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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Let’s Enchant This Garden

Once upon a time, I was a mouse. More specifically, I was in sixth grade performing a role in a play. My partner, a close friend, and I recently watched my performance on the surprisingly-not-so-grainy VHS tape my mother has saved since 1981. I, as mouse, discovered some of the world’s wonders as I ventured out for the first time on my own. My large, round pink ears flopped when I hit my spot and exclaimed in my pre-pubescent voice: “An enchanted garden! How lovely!”

The role couldn’t have fit anyone better than it fit me. I wasn’t acting so much as letting others in on my act. I remember loving the warm rush of excitement of being on stage with everyone focused on me. I stood in the spotlight and practiced pretty flawless comic timing. I was just being myself, nelly as the day is long, and for once, and for a very brief time, I wasn’t stopping myself.

From 30 years away, I’m amazed that none of my classmates at that time made fun of me for acting flamboyantly and obliviously gay. Maybe my openness won them over–the “what” of my identity didn’t matter because the “how” was so damn fabulous?

Perhaps. But the what was and is incredibly important to me (though I won’t deny how fabulous I am at it). Which is why I’m surprised to find some of my fellow queers avoiding specifics in their self-declarations. They’re coming out as themselves, but no aspect of their identities is more important than any other.

Hmmm.

The point of Coming Out Day is to do it your own way, so I shouldn’t judge. But…even more important than how one comes out is the what one comes out as. Regardless of the terminology, today is a day to celebrate being queer. If you have no other day when you don’t have to hide or blend in, this is the day to step out and say what makes you you in terms of sexuality and/or gender. This is not a day for veiled language. This is not a day for celebrating metrosexuals.

The world is our garden, too. Take root, queers and allies. Bring on the enchantment, openly and vigorously. How fucking lovely!

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Threats, Contamination, Hallelujah

As a young queer, I read Dale Peck’s novel Martin and John. John escapes abuse, meets Martin, and suffers the loss of the person and love he’s found. The only detail that stays in my memory is blood in a yellow vinyl chair, “like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk.” The threat of contamination runs throughout the novel: that the past will contaminate the present, that men infected with HIV will die before they’ve fully lived.

That’s an oversimplification of what the novel is “about,” nevertheless what it achieves, but the threat was certainly on my mind when I read it in the mid-90s. I was in my early 20s, newly out, and afraid of losing the freedom and happiness I’d gained by escaping the closet. Someone might beat me up outside a bar. A virus might kill me. Avoiding these threats–keeping them away from my life and body–was up to me. If I failed, I was to blame.

The stakes were much higher than in my own life, which was a relief, but the novel spoke to my experience metaphorically and thematically. The details didn’t matter because it a work of art I could find myself in. Reading Martin and John was the first time I got to experience that. The feeling remains with me almost two decades later.

End of The(ir) World

I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into Rapture-mocking. It’s fun, and, I mean, what do I have to lose? If it actually happens at 6pm today, I was going to hell anyway. If it doesn’t happen, then my dinner plans at 7:15pm are a go, and I can share a see-it-didn’t happen toast with them, although we’ll likely have better things to discuss.

Meanwhile, to get in the spirit, I’m doing what everyone else seems to be doing: posting songs that allude to or center on the end of the world or, more generally, on endings. There are some great ones. My favorite is Matt Alber’s straightforwardly titled “End of the World,” which uses the ending as a simile. Major conflict and change threaten his relationship, but isn’t the staying together worth the struggle, he asks. Isn’t the struggle simply part of life and love?

While I’m sure Alber invites anyone to put her-/himself in the persona’s place, he’s gay, and in the video he does a gorgeous slow dance with a man. Unashamed, public displays of affection between men is the kind of “sign” that Rapturites believe indicates the end of the world is near, as does increased acceptance of LGBT people. Their exclusionary beliefs on earth will be justified when they rise and co-mingle with Jesus and the dead, or some version of that.

It won’t be the end of The World, just the end of their world. As more of us queer folks reveal who we are (actors, athletes, solders–oh my!), and as the people who love us openly accept us, the vicious lies fundamentalists tell about us lose power. Sure, we’re as humanly sex-obsessed as heterosexual people, but we also long for tenderness. We enjoy a slow dance, a dip punctuated by a sweet kiss. Some people have been obsessing about terrible ends. My people long for happy beginnings.

Standing on Larry Kramer’s Lawn

In a very recent interview to promote the revival of his play The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer accuses young gay men today of not caring about their history. Thomas Rogers challenges Kramer’s suggestion that lack of concern for history is unique to this generation, and offers his own experience to indicate that youth’s ignorance isn’t necessarily willful.

What’s surprising is that Kramer, who has a history of accusing people they don’t care about gay history, seems to get Rogers’ message, and the interview becomes an interesting and (kind of) endearing conversation about such macro-yet-micro topics as marriage equality and the difficulty older gay men face finding sex partners. And there’s a fascinating exchange about Kramer’s ongoing feud with Ed Koch, who lives in his building. Clearly, Kramer holds grudges, and it’s hard not to wonder how much of his famous anger stems from his personality rather than injustice. But I sense there’s more to him, that maybe he’s not simply shouting at the youth of today (read: anyone younger than he is) to get off his lawn.

