I am an out gay man born in Texas the year after Stonewall. My mom was a wacky matriarch who assumed Auntie Mame offered a blueprint for childrearing and that disco could save the world. She raised me to believe that nothing was frightening, impure, or impossible. Heady stuff for a little boy who knew from early on I was never going to live easy in the land of chiggers and chewing tobacco. I grew up in a very accepting home surrounded by a funky tribe that congealed around the loving dementia of my family. I’d marched in gay pride parades from a young age. Still, the tolerance I enjoyed at home slammed up against some horrifying prejudice and biblical violence that raised no eyebrows I could see.
In a lot of ways Texas sees itself as a sovereign nation. Houston in the 70s and 80s oil boom rode a high fence between tacky sophistication and rural narrowness. For many years it also had one of the largest LGBT populations per capita, second only to San Francisco. Feel that fact! As the Gulf prospered and Dallas dominated primetime, a whole bunch of gay folks started to express themselves in fabulous ways. Now, because my family lived in town, the gay community centers and clubs and bookstores gave me a place to stretch my wings. Because we also kept a ranch out in Hell-and-gone, I knew exactly how deep a chasm divided the “Gay Lib” movement from the rest of America.
I remember sitting in High School chemistry back in 1980-whatever; a bunch of hot jocks who knew and loved me as the “crazy party guy” invited me to come down to Montrose, the gay strip that had become the center of Houston’s “edgy” nightlife. They were gonna go rowing, they said and they had a truck with six oars. “Yee-haw.” I didn’t follow at first. Then my buddies explained that they’d been cruising for queers on Westheimer each weekend, sitting in the flatbed and using the oars to literally split skulls. “So fucking funny,” they assured me.
Thing is, we’d all gone to the same schmancy prep school together for our entire lives. We’d gone to sleepovers and softball together. As a teenager, I’d repeatedly had (not particularly good) sex with two of these meatheads. I knew the way peer pressure and bravado could turn a dozen closed head injuries into a fun Saturday night outing. I also knew that they didn’t think of those “faggots” as humans, in the same way they didn’t think of “wetbacks” or “bitches” as humans. They weren’t evil even if they were trying to be. They were just dumb guys who I’d grown up with…or at least I’d grown up while they’d grown down.
As soon as I could I escaped. I got snapped up by an Ivy League school and got the hell out of dodge… as far from those oafs and their oars as I could. I met my amazing partner and started my life as a professional storyteller. Years later, one of those “rowers” came out to me at a reunion, a 280 pound star linebacker who I’d never dreamed was gay. Like me, this big bubba had been too afraid to speak up and fight the tide, ashamed of shadows and rumors. Unlike me, he’d gone rowing plenty of times and hated himself for it. Unlike me, he went home to a place where his father whipped him bloody with a belt for wearing an earring. So every weekend, in defiance that closeted linebacker repunched the hole for his figurative pride flag and went out partying with a bloody lobe, defiant as he dared to be.
A gay roller coaster: Stonewall and the rise of AIDS
Back when I was a teenager, my crazy, beautiful mom swore that same-sex marriage would be legal within her lifetime and I scoffed. Shows what the hell I knew! Stonewall kicked off a decade of free expression and tolerance, but AIDS and the Reagan years clamped down on the free-wheeling exploration of gender roles and sexuality. I’m here to tell you, that super-sucked for the entire country. The world has cooled considerably since then. PFLAG, GLAAD, and HRC have wrested an unlikely victory that helps LGBT and “straight” people, both. Now, the internet has opened up the entire world for good and ill and anxious teens can access LGBT young adult fiction (and more) in libraries and minority characters are more than clowns and foils. Nothing needs to be a shameful secret anymore.
The fight for marriage equality, the emergence of LGBT heroes and voices, the unstoppable blossoming of acceptance and encouragement has made the world a lot easier to live in for LGBT kids even for rural areas. I believe that the vast majority of that progress has happened because of the way minorities (including LGBT folks) have been allowed to occupy books, television, and movies in startling and positive ways, telling stories that help everyone to stand in the light. The gay community has imagined itself into a better future. We flat-out invented a world that included everyone and showed it to the less-imaginative types until they had to stop saying it was impossible.
When people ask me how I survived growing up in Texas, I always admit that it sucked, but that I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. Hell, my family loved and supported me without restraint (or sanity, at times). I earned every one of those (scary and stupid and sexy) experiences and they shaped me as a writer and a man. I also remind them that all those stubborn right-wingers believe that rules don’t apply to them, that Texas is its own country and any Yankee who doesn’t like it better bring a shotgun. The same fierce tenacity, independence, and pride that sent a bunch of goons out rowing in a pickup truck gave me the cojones to cut bait and haul my butt to NYC at age 16, and then London, and whole mess of other places I’d never expected to live. I’m proud of growing up there, and for out-growing it as well.