I have always had this idea in my head that I get along better with girls than with guys. Perhaps it’s part of the gay gene. I spent my whole adolescence identifying with more “feminine” hobbies like ballet and acrylic nail painting, therefore eliminating most of my common ground with fellow sixth graders. The time I feigned interest in throwing a football across a field has long passed, and just as the Packers ball we played with used to hit me in the face, so did my realization recently that my friends are for the first time overwhelmingly male. With the beginning of the GMG it’s safe to say they are overwhelmingly gay, too.
I guess this non-discovery hit me last weekend. Typically when I’m on 34th street I am doing anything in my power to keep my head down, shoulders broad—as to pave a clear path for myself through the throngs of people meandering in front of Foot Locker—and iPod firmly in place as I dart to B&H Photo, which has become my only reason for entering the neighborhood ranked far above Times Square on my list of most despised New York locations. Only, last weekend I stopped dead in the center of the street. It was there I began my trip to Philly as I threw my arms around Benton, a southern belle with curly hair as unruly as his love for sweet tea. We made our way to the Bolt Bus, which makes the Chinatown bus look like a Port-a-potty in comparison, and quickly united with five more guys (Michael, Max, Darren, Chris and Nick) and one fantastic lady, Jessica, the mastermind behind the trip.
Much to the dismay of the other passengers, we roped off a square of eight seats in the back of the bus and began planning our surprise attack on Amos, the friend whom this entire trip had been planned around. After living without him for several months due to the fact that he actually procured a steady job in these unsteady times, we decided to go catch him in A Chorus Line before he flew away to another part of the country to which the Bolt Bus doesn’t drive. Little did we know that getting to Philly was going to be just as difficult.
Within five minutes of departing from the mock station in front of Hammerstein Ballroom the bus driver, a portly woman with a winter coat zipped all the way up to the lips she was using to do her stand up comedy routine over the loud speaker, tried to take her first difficult turn onto the highway. Only instead of turning, she drove straight into a stationary object: a fire hydrant. And, in the process, almost drove us straight into another: the window of a Subway sandwich shop. While I am as guilty as anyone of wanting a Five Dollar Footlong, I also possess a little self-control. Seemingly un-phased by her blunder, she got out to make sure the damage wasn’t causing gasoline to leak out of the bus, thus making sure we weren’t in the middle of a Speed-like conundrum, then returned to the driver’s seat and completed the turn onto the highway.
As five other gay boys, one token straight boy, a lovely lady and I began analyzing the ups and downs of Beyonce’s career, we also began to bask in the glow of a weekend away from the city. Then we hit a bus. Only ten minutes into the trip, and five after our last accident, the driver managed to do the unthinkable: hit a stationary bus in the middle of the entrance to a tunnel. And this time she cracked a window.
After a whir of activity that brought the police to the highway, and caused our driver to plea with passengers at the front of the bus to fill out a form saying she wasn’t responsible for the accident (“It was the weed, I swear!”) we were informed all it would take was a quick change of a bus at Exit 15 and we would be on our way to Philly. Only by this time we were forty-five minutes behind schedule, craving cheesesteaks, and dangerously close to missing Amos hold up his headshot before doing a few quick pelvic thrusts while decked out in ‘70s jazz pants.
It was time to conserve excitement/rage. But seeing as we had enough energy to power a circuit party, this was hard to do. Still, we managed to all close our eyes for a moment beneath the breeze of circulated bus air and dream of a time when we thought it was still possible to make it to our destination on time.
Whether through the collective power of positive thought or divine intervention, our bus driver was able to drive the entire two hour trip without getting into a third accident. Had I been my sixth grade self I would have decoupaged a memory box as an award for her accomplishment, but seeing as I can’t really afford the materials for such luxuries these days, a dirty look while we were exiting the bus had to suffice.
All glares and negative energy shifted the moment we were greeted by Jessica’s lovely parents, Betsy and Ted, who had offered to turn their house into a gay bar for the night, and also offered up their immense knowledge of Philadelphia history as we hauled ass to the theater. Past the liberty bell; down the streets modeled off of the Champs Elysees; and just beyond the steps Rocky ran up.
