Childhood dreams. So many. After listening to those bullies, I’d stare at the blue square yearbook smiles and wonder which ones were gay. Which ones hid it better? Which ones toned it down successfully? I knew a boy in marching band. He was quiet and sweet. All of us knew Craig was gay, but his sexuality was never mentioned. It was the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. After years of ruminating on how we knew, I’m still stumped. We just knew. Did someone tell me, or did I assume? These are the topics running like ticker tape through my head when I can’t sleep most nights. Until I know why, I can’t let it go. Was it something in the eyes? The smile? The walk? He was a soft talker but so what?
After years of playing the “Gaydar” game with friends, quizzing each other in bars, in shopping malls, heck, anytime we were bored, I’m convinced this quality is illusory. Gaydar is a myth, as is pinning the label of “Gay” onto a man based on sight and sound. This quality remains as morning fog. Sometimes turning into water and sticking to your clothes, sometimes not. Sometimes those gestures, that high tone, that bright blue Mazda Miata convertible means the person is gay, sometimes it doesn’t. Of course, this was back in the day when folks did that sort of thing fairly often. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time someone said “Gaydar” in conversation. Now gender is a construct, and everyone sleeps with everybody, but when I was in school if someone was different in any group, especially if their manner made other people nervous, they got a label. Whether it fit or not.
Craig sang in our theater group and played clarinet at every football game. Yes, marching band was part of my world for a time and wind instruments were usually stationed near flag girls, so Craig and I chatted between barked commands. About face and forward march and stand at attention you dimwits or there’ll be no lemonade at break! Band camp. All the rumors are true, but they worked us way too hard for any hanky-panky. Craig was nice. But he didn’t have that spark the boys in my dirty books had. He wasn’t out like the gay boy who’d taken a beating. Even as I’d scolded him mentally for not toning it down, that spark, that glitter, was also a thing I wanted desperately. Quiet Craig would not do.
Where was my tribe? Where was the rainbow to show me the way to Oz? My mind was brimming with questions. Desperate to get out of my loud house, I sought sanctuary in after-school activities which went late into the evening. Things like yearbook (go figure) and flag throwing in marching band or acting out famous monologues in forensics competitions. These activities gave me voice when I had none to speak of. In performing other people’s words, I could pretend they were my own at least while I was saying them. Oscar Wilde’s court defense for being gay was my junior year forensics presentation. Lord knows what my sponsor thought. I do remember eyes of bemusement. I’d read every word of my favorite aesthete and committed myself fully to write exactly as Oscar did. Dandy Wilde wrote with humor and biting criticism clothed in clever innuendo. Wordplay with loads of conviction. Sir Oscar was my literary hero and dream gay friend. Because if you could talk like Oscar, you could woo anyone.
Looking back, I understand my sponsor’s general demeanor of “You do you,” with a shot of gentle side eye. Presumptuous, precocious little me at sixteen reciting a lifestyle defense from a gay man at the end of his life. Written from the inside of a jail cell. How many rainbow flags can you count in this picture? Did she think I was a young LGBT advocate or lesbian looking for her voice? With all the porn-based basement research under my belt, believe me, I’d considered this. Yes, I was looking hard for my people. But every time I saw beautiful women, I wanted to be them, not be with them. Momma was beautiful, a living breathing Cher right in my living room. From a young age her look, gait, and style became goals. I saw what it did for her. I didn’t know who I was, but if I looked like her, talked like her, spoke like her, maybe I could get every golden thing she seemed to get and get so easily every time she flipped her long black hair and winked.
It would’ve been so much easier to be born lesbian. This would be a different book if it even existed at all. Saved myself a lot of romantic heartbreak. But the label never seemed to stick. No matter how much I researched, which led to some experimentation in my twenties, I remained “strictly dickly,” a phrase which still makes me holler with laughter. I’ve tried to put on that Cinderella shoe shaped liked a Birkenstock. It just doesn’t fit. Men continue to confuse and fascinate. They demand all of my utmost attention then and now. I can stare at a handsome man like I was staring at the sea. My Female Gaze makes me sigh and feel happy and whole and content.
