As a young teen I studied men. How they talked. What they talked about. How they gestured. How they walked. And I studied them because I was determined to pass.
No one likes to be teased and I saw what happened to the boys who were less than manly. There were limitations on how much I could close the gap between who I was by nature and how I wanted to be perceived. I was a little guy, not a natural athlete. I liked to read, didn’t want to chase girls (although I had plenty of friends who were girls), hated talking about sports scores. And at summer camp, I loved arts and crafts and did everything I could to avoid getting sent out to right field. But despite my limitations and decidedly un-manly range of interests I trained myself to tone down my gestures, tighten my wrists, cross my legs like a cowboy, and walk like a man.
I wasn’t even aware that there was something un-manly about my gait until my uncle commented on the way I bounced when I walked. He didn’t say I walked like a girl, but from my perspective he might as well have. So I compared myself to guys who walked in a way that I thought of as masculine. Out went my bounce. I practiced planting one foot solidly on the ground in front of the other. Out went the exuberantly swinging arms (which were more like flailing rubber bands than hinged swords slicing through the air). Gone were the loose hips and rolling shoulders. Chest out. Shoulders back. Rigid spine. Head held high.
For a while I must have looked like a bad impersonation of a soldier, but in time my new walk softened into something that looked more natural and eventually I forgot that I’d ever walked any other way. Unfortunately, my body never forgot, or at least that’s what my physical therapist recently told me as he poked and prodded my pain-wracked body looking for clues that would help him help me end my agony.
On the cusp of 50 my back rebelled. No, went to war would be a better description. Acupuncture, vicodin, prednisone, and physical therapy followed. A month of hell. I couldn’t sit. And if I sat I couldn’t get up. I was mostly fine flat on my back, but I couldn’t roll over without risking high-voltage jolts. And getting out of bed required a half-hour of painful stretches before I could force myself onto my feet. I joked that I needed a wood stick between my teeth just to crawl out of bed, but it wasn’t far from the truth. At least I could stand, but there were only so many hours I could stand before I’d be overtaken by low-grade pain and exhaustion. I was miserable. And scared. What if I never got better?
It would be an exaggeration to say that my adopted manly walk was the only thing that triggered my back problems, but it was the way I walk that was the most visible change I had to make if I was going to live like a human again. I’m a very compliant patient and I’m obsessive about following instructions. But when Dan, my physical therapist, showed me how to loosen up my walk—swaying hips, rhythmically swinging arms, relaxed spine, fluid upper body—and said I should “sashay,” I found myself explaining how I’d trained myself to walk like a man and couldn’t possibly sashay. We both laughed, but I didn’t have to reflect on what I’d done to myself to know it was more sad than funny.
To go with my new old way of walking the physical therapist suggested deep breathing, using my belly to draw in the breaths. “And,” he added, “why don’t you hum show tunes just to force yourself to breathe.”
Why didn’t I just hang a sign around my neck announcing “Gimpy Fag on the Loose!”? When I offered a mild protest—“What will people think?”—Dan reminded me that we live in New York City and that no one would notice.
Dan was right. I sashayed and hummed on my way home from 14th and 8th and no one stared. Not a single double-take. Given the highly eclectic cross-section of humanity that was strolling on 8th Avenue in Chelsea that afternoon it’s not like I stood out. But I seemed to draw no attention anywhere I sashayed and hummed. Upper East Side. Around the Central Park reservoir. Down Broadway in the theater district. No one could care less. Except me.
I’ve been sashaying and humming for the past couple of weeks and I’m already up to doing a brisk two-mile sashay without any pain. I can even sit again and stand up without needing a crowbar to unfold myself. Remarkably, I’ve also mostly wrestled my internalized homophobia to a draw. And I’m really enjoying making friends with my old, much younger self. He had an exuberant way of walking, one that came naturally to him, so I haven’t really had to work that hard to re-train myself. I just had to take off the restraints.
And as far as the show tunes go, if the current production of “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center ever needs an emergency understudy to step in, I’ve memorized the cast album and can replace just about anyone. With one exception. I don’t think I could stomp around like the soldiers do in the big production number for “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” Unless, of course, they want a soldier who sashays.
