say the same thing about every transgender person I know, literally every one. But I can name a whole lot of straight people and gay guys I don’t like. So I love lesbians.”

He stopped his treadmill. “Whatever, man. Enjoy your boring book.”

I turned back to Sally Ride, eager to learn more about this fascinating woman. Guess I wasn’t masculine enough for that guy.