Letter From The Berkshires
August 2009
© 2009 Joel

What I get for not writing since March is a pileup of topics and views, beginning with this leftover from Passover.

Religious Technicalities

A friend joked that this year he took his seder with his grandmother over the phone. The possibilities are endless. Imagine convening a conference call communion, a blackberry baptism, or the occasional online bris.

You’re going to need that laugh. The leading t.v. newsman and major popular entertainer of their respective generations have died, two bullied school boys took their own lives, and two gentlemen, one a doctor, died at the hands practitioners of hate. A singularly lousy movie opened, a valuable documentary closed, healthcare reform is jeopardized and all hell has broken lose in Iran. The lights come up again, however, when Joel continues his saga of Growing Up Gay.

Pick of the Letter

  • Michael Jackson
  • Walter Kronkite
  • Goono Bruno
  • Our Schools: Death by Bullies
  • “Food” for Thought, and Healthcare Reform Failure for Disgust
  • Deaths by Hate
  • The Queen Is I: Growing Up Gay Part 2- The School Play!

Quote of the Quarter

Our Founders “fashion(ed) government so as to encourage individual greed for money, prestige and power under sturdy legal procedures that do not dictate what people should strive for but how they must play the game.” Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around The Corner: A New American History 1585-1828, Harper Collins, 2004, an extraordinary work.

They play the game, it seems to me, however they damn well please.

Recommended Reading

Ever wonder what “ecology” and “economy” have in common, and why Joel is jealous of John Caris’ writing style? I recommend you read my teacher, harried publisher and even more harried friend’s essay about two of the core existential challenges of our times, “The Eco Twins Have Arrived.” Bring up Ye Olde Consciousness Shoppe, then hit Quest: The Seeking Documents and go to the piece from which I’ve learned so much.

The Henry Louis Gates Case

Yeah, it looks pretty bad when a guiltless old college professor is arrested and removed from his own home, even worse when the incident triggers justifiable African American anger over their historical experiences with the police. Still, from what I know of the incendiary encounter between the professor and the cop, it appears that both lacked judgment. Although Gates, a man I’ve never liked, may well have been spoiling for a fight, it was incumbent upon the authority figure to exercise greater restraint, too.

As for Obama’s calling the policeman’s action “stupid,” any other president would have advised reserving judgment until the facts were in and expressed his expectation that the City of Cambridge would work this out, but the president made his political point, did he not?.

If we focus on improving the day to day life of black Americans and forget about Henry Luis Gates we all will have gained.

Walter Cronkite Isn’t All That Has Died

Walter Cronkite set a standard for broadcast news that consisted of rigorously accurate, clearly and economically worded reportage delivered with dignity and warmth. Compared to most of today’s little-girl voiced female and clown college male anchors, Cronkite had a commanding “radio voice,” and he never used “Hey!” to address a colleague or put on a phony look or refer to anyone as “ you guys.” No practitioner of tabloid t.v. journalism, he.

Bruno: A Film Warning/Review

In the 1970’s I was among the few who considered Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker not the least bit funny at all. Why? Simple. Joel wouldn’t laugh at a bigot, people reasoned. That’s why he doesn’t like the show.

That knee jerk response to my Archie aversion soon became a test of whether certain friends knew me or even how to think. Archie’s failure to amuse had nothing to do with politically correct. O’Connor simply didn’t make me laugh. But he never made me barf.

Bruno is the first movie I’ve ever walked out on, which came as no surprise to the customarily tolerant young theater manager who told me he couldn’t tolerate it either. You’ve heard me half jokingly predict that t.v. shows will soon pay celebrities millions to defecate on the air. Bruno comes perilously close.

Essentially, Bruno is an attention craving Austrian gay man who comes to America to satisfy what is undeniably our culture’s central concern–to be noticed at any price. Not an action or a line indicates that the protagonist has either a brain or a soul, and folks, engage a soulless character in relentless potty humor and the parody of vulgar becomes what it purports to condemn.

