Friday, February 27, 2015

I Say the Deplorable Word

Rock Island, Spring 1982

I remember a spring afternoon in 1982, my senior year at Augustana, sitting in my American Literature class in East Hall.  Dr. Dahlquist (not his real name), a grim, rotund hobbit, was lecturing on The Sun Also Rises, but I heard only a low drone; I was gazing out the southern window, at the Fratboys tossing Frisbees on the quad, or reclining under trees with paperbacks. I couldn’t read their titles, but I was certain that they were all about boys falling in love with girls.

Suddenly,to break the silence, or just to stir things up a bit, I raised my hand and asked if Ernest Hemingway may have been Gay.  (I think I said "Homosexual Tendencies."






Dr. Dahlquist stared, utterly taken aback. Someone behind me stifled a snicker. Otherwise the room became absolutely silent.   I was certain that the Deplorable Word had never been spoken in any classroom at Augustana College, or at any classroom at any college anywhere in the world.

After glancing at the other students, then back to me again, Dr. Dahlquist decided that I was not wisecracking or being initiated into a frat, but asking a legitimate question, however scandalous. He forgot all about Hemingway and began an impromptu lecture:


Christopher Marlowe
That currently fashionable vice destroys the intellect, Dr. Dalhquist said, reducing its victims to flitty, waspish creatures fit only for manicuring and gossip.

In spite of the ambiguities of his verse, we know that Walt Whitman scattered illegitimate children along the Eastern seaboard.

Shakespeare’s infamous sonnets written to  “Mr. W. H.” reflects a mere convention of the day, and Christopher Marlowe’s reputed love of  “tobacco and boys” was a defamation by his enemies.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest, therefore celibate, and as for Oscar Wilde, history tells them that he was merely “posing” as a sodomite: he had a wife and two children:

“The idea that a homo might have the wits to be a writer, especially a great writer, is absurd.”

Strangely enough, Dr. Dahlquist also taught my Creative Writing class, and constantly praised my stories. 

Thirty years have passed, but not much has changed.  Only "serious heterosexuals" need apply.

My First Gay Rights March

Des Moines, June 1981

During my senior year at Augustana, I became obsessed with Russia: I signed up for courses in Russian language, Russian History, and Russian Culture and Civilization.  All because of a visit to Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 1981.

It was a very busy summer, with my professor's handcuff party, Brian telling me what the graffiti meant, my brother getting married, and Adam and I bunking together. And in June, Thomas, the Episcopalian priest with three boyfriends, called to invite me to the Iowa Gay Rights March.

I had never heard of such a thing.

"We march to protest police harassment, discrimination in jobs and housing, sodomy laws, that sort of thing.  We've been doing it for a few years, always on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots."

I had never heard of the Stonewall Riots, either.  But count me in.

I drove out to Des Moines on Friday the 27th of June for a strategic meeting.  What to do if we were attacked, where to meet if we had to scatter, what do do if we were arrested


We had a parade permit, so the police should be cooperative, but you never know.

On Saturday the 28th at 2:00, 13 gay men and 4 lesbians gathered at Western Gateway Park with signs saying "Stop Gay Police Harassment," "Gay is Good," "We Are Your Children," and "Gay People are People Too."  Maybe not the catchiest slogans, but idea was to get the word "gay" out there, to let spectators know that there were gay people even in Iowa.

But the newspapers refused to announce the march, and no reporters covered it, so no one knew about it.  As we marched east on Locust Street the 13 blocks to City Hall, the only spectators were people who happened to be passing by, and others who ran into the stores and offices to fetch their friends.


Mostly they gawked and pointed and laughed. Look at the weirdos!  Imagine, there's some of them right here in Iowa!  But no one tried to break our heads, so we judged the march a success.

Today it's a Gay Pride Parade, not a Gay Rights March, with hundreds of marchers and thousands of spectators.  It's promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, and in 2013 the Lieutenant Governor visited.

The Russian connection:  this time when Thomas said "You too, Boomer," I consented, and hit it off with his friend Mickey, short, blond, and tanned, with a smooth, muscular physique.  And erudite: a Russian major at the University of Iowa, later a translator, he spoke Russian, German, Czech, and Polish.  He told me about gay Russians like the composer Tchaikovsky, who scored The Nutcracker and the dancer Nijinsky, who scandalized audiences with his homoerotic interpretation  of "The Afternoon of a Faun."

Iowa City was only about 45 minutes from Rock Island, so Mickey and I stayed in touch, visiting each other several times during my senior year at Augustana.  And when it came time to register for fall classes, I saw "Elementary Russian" and "Russian History," and crammed them into my schedule.

16 years later, I dated a Russian twink named Yuri.

See also The Boy in the Mesh T-Shirt

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Great Literature Must Always Be About Heterosexuals

Rock Island, Spring 1981

When I was in high school, I thought of becoming a writer.  After all, my friend Darry and I wrote a heroic fantasy novel back in junior high, I was the editor of our literary magazine, and I published an article in the Rock Island Argus.  