When we finally got there and saw the A Chorus Line marquee, Max felt so excited by our unlikely arrival he proceeded to do Michael Bennett’s opening combination while navigating through other patrons on the way into the theater. (Why walk when you can 5,6,7,8?) As if his excitement wasn’t contagious enough, we entered into the lobby and saw a placard with Amos Wolff’s name on it, notifying us of his appearance in the show (he was swinging in for this performance) and bringing our hysteria to new heights.
From the moment the lights came up on a stage full of dancers we all located Amos and stayed glued to him throughout. Fortunately he was unaware of our presence so there was no pushing to his performance in order to please us; instead we got a fantastic, natural show (including the best Cassie I’ve ever seen) with the equally fantastic promise of a surprise at the stage door.
We all waited, stuffed between the brick walls in a narrow alleyway beside the theater, to pounce on our friend as he emerged from the theater. He didn’t emerge. He bounced down the alleyway like the concrete was a trampoline. After all of our stress on the bus ride, the end result proved to be well worth the hassle as we smothered him. But the night was only beginning.
Once completing a brief stop at a local pub filled with burly frat brothers downing beers at the bar as, creating an entertaining juxtaposition, the entire Britney Spears catalog boomed from the speakers, we traveled to the suburbs with the gay to straight ratio now at 7 to 2.
I think it was around the time when we started comparing leg hair while a Disney megamix blasted from the speakers that it hit me how nice it is to be old enough to not have to filter around my friends—gay or straight—anymore. Throughout childhood I often filtered myself at school. I talked about football when I had no knowledge of the sport; or I sat quietly while the other boys talked about messing around with girls in their parents’ hot tub. In this kitchen I was free to be myself around people I am passing into adulthood with. At times, this comfort comes from something as seemingly superficial as talking about love interests. But I think there’s an innate understanding with people who were either literally or figuratively hit in the face time and time again with a football as a kid; kindred spirits of sorts. Not so much brought on by sexuality but by the struggle, however large or small it was, it took to get us to the point where we are all together.
We stayed up all night. When I reflect on it I realize we didn’t really do anything other than rock back and forth on the tile floor while devouring pita chips. We made it to the hot tub once. We even handed the token straight boy, Chris, a medal (invisible) for enduring a weekend that far surpassed any of our fellow experiences in a group of gay men. (Expect for Benton…I think he’s been to Fire Island.)
On the bus ride back we decided to keep the positive energy going by creating the GMG: Gay Mail Group or Gay Men’s Group depending on who you ask. While not the most creative title, it’s already proved to be a nice outlet for us all. We email each other interesting things we read or experience. It’s like Oprah’s book club only with the occasional added bonus of shirtless hot celebrities. And to think it all started when that bus driver almost crashed through a building. Maybe I should decoupage her a present after all.
It’s difficult to explain the feeling that comes over me when I am sitting in a movie theater and see two men kiss on screen. To get the obvious out of the way, it’s as far removed from a sexual feeling as possible. The first word that comes to mind: comfort. A voice whispering, “it’s okay.” All of my life I have been an avid movie-goer, hooked since I saw Ariel fall for Prince Eric, and yet in my twenty-two years I can remember only a handful of on-screen same-sex kisses; the number of those that weren’t overtly sexual, aggressive, or a punch line is even fewer.
Within the first five minutes of Gus Van Sant’s newest film, the biopic Milk, two of the largest male stars in the world, Sean Penn and James Franco, not only kiss on a subway platform moments after the opening credits have faded from view, but lay in bed together, playfully wiping cake on each other’s faces as Harvey Milk rings in his fortieth birthday. “Forty years old, and I’ve yet to do something I’m proud of,” he says to his new companion. The film, while not perfect, has much to be proud of; first and foremost its balance of portraying gay rights with the weight it deserves in today’s society, while also portraying the love between two men as something not to be gawked at.
It is this shading that makes Milk so important. It is a reminder of how far we have come since the days of gay men being murdered in the streets of San Francisco. And it is a reminder of how much further we have to go.
This movie has an enormous amount of weight on its shoulders, especially coming in the shadow of the devastating outcome of California’s Prop 8. Iconic images of protests abound scene after scene, bringing to mind these recent struggles of the gay community. And while a thought running through my mind while watching the events unfold was how much I wish the bigots of the world would be forced to sit down and watch the film, I know it would be as pointless as getting me to sit down and watch football. (Some things just won’t happen.) What it does accomplish, however, in the process of preaching to the choir, is it gives the young gay community, a somewhat ignorant bunch in which I place myself, an education about our history.
