My backstory growing up in Montana through 1997.
Chasing the Diva: Chapter 1, Growing Up - Summer 1997 | V5
I liked fire. I was fascinated by it, mesmerized. I liked watching the glow of the flame, feeling the heat of it. I liked watching it change and consume things. I would melt crayons under the flames of the furnace. I would line up a row of matches, maybe ten or so, and light the one on the end to watch as each burst would ignite the next. With an older teenage brother who smoked it was never that hard to get my hands on a lighter. I used it to burn a hole in the fitted sheet on my brother's bed. When I used it to melt a plastic garbage tie - watching how the plastic would liquefy and drip off looking like water wrapped in flame - a drop of it fell onto my thigh right above the knee. Rarely have I had such will power as that moment, a child of six, to keep from screaming or making any noise at all as the molten plastic burned into my skin.
What finally gave me away was a vase of large paper flowers that sat on the fireplace hearth in the basement. They were oversized tulips with white petals as big as an adult hand. With my brother's lighter, I lit one edge of one petal. As the flame grew bigger, I tried to blow it out. It worked to put out the flaming fitted sheet, so why not here? The flame caught another petal and then another. I blew more, blew harder. It wasn't working. I ran upstairs from the basement and got a big cup of water from the kitchen. When I got back downstairs, the entire vase had become a bouquet of fire. I was going to be in so much trouble if I didn't put it out. I ran up to the floral inferno and threw the water, but it didn't make a dent. By this point, the smoke detector was making a horrible beeping sound.
I needed more air than I could blow to put out the fire. Thinking fast, I pulled one of the cushions off the red plaid couch and began to fan the flame. I fanned and fanned, and after a couple minutes it seemed to work. The flames were going out, leaving behind crumbling ash in and around the empty green glass vase. Once the flames were all out, I ran quietly upstairs to check and see if my brother had noticed anything. I found my teenage brother sleeping like the dead. I went back downstairs. If mom and dad came home and found what I had done, I was going to be in so much trouble. Then I thought of it. I took the cushion I used as a fan, plus the two other red cushions, plus the three cushions from the green couch, and built a little fort around the evidence, boxing it in. There, they'll never know.
As it turned out, I didn't get into trouble. My brother caught seven kinds of holy hell, but all I got was a visit with the local fire chief. He talked to me about the dangers of playing with fire and about fire safety. He was a very nice man with a nice office. I know because I had to visit him again when discovered the magic of candles. My parents requested a third visit to which he apparently refused as it clearly wasn't having the desired effect on me.
Eventually my firebug would be appeased with being in charge of campfires on our trips to Yellowstone, of which there were many, as well as any fireplace fires during the holidays and colder months in Montana.
So the fact that I was a kid who never stopped singing, comparatively, wasn't much of an issue with my parents.
I had my fair share of parental admonishments growing up.
"John, keep your feet still," from my mother.
"John, quit being silly," from my father.
But they never told me to stop singing.
On Sunday mornings, my dad would take me to Mass at St. Thomas. We would make it to our usual spot on the right side of the church, slide into one of the hardwood dark-stained pews about halfway back, and I would immediately look to the right of the tabernacle where a board always held a list of three or four numbers. Grabbing the hymnal out of the pocket on the back of the pew in front of me, I would flip through the pages to the corresponding numbers to find out what songs we were singing today.
Singing was my favorite part of Mass. The only part I liked, actually. Not for the words, but for the music itself. How this song would stay on long held notes and then suddenly bounce to a higher note like a surprise. How that song would wind up and down and up again, as if the melody was running ahead of you and half the fun was trying to keep up. I would often play a game of seeing how long I could sing without having to take a breath.
Every Sunday, with every song, I would hope that maybe this time we would get to sing more than one verse. I would always be ready to come in with verse two when the adults that towered around me would slide their hymnals back in their pew pockets with a thump followed by the light commotion of the congregation taking their seats, sometimes even before the one verse was finished. All these songs had four, five, sometimes even six perfectly good verses that never got sung.
My favorite song to sing was the Our Father, only I didn't know it was the Our Father because they sung it in Latin. I didn't care. This song was much longer than any one verse of the hymns. I knew the tune by heart and would mimic the sounds I heard others making around me.
The rest of Mass I would sit there going back and forth between swinging my legs until I would be kicking the pew in front of me ("John, keep your feet still"), and looking at the statue of Jesus on the Cross hanging high above the alter. I would ponder him with the same level of respect and disinterest that a tourist might ponder the Mona Lisa, appreciating that it had some sort of significance but no direct effect on my life.
