South Carolina – 1983. Robin Williams was big, everybody wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Comedy clubs were big, small towns had them, open mike nights were big. So I thought, “I can do this.” So I went and watched and there were funny women, and funny rednecks, and cool black guys, and hipster political types and I thought – “No gays. I’ll be a gay stand-up comedian. I’ll be funny, it’ll be fine. It’s 1983 in South Carolina, what could possibly go wrong?”
Surprisingly, the act went pretty well, and think it’s because people thought I was kidding about being gay. (That still happens. I don’t know.) There were a few hecklers, and some older comics taught me to prepare ready-made put downs. My favorite was to point to the heckler, give him a big smile, and says “Oh, sorry! I didn’t recognize you — from the front.” I never got red-lighted, I got laughs, I got asked back. A group of us went to Atlanta for a big break in a big comedy club and we all got bumped by a surprise unbilled set from Richard Pryor, but if you’re gonna get bumped . . .
So the local paper wanted to do an article on the four of us who were coming back week after week and seemed to have some potential. This nice reporter came and interviewed us and sat with us between sets and had us come to her offices for photos. There’s a horrific photo of me trying to be funny with comedy props, because we all make mistakes.
So about a month later, the reporter calls and she says there’s a little – delay – with the article, which is going into their Sunday magazine. That’s huge exposure back in the day when the Sunday paper was something every human read. Apparently, I’m the delay because – this statewide paper has never actually ever identified any local person as gay. So after many meetings with higher-ups, she’s calling because they’ll print the story but maybe I need to sign a legal document saying that if anything were to – happen – to me as a result of the article, they would not to be liable.
And I said “sure” because I’m basically likeable and I’m sure once people got to know me they’d probably like me because I’m twenty-three and an idiot.
Somehow, I never sign anything, but the article comes out anyway. A color picture of me gets nearly a whole page. With bad gay jokes. Because my good stuff was too dirty to print.
And the next day at work, I walk down the halls and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea. People are leaping out of my way, into offices of people they hate, into broom closets, and onto fire escapes. People who were, I thought, my friends…and already knew. The young closeted gay guys were the worst. There were also old closeted guys that repeatedly managed to save me, but I don’t know who they were or how. But they did.
My home phone rang exactly twice the Sunday the article came out, once from a married bisexual who wanted to have sex, and once from a very scared young kid who wanted to know “how do you know if you’re gay?” I tried to talk to him, but had no clue what to say. I remember breaking into a cold sweat, and there was the sound of a door opening over the line and he hung up quickly.
After that, I could’ve disconnected the phone for a few years and saved a lot of money.
I was out to my parents, but I got a letter from my mother who lived at the edges of the state. It was truly a statewide paper and she had the clipping. I’ve never read the letter a second time, but I still have it in the house. We’re fine now.
Another shock were all the gay people who would have nothing to do with me in any public setting, and only vaguely acknowledged me at what were becoming fewer and fewer private gatherings. It was guilt by association. Exactly one gay guy stood by me. The rest stood – slightly apart. I remember every one of them to this day. I don’t really blame them, I guess. I just remember them. For reference.
That left a few straight people who thought it was cool and who would introduce me as their “gay friend” like it was my first name.
Not that I wasn’t known. One woman I didn’t know called to ask me to speak at a gay man’s funeral and went on at such a pace it took me a horrific number of minutes to break in and explain, basically, that all gay men didn’t know one another.
I became the “homosexual” speaker for the University of South Carolina’s Abnormal Psychology class, where something was better than nothing, and I gamely answered questions like “Well, who’s the man and who’s the woman?” and “Do you believe in God’s Word?” and “Were you raped as a child?”
Years later, an old gay guy at a country club asked me about “that time” and when I told him how gay people reacted, he purred like any good movie homosexual and said “Of COURSE, dear!” and in my mind he suddenly dropped dead and the waiters just stepped over his body to serve us the meal he had paid for and nobody missed him.
The next time you gaze upon a gay pride parade, remember that there was a time when, in every community, it was a parade of one. And one. And one. And one. “That guy.” “The confirmed bachelor.” “The old maid.” The “Bless Her Heart.” Nobody ever said “thank you.” I never said “thank you” to the ones before me. So. With all my heart and soul. Thank You.