The life of a gay people in my generation includes a fair amount of strident optimism, bucking the norm and declaring the lack of mainstream acceptance as superfluous to our existence. We have our own magazines. We have our own bars. We get by fine without the support, right? Some people do everything they can to distance themselves from conformity, defining themselves by their sexuality and donning sky-high wigs above piles of make-up. To me, while mainstream acceptance has never been my mission in life, it also seems a bit like a defense mechanism to declare we’re fine without it; putting up a front because it’s a goal we know is unattainable, foolish even.
Seeing this first on screen kiss in what is, to my knowledge, the first mainstream movie about the gay rights movement, felt like my reawakening as a gay man. Mainly because the love story in the midst of Harvey Milk’s empowering quest to be the first openly gay elected official in major office is presented with such delicacy and lack of salaciousness that it took my breath away. We don’t see Harvey spitting on his dick and fucking his lover like the characters in Brokeback Mountain. We see him making breakfast, taking photographs, walking up behind his lover and putting his arms around him on the street. It’s homosexuality portrayed in as innocent a way as those Disney heroines of my youth. For brief moments, it’s homosexuality portrayed with an air of nonchalance.
That word, “nonchalance” exists in this movie because of how completely Penn throws himself into the character. He is never a straight actor playing gay. He is Harvey Milk. But truth be told, however the love story is portrayed, little in Milk’s life—at least the chapters portrayed on screen—was nonchalant.
Milk’s mouth may as well have been a bullhorn. From the moment he moved to San Francisco he found a platform for his politics, made up of a dash of the typical scheming that is commonplace in today’s political climate and a bucket of infectious passion, which he poured over anyone he came into contact with.
“I am Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” he says while standing on a soapbox. And for the duration of the movie, that’s exactly what he does. By the time his assassination occurs—an event we know is coming since the beginning of the film—the on-screen Harvey Milk has managed to do for this generation what the real Milk did for his: inspire. We are human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else on this Earth.
Harvey Milk was one person with passion who was able to make a change. We are all capable. Our biggest foe is our own complacency (and, in this case, people with guns…which is why you won’t find me supporting gun rights anytime soon). With a little work, we may be viewed as so regular that mainstream romantic comedies are made with two men as the leads. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But that’s just what Harvey Milk had. And that’s everything.
As Rich @ FourFour said:
"I feel like it would be a disservice to have seen this and not do my meager part to make sure as many eyeballs are on it as possible."
And damn if Keith Olbermann isn't giving some line delivery in this...it could be used as a monologue for a Juilliard audition.
I don’t remember my mom explicitly telling me not to talk to strangers. Of course, it was understood that I wasn’t to take candy from, or get in a car with someone I didn’t know, but ever since childhood I’ve enjoyed the art of conversation, with close friends, and with those that I just met. Yet when I looked at the itinerary of this past weekend’s activities, I began to get a bit nervous, as my two main social events revolved around communicating with strangers. One was for personal gain. The other was bigger than myself. One was a complete bust. The other was a minor victory.
Let’s begin with the victory. Throughout the past year I, like most other Americans, have been going through waves in regard to the looming presidential election. There are days where the desire to inform myself is insatiable, as I read periodicals and watch broadcasts dissecting the minute details of each candidate. Yet everyone experiences election fatigue at one point, and over the past few months it seems all but impossible not to get worn out with the coverage, and discouraged at the lunatic fundamentalists whose outdated views crop up on the front page of Yahoo.
Just when one such bout of exasperation hit me, I received an email from my friend Angelina. For the past four months, she has been working at Obama Campaign Headquarters in Nevada, devoting 14-hours a day to ensure this man gets elected on November 4th. “If everyone horrified at the prospect of a Vice President Palin, picks up the phone and talks to voters, it's done,” she said. Her enthusiasm and practicality jolted me. I have always been one of those people bitching at dinner, lamenting the prospect of dwindling rights, and doing nothing about it. At the end of her email, she attached several ways to get involved, and I knew the time had come for me to do something.
(A new ad popping up around the City.)
