Pride (In the Name of Love)

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I met my first openly gay person somewhere early in my Middle School career.

The thing is I’m pretty sure neither he nor I knew it at the time – or at least; it was that prehistoric day and age where such matters were not really discussed. Not out in public, anyway.

I feel it’s a great shame that that time is not so very long ago. Fortunately we live in an era where what’s past is prologue to change. Sweeping, vital, life-affirming change. When things don’t change to meet the times, they often wither and die. The era I grew up in feels paleolithic compared to the here and now which may not be 100% perfect but gets closer to a more sweeping acceptance of people for who they are with every passing day. We’ll likely never fully get there BUT majority rule seems like a pretty good compromise.

So – back to Middle School. While this individual may not have self-identified at that point, I just had this nagging notion that there was something unique there. And you know what, I couldn’t care less. He being gay didn’t define our casual friendship any more than me being straight or me rocking that weird spiked mullet that I thought looked hella’ fierce (I brazenly declare in the lingo that nobody said then or now).

That said – this little reminiscence is coming to us from a place that wasn’t exactly the birth place of liberal thought. I grew up in a small, largely Caucasian town on the South Shore of Massachusetts. It’s not anyone’s fault that the town was settled the way it was. We weren’t chasing people out by torch and pitchfork. Still, it wouldn’t be until a few years later when I entered the hallowed halls of UMASS Amherst as a wide-eyed frosh that I realized just how rich and diverse this wonderful world really is. I spied such eye-opening color and hue there. Life-altering stuff, really.

Before all that though, the seeds were planted by that casual acquaintance who I had the great pleasure of co-starring with in the first play I ever went out for. That would be Annie – during my Senior Year in High School, when I followed a girl who I was crushing on hard to the big audition. I got the role. I never got the girl; at least not in the way I desired. Still, she got a plum role as a sassy orphan so I saw this as a great way to stay connected for a few months.

That was my first experience in school theater. Yeah, somehow I made it through Grade School without ever playing so much as a rock. I fell in love with the stage instantly and cursed the fact that it took my horndog hormones to make me finally slap on the spirit gum and grease paint. Over the next few months, I learned something pretty cool. When someone yells “Hey kids – lets put on a show!!!” – whoever heeds that call bonds fast and furious. It’s there that I found myself re-acquainted with that Middle School friend. Now that we were running lines together and working out lyrics, I found a greater kinship in him than I ever had before. That’s what’s cool about any sort of team dynamic. You all get thrown in together, sink or swim. The best teams rise to the top swiftly and stay there. That was us – going for the gold.

So, working alongside this guy just sort of crystalized the earlier hunch I held. He was gay. No question. But still – he never talked about it so I didn’t ask. There was no reason to, really. It wasn’t the ONLY thing that defined him. This guy had so many interests and talents so the topic never came up.

But if I felt a whisper of a suspicion in my day-to-day interactions with this guy - one of our best and brightest and all around nicest classmates – those echoes also found their way into the superstitions of some of our lesser formed school asshats (no better term) who grew fond of punctuating their hallway chatter with “fucking faggot” as effortlessly as one might flash a smile to someone they locked eyes with while passing by on the sidewalk. This wasn’t the majority rule. I went to school with a ton of great kids. But sometimes those ugly whispers from a few could crescendo into ugly, braying hollers. I can’t say that he ever heard any of that but I can cop to the fact that blind prejudice found its voice a little too frequently for my taste. I mean – just one muttered “fag” is one too many.

Fast forward to the here and now and I’m pleased to say that this guy I knew totally grew up and followed a trajectory into the stratosphere. He was always the uber-talented ‘Sky’s the Limit’ type but where he’s gone since then is boundless. In the handful of times I’ve run into him – whether on Facebook or our scattershot reunions – I always walk away with a smile at seeing him leap miles beyond that potent promise I spied way back when we were young and standing before nothing but unlimited blank canvas upon which to make our mark. This dude has completely eclipsed that quaint faraway hope and dream. He’s truly gone to town gifting the world another solid citizen and it’s been my great pleasure to continue to know him – even if it is quite a bit removed. Life gets in the way – ya’ know.

Still, I had him in mind when I woke the morning after my 20-Year High School Reunion with a creative itch that demanded scratching. Children of The Breakfast Club, I was struck by how the passage of time had shredded the walls that used to keep some segments of our class at arm’s length. Years and maturity AND shared life’s experiences bonded us. The chance to turn back the clock for one night only and reconnect with our younger selves provided a shiny lure. The fully stocked bar just sweetened the deal.