I fear that negative publicity will bring Bruno even larger audiences and more and more bucks, which is the project’s only aim. Donate the cost of a ticket to a gay rights organization instead.

Mr. Jackson

What I feel about Michael Jackson has more to do with his publicity machine and the ways in which our tastes are fashioned than with a performer about whom too much has already been said. I don’t know anything about Jackson’s music and style beyond how it has irritated my eyes and my ears. Although Jackson’s army of adoring fans includes people I know and respect, when it comes to assessing quality I’ve never been a “let’s take a vote” kind of guy. And although Jackson’s offstage act surely repelled, I acknowledge there’s enough material there for one of the most dramatic show biz biographical treatments of our time.

Exclusive: Friends who lived in L. A near where Jackson grew up remember the Five ringing doorbells on 1970’s Saturdays to promote their Jehovah’s Witness faith to objecting neighbors, most of whom were Jews.

More revealing, in the 1980’s John and I were at the ABC affiliate in San Francisco waiting to be audience on a local morning show. An intermediate school class was waiting to attend another program, their eyes glued to a t.v. Just as they were summoned to the studio a vigilant classmate gasped, “Michael Jackson,” in response to the image that had just appeared on screen. The way the kids froze I half expected “Oh, say can you see?”

My Michael Jackson is a handful of words, the first of which is the “Mister” which precedes his name even in New York Times reports. Why somebody of indeterminate gender gets a respectful “Mr.” while individuals of stupendous achievement such as Gershwin, Joplin, and Shaw are simply and properly referred to by their last names is simply beyond me.

King of Pop. “King?” As in Solomon, Louis, George or Tut? “Superstar,” as above all other stars? What does Sirius have to say about that? In our country anyone who sells the most records or anything else is a “superstar”; in England they’re given titles by the Queen.

“Talent.” A New York Times writer gushed over Jackson’s “talent.” Wolf Blitzer, admonishing viewers that Jackson’s passing was more momentous than they could know, referred to his “talent.” America’s star worshipper (aren’t I being polite?) in chief, Barbara Walters, gushed about–his “talent.”

Ronald Reagan, devoid of acting talent himself, emerged from the Oval Office one morning long ago with Nancy, both looking human, on one side, and Mr. Jackson in his military style jacket, dark glasses and awesome glove on the other. Jackson had been given the Congressional Medal of Honor or something, and in his paean Reagan referred to Jackson’s having so much, you guessed it, “talent.”

Funny, they never used “talent” in talking about an abundantly talented Olivier, Astaire or Sills. Humankind as Homo Manipulable! Some smart press agent long ago attached “talent” to the Jackson brand and echo...echo...echo......echo.....

Now we all have families. Presidents, Popes, royalty, and billionaires all have families which we speak of as, well, families. The Jacksons–what a crew!–are “The Family”.

When pseudo profound talk turns to our need for heroes, Jackson has been compared to that greatest of all human personalities, Britain’s Princess Di. Whatever credit that young woman deserves for conscientiously representing her country, putting up with her in-laws and supporting people with AIDS, Diana’s “heroism” derived principally from her attracting famous people and wearing beautiful clothes. Have heroes and role models not become confused?

In a recent column, David Brooks refers to Michael Jackson as “a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to living according to the rules and restraints of adulthood.” I think Brooks may have underestimated our country’s time honored regard for those who make their own rules. We look to screwed-up entertainers and to the screwed-up very rich to act out our own childish and dangerous stuff, so perhaps Jackson has made a contribution after all.

Miss Alaska? Not Me!

I’m not going to bore any of us with an account of Sarah Palin’s politics or her more than evident lacks. In her a drifting Republican party has found a lifeboat of sorts. But why does the media lavish so much time and respectful attention on this unlikely presidential first compared to the number they did on another of her gender a year ago? Why Sarah the Good Witch and Hillary the Bad?