Fortunately, my friend Abby had the same thing in mind, and invited me to a Phone Banking Party in Brooklyn this past weekend, organized by MoveOn.org. The idea of the party both exhilarated and terrified me. It seemed simple enough: arrive at an apartment in Brooklyn, get a prompt and a list of 42 numbers, and set forth to calling each of the them—which were for MoveOn members, Democrats—in an effort to get people mobilized in the swing states.
(Abby and I, fellow gimps, rest up before starting our calling spree.)
What I didn’t anticipate was how awkward I would be. I thought I was capable of following the prompt:
“Hi, is this______? Hi, this is_______ and I’m a volunteer…
We’re heading into the final days of the election, and we’ve been able to sign up more than 75,000 swing state MoveOn members to volunteer for Obama. Have you been involved yet? [Ask some follow up questions.] We have events on Sunday at 2pm, Monday at 6pm, and Saturday at 10am. Can you attend any of those? ”
And so on. When I was practicing on my own before I made the first call, it seemed like a script destined for success. Of course, I didn’t know what it would be like when there was someone answering back on the other end of the line.
I made it through eight phone numbers before I finally got someone to pick up on the other end. Before I knew it, I was tumbling through the prompt, stuttering when trying to pronounce Barack Obama (nothing like confidence to enlist a supporter), and plowing through each line like the election was thirty seconds away and I had to enlist them NOW. My communication skills were suddenly stunted when speaking to strangers.
The group scattered around the apartment was putting me to shame. Some managed to keep people on the phone for ten minutes at a time, sharing stories about fears regarding McCain, and guffawing like they were downing beers at the local pub. I could barely get people to pick up, let alone converse with me. “We just sat down to dinner,” they would say on the other end, as I looked over at the clock, which informed me it wasn’t even 4PM in Ohio. I was finally able to get someone to agree to go to an event by the time I got to my fourteenth call. The success excited me so much that I neglected to tell her any of the relevant information, like where to go and what to do, before I thanked her and hung up the phone. You can imagine my embarrassment when I had to call her back.
(Abby wasn't always successful.)
The afternoon continued, and I got one more person to agree to enlist, bringing my total to two—the average for most of the other callers at the party. Two people? I thought. It seemed so paltry. But I reminded myself how many other MoveOn calling parties were happening at the very same time, bringing the total of enlisted members into the thousands; I suddenly felt excited about being involved in something so much bigger than myself.
(Nick joins Abby to listen in on a particularly lively caller.)
If only I had had the chance to follow my script the night before. True to the theme of proactive friends who want me to engage with strangers, my roommate Nick coerced me into going to an event called Qwik Dates (yes, that is how it is spelled) at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Chelsea. The idea sounded horrifying to me: three-minute dates with a series of men in their 20s and 30s, ending with a mingling period for the entire room. I agreed to go as a late birthday present to Nick, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t excited by the idea of it being an train wreck, as it would give me excellent stories to write about.
The problem was, it wasn’t anything. After wrangling my friend Amos into the group, the three of us walked through the frigid autumn air to the building residing on west 13th street. When we arrived, there were packs of teenagers mingling in the lobby, apparently waiting for the “Youth Dance” to begin. A group of men at the front desk let us know that we need to go to the top floor, room 410. My expectations for an entertaining disaster were plummeting by the second.
When we reached the top floor, a narrow hallway containing a row of lockers, we found there were three other people there, and only ten minutes until the event was to begin; a bathroom pow-wow was essential.
“We aren’t staying,” I said, as we huddled around the sinks.
“Yeah, I mean how many more people are going to show up,” Nick asked.
“Even if it’s a lot, ‘a lot’ in relation to the three guys already here, is like two more people,” Amos informed us. We nodded in agreement, and made our way out of the bathroom.
Now all we needed was an exit strategy that wouldn’t be too awkward. Just as we were looking for a stairwell, as to avoid the long wait for the elevator, a man came out and started collecting money from the three other people waiting by the door.
“I really need a water fountain,” I said.
With a quick glance over to me, as he pocketed the recently collected money, the host said, “We have some refreshments in here. Water, juice, soda.”
I wanted all three. Shit. New excuse, Matt.
“I actually need a cigarette, does anyone else want one before we go in,” I asked, regardless of the fact that I despise smoking.
