Rick Shory

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Coming Out Year, Part 4: Gay jokes.

Back in California, at Wholeness, after visiting family, I was on an emotional roller coaster.  Sometimes I would be so happy at the wonder that had come into my life.  Sometimes, such as riding in the station wagon on the highway going into town, I would have to just roll down the window, stick my head out, and scream.

Deva and Carpenter were excellent counselors, natural at it.  I guess it’s a counselor thing never to tell a person what’s what.  The person has to figure it out for himself, walk his own path.

I had told them everything that had gone on, but they never said I was gay.  I did not call myself gay.  It just didn’t seem to fit.  Gay was, well, like those guys I had seen in college.  Flipping wrists, and expressive mannerisms, and, well, just not like me.  Something was going on, but I didn’t “feel gay”.

I could say that I was in love.  And it was with a man.  But that’s as far as I could go.  For the first time in my life, all the songs on AM radio made sense.  The sweet ones, but also the broken hearted ones.

I went on long walks by myself and thought about things.  I took out old keepsakes, like the pendant I had made when I was biking cross country, a chip of granite with a lichen on it, from the Colorado mountains.  I laid it on the black stone at the lookout rock, and went away and left it there.  It was a time of changes.

I thought about Adrian every minute of every day.

Sometimes, Carpenter would come home from somewhere he’d been, and share with me a juicy gay joke he’d just heard.  He always did this with great glee.

Nowadays, if someone asks me what I think of gay jokes, I reply, “I’ve never heard a gay joke.  They’re all just butt-fuck jokes.”  You know, demeaning, insulting, maybe witty, but always predicated on how cracked and sex-obsessed the gay character is.

I couldn’t figure out why Carpenter was doing this.  Then I remembered something.

Deva and Carpenter’s first three adopted kids were mixed racial, one parent black and one parent white.  Carpenter told me a story, appalled, of what had happened when he and Deva had taken their kids to visit conservative relatives in the South.  “They would tell the kids nigger jokes!” he said.  He shook his head.

I guess he didn’t realize he was doing the same thing.

Ever after, it has helped me.  When someone says something, seemingly insulting, about me being gay, I have an easier time stepping back and looking into it with wisdom.

Very often, maybe always, they were really trying to connect.  They were trying to deal with this strange new idea of gay.  They did it the only way they knew how.  They brought to it what they had, which was often only lame stereotypes and awful jokes.

Once, years later, at a gay and lesbian campout, I was piqued to notice the folks there were breaking the ice — by telling each other the most horrible gay jokes.

Decades later, I had a boyfriend, and it was his first year of coming out.  He had had a very rough time of it, as he was naturally very masculine.  He’d had huge inner conflicts:  Did his secret desire for men made him akin to the likes of drag queens?

But now he was coming out with a bang.  He’d told everybody in his family.  One time he complained to me that someone, maybe his grandfather, hadn’t accepted it yet.  I thought about it and advised, “Give him some time.  Think how long it took you to accept it yourself.”

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Coming Out Year, Part 3: Family.

I had made love with another man, and nothing would ever be the same again.

I don’t quite remember how, but two weeks after this turning point in my life, I was back in my parents’ house.

I had had two lives for several years by then.  My main life was on the West Coast, where things were progressive.  I’d gone to the Northwest for college, and stayed.  I knew a lot of radical people, people who were leftist in their politics, involved in the peace movement, creative, back-to-the-land.  I had learned to hitchhike, traveled a lot in the wonder of the Western majesty, been up and down the coast.  My paths were among tall green trees, the foaming ocean surf, silent valleys, deserts and mountains.

But periodically something would rubber-band me back to where I’d grown up, Montgomery, Alabama.  People have all sorts of weird ideas about Alabama.  I meet people who have never been to the South, and never will go, but they know much more about it than I do.  They’re happy to tell me all about it.

I only say, “The South is just like everywhere else, only more so.”

The best way I can articulate it is this:  There are thick pine woods bounding close around every street, yard, and farm field.  There is the lazy, steamy air.  There’s the general flatness of the terrain, so you never see over the trees, never get any long views.

