One of the most gratifying things about life is that the longer you stick with it the more amazing and wonderful it becomes. Seeing things and events come into being that you once only imagined, such as--in my experience--gay marriage, electric cars, and Facetime, has been enormously exciting. But it’s nothing compared to realizing that somehow, in the midst of this often messy business of living, you’ve grown to be comfortable in your own skin, unafraid of anyone else’s opinion, and in all ways a self-authorized human being. Moreover, to realize that you’re not done growing yet, that there’s still even more self-actualization to achieve and wonders presently unimaginable yet to behold makes the prospect of continuing to persevere seem simply delicious.
I’m not ashamed to admit I was born in the 1970s, though to Millennial ears that might sound like Jurassic times. It even sounds that way to me, to be honest, but rather than feeling old at 43, I feel instead like a time traveler who’s come from a faraway world that (happily) no longer exists, enduring all kinds of dangers and troubles along the way. And I’m happy to report that I couldn’t be happier to be where I am now, as it’s taken me all this time to get to be the man I am, who, at the risk of sounding egotistical, I happen to like a lot--and to have found, along the way, the man of my dreams, a partner with whom I look forward to facing the future.
It’s been quite a trip, this time traveling from the 1970s. At the time of my conception, my parents lived in Chowchilla, where my father taught high school, and my folks had to travel to the bigger town of Merced to deliver me into this world. They moved to Fresno, where I spent the first 20 years of my life growing up Catholic, complete with 13 years of Catholic school. I always enjoyed religion class, went to church willingly, and said my prayers. I was bookish and chubby and theatrical, and while I had no lack of love at home, my effeminate voice and fey ways were not always appreciated by my peers at school. My dad hoped I would inherit his love of football, but that sport never resonated with me. Nevertheless I got on pretty cozily until the onset of puberty, when I started to feel the first glimmerings of same-sex attraction.
Now as fate would have it, the dawn of my puberty coincided with the horrifying introduction of AIDS into the world. Not only did television overnight become crowded with images of gay men suffering and dying, emaciated and covered in sores, dying around the world in unfathomable numbers and cast out of society, labeled bogeymen posing an imminent threat to everyone’s public health; the pulpits also thumped a steady beat of hatred and intolerance, proclaiming that here was God’s judgment writ large and undeniable. This toxic messaging effectively turned me against my burgeoning self, and I spent the next several years doing everything I could to fit in and be straight. I even joined in the persecution and bullying of the one super effeminate kid in class, who, unlike me, just couldn’t pass for straight and didn’t seem to have any interest in even trying to do so. Adopting the stance of a hater secured my place with all the straight boys, but it also set into motion some really awful karmic repercussions, as my own development was thereby delayed and my emergent self stunted, paving the way for years of psychic misery.
Throughout college and beyond, I dated women and tried to squeeze myself into the heterosexual mold; I even considered entering into holy orders for a few years. I have heard of other closeted people who speak of lying to the world about their sexuality; what I did was even worse, I think: I lied to myself. I told myself that I was straight, that I was “normal,” that I was attracted to women. I denied myself not only the physical pleasures and attachments that the deepest part of my soul was craving; I didn’t even fantasize about love or sex with another man. I must have put a good majority of my creativity into hiding the truth from myself, because I was quite convinced and quite convincing that I was heterosexual.
The first chink in the armor of self-deception that I’d built up around my heart came when I transferred, as a college junior, to U.C. Santa Cruz. There in the dorms some student activists had posted signs with such messages as “Homophobia Free Zone” and “There are Queers Here.” These notices initially struck fear into my homophobic little heart. Never before had I seen what I’d grown up to think of as perversity so boldly proclaimed and paraded as virtue.
By my second quarter away from home, I’d met Mikey, a bisexual-identifying dancer who worked in the dining hall scanning meal cards. He was always flirtatious with me as I’d enter, and my girlfriend of the time and I would laugh about his advances and his flamboyance. Then one weekend my girlfriend went home to visit her family, and Mikey set about seducing me. He invited me to a party off-campus, and I reluctantly agreed to go, somehow still maintaining to myself that I wasn’t in any way interested in him. That night Mikey put the moves on me after a few beers, but I wasn’t having it. Since we’d been drinking, the host of the party set us up in a pull-out bed for the night. At some point Mikey threw his leg over mine, and I reacted barbarically, threatening to kick his ass if he didn’t leave me alone. I spent a terribly sleepless night, vigilant lest Mikey take advantage of me.
