#ThrowbackThursday “Spring Fling ’86” The Birth of Penguin Place. (The William Way LGBT Community Center)

In 1986, I had the pleasure of working with some very special members of Philadelphia’s LGBT community to produce a “Spring Fling” fundraiser for what was to become Penguin Place. At the time, ours was a Community Center without walls.

Penguin Place 1

Spring Fling was held at the Mask and Wig Club (located on south Camac St.) I will never forget the Spring Fling or the months of planning that led up to it. Each of us made a special contribution. We had battling DJs, planned “spontaneous” entertainment that seemed to manifest out of nowhere (think “flash mob” but with jugglers, magicians, and musicians), and brilliant slide show presentations that were revealed on a rear projection screen behind a beautifully painted stage backdrop.

I was working as an AV technician at the time so my contribution was the rear projection screen, the slide projectors, lenses, and animation fader which I borrowed from work.

I have always regretted that I didn’t get to know Bill Way better. In our short friendship, he was very supportive and encouraged my creativity.

Shortly after Spring Fling, I left Philadelphia for a new job out west. By the time I returned, Bill had died. Penguin Place was a reality and had a permanent facility just two blocks north of the Mask and Wig Club. The New organizers had taken Way’s dream to the next level and was serving the community.

That the William Way LGBT Community Center has been in it’s permanent home at 1315 Spruce St. for nearly two decades is a testament to the work and dedication of the community.

I think about William Way and that odd bunch of people who inspired me to get involved in my community. It was a very brief moment in my life but it reflects the very best of the LGBT community. As we just saw with Marriage Equality, when we work together the possibilities are endless.

It’s Been A Rough Week, So…

I thought I’d share a cute video by Steve J Boyle called “I Hit Send, or Modern Meltdown“. It’s a poetry reading about Steven’s first crush, post-coming-out.

Some of the language may not be appropriate for all audiences, but it’s adorably funny.

I figured a little light humor would be good thing after such an unbelievably bad week.

Enjoy!

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving inevitably leads to trips down memory lane. Random memories of family and friends that you thought you’d forgotten pop up out of nowhere. This year I found myself thinking about my father, and about a young woman from India whom I met way back in the 1980s. Two somewhat unrelated memories whose only connection is Thanksgiving, and maybe fathers.

In the summer of 1987 I was introduced to a young woman whose father had brought her to America to fulfill an arranged marriage. The problem was that her father didn’t know she was a lesbian. I hope you’ll forgive me if I can’t remember her name. It was 25 years ago. My friends and I spent the summer respectfully trying to help and support her throughout her coming out process. It was emotionally exhausting for all of us. I can’t imagine what she was going through.

As Thanksgiving approached, I asked how her family would be celebrating. She said “We don’t believe in thanksgiving.” I tried to explain that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. I pointed out that Thanksgiving is about showing gratitude for what you have. It’s about family, friends, etc. Still, she insisted that her family did not believe in Thanksgiving. I reluctantly submitted to her opinion and we continued along with other conversations. It never occurred to me that, in my insistence that she understand my point of view, I might be behaving just as stubborn as her father, and incidentally, my father.

My father and I had a rocky relationship. I spent most of my life distancing myself from his chauvinistic attitudes. (Notice I didn’t say misogynistic.) Dad wasn’t a bad person. He just had the misfortune of living precariously between two eras. He grew up in the 1950s, when men were kings of their castles. By the time I came along things had changed drastically. Racial equality, women’s rights, and gay liberation turned his world upside down. It was difficult, but he made an effort to change with the times. Dad’s limited education and preconceptions about the world often led to awkward interactions. He couldn’t understand why people didn’t always see things from his point of view. Sound familiar?

As I get older I catch myself doing and saying things that remind me of my father, especially around the holidays. Carving the turkey always returns me to my dad’s last Thanksgiving. His health was such that he couldn’t securely grasp and control a large knife, so the honor of carving the bird was passed to me. This was a very big moment for both me and my dad. He watched silently as I showed off my skills. I was proud. He was proud. Even my stepmother was proud. It was a very surreal moment. It took a lot for him to concede the duties traditionally held by the head of household. It was a ridiculously small gesture by today’s standards, but it wasn’t about the knife or my carving skills. It was a small example of the many changes that had occurred in my father over the course of his life.

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I’m not sure what made me think of that young woman. I understand she moved back to India with her family the following winter. I never did find out how she resolved her coming out issue, but I hope she followed her heart. I hope she stayed true to herself.

I’d like to think I’ve achieved some personal growth since the last time I saw her, but I still see a bit of my dad in myself. But that’s okay. He did the best he could with what he had. He was human. He made mistakes.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all just accept that we’re only human, and give each other a little wiggle room, and a chance to make and learn from our mistakes, the world might be a better place.

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 Don’t let life pass you by. Enjoy the time with loved ones while you can.

Out Of The Closet, Into The Fire!

NCODI wanted to write something brilliant and inspiring for National Coming Out Day, something that would give future generations hope and pride. Then like most of my “inspiring ideas” I put it off until the last minute. So here I am at 12:15 AM with a head full of thoughts and nothing on paper … er, document file.

