There are many things about my past that shames me. One is the way I used to think about gay people. The first time I heard of same-sex attraction was on an episode of Barney Miller – a gay man kidnaps his own son because his ex-wife kept him from seeing the boy. During the episode, the gay man was taunted. It was the first time it ever crossed my mind that a boy might be attracted to another boy. Since I was only 6 at the time, I went back to playing with my Star Wars toys and didn’t think much of it. And tv and film in the 80s painted a pretty one-dimensional picture of gay and lesbian men and women; typically, they were the bit character that was there solely for comedic relief, such as Hollywood Montrose in the movie Mannequin and Lamar in Revenge of the Nerds.
Somewhere during the 80’s and 90’s, my view went from gay people as a funny foppish stereotype to gay people as weak or immoral threats to society. I’m not sure how that transition happened, but I’m sure it had something to do with what I was taught about masculinity and the “Biblical” idea of what a man should look like given to me by society. My friends and I didn’t use racial slurs, but none of us even questioned using slurs like “faggot,” or “gay” as a pejorative term.
I never physically hurt anyone, but I inflicted mental and emotional pain. I took part in name-calling and stares, and I supported music and movies that portrayed gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals in negative and hurtful ways. My mere way of thinking was as attacking as any physical activity I could have participated in. I went through school with people that would later “come out,” people that I called my friends. And I feel terrible they couldn’t be themselves around me. Nobody should have to hide who they are.
Looking back, I’m struck by the irony that my religious upbringing led me to a place in direct conflict with Jesus’s 2nd greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Still, I was stuck in a bubble and I made sure to surround myself with like-minded people. I remember one summer night after I had graduated from high school while working an overnight shift, a man hit on me and I went back to my office and locked the door. I was furious. I stewed, “How dare he hit on me!?” I may have even paced a bit.
It was around this same time that I started to become more involved in theater. Between my improv troupe, theater rehearsals, and work, I had little time for anything else. My days were packed. During breaks from rehearsals, another actor and I would go to the parking lot and kick a soccer ball to each other. We always came back sweaty and smelly, but we were both playing villains and somehow kicking the ball around helped us feel normal. Down the hall from where we rehearsed, a ballet class was preparing for their big performance. There was a girl in the class I flirted with whenever I got the chance. After kicking the ball around one day, the other actor and I peered into the window. I saw the girl take a drink from a water bottle and hand it to a male dancer. They seemed close. I let out a sigh of frustration and my friend asked me what was wrong. I told him of my interest in the girl. We both stood looking through the window and he said, “I’ll steal him away and she’ll be free for you.” I continued to look through the window as his words slowly registered. Suddenly everything clicked – things he had said and the way his friends talked to him suddenly made sense. He must have sensed my uneasiness, because he asked, “Is there a problem?” I thought for a moment, faced down the years of inbred bigotry, and came to a conclusion. I looked him in the eye and said, “no, there’s no problem.”
We went back into rehearsal and quickly got back into character. The two of us became better friends and hung out at bars and coffee shops together. We were even paired to play the leads in The Normal Heart; I played Felix Turner and he played Ned. The Normal Heart opened my eyes and, more importantly, my heart to the plight of gay men. Night after night, for two hours, I put on the face of a dying gay man with AIDS and Felix’s words were my words. And after each performance, I said goodbye to the character and went my way. Nobody treated me differently. Nobody thought less of me. My family still loved me and was proud of me. But my friend was harassed going in and out of bars and had family members disown him. Felix was a role for me, but Ned was his life.
After performing one night, I received a bouquet of roses in the dressing room. I read the thoughtful card and the sender asked if we could meet by the stage door. Hoping to find an attractive adoring fan, I walked out and noticed a bunch of men standing by the door. I looked over at my friend, who doubled over laughing. I met the person who sent the flowers (who was an attractive adoring fan) and he asked me out on a date. He was disappointed after I informed him, I was straight. This time, I wasn’t angry that a gay man was hitting on me, I was flattered. And then we met up with his friends and had a drink.
I regret that it took me so long to come to that moment outside the ballet studio. That it took me so long to see my bigotry and to let go of it. That it took me so long to realize that love is so much more satisfying than hate. And I’m trying to teach my children a better way – to love one another despite differences. The way of love.
Felix Turner from the Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer:
“Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multiple of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
“Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12: 30-31.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.” – Rocky
My friends’ voices on LGBTQ issues (I know there are more letters. I still have a lot to learn.)
Nick North: https://www.nicknorth.co/
Brent Almond: http://designerdaddy.com/
Mitch Chaitin: https://www.gaynycdad.com/
Amber Leventry: https://amberleventry.com/
Mike Reynolds: https://everydaygirldad.com/
2 Dads with Baggage: https://www.2dadswithbaggage.com/
2 Travel Dads: https://2traveldads.com/
You might also like some of these posts I’ve written:
Raising Boys in the Me Too Era
Kindergartners Should Not Have to Hide in Cubby Closets: Gun Control Now
Hospitality and Grace: What the Christian Response to Immigration Should Be.
How a Friendship Between a Christian Boy and a Muslim Boy Gives Me Hope
Parenting, Protesting, and Educating: Hoping the World Will be Able to Breathe