I had an experience on the NYC subway last week that reminded me that no matter how out I am, no matter how many books I’ve written, speeches I’ve given, or how much advice I’ve offered, that being out and proud remains an elusive goal for me.
On Thursday morning during rush hour I got on a half-empty northbound “E” train at 23rd Street. I walked to the middle of the car and grabbed onto a pole — I’ve been having trouble with my back so sitting is torture.
As we pulled out of the station, I started reading through an almost final draft of a workshop I was set to lead that afternoon at Unilver’s corporate headquarters in New Jersey. The topic of the workshop, which was sponsored by Unilever’s gay employee group, was “Bringing Your Whole Self to Work” — essentially, how to be out on your job and why that’s a good thing for both the employees and the company.
The event’s title and subtitle, which were not my choice, studiously avoided the word “gay.” That seemed a little retrograde and closet-y to me, but I’ve long since learned that in a corporate setting you meet people at their comfort level and let them push the envelope when they feel ready. Still, I didn’t want them to be too comfortable, so the word “gay” was all over the page I was reading on the subway — in 16-point type — because I wanted to be sure to use it plenty of times in my workshop.
At the 34th Street station, scores of commuters piled on. Suddenly I was surrounded by guys in business suits and within seconds I was feeling very self-conscious and embarrassed. What if someone standing next to me or behind me saw what I was reading and thought I was gay? My first instinct was to put away the draft.
Then I thought to myself that I couldn’t let my fears of what people might think get the best of me — especially given that in a few hours I’d be standing in front of a hundred Unilever employees, including the company’s straight, pro-gay, president, to talk about bringing your whole self to work. And here I was, having trouble bringing my whole self on the subway!
But I couldn’t concentrate and before we got to 42nd Street I’d safely stowed the offending pages. I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed — and I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed that I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed. Even worse, I knew I was going to have to share this experience with the people at Unilever. How could I have any credibility with them—and any credibility with myself! — if I didn’t explain that I still struggle with my own fears of being out and my shame about being gay?
I’ve been out of the closet since 1976 — that’s when I first came out to myself and started coming out to friends and family. But I’ve found that it’s one thing to be out and to put a positive spin on being gay and an entirely different — and much more difficult — challenge to embrace the idea of gay pride and to feel pride about being gay in my heart of hearts.
I can give you a long list of reasons why we should all feel proud of being gay and proud of our gay heritage. (And I’ve got the TV and radio clips to prove that it’s a subject I know well and about which I can speak passionately.) But over all this time I’ve never managed to replace the instinctive shame I feel about being gay with the consistent sense of pride that I know I’m supposed to feel. And I fear that this is something I will struggle with for the rest of my life.
It was surprisingly easy to admit to the people at the Unilever workshop that I’m not a post-gay homosexual who wears his pride confidently. Among the employees who grew up when I did — in the 1960s and 1970s — there was a recognition that we share common ground having come of age at a time when homosexual shame was a given and gay pride was a battle cry.
I think gay pride is a great goal, however elusive that goal has proven to be for me. But I’m done pretending that my gay pride is a natural fit and automatic. I’m gay. I’m out virtually all of the time. I’ve worked hard to feel good about myself. Sometimes I feel a sense of pride about being gay. Most often I feel neutral. And on occasion I feel ashamed. There are worse things.
I hate needles. And the last time I had anesthesia I was sick for a week (okay, so it was 1964 and they gave me ether and anesthesia has come a long way since then — still, I was worried). So the parts of the colonoscopy procedure I feared most weren’t the usual ones people worry about. I hated the idea of getting stuck (with the needle) and I was dreading the anesthesia.
There was no question that I had to do this. My friend Janet McDonald died a year ago at age 53 from colon cancer. Janet was a fiercely alive women who overcame incredible challenges to build a life and career, first in law, then in print as a memoirist, and finally as the author of children’s books (www.projectgirl.com).
