Tuesday, June 29, 2010

LGBT Only Please

I made a comment, only partly joking, on Facebook that I am not comfortable referring to myself as an LGBT person. It sounds too much like something you would order on whole wheat toast at the local coffee shop. A friend replied that if I don’t like the LGBT label, how would I refer to inclusive events? The more I pondered that the more I kept coming back to the same thought – shouldn’t we just refer to them as “all inclusive events”? After all, no matter how many initials we add to the acronym, inevitably we are going to leave somebody out. The problem with simply opening up an event to everyone is that we sometimes don’t really want everyone there.

There’s no easy way to say this. No matter how many gender identities, sexual orientations, affectional preferences, or whatever we add to the list, there is one that is not invited to the party. Heterosexuals. Or at least, heterosexuals who are not friendly to everyone else on the list. Maybe we should just be honest and refer to such events and organizations as non-heterosexual. Then I would know, as a non-heterosexual man, that I am included.

But in this era of post-racial, post-gender, post-discrimination harmony, is there even a need to differentiate between gay and straight or any other sexual identity? Of course there is. For one thing, we are not yet post- anything. Our biases are alive and well if not more subtle.

More importantly, we non-heterosexuals have built a community over the decades. We have our own culture, our own humor, our own heroes and stars and common dreams. Maybe this cultural identity is the product of being marginalized in the past or maybe it isn’t. But it exists. Just as ethnic and geographic communities celebrate and preserve their culture, we should too.

And just as there are subcultures within broader groups, for example, Colombians within the larger Latino community, the LGBTAQXYZ… community has it’s own subcultures. I am a gay man. I identify as a gay man. I frequent locales that cater to gay men. I sometimes like to be in the exclusive company of other gay men and at other times I like to be in the exclusive company of gay men and lesbians. That doesn’t mean I have a problem fitting into broader society but I’m glad I have options.

Which brings me to camping once again. No, I’m not trying to make camping a metaphor for my life any more than I am trying to make the Whacked out Mailman or the Gypsy Sisters a metaphor for my neighborhood. These things just seem to naturally come up over and over.

This weekend I will be camping with my camping buddy and some friends at a gay campground in the Poconos. An acquaintance who had invited himself to tag along has managed to obtain a site of his own and has informed us that he is inviting a straight couple to join him. The camp policy is vague on this matter. They refer to themselves  as a private, members-only, alternative campground which caters to gay and lesbian clientele 18 years of age or older.

It would seem that there is no rule against what the acquaintance has done, but it does seem to violate a general consensus that we have some places which are ours alone and it is not appropriate to bring others in. Well at least I think that is still the consensus. I suppose it could be a fossilized idea that I’ve carried forward from the dark ages of the gay movement when the only places we could be ourselves were exclusively gay and hidden from the rest of the world

I’m prepared to admit that there is an argument to be made that living our lives fully in the open without the need for our own separate venues is a sign of progress. But I wonder how other identity groups would feel if their meeting halls and festivals and private clubs were overrun by outsiders. How would they feel if the identity of their institutions were diluted to the point of irrelevance?

I’m just not ready to give away my gay camping experience yet.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Stonewall and the First Gay Pride Parade

It was a pleasant early summer evening in 1969 and I was settling into my new apartment in New York City. I hadn’t even stayed at Carnegie-Mellon for my commencement; I couldn’t spend another day in Pittsburgh. As I marked the spot on the wall where I planned to hang a poster, my roommate David slouched in. He had been a college chum and his dad, a shipping tycoon, was heavily subsidizing our small apartment on Horatio Street in the West Village. Poor David. He was such a hopeless mess. He knew how to score injectable drugs in any neighborhood in the city, but couldn’t get a woman to talk to him for more than 15 seconds.

“Hey Johnson (sic). You’ll never guess what’s happening. The fags are rioting.”

The poster swung down from it’s single anchor point and rocked back and forth. I wasn’t out to David. I had barely acknowledged to myself that I was gay. I made a lame excuse about needing something from the deli and headed out to the corner of Christopher and Greenwhich Ave, the crossroads of gay America.