So growing up there gives the impression of living in a warm, green, misty room chastened by wan sunlight, and all set about with luxuriant foliage.  You go through a door into an adjacent room, another street, yard, ball field, parking lot; and it’s much the same.  You go hundreds of miles.  You can travel from the Carolina coasts to east Texas, from the Gulf shores to Tennessee, and it’s much the same.  Naturally you assume the whole world is the same.  Everyone thinks the same, life is easy, and nothing ever happens.

Being back in the South would make me crazy, because I had been outside.  I had found out the world was not made up solely of interconnected misty clearings in the rank green pine woods.  I’d met people out there who thought about things in profoundly different and fascinating ways.  I had discovered that there actually could be more adventure in life than going to the mall.  It made me crazy because there was absolutely no way to get any of this across to anybody.

I would get surly and withdrawn.  It would take me ten times the period to snap out of it afterwards.  If I was there for a weekend, it would be three weeks until I felt myself again.  If I stayed a week, I knew to allow a couple of months of recovery out west before I’d be entirely back on my feet.  While I was there, I was not a lot of fun for my parents.

But this visit was different.  My parents knew something was up, because I was not the least bit difficult.  Love had come into my life, and I was walking on clouds.

I was engaging and friendly.  I talked to them.  I was positive and upbeat.  I got them to tell me stories about themselves, like how they met, and what had gone on at different times in their lives.

So of course it all came out.  I could not have kept it hidden.  Adrian even called me on the phone one time in there, right at my parents’ house.

“Who was that boy?” my mother asked, a bit sharply after I hung up.  She had answered the call.  I explained he was not a boy.  He had just had a birthday, and was thirty years old.

It all came out, but my parents did not take it badly.  How could they?  I was so much fun.  Also, I didn’t yet know enough to put out any hooks.

I have known a lot of gay and lesbian people over the years whose worst nightmare is their parents finding out.  They may have been solid in the gay community for decades, partnered up, living with their lovers in committed relationships.  But the whole thing grew us slowly, like a wall of vines, behind their parents’ backs.

They just know, “Dad could never take it,” or “If my mom found out it would kill her.”  And so they go on with absurd hobbles on their otherwise sensible lives.  When the parents visit, all the gay paraphernalia comes down.  The lover becomes “just my roommate” or disappears.

I was lucky.  I told my parents virtually as soon as I knew myself.  I didn’t realize parents were supposed to have an awful time about it, and so they didn’t.  I was not using the “g” word.  I did not call myself gay.  I had not got that far yet.  I was not operating from that poisonous dynamic that I was “this way”, and they had to “accept” me.

All I knew was that I had found love.  Someone wonderful had come into my life.  He just happened to be a man.

I’ve got to admit, it probably helped that I was 28 years old.  I was not under my parents’ sway in any way.  I was done with college, and had paid for it mostly myself.  I was not answerable to my folks, in no way responsible to them.  I had lived as my own man for nearly a decade by then.

Both my parents responded by telling me stories about their lives, things that seemed strange at the time.  Only later, I realized the pattern.  They were coming from a place of deepest intimacy, reciprocating the vulnerability I had shown.  My mom told me about her hysterectomy, after my sister, her youngest was born.  My dad told me about an affair he had had with another woman.  This was something I would never, ever, have imagined of my pious, responsible, deeply religious father.

I wish I could say things had stayed so easy with my parents but they did not.  Over the next few years, I got more militant about being gay, and they got more pouty.

It made me aware that gay consciousness is a process, whether it’s yourself you’re figuring out the gayness of, or somebody else.  Both me and my parents shot out of the starting gate at the same time.  However I had more impetus.  I had to work on it harder, because it was my own life.  I moved faster.

For example, a couple of years later, my dad said something to me like, “You can’t be gay.  I’ve known guys like that, and you’re not like that.”  It was an issue I had run into myself, the stereotypes.  But whereas to me it had been a question, to him it was an answer.  Another one, from my mom, was not so clearly articulated, but something like, well don’t be gay because then you won’t get married, and then, well, nothing will make any sense.

It gave me perspective that, really, both me and my parents were working on it, and a lot of the same questions would come up.  All the more travesty when gay kids figure out the gay world for themselves, and their parents never even get the chance.  No wonder they, the parents and gay kids, grow farther and farther away from each other.