I loved secular music as well. In 1985, the little 7-year-old me was infatuated with We are the World. I knew all the words and would sing it constantly. Now I imagine that any six year old singing, "We are the world, we are the children," in a loud boy soprano on a seemingly endless loop would drive any well meaning parents a little bonkers.
Not mine. Instead, they hooked up a microphone to the living room stereo system, showed me how to record myself on cassette tape, and let me go to town. I would spend hours (seemingly hours to a hyperactive kid) giving a concert to sold out stadium, like a mini Freddy Mercury.
Many a camping trip to Yellowstone would have me lounging in the back of the family van, the original cast recording of Phantom of the Opera spinning in my Discman, singing along full volume, as we traveled down from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful.
At the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus where my father was a member, at one of their annual Lenten fish fries, someone had rented a karaoke machine. This was right around the time they invented the sport. I got up there, took the mic, and belted out Whitney Huston's version of The Greatest Love of All. For the first time I saw faces of the "audience," people other than my parents, see their surprise and enjoyment as I crooned, "I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."
Perhaps the original motivation for my parents was, as long as I was singing, I wasn't lighting shit on fire. If it was, they soon realized on that performing was going to become the major driving force in my life.
This was right around the mid to late 80s when ADD and ADHD diagnoses and medications were coming into fashion, and anyone who knew me then would have said I was definitly a candidate. Before they turned to medication, however, my parents sought out extracurricular activities that could keep my focus and handle my endless buckets of energy.
First they tried sports. My dad sat me down one day to tell me he'd signed me up for a kiddy soccer league. Now I don't know what kind of reaction my dad was expecting, but I'm sure my former cattle rancher father was not all that proud to watch his 10-year-old son completely freak out. "No! Please don't make me. I don't want to. I'm scared. NO!"
Soccer wasn't the torture my adolescent brain imagined it to be. At first it was like recess, getting together with other kids and kicking a ball around, only we had to kick it around in specific ways: passing the ball back and forth while running alongside another player, weaving with the ball around small orange cones, and any number of jumping jacks and sprints to end of the field and back.
Still, when it came to actually playing a real game, soccer didn't prove to be my thing. My first game I was stationed at one of the two rear positions by the goalie. Apparently, we were supposed to stay on our side of the field and help protect the goal. Well, I guess I wasn't listening during practice when that was explained because, when the game started, I thought it was more like, "Everyone go for the ball!"
After it was explained that I had to stay in my area, while other boys fought for the ball with their feet on the other side of the field, I kicked at the grass and looked at the orange, yellow, and red leaves on the park trees turning with the fall. All of a sudden the ball came right to me. Instinctively, I reached down and stopped it with my hand, and then wondered way the ref was blowing his whistle.
My parents also tried little league baseball, but that didn't take either. I think I hit the ball maybe once in my short career and it was a line drive to first base. "Out!" I spent the majority of that time on the bench my coach repeatedly betting me a nickel I couldn't stay quiet for five minutes. I lost every time.
One day my mom pointed out something in the Friday Arts section of the Billings Gazette, an audition notice for the community theater's children's production of Ming Lee and the Magic Tree. I auditioned and got the part of the Monkey. I had a whole monologue about what it was like to be a monkey and how much fun I had living in the trees. I hopped out onstage, hunched over, nearly squatting, arms dangling, wearing a gold-yellow Asian coat. My entire head and face was encased in a plaster helm formed to look like a monkey's head with a hinged, movable jaw. I had to open my mouth very wide to make the jaw move and speak very loudly so that I could be heard clearly through the mask. I'm fairly confident that my acting abilities, both strengths and flaws, stem from this first role of a monkey in a mask.
I loved it. I loved it so much my parents never needed to ask me if I wanted to auditions for anything ever again. I auditioned for everything I could. From then on my days were school, rehearsal for one show, another rehearsal or performance for another show, bed. If I had given my schoolwork the amount of attention I did to the stage, I would have been a straight A honor student. But I didn't. School was where I did the bare minimum to get by while I waited for the last bell so I could go do what I really wanted to do.