The famous uprising at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, where patrons – led bravely by the drag queens in residence – had fought back against a routine police raid, had occurred the night before, but there were aftershocks for several days. When I arrived there were trash cans on fire and people darting around sometimes with police in pursuit. At one point a cop ran towards me waving his baton overhead. I instinctively flattened myself against the plate glass window of a jewelry store and he ran past me. I don’t know if it was my clever dodge that spared me or whether he wasn’t after me in the first place.

The aftermath of the riots was electric. We came together as a community with the certainty that we would never back down again. We were energized and politicized. Within a few weeks we formed the GLF, the Gay Liberation Front, and adopted the Greek letter lambda, used in physics to represent energy, as our symbol. Lambda flags soon flew from window sills throughout the Village.

I came out to David. He took some nihilistic delight in knowing of my “flaw” yet managed to find something in it to further confirm his own hopeless condition. He began complaining on a daily basis that gay men could get laid much easier than straight men. I assured him that it was not so. Following one such recurrence of this tiresome exchange, I left him alone in the apartment as I headed out to one of our local bars for a few beers. By chance a new tenant from upstairs was on the elevator and we began to chat. We talked for a while in the lobby and I invited him up to my apartment for a drink.

When we came in, David looked at his watch in agitation, screamed “Shit!” and stormed into his room, slamming the door behind him.

“What was that all about?” my new friend asked. “He’s straight,” I replied.

The GLF was an odd collection of hippies, radicals, fresh-faced boys from the Midwest, and just about everything else. Everything except women. During one discussion of how to coax lesbians to join our group, someone suggested that we invite them to our next demonstration and someone else suggested that they could bring sandwiches. Then the discussion veered off on a tangent about allowing warlocks to have more voice in our decisions.

The GLF faded into obscurity but a new group, the Gay Activists Alliance, took it’s place. To commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a huge parade and rally was planned. It was held on June 28, 1970 and has been an annual event in New York and in many other cities around the world ever since.

Nobody knew exactly what to expect at that first parade. But as thousands upon thousands of people showed up to march, many of us were in tears, overcome by pride, gratitude, and joy. Our voices joined together, strong and determined. “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight.”

We marched from Christopher Street up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park where there was a massive rally in Sheep Meadow. My friends and I were near the front of the parade so we scrambled up a huge rock in the park to watch everyone else arrive. They kept coming and coming. Nobody could believe how many of us there were. The rest of that afternoon is a hazy memory of something like a renaissance fair, a family reunion, a love-in. It was a transformational moment.

As the years passed, and after I had moved away from New York, I still returned from time to time to watch the parade. The best part for me was seeing the joy on the faces of the young men and women who were attending their first gay pride march. I relived the joy I had felt at my first gay pride parade, the first gay pride parade, and felt wonderful again.

I could tell you about how the rallies in recent years have lost some of the spontaneity and intensity of the early marches. After all, I am the Bitter Old Queen and it’s my duty to bitch about how things ain’t like the good old days. I could rant about how the funnel cake, gyro, and bootleg CD booths have made gay pride rallies little different from any run-of-the-mill block party, but I won’t.

This is Gay Pride Week and nothing will take away the sheer joy of how far we have come and the certainty that we will never go back into the closet again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Breaking Up with an Imaginary Friend

I was thinking about my friend Robby. About how we enjoy sailing together on the Chesapeake, how he teaches me the finer points about wine, and how irritated I was when he brought his new dog over to the house and it immediately jumped up on the kitchen counter and broke my favorite coffee mug. Then I remembered that I haven’t seen Robby in over six years and that the last time we went sailing was around 1985. The intervening years had just collapsed, as if that long gap didn’t exist. In my mind, there’s a thin line between the distant past and yesterday.

My world is populated by people from my past. I have conversations with them, I give them advice, I count on them to be sympathetic when I’m down. Only on occasion do I acknowledge that they are not here. I think it might be a trait of lonely people. We have imaginary friends when we are children. In adulthood we are not supposed to have relationships with imaginary people. We become too cognizant that therein lies the world of madness. We have seen such people wandering the streets, having animated conversations with invisible companions. That is a road we do not allow ourselves to travel. Eliminating the voids of time that separate us from friends we were once close to, allows us the equivalent of imaginary friends without necessarily crossing the line into mental illness.

