Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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Coming Out Year, Part 14: California.

Somebody did a lot of fund raising, and organized an all-expense-paid trip for Wholeness to California.  In late spring, we loaded up the station wagon and drove down to the Bay Area.  From the cool green Oregon forests, we sped south into the warm golden hills that were already drying towards summer.

There were many stories.  The fancy motel in Tiburon.  The spaghetti feed in Corte Madera.  The boat rides and tours.  But I split off on my own some of the time.  I had my own agenda.

Of course I had learned that San Francisco was the gay Mecca.  It was where everything was happening.  Or supposed to be.

I took the Muni train underground, and popped up in the Castro.  Here it all was!  Or was it?  I walked up and down the street.  I shyly peeked into the leather bars.  I went by normal businesses like banks.  The most amusing thing I saw was a small plaque at the base of one of the houses.  It announced dryly, “On this spot, 1897”.  New line.  “Nothing Happened”.

My mind reeled at the thought that probably every single man I saw was gay.  Some you could tell.  There was the young hippy-type faery chatting casually with the little old lady at the vegetable stand.  She was talking back to him, just like he was a normal person.

I saw one guy I recognized from the Brietenbush gathering.  I hadn’t talked to him there, and didn’t know how to introduce myself now.  He was very handsome, but it had spoiled it for me that he looked too much like my brother.  I just can’t get into the idea of having sex with one of my brothers.

Most of the guys, you would never know they were gay; dressed in business suits and ties, or whatever.  I think it was the height of the “clone look”; short hair, pumped muscles, polo shirt, little moustache.  Already this had diffused enough into the general culture it looked pretty normal.

It is arguable that every male fashion started as a gay men’s signaling device.  Wearing white painter’s pants.  Having a little gold circlet earring in your left ear.  When straight men started picking up on it and doing it too, it would lose its usefulness for gay men to spot each other.  Then they’d hve to come up with something new.

So here I was at the nexus of the gay world, and what was I to do with it?  I was clueless.  Fortunately, I had brought my laundry.  I found a Laundromat on 18th Street.  Then, I had an excuse to hang out there, be part of the scene, at least for the duration of the wash and dry cycles.

For years, I was still pretty much clueless what to do with the Castro.  Every time I would be in the Bay Area, I would come back to that same Laundromat and do my laundry.  It was pretty pathetic, but it was my tradition.

Finally, thirteen years later, 1997, I lived out my lifelong fantasy in the Castro.  Oh, I know you want to hear about it.  I was there with my boyfriend of the time.  We were both out-of-towners from the Northwest, me from Grayson Harbor, him from Seattle.

We were in a little open-air hole-in-the-wall eatery, having wraps.  We sat on stools at the counter, facing out the windows that were open to the warm autumn night.  Then, about six guys I knew came along the street, all in a group.  We said hey all around.  They came in and talked.

They were all going to a movie together.  Boyfriend and I joined them.  In the theater it was dark.  The movie started.

Now, I don’t know quite how to explain how this was my lifelong fantasy.  We watched the movie, and then went on our separate ways.  It was my lifelong fantasy, because I had finally had a nice evening.  I had actually gone to the Castro and had a good time!

But this first time, trying to plug into gay life in the Bay Area, I felt alienated.  I didn’t know how to do it.  I’d had sex with a handful of guys by now, but nothing continued.  Nothing sustained.  I wanted to have at least one gay man for a friend.

Somehow, I found out about a coming-out drop-in group.  It was in the East Bay, near where we were staying.  I found the spot on the scheduled evening, a big old house with expanses of glass windows.  With the lights on inside, it looked like a jewel box.

I still don’t know how I steeled myself to go in.  Probably, I held my breath and closed my eyes.  But I’m glad I did.  I do not remember a single thing about the meeting, except that’s where I met Dan.

Dan and I got talking as the meeting broke up.  We talked on and on.  He took me to his dingy little apartment near the Berkeley campus, and we had unremarkable intimacy.  But it didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter to him because he got lots of sex with men he met all the time.  It didn’t matter to me because he was such an interesting guy to talk to.

Dan worked for a lecture notes business at the university.  He would sit in on classes and take dictation.  Then, the company would publish the notes, for study aids, and to help people who had missed the classes.

The result of this was, Dan was a fount of fascinating information.  One of the many, many tidbits was this, from a Human Sexuality class, regarding the different aspects of gender acculturation:

The things that set men’s roles apart from women’s.  When it’s all said and done, the primary aspect of masculinity in this culture can be distilled down to the word “competent”.  For women, it’s “sensitive”.

