Queer Artist, Walt Whitman

I See You Clearly

My sister works in education and recently became the sponsor for the high school GSA or Gender/Sexuality Alliance club at her school. She is a straight, cisgender woman and I am a gay, cisgender man. We live in Texas. I live in a more urban area and her in a suburban one. When she revealed to me that she was considering becoming the sponsor of the GSA I was touched by her bravery and also afraid for her.

My fear was born out of the fear I had developed growing up about being gay. The fear of rejection. The fear of being different. The fear of HIV/AIDS. All of the fears, some rational and others not, that had been pummeled into me literally and figuratively about my gayness. I worked through those fears over time and I probably overcompensate now for living with that fear by trying to be fearless when it comes to being out and authentic. I know I am a tough cookie. I live in a place called NoFucksGivenville when it comes to objections about my gayness. It is a great place to live, although sometimes stressful and oppressive. I know my sister is tough too but I wanted to protect her from whatever abuse might come her way for sponsoring this club.

She was nervous about being the sponsor too but not for the same reasons I had. She wanted to make sure she did right by the kids. These LGBTQ kids that needed a place to be safe and be who they are. I am a former teacher and public education attorney. She leaned on me to answer questions about the operation of the club. What if the kid didn’t tell their parents they were in this club? What if a parent asks? What if they object? There were lots of questions, most of which centered around the fine line between student privacy and safety and parental right to know what their child is doing. These are not questions the art club sponsor has to consider.

Part of me wanted to tell her to let someone else sponsor this club. I’m gay and I could give her permission from the high gay counsel. Sort of like when we go to gay bars and I authorize her entry. “it’s cool everyone, she’s with me.” But I knew, and she knew, that these kids needed this club more than either one of us needed to be comfortable.

“Well you would be the sponsor for the club if you were here.” she stated.

I paused. I wondered if that were true. It seems inevitable that, were I to sponsor this club, some crazy parent would say that I was recruiting teens to be queer. A ludicrous claim, but one that, at times, has traction in Texas. Next thing you know I am Goody Proctor in the queer version of The Crucible. It became clear to me that it was vitally important that my straight, cisgender sister volunteer to be the sponsor. She would have more cover as an ally than a queer teacher would and thereby so would the students.

It has been about eight months since she started the club. She called me recently to ask for help recruiting speakers for the meetings. Once a month she invites an adult representative from the LGBTQ community to talk with the kids. I am connected well with the movers and shakers in the queer community and can easily find people willing to drive out to the burbs and talk to the students. After one meeting a student came up to my sister and thanked her profusely for arranging these speakers. For the kids this is sometimes their only opportunity to see a real, live queer person who is thriving. That visibility is meaningful and gives the kids encouragement that they should not let the world dictate to them what they can or cannot do because they are queer.

I didn’t have that influence.

The messages I got about being gay were mostly negative and often involved death. All I saw were all of the things I couldn’t be if I were gay. A father. A husband. A professional. Being gay, I erroneously concluded, would mean self-exile to the island of misfit toys. Once there, if I didn’t die from being murdered like Paul Broussard, I would die from AIDS.

The 80’s and 90’s was a rough time to grow up gay.

I didn’t get these messages from my parents. I got these messages from the world. There wasn’t an Ellen DeGeneres let alone a GSA. I had an uncle who was gay. But other than him, Paul Lynde and Snagglepuss, I was running on nothing. I recall a bisexual friend of mine telling me that her resistance to dating women was because it meant she would need to mourn all of those things she couldn’t be if she had a lesbian relationship. She put into words what I had always felt.

There were two moments in my life that had a long term effect on my early years as a gay person. One of them happened when I was 19. I had a roommate in college. He and I were long time friends from high school. We were both in the closet to each other and everyone else. His family was the worst kind of family for a gay kid to have. One that seemed kind and supportive, even Christian, but one that wasn’t in the end.

