When I see an especially sexy man I capture and preserve him the way some people collect butterflies. Oh, I don’t dab camphor on his head, run him through with a pin and stick him to a board (though I’ve been sorely tempted). Rather, I capture his image in my mind, add a drop of mental fixative and file him away for future review. If he’s a rare specimen, unusually compelling in some way, I write a description of him, add it to the others in my red three-ring binder.
Thus I have preserved in ink the man who stood on tip toe in tank top, shorts and shapely thighs to replace a light bulb in a Pride Fest vendor’s tent, stretched muscled arms up overhead as if to bridge the gap ’twixt heaven and earth. Thus I can call up the image of a shirtless farm boy, out of college for the summer, working the roadside vegetable stand with his father, relaxed, easy among the melons. Thus I can envision the actor in a community theatre production who stumbled on stage in a tight white t-shirt and navy blue pants, barefoot, bound, bleeding. Beaten down time and again, he rose to his feet, chest heaving, shirt ripped, expression both defiant and resigned.
Maybe it’s because I don’t see many men that I hold onto the ones I do. By choice, I live in the rural Midwestern United States, work at a small production company a couple miles from home. My husband commutes to work in the city, does our shopping while he’s there. No need for me to get out. By choice we live without television, VCR, DVDs, cell phones, cable, internet connection. We turn our attention instead to each other and to various projects, plants, animals and books. There are ample pay-offs. There are trade-offs, as well. When it comes to sexy men other than my husband, I get little in the way of visual stimulation—photo books of artful male nudes, calendars featuring the work of these same photographers and the pictures I carry in my head.
For me, it’s much the same story with regards to the gay community. Connections close to home are hard to come by in this conservative part of the country and complicated by my Luddite leanings. Concerns for physical safety, job security and personal reputation persuade many GLBT persons to remain closeted or keep a low profile. Around here, pressure to marry a person of the opposite sex is high. Many gay persons have and do. Clandestine rendezvous for sexual expression often take precedence over other forms of community-building. These were the messages my husband and I heard during the three years we facilitated a monthly support/discussion group in our home for local gay men. The group—never large to begin with—dwindled and eventually folded.
While our gay friends are close to our hearts, their houses are far from ours. Once a month my husband and I drive to the capital city, a trip about 30 times that of my daily commute. There we attend a gay discussion/support group with three bosom companions. One weekend a year we attend a gay men’s retreat. Other get-togethers dot the year, most held far from our home. For us, gay community is encapsulated, comes in discrete doses. It’s not something we get all the time.
I was mindful of this recently when we made a long drive to crash a party some friends were hosting for their city’s LGBT social/education/advocacy group. About 20 people attended, men and women, some single, some partnered, some with children in tow. There were retirees, professional types, working stiffs and the currently unemployed. There was the flaming queen with his enclyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema, the master gardener, clerics, professors, an artist, the bartender and weekend deejay at a local gay club. There was laughter, power tool-talk, jokes, prattle, warmth, show tunes, sarcasm. There was good food, earnest discussion and more.
I savored these moments as they transpired and pinned butterflies in my mind all the while. Two men lustily singing the Munchkin chorus from Wizard of Oz. Another telling about the office party he hosted, pretending his partner was the hired help—and the woman angling for his affection who wasn’t fooled by this subterfuge.
The obvious love and respect the gardener has for the earth. The curate “between cures” struggling to find a place he can call home. The Marlene Dietrich impressionist. The lesbian protesting she does know something about interior decorating, that her home proves it. The kids moving amongst the hubbub with easy grace.
I store up these memories so I can take them out to look at later. To sustain me through the long dry spells when community seems a chimera, mirage, impossible dream.
I don’t think this is a feeling unique to GLBT people. We live in an era when in living memory air conditioning lured people off front porches and into secluded living rooms, when radio and television replaced community pageants and sing-alongs, and cable cemented the deal, when increasingly, internet connections reconfigure face-to-face interaction, and do-it-yourself religion empties edifices of faith.
Oh, I know there are bonds of community that support me and keep me safe, as easy to ignore and disremember as the highway bridges I sail over without thought of those whose work carries me across the waters. I know I breathe air once inhaled by GLBT pioneers; that their labors and those of many others have sent ripples into the world whose current touches me, carries me along. I am grateful.
At the same time, I am not satisfied. I want more than a whiff of unseen community. I want the connectivity of my childhood. I want the taste of Evelyn Fox’s apple pie at potluck dinners. I want the wrinkled hand of church patriarch Charlie Hough tousling my hair. I want what I saw every summer at my grandparents’ home amongst the pine forests, bogs and lakes of northern Minnesota.
All their lives my grandparents breathed an almost palpable sense of community. They were among the many white families who bought land on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. While Grandpa scraped out a living as a farmer, hunter and woodsman, Grandma kept house, raised children, canned food and welcomed friends who dropped by. My grandparents lived seven miles out of Deer River along the road that runs up to Northome and Squaw Lake. They lived for a long time without electricity, indoor plumbing, an automobile. They lived in a time and place when everyone knew everyone else’s name—and business—for miles around.
Folks helped one another out. When Grandpa heard of nearby kids going hungry he’d shoulder his rifle and head into the woods, deer season or not. When fresh venison appeared on their step, the neighbors accepted this bounty graciously and kept their mouths shut, especially when the game warden came nosing about.
Folks made their own fun: community dances, ball games, picnics, parades and more. Grandma belonged to the Happy Hour Club, a gathering of women who lived along the same stretch of road. At monthly meetings they talked and socialized, traded gossip and recipes, worked on group projects that eased the loneliness and isolation that could otherwise overwhelm. One year they all made friendship quilts. Each woman embroidered her signature on a fabric square for each of the others. Each then pieced these blocks together to make her own comforter or quilt. Each was able then to wrap up in, feel the warmth of friendship in a very literal way.
