As a way of sharing some historical perspective on being gay in America, I am posting a piece I wrote at the turn of the century, when I looked around and realized the degree to which things had changed for a group of people who had led secret lives for decades. That piece was first published by the San Francisco Examiner — a major city newspaper that is now defunct. Fourteen years ago, the Examiner decided on a special Gay Pride 2000 issue, and the editors invited the SF Bay Area LGBT community to share their views on life in the new millennium. My story of the transition from the closet to the marketplace was one of those selected to appear in that issue:
Ten years in the shadows was enough
This week I got a slick little red and black number in the mail. I’m not talking mail order lingerie. It was a glossy postcard announcing the opening of San Francisco’s newest “hottest” weekly women’s dance club. What is most remarkable about this postcard is that it is unremarkable.
It was mailed as is, no envelope to cover the content. I put it on top of my stack of mail and read it as I rode up the elevator to my apartment, unconcerned about anyone looking over my shoulder and coming to (correct) conclusions about my sexual preference.
That this was a non-event I attribute to three factors: (1) the times we live in, (2) a decision I made 30 years ago to come out to my family and friends and live as openly as my own natural reserve would allow, and (3) the fact that I’m a resident of San Francisco.
As for the times we live in, I distinctly recall the first time I received in the mail a splashy full-color brochure inviting me to an “event for women.” It was three years ago. Publicity about gay and lesbian events has been going on for years, but this was something more than publicity. The brochure made an impression because this event was being marketed. It was big money advertising an expensive event and it had no doubt gone out to an extensive mailing list.
I thought about where this journey had begun for me, a shy twenty-something college student. After realizing that my knight in shining armor was more likely to be Joan of Arc than Prince Valiant, I spent a decade living a secret life, known only to a small circle of trusted friends.
Ten years of that shadow life was all I could take. I declared myself to my mother, who went on loving me, and I went on from there. I became part of a visible, outspoken minority that developed political and financial clout. With that brochure in hand, I knew I had been gathered in by the great net of capitalism. I had walked out of the closet and become fair game in the marketplace, and now I was being courted with savvy American marketing style and money.
I was being enticed to buy a “Party Passport” to the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament in Palm Springs. Well, not really the tournament — the brochure called it the Dinah Shore Weekend. It wasn’t about watching golf, really. It was about being with three or four thousand other women who were there to be with three or four thousand other women.
The passport was my ticket to several gatherings, one of them being “The largest Friday night party in the desert with over 2,500 women all in white!” Wearing white or whatever, that’s a whole lot of women.
Back in the early eighties, I was in Palm Springs during the tournament. This was before I knew that the tournament was also a gathering point for a certain clan, and before anyone was attaching such a big entrance fee to the dancing and drinking that gravitated to the largest gay bar in town.
On an April night, I walked into that plush and exceedingly elegant bar. It had several rambling rooms. Each room was filled wall-to-wall with the boom and beat of rock ‘n roll, and hundreds of great-looking women, many of them athletes, dressed for heat, dancing and seduction — well, what can I say? That it was a thrill? God, yes.
But I digress. Along with the brochure about the “party passport” was another advertisement, this one black and white but equally glossy. It listed videos, all of them gay or lesbian — some mainstream movies known to us such as “Boys on the Side” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” — others a little more esoteric and blatantly erotic. Just dial this 800 number and order yours now. The more recent version of this brochure allows you to order directly through the Internet.
Gone is the era of having to search out a handful of books about the hidden and mostly tortured lives of those who found both lust and love with the same sex. We have made it to the big screen, TV sitcoms, and we are definitely wired to the Web.
It was during my first year of college that I began to have an inkling that I was drawn to women — one woman in particular. I didn’t know what to do about it. This was in the dark just before the dawn of Aquarius, and if that wasn’t enough, I was a Catholic girl.
The realization that I harbored feelings which were strictly taboo, accompanied by the certain knowledge that I had to deal with these feelings, was the beginning of a very long journey that led me toward today.
Today I can walk with ease among strangers, acquaintances, and colleagues, and not be concerned that they suspect or know that I choose to live my life with another woman. Much of that ease has to do with where we live, as well as the times we live in.
Straight or gay, I’m one of the fortunate ones who has a happy marriage. It isn’t a legal marriage, apart from the rights the city of San Francisco and the state of California gives to domestic partners, but it is a real marriage. Twenty-one years ago we made our vows to love each other, to be true to one another, and stay together come hell or high water, in sickness and health, till death do us part.
But I’m reminded almost every day that my comfort level about our life together is a kind of aura that expands and contracts depending on where we are.
Here in San Francisco that aura seems to extend south all the way to Monterey and north to the far reaches of Mendocino County. Looking east to Alameda County, I get uncomfortable and start circling the wagons of my psyche as soon as I’m beyond Berkeley, Albany, and certain parts of Oakland and Alameda. And I definitely think twice about venturing as far east as Contra Costa. Though it was years ago, I still remember reading about a lynching in Contra Costa. These are the kind of events that affect my sense of safety very directly.
Being safe, feeling safe, affects where I choose to travel, and has an impact on where my partner and I can or will retire. I know, for instance, that there are many gay people living in the South, but I will not travel there.
I spent part of my adolescence in Virginia. I’ve been up close and personal with Bible Belt boys and fundamentalists posing as Christians, who think they’re doing God’s work bullying and beating up people who don’t live up to their “moral code.”
I doubt that there are much better places to live than San Francisco. I do know there are cheaper places to live. Much cheaper.
Sometimes I listen with a kind of wonder to straight people talking about where they will retire. They just assemble their facts, figures and feelings and make a move to small towns in Ohio or Pennsylvania, to neighborhoods in Atlanta or Des Moines.
My partner and I have to add the component of feeling and being safe, accepted, supported. I may have my complaints about the cost of living in San Francisco, but the longer I live here, the more I love it.
If we could but afford it, I’d just as soon retire here. This is my home. This is where my friends are, my family. I don’t have to worry about or restrict who I am, or who I love.
I’m glad to live in San Francisco at the dawn of the 21st Century, where my partner and I, along with thousands of others, are free to be ourselves. I still feel a tremendous surge of pride and passion when I drive down Upper Market with The City and the Bay spread before me, and I come around the final curve to see the Rainbow flag fluttering in the wind and waving above the once infamous, now famous, Castro.
The neighborhood became famous, rather than infamous, because of the decision each and every one of us made to be open, whether that decision was made 30 years or three days ago.
I marched in the very first Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. It was a little frightening, incredibly exciting, and it filled me with joy. Though there may be more widespread acceptance of gay people now, I imagine all these emotions are still a part of each gay person’s declaration of who they are, who they love.
For each individual deciding to be completely honest — and it seems the only way to feel complete is to be honest — there is the sense of removing one’s shoes and socks and stepping out onto live burning coals.
We summon all our faith, we surrender to the inevitable, and we triumph over our own personal firewalk.
This story is from the Gay Pride 2000 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, June 23, 2000