The next morning Mikey delivered me safely back to campus. He didn’t hold any grudges. After his breakfast shift had finished up, I heard him calling up to my window from the quad below. “I’m going to go lay out naked in the meadow,” he cooed. “Come with me.” I made a lame excuse not to go, though as soon as he’d gone I started imagining what it would have been like lying naked in the meadow with Mikey, and I immediately regretted not having gone with him. That was the last time Mikey flirted with me. My girlfriend of the time returned a few hours later and I returned to the safety of her sheltering embrace. But something had changed. The chink in my armor had become a bona fide hole, into which streamed the overpowering mental image of being naked with Mikey in the meadow. The regret was so intense and my surroundings so queer-positive that for the first time in my life I was compelled to admit to myself that I Iiked the idea that Mikey had put in my head. And for the first time I allowed myself to fantasize about being with another guy. I was 21 years old.
It took another two years of feeling paralyzed and deeply unhappy before I set off for Costa Rica, where I spent a year teaching English to the locals there. Free at last from the trappings of my upbringing, the opinions of my parents and friends, and all of the homophobic ideology that growing up in 1980s America had instilled in me, I was able to find the courage to act on my curiosity. By that time it was the middle of the 1990s. Kurt Cobain had declared that “everyone is gay,” and I’d been pretty thoroughly liberalized by my Santa Cruz experience. I was still quite naive, though, when a Nicaraguan coffee picker approached me in a park one night while I sat writing poetry by moonlight. After some rough conversation--my Spanish skills were still pretty rudimentary--and a few beers at a little bar neighboring the park, Nestor invited me to his place, ostensibly to try some coffee from the plantation he worked on. When it became clear at last what Nestor was really hoping to do, I spent a good part of the wee hours of the night explaining my situation to him, laying out the conflict and torment of my soul, all my tortured psychology, holding nothing back and communicating more honestly than I ever had in my life, albeit in absurdly broken Spanish. Nestor was unbelievably kind and sympathetic, and his gentleness allowed me to reach a point of sufficient comfort to negotiate the terms of my participation in what would be my first same-sex play. Still somewhat panicky, I had to pull my Spanish-English dictionary out of my bag in order to explain that I wasn’t interested in anything major. I fumbled through its pages for several minutes before finally settling on what seemed to me a reasonable boundary: “Nada anal,” I proclaimed. A handjob later, I was out on the streets of Heredia at dawn, terrified by the sinful path I’d ventured onto and fearing the imminent wrath of God upon me. I wrestled with my guilt and shame, and the next night I hooked up with an American girl, once again returning to the narrative that I was straight. Now I could tell myself that I’d tried being with a guy and didn’t like it, that I was really straight after all.
A year later I was living in San Francisco and hooking up with a “straight” buddy on a semi-regular basis. These sporadic encounters showed me that sex with a man really turned me on; moreover, I realized that in contrast to my buddy, who liked to zip up and skip out as soon as we’d finished the act, only to ignore me for a few weeks afterwards before calling to set up the next encounter, I was interested in discovering what more was possible with a man. I wanted a relationship. And once I was so resolved, it wasn’t long before I met a real gay, a guy who was out and proud and ready to embark on a relationship. That first relationship, and coming out to my family in 1997, was fraught with drama and confusion, wild swings into guilt and shame, a continuing struggle with the God of my childhood. But day by day, year by year, experience after experience, lover after lover, I slowly came to accept myself as the homosexual that I am today.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, living in New York, that I finally shook off that last vestiges of that homophobic programming that had twisted my mind as a child. After a long search on Facebook, I found the kid I used to bully in school and wrote him a long apology. I was so relieved to hear that he was happily married to his high school sweetheart and doing exceedingly well in life. I’d been so afraid that my bullying might have pushed him down some self-destructive path. The fact that he was thriving showed me that God, as it were, is indeed merciful; the fact that my own life was in relative shambles illustrated that Karma can indeed be a tough teacher. Alone and depressed and unfulfilled, I withdrew from the world and saw the life path unfolding before me as a lonely procession of joyless days and drunken nights, interrupted by the occasional hookup.
