MIXTAPE: A bit of Pride

Some stories don’t fit neatly into a single song, album, or year, so I’ll be making a “mixtape” for those entries. Like this one…..

It’s June, which means it’s LGBT Pride Month.

Which means any corporation worth their salt (or stock price) will trot out a pride flag in their imaging. The hot Maytag guy was holding a rainbow cake on Facebook, so hey, I’m all for that show of support.

And it also means that the inevitable discussion about Do We Still Need Pride and Why Is There Pride and Why Must We Be So Loud and Flamboyant all bubble up to the top.

A few years ago, there was an article in a now-defunct Canadian magazine, The Grid. (ONTD has a mirrored link here.) It was called “Dawn of a New Gay,” and it spoke to a number of twentysomething young gay men about all the things they were so over. Gay bars were on everyone’s list.

I understand that things have changed. I just know that the bar scene was an important place for me to figure out who I was, and how I related to other people.

I wrote about this particular era of my life in another blog. “Formative years” is accurate enough, but seems insufficient.

Music was an incredibly important part of that scene, and R&B and dance were the DNA of it all.

The whole 1980s hybrid of pop and R&B, which came together in the form of Michael Jackson and Prince, was just a few years in the rearview mirror.

Bars and nightclubs could be really cold places, with knives out (metaphorically and, occasionally, literally), but I loved dancing and loved the music I heard there. It felt warm and alive to me.

The Jam/Lewis sound was especially warm and fun, a throwback to late 1970s disco music, and no one personified that sound more than Janet Jackson.

Somehow, despite living in a dreary corner of the Rust Belt, I had friends and enough cash in my pocket to go on adventures every so often. One of our favorite trips was to Cleveland, where the clubs and bars always seemed much friendlier.

I remember the club Keys, in downtown Cleveland, one of the first places I remember being where black and white men were side by side, no borders. No boundaries on the dance floor, as long as the DJ kept things moving.

We were living in a rising queer sensibility – or so all the crucial gay magazines told us – where we tried to smash gender lines, racial lines and every other box and boundary possible.

I was political and aware as the next guy, but also, sometimes? We just wanted to catch a buzz and get laid.

I stopped going to clubs when I had to be up at 6:00 a.m. for the start of a boring corporate workday, and that, as they say, was that.

But I still dream about it from time to time….it’s a beautiful place to lose your inhibitions, to make a beautiful fool of yourself and revel in the joy of it all.

Pride’s the same way for some people, be they old or young, L or G or B or T or any other identity that isn’t in the binary system.

A few weeks ago, I found out that someone I knew as a kid – someone who lived a few streets over, someone who was a pretty steady presence in my young life – was murdered.

I can’t accurately call him a friend, but he and I were both gay, and we served as confidantes to each other, sharing notes. We had a few awkward teenage experiences together (fill in the blanks, kids).

And then we got macro-awkward, about everything, for no good reason, and drifted apart. What? Who knows. We were hormonal teenagers, and drama queens to boot.

We caught up years later at a gay bar, and I think we may have talked for all of five minutes, but it was pretty clear that at that time, he wasn’t out to his family. I don’t know if that ever changed.

Two things hurt my heart; one, that he was murdered. And two, that they were talking around him and who he was. He was referred to in one article as “unmarried.”

The details of his death are being hidden, but the between-the-lines message that’s been implied is that he may have been the victim of a hookup gone wrong.

Coming out may not seem important to some people. But if I died tomorrow, I know that people would talk about me and about everything I am, and everything I was.

They would talk about my partner, and how he’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and the reason my world turns.

There would be no hiding, no shame, no abrupt end to a life that never got to completely emerge from its shell.

And I’m sad, and angry, and hurt that my former school mate didn’t get that chance.

You should read Joe Jervis (of Joe.My.God) and his essay, “Watching the Defectives.

The last line gets me every time.

“They wish we were invisible. We’re not. Let’s dance.”


The Name of the Game: 1977

NOTE: While some events happen much later, the song itself was released in 1977.

My memories of certain time periods are so sharp. Maybe it’s selective — as you age, your brain saves the memorable stuff and clears your mental cache of the irrelevant.

As the youngest of four kids, I didn’t always have a spot at the table, a voice in the conversation. So I became a really good observer, making mental notes, remembering dates and places and events. I was a journalist, a storyteller for my own world, even at a young age.

What I don’t have in that big memory box is anything about faith, about church, about religion.

There are quick flashes of memory here and there. The old ladies at the end of the street who held summer Bible study. They read verses to us that had been printed on small flash cards and, if you sat through the entire session, you got a Orange Push-Up pop.

There was the Christmas Pilgrimage through the center of town, the summer carnival on the sweeping grounds of the local Catholic church.

My sister’s wedding was my first time inside that church, and it felt like it was as big as St. Peter’s Basilica.

