Guest Blogger, David Dillon

The Music Man Finale

Families can be a tricky thing.  Ideally, from the time you are little, they should be your first and strongest support system.  Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.

I’ve written often about my time performing in the play Party, it was truly one of the most magical times of my life.  I did the play in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, and suffice to say, every city bore its own adventures.   One of the plays many gifts was getting to know funny, talented people, many of whom are still in my life, among them Party‘s playwright, David Dillon.   While we lost touch for a few years, through the magic of Facebook, we are reconnected.  And I am glad, because he always has a perceptive, droll take on just about every topic,  He told me he had a bullying story, this one is about family, and I feel quite honored that he has shared it here.  Thank you, David.

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Way before I was born, my father’s parents purchased some property along the lake on Chicago’s south side. There were two lots … one with a single family home and right next door, a beautiful three story apartment building with one large apartment on each floor and a smaller basement apartment. My father had been one of seven children, so the idea was that the grandparents would live in the house and then inexpensively rent the apartments out to those of their kids and their families who wanted to live nearby.

My mother, father, sister and I lived on the third floor. The apartments were huge by today’s standards and right behind our building was Rainbow Beach. Our yard butted right up to the park and just a few steps beyond was one of the most popular beaches in Chicago. I used to love to sit on our enclosed back porch and listen to the sounds of summer as I watched the sailboats dotting the lake in the distance. Maybe it is the Piscean in me, but I have always been soothed by the sounds of water and the crashing of the Lake Michigan waves were about the most wonderful sounds I have ever heard. It was a paradise for kids and I remember being blissfully happy there in my youngest years.

In the first floor apartment lived a favorite aunt and uncle and a wonderful flock of cousins. My uncle was an art dealer and there was a cultured and civilized manner about both him and my aunt that always attracted me. My parents never needed to find an outside babysitter either; we had a built in roster of sitters all throughout the building. Home was a safe, care free and cheerful place.

My happiness turned to deep sadness, though, when that arm of our family announced that they would be moving to Tacoma, Washington. I couldn’t imagine life without them.

Now, by this time, I had already showed signs of not being interested in typical “boy” stuff. I had no use whatsoever for sports or the roughhousing that was common among my peers.

I had discovered musicals when I was five (what you might call a Dead Giveaway) and was obsessed with “The Music Man.” My bedroom was decorated with photos of Shirley Jones placed in the frames that my sister’s Barbie clothes came in. We somewhere have a small piece of film of me at Christmastime wearing a “Music Man” outfit my maternal Grandmother made for me and singing my little heart out. I was way more interested in escaping to my fantasy world listening to my musical LPs than I was in anything a Normal Boy would do. The world of musicals was always a magic place for me. It still is. And it saved me from what would have otherwise been a completely dark stretch of years.
The Music Man 2
As it turned out, my favorite first floor family was replaced by my least favorite of my father’s brother’s families and paradise soon turned into hell.

This group of cousins had no interest in anything but sports and they took note of my lack of interest early on and with a vengeance. I became the target of ruthless bullying and believe me, the pain of being bullied is made all the worse when it comes from family. They called me a sissy, taunted me and treated me so horribly that the home that used to be my safe place soon became the place I was scared to be. I stayed indoors whenever I could instead of being out in the yard or around the front porch for fear of encountering them. I hated being there and I hated these interlopers for ruining the place I so used to love.

I also began to hate who I was. I wanted desperately to be the kind of boy everyone expected me to be. Not because I craved “boy” things like sports, but because my life would just have been easier. I was made to feel like something was dreadfully wrong with me and I became engulfed by the loneliest kind of sadness.

An interesting thing – this family apparently felt that gender roles only applied to boys. I say that because one of the young girls in that family was a Textbook Tomboy. She behaved more like a boy than I did and she and one of her brothers were the two who were the most mean to me. But I never saw anyone tease her or prod her into putting on a dress and playing with dolls. No one told Textbook Tomboy to put down the baseball bat. Astonishingly, it never occurred to anyone that she was actually the gender skewed “girl” version of me. I wish I had been articulate enough then to have pointed out both the irony and the hypocrisy, but I just suffered in silence.