One final message that Janet conveyed to all of her friends was that we had to get scoped. I don’t believe in the afterlife, but Janet is not the kind of person you ignored in life and if there is an afterlife, she’s not the kind of person you want haunting you. Weeks after her death I asked my doctor for a referral to a gastro guy.
For most of the past year I’ve kept the referral card from my doctor taped to the mirror over my desk. The rule is to go for your first colonoscopy at age 50, unless you have a family history of colon cancer and then it’s 40 (or earlier if your doctor recommends it). I won’t be 50 until November, but I decided to mark the anniversary of Janet’s death by getting my test done last week.
Among my friends I’m one of the first to have had a colonoscopy and they all wanted to know what it was like. What they seemed to want to know most was that it wasn’t as bad as they feared. Telling them what it was really like seems to have helped some of them overcome their fear — at least enough to make an appointment.
So in honor of Janet’s life, and in the hope that those of you who have reached that age when a colonoscopy is recommended, I thought I’d share my experience. Of course every doctor does things a little differently, so your experience may not be exactly the same.
The prep. It’s really unpleasant. For the exam your colon needs to be perfectly clean so that means a liquid diet that starts 24 hours before the test and a purge of your digestive system that begins the afternoon or evening before. You have to drink several glasses (I lost count) of an unpleasant tasting liquid (the citrus flavoring helps), but it wasn’t the taste that I minded. It was having to drink so much and so quickly. By the end I couldn’t drink another drop, even though I had one more glass to go.
A couple of hours later all of that liquid starts pouring through your digestive system with a force that’s a little hard to imagine. As I said, they want you clean. And by 1:00 a.m., after repeated trips to the bathroom (I lost count), I was clean and exhausted. Unbelievably, I was thirsty, too, but you can’t drink anything after midnight.
The next morning at the doctor’s office, I met first with the anesthesiologist, who put a port in my arm for the IV anesthesia (less painful than getting a blood test — I don’t know what I was so worried about!). Then the doctor came in to explain the procedure and had me sign the release form (some doctors require an intake meeting a week prior to discuss the procedure and the potential complications).
The doctor asked me to roll onto my side and draw my knees up to my chest. The anesthesiologist placed one of those oxygen tubes under my nose and then administered the anesthetic. I’d been told that the anesthetic was the best part and it was. I barely had time to say “goodnight” before I was out. And I mean, out! No sound. No dreams. No sensations of any kind until about 45 minutes later when I heard the nurse ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling like I’d just been on vacation!
I opened my eyes and for a moment I took stock. I was on my back, dressed in the gown I’d put on for the procedure (and my socks, which the nurse had suggested I keep on). There was cotton taped over the spot where the needle had been. And I was happy. So happy! And I hadn’t even heard the exam’s results (all clear).
I got dressed (slowly) and walked out to the waiting room under my own steam. My partner was waiting for me (you’re required to have someone there to take you home). I sat for a moment and ate the banana I’d brought along (the best banana I’d ever eaten!) and then we went out for breakfast. I was a little loopy, but not at all tired.
The next day I felt perfectly normal, but I wasn’t. I discovered that my brain was still fuzzy from the anesthesia when I found myself on the “B” train instead of the “C” and would up at West 4th Street and 6th Avenue instead of 23rd and 8th. (For those of you not familiar with NYC, that’s not a huge mistake, but it’s not one a life-long New Yorker is likely to make.) I had no idea how that could have happened and stood on the platform at West 4th Street for a few moments to get my bearings and to figure out what I needed to do to get home.
The momentary confusion on the subway was more amusing than frightening and was a reminder that all drugs come with side effects. Or maybe my friend Janet was just playing with me. I wouldn’t put it past her.
Back when Bill Clinton was being hounded by Kenn Starr and the Republican Congress, I was one of those Clinton supporters who never once thought that President Clinton should resign. Even when it turned out that the affair was for real and that he’d lied under oath. In hindsight I was wrong.
For the good of the Democratic Party and for the future of the nation Bill Clinton should have stepped aside. (No question that what the Republicans were doing was despicable, but after all it was Clinton who gave them an opening to take him down.) Al Gore would have assumed the presidency and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where President Gore wouldn’t have wiped the floor with George W. Bush. Imagine eight years without Bush!
