Friday, April 21, 2023

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?" 



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 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?", by which they meant "Have you grown up?  Are you a man?"

When I turned 13, then 14, then 15, 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." 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.

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

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 her 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.


  1. I guess that, for some, hope springs eternal. But what a win to have the picture of you and Lee on the mantle!

    1. That same year, it was snowing out, and Dad asked us to be careful driving the car, so we wouldn't get in an accident: "I don't want two kids in the hospital That was sort of his validation of our relationship.



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