Memoir, that ultimate act of narcissism. But I didn’t write HAG to tell tales or throw anybody under the bus or explain why I was such an asshole back in 1992 when I was a full-on raging addict, even though I was. I wrote HAG to celebrate. To tribute. To be a speaker for the dead and regale you with stories about all the cool people who helped me along the way, but who in the end sometimes couldn’t help themselves. HAG is my gift to them. It’s also my own particular survival story. The story of how a label changed perception in an instant. How this change was life-altering in a way I’m still trying to understand. How a damaging label became revelation because I looked at its origins in a different way. I even set aside HAG for an entire year because I felt the need to have a firm definition for my new existence. HAG became my albatross, a giant cartoon boulder hanging over my head. But as in all things, the only constant is change. HAG is a time capsule of my past and how I feel about myself in this moment in this time. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? The only moment we have is right now. Let’s be curious about the future instead of fearful. Isn’t that uncertainty just wonderful because it means we’re creating our own reality moment by precious moment?
Hag. Fag Hag. Fruit Fly. Handbag. Derogatory terms to describe women who hang around gay men. Said with love, but love sprinkled with, “Isn’t she sweet and don’t we feel sorry for her?” Love with copious amounts of, “Bless her heart!” A term with shades of, “She can’t get a man,” poured all over it. Within the stereotype, Hags are ugly, needy, loud, and don’t dress well. We feel sorry for them but don’t mind dancing with them if a cute boy is nearby. Hags are buffers. Beards. Disguises for gay men too shy to be out of the closet. At least that’s how we defined it back in the 1980’s when I earned my “Fag Hag” tiara. Which I changed to just “Hag” because calling out, “Hey Fag!” at the club isn’t cool. It never was. You’re not reclaiming anything, darling, you just hate yourself. My brothers taught me that. For this straight, white woman growing up in Richmond, Virginia, having a dozen or so gay male friends who understood this is the biggest saving grace of my life. Not only did they guide me on makeup, fashion, hair, and the ways of men, but they forced me to look in a mirror and see the deep hard truths for myself. They taught me my value. Or at least tried because no matter how hard they pushed it was up to me to learn the lesson.
Today I hear women calling themselves “Hag” because their pre-Covid bachelorette bacchanal ended up at the drag show. Nope. To be a true Hag, there’s a gauntlet you have to survive. The crown at the finish line may be tarnished, but it’s pure solid gold and better than any tiara from Tiffany’s. Where some folks see condemnation, I see honor. Where they see derogatory, I see congratulatory. In fact, of all the roles I’ve performed: daughter, friend, wife, sister, and yes, even mother to over one hundred kids when they tromped through my classroom, Hag is the one which feels the lightest. It’s the one which has never been hard to carry. Because I know the deeper meaning behind the Urban Dictionary definition. Which is why anytime someone calls me “Hag”, I’m never ashamed. In fact, I stand up a little straighter to be worthy of the title.
Hags have a special kind of connection with their gay men. If a Hag is very lucky? She’ll meet a friend she can’t live without, in fact, the love she feels is like no other. Because he is her best. The one who understands her like no one else. Her Gusband, or “gay husband”. Eternally capitalized for a reason. Because when you have a Gusband, someone you connect to, you experience a kind of mental marriage which is way more intimate. It takes platonic to a whole other level because at any given time, you are their sister, wife, friend, sometimes even their mother or daughter. Maybe you’re even lovers once or twice when you’re figuring shit out or forget or have too much tequila. Sometimes you’re all of these at once. I find it funny every time I ask Hags about their Gusbands it’s like they’ve never really thought about it. How important it is. How they might be less than if they didn’t have it. Unlike conventional marriages, there is no divorce. Hags and Gusbands mate for life. Just like swans. For better or worse, darling. It’s just how it is and how it’s always been.
These relationships are important. Maybe the most important thing. It’s those deep connections which help you survive all those other gauntlets which now seem to arrive every single day. Especially the very worst of gauntlets, death, and how it impacts Chosen Family. A term I use for family whose bonds are not in blood, but in shared experience and the endurance of it. Hags and gays experience death more than most because our friends die before us. Autoimmune disease takes them, early onset cancer takes them, sadness takes them, addiction takes them. We are left to observe, write, and testify about what they meant to us. These friends who shine in stark relief to our own beige existence. Their passing reminds us of life’s transience, how the brightest stars, the most intense lights, blow out first.
Everyone experiences death, but gay folks and Hags? We feel it more. It’s pushed in our faces more. We don’t talk about it, instead covering our pain with shade and jokes and trash talk and a quick wave away of the hands. I don’t have time. What’s on Wendy Williams? Did you see Judge Judy today? Gurl. When does Beyoncé’s new album drop? What are you doing Saturday night? Got any weed? How about a cocktail? What worse, when you’re gay and of a certain age, and sometimes even if you’re not, you find yourself becoming a whole other kind of role. A speaker for the dead. In fact, you find yourself playing this part more than you’d like, maybe even brunching away the pain with double mimosas in the process.