Grandma recently gave me her friendship quilt. I asked her about each of the two dozen women whose autographs it bears, including Mary Daigle (“She was a queer one, Mary was”), Bessie Ploski (“She lived a hard, hard life”) and Katherine Juvalits (“She stood in my yard wringing her hands in her apron, saying, ‘I’ve been hungry, Violet, oh, so hungry’”).
I now spread this quilt of many colors across my lap. To me, it embodies the warmth of community stitched together from the scraps of life people had on hand, marked with their names and personal histories. These were dirt-poor women, neighbors who stood together when times were hard, who celebrated life in creative ways, marked its passage with laughter and tears.
Of necessity, many GLBT folk fashioned similarly courageous, caring communal responses to the ravages of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. While they, too, stitched together a quilt—expression and emblem of pain, loss, hope—I remained oblivious. I was married, raising children, focused on my conservative church-related career and activities.
I knew as much about the GLBT community as did my mother. Our mutual sources of information were the fundraising letters and radio broadcasts of the religious right. We imagined a vast, organized, legal, political and social conspiracy of hell-bound opportunists who recruited naïfs (like me, say) to further a hedonistic agenda to destroy society.
I turned 35 before I realized I am gay. Before I turned 36, I realized Mom and I had it all wrong. I found no organized network of contacts waiting to greet me with open arms, offer acceptance, support, warmth and fellowship, show me the ropes, help me find my wings. I found no such ready-made security blanket.
Instead, I pieced together fabric gathered from various sources. I joined online and face-to-face support groups. I went to gay bars, pride parades, gay-themed theatre, concerts. I cried as the women’s chorus sang, We who believe in freedom cannot rest, as the men’s chorus intoned, There is no map for where we go…we’re not lost, we’re here. I attended church services of a denomination founded by and for GLBT people. I involved myself in Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). I read everything I could get my hands on that related to coming out, the GLBT experience.
I found supportive people like Larry and Larry, a retired couple who gave me a taste of what I yearned for. They checked in on me, offered emotional support, fatherly advice, home-cooked meals, even gave me pots and pans, silverware and cooking utensils when they learned how scant were my resources.
I found a straight couple who hosted a weekly spirituality group for GLBT persons, another—parents of a gay son—who sat with me in court during one of the sessions in my protracted divorce and child-custody hearing.
I found people online who were willing to lend a listening ear, sometimes by phone or in the flesh, as well. On a few occasions these latter encounters led to sexual experiences, sometimes invited, sometimes not. I navigated these for-me uncharted waters.
I learned by experience—my own and others. I listened to a friend, editor of a GLBT newspaper, detail the infighting and lack of cohesive community in his city. I heard a man recount his coming out as a teen, the abuse he suffered at the hands of men who were interested only in his body. I learned what I should have already known—perfect community does not exist.
It never has.
The members of the Happy Hour Club reflected the prejudices of their society, their time. They jibed at the Native Americans around them, looked down on anyone deemed less acceptable. They knew Katherine Juvalits stayed with her abusive husband because he stood between her children and hunger, but they turned a blind eye to this and other domestic violence in their midst.
If not in the past, I am sorely tempted to locate ideal community in the future—once the current regime is ousted, once more sensible laws are on the books, once entrenched beliefs give way to more enlightened attitudes.
I am not alone in this. As humans, we keep heaven always before or behind us, so rid ourselves of the responsibility to find or fashion it in the here and now. We avoid having to embrace the present as it is, this world of “scorch and glory,” as poet Mark Doty puts it.
Yet we are human; community gives us back ourselves with all our flaws, paradoxes, and potential for transcendence. Perhaps this is its saving grace. Perhaps in our coming together we save ourselves from coming apart. Community magnifies the potential for magic to happen, for moments that transport us to a perspective beyond ourselves.
Such a moment unfolded for me in the small group meeting my husband and I attended last week in our state’s capital city. In a gritty and honest act, one man spoke the truth of his experience in a way that left me gawping at his honesty, insight, daring. I felt our common humanity, the ways truth-telling offers me opportunities to set aside judgment, meet another in the field that fourteenth-century Persian poet Rumi envisions (in Coleman Barks’ translation), a field out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing.
I treasure such moments, cradle these images, review them in my mind and heart.
We human beings fashion community out of what we have at hand. We can bring no more, no less, to the enterprise than what and who we are. It is enough.
And maybe, just maybe (or is it this gay boy wanting to be special?), we as GLBT people, in bringing ourselves and our ways of living and loving, offer unique lessons in community-building. People who love outside the strictures of their society become adept at creating community out of nothing and less than nothing—out of furtive glances, out of disparate images held in the mind’s eye, in the face of prejudice, in the face of a pandemic, under cover of darkness, under the gaze of repressive authority. The community-building efforts shared among and between GLBT people stand as testament to the creativity, imagination, determination and power of human spirit, to the need that drives us out of ourselves and into the arms of others, to the magic of butterflies and pretty rainbows. Our efforts are not perfect. Far from it. Lives are lost, hearts broken, evil perpetrated. Yet we carry on. We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We carry on. Sustained by faith, by hope, by certainty, by felt community—whether in capsule or time-release form. There is no map for where we go. We carry on. As we do, we offer as exemplars our lives, our loves, our very selves to a world that may or may not be taking notes.
This essay appeared in White Crane, No. 78, fall 2008