I have got a lot of mileage out of things Dan told me.  And the best part is, we’ve kept in touch.  At the very least, he writes to me once a year, on my birthday.  For many years it was letters.  Now it’s email.

Since then, I have had lots of gay friends.  But that first friendship was the souvenir I brought back from California to Oregon.

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Coming Out Year, Part 13: Dynamics.

Through the winter and into the spring of 1984, I lived at Forest Glade, way out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon.  Maybe the way I’ve been talking makes it sound like I was having lots of sex.  I wasn’t.  It was long periods of complete isolation, then very rare sex.  When you live in the desert, you talk about every rain.

This is also why I have stopped going to gatherings so much.  At first it was just a blast.  Then, gatherings became simply part of my yearly schedule.  Finally, I got tired of the feast-or-famine way it made my life feel.  You know, sexual famine the vast majority of the time, then one weekend of feast.

Not just sex but community.  Weeks or months of not seeing or talking to a single other man I knew was gay.  Then, for a few days, more than I could possibly make use of.  It was not conducive to developing lasting gay friendships.

There is another dynamic of gatherings it took me a while to articulate.  You meet someone at a gathering, and he is just the most wonderful man.  We are all of us away from our usual humdrum life and everyday cares.  So naturally, everybody at a gathering is his most radiant, open, glowing self.  We are there in a happy ferment of excitement, renewal, and high hopes.  No wonder we all fall in love with each other.

But then I would go visit a guy I had met at a gathering, and it would be different.  He’d be back on his usual schedule, with all his mundane responsibilities, surrounded again by the world’s expectations.

After I understood this, it was obvious why such visits were not so much fun.  Before that, I went through a lot of frustration and disappointment.  I was expecting things to be like at the gathering.

Now, when I visit, I understand that I should try to be a little bit of the gathering myself.  I can’t coast on past momentum.  I can’t expect it to just happen.  I need to be sensitive to where he’s at, but also try to bring something fun and different into his life.  Then, I might get the same back.

As I came to a more solid understanding that I was gay, I was also finally getting it that most men were not.  For example, in High School, I was, of course, interested in the other guys.  But I would look around and see how all the guys were interested in each other.  The football players hung out together.  The bookish guys hung out together.  What was so different about me?

Well, maybe my urges were distantly related to those that naturally pull human males together into gangs and cliques, but my drives were profoundly different too.  I had a desire for a level of masculine intimacy that would simply never cross a straight man’s mind.

I realized this mismatch had subtly distorted my relations with guys, all my life.  I had subconsciously assumed their inner workings were like mine; a heightened interest, which could take the form of either attraction or repulsion, and often a paradoxical mixture of push and pull.

Think how straight guys talk about women.  They’re attracted to females, can’t stop paying attention to them.  But they’re also super-critical of any aspects where the female doesn’t measure up.  “Aw, she’s too fat,” or whatever.

It was similar for me.  I wanted something from guys, their magnetism pulled me.  But then, maybe some detail spoiled it.  This one was too obnoxious.  That one was too dumb.  And if nothing spoiled it, it just hung suspended with nowhere to go.

Imagine a straight guy, in a world where no woman he was interested ever gave the least acknowledgment of reciprocal feelings — no one had ever even heard of such a thing.  That’s what it was like.

Straight men are very sensitive to what women think of them.  They half-subconsciously do all sorts of things to impress woman.  But by elevating women to the position of higher moral authority, straight men are also continually trying to see how much they can get away with behind women’s backs.

I realized, all my growing up, I had been subtly trying to initiate these same kind of dynamics with other males.  I would want too much from guys, and then be devastated when I didn’t get it.  I had a hard time making friends.

I’ve since learned that it is classic for gay men to have terrible issues with authority, especially male authority figures.  I sure did!  It’s a mixture of dogged love and admiration, paradoxically mixed with bad-boy flirting.

Imagine how a girl might approach a guy she’s interested in; testing, teasing, coming close and tagging, then running away.  Playfully, trying to see what he’s about.  Now substitute a guy for the girl, and it all falls apart.  We try to run a formula that makes internal sense to us, but it doesn’t work in the world.

Now that I knew what was going on, I could allow for it.  For example, earlier in my life, if I saw a man who was too appealing, I would never have anything to do with him.  I would be far too shy to approach him.

