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"It's A Family Affair" (1 Viewer)

Max SG

Senior Member
It's A Family Affair
by Max Gordon
June 2005

In the town where I grew up in Michigan, there is a shopping center called Frandor. In 1987, when I was seventeen, Frandor included a carpeted aisle of indoor stores where shoppers moved like sleepwalkers under the muzak, and one could buy everything from cashmere yarn to handmade chocolate, sporting equipment, and fresh ground coffee. Older couples linked arms fondly and window-shopped with halting steps, mothers chased after screaming children who wandered into toy stores alone, and I went to the Community News Center bookstore to buy my first book on homosexuals.

I was terrified, so a friend offered to come with me. There may or may not have been a specific section for gay and lesbian literature back then, but there was definitely gay pornography at the back of the store. The sign said that no one under the age of eighteen was permitted to look at any of the magazines in that area. Even if I was old enough to browse there, just the thought of being caught reading a gay magazine by one of my parent’s friends or a high-school teacher was enough to send me into panic. Earlier that week, I’d watched a boy my age humiliated as a Penthouse magazine was snatched out of his hands and a manager escorted him out of the store.

Once, when there was a particularly long line at the cash register, I boldly slipped some gay porn inside a magazine on karate films. The men’s nudity stimulated and appalled me at the same time. How could they smile so openly, as if posing naked with your legs in the air were normal? How could they hold their erections in their hands, photographed with the obvious intent to arouse other men? If they weren’t embarrassed for themselves, I definitely had enough shame for all of us.

The book I wanted to buy was Larry Kramer’s Faggots. My best friend, an extraordinarily well-read heterosexual black woman named Vivian, just happened to know the names of the men writing in the gay communities on the East and West coasts and knew of Kramer’s book. On the cover was a muscular man with a beard, peeling off the diaphanous shirt he was wearing. I read the top of the first page: “There are 2,556,596 faggots in the New York Area …” The line was immediately reassuring, even if I still couldn’t believe, feeling as alone as I did, that there were that many people who were like me, anywhere.

I carried the book to the front of the store and stood there for what seemed like two eternities, reaching in my front pocket, my back pocket, turning the book over in my hands, standing in and stepping out of line, until finally Vivian asked me gently, “Would you like me to buy it for you?” I could only nod. I watched her from the exit with my hands jammed in my jacket as she put my crumpled bills on the counter, and the man at the register slipped the book in a bag and handed her the change. We walked out of the store together and she handed the book to me in the parking lot. At home, a whole new campaign of clandestine behavior awaited me. Where could I keep the book so that my mother wouldn’t find it, and if she did, somehow make it look as if I weren’t hiding it? I finally slipped it behind a bookcase. I didn’t complete the book that year, but I returned to it several times, just to read the first line over and over again. “There are 2,556,596 faggots in the New York Area…” The main thing was that the book existed, and to hold it in my hands, to know someone who was gay, like me, had written it, at that time in my life was possibility and promise enough.

Earlier that year, for the first time in my life, I had gone to a gay bar. A lesbian friend of ours was suddenly never available anymore to hang out when we called her, and after a fierce interrogation, offered to show us where she’d been going every night. My friends, who had no idea of my closeted sexual predicament, or who were gracious enough not to confront me about it if they did, encouraged me to go with them as a “good sport”. Trammpps was a bar on Michigan Avenue that was definitely on the other side of the tracks. After walking past what seemed like a solid wall of forbidding doors, all dark and closed, we reached a final one and knocked. A short man with a wide black moustache examined us from a tiny side window reminding me of Dorothy’s arrival in the Emerald City. He saw my friend, a buzzer sounded, and we were invited inside.