It may come as no surprise that I still have an extreme aversion to sports. They always represented my oppressors. Even now, fifty years later, I struggle to get past that.

Skip ahead almost forty years. Out of the blue one day, I got an email from the second oldest son of the family I so wished had never come to South Shore Drive. He was actually the best of the bunch, so I welcomed getting back in touch with him. In one of his first emails to me, however, he revealed that Textbook Tomboy had come out as a lesbian in adulthood. (Quelle surprise!) But, he was very quick to add that with the help of therapy and God, she was able to be cured, to rid herself of that existence and become straight.

Unfuckingbelievable.

What he had to say hit the very core of why I despised those cousins and could easily have triggered what my Facebook friends now call a “David rant.” But instead, I let it go. There was simply no point. This family would never “get it” and I would only be beating my head against a wall.

If that had been an end to it, I’d have let it all alone and moved on with the knowledge that some people will just never change and that was just a fact of life.

You can imagine how surprised I was to next get an email from the Textbook Tomboy Former Lesbian Bully Cousin who had been so cruel to me when we were kids. She wanted to apologize for how she treated me growing up and said that she often throughout her life thought about those days and her behavior towards me with regret. She hoped I would forgive her.

I can honestly say that I would have had a different response had one of two things been true. If she had accepted who she really was and was living life as a lesbian, I’d have forgiven her. I understand the psychology of closeted and fearful youth. Or, if she had even simply lived her life as a straight woman (if she truly WAS straight) who looked back at a kind of childhood behavior she was ashamed of, I’d have also forgiven her.

But, this “Former Lesbian” stuff didn’t allow me to be generous. By seeking out ways to be “fixed,” she and her family were once again, decades later, affirming that who gay people are (meaning me) is fundamentally wrong and obviously sick. The conversion therapy she believed in and that her family celebrated as her salvation is a lie. It is a lifeline clung to in desperation by self loathing fags and dykes who despise themselves for who they are.

I felt their judgment again and with the same sting as when we were kids and it enraged me. They had made it clear so many years ago that my not being the kind of boy they thought I should be made me an aberration. Now, she had been “saved” from the Evils of Lesbianism and her family thanked God for delivering her from such a wretched existence.

That did it. I was no longer going to let her or her family off the hook for what they did to me.

So, I wrote her back.

I told her how scarred I still was from her treatment of me. I told her how she took a place I loved and turned it into a place where I lived frightened rather than happy. I told her how she made me hate myself for not being the person she thought I should be and how she robbed me of a beloved part of my childhood. Finally, I told her to look to her God for forgiveness, for she wouldn’t get any from me.

Damn, it felt good.

Now, a number of people in my life have told me that I hold on to things for too long, that I need to learn how to forgive. They tell me this not for the sake of those who have wronged me, but for my sake. They tell me it sets you free. They might have a point. My father committed suicide when I was thirteen and I still have not completely forgiven him and that has colored every moment of my life since. And no betrayal by a friend or lover ever goes forgotten.

So, a couple of years ago, for better or worse I took the High Road. I sent the Former Lesbian a message on Facebook and told her I forgive her. But, no, I didn’t do it for her. I did it because I refuse to let what she did to me so long ago still have a hold on me. As long as I clung to the state of being unforgiving, I was acknowledging her power over me and my life. I had to let it go.

What I know is that I have something she will never have – the knowledge that I am living life truthfully and proudly as the person I am. The miserable little boy who didn’t know who he was and was made to feel “wrong” is an open and out gay man who unapologetically and joyfully embraces his identity. And, the Textbook Tomboy Former Lesbian Bully Cousin is as lost a creature as has ever walked the earth, though she will never see, admit or come to terms with that. She would, in fact, deny that to her dying breath. And so, she will never know the peace of loving and accepting herself in total honestly.