But now there is a more acceptable form of surrogate friendship – the online buddy or Facebook “friend”. With the click of a mouse we can collect a network of friends most of whom we know very little about and most likely will never encounter in person. We can regale these friends with the daily events of our lives, links to the oddball internet sites we have found (always forgetting that thousands of other people are disseminating the very same links), and basking in the support and praise that our pretend friends will be sure to lavish on us.

But unlike ghosts of friends or imaginary friends, our online surrogate friends can be very fickle. There are unwritten rules of etiquette and failure to adhere to these rules results in immediate expulsion from the circle. Apparently one of the rules is that you must never respond to a comment with anything that could be construed as disagreement, or worse, sarcasm. So when I read a comment from one of my Facebook friends – one who I actually met in person before becoming friends on line – trashing the MTA for service cuts, the ingredients were in place for an eventual clash.

The friend’s comments were long on whining and very short on facts. If there’s one thing the Bitter Old Queen can not tolerate, it is intellectual laziness. If you’re going to trash something at least take a few minutes to gather some information. In the case of our transit agency, a public non-profit operating authority, all of the financial information is on their web site. So even if it is not obvious to my cyber friend that, by definition, a non-profit agency is not making big profits at the expense of it’s customers, he could have checked the plausibility of his rant by a quick review of the financial statements.

In all events, by calling him on his assertions I crossed a line. One never disagrees with a friend, even when said friend is barely a casual acquaintance. He responded by deleting me from his friends’ list. I no longer see his presence on my home page, and I presume I have become invisible, or rather, nonexistent, to him. Well, so be it. My Facebook screen is now somewhat less cluttered with annoying whining and duplicate links to “must see” and “really funny” sites. One less person posting every detail of his mundane life as if it could possibly be interesting to anyone else. One less person basking in the adoration of his assumed fans.

I know my sailing buddy Robby will agree with me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Spoiler

On my first day at college I was herded, along with the other incoming freshmen, into a cavernous lecture hall where we were given the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The MMPI is a battery of 500 true-false statements which rank you on a dozen scales with names like the Hysteria Scale, the Psychopathic Deviate Scale, and the Paranoia Scale. It creates a psychological profile by comparing your responses to national averages.

There were some memorable statements in the MMPI. Things like “At times I feel like smashing things” and  "I have had peculiar and disturbing experiences that most other people have not had" and “I am a secret agent of God”. (Years later I learned that some of the items, like the secret agent one, were used to determine if the overall results were valid. Presumably if you said you were a secret agent of God you were either not taking the test seriously or you were so psychotic that you needed a different test.)

There was one statement on the MMPI that struck me with such force that I remember its exact wording to this day. “Just when I’m finally starting to have a good time, somebody comes along and spoils all my fun.” I circled True. But I never expected that the somebody would turn out to be a something and that the something in question would be my health insurance company.

I recently changed health insurance providers. My old company raised the monthly premium to well over $1000. New York state law requires that all insurance companies doing business in the state must provide individual direct pay policies to residents who do not receive insurance through their employer or other group source. It further prescribes the coverage and prohibits denial for pre-existing conditions. The New York Insurance Commission even publishes a web site which compares the cost of these premiums.

So when I saw that one company offers the same basic package as everyone else for $400 less per month, I jumped on it. As it turns out, the old adage is still true: you get what you pay for. On paper I still have the same coverage as I had with the more expensive plan. It’s the implementation that is killing me. They do this in two ways – referrals and prescriptions.

I developed an eye infection while travelling in Mexico. When I returned, my doctor sent me to an eye doctor to have it treated. But he couldn’t send me to any eye doctor. It had to be a doctor who participated in the plan and not many do. I was referred to a practice located at the extreme eastern reaches of Queens, one hour and 15 minutes by three different subway lines, then a twenty minute walk. Why don’t any eye doctors closer to home participate in the plan? In the words of my own doctor, it’s because my plan “sucks”.