There were mirrors along the walls, a few barstools and potted plants, and a postage stamp of a dance floor. A strobe light twirled indifferently and lights bathed the dancers in primary colors. I watched a Latino man in a pink tank-top elaborately wrap his arms around himself as he shimmied to Natalie Cole’s "Pink Cadillac". Every other beat in the song was punctuated with a stylized gesture. He clearly required no audience; self-hypnotized, he was dancing to his own reflection in the mirror. A very fat black woman in jeans and a baseball cap was doing a slow drag with a thin, blonde white woman in high heels. They had their arms draped across each other. An Asian woman in black boots, army fatigues and a crew cut did a chugging dance across the floor with a bottle of Heineken in her hand. Off to the side, an old white man with hippy hair was in a state of ecstasy from the music. I dismissed him as being high; what else could explain his arms floating over his head - everyone knew men never raise their hands above their waists when they danced, and absolutely never over their shoulders. He was shaking his ass like a woman, throwing back his head occasionally to laugh his pleasure. I didn’t even know white men had asses, it seemed like a conspiracy that all the adult white men I’d encountered up to eighteen, (mostly my high-school gym teachers), had agreed to walk and dress in a way that de-emphasized having buttocks at all. I had never in my life seen any white man stay with the beat of the music, much less move erotically. Was this some kind of underground universe to which soulful, feminine white men were banished so that the world, which seemed to be overpopulated with the uptight, conservative-asshole brand, could never see they existed? If I didn’t know any better, I might have believed by the way this man was dancing that he was a gay and free of sexual shame or self-hatred, which I knew was impossible. A beautiful black man sculpted the air with his open palms to a house beat. He had the grace and poise of a danseuse, while negotiating the physical bulk of a truck driver. Who the hell were these people? I’d never seen any black men in my family dance like that. It was a circus sideshow and I marveled from the sidelines.

I had been attracted to other boys for years, if I was honest with myself, and I was definitely attracted to a few I saw that night, but I was determined at every cost not be what I considered a faggot. I knew that men had sex with other men - in some cases like jail or the military it couldn’t be helped - but a faggot called out in the grocery store, “We’re out of dishwashing soap, honey!” I tried to disguise my unease that night with homophobic one-liners, and frequent glances at my watch. But inside, I kept thinking about the guy at the door with the mustache, how he stood there making sure that bashers didn’t just walk in and start beating everyone up, which was always a possibility in the gay world. The place was a dive, to be sure, but it was their place, these freaky people, and that little man at the door made it safe by protecting them. It was his job, of course, and he probably got paid something, but it also felt a little like love.

I came out to myself that night on the dance floor, and to my friends several months later. After Vivian helped me buy the Kramer book, we sat in the driveway of her house and she told me fairy tales about Castro Street and The Village; far away lands where millions of gay people congregated, ate, danced, lived, loved, fucked, and didn’t sit forever in mid-western towns, steaming up the windows of their mother’s car on a school night, crying out their shame and hopelessness to their best female friend. I couldn’t imagine New York, having a male “lover”, being “out of the closet”, or even being gay and happy, but she promised me she had read about it, and I decided to trust her.

It was my first year in college, as I was coming down the hall and struggling with an unwieldy basket of laundry, that I saw a poster advertising groups to help gay men come out. The woman’s voice was friendly enough on the other end of the phone, but that didn’t stop me from hanging up on her three times. I just couldn’t get any words out after she said, “Lesbian and Gay Services? May I help you?” Finally, I climbed the stairs of the Student Union and haunted the outside of the office until I found the guts to make an appointment. On the first day of my coming-out workshop, I sat in a circle and stared at seven other faces of every age and color frozen in disbelief that we had all signed up for an eight-week course on learning to be homosexuals. Our facilitators, Donald and Vicente, told us not to come out of the closet to our families during an argument, not to hurt ourselves like that. Our disclosure was our truth and a gift to those we loved, it was not to be squandered on anyone who would not respect us. We discussed everything from leaving unhappy marriages, to thoughts of suicide, and to the physical, sometimes sexual abuse some of us had suffered because of our identities. On graduation day there was a field trip to the local gay bar. It was our boys’ night out, and we stood in a protective clump beside the dance floor, offering smiles and winks when one of our members found the courage for the first time to ask another man to dance.

I graduated and moved to New York, where I created a gay community using everything at my disposal from politics to bars, to books and movies, to pornographic magazines I was now finally old enough to buy. Before the Internet, men posted their “profiles” on bathroom walls of public restrooms: “32, hung, looking to hook up tonight, call….” Or “no Blacks, no fats, no fems.” In college, I had been introduced to the cruelty of the gay world, the bias I sometimes found in our “different” community against difference. My fantasy at eighteen that gay life would be a big party, or a reprieve from the racism I’d experienced as a “heterosexual” Black man, was jettisoned, and replaced with a new discouragement and wariness. Just because people knew gay oppression themselves, solidarity and a sense of compassion for other forms of injustice, like racism and sexism, couldn’t be assumed.

