Today, July 26 2020, marks a significant anniversary for me, and you’re invited along. Perhaps some readers may recall Billy Pilgrim, from Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; he became “unstuck in time”. Like Billy’s journey, I realize that my sharing of my life here is nonlinear, but I write about what is on my mind, and what I think matters and might have meaning for someone out there today. Although the overriding theme of my blog is “my journey to authenticity”, today, rather than the “New NormL”, I think perhaps what I have to share is a bit of the “True NormL”. But before I go on – friends, this is going to be a long one. I do hope you will agree it’s worth it; this is from my heart, like really everything I post here, but this is the post it has taken me a lifetime to create. I hope it won’t seem that long to read!!!!
I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep”.Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”
Like many of my generation, church was a foundational factor in my upbringing. In childhood, growing up in circumstances that brought many blessings but also brought me to a place of separation and isolation, I attended Sunday school, like most “good families” of that 60’s era, even though mine was profoundly broken. I imagine today that the trappings of those gatherings are mostly forgotten – little “story boards” with felt figures of Bible folk to illustrate stories, songs we would sing together, craft fairs and choir practice. I was raised Protestant, but in my teens my mother – disabled and facing challenges beyond her means – sought comfort in pursuing the Evangelical movement. She clung to the shouted words of healers and held on for a miracle. I followed, in time – I wanted to belong, and to be accepted. Of course, the big hurdle in my truly feeling loved, accepted, “saved” or whatever other term you might pick was just one little problem – I was attracted to other boys.
But I could not accept that in myself; it wasn’t something I could embrace or act upon. By my twenties, entering the professional world after college, my heart was a lonely cave where the air was thick with shame. I attended bible rallies and went forth for prayer for deliverance, for laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. I travelled to the Holy Land and prayed to be changed; I remember asking the leader of the tour, a very knowledgeable, loving and well learned man in many faiths, what I could do to be “fixed”. His reply – “just stop it”. I recall listening to tapes about demons being cast out where the speaker “saw” frog like spirits beings released from those possessed by homosexuality. When I finally moved in the mid 80’s from the isolation of my mother’s home to have a degree of independence, my search for what I thought was love got me into trouble; after being held at gunpoint in my apartment and calling the police to report the attack by someone I had brought into my home, I heard their snickering behind my back, and I shrunk in humiliation. Without a car or wallet, I called my father to please come bring me back to my mother’s home. I told them what had happened, but no one else could know – I remained silent and solitary.
Hallelujah! After the exposure to my family, my secret was “out”, and it seemed that I could finally get help. I began working with a counselor for “reparative therapy”; I dated a girl from church and to this day regret the pain I caused her with a breakup, but realize I did her a favor. I attended “ex gay” programs offered by “Desert Stream” at a church in Pasadena, riding from the “Inland Empire” more than an hour each way with a fellow church member who worked for Campus Crusade. There, I met others, including men who worked for “Focus on the Family”, and a few women – all seeking “deliverance” through Christ. To somehow become – normal? Good enough? Or at least, celibate, and less self-hating. I even visited the “Love in Action” program in San Rafael, which became notorious in later years and eventually moved from California. There are many destructive forces in life, and shame is one of the most insidious, and deeply rooted in our souls. Shame is like climbing into your own coffin and nailing the lid shut from inside. Hiding from the only thing that could really bring healing – light.
The greatest gift you have to offer is the real you – don’t hide it, let it shine!
Thank God (and I do mean that), those programs, books, prayers and meetings – failed. I didn’t realize this was a blessing instead of a disappointment. For years, I fell deeper into my cave; I did not know any other life, and my existence centered around work and escape. But, in time, particularly after the passing of my parents in my late 40’s and the end of the family structure that I depended on to have a sense of purpose, I realized that I needed to find a way to accept myself. That unless I did, the loneliness that engulfed my life would only grow until there was no life left. I found a wonderful counselor; he tried to convince me to accept being gay, but I fought it for a long time. Eventually, the walls that had been built with years of indoctrination crumbled, and I began to see that the love that I sought was already there, it was just up to me to accept it – no one else. In 2010 that I finally found courage, and reached out to the only two gay people I knew, to ask for help.