I’ve often wondered why women don’t discuss the Female Gaze more because a man who looks like he’s sculpted out of marble just hits me in all the right places. I think it’s the hairy chest thing. The nice round peach butt thing, the big long dick that curves slightly to the left thing. There’s a reason I got into Michelangelo at a young age. There’s a reason Tom Jones and the way he filled out his pants made me tingle at age four. Gazing at a gorgeous male nude is one of my favorite pastimes. You should see who I follow on Instagram. I will never be ashamed of my Female Gaze. But I certainly was, and certainly hid it, for a very long time.
I used after-school activities to cope. I used them like a seeker would. As a way to find solace, family, and if I was lucky a good friend who could be a guide in a way my parents were not. With my love of movies and my adoration of Oscar Wilde’s plays, theater nerds were my first conquest. That’s where I met Derick. Tall, skinny, loud with skin the color of dark chocolate. The bright eyes of Derick shining with possibility and why can’t we? We didn’t rotate through the same circles, me being on the academic track and him strictly theater. Until I stood up to my fear and tried out for The Music Man, I’d no idea he existed. Which is weird because not only did Derick take up a room, he was the entire room. He swanned into everything like Andre Leòn Talley ascending the stairs to the Met Gala in a gold caftan. He was everywhere. For The Music Man he did stage production and for our haunted play he directed. He assisted our dear, frumpy, overworked, chain-smoking sponsor Ms. Sanchez in everything and took over when she’d had enough. Derick never starred in our productions despite being head and shoulders above us in height as well as talent. He could sing and dance better than anyone. Maybe folks couldn’t see a six-foot-four black Harold Hill in 1982? Damn shame. He would’ve killed.
Derick was like a walking cap gun. If he walked near, BLAM! all eyes on him to see what he would do next. Charm and wit for days. Don’t get on his bad side because the verbal daggers would come out and you’d find yourself pinned to a spinning wooden wheel. Derick was big in so many ways. By senior year, he was creating, directing, and producing his own plays using us as the cast. Unheard of ambition for a student and every theater nerd was so envious. People who produced plays at seventeen got famous, we thought. Most of these plays never got off the ground unfortunately. Without our teacher’s constant, if somewhat gloomy presence, things disintegrated quickly. Play practice became a loud cafeteria lunchtime and Derick was left to corral us like a bunch of wild horses instead of running lines. When he threatened to cancel one show because of our lack of commitment, we shrugged our shoulders in unison. Okay. That was fun while it lasted.
We’d all joined Derick’s crew on the ship of theater for the promise of spending two hours with folks our own age. Away from adults. We really just wanted a break. Time to hang together and do nothing. Have fun. Pretending to put on a play is fun. We should do it again sometime. We didn’t have what Derick had. He was already out and gone to New York City and its bright lights. These shy outsiders were just looking for other outsiders to be alone with. He was already practicing his Broadway auditions. We just wanted to hang out at The Celebrity Room restaurant on Friday nights after the football game. Sit in The Godfather booth and eat pizza and pretend we’re somebody. Make eyes at the boys on the dancefloor. Derick was like that Bronski Beat song, “Smalltown Boy.” Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away. We’re cruising Broad Street with old beater cars, but Derick is already long gone.
He was also very caring. Derick had a big ol’ stash of caring packed in his bag next to the ambition. Right next to his verbal jabs because literally, that bitch would say anything and get away with it. The opposite of what I faced at home. Both my parents were control freaks and I learned to say what I needed to say and do what I needed to do based on their instruction. Do as you’re told. Always. No backtalk. Don’t be a smart mouth, don’t have opinions. I’ve spent my entire life molding myself from the eyes of others because of this. Trying to figure out how to be because I wasn’t allowed to be myself. Obviously, being me was bad because I got in trouble for it. I took notes. If I saw approval when I did a certain thing, I became that person. If they got angry, I took that action and characteristic out of my repertoire. I learned from a young age it was best to do this if you wanted to avoid recrimination for taking action on your own behalf without asking permission. By all means don’t cough at night because Dad’s a light sleeper. As a young child, I had bronchitis and he charged into the bedroom with a Sucrets and threatened to beat me if he heard another peep. The PTSD from that lasted for years.