Political Undies

I meant Political Briefs, but I just wanted to catch your eye. July 20 was the day the Obama administration received its six month report card from the press. Symbolic acts and image cultivation aside, exactly what has the president delivered? Given how things are going on Main Street and in Congress, just how much of the promised change in healthcare, financial regulation, the use of torture, government transparency and an overall less dog eat dog polity are we to expect? Can we “yes?”

Still, six months is a bit soon, and impatience being our middle name. I applaud a cartoon that appeared in the New York Times on July 19. Obama’s out for a drive, and his passenger, the American public, keeps asking, “Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet...???”

Don’t Ask/ Demand!

I only hope that President Obama does not betray his country’s lesbian and gay community the way “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell“ and “Defense of Marriage Act” countenancing Bill did during his two terms. My gut tells me Obama will succeed in reversing both perversions of justice, but if the gay and the gay friendly heterosexual public neglect their duty to “make” him do it, the President may leave the matters as they are.

“Make,” as in making and mailing letters. Talking it up. Making noise.

Our Schools: Death by Bullies

Were you ever bullied in school? So bad you considered taking your life?

This past spring two boys committed suicide to escape the bullying in school. One was of Middle Eastern background and the other African American, and though I recall neither their names nor the details, each was literally hounded to death because he was “different.” The epithet “faggot” was hurled at one who was not gay at all. In both cases the boys’ parents begged school authorities to intervene, in both cases to no avail. Ironically, almost comically, one of the school districts fashioned itself a model bully free zone.

I wish Sylvia Mininberg were still around. Many of you know that Sylvia, who would have turned ninety-nine in November, was my first principal in 1965 and later my very good friend. Regarding New York’s Harvey Milk Academy, Sylvia said she would transfer homophobic high school pupils to a special school before she would segregate, and subsequently stigmatize, young lesbians and gays. One can only imagine how she dealt with student bullying on her watch.

I agree with the thrust of a no nonsense volume written by the mother of a child who had been bullied in school. In t.v. interviews at the time of the recent suicides, the author put the responsibility for protecting children here squarely on school personnel. She offered the positive example of a principal who made it his business to spend every entire lunch period in the schoolyard playing with, and thereby protecting, a bullied child.

Another principal, another school and time–autumn 1956 at Hawthorne JHS in Yonkers, N.Y., where, coincidentally, Sid Caesar had gone and where I was newly enrolled. I was ceaselessly teased by my classmates there en masse because I was “new” in this Beaver Cleaver middle class school. When the efforts of conscientious teachers failed and I would no longer go to school my parents went to the principal, a stuffed shirt with a a Nixonian shadow of a beard.

The principal acted at once. He reminded my parents that my attendance was required, announced there was nothing he could do and promptly showed them the door, though not before he was given a piece of their minds. (Where did you think I got it from?) Best thing that ever happened. Within a week I was enrolled in the New York private school where I was to meet Lloyd and grow up in relative peace.

I say relative peace. We’re now summer neighbors with my former class president in that school, who recently told us something that at first I did not like. Because he was an athlete and a leader, Steve had been asked by the administration to mobilize some of his teammates to protect me and other non-jock regulars in the school plays. This he did so quietly and efficiently I never knew until now.

The more I think about it the more I’m grateful and I approve. School bullying may be with us as long as the poor, but one more child goes over the edge and it’s our own damn fault. Failure to respond to instances of excessive bullying may need to cost school personnel their jobs and possibly careers to set an example and the bullies a lesson they will never forget. Prevention coupled with aggressive intervention are the names of this game.

A form of school bullying the public hardly knows happens when a parent throws a tantrum in the school office in order to prevail. I think of the retired principal I know who consistently gave in to threatening parents because he knew the superintendent would automatically give them what they wanted right or wrong. What did the moms and dads of those newly dead boys get besides funerals?

Not all parents can afford private school, but parochial schools and home schooling, which in recent years has grown, are realistic options. In the worst case, I would refuse to send my child back into the building until the situation were corrected if it meant my ass got locked up in jail.