Prescriptions have become a nightmare. The antibiotic eye drops took three weeks to be approved. Rather than risk blindness, I coughed up $118 of my own money to buy them. The situation was worse for my anti-cholesterol drug. I have been taking Crestor for over five years with excellent results but the new insurance company won’t pay for it. They have Prevastat on their formulary list, one of the first ever cholesterol medications. It is so old that if pharmaceuticals were given copyrights instead of patents it would be in the public domain. It also has some nasty side effects. Within days of beginning the Prevastat I became overwhelmed with fatigue. Then the muscle and joint pain began. Four days later I could barely walk. I called my doctor and he told me to stop taking the drug immediately. Apparently it was causing my muscles to disintegrate and the next phase would have been kidney failure. Thank you, insurance company.

I’m feeling much better now and back on Crestor. In fact I’m feeling so well that I am about to walk to the gym and workout for the first time in two weeks. Now that I am finally starting to have a good time again, I wonder who, or what, is lurking out there waiting to spoil all my fun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Miss" Colombia

Now that I am retired I am not beholden to any set schedule. I can come and go whenever I like so I usually avoid travelling on major holiday weekends. Unfortunately most of my friends do not enjoy the same freedom. In order to accommodate my camping buddy’s inflexible work schedule I found myself on the road this past Memorial weekend. It was our first camping trip of the season and we had chosen to return to a gay camping resort we had enjoyed last year.

The highlight of the weekend was to be the Miss Colombia pageant. If you’re not familiar with pageants at a gay venue some explanation is in order. Anything with the word “miss” in the title means it will be a drag queen event. The Miss Colombia pageant is a competition between Latino (Latina?) female impersonators loosely based on the Miss America competition. It is also the busiest weekend of the year at the host campground.

Camp Oneida in northeast Pennsylvania was the first gay campground in the mid Atlantic. It was founded by a retired high school science teacher 30 years ago, the same year that I cofounded the Philadelphia Gay Outdoor Club. In its early years the camp was smaller and very primitive – no pool, no flush toilets, and only two outdoor showers which seldom had hot water. But it did have an amphitheater, actually a hill with a makeshift stage at the bottom, and it did have a resident drag queen, Ernestine, who lip synched badly to a song called “Roll me over in the clover”. She ended every show storming off the stage vowing never to return as the campers threw fruit at her.

Ernestine and Old John, the spiritual guru and former owner, are long gone. The new owners have greatly expanded the camp, added amenities like a heated in-ground pool, café, and most importantly, an entertainment complex with a stage, professional sound system and lighting. The quality of the drag queens has improved greatly also.

I made the reservations months ago. I had my list of preferred sites in hand when I called. Sites that we had camped on before or that I had deemed acceptable when I surveyed the entire camp. One by one the woman at the office rejected my requests. She told me that on such a busy weekend she could not put only two campers on such large sites. She suggested that we camp down by the lower pond, an area not normally used as a site but pressed into service for this one special weekend. She thought that maybe two tents could be squeezed in if they were not very large tents.

My tent is huge. It is big enough for two queen air mattresses and I can stand up full height in the center of it. My camping buddy has a more modest tent but we still need room for the screened pavilion, and space to set up an outdoor kitchen. I would bring even more but I have reached the maximum capacity of my pickup truck.

I called several times over the past few months trying to convince them to move us to a larger site. They wouldn’t budge. Finally, late last week, they said we could move to another site if we were willing to share with three other people. They agreed to let me decide once I arrived and had a chance to look over our lower pond location as well as the new option.

Thank heavens they never moved us from the pond. Look at the difference between our site (right) and the field where most of the campers were set up (above). (My camping buddy did not want to be in the picture but you can still see part of his thumb; he had it over the lens.)

I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Oneida on a Memorial weekend again. It was just too crowded. There were several power blackouts, the water pressure fell so low that one of the two bathhouses had to be closed resulting in long lines to take a shower under a trickle of cold water, and it was loud. Apparently gay Latinos love to play salsa very loud all day and all night. Since the pond was somewhat removed from the fray, the music was slightly subdued but the bullfrogs made up for any lull in the din. Thank you, camping buddy, for the ear plugs.