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And a Relatively Conventional Adulthood By Today's Standards
The year my dad (z"l) died, I distracted myself with letters from a young woman I wished would be my girlfriend, if only I hadn't also been yearning for a boyfriend in parallel -- to make society and my family happy -- and if only she were actually attracted to girls.
I'd run to the mailbox at the end of our long gravel driveway, even when it was snowing, hoping for a thick envelope filled with her lively handwriting and type-written poems. The poems were never about me, but I was encouraged that she said she thought of me every time she heard, "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes. I was 17. It was 1982.
During the eight weeks I lived with my cousins in Israel, I experienced my first bit of romantic experimentation with another girl. She introduced me to Brazilian music, helped me with my Hebrew and indulged me in my Disco rollerskating phase (which has never left me), facing speakers out her home's windows when her parents weren't there as George Benson insisted, nearly persuasively, "Give Me the Night" while I skate-danced in the village-street. Upon my return, I wrote her letters. Over and over. She never wrote back. I was 15. It was 1980.
Throughout the summer that I spent hanging out nearly daily at the beach in Stamford, Connecticut with my beautiful best friend, I felt so much less cool than she, especially whenever she wore her Yes rock band T-shirts. Once, I saw her gorgeous older brother sitting -- tan, broad-swimmer-chested and shirtless -- in the kitchen while his mom cut his gorgeous curly hair just a little shorter. The 7-Up he drank effervesced off his teeth as he smiled at me conceitedly.
Earlier that same day, his sister wrecked our friendship when she asked me to rub sun-tan oil onto her already golden back as she lay on a beach-chair in a white bikini, years beyond me in her physical development, except for our heights; relatively, I was a flat-chested giant. Unbeknownst to her, the tanning-oil request made my pulse beat in my ears -- made me undeniably conscious of my attraction to her, to girls. I was 11. It was 1976.
I could keep going, back to Mrs. Honan in 2nd Grade, in 1972, but you get the idea.
If only my best friend at 11 had had similar feelings, or the Israeli girl at 15, or my high school quasi-girlfriend at 17. If only it didn't feel like it had to be a desperate secret each time. If only my family and friends could have known explicitly and been supportive. If only I hadn't felt that I needed to put up a prissy, nerdy, aloof front to try to hide my emerging lesbianism.
By now, at 48, I've loosened up and have been out everywhere for the past 27 years. And my family, friends and colleagues have risen to my occasion. My wife Pat and I've also lived in a number of countries and several cities, but Stamford and Montclair, New Jersey hold the record for my long-time residence. As of this September I've lived in Montclair for longer than I lived in Stamford -- for more than 17 years. On the eve of New Jersey enabling same-sex couples to become legally married, I'm feeling relieved that my married life is finally legal in both my native and adopted home states, as well as recognized federally across the United States and also in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
This post didn't go on to catalog my trials in college till I came out explicitly my senior year -- I've done that in other posts -- but as I consider our country's progress around same-sex marriage, I'm also reminded of our country's current college generation:
By contrast to how it still was when I was in college from 1983-87, our 20-year-old niece moved off campus this year at SUNY New Paltz, and during our second visit, Zoe mentioned that two of her four housemates are lesbian. "How cool that you have lesbian housemates!"
"On this campus, you wouldn't be cool if you excluded them," she said, and I smiled to myself; I guess that people like Pat & I really are becoming more de rigueur. Glad I've lived long enough to see these promising times. And I'm also happy that as secret and scary and disorienting as my pre-teen and teenage years were -- I know, everyone's are, no matter his or her sexual orientation, but -- all's well that's ending well.
Yet even as I feel celebratory about the improving times for lesbian and gay Americans, a piece of me will always feel sad when I think of the energy-sapping shame I felt during the times 30 and 40 years ago -- and still feel when I recall them -- when I felt love and desire for another human being and needed to try to hide my feelings. Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes", so popular when I was in high school, felt like it was written for and about me, and I still cringe whenever I hear it.
For me, the best way to transform the leftover shame is to help a new generation avoid it: I'm so pleased to be allotting my United Way contribution to HMI Newark, so that today's lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and questioning youth in metro-Newark at least might be less likely to need to wait 30-40 years to be able to blog openly about societal progress. And here's another reason why plowing through the shame and being visible has been important to more than just my own peace of mind: I learned about HMI Newark from a heterosexual Montclair friend, Tray Davis; Tray and his family are key sponsors of the program. If I weren't open about my life, I wouldn't be able to have such a great friend. Instead, I'd still be stuck in prissy, nerdy aloofness, and that was no way to live.