I called the L.A. chapter of the ACLU to ask whether they would defend a bullied child or the parents against truancy charges. The representative repeatedly asked if I had a personal interest in this, which I repeatedly assured him I did not. Then, obviously consulting a script, he answered every follow up question with an identical, “The ACLU is concerned about homophobia in schools.” I’d have done better consulting a brick wall.

If we have programs for battered spouses, I see no reason not to establish something similar for kids who are bullied in school. A pattern of bullying needs to be taken as seriously as physicians now take physical pain.

And now a tip on handling bullies at any stage of life, be they co-workers, service employees, doctors, family members, friends–anyone unlikely to respond to your strategy with a loaded gun. I’ve discovered that bullies, distinct from the well meaning tough, are invariably vulnerable and weak. Do as I do. Wait for just the right opportunity and give it right back. They fold like cards and often come over to your side. Then, use ‘em for all their worth.

Two Recent Murders: Deaths by Hate

George Tiller, M.D., R.I.P.

An act of terrorism, defined as destruction of property or life to attain political goals, took the life of Dr. George Tiller, one of a handful of physicians in the United States who were willing to perform late abortions, none of which have been undertaken under conditions less than grave. Something that calls itself scott roeder is the confessed murderer. He did his job well. Tiller and his Wichita, Kansas, clinic are gone.

To borrow from “The Impossible Dream,” Dr. Tiller ran “where the brave do not go.” Reflect upon a place even the bravest men and women fear going, yet where George Tiller regularly went. The man deserved a long, happy life. The thing that murdered him? We’ll get to that.

Officer Johns, R.I.P.

Another good soul, Steven Tyronne Johns, a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. just shy of his fortieth birthday, was shot dead holding the door for something called james von brunn this past June. For the culmination of a hated filled life, van brunn chose to murder a gentile and dishonor the memory a special group of anti-Semites as well.

One of my most moving experiences was reading on the D.C. Holocaust Memorial lobby walls of residents of a particular German valley who risked their lives and those of their families to shelter persecuted Jews during WWII. And something else. The occupants of this valley were “known anti-Semites.” You may join me in not liking that, but these Germans risked everything for people they couldn’t even stand. They must now be turning over in their graves.

What do we do with roder and van brunn? The unjust and often incompetent manner in which capital offenses are handled in the United States renders the death penalty, for all intents and purposes, unacceptable to me. A sentence of life without parole does not preclude a prisoner’s proving his or her innocence somewhere down the line even as it puts away the guilty for good. And yes, I would rather abolish the death penalty than risk executing a single innocent soul.

However, in cases where there is not a particle of doubt as to the defendant’s having committed murder in the first degree, as with roder and van brunn, I have no problem whatsoever with authorizing the state to put that person to death.

Some think it morally indefensible to authorize others to commit acts one is incapable of performing themselves. During the years I marched with Amnesty International against the death penalty I tried to imagine taking the life of another with my own hands and could not.

I was then astonished to learn that three of my most humane, human rights oriented, astonishingly liberal friends favored certain executions without qualification. None, however, had a religious faith. The case may indeed turn on religious conviction and the answer to “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” I now believe that it’s entirely possible to forfeit our humanity by our acts, and what is no longer human becomes merely a thing.

Joel, you’re talking about human beings. Uh, Uh! Those who take innocent lives without remorse have dehumanized themselves without any help from me. Yet, if I support a policy that even inadvertently takes an innocent life, do I not forfeit my humanity, too? Hence my opposition to the death penalty as it stands, or as it will probably ever stand.

If you are disappointed in me I understand. I once unalterably opposed executions, too. If you’re shaking your head in agreement I gain no pleasure either. This is a rotten business either way.

Whether one favors imprisoning, rehabilitating, executing or even forgiving those whom we agree have forfeited their right to remain free, it does not relieve us of responsibility to monitor and protect the public from adherents of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia or any fanaticism that sanctions murder, nor from addressing the causes of such intense hate. And those pursuits, in turn, don’t shield us from making determinations about imprisonment or imposing death.