“Smokey, smokey,” Nick responded, as we bolted down the stairwell, shaking our heads at the utter disappointment of the whole event.
As we made our way back outside, as single and bored as ever, I was disheartened I hadn’t been able to use the prompt I’d created earlier in the evening to give me a guideline for my prospective dates. Since no one heard it, I figured I’d share it now:
“Hey, I’m Matt. Wanna touch my hernia? Actually, at this point it’s debatable, my roommate thinks it might be an undescended third testicle. Either way, you could have healing powers. I’d like you to try. I’m actually not even sure how I got it; I’m a photographer, not any heavy lifting. Although it can be stressful at times. Just today I was attacked by this father in the park because I was taking pictures of his daughter. She was hugging this big red dog; I was just doing my job. Other than the hernia, things are okay. I mean I’ve been sick for the past 18-months, although it’s not contagious. But my doctor says my symptoms are relatable to those of a chemo patient. I’ve learned to deal with it pretty well, except when I get stuff like the flu on top of it, which is what I was dealing with last week. You know, puking my guts out. Come to think of it, that might have been how my hernia got worse. Well, two hernias actually. Puking isn’t great for the abdominal wall. What’s your name?”
Maybe I could have enlisted two dates with that prompt? Or maybe I should have just started with that prompt instead of the "script" when I was calling MoveOn members. Drat. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda talked to more strangers.
(Not so much.)
It’s a campground. There are tents everywhere; big ones that tower over my head and cover enough ground to house an entire family. They sit in clusters containing smaller tents capable of sheltering two people curled up together, and mosquito nets encasing portable grills, coolers full of the weekend’s liquid courage, and folding canvas chairs in every color imaginable, some even in rainbow swirls. Pickup trucks, rigged with campers built to provide as much home comfort as possible, dig their wheels into the dirty grass as we pull into our space.
At eleven in the morning it’s clear that last night’s events are just being shaken off. Yet no matter how hard the man standing at the sink next to the row of porta-potties brushes his teeth, he finds it difficult to erase the taste of beer, pot, and chicken fingers he coated his mouth with at the previous evening’s Dave Matthews Band concert; he keeps brushing.
Some aren’t even trying to erase the events from the previous two days. Most of them have been camped in this exact place, attending each of the three concerts the band will give this weekend. They opt for a morning beer instead of coffee, and proceed to weave between cars as they make their way around to the various tents, visiting new friends who gave them an extra Corona, or were playing their favorite song, “Lie in our Graves,” when they pulled up.
Each car is splattered in writing as if everyone is a newlywed. “DMB 4 Life.” Or the more common “Leroi Forever,” an homage to the recently deceased saxophonist of what is arguably America’s most popular band. With the mix of jazz, country, pop, and world music it’s a veritable melting pot of styles, but judging from the people surrounding me at the campground, the crowd is not nearly as diverse as the music. The closest thing I can find to comfort is a clan of men walking around in jean shorts that are the length of boxer-briefs. For a moment I feel like I’m at the gay pride parade; it’s a fleeting moment.
It’s a beach. Or at least the closest you can get to a beach on the Columbia River. The sand that greets Garrett and me after the boat ride, which almost knocked me into the water several times, is fine, white, and scattered with beer cans. Those that aren’t mixed into the sand are in the hands of the tanned bodies of muscled men who chase half naked women around before emptying the contents of said beer into bongs that topple down into their throats. What doesn’t make it into their mouths runs down over their nipples, which are painted with stars and money signs. Am I in Washington or Cancun around spring break?
Now instead of RVs and tents all around me, there are boats. Huge boats with colored decals that look more like Mardi Gras floats than anything. All I can focus on are the six packs, both littered along the beach and on the bodies, but I worry that staring too long at some of them could result in trouble. I look as white as the sand in comparison to the other bodies; I would rather not do anything else to attract attention.
But I seem to be the only one. People flip down the sandy hill and propel themselves into the water in order to catch the various footballs flying through the air. Some are completely passed out on the back of boats, baking in the sun.
As the afternoon progresses we wander to the top of a sandy hill, and I look over to the other side where half naked men and women cavort, kegs being tossed around as carelessly as the hip-hop lyrics that blast from the speakers. With every boat playing it’s own choice of music, it’s impossible to decipher any one of them, but I think I hear a Dave Matthews song in there.