What changed my mind: Well, several things, but mostly a class in Fiction Writing, my junior year at Augustana.  We met once a week to analyze a "model" short story or novel, and then we criticized student writing (you had to submit three times).

First round:

Bernard Malamud, “Black is My Favorite Color."  “Charity Quietness sits in the toilet eating her two hard-boiled eggs.”  If you still have the stomach to continue after such a disgusting opening, it's about an old Jewish guy in love with a black girl, who won’t marry him because he’s Jewish.  And old.

Student Submission: "Temperature Inversion."  A man and a woman gripe because it's too hot to have sex.

Me: "Werewolf Planet."  Two anthropologists in the future discover that a “primitive” species actually has developed intergalactic travel.  Kind of interesting, right?

Wrong.  “Terrible!  Awful!  Don't demean yourself with that sci-fi trash!  Write about real people in the real world!"

Rule #1: Modern Literature must be about the dull, boring lives of people in the real world, preferably in New York.
  


Second round:

Flannery O'Connor, “Good Country People."  A Southern woman is depressed because she lost a leg as a child, so she majors in philosophy.  A traveling Bible salesman convinces her to climb up to the hayloft for a romantic evening, but instead he steals her artificial leg. Disgusting!

Student Submission: "Chicken T***s"  An adult woman has an affair with her uncle, who dumps her over fried chicken. (By the way, birds don't have mammary glands; "breast" is an old word for "chest").

Me: "The Island in the Sky." A boy befriends a grade-school bully, and they fall asleep reading comic books. Kind of touching, right?

Wrong!  "Terrible!  Awful! There's a happy ending!  Where's the misery?  Where's the tragedy?"  

Rule #2: Modern Literature must always be depressing, preferably with death at the end.



Third round:

3. J.D. Salinger (left), "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."  A man kisses a five-year old girl  and then kills himself while his wife waits.  Disgusting!.

Student submission: "Hand Sandwiches." A guy's wife is cheating with his best friend, so he assaults the friend and cuts off his "hand."  

Me: "The Letter."  In the 1930s, a guy dies of polio, and his best friend keeps his last letter in his pocket at all times.  Forty years later, the friend is dying, and the ink on the letter is so faded that a nurse in the hospital thinks it's a blank piece of paper, and throws it away. .

It's about a dull, boring life, and it's depressing. A sure-fire hit, right?

Wrong!  "Terrible!  Awful!  Where's the emotion?  Where's the men longing for women?"

Rule #3: Modern Literature must always be about heterosexual desire or romance.

I went on to major in literature, get a M.A., and almost a Ph.D.  But, except for unavoidable required classes, I never read Modern Literature again.

Cruising at the Levee

Levee Patron
Rock Island, Fall 1980

After meeting the Mormon missionary on my trip back from Los Angeles, I started my junior year at Augustana College.  Still depressed.

1. I was living alone for the first time, in a single dorm room, and even though home was only about a mile away, I was homesick.

2. My classes in Modern American Literature, The Modern British Novel, and Survey of German Literature were all extraordinary heterosexist.

3. Anything about gay people that I saw on tv, like the drag queen episode of Trapper John MD, or in movies, like Cruising,  was oppressively homophobic.

4. My friends at Augustana were as aggressive in the "what girl do you like?" mantra as they had been in high school.

5. Two years after figuring it out, I had met a half dozen gay people, including Peter the male witch, Mary's brother, the "cannibal" hustler in Colombia, Wolfgang in Germany, and my ex-boyfriend Fred.  Only Peter currently lived in Rock Island, and he never wanted to hang out.


Site of JR's Tavern, Rock Island
How could I meet others?

There was a gay bar in Rock Island, JRs, the former Hawaiian Lounge redone in an urban cowboy motif (It's a straight strip club called the Body Shop now.)

 But you had to be 21 to get in (I had never heard of fake ids.)  Besides, I was scared of the place.

Then I got the bright idea of spying on the patrons, to see where they went after leaving the bar.

So I sat in the parking lot across the street one Saturday night in September, and noticed a number of patrons heading north two blocks to the levee.




Rock Island Levee
The levee, looking toward Centennial Bridge
The levee was a long, narrow embankment to prevent flooding. By the way, if you're thinking of the song "American Pie," a levee can't go dry.  It's the river next to it.  That always bothered me.

 The Rock Island Levee was a sort of lover's lane: you could park and look at the Mississippi and the lights of Davenport on the other side.

Most people parked near the Centennial Bridge, but if you wanted seclusion, the levee extended for two miles, past railroad tracks and deserted factories.

The patrons of JR's wanted seclusion.



Every Friday and Saturday night, when it wasn't too cold or rainy, there were cars parked in the secluded part of the levee, as many as 30 before the night was over, plus some people who came on foot.  You would go up to a car window, and if you thought the guy inside was attractive, strike up a conversation, or wait for him to come to you.  An invitation to his home or to a hotel might follow.

Fratboy
Most of the men were in their 30s, 40s, or even older.  Sometimes I saw a college-age boy, a jock or a fratboy or a hustler, but I never talked to them.  The rule was: younger with older.