A Grave Matter

The law, rightly, takes extenuating circumstances into account. An otherwise upright man who murdered another was found to have a tumor on his brain that was the sole cause of that act. Crimes of passion differ from Murder One. Old women and men who’ve spent decades behind bars and can no longer harm a fly ought to be freed, and young convicted felons given every opportunity to reform. But who imagines hope of rehabilitation for the variety lice who dug up and discarded human remains in Georgia for a buck?

A life sentence with no visitors besides clergy and counsel–de facto banishment–might set an example and deter others from even contemplating such shameful acts.

We are far too tough on some criminals and not nearly hard enough on others. Wait until you read my take on using handheld cell phones while driving and on DUI.

“Food” (and Healthcare Reform) For Thought

If you haven’t seen the documentary movie Food you’re not likely to any time soon. Whether poor promotion, lack of a celebrated narrator like Michael Moore or threats from the food industry are responsible for its inexplicably short run I’m not sure.

The theme of this exposition of inconvenient truths is abuse–of farmers, livestock, consumers, the rules of fair play and of nature itself, a nasty bag of stuff. Be warned that Food is not for sissies, especially the parts about how the corporate food industry runs its opponents out of town, Oprah Winfrey being the rare exception.

Still think healthcare reform is going to turn out o.k.? On the July 10, 2009 Bill Moyers Journal, former Cigna vice president Wendell Potter blew the whistle on the health insurance industry, and it made this viewer sick. If you missed the broadcast go to the Journal’s website for the transcript. At program’s end Moyers used his strongest language ever to condemn the industry, its lobbyists and our representatives in Washington for what is taking place. Moyers dismisses the notion that we’re experiencing political compromise rather than a sellout as “Bull!”

For it’s all about Wall Street and miniscule shifts in investor returns. Doctors customarily balance their financial goals with professionalism and care; health care insurers are corporate giants solely about royally compensating executives and multiplying investor’s gains. Would competition from a government sponsored alternative give private insurers the incentive they need to reform? Perhaps. However the special interests have so much power that it may be impossible for even a Democratic majority to enact significant change. But there’s more to it than that.

The public doesn’t know what it wants here because the president’s proposal hasn’t been properly explained, and like it or not, most Americans say they like things the way they are. For the public to rear up and insist on change that attitude’s got to be challenged and changed.

Many advocate a more carefully thought out plan, as if there is a plan, but haven’t we been thinking about health insurance scenarios in this country since 1948? Yet if we rush a plan through Congress that plan is likely to look as though we had. From a White House that puts the risk of failure first expect no leadership at all.

The president would do well to start by knowing precisely what he wants, selling it to the public, then cutting the Potemkin Village “town hall” meeting charade in favor of some arm twisting, horse trading work.

Iran–He Ran

Maz Jobrani, the wonderful Iranian American comic and son of a woman we know in L.A., asks, online, “Where Is My Vote?” regarding the recent events in an Iran where the Jobranis had to hide in their basement back in ’79 before fleeing their native land.

Jobrani kids audiences that “it seems in a country of 70 million people Ahmadinejad got 75 million votes.” In expressing solidarity he asserts, “It’s been too long that the people of Iran have had to live like five year olds being monitored by ‘adults’ who tell them what to wear, how to act and what they can and cannot do.” (Sound like our Religious Right?) More than ever Maz appreciates his American freedoms, and he asks us to support the Iranian people in any way we can.

A year ago we watched newscasts showing two very young gay Iranian men on a scaffold crying as they were about to be hanged for making love. I question whether the slaughterers of those youngsters and of recent protesters deserve to remain alive.

When The Symbols Clash

A devoted reader has long objected to displaying the American flag on national holidays, and while I see his point I’m not certain I agree.

As we stuff ourselves with hamburgers and make noise on Independence weekend we don’t reflect on the Federalist papers or on our Constitutional rights. Americans love the celebration for which the Fourth of July provides the perfect excuse. And if we regard our national experience, despite the injustices and flaws, as something of a miracle–that’s fine.