Instead, we had months of toxic wrangling as President Clinton stonewalled, lied, clung to power, fought back, and stayed in office—and in turn damaged his administration, Al Gore, and the Democrats. In the end, what was good for Bill Clinton was terrible for us.
I find myself thinking of the Clinton imbroglio all over again because now Hillary Clinton seems not to know the difference between what’s best for the Democratic Party and the America people and what’s best for Hillary and Bill Clinton (I’m sorry, but no fool believes that you get one without the other).
Even the Clinton camp has acknowledged at this point that all of the stars have to align just right and that the Obama campaign has to step in quicksand for Hillary Clinton to get the nomination. Is this a good reason to drag out the nominating process, so that the Clinton campaign can possibly triumph on the ashes of the Obama campaign? Or, alternatively, that Barack Obama can triumph only after a drawn out and bruising battle with Hillary Clinton? How do any of us benefit from either sorry scenario?
Back in the early 1990’s when Bill Clinton was campaigning against the Bush/Quayle incumbents, he introduced a slogan that became a rallying cry at campaign events: “It’s time for them to go!” And now that time has come again again. Unfortunately, the Clintons have given every indication that they’re following the same playbook all over again. And, just like the last time the Clintons failed to leave the national stage when they should have, it’s the Democratic Party and the American people who are going to pay the price.
It’s time for them to go.
Scott Schwartz had it in for me. I don’t know why. Maybe because I wore ugly corrective shoes. Glasses, too (black plastic frames purchased at a discount store on Jamaica Avenue in Queens). And I had a bad haircut. I was also small for my age, sat in the front row of our fifth grade class, and was always eager to answer questions. No one used the word then, but I was a fag and Scott knew it even if I didn’t.
But if Scott was going to kick my ass, like he’d threatened, he’d have to catch me first. Despite my shoes, he could never outrace me. Maybe that bothered him, too. Scott wasn’t fat, but he was chubby and slow moving. So he enlisted Richard Mennenger. A big guy by comparison. Athletic. Fast. Still, it took them the length of 82nd Road before they could pin me to a tree.
I didn’t struggle. With Richard pressed against me there was no getting away. I didn’t cry. I’d chew my lip off before I let them see me cry. “Just don’t break my new glasses,” I told them, because I knew that my hardworking mother hadn’t yet finished paying for them.
Scott took his time preparing for the kill, stroking one hand with the other, making and unmaking his fist. All the while, a smirk pasted on his round face. But my attacker was so focused on terrorizing me that he didn’t notice when a city bus pulled up a hundred feet away and disgorged its passengers. The last person to step off the bus was a cop in uniform.
The policeman locked eyes with me and headed our way. “What’s going on?” he asked, clearly knowing what was going on. With that simple question from the man with a gun on his hip, Scott and Richard were reduced to mute, meek eleven-year-old boys whose eyes were suddenly glued to the pavement.
The cop turned to me and said, “Leave them to me. Go home.” And I did, walking first at a studied, casual pace. But once I turned the corner and was certain they couldn’t see me anymore, I started to shake and then burst into tears. I cried most of the way home. Was it relief? Anger? The injustice of being singled out for reasons I didn’t yet understand? I had no idea.
I never told my mother what happened. I certainly didn’t tell anyone at school (and I knew Richard and Scott never would). I doubt I could have told you at the time that I despised the thought of anyone thinking of me as a victim, but that’s how I felt. I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me. Then, or later—when my parents split up, when my father killed himself, when the kids at camp called me a fag. Mostly I kept my feelings to myself and just kept going.
Maybe that’s why I’ve reacted so viscerally and so negatively to Hillary Clinton’s use of the victim card as a campaign tactic. I’ve worked so hard to never feel like a victim—and to never let anyone know when I did—that I can’t imagine anyone, especially a presidential candidate, wanting us to think she is one.
I realize that the Clinton campaign’s complaints about the press (“You always ask me the first question! Poor me!”) and the campaign’s response to inquiries as to the whereabouts of the Clinton tax returns (“My tax returns? I feel like I’m being Ken Starred!”) are supposed to evoke sympathy among voters. But I find it repulsive.