I knew nothing of gay political organizations, social organizations, churches, community centers, or pride festivals, so I concluded that all gay life was like this, hidden away, something you do in the dark.

I was too scared to actually hook up with anyone there, until I met the professor with handcuffs.

See also: 36 Hours of Cruising at Lambert International Airport.

The Mormon Missionary of Beaver, Utah

Beaver, Utah, August 1980

August 6th, 1980, a Wednesday night.  I was in my 1974 Dodge Dart, chugging along the Interstate.

I was depressed. I had been planning to stay in Omaha with my minister boyfriend Fred forever, but it didn't work out.

Then I spent a week recuperating with my high school friend Tom in Los Angeles.

Now I was on my way back to Rock Island, where there were almost no gay people that I knew of, wondering what went wrong.









In Utah, near where the I-15 meets the I-70,  I decided to stop for the night in the quaintly named town of Beaver, at the Delano Hotel, one of those old-fashioned neon hotels that advertises "color tv" and "telephones," as if those amenities are noteworthy.

The desk clerk, Derek,  was college-aged, handsome, with short black hair, black eyes, and a muscular frame.  He had a rugged, leering look.  In a 1980s gay nerd movie, he would play the arrogant jock who is dating The Girl before the nerd comes along and wrests her away.

Somehow I mentioned that I visited Colombia last year, and Derek said, "I'll be in South America  in September.  Brazil. My church is sending me there to be a missionary."



Mormon Missionary


This was unexpected!  I expected Derek to be a juvenile delinquent, maybe, but not a missionary. "What church?"

"The Latter-Day Saints," he said.  "Pretty much everyone around here is LDS."

Mormon!  Nazarenes hated Mormons almost as much as Catholics -- an idolatrous, polygamous cult.  Of course, Nazarenes were wrong about almost everything.

I remembered the incongruous sight of pairs of clean-scrubbed, grinning young men riding bicycles while wearing suits.  There was always something erotic about them, a sensuality hidden just beneath their feigned asexual wholesomeness.

"What do you do for fun around here?"  I asked.

He mentioned a bowling alley.

"No, I mean real fun." I stared at him suggestively.  "You know, guys only."





He grinned.  "Oh, you can find just about anything you're looking for down in St. George."

"That's a long way.  I passed it like two hours ago."

"In the countryside you learn to be patient.  Sooner or later, the fun comes to you."  He paused.  "I'll be here all night, in case you get lonely or want to talk -- you know, about God or anything."

I went to my room and lay down on the bed.  Anything you're looking for. In case you get lonely.  Could he be gay?   Maybe his missionary partner was his lover?  Riding on bicycles side by side through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, returning to their room every night to cuddle and kiss?

I want to say that I invited Derek to my room, and we spent the night together.  Or that he came out to me, and we talked all night about growing up gay and Mormon.

But what actually happened was: I fell asleep before I could muster the nerve to call.  And when I woke up in the morning, someone else was staffing the front desk.

I kicked myself all the way across Utah and Colorado.

And I wondered how many other gay men were stranded in small towns in the mountains, longing to reach out but never getting the nerve.  Or the chance.

Thirty years later, I ran into Derek again.

See also:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Priest with Three Boyfriends

Des Moines, March 1980

In the spring of 1980, my sophomore year at Augustana College, Fred the ministerial student took me to Des Moines, where he had friends among the closeted gay religious community. Like Oscar, who had a romance with future President Ronald Reagan back in the 1930s.  And Malcolm Boyd, the Episcopal priest who wrote the counterculture classic Are You Running with Me, Jesus? (he actually came out in 1977, but I didn't know until we had lunch together).

We stayed with Thomas, a Episcopal priest whose congregation didn't know: "They assume that because I'm a priest, I'm celibate."  He lived alone, except for two dogs, with a huge collection of pornographic magazines and photos, both gay and straight, neatly classified by author, magazine, and type.  I spent the afternoon rummaging through it while Fred and Thomas were out talking about religion or something -- Fred didn't approve of porn -- and got my first glimpse of some of the great gay erotic artists, like Tom of Finland, Sean, and the Hun.



I thought Thomas lived alone, but the first night of our stay, I woke up in the middle of the night, walked down the hall to the bathroom, and found the door to Thomas's bedroom wide open.  The lights were dim, but inside I saw two guys asleep, wrapped in each other's arms.

The next day at breakfast I met Boyfriend #1, a tall, slim redhead who worked at one of Des Moines' straight bars. He lived with his girlfriend, but sometimes came over when his shift ended.

Later that day, we had lunch with Oscar, Malcolm Boyd, Thomas, and Boyfriend #2.  I don't remember much about him.

I drove back to the house later that evening -- Fred was off with Oscar -- and yelled "Is anybody home?"  No answer.


Thomas was in the study, with porn magazines scattered all about, naked.  Kissing a very muscular teenager.  Also naked.

Boyfriend #3!

He disentangled himself long enough to say "Jason, Boomer.  Boomer, Jason."  In the midst of a kiss, the boy held out his hand for me to shake!