Now, though, I would go right up and start talking to him.  I’d be confident in the knowledge that it would never, ever cross his mind that I might be drinking him in.  I would fully realize that the connection was never going to go below the waist, probably not even below the neck.  But still, I’d be enjoying him, and he’d be enjoying me.

I have much better friendships with straight men, now that I understand my gay powers.  It reminds me of a quote from a sci-fi/fantasy story, “an untrained psychic is a danger to all!”  Similarly, a gay man who doesn’t understand he’s gay is trouble for everybody, not the least himself.

It also gave me new eyes to see my relationships with women.  On one level, it had always been easy with girls and women.  There was no sexual expectation — at least from my side.

Looking back, I understood for the first time this one involvement I’d had with a girl early in college.  It was unforgivable how considerate, generous, and open I’d been to her.  She became very emotionally attached to me.  I hadn’t a clue.  I had been leading her on horribly; without ever realizing it.

I had never been in much danger of ending up married to a woman, but I had enough brushes I could see how it could happen.  Even after I was to the point of calling myself gay, a couple of women managed to get me in bed.

Nothing happened sexually.  They initiated it.  Who knows what they were thinking?  Maybe, “He just needs one good woman to straighten him out.”  Maybe they liked the novelty of pursuing a man, instead of being pursued.  Maybe I was all they could get.  Anyway, I became better at spotting these situations on the rise, and getting out of the way.  Such episodes were not going to give either of us what we wanted, me or the woman.

I was also untangling some things about masculine and feminine roles.  Earlier in life, I had had no conscious concept of myself as gay.  If you’d asked me, I’d have said no, and thought I was telling the truth.

Still, on some level I had never felt I quite measured up as a full-on red-blooded boy.  The increasingly appealing, budding young males around me had an electricity coursing through them, the way they reached out and grabbed onto the world, particularly the female part of it.

I picked up subtle clues, and knew that same flavor of charge did not ignite my limbs.  Therefore, I didn’t quite “deserve” to run with the other boys.  I was “naturally” drawn to quieter pursuits, a certain amount of sewing and cooking; more solitary, and therefore safe.

This was my first understanding of why some gay men are effeminate.  Maybe they started with that same dynamic, but took it all the way.

I was doing a lot of work on “belief systems”, the idea that you create your reality by what you believe.  This idea has a lot of merit, but it obviously has its limits.  For example, I had not “believed” I was gay, but still I was.  A better formulation would be something like, what I believe about being gay determines my experience of it.

I already knew, from the faery gathering, that effeminate guys were nowhere near the majority among gay men.  But still, they were a segment.  Maybe, I thought, a guy might start pursuing the more domestic arts to fill the void of not fitting in the male world.  But then, the creative soul turns it into a positive thing.  He develops skills he can be proud of.  Once he starts connecting with similar gay men, they spark each other.  The expressive mode of talking, the mannerisms, the little in-jokes, all become a way of belonging.

I was strongly sensitized to acceptance, that all us gay men are in this together.  We have to support each other, no matter how masculine or feminine anyone is.  But still there was an aspect of effeminacy I didn’t like.  It took me a long time to articulate it.

I call it the hollow shell of the feminine.  You know, being into surface glitz rather than substance.  Being neurotic and ditzy, and investing in one’s own incompetence.  Being the bitch; with the quick wit, but always in service of the cutting tongue.

I would not have any interest in hanging out with female women who acted like that.  I don’t see why I should force myself with males.

There’s a bit of a cheat built into our language.  The term “strong woman” sounds admirable.  She’s made herself.  She’s thrusting up out of her oppression.  But the term “strong man” sounds pretentious.  If a guy ever had the nerve to say something like, “I’m a strong man,” something in us whispers, “You’re an asshole”.

But why shouldn’t a strong man be equally admirable as a strong woman?  A man strong in himself would be generous, nurturing, and vulnerable.  A strong man has a lot more to offer the world than a weak one.

I had to find positive male images for myself.  I realized, for me, masculinity was what it was all about.  I liked maleness best, both in other guys, and in myself.  Yeah, as a kid I had made jams and jellies, but I’d also played backyard baseball and football.  I’d sewed some shirts and jeans, but also gone to the forests and the fields, and become quite the young woodsman.

My belief about being gay was that I could have it all.  I thought about this as I bucked up downed madrona trees with the chainsaw, to get my firewood in.  I thought about this as I chugged across the lower meadow on the Forest Glade tractor I’d fixed.

From a subconscious feeling that I didn’t measure up as a man, I’d been stingy with how much masculinity I’d allowed myself.  Now that I knew I was gay, I was going for it all.