I shouldn’t try to write about this. I am not particularly skilled with composition. I am also feeling angry.
Today Proposition 8 was upheld in the California State Supreme Court.
My ideas about gay people began being shaped when I was very young in the middle of the last century. This was a time when homosexuality was rarely discussed openly, let alone expressed in outward behavior. Homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder. Nearly unanimously, overt discussion was derogatory toward same sex couples; sometimes violently so. Very often, biblical taboos were waved verbally as “reason” for such nonsense and as “proof” that Jesus said so. Oh, the whistles and bells attached to such credos were loud and entertaining. Truly, for me in the formative years, it was a mystery. I didn’t know what sexual orientation was.
My parents were first separated before I was born. It was amazing that they had ever dated, let alone married. Dad was old school WASP/SAR stock, Mom was Irish Catholic working class. (I know it’s difficult to fathom, now, but at the time inter religious/cultural unions were considered rebellious and even scandalous... Great Grandpa Cox assumed the union was doomed because Dad was a Protestant; Grandpa Al was sure the Paddy influence would ruin his family line.) Multiple attempts at reconciliation occurred, as that was what loveless couples did in that era. Each time an attempt was made to patch things up, it got more difficult for my sister and me. Each effort was more hostile than the last. The final go at “working” at the marriage involved a move to lower Manhattan for Mom, my sister, and me.
My uncle and aunt were in the Virgin Islands for the year, so we were ensconced in the New York walk-up until lodgings in New Jersey could be located. Here, a new world opened for me. My mother was rooted in convention, in spite of a lifelong dance with alcoholism and inappropriate behavior, and was terrified of the place on Warren St. It was loaded with “weirdos” and the first floor was a bar! The upstairs neighbors included Merlin, a Chinese ambassador’s son, Woody and Danny an artist and dancer. Above them was Alma, a 'mulatto' lady.
Weekends at the Warren St. building were the best time for visiting the neighbors. I had a natural curiosity about all of this new territory and did my best to explore unhindered. Merlin was good for a bit of chatter on the landing only. His place was so messy and cluttered that it was difficult to see a few feet beyond the door jam. That was okay by me; I didn’t want to go in. The one bit of propaganda that my mother succeeded in floating was that all of the roaches came from Merlin’s place. Of course, that was false, too. Alma was rarely home, but when she was, a cookie was often offered. A brief sit down in her lovely exotic, impeccably clean place often followed. I remember few details about her environment but I clearly recall thinking I’d have a flat just like hers someday.
Woody and Danny were my favorite neighbors by far. Woody, in particular, would be a friend to me for years, and hold a special place in my heart always.
A routine began to develop early on during the sojourn in the city, Dad and Mom would have a few drinks before (and after) dinner before the battle of the evening would begin.
In short order, these altercations resonated up and down the stairwell every night. The amplitude of the violence accelerated daily. Soon I realized that I could slip out into the hall during these blasts and my absence was unnoticed. Of course, it wasn’t long before I started to slip up to the neighbors’ places to keep myself distracted and out of the line of fire. My sister didn’t like it that I’d abandoned her and I had to make a pact to take her along when I escaped, otherwise things moved without a hitch.
Woody was always at the rescue. It got to a point where he knew when we were approaching in the hall, and the door was left ajar. There were often little snacks at the ready, pastels and paper waiting for my sister (the artist in the family), and music playing. The music was often from the latest show in which Danny held a position in the chorus and he’d not be beyond showing us a few of his moves. Woody would read to us and eventually escort us back down the stairs when the screaming and maelstrom was spent. Oh this was grand! There was not only refuge from the crackerjack stuff with my parents, but entertainment, too.
Danny was not as open to this business as Woody, and there was occasional discussion about not answering the door. Woody always prevailed and we were allowed in.
There was sometimes heated exchange between my Dad and Woody about it; Woody’s position was usually a lecture about self-control in the presence of children and how we were becoming scared rabbits, etc. Ultimately, Woody confronted my mother just before we made the move to Bergen County.
This is a scene I will never forget. My mother used vile terminology I had never heard before. Woody was a fag, a pervert, depraved, a child molestor! She wondered what he was doing with us upstairs. (Clearly preposterous in light of her other epithets...) She might call the police and turn him in.
My heart was broken. I wanted to leave my parents and have Woody adopt me. I said so during the brouhaha and that cut it. I was shoved inside and the door was slammed while the horrors in the hall continued. (I wouldn’t see Woody again for another 8 years.)
Of course, when I was 7 years old, I had no inkling about how Woody pre-occupied himself sexually. Equally obviously, I didn’t care at all. I cared about feeling safe and loved and nurtured and appreciated.
With a retrospective view to this time, I am certain that our notions about orientation and the “threat” contained in the difference is certainly a learned behavior. Before I was taught that I might be infected with the nearness of “gay” I’d already been better educated. Without question, disparagement of gays, jokes at their expense, and so on, were commonplace as I came up in my era. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t have the courage to stand up against this dangerous mindset until I was in my 20’s, this is how prevalent reactionary forces were. I can’t fathom what it must’ve been like to be Woody and Danny in the face of such stunning ignorance. They were beaten up from time to time because they loved each other. Woody was a heroic medic in WWII but was beaten for being a “swish” by his fellow soldiers. On and on, the litany of genuine abomination goes.
Woody and Danny ended their time on earth in this century. They had been together since the early 50’s when Woody died in the year of Dick Cheney’s bloody romp into Iraq...longer than most heterosexual couples I’ve known. They were unable to legalize their union with marriage. Woody felt he was fortunate to have enough time to see to it that they were covered with a ream of paperwork and contracts. This expensive rigamarole was required for them to inherent one another’s property, to visit one another in hospitals, to make medical decisions for an incapacitated other, and so much more, which would’ve been granted without question if they could’ve made the step they’d always wanted to take. It was sorrowfully ridiculous.
They even heard “the bible says it’s abomination” from an orderly in Woody’s last days. Woody wasn’t conscious to correct the misguided fool; as he always otherwise patiently did. Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. The biblical admonitions come from the Old Testament that also tells us how to prepare proper blood sacrifice. Are we still going to throw our best cow on the altar, too?
Woody’s resilient attitude, insisted on faith in the expanding universe. It will get where it’s meant to someday, it’s the growing pains that hang us up. Today, the growing pains are really getting to me. They hurt a lot. I don’t have Woody’s optimism all of the time. He wouldn’t be a true mentor if I didn’t know the truth of another of his nostrums, however. Obstacles are opportunities. The opportunity for justice is at the doorstep. It must be taken. Marriage equality will be the result. There isn’t any room for the small mind in the expanding universe.
So, I’ll carry Woody and Danny in my heart this weekend. We’re going to Fresno.
Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 1:31 PM PT: I have discovered an article (1999) from the Village Voice about my friends and their last home in Brooklyn. Delightfully, it includes a photograph. My hero Woody is in the forefront of the image. The "architect" mentioned in the article (should you choose to read - and I hope you do,; these vibrant souls are sparky even in this little bit) is my uncle.
They'd be proud of their home state this week.
Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 1:32 PM PT: http://www.villagevoice.com/...