Freaking out, I retreated to my bedroom and sat down in a swivel chair.  Jason followed. He stood at my bedroom door, naked.  "Hey, I hope we didn't scare you," he said, panting.  "It's no big deal -- we were just playing around."

"No, it's fine.  I'm sorry I disturbed you."

"You didn't disturb us."  He walked over to me and caressed my chest.  "You're hot.  Maybe we could get together later."

Was he asking me for a date, with his boyfriend in the next room? "Um...um...I have a lover," I stammered.  That was our word for same-sex relationships.

"He can come, too -- the more the merrier."

Now Thomas stood in the doorway, naked, huge. "Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" he said, feigning anger, but with his eyes twinkling. "Get back in the playroom, pronto!"

He paused.  "You too, Boomer!"

I was unaware of the gay community custom of "sharing."  I wasn't even aware of hookups.  Sex with someone you weren't in love with?  Gross!  Besides, I had to stay faithful to Fred.

  But I was single 1 1/2  years later, when I saw Thomas again.

See also: The Boy in the Mesh T-Shirt; and Fred's Nine Lovers


My Boyfriend's Secret Bookshelf

Davenport, Iowa, March 1980

When I first met Fred the Ministerial Student in December 1979, my sophomore year at Augustana College, I tried to determine if he was gay by examining his bookcases for books by gay authors -- I only knew about Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, and Samuel Delany.  I didn't find any.

In the open, anyway.

One day in March 1980, long after we began dating, Fred asked me to get something from his bedroom closet, and I found a secret bookshelf, facing away from view, so even if the door was ajar, you wouldn't know what was there.

Curious, I pulled a book out.  Familiar Faces: Hidden Lives: The Story of Homosexual Men in America Today, by Howard Brown.

I had never seen a book about gay people, except for Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.

"There are a few others," Fred told me.  "I have almost all of the nonfiction, I think.  Of course, it has to be hidden."

"I've never seen a gay book in a bookstore."

"Not likely.  They wouldn't stock any -- it's illegal to put them out on the shelves -- and besides, who would walk up to the counter and try to buy one?"  (I would be doing it in just a few months).   "It's all by mail.  You don't have to give them your name, just a money order and post office box."

With Fred's permission, I spent the afternoon going through the seven gay books in existence.
1. Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives.
2. Greek Homosexuality
3. The Homosexual Matrix
4. Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?: Another Christian View
5. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times
6. Iolaus, An Anthology of Friendship, by early gay activist Edward Carpenter
7. A slim hardback, On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual, by Merle Miller.

(He was actually off by a little; there were about 30 nonfiction books about gay people in print in 1980.)




The only author I recognized was Merle Miller.  My English and journalism teachers were always priasing him:

Born right next door, in Marshalltown, Iowa,  a graduate of the University of Iowa, and now look at him!  A famous journalist, novelist, and historian, biographer of presidents!

Read Something Happened (1962), or Only You, Dick Darling! (1965), or Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1973), for a model of clear, vigorous writing!

They didn't mention, or they didn't know, that in in January 1971, Merle Miller came out in an article in The New York Times: "What It Means to Be Homosexual."

The article received 2000 letters, and was reprinted, with an afterward, in the slim hardbound volume that I found on Fred's hidden bookshelf.

What does it mean to be gay?

It doesn't mean that you're crazy, sick, sinful, or evil.  It doesn't mean that you're plotting to seduce kids or overthrow civilization. It means that you are invisible, and heterosexuals will try anything and everything to keep you that way.

Merle Miler stayed invisible.  When he died in 1986, the New York Times refused to mention his partner of 22 years, David W. Elliott (who, paradoxically, wrote a novel entitled Listen to the Silence).

But  I mourned the writer who grew up right next door, who nobody knew was gay, who wrote one of the only gay books in existence.

My First Real Date: Fred the Ministerial Student

Rock Island, December 1979

On December 16, 1979, shortly after I returned from Germany, I wasn't interested in the Catholic church anymore, so I started looking for liberal Protestant churches.  Like the First United Methodist Church in downtown Rock Island.

A young, cute preacher was preaching on homelessness during the Christmas season.  Social justice!  Just what I wanted!

I nabbed him during the coffee hour after the service.  His name was Fred; he was 27 years old, a new seminary graduate, and he was working as a student intern while looking for a pulpit of his own.  I told him about my interest in finding a non-fundamentalist church, and he invited me to dinner next Friday night to "discuss theology."

I spent the next week agonizing over what I should wear, trying to think of questions to ask about Methodism, and wondering:

Was he gay?
Was it a date?

We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Davenport, Iowa, across the river (not the one in Moline where Bruce and Leanne sniped at each other).  I tried hinting around to determine if he was gay or not:

Me: Is it hard to get dates, being a minister?  People thinking you're going to judge them?
Fred: Just the opposite, really. Lots of people have a thing for ministers.
People, not men or women!