I remember at one point later in the night – I was standing at the bar looking out over a sea of happy faces; people that were pleased as punch to be hanging out for one night where we could collectively keep the cruel march of time at bay. There were old friends mingling amongst former compadres but also criss-crossed class clique connections (don’t say that five times fast) forged that night too. At the 10 year, we saw a fraction of our alumni group show up. What we had for the 20th was a healthy, buoyant mass of good people in great spirits. I felt real proud to know these people. To have grown up with these people. To see that some of them had matured greatly.

A thought popped into my head momentarily. What if only 6 out of 156 had shown? What if it wasn’t just any 6 but six people who claimed to have hated High School the most? 6 kids from different cliques – toss ’em in a room and get ’em talking. It worked wonders when John Hughes did it almost 30 years ago. I thought the magic he tapped into might just be universal. So, I decided to pay homage to one of the greats and use that as a vehicle to graft my own life’s experience onto. See, I had these stories kicking around my brainpan for way too long.

Where I had once tapped my year-long bout of joblessness and a nagging hopelessness that I never did what I set out to do in life way back when – and turned that into my first play, The Monkeybar Mafia – for The Lost World, I decided to bare that part of me that is always looking ahead to live the life I’ve always imagined while keeping myself grounded by where I’ve come from. I’m a glass half-full wishful dreamer that harbors that slight sting of nostalgia. I figured it was time I shared that.

I knew right away that one character in The Lost World would be dedicated to that friend. It would be my tribute to his brave face. If there is one thing I took with me when I left that school, it was my awe at his courage – at the way he just effortlessly stayed true to himself. I was a shy guy back then and I marveled at his strength knowing there was no way it could have been easy to do what he did. To exist in that primitive time. To walk up right through those sometimes hostile hallways, comfortable in his own skin. He may not have been openly out but he dressed the way he wanted to dress, rocked his stylin’ haircut and held his head up high. His voice was loud and buoyant and always full of good cheer. He was no shrinking violet. You could hear his laugh a mile away. It drowned out every errant whisper of “faggot” that dared pollute our air. In doing so – in just being his self – his grand, glorious, unique self – he became that guy you were full of pride to call your friend. And not because that made him your “token gay friend“. That has no place in this conversation. Ever! There was nothing token about this guy.

There is nothing token about the best of us.

I used to force myself to write and it always came out badly. Then somewhere along the line I cottoned to a very simple directive.

Write what you know.

And maybe, Keep It Simple Stupid. I could stand to write that on a blackboard 500 times.

So The Lost World, while fictional – is how I made my own American quilt – stitched together from some real life memory and anecdote. Knowing I was going into this paying tribute to the pretty sweet life I’ve lived – I decided that I was going to pay homage to that guy; hence Jamie Connor was born. Jamie Connor – the theater owner who just so happens to be gay – is inspired by one of the bravest guys I’ve ever known. When the actor we cast to play him dropped out of the play just as rehearsals began, it became one of my life’s great moments where I got to step in and take over the role.

Look, I love all of my characters – even that deadbeat bully Parker Knowles (who eventually reveals some deeper shades later in the show). But Jamie was the one I knew I had to get right. After all, I was adamant that although he was written as a little flamboyant but totally secure in himself, that would NOT define him.

So when I played the part, I was real careful about staying true to my memories of that guy. Not of the amazing guy he is now – but the fearless kid he was in a time when it wasn’t so easy.

So why I am writing this now? Why not when I first completed the play – or after we finished our first run in 2013? Or heck, this past Fall at the encore run.

I write about it now because when I look to the past and get a glimpse of that courage – and when I think upon my character Jamie – and when I run through the mental catalogue of all the friends and family I have who are openly gay, I am marked by one simple, binding truth. Gay or straight – we are defined only by our character. I’m happy to be living in a time where strength of character seems to be making it a little more accepting for people to come out and openly be who they truly are.

I write this because as the loving Uncle to a young man who recently told the world exactly who he is – I couldn’t be more proud of him. I’m glad he’s surrounded by friends and family who truly celebrate who he is as a person. That fills my heart with such hope and glory.

I have a friend – who happens to be gay – who told me once “Who I am attracted to amounts to about 1% of my waking thoughts. I’ve got lots of thoughts, dreams and desires going on in this silly head of mine beyond “Who’s Hot or Not!!!”

Exactly! The merit of us as individuals is defined by our hopes and dreams and character. Our sexuality is part of us but it’s just a part. This panic over that sliver is such a tiring waste of energy. Look, I’m not changing the world here. I am who I am. I’ve got lots of friends – some I know are straight. Some I know are gay. Some – the jury is still out. One thing ties them all together. They’re in my life because I can’t imagine my life without them.

They’re in my life because each in their own way fills me with such pride.

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