The problem with gay men today, Kramer and Rogers come to agree, is that we currently lack a widespread life-or-death problem like HIV/AIDS was in the early 80s. Kramer remarks that there was a “special glow of importance” during that time, and Rogers says that, after seeing Kramer’s play, he felt a “perverse nostalgia for those early AIDS years [I] never lived through. They were obviously utterly terrifying and filled with sadness, but there’s also something appealing about having this galvanizing issue to unite gay men. We don’t have that as much now.”

This kind of myth is common and powerful, and not just in the LGBT community: Once upon a time, our group (pick any group) had a common enemy, and we united to fight it/them. We worked hard. We didn’t fight among ourselves. Life was beautiful then, but now, we’re a mess. The distance created by elapsed time or lack of firsthand experience really fucks with people’s depth perception.

I have some firsthand knowledge of those days that time hasn’t let me forget. I remember a lot of confusion and pain. We worried about stopping the spread of infection, although we weren’t sure that HIV was really the cause of AIDS. We resented that no one in the mainstream seemed to give a shit about the disease until kids became infected through transfusions.

Those of us not at the head of the movement who hadn’t had the resources and/or cowardice to flee mid-size cities or rural areas, lacked the “special glow of importance” Kramer recalls. We just wanted to keep our friends from dying. We wanted the luxury of taking them for granted rather than savoring every mundane moment in case it was the last.

Far from there being a glow, we lived in a shadow of suspicion of everyone, straight and queer, as if no amount of prophylaxis or abstinence would prevent us from contracting the disease. We struggled to push away the belief that we were worthless faggots who deserved to die. Continue reading

“Ooo-They’re-Gay” Jokes Are Still Cutting-Edge 1980s Comedy

I overheard an offensive-to-me joke–that ole chestnut about insulting two presumably heterosexual men by insinuating they’re a couple. It’s the kind of “humor” that closet cases and straight people who are insecure about their own relationships use to feel better about themselves, blending the ick factor with a dash of gay panic. I do remember that shit seemed fresh in the locker room back in junior high, and did my best to laugh along. (My time in the junior high locker room was all about trying but failing to cover what made me ashamed.)

Instead of simply fuming about the latest telling of this joke, I got a chance to respond directly and in writing. Having some time to puzzle over the situation was helpful, as it usually is for how my brain processes information. I’m all for bringing the funny, and people have a right to say what they want. I’m even open to being the butt of a joke that’s actually funny. (Ha! I just said “butt.”) But when your tired words and ideas enter my airspace, prepare to engage. Free speech is about as multi-player as you can get.

The topic is important to plenty of people other than me in this age of openly pursued “bromances,” which are decidedly “no-homo” in contrast to civil unions or marriages, but not as “no-homo” as plain ole friendship. Gay panic seems to be cooling into gay anxiety, for some, at least. I encourage them to get help with that cultural shit. I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t.

For what it’s worth, I offer the bulk of my letter here, without identifiers, to inspire, entertain, infuriate, and/or bore my dear readers. Or pick a verb of your very own. Continue reading

Late Stages

It’s the little moments that matter.

One day, when I was about five years old, I heard the door bell ring. My father had taken his motorcycle around the block to road test a repair. He’d told me to stay in the house, keep the doors locked, and not let anyone in. He’d be right back. I’d heard him drive off only a few minutes before. But I was five. I couldn’t see outside, and I wanted to know who was there, the insistence of the rapidly ringing doorbell undermining my father’s command.

I turned the knob and struggled to open the door, as a butler must feel opening the front door of a grand estate. On the front stoop, my father stood, breathing hard and shivering slightly. One sleeve of his grimy, weekend t-shirt was ripped apart, and his jeans were torn away in various places up and down his legs. The holes revealed bloody wounds, and drying blood trailed from his scalp down his face, down to his neck in some places. Red seeped through cotton and denim. Life seemed to be oozing out of him. Even though he was standing there, eyes open, I assumed he must have been dead.

As he opened the screen door, I backed out of the way, afraid to make a sound as he stomped past. I can’t remember what happened immediately after that. He probably went to the bathroom to tend to his wounds. I’ve lost the part of the story between feeling frightened and then, later that day, learning that he’d lost control when his motorcycle skidded on cinders. When I started riding a bike around the neighborhood a few years later, I had the same problem, only I knew to anticipate dangers like that. I had much to learn from, and even more to learn about, my father, who’d come back to life.

*****

Dad had survived death at least once before. When he was 13, while staying with his grandparents, he was filling a lawnmower with gasoline and, somehow, the gasoline ignited. The left leg of his jeans caught fire. His grandmother ran to him and smothered the fire with her apron, but not before he’d suffered third-degree burns on his leg, and resulting in second-degree burns for her. If she hadn’t been nearby and moved so quickly, Dad might have burned to death, and I might not exist.

His recovery involved the healing of his wounds, of course, but he also had to learn to walk again. He was not a patient patient. He snapped at people who tried to help him. His grandfather had to give him a talking-to. Dad got the message. He cooperated, healed, walked. The episode became a powerful memory that stayed with him.

*****

I’m not, as some people might assume, thinking about all of this because of Dad’s recent diagnosis: lung cancer, stage four. Sure, he’s on my mind more lately, but the past weaves itself into every moment. The present serves as a filter.

Some people would, and perhaps will, use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. He’s strong; he’s always been a fighter; etc. And while all of that’s true, I’m much more interested in my father as a person, who experiences joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments.

*****

For my first 20 years, I thought Dad must have been ashamed of me. He stayed busy with work and volunteer activities. During the time we spent together, he explained things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting. And I was a huge sissy. Continue reading

My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  Continue reading

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