Me: Nazarenes are complete prudes.  No sex outside of marriage, no divorce -- and they're really against gays.
Fred: Methodists realize that we're fallible. I'm divorced, but that shouldn't be a problem in finding a pulpit.
Divorced!  So he was straight!  Or did he divorce when he realized that he was gay

Me: I heard something weird about that hymn, 'In the Garden': he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.  If you didn't know it was about God, you'd think it was about two gay guys!
Fred: Yeah, you can find some crazy interpretations of those old hymns.

When the waiter brought out the check and fortune cookies, Fred said "Forget the fortune cookies.  I have dessert and coffee waiting for us at my apartment -- devil's food cake."

Straight or not, I never turned down an invitation for cake.




Fred's Apartment Building
So I followed Fred to his tiny two-room apartment in a terrible run-down building in Davenport (I know, it's dangerous, get to know the guy first).

I scanned his bookshelves for books with the word "gay" in the title, checked the pictures on his wall for beefcake.  Nothing!  We sat side-by-side on his couch, eating cake, and I still didn't know if this was a date!

"Do you want to watch tv?" Fred asked.  "I think The Rockford Files is on."

"Sure.  I love James Garner.  He's very handsome.  He should take his shirt off more often."

"Yes...he's a fine actor."

This was getting ridiculous!

I decided to make a move -- he was a minister -- the most he could do would be to grab a Bible and start screaming.  So I tried the "yawn and stretch" maneuver for putting my arm around him.

He was gay.  This was a date.

We dated for the next six months.

See also: I Learn What Greek Active Means and Fred's Nine Loves

The German Choirboy


Regensburg, Germany, Fall 1979

During my freshman year at Augustana College, I declared a major in English and Modern Languages and registered for advanced Spanish and French.  So when I had the opportunity to spend a quarter abroad during my sophomore year, you'd expect me to pick Spain or France, right?

No -- Germany.

It wasn't my fault.  I was taking first-year German, too, and the professor kept rhapsodizing over his trips to Germany: Munich, the Black Forest, the Rhine, Neuschwanstein Castle, Wittenberg, where Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses on the cathedral door.

So in the very busy summer of 1979, right after I got back from meeting the gay cannibal in Colombia, I started packing for Germany.  Six Augie students flew from Chicago to Frankfurt on August 19th, and then took the train south to the university town of Regensburg.




  We all took Intensive German and The Protestant Reformation, and for my elective I chose German Myths and Legends. Classes met in the morning, so we had the afternoons free for sightseeing, and there were weekend trips to Augsburg, Munich, and Salzburg.

As in Colombia, I didn't know how to meet gay people.  I didn't realize that Regensburg had several gay bars, or that Munich, an hour away by train, had a gay neighborhood full of bars, restaurants, bath houses, and community organizations.  But I found a gay guy anyhow.




Regensburg was predominantly Catholic, so I overcome my early religious training about Catholics being evil! evil! evil! and toured all the churches.  I toyed with the idea of converting, and started going to Mass at St. Peter's Cathedral, where I heard the famous boys' choir, the Domspatzen.

 There were about 80 of them, mostly little kids, but in the back row I saw some teenagers and young adults.  One caught my eye -- the tallest of the group, broad-shouldered, probably muscular, with a shock of unruly brown hair.  I thought he looked back, but I was probably imagining it.

The next day I went to the Musikgymnasium, the boarding school attached to the choir, said I was an American University student, and asked for a tour.  They summoned a boy my own age to show me around -- 18 year old Wolfgang (not his real name) -- the same one who caught my eye yesterday!  (Ok, it was actually the one standing next to him, but wouldn't that make a great story?)


Wolfgang showed me the classrooms where the younger kids were studying English, Latin, history, and science, the music rooms, the sports complex -- and the swimming pool.  I asked if there were any good places to lift weights in Regensburg -- the gym at the university was tiny --and he suggested the Reebok club.

We started going out regularly, mostly to museums and Catholic churches, sometimes to dinner, and eventually we ended up dating -- though we both had roommates, so we never spent the night together.









The Musikgymnasium
Wolfgang was in his last year in the Domspatzen -- next year he would be in the University, but he didn't want to study music.  He hated the Musikgymnasium, and especially the conductor, Father Ratzinger (brother of the future Pope).

"He treats us like animals.  Always shouting.  He threw me across the room once.  Paddling on the bare buttocks.  He caught me and another boy together once, and forced us to stand outside naked in the snow."

He didn't mention any sexual abuse, but there have been recent allegations against a teacher (not Father Ratzinger) by many former members of the Domspatzen, according to this article in Der Spiegel.

When I returned to America in November, I didn't want to become a Catholic anymore.  I started going to liberal Protestant churches, like First United Methodist, where  I met my boyfriend Fred the Ministerial Student.

I've lost touch with Wolfgang.  I hope he's out and proud now.

See also: Fred the Ministerial Student.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Gay Cannibal of Colombia


Itagui, Colombia, June 1979

During the summer of 1979, just after my freshman year at Augustana College, the Nazarene Church was looking for some able-bodied college students to help build ten new churches in Colombia.  I hadn't attended regularly for about a year, but you stay on the membership roster forever, so they called me.

