Arts & Entertainment
Past As Prologue
Prepare For The Future By Honoring Past
Originally printed 1/3/2013 (Issue 2101 - Between The Lines News)
This year, 2013, marks the 59th year I have been an active participant in Detroit's lesbian/gay community - now the proverbial L/GBTQA gourmet alphabet soup.
Like my senior citizen friends - Jim Toy, John Kavanaugh, Dr. Henry Messer and partner of 61 years, Karl House, Vy Reed, John DiDonato, Affirmations volunteer Jack Miller - I have earned, by living it first hand, the being-there-then experience for viewing our shared rainbow future, in contrast to its hidden and closeted past.
I was fortunate on two counts as a gay man: I lived in a large metropolitan city - which Detroit with a population of two million was in the 1950s - and I realized as a teenager I wasn't heterosexual, but different: fruit, fairy, fag, queer. (Sticks and stones . . .)
In spite of low status accorded to me and other gays and lesbians by religion, psychiatry, the law, government, employers, medical profession, sometimes family, often so-called friends, I chose to associate with others sharing my sexual orientation.
I learned by these shared friendship alliances that, as the Affirmations L/GBT Center slogans it proudly, "Gay is good. You are not alone."
I did not choose to be gay. It came quite naturally to me. And about 17, as a Southern Baptist, I came to a realization that my biology was stronger than my belief system. (Had that not been the case, I'm sure I would have wound up wasting precious years of my young life as a China Inland missionary or, what's worse, a radio or TV evangelist.)
In Detroit's downtown area I found support in two restaurant hangouts for gay/lesbian teenagers - occasionally "tourist" straights - where, over "a cherry Coke and six jukebox plays for a quarter" I learned how to cope in a psychologically gay bashing straight world.
Soon with my new-found gay friends I explored nearby cities: Toledo, at the Scenic Bar for 3.2-alchohol content Zing Beer, at age 18; Cleveland, checking into the Y, with 24/7 showers; New York in July with non-air conditioned rooms at the Sloan House.
City by city we realized something that few, if any, straights knew. We were everywhere, and our numbers were pretty substantial, if highly invisible. Gaydar helped, with substituting pronouns for private us-only conversations. He for she. Hairpin dropping cautious questions: Do you come here often? Are you, er, you know, gay? (Back then the word usually meant happy.)
Gays and lesbians kept a low profile. We used nicknames - Little Bobby, Estralita, T.D., B.J., The Empress, Miss Thing, Drano, Big Red. I was Skinny Al. We told no one where we worked, where we lived, where we went to church (if indeed we managed to get up after a night of partying on Saturday to go to church. Or confession, if ever.)
Role models were non existent. Movie stars were suspect, including James Dean, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Barbara Stanwyck. Wishful thinking on our part. Too often later proven to be true!
We were warned to watch out for "Miss Tillie." The Law. The Big Four in the prowling cop cars. The Vice officer. The ever-present fear of entrapment. (Footnote: Tim Retzloff, currently doing his Yale Ph.D. dissertation on LGBT Detroit History, has read and reviewed over 25,000 gay arrest case reports dating from the 1930s to the present.)
Detroit's gay bar scene, located near the old city hall, was lively on weekends. The 1011, Silver Dollar, La Rosa's, Barrel Bar, notorious Palais Dyke Bar, were in walking distance of each other (but inconveniently near the First Police Precinct). Gay blacks were required to show three pieces of I.D. to get into the predominantly white clubs. Foster's and the Royale were black bars. Mixing of races was rare.
Getting in drag was limited to Halloween Night, and the downtown streets of Farmer and Bates were the scene of queens in costumes, make up, high camping, glitter and be once-a-year openly gay.
When I was 23 a Wayne University professor told me that he was sorry to learn I was gay. "There's so much in life you'll not be able to do," he said. Looking back on my six decades it's been just the opposite for me. I've had an interesting gay life, met wonderful people - a few celebs - held many professional jobs, been a teacher and administrator, had many dear friends (continue to do so), written reasonably informative columns for several gay papers, and made crazy, wonderful art. (So I've been told.)
My ground zero has blossomed into open spaces with park benches to sit happily in the sun, hold hands, maybe get married nearby, rent a condo - mortgage a home - raise a family.
My advice as a gay senior to those much younger is simple, perhaps obvious. Honor those past and present courageous persons who made our LGBT equality possible. Prepare for a career. Use and share your gifts and unique talents. Get involved. Volunteer. Vote! Speak out! Kick back politically! We've come a long way! We still have a long way to go in 2013.Charles Alexander wears many hats in Michigan's LGBT community - Artist, activist, Detroiter and curator of Affirmations' Pittmann-Puckett Art Gallery. E-mail Charles at Charles@Pridesource.com. Alexander writes a weekly column for BTL, titled Parting Glances. Catch the latest installments at http://gaybe.am/y5.
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