My earliest conversation about homosexuality was a curt one. I was maybe six years old. The idea of marrying a person of the opposite sex was alien to me. I knew that’s what people were supposed to do, but It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I didn’t think girls were yucky, or had cooties. It’s just that I knew I didn’t want to spend my life with a girl. So, one day, I casually asked my grandmother if two boys could get married. Well… I will never forget the look in her face. You would have thought I had grown another head. “NO!” she snapped. “It’s illegal.” And just like that, the conversation was over. But I held onto that thought. I filed it away for later use. The acrimony in her answer would become the foundation upon which my closet was built.

As I grew older, I discovered that people did not approve of gays. Many, like the men in my family were downright malicious. My grandfather made racial epithets part of his everyday vernacular and saved a few choice words for gay men. He said the word “faggot” with such vile hatred I used to cringe. My father might not have been as aggressive, but he was his father’s son. — Perhaps being on the receiving end of that hostility helped me to empathize with others.

By the time I was ten years old I was discovering sex. My best friend found discarded Playboy magazines and was eager to share with the gang. We gathered round, gawking and giggling. Everything is giggles with boys that age. — I tried so hard to be interested. I wanted so much to find something appealing in those images. I really did. I wasn’t put off. Women’s bodies don’t repulse me. I just wasn’t interested.

It was about this time that I happened upon a Playgirl magazine. It probably belonged to my stepsister. I took a look. This was the moment. This was the game changer. Suddenly, I knew. – And I was filled with a combination of relief, exhilaration, and dread. The fact that I had finally experienced sexual excitement was such a relief, but that relief was short lived. All of a sudden panic struck. No! This couldn’t possibly be happening! Why me?? Yes. The $64,000 question, “Why me?” I was so distressed by the thought that God felt it necessary to pile such a huge burden on my shoulders. It wasn’t enough that my parents divorced and I don’t know my mother, now God was against me too? My feeling of despair was made worse because I had no one to turn to. — A young person of color goes home to a family of people just like him or her. LGBT youth are most often alone in a family of heterosexuals. They lack representation in their own family, their own home.

I made it my mission to learn all I could about homosexuality. I was already spending lots of time in the library, so I started there. The resources were slim. I searched every dictionary, encyclopedia, and medical book I could find. I uncovered little more than clinical definitions and misguided assumptions, but I never stopped looking. —  To this day, I soak up every bit of LGBT history and culture I can find.

As puberty took hold, I learned to reinforce my closet door. Attitudes towards gays at school were negative at best. Kids can be so cruel. Anti-gay epithets could be heard from students and teachers alike. I was on constant guard. But I also kept an eye open for clues that there might be others just like me. I sought out allies, but was convinced I was the only gay person in my town. — Silly me.

By my fifteenth summer I was swimming at the nearest YMCA, conveniently located a mere ten miles away. After a swim I’d go to a nearby book and magazine shop to pick up something to read on the long trolley ride home. One day, while perusing the periodicals, the words “gay pride” caught my attention. Oh. My. God. Could it be? The clean cut moustachioed man on the cover smiled down at me. I was nervous. How was I going to ask the cashier to sell me this magazine? I looked for something else to buy. There was no way I’d have the nerve to buy this one gay themed magazine alone. Maybe if I asked for a bunch of titles the clerk wouldn’t notice the gay one. — Does that ever work?–  I continued scanning the rack, but my eyes kept returning to the smiling man. In a panic, I mispronounce the name of the magazine. I had to point it out to the clerk. I was nervous and somewhat embarrassed, but I managed to buy a cooking and a gossip magazine to go with that wonderful window into gay life, The Advocate. The minute I got home, I stashed the magazine where every teenage boy thinks no one will look. Say it with me… “under the mattress.”

My first job was at a local convenience store. I was friends with a few of my coworkers and got together with them after work on Saturday nights. It was nothing elaborate. We piled into a friend’s beat up old car and went to a movie, a diner or bowling. Sometimes we would just drive around, carrying on like teenagers do.  It was on one of those nights that everything changed.

My friends dropped me off at home so I could change out of my work clothes. My parents were quietly seated in the living room.  I said hello, and proceeded upstairs to get cleaned up. I was shocked by what greeted me. My bedroom was in shambles. More importantly, the mattress had been tossed aside. They knew! I was convinced my father was going to throw me out of the house. I was crushed.

I gathered all the courage I could and without looking at my folks, calmly left the house. My friends were waiting in the car for me. I must have looked pretty bad because one of my friends asked what was wrong. I told them I might need a place to stay for a while. When asked why, I skirted the issue. Eventually, the truth came out. Surprisingly, my small group of friends was supportive. We talked for more than an hour. The car never made it out of the parking spot. After encouragement from my friends, I reluctantly returned home to face my fate.

My parents were more upset that I didn’t feel comfortable enough to open up to them than they were about the magazines. My dad was disappointed, but not surprised that his son was gay. “Straight boys “ he said. “don’t usually hang around with girls.” The fact that there were boys in my group didn’t matter to him. There were more than three girls in the group, so I was gay. – Sounds logical to me.