They warned us: this was the jungle, where Jim Elliot was killed trying to bring the gospel to the Auca Indians in 1956.  Expect poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and naked cannibals.  They might try to eat us!

Um...did you say cannibals would be naked?

I'm in!






Actually, my group ended up in Itagui, population 200,000, a major industrial center with gleaming modern architecture, a gigantic soccer stadium, and restaurants called "Chocolate Chicken the Prince" and "Nice Sandwich and Juice."

No poisonous snakes, but lots of poverty, crime, and drugs.  We were cautioned to not leave the Youth Hostel at night, and not go into Medellin, about 5 miles away, where murder and kidnapping were daily events.











Heck with that!  I was going to find a nice Swedish leatherman to dance with, like in Switzerland, or at least a cute gay waiter, like when I visited Olivet.  Only now if he offered "Come back to my hotel! I have Schnapp!", I would know what to do.

But with no internet and no gay guidebooks (I had never heard of the Damron Guide), how could I find the gay men of Itagui?

It turns out that they found me.

I went downtown, to a small, brightly-lit taverno that seemed to have all men inside, mostly elegantly-dressed young adults.  I sat down at the bar and ordered a Postobon, an apple-flavored soda.










Five minutes later, a college-age boy named Marco sat down next to me: short, muscular, with black hair and intense black eyes. He was wearing a track suit, as if he was in a race -- rather out of place for such an elegant clientele, I thought.

 We chatted, in my pretty-good Spanish and his rudimentary English, mostly about the Sandinistas taking control of Nicaragua and Skylab falling out of the sky.  His leg brushed against mine, and he didn't move it away.  Then he said, apropos of nothing: "Necessitas marimba?"

Why would I want a xylophone?   Later I figured out that he was offering me marijuana.  "No, no...busco...um..."  What was the Spanish word for gay?  "Hombres que aman los hombres." (Men who love men.)

"Oh!"  His eyes lit up, and his hand fell onto my knee.  "100 lucas...200 dollars."

"Para que?  No quiero comprar algo."  I didn't want to buy anything!

"Ok, ok, 50 lucas!"

"No quiero comprar..."

"10 lucas!" he exclaimed in exasperation. "Que barato!" About $20.  What a bargain!

Finally I understood -- I had read The Happy Hooker, after all.  I just never realized that there were male hustlers, with male clients.

"No way!" I exclaimed, pushing aside his hand and getting up from the bar.

He followed me out into the street and yelled, "Oye, chino!  Medio  luca!"  About $1.00.


"Estas burlando?"  I asked.  "Are you kidding?  That's about the cost of a Postobon!   It's not even worth it."

He grabbed my arm and started speaking very quickly in Spanish. "You're very cute, but you have to pay...I'm not a pillow-killer...I'm a cannibal...it's only for the money."

I threw him off and walked away, through the warm tropical night toward the youth hostel.  I was gratified that there were enough gay men in Itagui to make hustling profitable, but upset that Marco couldn't bring himself to acknowledge that he was gay, a "pillow-killer."  He was a "cannibal" (apparently slang for "hustler" or "on the downlow"): telling himself over and over again that it was about the money, not about desire.

So I met a cannibal after all.  Just not the kind that goes fishing in the nude.

See also: The Top 12 Public Penises of South America; The Teenage Hustler of Bourbon Street.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Getting Naked with a Male Witch

Rock Island, February 1979

When I was a freshman at Augustana College, I knew a lot of guys who liked guys only at night, and spent their days arm-in-arm with women.  But I had never met a real, actual gay person, unless you count the Fairy on the double date at the Hawaiian Lounge and the waiter whose soul I tried to win at Olivet.  There was a gay bar downtown, but I was too young to go to it. There were no gay organizations, no gay-themed movies playing at the Cineplex, no gay books in the college or public library.

But surely I couldn't be alone in all of Rock Island!  I did extensive research, interrogating my friends, making discrete inquiries of knowledgeable seniors, asking around at the radio station, and eventually got a few names.
A middle-school teacher who was discovered, fired, and moved away.
The manager of a flower shop who was discovered, fired, and moved away.
Peter, who attended Augustana for a few years, but was discovered and expelled.

Only Peter was still in town!

"Be careful!" My informant cautioned.  "He's not only a homo, he's a witch."  He went on to describe demons conjured with a Ouija board, pins stuck into voodoo dolls, Tarot cards, crystal balls, potions, incantations, nude rituals in the moonlight.

My Nazarene sensors went off.  Occult -- Evil! Evil! Evil!  Maybe the preacher was right -- maybe gays were all Satanic.

Nonsense!  I chided myself for my irrational fear.  Peter was the only gay person in Rock Island, and I was going to meet him, witch or not! In February 1979, near Valentine's Day, I called, said I wanted to interview him for my radio program, and got an invitation to visit.  He lived with his parents in small, normal-looking house near Longview Park.


 He was nothing like what I expected -- and nothing like this photo -- taller than me, very hairy, and quite chubby, what we would someday call a Bear. He had long blond hair and a blond beard that somehow made me think of Santa Claus.