The pinnacle of my adolescent theater career came on the day of my high school graduation. The morning of my graduation my parents and I attended the traditional senior breakfast. After the pancakes, juice and coffee, in the middle of a list of speakers, my parents and I ducked out early, leaving my classmates and their parents behind in the rented ballroom of the Holiday Inn. I was soon rushing through the stage door of Billings Studio Theater, through the scene shop with its perpetual scents of paint and sawdust, into the dressing room and its scents of old clothes and stage makeup, and proceeded to transform. Taking off my blue button up dress shirt, I covered my face with a white foundation, making my pale skin even paler. I rouged my cheeks and applied a pair of long false eyelashes. I traded my beige khaki pleated pants for a pair of black tux pants with white tux shirt and a shiny jewel-red vest and tie. Once I added the final piece of a black tux jacket and tails, I would be ready to play the Emcee in a matinee performance of Cabaret.
But first I had to attend my graduation rehearsal.
Hopping back out the stage door in all my Joel Grey glory, I bounded across the grass lawn of Rocky Mountain College to the gymnasium, conveniently next door to the theater, where my class was gathering to rehearse and would be graduating that night. There I was with all my Catholic high school classmates still in their beige pleated pants, dress shirts in varying states of tucked and un-tucked, and conservative dresses. Looking at me, my classmates didn't blink an eye.
I was no stranger to adolescent politics where anyone who stood out for any reason was a target for the gang-like mentality of insecure teenagers trying desperately to fit in. I was always the odd duck, different, and dealt with my fair share of bullying. But by graduation, if I was being bullied in any way, I either didn't notice or didn't care. I wasn't popular in high school, but that didn't matter because I was popular after school while I rehearsed and performed on the stage. In a way, I stood so far out on that limb of being different that the insecurity of my classmates couldn't touch me. I wasn't trying to be different, I was just doing what I loved which for me was normal.
As normal as you can be singing Ave Maria in a shiny red vest and dancing eyelashes.
After the rehearsal, I bounded back over the college lawn to the theater, put on my jacket, and hit the stage in time to bid the audience, "Willkommen, Bienvenue, welcome." After the show I traded my Cabaret costume for my civilian clothes, emerald green robe and hat, and ran back over to the gym to graduate with the Billings Central Catholic High School class of 1997.
It was a good day
I don't imagine puberty being easy for anyone no matter what their sexuality. The awkwardness and insecurity of a changing body combined with a sexual awakening is stressful for any teen, especially in our American society where puritanical views are part of our national DNA.
I have to wonder though if my heterosexual counterparts had it easier. I mean, as we grow up, hormones take over seemingly against our will. We feel that certain stir and pull, we gaze sideways (or directly) at certain people, and our bodies rise to phase 2 without our permission and at the most inopportune times. All while adults tap dance around the moral idea of abstinence while attempting at the same time to educate about safe sex, which we shouldn't need because we shouldn't be having sex before marriage, but just in case, even though we know you're not going to...
For my straight friends, there was a caution against sex (which was for the most part ignored) followed by the promise of it later in the moral safe zone of marriage. "Have as much as you like, and have some kids while you're at it!"
But there was no promise for me.
I was a 15 year old freshman holding my arms tight to my sides, my armpits having taken advantage of my new and strong need for deodorant. While trying to not pick the acne on my face, I would gaze out the cafeteria windows at a senior football player, shirtless, throwing his equipment into the back of his black dodge pickup, with his perfect skin and hair, his meaty arms, back, and chest that tapered to a lean, hard stomach and waist, all earned in the basement weight room (a place I dared not go but had to walk past every day on my way to choir). I would try to stare without staring, wanting to be him, but also wanting to be near him, to smell him, to feel the thickness of his muscles, the weight of his body. Startled by the class bell, I would use my binder to shield the evidence that the unspeakable part of my body was at attention as I walked head down through the halls.
My first crush was on a boy the summer after my freshman year. We were doing House at Pooh Corner for the local community children's theater (something I felt I was growing out of since I wasn't a "child" anymore). He was Tigger and I was Pooh Bear. He was handsome, charming, and funny with a set of blue eyes I just wanted to gaze at while wanting them to gaze right back at me, though not for very long because my stupid giggles would give the game away.
One day after a performance I asked if he could give me a ride home. As we were getting into his car, he said, "Good job today."
"Thanks," I said, thinking he was saying it casually like "good game" after a ball game.
"No, I mean it. I was impressed. You did a really great job."
I was frozen, door open, one leg in, looking at him over the top of the roof. His blue eyes were looking directly at me. He was giving me a genuine compliment. He had been watching. He was impressed. With me!
"Thank you," I said, trying to be casual, trying to not let the giggly schoolgirl takeover, unable to prevent a smile, hoping that I wasn't blushing. His complement (and the way his hair naturally curled) was everything.