I also find it inspiring, although not in the way that the Clinton campaign might have hoped. Just last week I made my first campaign contribution to the Democratic candidate for president who is asking for my vote, not my sympathy.
(I feel compelled to add that I’ll be voting for the Democratic nominee come November, no matter who it is.)
Back in the early 1990’s, the thought of a Clinton in the White House gave me the warm fuzzies. Bill Clinton was the first candidate for president to so openly embrace gay people and invite us to be a part of the process. I took him at his word. So after he was elected I bought a ticket to the Triangle Ball—the first-ever gay inaugural ball—and headed down to Washington to join the celebration.
I remember standing on the mall, listening to President Clinton’s inaugural speech and thinking we’d really turned a corner. But then I began to feel achy. This was long before I had chronic back trouble, so I just chalked it up to standing in the damp and the cold for several hours.
That night, as I was swept across the ballroom floor by a handsome champion swing dancer, I began to feel faint and feverish. It wasn’t love. It was the flu. I dragged myself back to NYC with a 103-degree fever and spent the next week in bed. I should have taken this as an omen of bad things to come.
I like to think I never look at anything from a purely gay perspective, but Bill Clinton gave us Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. And in this regard at least, Clinton was clearly not good for the gays (to echo a phrase my grandfather used when weighing which candidates or policies were “good for the Jews”).
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has never affected me personally, but I’ve talked to gay people whose lives have been devastated by their expulsion from the military. And, when it comes to the Defense of Marriage Act, I take it very personally. Each time I fill out an immigration form and get to the line about how many family members I’m traveling with I’m reminded that Bill Clinton signed anti-gay legislation in the middle of the night that codifies discrimination against a relationship I hold dear. When I travel out of the country I’m almost always in the company of my partner, but because the federal government does not recognize our fourteen-year marriage, the only correct and legal answer on the immigration form is zero.
Maybe that’s why I’m not sorry to see the Hillary Clinton campaign in trouble. Sure I would have voted for Hillary if she got the nomination (and will, if she’s able to turn things around). But I don’t have any confidence that a Hillary Clinton administration would undo the damage done by the last Clinton in the White House. In fact, given how closely associated these two hot button issues are with Bill Clinton’s administration, it’s hard to imagine that a Hillary Clinton administration would want to revisit either battle if she were elected president.
The two boys, probably no more than ten or eleven, stood at the edge of the dance floor giggling to each other and pointing at the two guys in ties who were smiling like idiots, grooving to a medley of ‘70s disco. We had no choice. Once the DJ started playing that old bar mitzvah standard, “YMCA” by the Village People, our feet took over and we were propelled out of our seats.
The anti-gay rights movement has long railed about the dangers of letting us out of the closet. We would destroy the American family. We would undermine the moral fiber of our great nation. And perhaps worst of all, we would corrupt young minds, leading children down that slippery slope into temptation and sin. (You know, try it once and you’re hooked for life!)
Maybe that would explain why I’ve been reluctant in the past to dance with my partner at bar mitzvahs (you already know from a previous posting that we have no problem with dancing at weddings). But bar mitzvahs are another story because of the kids. How would the kids respond? How would the parents respond to the kids being “exposed” to such un-closeted behavior? And how would they feel about having to answer the inevitable questions, if not from the thirteen year olds, then from the younger children.
But this was the Upper West Side. The bar mitzvah boy’s mother had already made a splash by climbing on top one of the giant speakers and dancing her way through The Weather Girls. Judging from the cheers and laughter, I’m guessing that for a lot of us the go-go mother was a bar mitzvah first. How big a deal could we be in comparison to that!
The giggling ten-year-old boys soon turned to one of their dad’s and asked him about us (the very obvious pointing gave them away). We don’t know what the father said, but a few seconds later we spotted the two boys on the dance floor, with each other, and having a great time.
I don’t think this is the slippery slope that any of us imagined, but it’s one I really like. Barney and I take pride in knowing that we’ve helped set an example, one that smoothed the way for a couple of kids who just wanted to have fun.