One day, I woke up in our apartment to a commotion happening in the living room. I spent the night there on purpose because I wanted to talk to my roommate who had been acting strange in recent weeks. What I found was his entire family moving all of his things out of the apartment. No one would explain to me what was going on or why. It was the middle of the school year. My parents were in Hawaii and I was a kid. Eventually his brother-in-law told my parents that the reason for the immediate and surprise move was because they thought I had been looking up gay porn on his computer (it was the 90’s and I didn’t have my own computer). But my parents “shouldn’t worry too much because it wasn’t child-porn at least.”

I guess in the hierarchy of porn shaming it goes Straight Porn > Gay Porn > Child Porn. What a relief mom and dad. I’m not gay and a pedophile. You can relax. It could be much worse.

Truth is, I hadn’t looked up any porn on his computer. His family found his porn on his computer and that got pinned on me. Regardless of who was looking up porn though, this did not justify what these adults did to me because of gay panic. Those parents, and I blame them, decided they needed to remove me like I was cancer from their son in order to preserve his straightness. My parents and friends could have disowned me. Cut me off. These parents put my life at risk because they were scared of “the gay”. Luckily for all of us I didn’t have those parents and friends. Trust that queer people have killed themselves for scenarios less traumatic than this one. This happened in 1998. Twenty years ago.

A few months ago while at a funeral for a mutual friend, his mother, no doubt the mastermind behind this betrayal, came up to me. She was the last person I expected to see. It wasn’t until halfway through the conversation that I realized who she was. She was as nasty as she always was. She lightly insulted me for looking “so much older” (I mean it had been twenty years, but fuck her). Then she started prodding into my personal life. Before I could gather my thoughts she was gone. I went out to my car and cried I was so enraged.

Fuck. This. Bitch.

I just kept thinking about the time she tried to kill me. That’s how it feels/felt. That is how it feels for so many queer kids. She was the adult and she shamed me. Her son is gay af by the way. I wonder if he ever thinks about how terrible his parents are. I’m certain he does.

Clearly, I am holding onto some anger. And that’s okay. Because I realize even more why my sister’s role in this GSA is so important. Had I had a realistic sense of self instead of the distorted one that scenario might have played out a little differently.

The second moment happened in 2010. I was 32. There was an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC called Hide/Seek. It was the first exhibit ever to focus on LGBTQ artists and their art. At the time I saw it the exhibit was under attack for a piece that was considered offensive by religious groups. I knew enough to read through the lines that Congress was about to shut this exhibit down. I followed the docent to each painting and heard about the subversive queer themes that were being played out in these pieces by artists who I never knew were queer. The exhibit began with Walt Whitman then continued on to Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Agnes Martin, Berenice Abbott, etc.Through their art I traveled through the 20th century and into the 21st, this time through a different lens than the one I was given during Art History 101 in college. This was the true lens, the queer lens.

I felt betrayed again, this time by that art history class. This information certainly wasn’t a secret. Why did no one tell me that there were queer artists like Maplethorpe? Maybe everyone did know and I just fell asleep that session. But I was awake now. I felt honored to be in the presence of this art on the terms the artist’s had intended. There was no curtain or false pretense. I got to see them. I got to see myself. It was the most visible I had ever been and I had been out for many years at that point.

It’s this visibility that my sister’s GSA club is providing for these kids. They are visible to each other in a way I never experienced at that age, and they are seeing the world a little clearer than I was allowed to see it. This will impact their lives in a profound way that will ripple out into the lives of so many others.

It has been interesting watching my sister grow in this role. She calls me up with “news” about the queer community that I have known for years but that she is now excited to understand. It’s not totally smooth sailing. Discussing the importance of pronouns is a tricky conversation for anyone to have. For the two of us our hang-up centers more around the proper grammatical use of they than an objection to someone wanting to be referred to as such. In that regard I suppose that these students are becoming more authentically visible to her too.

We should all be so lucky to have the opportunity to see each other more clearly. We should all be so lucky to have a sister like mine.