Though my first real crush was confusing - though not wholly unenjoyable - I was able to keep it in check. I never entertained the idea of acting on it. Even if I had thought acting on it was an option, I wouldn't have had the slightest idea how. The teenaged me growing up in mid 90's Montana had nothing to go on, nothing to copy or imitate. My dad or my brother certainly weren't going to teach me how to pick up guys, and I didn't see what I was going through, what I felt, represented anywhere in the world around me, so I had no idea what else could be done but simply exist with these feelings.
What I could do is look to the movies for indirect representation.
If you ask people what movie they associate Julie Andrews with during their childhood, you'll probably get a lot of Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. Not me. I distinctly remember being enraptured with Victor/Vitoria, planting myself in front of the TV any time the movie's signature lipsticked lips and curled mustache would appear.
Of course when I saw it in the mid 80s, I didn't understand or care when James Garner finally takes Julie Andrews in his arms and says, "I don't care if you are a man," kissing her.
"I'm not a man."
"I still don't care," Garner says, kissing her again.
Or when Robert Preston (or as I knew him, the guy who could take his face off in The Last Starfighter) declares, "Remember, lots of shoulder. You're a Drag Queen!" I was 7 or 8. I didn't know what a drag queen was. I just loved watching Le Jazz Hot and Andrews, with her headpiece of dripping crystals and body length fringe, surrounded by dancing men. I loved The Shady Dame and wished I had a fan to snap open and closed. I loved the music, the performing.
I found I was also drawn to strong female characters. My mother had a liking for sci-fi when I was growing up and would often put the Star Wars and Alien movies while she cleaned. I became very familiar with Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver ("Get away from her you BITCH!").
Then the 90s rolled around.
On one hand, I saw women in movies having the kind of deep emotional connections and relationships that, in hindsight, I realize I was desperate to see between two men.
At the end of Thelma and Louise, a mournful electric guitar plays as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis stare out the front of their convertible toward the canyon cliff. Trapped by police and FBI agents, wind gusting through their red hair, Davis looks at Sarandon and says, "Ok, let's not get caught."
Sarandon, "What are you talking about?"
"Let's keep going."
"What do you mean?"
Looking toward the cliff ahead, "Go."
They share a kiss. The tires spin in the dirt as they speed toward the cliff.
In Fried Green Tomatoes, rain falls outside an old southern home in the early 20th century. A dying Mary-Louise Parker asks Mary Stuart Masterson to tell her the story about the lake.
Masterson, "What lake?"
"That one that used to be here."
"Well that was just a lie."
"I know fool. Tell me anyway."
Before she can finish the story, Parker dies. Cicely Tyson enters, stops the grandfather clock in the room, then embraces the weeping Masterson. "It's all right honey. Let her go. Ya know Miss Ruth was a lady, and a lady always knows when to leave."
For me, these were on par with Romeo and Juliet. The kind of love a teenaged heart longs for.
On the other hand, when it came to depictions of men, the stories were a bit different.
There were the monsters.
In Silence of the Lambs, Ted Levine dons jewelry and makeup, talking to himself, "Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me. I'd fuck me so hard," before dancing naked for a camera in a brightly colored silk robe, wearing on his head the scalp and hair of a woman he's killed.
In Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis opens a basement door to find one of his captors raping a ball-gaged Ving Rhames. After Willis kills the watching captor, Rhames blows the genitals off his rapist with a shotgun. Violent and horrific as it was, this would be my first image of gay sex.
Then there was AIDS.
In Philadelphia, an emaciated AIDS-riddled Tom Hanks, IV drip in tow, translates La Mamma Morta for Denzel Washington while Maria Calais wails in the background. "Do you hear the heartache in her voice? Do you feel it Joe?"
In And the Band Played On, Mathew Modine and others try to convince a defiant gay community to shut down their bath houses while other gay men, taken care of friends and lovers, waste to skin and bone, riddled with the purple leasions of Kaposi's sarcoma, only to inevitably die, remembered with an ever-growing quilt.
Sure, there were images of real relationships here - Ian McKellen and BD Wong for one, Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas for another - but still it carried the message that being in meaningful gay relationship meant you were going take care of someone dying of AIDS if not die of AIDS yourself. Of course, for the 80s and 90s this was absolutely true for a horrifying number of gay men. But for me, a teenager in the 90s, in Montana, I wasn't able to connect.
By the mid 90s, AIDS was a household word, but for me it really wasn't much more than that. A fire raged that destroyed many lives. I knew about these fires, read about them, learned how to prevent them (safe sex). However, I had never felt the heat, smelt the smoke. There were no charred remains for me to sift through. AIDS did not exist in my life in a tangible way.