We sat in his living room -- which looked perfectly normal -- and chatted about Augustana for a few minutes.  Then suddenly he said "Let's get naked!"

I hadn't said anything about being gay!  "Um...I'm not...I didn't come here for sex," I stammered.

"No, no, I didn't mean that -- frankly, you're not my type -- I just like being skyclad. Close to Mother Earth."

So we took off our clothes, and Peter told me about paganism: a religion of the Earth, older than Christianity, attuned to the spiritual dimension, and not oppressed by a lot of "thou shalt nots": "an it harm no one, do what ye wilt."

"Sounds like paganism is ok with gays."

"Not really.  The rituals are boy-girl-boy-girl. But I'm working to change all that.  There's a group out in California, the Radical Fairies, that's working to bring gay liberation to the Craft."

"Do you know any gay people in Rock Island?"

"A couple.  Mostly they move out to California.  It gets a little lonely."  He paused.  "How about a skyclad hug?"

I nodded.

I was enveloped in a warm, hairy bear hug.  It was not erotic, though we groped a bit.  It was like we were connecting on the spiritual plane.  Suddenly, without understanding why, I started to cry.

"I'm going to perform a spell for you," Peter said.  "It will help you find what you're looking for."  He chanted something about the God and the Goddess and blew on a small pink crystal, which he pressed to my forehead.  I left with the pink crystal and a book, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, which I still have.

The spell worked.  Less than a month later, my friend Mary invited me to visit her family for spring break, and try to determine if her teenage brother was gay.  And  before I graduated from Augustana, I met a number of gay people: a student preacher, a professor with handcuffs, an ex-priest with a pushy mom, a bookstore manager, a hermit, and a little-person postal worker.


During the 1980s, Peter was a guiding force behind the Radical Faeries, and instrumental in opening the pagan movement to LGBT persons.  Renamed Sparky T. Rabbit, he became a nationally recognized writer, singer, chanter, storyteller, pagan activist, gay activist, fairy, and bear.  You can buy a copy of his album, Lunacy, on his facebook page.

He died on July 9, 2014.

See also: The Dwarf at the Post Office






Coming Out with John Travolta


Rock Island, June 1978

During the summer of 1978, I figured "it" out.  At the movies.

I didn’t go to movies much when I was a kid. Our church forbade them, and besides, I didn’t get an allowance until junior high.  In 1968, I saw only 3 movies in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, Yours, Mine, and Ours, and Oliver!

But during the summer of 1978, shortly after my senior prom, I was a high school graduate.  I had a job at the Carousel Snack Bar and my own car: money and freedom. And I went to all the movies I could.

During the 10 weeks of summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, I saw 21 movies, alone, with my brother, with Aaron and Darry and a boy I liked: Old Marx Brothers comedies at the Film Club, dollar movies at the Augustana Student UnionThe Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Nuart, and lots of blockbusters at the Showcase Cinemas (Animal House, The Cheap Detective, The End, The Eyes of Laura Mars,  Grease, The Greek Tycoon, Seniors....). 

You probably think that Rocky Horror did it.  No, it was Grease.

It's a heterosexist boy-meets-girl fable, drawing on the 1950s craze, and therefore kin to Lords of Flatbush,  Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley): during their senior year at Rydell High in the 1950s (actually 1962), "nice girl" Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) falls for greaser Danny (John Travolta), but he is only interested in girls who "put out." So her friends, the Pink Ladies, give her a tramp-makeover, and Danny is lured in.


But more: it's about masks, surface conformity hiding our true selves. Danny is sweet, sensitive, and caring, but his culture requires a pretense of machismo. When he falls for Sandy, he is forbidden from acknowledging that he is in love; it's supposed to be all about sex.  Sandy, meanwhile, learns to hide her true self under a sleazy, leather-clad, cigarette-smoking facade.

At the time, both were heavily rumored to be gay.  Conforming, wearing a mask.

But girls can only lure, hint at sexual availability.  There are dire consequences for actually giving in, as Rizzo (Stockard Channing) learns (pictured with her boyfriend Kenickie, played by Boomer Conaway of Taxi).


What do the teenagers want, when they are their true selves?  Not sex.  Not romance. They want belonging, an emotional connection.  As the movie ends, the eight friends wonder what will become of them after graduation.  Will they go their separate ways?  "No," Danny exclaims.  "That'll never happen. We'll always be together."

"Grease," performed by Frankie Valli, was constantly on the radio that summer.

"This is a world of illusion, out of control, makes us confused": nothing is real, you have to wear the mask, say things you don't mean, pretend things you don't feel.

 But "The adults are lying -- only real is real"  It's all one big lie.

Over and over, day after day, year after year, they try to make you believe that what you feel doesn't exist, what you want doesn't exist, that no same-sex love has ever happened in all the history of the world.

It's all one big lie. Only real is real.

So: "We stop the fight right now, we got to be what we feel."

That did it.

There's a Picture of Me and a Girl on My Parents' Dresser

Rock Island, May 1978

Younger gay guys are often shocked to discover that I used to date girls. "Are you bisexual?" they ask. "Were you trying to 'turn' straight?"  Was it a screen, so no one would find out?" 