It’s clear that the couple next to Garrett and I doesn’t care what music there is – they are lost in each other. For a moment it looks like they actually might be in each other, but we do our best not to stare in disbelief; why I care about social graces at this moment is beyond me, obviously no one else does.
It’s the concert. 20,000 people surround me, and just as many stars loom overhead. I can see the stars more clearly than the people, partly because I’m afraid to look around, but I’m not afraid to look up.
I wasn’t afraid when we filed in. I was excited. After years away from the band, I’ve spent the past few weeks reacquainting myself with the music that populated my high school make out sessions. But that excitement quickly waned as my tight jeans and t-shirt attracted looks that made me feel as out of place as a Rockette shopping for groceries. Whatever preconceptions I had about the band and the open, peaceful community that their music champions are out the window. The thing that I can’t seem to pinpoint is if we are really being judged or are just conditioned by society to think that we inevitably will be when in a situation like this.
I hear a thud and Garrett turns to tell me that someone just threw a full beer can at him. The night may as well be over because whether or not the beer can was intentionally thrown at us, the sad reality of this situation is that I don’t feel safe enough to enjoy the music in any capacity. Oddly enough I feel safest on the ground, where I am most susceptible to people stumbling over me, or almost crushing my head as they fall over drunk. It’s in this position that I can look up and see the vastness of the Washington sky, where the Big Dipper rests peacefully above the stage. I can’t see eyes judging me; I can just close mine and escape.
There is a dungeon in downtown Missoula and it goes by the name of AmVets. By definition, a dungeon is a labyrinthine subterranean setting, but to define it in such grandiose terms is to give it false representation. There is nothing remotely grand about Missoula’s only gay bar.
Even though, as the name suggests, it was intended to be a bar for American Veterans, AmVets has turned into a smorgasbord of small town gay culture that is truly one of a kind. Situated between a few bars that have been deemed “hick” establishments, the entrance to AmVets looks more like an abandoned hut than a welcoming nightclub. The wooden enclosure is a gateway to a rock staircase that looks jack hammered and unfinished and is usually scattered with smokers out for a quick puff in the frigid winter air.
The bar scene has been the last place on my mind over the past ten months, but when Blaine and David showed up in Missoula, I knew that I would have to make an exception. Being sober in AmVets presented it in an even scarier light than through drunk-goggles, so my two trips opened up my eyes in new ways.
Once you pass through the rickety wooden door, you are met by a bouncer who scans ID’s with the commitment of a supermarket attendant. His lackadaisical nature is made evident by the abundance of underage patrons who float around the cavernous space.
Both Blaine and David were immediately overwhelmed by the enormity of the bar, which has no natural light and is big enough that it could exist in a hollowed out mountain. Upon entering, there is a bar that offers Jello shots, Jaeger on tap, and cheap drinks served in plastic cups. Just beyond that is a collection of pool tables and if you step a little further you reach the dance floor, which plays a variety of top-40 pop.
It’s on the dance floor that the diversity of the crowd becomes apparent. Grinding against one pole you’ll find a lesbian couple dressed in overalls that are in no way an ironic fashion statement. Next to them you’ll see a leather daddy with a handle bar mustache observing the toothless men smoking continuous cigarettes. Every now and then a drag queen will make her rounds, cavorting with the crowd with an explosion of hair topping off a rainbow colored gown. Peppered between these icons of gay Montana are the college students with popped collars and beaded necklaces straight out of 1997.
(Jes and Blaine tear it up on the dance floor.)
Since I first discovered AmVets at eighteen, I’ve often wondered where these men and women are during the day. The diverse crowd meets only in the way that they party with such ferocity. Even though Missoula is a liberal college town, it’s not uncommon to be given dirty looks, get mocked, or at times even assaulted because of ones sexual preference. It’s a town that prides itself on being diverse and accepting, but one whose actions sometimes overwhelm its intentions. The suppressed nature of homosexuality in Missoula has only a few outlets where pretenses are disrobed, and the main one is AmVets.
To me and my friends from New York, it can seem like a very uncomfortable experience. Whereas we are free to be ourselves, sexuality and all, in our everyday lives, in Montana it’s still legal to be fired for sexual preference. Once ten o’ clock rolls around, the bar becomes scattered with people who are free to be themselves for a while.