Derick was indeed kind. One of the kindest things he did was help this mouse find her voice in a pretty big way. Our sophomore show was the musical Carnivale, and after impressing Ms. Sanchez the previous year with my level of historical accuracy when it came to costume in The Music Man, I was ready for a bigger spotlight. When the chorus belted out, “We got trouble right here in River City,” I’d been the spitting image of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because Almanzo, to this day, is still my corn-fed, beef-eating, milk-drinking, blond imaginary farmer boyfriend. I’d proven myself beautiful chorus background material. My contralto singing voice was serviceable and my new frenzy for fashion had been worth it. I was ready to act.
Maybe even act out. Shit was getting real at home, but as we’ve learned I walked around with a metaphorical handmaid gag of red. The loudness, the anger, the yelling I was being assaulted with every night about my new lack of initiative when it came to academics, to ballet, our lack of money, or how messy my room was or the fact it was Tuesday and our imaginary maid Rachel hadn’t shown up yet, was really taking a big toll. All of that residual pain couldn’t live in my body forever. It needed a place to go. The sappy love poetry scribbled in journals and pencil sketches on drawing paper of me crying a river of tears atop a mountain just weren’t cutting it. I took my feelings to the stage. Maybe by being a character I could work some of this shit out.
Now I wasn’t some kind of spiritual guru at fifteen. It just felt like the right thing to do. With years of late-night overthinking comes wisdom. I was looking for an outlet. I had so much anger. So much fear. I didn’t know why. A bigger role in the play would mean more practices, longer hours. Less time at home which more and more didn’t feel like a place of refuge, but a place to escape from. I’m so grateful to the theater for helping me do that. For giving me a place of safety with which to grow.
With Carnivale, I got my chance. All the big parts were taken by juniors and seniors, but there was a small one left. An opera singer who sings badly and who just happens to be a puppet. The die-hard theater kids wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Song is their life! Puppets don’t get seen. They spend their days hiding behind curtains all crouched down fisting a dog toy. But Marguerite has a whole song in the second act with lines and everything. I raised my hand immediately. Here was my opportunity. A chance to try out my voice without the commitment of eyes upon me. Plus, if I forgot my lines, I could pin them up somewhere. Sing badly? That’s easy. I’d just pretend I was in my room attempting Minnie Riperton falsettos. Hearing Derick was given the role of the other puppet sealed the deal. What better way to get to understand this enigma? Derick was the boy I’d observed from the wings and wanted so desperately to know because I hoped his glitter would rub off.
It did. But if I thought being Marguerite meant I’d be pasting cheat sheets on theater walls and singing ballads “half-ass”, as Momma used to say, I was in for a real come to Jesus moment. If I’d known how hard it would be, I might’ve stayed in the chorus. I might’ve just stayed in my room. Yes, the glitter was hard-earned, but it also stuck as glitter does. Derick’s lessons helped bring me right here to you. He really put me through my paces. His hard ass rode me the entire production, right up to the last second of the last night. Puppetry wasn’t easier than acting, in fact it was harder and had hundreds of years of history behind it. In multiple cultures. Your gestures had to be broader, more slapstick. You had to project your voice through the puppet theater barrier to the cheap seats in the back. While enunciating. There was a whole litany of rules, way more than this 15-year-old had to follow at home, and Derick was bound and determined to follow the canon. Trust me, I gained much more respect for Kermit and Miss Piggy after this experience. Jim Henson is one badass motherfucker.