A lyric from Hello, Dolly! , “when the cymbals crash,” inspired my heading. Symbols and symbolic acts have been responsible for noble endeavors and for monumental hurt. The Nazi swastika is unambiguous, the cross and Star of David not always so.

I felt the use of the latter had once been abused. During a San Francisco election long ago, I received a list of Raoul Wallenberg Democratic Club’s endorsements for local office in which the recommended candidates were highlighted with a Star of David next to their names. Immediately I phoned the Club’s president to ask how he would feel if he received a slate of endorsements with crosses next to the names of Mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown and empty space alongside those of Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. He got the point.

And while we’re here, I oppose the presence of crosses, creches, menorahs and commandments other than “keep off the grass” on any property our tax dollars support. Like the N.R.A. and opponents of abortion, advocates of public religious displays have an agenda beyond a heightened regard for freedom in mind. (Haven’t you always wanted to see what those who wrap themselves in the flag have on underneath?)

Although sometimes displaying the colors and standing for the Star Spangled Banner comes as much from habit as respect, then, I have no problem with either at any time. We don’t skip celebrating birthdays because we know we are flawed. Instead, we blow out the candles in hopes of better days ahead.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for–

Growing Up Gay: The Queen Is I, Part II

Picking up where we left Our Hero back in March, “I was a little boy who liked little girls, playing ball and the Yankees, who regarded other boys’ anatomy as somewhat gross and who never dreamed of playing with dolls, much less other boys. Until puberty, prep school and gym.”

Back in high school, I made regular trips to the bathroom during study hall so I could watch the other boys changing before or after gym. I also developed crushes on boys I had seen on stage and screen, such as Johnny Washburn of My Friend Flicker, Ricky Nelson, Rex Thompson, whose longish dark hair and British accent just did it for me (and for Patty McCormack–see “Nixon Defrosted,” March 2009), Paul Peterson on Donna Reed, and of course Tony Dow. My New Year’s resolution for 1957, when I was fourteen, was to destroy my growing collection of photos and clippings about my favorite boys, an act I regret to this day.

As a sophomore I landed a leading role in a dramatic adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd just as I was developing a deep and lasting complex–a star complex. Asked by the director, I recruited a younger boy named Peter to play the lead because a) I had observed him clowning around and was impressed with his expressive style, b) I wanted the power inherent in collaborating with an adult, and c) I wanted his bones. I settled for a and b.

Following his stage debut, Peter vindicated my judgment by going on to direct and produce plays and musicals all over the country, head top university theater departments, become a well known producer for t.v. and the husband of some mighty pretty gals. On Gay Day, 1977, by sheer coincidence he was crossing the path of our Pride march in Boston and was pleased to join us, arm around my shoulder, (swoon) part of the way.

The following year as a junior I landed the lead in the prep school play. During auditions I saw out of the corner of my eye a tall, shy blond boy relatively new in the school. What was his name? Lloyd. He earned himself a featured part, but for me he was strictly background just then.

Curtain up! Metch Alexander we’ll call him, my English teacher, was assigned to select and direct the play, his own adaptation of the most inappropriate property for high school kids imaginable, Paddy Chayefsky’s flop film The Bachelor Party. Its elements of marriage, infidelity, adult angst, alcoholism and abortion were way beyond our 1950’s middle class ken, but the story was lively and nobody seemed to mind. Until Metch directed me to make out with a girl.

Casting director once more, I had recruited my stage “wife” from the Saturday program I was attending at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, who in turn brought along a girlfriend for the other female part. I had no problem with the curtain rising on my wife and me, clothed, in bed, but when the script called for my character to make out with a pickup at a Greenwich Village soiree I froze. Like my refusal to touch, much less dissect a frog in biology class, which almost cost me graduation, no motivation, threat, or act of will could get me off that dime.