Things started to turn around when I met some Radical Faeries who welcomed me into their community, and for the first time since leaving the church I felt as though I were part of something larger than myself. Community gave my life new meaning, excitement, and pleasure. I learned how community can rescue an individual from isolation and despair; build bridges between different ages, races and social classes; and help to restore the LGBT+ social fabric that was ripped apart by the AIDS epidemic. In the fellowship of faeries, and through their affirmation, I discovered my own magic and a treasure trove of fun and friendship. Sadly, I also found a lot of hurting people in the community--emotionally wounded veterans of the plague, self-medicating pseudo-shamans, and prophets of promiscuity forever cut off from the deep love that comes only through commitment over time.
Moving to Los Angeles a couple years later, I helped to cofound a new, radically inclusive faerie group there. I spent the next three years helping to build fellowship in that city whose sprawling landscape and car culture tend to isolate people from one another and keep people separated. It was wonderfully rewarding to see the community grow from a couple of guys to four hundred people, but the best reward came in the form of a stunning redhead who ventured into the scene one day and stole my heart at first sight.
Red Hawk, as my man came to be called, opened my heart in a way that it had never been opened before. He showed me the power of love and challenged me to love with all my being. Somewhere along the way I must have paid off my karmic debt, I realized, because when I least expected it, the universe delivered me happiness and fulfillment beyond anything I’d ever hoped for, a best friend, adventure bud and lover that I’d never thought possible. Together we set out on the road, throwing all our belongings into storage and throwing caution to the wind. I brought him home to my family in Fresno, and they loved him. To my shock, he helped to bring me closer to my family than I’d been in all the years since I’d left home.
While searching for a place to settle down together, Red Hawk suggested a pit stop in the town where I was born, Merced. It was a cool fall evening when we came upon the place of my birth, the old Mercy Hospital on M Street, where my mother had labored for 32 hours to bring me into the world, and where nuns had slapped me before I’d drawn my first breath. Driving along Bear Creek and Main Street, we were charmed by little Merced and surprised to find ourselves pondering the idea of making a life in the town. We came back a few days later and started looking around at places for rent, and there in the heart of downtown we spotted the sweetest, funkiest little house either of us had ever laid eyes on. We knew in a moment that this was destined to be our love nest.
Upon moving to town, we started volunteering at Merced’s LGBT Center, where we felt right away that our involvement could make a difference in the community. We witnessed how the LGBT+ community is sadly underserved in the valley and how much of the gay community is still under pressure to stay on the down-low here. We resolved to be a force for change here in Merced and in the valley at large, to help promote the visibility of LGBT+ people and shatter the status quo that keeps people from being themselves. So far we’ve been met with overwhelmingly positive response from the community. We wear our brightest blouses and tights and publicly display affection as we’re walking around town, and the waves and honks and whistles we receive while doing so make us feel like every day is our gay pride parade.
It’s a wonderful feeling to return to my source after all the years of wandering. I have literally come full circle, back to the place I was born, finally without any restrictions on my being or on my happiness. And together Red Hawk and I are ready to roll up our sleeves and make a difference here, so that today’s LGBT+ children can grow up feeling comfortable in their own skins, not alienated from themselves as I was, or forced, as I was, to leave this valley and escape to the teeming big cities in order to discover who they truly are.
The forces that would oppress us succeed when they keep us separated. Isolation breeds fear and hatred. Community is the antidote to systemic oppression. That’s what I’ve learned through all my years of hard knocks. And I hope, with my fiance, to help foster a climate that embraces LGBT+ people and provides them with the tools, resources, and love to thrive and live fully and freely right here at home. To that end, we just this week created a new Facebook group called Progressive Merced. Our hope is to create a vehicle for community organizing and political empowerment, to serve all kinds of hitherto marginalized people and end systemic oppression and injustice in this town, in this valley, and beyond. We hope you will join us at Progressive Merced (https://www.facebook.com/groups/520699551425973/) and help us pave the way to a bright future for all to share.
I’m grateful for all the life I’ve been given, for all the time I’ve had to work things out. Looking back from here, I can see how far I’ve traveled and how hard I’ve fought to become who I am. And in many ways, I see how I am just getting started.