"No."

"Then...why?"

I think for a long time, wondering myself.   But in the end there's only one answer: "I had no choice."

During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, heterosexual desire was assumed universal human experience.  Little boys might think "girls are icky!," but once they hit puberty, they would "discover the opposite sex," become obsessed with feminine curves and smiles.  Period.  No exceptions.  End of story.

So from birth relatives, teachers, preachers, coaches, camp counselors, judo instructors, Mean Boys, and friends subjected me to a flurry of interrogations: "Do you like girls yet?  Have you grown up?  Are you a man?"

When I turned 13, then 14, then 15, obviously pubescent, yet still protesting a lack of interest, they shifted their tactics.  I was obviously "wild about girls," like every boy who ever existed. I just needed to find one who was my "type."  So they demanded: "Do you like that girl?  Or that one?  Or that one?"

They asked "What girl do you like?" more often than "How are you?"  I went to sleep each night with the interrogation ringing in my ears: "What girl do you like?  What girl do you like?  What girl? What girl?"

When I was hesitant about answering, or answered with the name of a head cheerleader too far out of my league to realistically pursue as a girlfriend, they -- literally everyone I knew -- tried to fix me up.

My father invited coworkers with teenage daughters over for dinner. Teachers assigned me female partners for projects.  Friends orchestrated chance meetings.  I was seated next to girls in the car, invited to parties only to discover that a "date" had been arranged for me, asked to fetch a book from a girl's house.  When the waitress smiled for her tip, I was advised "She likes you -- ask her out."

During high school, I succumbed to dates with 8 girls, including Julie, my date to the Senior Prom.

Everyone was going.  And during the spring semester, no one could talk about anything else. Finals, graduation, college plans?  Who cares!  Let's talk about corsages, tuxedos, dance steps, limousines, and fancy, expensive dinners at Jumer's Castle Lodge (which had rooms to rent upstairs, they told me with a leer).

Everyone wanted to know who I was bringing.  Friends I hadn't talked to in years accosted me in the hallway to ask "what girl?" "what girl?" "what girl?"

But...I didn't have a girlfriend!



"Ask someone -- anyone!  You have to go!  It's a rite of passage, the beginning of adulthood."

But...my church deemed dancing a sin, so surely my parents would never give me permission!

They did.  "Go! Stay out as late as you want! It will be the most important evening of your life!"

But...I didn't want to ask a girl!

My brother took care of that, fixing me up with an 11th grader named Julie, who was thrilled by the promise of hanging out with seniors.

It wasn't that bad.  We shared a limousine with Aaron (the rabbi's son who didn't realize that he was gay), Darry, and their dates, so it was much like a group of friends hanging out together.

This was the disco era, so we didn't need to touch as we danced to "Disco Inferno" and "Do You Believe in Magic."   It was easy enough to turn slightly and pretend to be dancing with a guy. And when we came to a slow number, like "You Belong to Me" by Carly Simon, I suddenly felt a desperate need for punch and cookies.

The only thing I hated was the slap-on-back congratulations, as if having Julie on my arm was the pinnacle of accomplishment.  I had fulfilled the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of everyone I knew!  No more uncertainty, no more sleepless nights of worry -- I had arrived.


Jumer's Castle Lodge
There was a photographer, so Julie and I were photographed, me in my brown suit and Julie in her yellow dress.  20-wallet sized to send to all of our friends and relatives, and a full-size for the mantle.

After having dinner at Jumer's Castle Lodge and ignoring offers to get a room, I had the limo deposit Julie on her doorstep, with a "Thanks for a nice evening" but no kiss.  I never saw her again.

 But my parents put that picture on the mantle, amid pictures of me and my brother and sister and uncles and aunts and grandparents.

It stayed there, me and a girl smiling at the world, after I figured it out, after I dated Fred the Preacher and the Priest with the Pushy Mom and the cute cultist and Haldor.

It stayed there, me in a brown suit and a girl I never saw again, while I was living in Bloomington and Texas, discussing my date with the bodybuilder and my trip to India with Viju and my trip to Italy to track down my high school crush.

One day in frustration I took it down and hid it in a drawer in my room, but the next year it returned like the raven in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, chortling "Nevermore!"

It stayed there when I moved to West Hollywood,  telling my parents all about dating Alan and Raul and my celebrity boyfriend and my date with Richard Dreyfuss.

Why did my parents leave it up?  What were they trying to say?  What were they trying to believe?

This isn't the photo
Finally, in the summer of 1988, a decade after my prom date, it vanished from the mantle, replaced by an Isabel Bloom sculpture. 

Thank God! I exclaimed.

Sometime during the 1990s, a picture of me and my partner Lee appeared on the mantle, in a group photo with my brother and sister and their spouses.  I figured that the prom photo was gone for good.  But no...

Rock Island, December 1994

During a Christmas visit,  my mother asked me to get something out of their bedroom.  I hadn't been in there for years.

That darned prom photo was sitting on their dresser!

As far as I know, it's still there.