The writer George Hodgman killed himself as I was writing this book, another victim of what my friend Toddles likes to call “The Eternal Sadness of the Gay Man.” A phrase I say more and more as I read the news. I thought it when we lost my friend Dennis. I thought it the day George left us. Depression and suicide, a symptom of the PTSD from the war that is AIDS. It’s real, people. It’s what galvanized me to start writing a book. I considered George a friend, the brand of friend so common now where you share stories and moments from your personal life, but you never actually meet in person. We met when I bought his book Bettyville, devoured it, then hit “Friend Request” with crossed fingers so I could say thank you. George’s response was sardonic and sweet just like his work. I reveled in his political posts, the celebration of his small community in Missouri, and in pictures of his beloved dog, Raj. He offered me writing encouragement when I asked, which was only sometimes. I didn’t want to jeopardize this new mentorship with a lot of fangirling. Even though I wanted to fangirl very much. Because Bettyville is a memoir of genius. His brand of humor coupled with deep pain rang true. His style became something I wanted to emulate. Needless to say, the news of his passing devastated me. The grief was a mixture of sadness for him, for Raj, and for books that would never be. Thanks, George. If you need a spirit guide team to join, I’ve got a spot available.
The first time I read Orson Scott Card’s book, Speaker for the Dead, I was happily married with two cat babies. A teacher who commuted through traffic, ice, and snow like a fucking mailman over an hour each way 40 miles north of Pittsburgh to direct dozens of 13-year-olds through the rigamarole this country considers a proper writing education. We spent most of our time reading test questions and writing little bubbles in circles rather than writing actual words. Still, I tried. We wrote about summer vacations, memorable scars, ATV accidents, birthday parties, and our first bagged deer, probably shot with stepdad. Probably with a bow.
As part of my curriculum, I offered 20 minutes at the end of class to read silently. We only reached this promised land three times a week, but when we did, it was heaven. Twenty minutes where I might relax, maybe even read if the planets aligned. Most kids napped or passed notes, but a few were diehard fans. Studies prove doing a thing makes you better at it, so I pretended my stolen moment of peace was also an essential part of our curriculum. It was during one of these moments I picked up Speaker for the Dead. Science fiction about a boy ordered to be this by his society. Tribute those who have passed. Remember them in a better way than they lived. Card’s writing resonated. For some reason my gut screamed this wasn’t just a novel, but a manual. A manual for my life. This is what I was supposed to do. How? Why? That part was fuzzy. But the “what” was clearer than the clock on the wall indicating this period was about to stop and my class of twenty-one football players was about to start. No time to ruminate on your life’s purpose when volatile hormones who have no interest in books are about to tramp through your door.
I filed it away in my head to ruminate over when the insomnia hit at 3 a.m. A year later Kathryn and Bryan Harvey were brutally murdered in their home along with their two young children. I started a blog just to write about my friends. Someone reminded me of Derick, a friend who’d died tragically very young. I loved Derick and wrote a tribute. My mother passed in 2001 from esophageal cancer. She’d also been a brain trauma victim as the result of a car accident, so I wrote about that. More tributing, and yes, you’ll meet these lovely people further on. All of this felt right, but not complete. It was a searchlight looking for the right space to settle on. I continued to live my life, writing sometimes and giving up teaching for office work when the role of parenting students became too great for my empathic soul. My then-husband and I eventually left Pittsburgh for my Virginia roots.
It was quieter in the foothills outside Charlottesville. My thoughts quieted as well, and nostalgia creeped in alongside the deep, impenetrable country darkness which descended every twilight and which I never got used to. I began to miss my old Gusband, Scott. Everyone calls him Scotty, but he’ll always be Scott to me. We hadn’t spoken for at least a decade by that point because life happens. All that driving through tree-lined country roads got me thinking. Wondering about Richmond. Thinking about Scott and how we’d been so close. Curious if he was still among us or back on his home planet. I missed him. Could writing Scott’s tribute act as a cute “In Search Of” ad? Or would it be an obituary? Despite the fear, my gut screamed don’t wait. Do it now.
Hitting the “Publish” button on my blog felt like a spell of white magic. Like an offered prayer. A wish placed on an altar. We’d been tight for decades, but as with all friendships, people get more aware of themselves and make different choices which don’t always bring them into the same room. Or even the same state. You drift apart and the only thing you have together is memories. Until one day you find yourself wondering. Wondering why your life looks like the neutral palette of your favorite eyeshadow. Wondering whatever happened to your friend, your best friend, your Gusband, who always painted everything in such bright colors then added glitter. You wonder so much you start searching. You start writing.
When Scott moved back to Virginia three years later, we found each other. Hello, Facebook! I discovered my old boss Ted, he forwarded me to Toddles. Yes, Toddles assured me, Scott is alive and well and here is his email. The shenanigans, many included here, haven’t stopped since. If Scott is my Gusband, then Toddles will always be my unbelievably handsome Best Man. The one in your group who’s untouchable and elusive. You know who I’m talking about. The one least understood but most adored. He probably has dimples and will never age but always be 21 even when he’s 85.
