Sunday, June 14, 2015

Summer, Pride, and Growing Up Gay

Brantingham Lake from the air

Summer remains my favorite time of the year and, in part,  I attribute it to the summer of my closeted youth.  The following is a reprint of my June, 2015, column in VEER Magazine:

Summer is my favorite part of the year for reasons that will be described in part below.  It is also the time of year that the majority of LGBT "pride events" take place when LBGT individuals take pride in who they are and celebrate the advances that have been won over the years.  In fact, in America, June is "Pride Month" and President Obama has issued a proclamation in recognition of this reality.  The proclamation reads in part as follows:

"we are not truly equal until every person is afforded the same rights and opportunities -- that when one of us experiences discrimination, it affects all of us -- and that our journey is not complete until our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

During Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, we celebrate the proud legacy LGBT individuals have woven into the fabric of our Nation, we honor those who have fought to perfect our Union, and we continue our work to build a society where every child grows up knowing that their country supports them, is proud of them, and has a place for them exactly as they are.

"NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2015 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month." 
Encouraging and welcome words.  Here locally, Hampton Roads Pride will sponsor PrideFest 2015 at Town Point Part on Saturday June, 27, 2015, commencing at 12:00 o'clock noon.  However, the local Pride celebration is growing with each passing year and more events are taking place in the lead up - Pride Week, if you will - to the main event on June 27th.  This year The Hampton History Museum will be presenting an event entitled "Our Story, Our Time  Growing Up . . . Gay in Hampton Roads."  The event is free to the public and starts at 5:30 on June 24, 2015, at the Crown Plaza Marina, 700 Settlers Landing Road in downtown Hampton.  Part of what the event focuses upon is the reality that LGBT individuals have always been part of our local history even if in times past they felt the need to remain invisible. The Hampton History Museum event will include a panel the members of which will describe what it was like to grow up "different" in Hampton Roads.  Panelists include Dick Fore, the owner of Foremost Florists, Barry Menser, owner of Barry's for Hair, Corey Mason, an actor, theater director and college student, Anthony Cudrup of the Hampton Finance Department, Bobbi Mitchell, and Art Institute student and Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student.  For Peninsula readers, the event might prove eye opening.

I myself did not grow up in Hampton Roads.  Rather I grew up through high school in Central New York State near the city of Syracuse.  But like each of the panelist and with countless gays across America, the day came when I realized - in my case, much to my extreme horror, given my Catholic upbringing and the relative conservatism of Central New York at the time - that I was "different."   What I realized was that that my principal attractions were to other boys.  Not all other boys, but toward boys of a certain look and temperament.  One of the big myths of opponents of gay equality is that gays are either predators or seek to "recruit" others with very little discernment.  We are no different that straight people who each have their "type," preferred hair color, etc.  And I assure you, no one ever recruited me.

 At the time this unwanted realization hit me, I did not know what the term "gay" was but I did know that what I was feeling and experiencing had to remain a total secret.  And for the next thirty seven years, I did everything that I could to deny and suppress this reality and to "pray away the gay" through daily mass attendance, and a rigid effort to never, ever let anyone know "my secret."  Life for me became that of playing the role of an actor on a stage.  All these years later, it is hard to comprehend how I could convince myself that I was "straight" even as I knew in my heart what the real truth was.  I guess the only answer is that one will engage in all kinds of mental gymnastics rather than accept an unwanted reality.  Spurring me on in the effort were, of course, several factors: being gay was deem a clinical form of mental illness until my last year in college at the University of Virginia, (ii) my church's pronouncements that I was going straight to Hell, and (iii) family and societal expectations.

For many of us, our teen years are years of finding ourselves and lack of confidence.  Carrying the burden of "my secret," my teen years were likely worse than most.  Making matters worse for me was the fact that I did not excel at any of the popular sports at our small high school (750 students in grades 7 through 12), such as football, basket ball and baseball.  Gym class was always a nightmare for me.  Adding to my problem of fitting in, I was one of the "smart kids" and went on to eventually win a New York State Regents Scholarship.  Trying desperately to pass as straight and not be deemed a dork, I did a season of football, a season on the tennis team and then finally I joined the cross country team for two seasons where I actual received a varsity letter.  The closeted gay boy a varsity athlete!   Imagine that!  Despite this triumph of sorts, however, like many LGBT youth, I thought of suicide often since my efforts to "pray away the gay" were getting me nowhere.  Like so many others, these thoughts of suicide plagued me for years and latter while coming out, I acted on them twice in a serious manner, obviously without success.

If the school year was a nightmare, summers were what likely saved me and helped me survive my teen years.  Through my mother's  family, we had a summer home on Brantingham Lake in the western Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State.  As my siblings and I got older, we spent large parts of the summer at the "camp" as such summer homes are called in local parlance.  And this allowed me an opportunity to reinvent myself, if you will.  While I truly sucked at school team sports, I excelled at slalom water skiing, sailing, canoeing and swimming.  I could compete and hold my own.  In addition, at camp, we had a whole different circle of friends, most of whom were from other parts of New York or surrounding states and were far more sophisticated than my school year friends.   Yes, I still struggled to "pray away the gay" and convince myself that I wasn't really attracted to some of my male friends.  And , yes, the mental gymnastics to deny the truth about my sexual orientation continued at Olympic proportions.  But these summers allowed me to finally feel somewhat good about myself.   As one friend from those years with whom I have reconnected through the magic of Facebook wrote in a post "the memories of the lake, the times in the boats at night, skiing in the mornings at 6am so as to be the only boat on the lake..... these are the memories that never leave me and are the ones I use to help me get to sleep at night."  They were the summer time experiences that helped me survive growing up gay.

The good news is that things have changed remarkably since my teen years - in ways that I could never have dreamed of.  I hope readers will make an effort to attend both the Hampton History Museum event and PrideFest on June 27th.  I am also so very thankful that things are so much better for the younger generations that hopefully will never have to know the loneliness, isolation and self-hate that many of my generations faced.  There is still much work to be done, but growing up gay no longer needs to be such a rigorous ordeal.  And that is a very good thing. 

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