When I was a kid, I was always being told to stop acting “like that.” It wasn’t usually that I was hurting someone or playing with with something that they thought I would break. It was usually because of things like the time my dad caught me singing along to the “My Own Home” song from Disney’s animated Jungle Book—I had a towel or blanket wrapped around me, like the girl in the movie was wearing, and an empty milk jug balanced on my head. I know, now, that the reason I was so into that song was because 5-year-old me had a crush on the cartoon version of Mowgli. And clearly Dad suspected the same thing.
Admonishments about me acting in a manner inappropriate for my gender and/or age came from Dad and certain other relatives, plus teachers, and of course classmates. Such admonitions were often accompanied with more than just verbal abuse. They kept coming even after my parents divorced and I moved 1200 miles away from Dad. Grade-school and middle-school kids can tease and bully cruelly, but it’s nothing compared to the lengths teen-age boys will go. Just like the teachers who had told my parents earlier that there was nothing they could do about the bullying as long as I “talked like that and acted like that,” the guys who targeted me in my teens and twenties would tell me it was my own fault. If I just would stop “acting like that” they’d leave me alone.
It wasn’t just me this happened to. I still remember a news commentary show that I used to love watching on PBS, when they covered the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. If you look at historical pictures of the immense crowd, you will see huge numbers of men and women dressed in polo shirts and slacks or t-shirts and blue jeans. There wasn’t a lot of people in glitter or marching nearly naked. But the only footage this news show included in their coverage were shots of the very few individuals (and it was a tiny minority—this wasn’t a Pride Parade, this was a coordinated activist event that thousands of people traveled cross country to participate in) who were dressed very flamboyantly. And one of the pundits on the panel said something along the line of, “if the homosexual community wants civil rights, they should stop acting like that.”
Even though I was deeply closeted at the time, I wondered why queer people needed to earn their rights. The definition of a civil right is that you are entitled to it regardless.
At some point during the process of coming out I had the epiphany that they did genuinely believe that it was an act. I mean, I had one relative angrily yell at me after I came out that I was just “doing it for attention.” Right? Why would anyone want to be publicly known as being a member of a group that is regularly targeted for violence just for fun?
I still don’t know all the little behaviors and verbal ticks about me that set some people off. Given how many times since I came out, even during my Big Earring Phase, other people would mistake a woman friend as my wife, I know that the I’m not that gender nonconforming. Regardless, it isn’t an act. It has never been an act. It’s me being me. Yeah, I like to sing along to songs that I like. I like to dance, even though I know I’m not good at it and even if I’m just by my self. I like wear bright colors—including pink and purple. I love purple anything. I get excited and nerdy as f—k about things I love. I cry out loud at sad or poignant scenes in books, movies, or television episodes I watch (heck, I cry at some commercials!). I don’t often wear makeup, but I know how to put on mascara and eye-liner and I’m not ashamed of it. I grow flowers. I make my own flower arrangements for the house.
And yeah, I’m a guy who likes men. I have fallen love with a couple them over the years. And that isn’t an act either. That’s just me being me.
One of the reasons I’m thinking about this right now is because an old friend who has moved back to the town where we went to high school together, ran into one of my cousins that still lives back there, and was a little appalled when said cousin mentioned being glad I don’t visit often because “he just acts gayer and gayer every time I see him.” Probably a good thing I wasn’t there. Because I probably would have said, “Honey, I ain’t acting!”
The only time I was acting was back when I was trying to avoid more bullying or ridicule, trying to force myself not to do the few things I had figured out qualified as “acting like that.” When I was closeted and scared to death to be myself, that’s when I was acting.
This post is going up late because today is my birthday. I took the day off from work. I slept in. I spent much of the day reading or just watching the birds at the feeder, and the larger jays and squirrel rummage threw the spillage on the deck under the feeder. My husband left a bunch of gift bags scattered around the house, and a couple of packages from my mom were here, so every now and then I would open one. It was a fun way to spend the day. My husband took me to dinner at one of my favorite local eateries. He made me a martini (he makes the best—when we first started dating he was working as a bartender, but oddly enough, he doesn’t like to drink himself).
It has been a good birthday.
I’ve written before of how the AIDS crisis (which began when I was a closeted 20-something and was still ravaging the community by the time I was out in my thirties) had made me feel I was unlikely to live into my fifties. When you go to 16 funerals over the course of a few months, mourning guys who are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties—it just feels as if the Sword of Damocles is hanging over your head. It really did seem that it wasn’t a matter of whether one would get sick, just when.
And so I find myself a bit surprised and a lot grateful to celebrate this birthday. I’m getting close to 60, and I honestly didn’t believe back then I would make it to 50.
So I am happy and thankful. Especially this year and this week. Yesterday morning at work we all learned that a guy we all work with (and a guy who is a couple of years younger than I) suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on Sunday. I usually close my birthday posts with some bit of wisdom or advice. This year, I’m going to quote one of my other co-workers while we were all processing the news together: “It reminds us to treat everyone with kindness and respect, because we never know which conversation will be our last.”