For four years it was like the old days. You know how you run into friends and pick up where you left off? It was like that. Then came Labor Day, 2016. The moment Scott told me he had cancer to go along with his AIDS. Basically, he had CANCERAIDS. Double whammy time. It was the moment my gut whispered, “Are you listening? Remember Orson Scott Card?” I couldn’t hear my gut over my own racing thoughts at this fucked up news. Not then. But that’s the thing about gut instincts. When you don’t hear them the first time, they get louder. They start affecting your physical body. They become the thing which blots out all else, the something you can no longer ignore. You stop being a sulky teenager and put on your big girl pants and do what needs doing.
What you read here is the result of everything which followed. HAG is my way of taking care of Scott, which ended up being a method of extreme self-care and realization in the process. I don’t have to wipe his cancer-laden ass when he has an accident during chemotherapy because that’s not my strength. I just have to cover it. Make sure his story is told. Because HAG is not just my story. It’s our story. This is my perspective, which from birth has been pretty out there. I believe in energy work, ghosts, spirit guides, nature, planetary energy, setting your intention, crystals, meditation, past lives, everything a good middle-aged white lady like me puts in her war quiver to battle in this fucked up world. I pray. A lot. The arrows I shoot look like the NBC public service announcement shooting star. “The More You Know, Children!” If any of this bothers you, I urge you to take this book and give it to someone on the street wearing a rainbow. Use it to prop up a wobbly table, I don’t care. Thank you for at least buying my baby and getting through the first ten pages.
You won’t see much rational logic here, just a lot of honest, heartfelt emotion and hyperbole from someone who was there. Someone who’s seen some shit and done some shit during a time when the playgrounds were covered in gravel instead of soft places to fall. Trigger warnings? Our traumas hit us full in the face like a water gun. We just wiped away the mess and pretended it was a shower selfie. Brush it off, bitch! Act like it doesn’t matter. We handled our shit the best we could in a time when anything LGBTQ was given wide berth by most of the culture. Should you be offended by any term or experience I describe, please know it’s only for the purpose of showing you the pain and triumph me and my Chosen Family survived. Some better than most.
I’ve changed a few names and altered a handful of situations to protect the innocent who sometimes make choices not in their best interest. Some stories stay in the vault, darling. Thoughts and feelings based on the actions I witnessed are my own assumptions entirely. Stories I heard I’m retelling, and we’ve all played at least one game of Telephone. We know how it ends. I’m willing to chance that for the sake of a good story. Until my Chosen Family tells their version, which I hope they do, I am their memory. HAG will be the book I turn to when my brain is dotted more than Swiss cheese from all the nights with Miss Weed and Mr. Ecstasy back in the day. When I’m sitting somewhere in Florida, The Notebook-style, when I’m drooling out the side of my mouth, grinning like a fool, up the lithium please, I hope someone reads me this book. Preferably with house music pumping at a soft volume in the background. Todd Terry please. Or Frankie Knuckles. I do my Alzheimer’s Chicago House Style.
Of course, it wasn’t all cocktails and club tunes. Some of the realizations I had and the stories which follow are so sodden with pain they shriek when you squeeze them. Working through the kinks, airing out the old breaks and sprains felt good. It felt right. Writing this book felt like an act of letting go. It was hard. It sucked rocks. With every word I heard my boys saying things like, “Write something, Woman! It’s best to travel light. Leave baggage you don’t need by the side of the road. Write it down. Walk away from it forever.” When you’re not weighed down by the past, or the imagined obstacles of the present, the walking, the simple act of surviving this pilgrimage, becomes a possibility. I’ll probably walk with a limp from now on. Because these particular bags I’ve left behind fed me, sustained me, and brought me to my knees. Sometimes all at once. Even now they’re an itchy shadow limb, a lingering memory, except now instead of reaching for a joint, I just smile and let it float away like a yellow autumn leaf.
My journeys, experiences, tears, and laughter have brought me here. Know that. This book is the result of a life well lived. Because I had, when I needed it, a Gusband to share it with. As well as an entire LGBTQ community I’m proud to call family. While blood family is important, Chosen Family is golden. Because with every act of Big Love, you are choosing them and saying, yes. What is Big Love? Scott’s favorite saying, his greeting, his goodbye, his aloha. Big Love is all the people in your life you find pieces of yourself in. To me that is Big Love. HAG isn’t just a tribute to Scott, but to all the lovely people who’ve guided me and shown me above all, you only need two things. Voice and choice. There are certain people who show up in your life and show you another way. This book is for them.
I hope HAG stands for something. Maybe by getting uncomfortably vulnerable, I can create connection which will create ripple effects to the world at large. Even if only one person gets something out of it, HAG could act as a pebble in a pond. Or a grain of sand in an oyster shell. But there I go, rambling again. My boys would hate that. As I was taught so many times by Chosen Family, usually drunk or stoned late at night in some seedy diner over fries, “Who cares if you get it right, darling? Stop quacking. Just tell us a good story already. We won’t judge you until you leave.”