I’d also imagined that my gay shame would evaporate when I broke the closet door open; I didn’t foresee that it would be a recurring theme in my life, beginning from the first time I registered attraction to another boy at four to the way I perceive my body as a gay man now at thirty-five. I am constantly working through that shame, constantly liberating myself from it. It manifests itself in so many different ways. It has affected every aspect of my life, and informed my substance abuse, my sexual addiction, eating disorder, my self-destruction and my self-hatred. When a life is defined by shame, gay or otherwise, friendships are fleeting, career opportunities are missed or discarded as we feel we are inherently unworthy to ask for the raise or the promotion, denial about drug and alcohol abuse flourishes, or psychologically and physically abusive relationships with family or lovers are tolerated because we would rather accept pain from the person we know than face an open road with the prospect of no love at all.

I’ve called this piece “It’s a Family Affair”, after the first line in the song “Family Affair” from Sly Stone’s masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The album marked the official end of the Sixties and recorded the bitter heartbreak of that particular time in American history: the assassinations of Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar, the perceived end of the Civil Rights Movement, and the protracted end of the Vietnam war. As another unnecessary war propels us into ever newer madness, it is my hope that the spirit of truth in Stone’s classic work will guide me also to tell the truth here, no matter how funky, beautiful, nasty, ugly, or triumphant that truth may be. As a black gay man in America, I’ve discovered that my experience has often been all of the above.

What you won’t find here are the petty bullshit gay conversations about how great his abs looked at the party, whether the shirt he was wearing was Versace or not, or how much money do you think she makes, as another lesbian commits suicide in isolation, or another gay man succumbs to crystal methadone use or becomes infected with HIV because he was too high or his self-esteem was too low to consider having safer sex. When none of his friends bothered to say while shopping with him one afternoon, “You’ve told me again today that you can’t find the strength to leave your abusive relationship. Instead of spending three hundred dollars on your next shirt or hustler, have you considering going to therapy?”

We are family, as the saying goes, and there are issues affecting our lives as gay, lesbian and bisexual people of African descent that are unique. As a black gay man, it has been my commitment no longer to see myself as a floating gay satellite in relation to the rest of the black community. I won’t be intimidated because my sexual orientation is an affront to anyone’s religious beliefs. Too many of us have sat through sermons in our churches as the preacher tells us we are going to hell for being gay, while we know that it is our voice that is the loveliest in the choir, our potato salad recipe that will be asked for at the picnic, our efforts that gave the fundraiser its most successful year. Enraged gay people are usually industrious, and most surprisingly, generous. Today I try to give some of that generous gay energy that has always been great at saving other people’s lives, back to myself.

If you stand in a friend’s living room and argue with her about whether or not her dining room table exists she might think you are crazy and put you out, but somehow anyone can venture an opinion on a gay person’s right to exist, and it is seen as a viable discussion, complete with supporters and detractors. My sexual identity is not a topic for discussion, political issue, or religious viewpoint. As my coming-out facilitator always reminded us, it is my gift to share with those I love.

One of the reasons coming out is so scary is that you never know if you are going to find another family, once you’ve risked your first. As some of us have never had the same experience with our parents or siblings after saying the words, “I’m a lesbian” or, “I’m gay,” we sometimes have to redefine what family means, and choose those people in the world who continue to love and support us, no matter where they come from. My hope is that, as a family, issues relevant to us can be explored in this column, and that conversations will take place which will continue to help us to save our lives, as we exchange messages of encouragement to one another, and tips on how we’ve made it this far.

Like the man I saw on the dance floor that night when I was seventeen. For whatever reason, in that moment with the music he forgot all his pain or he embraced all of it, expressing his spirit-filled joy and gay loveliness. He seemed so brave and free to me, dancing in that lousy, tacky bar, but dancing nonetheless. Perhaps he saved my life by giving me the courage to come out. That has always been our legacy, inspiring one another. There is so much we have to celebrate. So, welcome to the table. Sit down and stay awhile. The food is ready and we’re getting ready to eat.

© Max Gordon
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