I began studying one of my favorite movies, The Year of Living Dangerously, in a different way. Instead of admiring Mel Gibson’s ass in tight khakis, I studied the artistry of Javanese shadow puppets. I paid attention to Linda Hunt’s gestures as she operates each character behind a large sheet of beige linen, lit by candles. Telling an ancient story through movement and light and the quiet magnificence of performing these pieces of art which are meant to embody every sin and vanity humans possess. I’d joined theater to play, but Derick made me care about the work. There are no small parts, darling. Only small actors. Every stage is Broadway. Fuck that puppet barrier. Make them hear you. Make them see you. Practice enough and you might even steal the show. Be the puppet. Be Marguerite. Be heard. Be seen.
Opening night, I almost shit my pants. But something about that barrier, along with Derick’s constant encouragement, made me step outside my fear. Derick told me if you think you’re at 100%, dial it up. Go for it. I still sometimes remember to do that. I did on opening night. My gestures were broader, my screeches louder. Our comic timing, something we practiced until it became like breathing, was the most perfect of perfect. We brought the house down. I was equal parts ecstatic and paralyzed with fear at the sudden gullywasher of applause. Was it real? Did they mean it? What did they expect of me now? What would they want me to do? Would I fail? What if this is as good as it gets? Spiral, spiral, spiral. Still, the ecstasy feeling won out over fear because let’s face it, applause is fucking amazing. Besides, I’m just a puppet. They won’t remember what I look like tomorrow. They won’t expect much. Phew. Take another bow Jenée with the funny name. You’ve earned it.
For years after that performance, I had a recurring dream. It’s still my favorite. Everything is covered in bright red although I’ve since learned seeing color in your dreams isn’t possible. I’m a backup singer for Kate Bush in a red sequined jumpsuit with red glitter boots. We’re on a world tour. We’re singing about running up that road, running up that hill, running up that building. The stage lights, the costumes, the seats, the curtains, everything is the color of the heart brooch Salvador Dalí created with actual African rubies which even had its own heartbeat. A heart of gems the color of blood. Momma took me to see it at the museum when I was five and I thought it the most beautiful object in the world. My dream was that color. I’m singing, “Big sky…honey…” complete with dance moves. In red. In bright disco crimson Sylvester red. Being a Kate Bush backup singer is still my dream job. All the fame, fortune, travel, and money which celebrity allows, without any of the public pawing a celebrity has to endure. No death by a thousand cuts because the crowd rapes you Day of the Locust-style. I got to dance and sing, but nobody needed a selfie afterward because I was just the support. Backup singers, at least in my dream, got to live in the art without having to sacrifice any part of themselves. John Lennon and Elvis died from celebrity. So did Marilyn Monroe and Sharon Tate. So did Prince and George Michael. Better to be close to the light rather than in the line of fire maybe. Safer.
The applause I received as a puppet felt like that dream. I got to perform and take a bow without anyone haranguing me afterward about my future plans for Yale Drama School. No expectations. All they would remember is how great those puppets were, and I’d be free to sink back into my solitude. To rub out the wounds from all the anxiety social interaction caused. Because even as theater kids love to act, we’re also sensitive. Which just means we’re more aware. Which means after a big production, we need to turn into hermits for a while. I’ll always be grateful to Derick for teaching me to use my voice. But it would be many decades before I learned to speak without a barrier. The hours we spent laughing in our puppet theater cemented our friendship. He talked and I was a sponge, soaking up everything, nodding and smiling. Hoping my dimples made me friendship worthy. In that puppet theater I allowed myself to think like Derick, to start spreading my wings. To want bigger things for myself. To actually see my body on a train to New York with the suitcase meant for Nana’s backyard. I started making other plans. Very different plans from the ones being thrown at me from every adult. Maybe college, marriage, and kids weren’t the be all end all. Maybe there was something else. I’d been staring at pictures so long, praying for a way out and seeing nothing but a beautiful boy printed on glossy paper. Now my dreams had a hint of direction. I’d give this acting thing a go.