Then there were Drag Queens.
As much as I love them, The Birdcage and Too Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, the premise of both of these movies was need for gay men to hide in a straight world. Flamboyant gay men in absurdly improbable situations were made available for American mass consumption because of Robin Williams, Patrick Swayze, and Wesley Snipes.
I remember watching The Birdcage in the theater. Robin Williams tells Nathan Lane that he has to give up his scenic cemetery plot to get one next to Lane, "In that shithole Los Copa. So I never miss a laugh." Then, after signing a palimony agreement (whatever the hell that is), they hold hands. That's all. That's it. No kiss, no head on shoulder or together with foreheads touching. They hold hands.
"Fucking gross," I hear from a few rows behind me. Don't remember the audience reaction to the rape in Pulp Fiction, but I remember "fucking gross" because two men were holding hands.
Of course, these weren't the only films to feature gay men, but they were the only ones readily available to me. Monsters, rapists, AIDS, and drag queens.
This isn't me shaking my fist at the Man, blaming Hollywood for giving me narrow or inaccurate images of gay men. This is me saying I had nothing to go on one summer day in 1995 when my hands felt another man's body for the first time.
Duane and I were both 16. He had hair like Tom Cruise, dark eyes, tan skin, and a rich baritone radio voice. We lounged on the white carpet of my living room floor. In my denim shorts and a red t-shirt, I sat on the floor with my back against the wall. Duane was laying flat on the carpet perpendicular to me. My feet were flat on the floor, my legs bent like an arch over his waist. I don't know how we ended up in this position, but there we were.
We had been friends for the last couple of months and had been flirting more and more as the summer grew warmer, though I had no idea that's what I was doing. A brush of the hand. A hug that lasted too long. Finding his jokes funnier than perhaps they really were. Wanting to hang out with him all the time.
Now here we were, hardly breathing, not looking at each other. He put his hand on my ankle. He didn't move it, he just placed it there. Scared, trembling, I placed my hand on his shirt, my thumb and forefinger touching the skin of his stomach, not moving, just resting it there, as if it were the casual thing to do. Then his hand started slowly running up and down my shin. Taking his cue, I slowly ran my hand along the width of his stomach, still scared, unsure if I was misreading something, expecting him to jump up at any moment and storm out saying, "fucking gross."
But he didn't. Our hands kept going, beneath his shirt, up my thigh, creeping steadily down the front of his jeans, feeling his hand squeeze the connection between my upper thigh and hip. And on and on, not speaking, only breathing, afraid to even make a sound as if it would break the spell and we would wake from this dream.
I don't remember what music we had been pretending to listen to, but it might as well have been Deana Carter accompanied by an electric country guitar and fiddle, "Strawberry wine and 17. The hot July moon saw everything. My first taste of love, oh, bittersweet. The green on the vine like strawberry wine."
Duane was my first everything; he checked all the boxes. I fell madly and hard. The feeling was beyond the simple connection that he took my virginity. Here was a person who knew me as I really was, who wanted to be with me, who wanted to be physically connected to me. I was no longer alone. Duane was my first love and for a short time during the summer of '95 we were the only people who existed in the world.
Unfortunately, I wasn't Duane's first anything. His first had been the summer before with a boy named Will. By August, my first heated romance grew cold. Though he was still the only person who existed in my world with whom I could truly be myself, I became the only person in his world who he could talk to about Will.
"It's like I'm not there. Like I don't exist." He was sitting on the green couch in our basement, on the same cushions I had used ten years earlier to hide those burnt paper flowers. The lights were off and we saw by the glow of a muted TV nearby. I sat on the red carpet floor, hand on his thigh, trying to be comforting, looking up at him like the puppy in love that I was, wondering where I had gone, why I wasn't good enough, why I ceased to exist.
Broken heart at 16, check.
Our paths took us separate ways but never really apart. I became more accepting of myself as a gay man and continued to do all the theater I could. He would become a Mormon and join the Marines. We would hang out and sometimes we would fool around, but by the time I graduated high school (with my dancing false eyelashes) I was almost completely out of the closet. He was dating women and driving a used yellow truck.
I spent the summer of '97 an invincible 18 year old with a shored-up heart, impatiently biding my time, bartending, having scandalous affairs with a couple of older men, screaming along with the cast recording of Rent on repeat, anxiously waiting for fall to arrive so I could leave the nest and start my next chapter.