So, I win.

Meeee

Suzanne’s Hands

Suzanne-SomersI was awake at 5 a.m. with a tickle in my throat. I couldn’t fall back to sleep so I got up, took some cough medicine and read a bit on the couch. After awhile, I tired of reading but lay on the couch wishing I could turn my brain off a little. I looked at my hands, really studied them. Whenever I look at my hands, I always think of Suzanne Somers.

I like my hands, I used to really like them but in the last five years or so, they’ve started to wrinkle. Once somebody told me that I had “surfer boy” hands and though I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, it thrilled me to hear it. Also, when I look at my hands, I feel some pride that I no longer bite my nails. Give or take a few years, it was a 40 year habit. Like an alcoholic, I will always be nail biter in my core, but for the last few years, I have been a non-practicing one. I sometimes think that the one good thing to come out of a certain acting class is that I would stare at my hands during my teacher’s impassioned diatribes and look at my nails and think, I want to make a change. So, when I tell myself I can’t change something, I look at my nails and remember that yes, sometimes I can change.

But enough of my nails, let’s talk about my hands. Though not exactly leathery, I do feel like they are halfway between dewy and beef jerky. It’s fine, there are worse things to have to deal with. But like I said, I do think of Suzanne every time I look at these mitts.

It was 1995, I was in that play Party that I’ve written about a few times before on this blog. Around Christmas, folks could bring a children’s toy to the box office to get a certain discount on their ticket. We collected the toys and delivered them to one of the charities that distributed to needy children during the holidays. A great idea, and to promote it, celebrities would come to the show and take their picture with the cast and the photo would run in magazines, mostly the gay press. A win win, as the saying goes. We also collected money at other times for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Several interesting personalities came to the show and had their pictures taken with us, Dave Kopay, Greg Louganis, Yvonne Craig (Batgirl). My favorite was Judith Light who at that point I really only knew from Who’s the Boss. So very complimentary and gracious and beautiful. She talked to us about her friend Paul Monette who had passed away only a few months earlier. On the surface, Party was a trifle, a confection, but it made people laugh at a time when the GLBT community and those who loved them really needed to laugh. Twenty years later, I am still grateful for the experience Party gave me and I am proud to have been a part of something that brought a lot of people joy and comfort.

Don’t worry, I am getting to Suzanne.

Now sometimes, the stars came to us, sometimes we came to the stars. We went to the set of General Hospital to take a picture with some cast members, also we met Lee Meriwether, randomly, at an office building on La Brea. She was dressed for a formal affair that she was headed off to, but could not have been lovelier to us. She was wearing what was quite obviously a wig. I remember worrying that maybe her health was compromised, though in every way but the wig, she was the picture of vigor. I really, really liked her so I feel a bit guilty even mentioning the wig, but it made me worry for her a little, thought it made her appear a bit vulnerable.

The photo op we had with Suzanne Somers was going to be a very big deal our publicist told us. We were to meet her on the set of her series, Step by Step, and she would take pictures with us and ALSO, Entertainment Tonight was going to be there to document it. I had never been on Entertainment Tonight, obviously. The day of the op came. We all convened on the set. We waited in the mostly empty studio audience while members of the cast ran through certain scenes. Our picture was supposed to be at 11:00 but Suzanne was running behind. An hour passed, another hour passed. It was kind of annoying to wait around, but also, exciting to be on an actual tv set. Obviously, it was something I dreamed about all my life, and I was there, just not there in the exact way that I’d imagined.