“Haven’t you ever made out with a girl?” Metch incredulously asked in front of the entire cast and one pissed off rejected girl. “No, sir, I haven’t,” which was true. “Well, it’s time you learned. Put your hand on her knee.” He then asked if I weren’t a “fag.” Over the rehearsal period Metch brought his wife and even an actor friend to bully me into correctly playing that scene. All that hardened was my attitude.

By that late date “walking” was no longer an option, and my frequent reminders that they couldn’t do the play without me endeared me to no one all. What Metch Alexander failed to grasp was that I genuinely objected to overt sexual behavior, and had he insisted I make out with one of the boys I would have likely refused as well. So morality was the card I decided to play.

First, I railroaded my parents into objecting to the play’s content with the school administration, which I know they felt foolish doing. At the next rehearsal our most Episcopalian headmaster and his deputy dropped in, observed, and told my parents they could find nothing out of place.

Round Two: I bamboozled my little old lady Sunday school teacher to write a letter to the school expressing her nonexistent indignation, which she dutifully did to no avail.

My last hope was–Helen Hayes. Surely the First Lady of the American Theater would understand, I reasoned; she looked like Grandma. A letter detailing my distress was dispatched to Miss Hayes c/o the theater in which was appearing in A Touch of the Poet. I still have the reply.

“Miss Hayes is sorry she cannot answer your letter, but she is under a doctor’s care for a virus and must save all her energy for the theater at night.” Two days earlier we had seen Ms. Hayes looking fine. The letter was signed by the diva’s secretary. Helen could go to hell.

Finally, a compromise–I did exactly as I pleased. We ignored the scene at rehearsals, and before audiences I patted the knee maybe once, so I complied with the letter of the law.

A fellow cast member pulled me aside after Bachelor Party’s two performance run. We couldn’t stand one another, but this transcended mutual disregard. With the gravity of the conspicuously loyal he told me that “they” were saying I was a “fag,” but not to worry because he had made sure the rumors were dispelled. Despite it all, I suddenly wanted to dispel his dispelling in the worst way right then and there.

The truth is that I had genuinely found The Bachelor Party objectionable because of all the sex and booze, which of course I no longer do. I recognize that the problem was uniquely mine; what stage struck teenager, gay or straight, wouldn’t have boinked a rhinoceros to get the part? Back then I couldn’t quit the play, come out of the closet or suddenly die. If my parents or teachers “found out” I worried, without justification, I would be thrown in the street or dispatched to a bin.

Metch Alexander, an otherwise excellent teacher who wasn’t prepared for a “fag” leading man, much less me, quit at the end of that school year, though not before I made him beg me to take over in a subsequent play and, on the last day of school, calling me a bastard to my face. I harbor no malice for a man and an experience I’ve laughed about my entire life.

Looking back do I have regrets? Of course I do. Why, for instance, did I reject that cute little freshman assistant stage manager who put his arm around waist and head on my shoulder during rehearsals every chance he could?

Then there was Bill Rowley, his real name, the school’s business manager and, as it turned out, a real man. Bill Rowley was a middle aged former jock who resented the money he had to spend on school plays as much as he resented school plays. Dropping by a late rehearsal to complain about how much we cost, he made sure I heard him mutter, “Bunch of faggots,” as he stormed off.

Fifteen years later at a reunion, Lloyd and I came upon Mr. Rowley. He greeted us warmly and made a point of telling us simply, “I’m sorry for what I said.” We both knew what he meant. And that’s the Bill Rowley I’ll remember.

Bachelor Party down, entire life to come. How was I going to get around marriage, military service and other social expectations, and what price was I willing to pay to forever hide? How could I have known that The Sound of Music, The Custard Boys and Lloyd were soon to come?

Next Letter

  • Our Schools, continued
  • Driving Under the Influence–of Cell Phones
  • Race in America: A Welcome Discomfort
  • A Healthcare Reform Status Report
  • Growing Up Gay: The Queen Is I, Part 3
  • Whatever Tickles My Fancy Between Now and Then

Archive 2009