In my 50’s, I joined the “Men’s coming out support group” at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, driving more than an hour and a half to West Hollywood weekly to share, learn, and listen. I started exploring the admittedly unfamiliar world of bars and more. I made friends, slowly – there wasn’t a lot of gay life in Perris, CA! I would drive nearly an hour to Palm Springs and used to tell people I lived in the Perris without croissants. Many had never heard of it – especially when I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA in 2012 and started “coming out” to friends and family. It was both rewarding – and painful. Because, as I started to be more honest with those around me, along with the new friends I made, and the support I found from old friends and family – I lost dear friends. People who could not see past the same teachings that had kept me bound and alone most of my life. Teachings that in spirit were meant to bring life but had been twisted to crush the hearts of many, leading to families that were broken and lives that ended. Many have been deeply burned by actions done in the name of love, and turned away. I do understand why so many see religion as bringing death rather than life; I am not ashamed to admit that I do not have all the answers, but I still find comfort in reaching for faith, which like me, is evolving.
Gay Men’s Chorus of LA 2014 concert “I Am Harvey Milk”, Walt Disney Concert Hall
Thinking back on it, there were 3 stages to my “new life” – “Ex”; “Ex-Ex”, and eventually, yes, XXX. One of the really surprising things, to those who knew me, was that I bought a motorcycle. Never mind that I didn’t know how to ride – I had seen an Indian Chief parked near my home and I just wanted to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I had always thought that bikers were “hot”. Now, we all have our fantasies, ok? I learned to ride, taking my licensing class in pouring rain just before Thanksgiving, soaked to the bone. I had a deep respect for history and learned that the Satyrs Motorcycle Club of LA – one of the oldest gay organizations in the world – invited all riders to join them on periodic “runs”. In 2012, I rode my 2001 Chief for the first and only time to San Francisco – my first visit there as an “out” gay man – clumsily making my way to the Castro, and the South of Market area, where my Satyr friends had recommended a cheap hotel. I visited some of the bars, feeling completely out of place; and then I rode on to the annual “Badger Flat” gathering the Satyrs held in the Sierra National forest; I was welcomed by all. In July 2015 a friend from the Satyrs run invited me to stay in his San Francisco home while he went to the Sturgis Bike Rally. That visit led to the life changes that today I celebrate.
San Francisco was known for decades as a refuge for countless men and women who were “different” in many ways. In the 80’s, the community began to lose thousands of lives to AIDS. I remember reading about the mysterious diseases emerging in the Advocate, a gay newspaper that my college had in the library, and later in magazines that would give me a (unrealistic) window into the world I wanted to be a part of but was not. In response, the core gay and lesbian communities around the world – New York, LA, SF and more – turned to fundraising events to support the needs of organizations trying to help the infected, and their families. One such gathering was held on a small block in the South of Market area in August 1985 – nearly 35 years ago – called “Up Your Alley” on Ringold alley. It grew – and in 1987, was shifted to nearby Dore Alley, off Folsom.
The Castro was what the world saw, perhaps, as the center of “gay” life – certainly it had the bars, the parties, the music, the lights and political focus. But South of Market – it had its own crowd, flavor, energy – and reputation. John Rechy in 1977 wrote of the LA chapter of this subculture in his book “The Sexual Outlaw” – more people would recognize it from the popularization of the “Leather Man” Glenn Hughes from the Village People. It was this community in South of Market that created, supported, and celebrated their lives in Folsom – at the bars, the clubs, the alleys and more. Over the decades, there were less bars, but the reputation still lingered, held up by a few residents and businesses – part of the kaleidoscope of cultures in what used to be called the “Baghdad by the bay”. And the “Up Your Alley” fair endured, along with the larger “Folsom Fair” held annually – these were the raucous gatherings that evangelicals used to portray the “perversion” that they could use for fund raising and fear mongering, condemnation and shaming those who were different.