For myself, over the next few years the dynamic with my parents degenerated into an uneasy truce.  I wanted to push about gay stuff, and they didn’t want to hear it.  They wanted to push about Catholic stuff, and I didn’t want to hear it.  I was tired of it all.

One night, about five years into my coming out, I had a dream.  In my dream I had a Tom of Finland greeting card.  You know, the artist who draws the men with impossibly overblown muscles, chiseled jawlines, huge genitals bulging within their pants.  Not really my kind of thing, but thoughtful that someone would send it to me.  Except in my dream, the card was from my parents.

I thought about it.  Such a message would be, “We don’t really agree with this, we don’t get it, but we say OK.”  However clumsily.  I decided I could use this.

For their next anniversary, I went to a card shop and found the most drippingly Catholic anniversary card I could find and sent it to them.  I don’t know if it had anything to do with what happened later.

Some months afterwards I was visiting my parents.  For the first couple of days, my brother was there too, and we were all running around doing stuff.  Then, finally, I was alone with them.  I had decided I was not going to push the gay agenda any more.

At the end of dinner that evening I said, “I just want to say one thing, and then I won’t say any more.  What I have to say is this.  I know you’re worried about AIDS.  All I want to say is:  I’ve been tested. It was negative. It’s going to stay that way.  That’s all.”

I didn’t expect any response.  But then they started talking.  My mom told me about a show they’d seen on TV.  About a young man, and how his father didn’t understand, and how hard it was.  I was amazed.  The next thing I knew, my mom had gone and got this PFLAG newsletter she had written away for.  She was showing it to me and asking me what I thought of it.

I sat there thinking is this my life?  Is this really happening to me?  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY REAL PARENTS?!?  But seriously, it was the answer to all the closeted gay folks who think their parents “could never handle it”.  If my old-fashioned, conservative, Catholic parents in the Deep South can come to grips with me being gay, then anybody can.

After that, things were petty much OK.  About once a year, my dad would ask me some question about gay stuff, such as if I thought a certain person in the family was (always someone who had never crossed my mind).  At one point he intimated that the Catholic anniversary card had indeed gone over about like a Tom of Finland card would have with me.

At this vantage of decades now, I believe my folks almost think they’re lucky to have a gay son.  Since I don’t have a family of my own, I’m sort of on call when they need help.  It was me who realized, as they were getting on in years, that their house was getting out of control for them, and mobilized the family to do something about it.  It was me who slowly, gently, on their own schedule, took them around to look at retirement places.

I always want to tell that to teenagers and twentysomethings who are coming out and their parents are threatening to disown them.  Give those parents time.  They’ll finally realize their gay kid is their greatest blessing.

But I am getting way ahead of my story.  This was about my first visit to family, after I had loved a man.

We drove up to Kentucky for a family reunion of my mom’s side.  Every year, when I was a boy, we had spent part of the summer there, on my grandparents’ farm.  Being with those folks was always hearts holiday.  I had cousins, literally, by the dozens; playmates when we were young, and co-conspirators through teenage.  There was a passel of gentle and loving aunts and uncles who doted on and spoiled us.  My grandma and granddad must have been the models for that Normal Rockwell print of Thanksgiving dinner.  Salt of the earth.  It was all set in sleepy small-town farm country of the Ohio valley, deliciously rural.

My glow came through, though I did not find ways to explain it to many people.  One uncle said I seemed like Leo Buscaglia.

I spent one long afternoon, and into the evening, out in the country with my aunt who is a nun.  She had always been very sweet, and dear to me.  On the convent grounds, strolling among the old apple trees, I told her my story.

She was not shocked.  Maybe people in the religious life get used to hearing anything.  But she spoke with some admonition.  She told me how once there had been a priest she worked with.  He and she began to feel very close, the beginnings of an intimate interest.  “But,” she said, “I told myself, ‘This simply cannot be!'”  They had given their lives to God and taken vows of chastity.

I got the implication, but it rolled right off me.  I didn’t even argue.  I was in love.  How could this be bad?