Due to my sober lifestyle at the moment, I took the time during my past two trips to observe the crowd as much as possible. If I ever become a documentary filmmaker, AmVets will be one of my first subjects. It’s a fascinating study in gay culture on the brink of acceptance and the freedom that an overtaken bar can possess; it’s a genuine Montana experience.
(Blaine joins me at my observation post.)
“I went to Hellgate.”
For anyone not familiar with Montana, that is a startling sentence. It doesn’t reference a trip down the river Styx to play fetch with Cerberus, the three-headed dog, but instead refers to a middle, and high school that people attend in Missoula. I have yet to hear anyone’s Middle School top that, but I’m sure something as ludicrous must be out there.
From second grade until I left for High School, I attended Hellgate, while most of my closest friends fell into the much tamer “Washington” district. Somehow, I still managed to create a fairly substantial group of cohorts at Hellgate. Wearing bootleg jeans, and appearing on the cover of the Entertainment section of our newspaper in white tights didn’t do wonders for my reputation, yet compared to other gay friends of mine, nothing about my middle school years seemed especially hellacious, except the name.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve run into five of my classmates from my middle school days and am amazed at the type of reactions it prompts in me. I feel more alienated from them now, and look at them with a sense of wonderment that was absent during my initial friendships with most of them. There’s a feeling of nostalgia that rises up whenever a face from my past pops up in a coffee shop or restaurant, and part of me wonders if I could ever have a substantial friendship with any of them today.
Other than Facebook, I don’t keep in touch with the people that populated my school days here in Missoula. Through social networking sites, I’m able to see that some of them still interact with each other, most of them list their political views as “Very Conservative,” and “hunting” is a common interest. Most of the contact I’ve had with them in the past nine years is through online communication, and that has been sparse at best.
Because of the type of alienation that comes with being a gay adolescent, I find that it’s common for gay adults to share stories of their tumultuous upbringings. While I certainly remember uncomfortable moments, for the most part they weren’t that far away from what the straight kids went through; I never got called “faggot” until I was almost out of my teen years.
In eighth grade, girlfriends were more of an obligation for me than other kids, I was about as good at throwing a football as I was at building a rocket, and I kept my dancing a closely guarded secret. Somehow through all of this I maintained a close group of friends who were jocks and cheerleaders. My recesses were spent alternating between running around on the field praying the ball wasn’t coming my direction, and watching from the sidelines while I huddled with the onlookers (i.e. girls). Even though much of my behavior welcomed ridicule, and my sexuality (while I wasn’t quite aware of it) was about as obvious as the fact that Missoula is surrounded by mountains, my friends chose to overlook it.
It wasn’t until I reached Hellgate Middle School that I ever felt the need to be anything but myself. Sexuality wasn’t something that fourth graders were concerned with in my days, and I had plenty of other things for which to be ridiculed (X-Men trading cards, Pogs obsession, the list goes on…). Fortunately, most of my friendships were built through grade school, and I did a good enough job at masking any sense of being uncomfortable.
That ability has dwindled in the past years as I’ve grown up and become more comfortable with my sexuality. Every time I come to Montana I tend to be hyper aware of the way I am acting, as Montana isn’t the bluest of states (even though it happens to be blue right now). That being said, the way I act doesn't change. Seeing kids from my past reminds me that even though I wasn’t teased much, it was still one of the few times in my life where I wasn’t comfortable being myself.
It all makes me wonder how much power nostalgia has? Would the boys who were once able to overlook my sexuality be able to do the same now? Even though I see my homosexuality as resting far down the list of defining characteristics of my personality, it seems that to outsiders in Montana it’s often a trait that trumps all others.
My pile of writing projects outside of the blog has been a bit overwhelming for the past few days. Even though I didn't have to attend class last night, several papers for school have been keeping me mighty busy. This week we were given essays on two subjects that I love: the first was about the incredible author Jonathan Franzen and the second was about....me.
Each week we have little writing exercises and this week's assignment was to discuss something you used as a form of escape in your childhood. After reading Jonathan Franzen's essay about his love of the "Peanuts" comics, I immediately settled on my topic. The only thing that separates this entry from any of my other blog posts all about myself is that I had to incorporate some minor research. So here is my paper, in all its rough glory!