We weren’t exactly barefoot heathens running around our neighborhood, though some of my mother’s neighborhood adversaries might argue otherwise.

I wasn’t a stranger to God or to the teachings of Christianity. Beyond the Sunday School ladies, my mother was the main teacher. We spent hours talking about any number of things, situations where she’d walk me through moral reasoning, with her Bible as a reference.

But getting us together and going to church was not going to happen. She had doubts about the church experience, and told me several times that, at least in her experience, it was filled with people who loved you on Sunday and would turn their backs on you during the rest of the week.

And my father. Getting my father there would have taken a papal decree. Remember Mad Men? That was his professional life at the time. That big, giant mainframe computer that drives one of the copywriters crazy? He was one of the guys who fixed those big behemoths, and he was essentially on call 24/7. Church was almost always a no-go. Literally.

When I was 13, we had new neighbors for a year who were profoundly evangelical. I followed their son to a summer church camp. I have no memories of their teachings. What I do remember was a relentless admonishment from all the adults to bring in new members. It was everything.

They made it a contest. Bring in five new members, they said, and you’ll get a train set! I may have been a shoeless heathen, but something in me decided that the whole deal didn’t sit well with me, and I stopped going.

The more serious schism for me was the acknowledgement of who I was, and of my life as a gay man. In the 1980s, when I came of age, few mainstream Christian religions had an open door policy for LGBT congregants. Some individual congregations were advocating for that change in big urban areas, but those spaces were few and far between.

And if there was a church that put a welcome mat out, there was often an asterisk beside that Welcome: We love the sinner, but hate the sin. We’ll help you change. 

For most of the next two decades, the schism remained.

I had spiritual curiosity, and occasionally, something would transpire to shake off that hunger.

When I lived near Cleveland with my friend Jay, we went to a study group. The leader was a handsome, athletic young minister who could have been a ROTC leader.

He was the first person to suggest aloud in my presence what I had always believed in my heart: that I was a child of God, loved as any other. He spoke about other ways people had interpreted some Bible passages.

In the 1990s, during an earlier stay in Chicago, I explored alternative spirituality with several friends. They commented on the centering presence I brought to meditation and prayer sessions.

But still, faith felt like a dinner to which I hadn’t been invited — and for which I was woefully underdressed.

Music was often a sort of spiritual grace for me, and in the absence of something more defined, I’d throw my earphones on and take a walk, trying to puzzle together the mysteries of other people, the mysteries of the world.

In a library that has songs from every decade of the 20th century, I had some of the 70s pop songs I loved as a kid.

From “Godspell,” there was Day by Day, the song my babysitter sang to me. I had The Carpenters in that mix.

And, of course, ABBA.

The ABBA revival started in the mid-1990s and reached a peak with the emergence of ABBA music in the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding. (You’re terrible, Muriel.)

Their music was still on my iPod over a decade later, in 2005. Music often elicits an emotional reaction from me, but that year, I had an experience that was very unusual, even for me.

I was listening to Name of the Game, a mid-tempo song that’s written as a love song, or at least the song of someone tentatively reaching out to love.

Something aligned, in the music, in the lyrics, in the things that had been in my head and heart. I don’t know why, or how, but suddenly, the lyrics seemed to suggest another meaning, one that spoke to the questions about faith, about God, and about life that I still had.

After all, I was an impossible case….

It seems to me, for every time // I’m getting more open hearted

Was I talking to God? What the devil was happening?

What’s the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?

Tell me please, ’cause I have to know // I’m a bashful child, beginning to grow

At this point, I was doubting my sanity. And then the chorus kicked in again, and every single hair on my neck and back stood up on edge.

And make me talk, and make me feel, and make me show, what I’m trying to conceal

I was a few hundred feet from home, my face wet with tears, convinced I was having a mental breakdown.

Then I exhaled, and thought, maybe it’s time to start asking more questions.

That day was the start of a slow walk back to spirituality. I was wary of what was ahead for a gay man (and a shoeless heathen at that), so my journey was step by step.

I wrote an article about faith and LGBT people, and made a listing of all the open and affirming spaces in town.

I took a class that taught me about all the world’s religions, and learned that questions aren’t at all a bad thing; questioning is, in fact, the cornerstones of many religions.

I drew on a number of friends who had deep, rich lives in their churches, including several people who, in mid-career, had decided to become ministers.

Two years ago, I became a member of a church.

I’m proud to be a member, but you’ll forgive me if I end my descriptions there. I agree with James Baldwin that my faith and my beliefs are in an envelope marked Personal, and I’ll keep them that way.

I’m still figuring it out, but I think that’s rather the point, that we don’t have all the answers. Faith is about many things, and it’s about belief, but at its heart, it is also our map out of darkness, an attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Some study books and scrolls. Some sing hymns. And some play Swedish pop music.