A vividly expressive ad for the 2015 Dore Alley Street fair – perhaps unrealistic?
That July 2015, the Dore Alley street fair – “Up Your Alley” or “Folsom’s dirty little brother”, as it was promoted, was literally outside my door. Of course I had heard of these events – I had visited the bars on prior trips to the city, and similar bars and gatherings in LA and the desert. But attending was something like this was a first, for me. The street fair attracted thousands to the small area that bordered on my friend’s home on Folsom. I was, for the most part, alone – I didn’t know that many people in San Francisco, and even though I could pass for a “biker” in terms of my gear – I could “look the part” – I completely felt out of my element. I don’t enjoy loud music, crowds, and am a non-drinker – but this was the SF of my fantasies from decades past, and I was “out”, and I was going to take the leap. As I strolled down Folsom, a young lady asked if she could take my photo – I was flattered and said yes. A few weeks later, a friend in LA said they saw me on the event website – so, here is what I looked like midday on Sunday, July 26, 2015.
About an hour after that photo was taken, I walked into a reception at a local boot store, “Stompers”, where party goers could escape the noise, relax, socialize – as long as they had boots on. Which, of course, I did! It was crowded with men in leather – everything I had imagined about the San Francisco I saw in magazines decades earlier! Suddenly, I saw a stunning man (yes it was a “lightning bolt” moment), one I immediately wanted to meet – just as a friend called and asked if I could join them outside (they did not meet the boot requirement). I reluctantly left, hoping I might return soon. Trying to keep my eyes on the door while we visited, I noticed the object of my attention had walked outside … and when I walked up to say hello – he said words I had not anticipated ….
“Norm … it’s Bob”. In 2013, while on he was in LA on business we had met briefly. I knew at the time he was married and living in San Francisco, and to be honest, I had not recognized him (we won’t go into the circumstances, folks!). Bob’s husband had passed just a few months earlier after a long illness, and visiting friends had coaxed him into joining them at a brunch, and then at the street fair, briefly. He had seen me in Stompers, but lost track of me until, as it happened, there we were at the concession stand. One year later, Dore July 2016; Stompers had closed, Bob and I had been dating long distance, and I joined him and many friends at the annual brunch reception before heading to South of Market, and the crowds. As we strolled through Dore together, eventually we stopped near where, a year before, we had – accidentally? – reconnected at Stompers. It had closed a few months prior, but we paused nearby for a burger, where he had invited friends to quietly gather. Moments later, we were engaged.
It’s a lot easier for me to write a narrative history than to somehow discern what from those experiences I am feeling a need to express. In some ways, like Billy Pilgrim, and perhaps like you or someone you love, my life was largely fragmented into pieces I kept separate, some buried deeply, many that only with time could I learn to accept and even embrace. I am hardly the first human to “come out” late in life, nor fundamentally unique in any other characteristic; but “coming out” applies to all of us, not just GLBTQ individuals who still face unique challenges around our globe. Perhaps my story illustrates how critical it is for ALL of us to reach a place where we accept ourselves perhaps not fully, but enough to say “this is me, I know I am not perfect, I am still working on me but I would like to let you get to know me”. When we hide in the shadows – when we let shame, or fear, bury us and keep us from sharing our hearts with others – everyone loses. Our world loses.
Shame has deep roots, sometimes invisible. It takes more than any single action to be free of that pile; it requires ongoing and severe honesty; the hearts and hands of people who accept us as we share our truths; and, I believe, faith in that which is larger than ourselves, however we may come to see that source of life. 5 years after that “chance” meeting that changed my life, that has become our life – I am still “coming out”. Being open with this post today is another step for me; I share my path with you because it has been a curious merging, a graceful dance between desire that I was taught to suppress and deny – and a sense of the power of faith in a greater source of love, grace, and forgiveness. It took me most of my lifetime to realize that my definition of that power was too small. I had kept it in a box, and tried to fit my life into it, blaming myself that I could not conform. But the truth was bigger than my box; bigger than me. I just had to let my eyes move beyond the borders, and let my heart be open, to move beyond those limits. I had to have faith in what my spirit heard and what called to my heart. Now, I continue to work on integrating those fragments of my heart, spirit, and mind into my own coat of many colors.