The first Target store in Montana opened its doors on my eighth birthday. This event goes almost unparalleled in my canon of birthday memories from my childhood. Forgoing the typical party and cake extravaganza, my mom promised me that we would tromp through the store and I’d be able to fill the basket with several choice items lining the toy aisle. Nothing excited me more and I mark that day as the moment the comfort of the red and white aisles of Target took a hold of me.
From that day forward I would eagerly await the weekly trip to Tarjaay (a pronunciation I believed to be a secret language of my mothers and I; you can imagine how crushed I was to find out the commonness of this mock French accent.) Entering the red automatic doors at the front of the store was like a gun going off to start a race. I’d walk as quickly as possible (running didn’t seem polite) to the action figure aisle and rest my eyes on the shelves stocked with “Star Wars” memorabilia. In under a minute I could search through each pile and discover which characters would be new and welcome additions to my collection. I don’t think my mother realized what a simple birthday shopping spree would do to her son; I had discovered how to escape into a galaxy far, far, away.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. When George Lucas created the movies in 1977 he was smart enough to secure the rights to all of the merchandising tie-ins. “Before Luke, Leia, Han and the short furry zen-meister took to the big screen, toys tied to movies were few and far between.” A world without movie-tie-in products was a completely unfathomable idea to me when I was eight. All of the toys I owned were in the likenesses of the characters I saw on screen. It’s no surprise, seeing that Lucas’ idea has earned him over “8 billion in global sales in 100 different countries” that others quickly followed suit.
What my mother, and Lucas, could never have predicted was how much this new escape brought out the OCD side of me. After I’d frantically plowed through the toy aisle, I would realize that other boys my age had done exactly the same, leaving the aisle looking like a tornado had stormed through it. Rather than take my prizes and run like everyone else, I spent time organizing and cleaning up the aisles while my mother browsed duvet covers and blenders.
This strange, methodical ritual had its advantages; the women working in the toy department quickly took notice of the little gay boy that could. Within a few weeks I had gained access the stock room to slice open boxes of the newest shipments of 4-inch figurines. “Star Wars” mania was at the peak of its resurgence in the toy world and rather than claw my way to a Princess Leia with the other, dirtier, boys, I enjoyed my preferential treatment.
It’s no surprise that a science fiction movie captured my attention so undividedly; the very appeal of these movies is how far removed they are from the world we live in. “Star Wars” is “arguably the reason that science fiction moved out of the sub-culture and into the mainstream.” Whether people are a fan of it, or despise it, it has a special place in everyone’s life. To this day I can still sit down with other adults and see a fire lit inside of them the moment “Star Wars” toys come up.
Somehow I’m always convinced I can beat others in terms of merchandise acquired. The aisles of Target and the flood of “Star Wars” merchandising that began to clutter my room bled into other aspects of my life as well. I found the stories so exciting that they began to inspire much of my young artistic life. While most kids in Montana were outside riding bears and dancing with deer, I was in my basement choreographing a one man “Star Wars” ballet. It’s a wonder that I’ve even become remotely socially capable as a young adult. When I was a child I never remember feeling like an outsider, but it’s clear now to me that “Star Wars” was a comfort because it protected me from the real world. In a land full of aliens, space fights, and slave women in gold bras attached to giant slugs, I was utterly normal.
The toys I collected on my various trips to Target allowed me to act out all of my wildest dreams and develop my storytelling skills. Of course, there was the occasional moment where the OCD would overtake me at home. A Luke Skywalker figurine that began his life in a pleasant off-white robe would slowly start to change color as my hours of playtime dirtied him. Panic overtook me and I’d rush downstairs to have my parents calm my psychotic fears.
Toy industry insiders claim that “Star Wars” established that you could make buckets of money off of kids. If my parents could, they would probably go back to 1977 and plead with George Lucas to leave his movies as movies and forgo his marketing empire. I, however, wouldn’t change it for the world. To this day I can’t enter a Target without a flood of memories and there is rarely a visit where I still don’t head to the toy section first. Even though my “Star Wars” ballet will forever stay in my basement, the memories created by my escape into Lucas’ world will remain out in the open.