My parent’s told me the reason they searched my room was because they suspected drug use. For the record, I was not using any kind of illegal substance. I didn’t even smoke. I was under the misconception that LGBT folks didn’t do drugs. Yes. I was that naive.

After graduating high school, I met my first love. We weren’t really a good match, first loves rarely are. He helped me through the death of my grandfather, but his habit of sending love notes outed me to my grandmother. She opened a birthday card that was addressed to me and didn’t like the romantic nature of the enclosed message. My grandmother took it as a personal affront, like in some bizarre act of rebellion I decided to be gay. She demanded that I find a nice girl and change my ways or she would disown me

Up until that moment, my grandmother and I had always been close. She took care of me for the three years between my father’s divorce and his marriage to my stepmother. I learned a lot about my Italian heritage through her. I learned how to cook from her. So it was especially painful to hear her say that my being gay made her “sick to her stomach”.

A friend of mine told me to have patience. He said that I had the advantage of time on my side. It was a few years between the moment I discovered I was gay to the time I accepted it as a fact of life. I was going to have to give my family the same about of time to get used to it. He was right. My parents came around within a few months of that awful Saturday night. My grandmother took a little longer, but she did manage to adjust to the idea in her own way. She preferred no to discuss it.

As I learned, while gawking over pictures of scantily clad women, I can’t be anything other than who or what I am. There’s no amount of praying that will change it. Once I accepted that simple fact, I was much happier.

New York AIDS March (1985)

New York AIDS March (1985)

By the end of the 1980s, I was living on my own. I was fortunate enough to have made friends with some truly remarkable people, most of whom are no longer with us. Those men took me under their wing and became my secondary family. Their struggles helped pave the way for my self acceptance in a way that I hope my generation might have done for the next. I know they would be extremely disappointed with me If I didn’t live life in my own truth, on my own terms. So I strive to make them proud.

In the words of *Polonius, “This above all – to thine own self be true,”  It wasn’t always easy, but it did get better.

*(Hamlet act 1, scene 3) William Shakespeare

Lists. …this is a good one.

The 2013 TIME 100 was released a week ago. I’m always suspicious of lists. Often, they are nothing more than self promotion and mutual masturba back scratching. But I think Time Magazine got it right on at least three of it’s picks.

Rebecca Smeyne / Corbis

Rebecca Smeyne / Corbis

John Legend writes of Frank Ocean as a respected colleague and close friend. “Frank is brilliant,” he writes. “The day I started writing with him, it was clear that he has a very interesting mind and a distinctive way of expressing himself. He was fearless and innately creative. You talk to some people in this business and you get the sense that they’re very focused on radio: what will be a hit or won’t be a hit. You never get that from Frank. The focus is on creating something that’s beautiful, that’s great art.

“Frank broke a lot of rules with his album Channel Orange. He wasn’t focused on “What’s gonna be my single?” And obviously, one of the cardinal rules was that he wasn’t supposed to come out. But he did…”
Illustration by David Despau for TIME

Illustration by David Despau for TIME

Maya Angelou wrote one of the most beautiful pieces on a First Lady I have ever read. Of Michelle Obama, she writes, “Modesty is a learned affectation. It’s just like decals. As soon as the world shakes the modest person against the wall, that modesty will drop off them. But humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me; I have already been paid for. All I have to do is prepare myself to pay for someone else who is yet to come. And that’s exactly what Mrs. Obama’s doing with the fight against obesity. She considers all children her responsibility: black or white, pretty or plain, all the children.The philosophers tell us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mrs. Obama is as if it doesn’t touch her. She hasn’t tried to become anybody else’s idea of the First Lady. She has remained herself, with her grace, her gentleness and her sense of humor. That she would dare to wear clothes off the rack. Or go out and garden. Or have a grandmother in the White House. She knows how to be a public creature without being separate from her family.” Beautiful words for a beautiful First Lady.

But my favorite by far is what Chelsea Clinton wrote of 15 year old accidental activist, Malala Yousafzai  
Mark Seliger for TIME

Mark Seliger for TIME

“People whose courage has been met by violence populate history. Few, though, are as young as Malala was when, at 15, a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus in northwestern Pakistan and shot her and two other girls, attempting to both kill Malala and, as the Taliban later said, teach a “lesson” to anyone who had the courage to stand up for education, freedom and self-determination, particularly for girls and women. Or as young as 11, when Malala began blogging for the BBC’s Urdu site, writing about her ambition to become a doctor, her fears of the Taliban and her determination to not allow the Taliban — or her fear — to prevent her from getting the education she needed to realize her dreams.Malala is now where she wants to be: back in school. The Taliban almost made Malala a martyr; they succeeded in making her a symbol. The memoir she is writing to raise awareness about the 61 million children around the world who are not in school indicates she accepts that unasked-for responsibility as a synonym for courage and a champion for girls everywhere. However Malala concludes her book, her story so far is only just beginning.”