I don’t remember telling any, but I would not be surprised if I had. Surely I heard gay jokes, although back then they might have been homo, or possibly fag or pansy jokes. I do remember being with a group yelling what I am sure many thought were witty remarks at an effeminate boy in our high school. I was mute. If they would have been anti-Semitic or racial comments, I might have objected, but I did not try to stop the not-completely-understood homophobic remarks. This is not one of my proudest childhood memories.
Mostly, however, in my childhood and beyond, as far as I knew, gays did not exist. This changed when I became a public defender and I met gays. Some were gay prostitutes whose clients seemed often to be truckers from New Jersey who drove through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan. As with other prostitutes, I wondered about their lives and could not imagine that theirs was a satisfying existence.
A few times I learned a client not charged with prostitution was gay because his sexuality was integral to his defense. The charge might have been robbery or burglary, and the client would say that he had been in some sort of homosexual relationship with the supposed victim, who often had a respectable status or job. The defendant would claim that he had been promised money or other goodies from the complainant. The pledged largesse was not forthcoming, and the client would say that he taken money or a TV out of the complainant’s home, and he was only taking what he was due.
I remember my jail visit the first time I represented someone in such a case. The client gave me his version of the events telling me he was gay and that the complainant was a closeted, fearful gay. The client seemed eager that I understand better. He was dressed in prison garb. He said, “I want you to see how I really look.” He pulled out a picture of himself in drag with full makeup. “This me. Don’t I look pretty?” I did not know how to respond. I had seen Milton Berle and other TV comedians dressed up in female clothing. I was always amazed at what seemed to be the unrestrained, raucous response of the studio audience upon seeing a man in woman’s clothing. I just thought it was stupid. Now, I was holding a picture of the person sitting across a metal table from me who was dressed in drag. I did not know how to respond. I knew that it was not funny. I knew I was uncomfortable (but why?). I think I mumbled “Yes” in response, and I thought that my 1960s boyhood in a small midwestern town had not really prepared me for this.
The gay men I defended all fit into a prejudice I held without even thinking about it. Homosexuals were outsiders. They stood apart from my “normal” society. George changed that.
George, another public defender, was my office mate in those public-defender days. We got friendly by talking across our desks about cases, defendants, prosecutors, judges, and our colleagues. Comfortable with each other, we became friends outside the office. For several Thanksgivings the spouse and I went to his mother’s house. There was a lot of scotch and new traditions. George was Lebanese-American. We did have turkey, but only after many Middle-Eastern dishes. The most memorable was beautiful raw lamb–which George’s mom would only buy from one particular butcher–drizzled with olive oil. This took me back to my childhood. My family had no idea what steak tartare was, but we had as a regular treat what we un-euphemistically called raw hamburger. I loved it on rye bread, topped with uncooked onion and much black pepper. And I found that I loved raw, ground lamb, too.
After a couple years of friendship, George told me that he was gay. Four decades ago, this was a huge deal. George, who was nearing forty, said that I was the first straight person that he had come out to, and he was the first person I knew, other than those clients, who acknowledged being gay.
The spouse and I joined George again at his mother’s for Thanksgiving a few weeks after his announcement to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, George picked that holiday to tell his mother and brother about his sexuality. I could tell that something was different. The friendly, bantering family atmosphere to which the spouse and I had been welcomed was now quiet, sullen, and tense.
George later told me his mother was shocked when he first told her that he was gay, and she refused to believe it. However, over time her love for her son won out and she came to some sort of acceptance. The brother, on the other hand, could never accept who George was and basically disowned George from that day on. I don’t think that the two ever talked again.
George, who had hidden his life from me for the first years that I had known him, now welcomed me into more of his activities. I hung out with him near his apartment at various Greenwich Village gay spots, which early in the evening were like any neighborhood restaurant or bar—guys shooting pool or laughing over a beer. Later at night, however, the places often transformed into identifiable gay places. George would gladly introduce me around almost as if he were happy to show off a straight friend to those who kept hidden their sexuality from those who were not gay. These men were friendly, but I was often a bit uncomfortable. Often sexual images that made me uncomfortable were projected on the walls, drugs were prevalent, and George’s friends were uncomfortable themselves in talking to a straight man. (Once or twice, the spouse went to these spots, too. When a bartender would spot her, he would embarrassedly turn off the projector although the slide shows of good-looking men sucking each other’s dicks made her much less uncomfortable than they did me.)
(concluded June 26)