Finally, after 2 hours, Suzanne Somers appeared. Full make up, and then some. Full hair, and then some. I must be honest, she was beautiful. The biggest smile, the set’s lights added an extra twinkle to her azure eyes. Twenty years had passed since she had been Chrissy Snow, but I got it. She was a star, always would be. Someone positioned the cast around Suzanne. Our stage manager arranged the toys for the tots, that he’d lugged in from his car, prominently around us. If I recall, a few of us held them in our hands. As the flashes went off, I looked down at Suzanne, so beautiful and for the first time, caught sight of her hands. Everything about her had been spackled and pulled into a semblance of youth, but her hands still told the truth. Old lady hands, I thought at the time, though a quick Wikipedia search tells me she would have been 49 on that day. So, give or take a few years, my age now. Entertainment Tonight filmed the entire thing, eventually pulling Suzanne aside for an interview with us talking to each other in the background. We asked when the segment would air, but were told they “weren’t sure.”

On our way out the door, someone in Suzanne’s camp handed each of us our own Thighmasters as a gesture for making the trip. We giggled at the time, but I kept mine for a good 15 years, stored haphazardly in my closet. It’s the only gift Suzanne every gave me, I thought, I can’t throw it away.

But of course, it’s not the only gift Ms. Somers ever gave me. She gave me a great story, a fun memory and a lesson. It might seem bittersweet, how even when we try to hold onto youth, our hands will still give us away. And that’s one way of looking at it. But you know, as I said, I’m almost Suzanne’s then age now and I have a little more respect and admiration. Those hands reminded me of what she had weathered, and I’m not just talking about She’s the Sheriff. Suzanne Somers is many things, not the least of which is a survivor. And just as my nails remind me of what I can change, my hands will always remind me of what I can endure.

Love Is All Around

sc00361b62In the autumn, sometimes I like to put a little cinnamon in my coffee when I’m brewing it.  That always makes me think of Larry Baker who was the stage manager of a play I was in several years ago, David Dillon’s Party. Volumes could be written about my Party days, I did the play in three different cities, over the course of a year and a half, and it brought many talented, funny, dramatic people into my life, many of whom I’m still in touch with.  Anyway, about the coffee: before every show, Larry would make a pot of coffee and sprinkle cinnamon on the grounds before he brewed it.  It made the coffee taste delicious and made the dressing room area smell cozy and warm.

The play was kind of a big deal, we were on the cover of magazines, we were on a billboard, we each had our own dressing room.  It was an Equity show in a large theatre and it was the most money I’d ever made as an actor.  My parents decided to come to LA for Christmas and they planned on coming to see the show.  Oh, and before I get much further, let me tell you, Party was a play about a group of gay men who get together for a party, play a truth or dare type game and ultimately, every one gets naked.  In fact, my character’s big (pardon the pun) moment comes when he appears naked from the kitchen, bag of M&M’s in one hand, can of whipped cream in the other, and orders one of the other guys to take off his shirt so he can lick the whipped cream and M&M’s off his chest.  (Did I mention it was the ’90s?)  A friend from Bible college had seen the play and told my parents about it, so they had a little idea of what to expect.  I told them they didn’t have to go, but they said they wanted to.

The day that they came to the play, they came early to see my dressing room and meet the cast members.   My parents were impressed with the elegant stage and my Mom took a picture of my starred name on my dressing room. But they were nervous.  My friend Vince offered my parents a cup of coffee and while my Dad politely declined, my Mom said, “Yes, thank you, I’d like a cup.”  And I’ll never forget the image of my shy Mom from Kansas sitting in the lobby area of our dressing rooms, sipping her coffee out of a cup and saucer, Vince in the background playing the gracious host, his own southern roots shining through.  “This coffee is very good,” my Mother said.  And Vince told her about how Larry put cinnamon in it.  “Oh, I wondered if that might be what I noticed.” Fellow cast members came in and out of the lobby, introducing themselves, asking my parents how they liked LA so far. My Dad good-naturedly complained about how hard it was to find a Dr. Pepper out here.

I was touched by all that was happening in front of me.  My fellow cast members all knew my story, that I’d gone to Bible college in hopes of not being gay, that I’d been a youth minister, that I’d only come out to my parents in the last two years and that the news had been very difficult for them.  And that at every step of the way, as heartbreaking as my news was to them, they’d always, only showered me with their love.  And I think that sitting in that room, it was the first time my Mother realized that my gay friends were a form of family to me as well.