Flash forward five years. I’m twenty and have just moved in with my gay roommates George, Don, and Mike, whom we called Noodle. George and Don are still together, what a blessing. Noodle, who you’ll hear about later, got his name for the way he danced after four Bud Lights. I couldn’t believe my good fortune because their three-bedroom on stately Monument Avenue had a huge balcony. My room in the back had its very own bathroom. Every time I left the television and headed for bed it felt like I was gliding into my own wing of Buckingham Palace. I couldn’t have been happier.
During those first few days, I noticed a group photo on the mantel. Bunch of friends, one with dark flashing, happy eyes. I’m shocked to see Derick’s infectious grin staring back at me. His broad, beautiful smile which I suddenly missed. A lot. “HOW DO YOU KNOW DERICK?!” I gasped, snatching the frame for a closer look. Don walked over still polishing the crystal doorknob he’d removed. Getting the tarnish off the brass fixtures, replacing the window screws with new ones, scraping the paint off the transoms. As an interior designer with a flair for the historically accurate and a penchant for Rococo, Don restored every rental to Architectural Digest standards, sometimes so well landlords asked him to move out because now they could charge more rent. He looked at me thoughtfully, as if he was measuring words for what would come next. “Derick was a dear friend. He died in a car accident last year.”
I was stunned. I was still recovering from the shock of coincidence, then the thrill of possibly seeing him again in this beautiful apartment as adults. Maybe sharing a cocktail with stories attached. Now he was dead. Another gut-punching shock. No one I knew had died except old people. Hadn’t I just seen Derick? Hadn’t I? At twenty, two years after graduation, I felt like high school had just ended and I was still waiting for someone, anyone, to tell me what to do with the rest of my life. What now, guys? You had all these plans for me, and I did everything you asked for eighteen years, what do I do now? High school felt like a horrible disease I was still recovering from. I felt weak, directionless, aimless, living in my head. Waiting. Living asleep without the ability to wake up and realize hey, you’re an adult and everyone is moving on without you. I’d followed everyone’s directions, but I’m supposed to figure all this adult shit out on my own? Really? Okay, first big major obstacle to overcome. Here was my friend suddenly dead and I never got to tell him goodbye or what he meant to me. What do I do with that? Anyone?
Derick’s death gutted me. All that talent gone. I loved him dearly and will never, ever forget his influence on my life. When people read my stuff, they always comment on my voice. On how they can hear me. That was Derick’s gift. He didn’t give me a voice, he showed me I had one already. I just had to learn how to use it. Learn how to project it so no one can ignore it. Learn how to be heard. I’m grateful to him for that and I was grateful to find Derick’s picture in Don’s living room. It meant I’d landed in the right place. Derick’s passing remains important because he was the first member of my Chosen Family to die, although if you’d used the term on me back then, I would’ve squinted, not yet realizing family is blood but Chosen Family is forever.
By the time I approached thirty, instead of trying to remember “tricks” a.k.a. one-night stands during Sunday brunch, friends and I played a very different game. We tallied up numbers of the Chosen Family we’d lost. To AIDS. To drugs. To accidents because of AIDS or drugs or both. Literally the worst game ever. Too many to remember individually, so as the years go by you recall only a few because your brain has dwindled to the size of a Brussels sprout because of all the alcohol and drugs you did to cope. Which makes you feel even worse because you forgot so many. Survivor’s Guilt with a side of shame. But in 1988 when I was twenty and learned of Derick’s passing, AIDS was a news item on page six. We weren’t counting yet.
If I’d never seen Derick’s photo, I might never have known he was gone. Learning of his death was a hint of everything to follow. Doesn’t matter if it’s AIDS or a car accident, or suicide as a result of The Eternal Sadness of the Gay Man, losing a friend that young was a casualty of the time. Wounds come in many forms. It was also a hint of the joy which comes when survivors gather together to remember them with love and stories. Pictures on mantels. New friendships are created from the old. New paths to new connections are forged. But you’ve got to show up for them. When Life knocks, answer the door. Staying silent, hiding, produces nothing because you’ve done nothing. While many of my boys have instructed me in the art of showing up, Derick taught me that first.