A few days ago, I was sitting around at a work function with a group of coworkers discussing the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers. I have 3 teenagers and one soon to be teenager; this condition frequently makes me consider heading out to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes and taking the long route home. And by the way, I quit smoking when I left the army life behind. One of my coworkers is in an even worse situation: 5 teenagers, 4 boys and a girl. Another of the coworkers sitting with us is openly gay and living with her partner. She’s a few years older than me, but from my generation.
While we continued having this conversation, I started thinking about how this conversation sounded from her viewpoint. We were discussing the issues involved with parenting teenage girls who are awakening to the sexual side of their nature. All of our kids are straight, so there was no discussion from a gay view. But having my gay coworker involved in this conversation made me think about how much different it would be to raise a gay teenager. Later, though, I considered how different things are from when I grew up.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago and went to high school in the late 70s. I lived in the near west suburbs that were more like the city than the suburbs further west. I was also in high school when my school district was finally forced to begin “busing.” My high school was a very tough atmosphere. It was a very large school where the students hadn’t sorted out yet who ran it. But more on topic for this diary, I didn’t know one gay person my own age—not one. My friends were as diverse as possible, for example my best friend’s Dad was an immigrant from Panama, but I did not even know one gay person—in a high school that numbered in the thousands. As far as I was concerned at that time, gay people were literally as relative to my life as space aliens or Bigfoot.
After I left school, a friend called me up and asked if I wanted to play drums in a production of Fame. When I heard the names of the other musicians involved, I immediately said yes. I had heard of the keyboardist and, based on his reputation, wanted the opportunity to play with him. I didn’t expect to make much money, if any, from this gig, but it sounded like fun. At the first rehearsal, my best friend, one of the vocalists, and I went off on a long riff of gay jokes. We had the band in stitches. After the rehearsal, John, the keyboardist, invited my best friend and me to meet him at a club. I immediately said yes for both of us. This guy was better on the keys than his reputation had suggested.
Later in the week when we met him at the club, my friend and I immediately noticed the difference from this club than the clubs we usually went to. For one, there were two girls there and they were making out by a stairwell. I hung out in rock clubs; the music here was definitely different. Everyone dressed differently than I was used to. They had an awesome mirrored dance floor, but there were only men dancing on it. Later, my friend asked me to go to the bathroom with him; I have to admit I was afraid to use it too. I didn’t realize it until later, but I was feeling the effects of going to a club full of aliens. John never told me he was gay, he didn’t have to after the visit to that club. By the way, I did end up having a good time at that club, but I did have to get over the feeling that I was hanging out with a covert group of Bigfoots.
When I was a couple years older, I worked as a salesman at an upper midrange clothing store. This was one of those places where you could get a suit that looked and felt like an Armani but at a quarter of the price. I became one of the best salesmen in the state. My numbers were typically in the top 5 in the state—as a part-time worker. The salesmen all wore shirts and ties. Because of my rock club lifestyle at the time, my clothes were sometimes mismatched or rumpled. When they were, I used that as part of my sales routine, “You don’t want to go out looking like me, do you?”
One of the reasons I became a good salesman is because I learned how to mark suits really well for our tailor. When I fitted you for a suit, your suit fit perfectly. We also had a large gay clientele. All of the other salesmen did not want to work with them. They didn’t want to have to touch them when they marked up a suit. They were afraid to touch their waist and crotch during the fitting. After I worked at the store for a while, these guys became my clients. Eventually, one of these guys styled my hair every couple of weeks and I directed clients to him. But all of the other salesmen at the store literally treated these guys like aliens—or more accurately, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Probably a year ago, I was constantly after my kids about using the term gay—oh that teacher’s so gay. You know what I mean, you here it all the time from teens. Finally, my daughter was so annoyed with me about it, she said, “Dad, even my gay friends use it.” That stopped me in my tracks. Later, I asked my kids about their gay friends. Yep, they had gay friends. I even knew some of them. My first thought was good for them; they have the strength to be out in high school. I can’t imagine how difficult that is for them. But maybe just as important, my straight kids know them and hang out with them. They don’t see them as alien.
Times have changed, if my gay coworker had went to my high school, I wouldn’t have known she was gay. We probably wouldn’t have been friends like we are today. Back in those days, her partner would not have received health care benefits like she does now with the agency that employs us.
Are things perfect? No. They’re not even fair yet.
If a hospital tried to stop me from seeing the woman I love in the hospital, there would be hell to pay.
But times have changed. The homophobes are not winning anymore. We do have a huge struggle left for civil rights for our gay brothers and sisters, but at least history and time is on our side.
When I look at my kids, they see nothing remarkable about their gay friends. They aren’t afraid of them. They don’t see them as aliens.
Unfortunately though, we all do need to keep working to convince their parents and grandparents that our gay friends deserve equal rights today, not 20 years from now.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
Times They Are A Changing: Bob Dylan