The song used it the curtain call every night was the Joan Jett cover of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, “Love is All Around.”  From the very first time I heard it, as we were taking our bows during the first tech dress rehearsal, it summed up what doing the show was for me.  Here was this song from my youth, and Joan Jett had turned it into a rock anthem.  I felt that I was all grown up at 26, starting a new exciting life and that love was all around, no need to waste it. I could have a town, why don’t I take it? My life was at once, everything I’d hoped and yet, nothing I could have predicted when I was a 6 year old watching the Mary Tyler Moore show on a Saturday night with my parents, but I was gonna make it after all.

Gingerbread Rogers

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When I was 28, I lived in San Francisco. I went there to do a play and met a guy and we fell in love and I ended up staying there for a year and a half. The play, written by David Dillon, was called Party, and it was about seven gay guys who get together for a party and end up playing a truth or dare type game and guess what, everyone gets naked. (It was the 90’s.) I played Andy, the innocent one, who at one point emerges from the kitchen buck naked only to lick whipped cream and M&M’s off a guy’s bare torso. (It was the 90’s.) Every night after the show, I would come out the stage door and my boyfriend Gary would be waiting for me on his motorcycle. Because there was a certain amount of attention for the play, there were always people waiting outside to meet the cast as we exited. Still playing a part, I’d shyly and politely wave to the fans and get on the back of the Gary’s motorcycle, put on my helmet and then we’d ride away. We’d ride down Geary on our way to our home near Alamo Square Park and we’d sing songs we’d made up at the top of our lungs. Our favorite was this uptempo modified version of Dolly Parton’s tearjerker Me and Little Andy. Basically, we’d sing the song to the tune of Lullaby of Broadway. “Ain’tcha got no gingerbread, Ain’tcha got no caaaandy, Ain’tcha got an extra bed for me, me, me, meeee. Hey! I’m little Andy!” Just reading this, I’m pretty sure the memory is not completely translating to the page, and I suppose that’s okay. When you are in love you have these inside laughs that only make the two of you giggle and they don’t really make sense to anyone else. Even our nicknames for each other didn’t make sense. He was Gorgeous Rogers and I was Gingerbread Rogers.

Alas, we eventually broke up and I moved back to Los Angeles. For a few years after my return I had a very difficult time moving forward. Every guy I dated paled in comparison to Gary. Superficially, they weren’t as well dressed or as cute or as financially secure as Gary, but mainly they could not make me laugh the way Gary made me laugh. One day, a couple tormented years later, I called Gary to tell him I could not talk to him anymore, with tears in my voice I said it was just too painful. He kind of laughed and said, “But Gingerbread, why?” I said, “And you can’t call me Gingerbread anymore! It’s too intimate.” He said okay and then I told him I’d call him when I was over him and he said okay.

I’ve probably only seen him a handful of times in the last 10 years. I did eventually get over him. I’ve spent time with his current partner of 12 years, a guy that I like a lot and the two of them have built a fabulous life together. As for myself, I met Eric a few years ago, and I’d like to think we, too, have been building a fabulous life together. There are many things I love about Eric, not the least of which: he makes me laugh.

Which brings everything up to yesterday when I picked Gary up at LAX. He’s in town for a conference and I brought him to his hotel and Eric met us there so we could have a quick drink before Gary went on to a dinner that was part of the conference. The meeting was friendly, jovial, uneventful. We talked about the things 40-something urban gays talk about: real estate, New York, Bravo, our dogs, Barbra. I was waiting for them to bond over their shared feelings about my driving skills, but thankfully, it did not happen. Then before I knew it, we were saying our goodbyes and Eric and I walked away, on our way to our own dinner at a restaurant that the two of us like going to together. It was so regular but it was also a special moment for me. For years, I wondered if I would ever love someone as much or more than I loved Gary and as it turns out, I would and I do.