Be your own creation – the best of what you are given, and the rest of your dreams.
I am sure there are many more learned minds than my own that can espouse at great lengths the connections between spirituality and sexuality, so I will not even try. But for me, they are kind of like Astaire and Rogers – each beautiful on their own, but together, truly divine – far more than the sum of their parts, and dare I say, incomplete without one another. In my church days, much of which I still treasure and reflect on and am grateful for – we often were taught about the “Holy Spirit”, or in Latin, “Spiritus Sanctus”. It was always mysterious, and kind of pushed away – probably because it could not be explained. I like to think the Spiritus Sanctus just as easily wears a leather jacket and boots as it might for others be in priestly vestments. We find a connection to the Eternal in our own ways, and we need to respect that others do as well – but the common thread is one of our basic humanity, our need for love, acceptance, hope and forgiveness, as we work our way through a very uncertain world. I am more at peace, now, not having an explanation, but accepting that it is no longer needed; just like I cannot explain how all the moving pieces of two separate lives brought us together on a crowded street during a leather “kink” festival. But it did. And I am thankful for it, and grateful for the love that continues to grow as a result.
Words of “The Little Flower” of France, one of the most popular saints of Catholicism.
Since that day, I left Perris behind, put my home on the market, said goodbye to what had really been my entire life there since 1962, and moved, as I put it, not to San Francisco, but to Bob. In August 2018, we were married; our two-year anniversary next month will be a quiet one – no dinner out, no parties. No gathering with friends and loved ones, or at least, only “virtually” this year. For many of us, Dore, Folsom, Pride, and other annual gatherings are sometimes half-jokingly referred to as gay “high holy days”. Like church services, they are gone, for now; there is no Dore “Up Your Alley” gathering in Folsom this year; there will not be thousands of men and women walking in the sunshine, wearing all kinds of clothing (or little to none), buying and selling all kinds of interesting devices, demonstrating skills you don’t learn about in Boy Scouts (or, maybe you do), and raising funds for charity. There won’t be loud music or the “Twister” booth, and all the other activities that get covered in the media – you can see all those images from prior years online. What the pictures cannot fully capture is the energy, acceptance, belonging, joy, and yes, love which brought those thousands of celebrants together, for so many years. I look forward to coming together again, somehow, some day.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Suess – a wisdom that touches all ages.
Dr. Seuss had a gift for sharing truth through simplicity. I never read many of his books, except when waiting in medical offices as a child. But that quote from “Oh the places you’ll go” harmonizes deeply with a realization that continues to grow in my own awareness – that only bY being genuinely ourselves – warts, failures, flaws and all – can we offer authentic love, caring, and acceptance to others. And only in accepting others as they are, can we climb, together. We have to get there from where we are, not by pushing others down to where we think they are supposed to be. Early this morning, July 26 2020, Bob and I briefly strolled down those familiar streets – Folsom, Dore and Ringold. There were no crowds, or booths, and the bars were silent. Others may gather later, not willing to let traditions go – I respect that, truly. We happily returned to our little blue house with two cats, together.
With Bob this morning, at the intersection of Folsom and Dore, remembering.
Bob and I are together because somehow the many intricate moving pieces in our separate lives brought us to the same noisy, crowded street during a gay leather festival. We love each other, imperfectly but truly, and we try to share our love with the others in our lives, when we can. I am grateful to say that I felt the call of the spirit in a leather jacket, and I said YES to that call, and seek it still. I hope that when you sense something calling to your own spirit, in that deep place only you know, you will find the courage and strength and acceptance to say “yes” – leave that safe nest you know only too well, spread your wings, and fly. I’ll look for you out there, soaring through the clouds.