By age 10 I had become pretty adept at taking the pulse of a room. I knew when my dad had too much to drink, when a holiday was in danger of being cancelled, when the cake would go uneaten, when my mom was fed-up and overwhelmed. Most of the time I tested a space before plunging in, but not always. When I neglected to do so, there was sometimes a price to pay, so I honed the skills needed to measure heart rates without so much as laying a finger on anyone’s wrist or throat.
There were many times as a child when I knew to keep my head down, my body out of arm’s reach, under a bed, behind the clothes in a closet, in the coal bin. I knew to keep my thoughts to myself, at least the ones I suspected would not be received without violence. Still, at times I was caught off guard. Over time, I recognized that taking the pulse of a room alone would not protect me from violence. The slapping, yelling, and hitting with sticks, broom handles, and fists was shocking at times, but never rally a surprise. Anything could happen any time, but I could not predict how or when.
These skills of taking the pulse became really handy when, at age 16, I understood myself to be gay and decided to tell people about it. At the time I lived in a friary and started the disclosure process with my spiritual advisor. Though he was generally an approachable guy, I really picked him in part because he was a good man who had quite recently offended me deeply by publicly calling me a sissy because of how I was standing in line for lunch. All of us stood as usual in a long line in complete silence, avoiding eye contact, wearing a contemplative look in our work or street clothes or our habits. We didn’t lean against walls or prop ourselves along the long kitchen counters that held our dishes and cutlery, but I had shifted my weight from one leg to another, and maybe crossed my arms. I suspect he noticed I was gay and associated it with how I was standing, but confused the situation to believe he saw a behavior that could be confused for being gay. I could tell he regretted his words immediately, so later that night I went to him to discuss the hurt I felt from the public humiliation. When he apologized, my advisor added that I could change my behavior, too. I agreed that I could indeed change my behavior, but I would still be a sissy in his eyes no matter what I did or did not do, because I was attracted to men and that would not change. Thus, I came out.
The following months were tense beyond belief. My family didn’t know in 1964 what gay was. The term gay — indeed the whole concept of a homosexual orientation — was not commonly understood. In a way, the pulse of my family and the friary reflected the hostile and fearful attitudes of the times. An amazing and highly professional psychiatrist proclaimed me healthy, intelligent and a bit fragile in terms of managing the pushback I was likely to get in life given who I was. He encouraged my parents to follow my lead in this discovery and disclosure, and he encouraged me to take it slow.
In my final year of high school, I did not have a gay community. It was, after all, four years before Stonewall. I had left the friary and in my new local public school I tried to find community in chorus and creative writing, but both were surprisingly straight. In my first year of college, little changed at first. I had never seen my college campus until the day fifty years ago when I got off the Jackson-Downer bus, accidentally plunged the lead of a pencil into my right thigh, and headed into a Gothic building to take placement tests. Looking over the other prospective students in the large hall, I got the sense that I would be okay there, on that campus among other scared, smart students. Months later in the Union and at the Newman Center, I found my circle of friends who had no words to describe who I was. The unspoken consensus seemed that I could be funny and smart and great in the bigger spaces of parties, but I was unlikely to have those one-on-one conversations late at night with a girl, both of us leaning against a wall just next to the door to the kitchen, where the beer was — the beer and the door to the back way out. I pretty freely let people know I was gay, but frankly few people had a glimmer about what that meant in practical terms.
Still, I was out as a homosexual young man. A few girls dated me, though I am not quite sure what any of us thought would happen. The closest I initially came to identifying other gay students in those first years was while reviewing student applications to the University as one aspect of a part-time job. A handful of good looking male applicants listed their religious affiliation as Zoroastrian; I wondered if that were code of some kind. In my sophomore year, I took classes from Drs. Durning and Holst. I didn’t know if they were gay or not. Both were impossibly different from me in so many ways. They were smart, sophisticated, highly educated, and middle class. Only after Dr. Durning committed suicide did I learn of his sexual identity. My knowledge of Dr. Holst would take another 50 years before I took the time to track down his history. My affinity for these two men, however, was likely tied to some felt link that prompted their interest in my education and my desire to please them with excellent academic performance. I could sense our bonds even if I could not name them then. After all, did homosexual people live into adulthood?
When I was 19 or 20, I found an Episcopal Church choir where I could be myself in the context of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and supportive straight people. We were closer to those images of cathedral choirs on the BBC than have been seen in since in the Midwest USA. Our surpluses were extra flowing and fell below the knee. We followed a crucifer in procession for mass, matins, and evensong. We dated each other, broke up, got pissed, and mended our relationships. We had almost no idea what we were doing, but were nevertheless developing sexual identities in a period long before there was a guide book, and in a period when most public spaces felt unsafe to us. We could sense when to laugh and when to be silent and doe-eyed, when to clasp another’s hand and when to step a disinterested foot away.
During this time, I disclosed to more and more heterosexual people who I am and how I identified. My neighbors, fellow students, and pastor knew me to be gay. So, too, did my growing circle of friends. Before I was 21, I hung out at some coffee houses and around campus in spots I determined were safe for me to be myself. When I took the pulse of these spaces, I recognized that they were not uniformly safe, but rather that their safety could change by the day, the hour, and by who walked through the door next.
When hundreds of Brown and Black LGBT people went to a nightclub in Orlando last month to celebrate Pride, graduations, new jobs, new loves, recent successes, the weekend, and old times, they had already been taking the pulse of many other possible places to live as large as possible. They knew the atmosphere in their families, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. Some understood themselves to be accepted. Most, however, felt the shift in energy when they wore that shirt, those pants, that haircut. They had negotiated in ways too many to count based on their ability to take the pulse of the spaces in which they tried to live. Unfortunately, they could not ever get it completely right every time. Shade would be thrown, a table turned over, a fist clenched, bullets fired into their skin.
We cannot make an accurate assessment in the places we call home or want to call home, because the exceptional premise under which we labor — that fantasy that our schools are safe, our families are loving, our sanctuaries are holy, and Liberty is ours — requires us to maintain the charade that the pulse in these spaces is normal when in fact our society’s new normal is none of these.
If I cannot reconcile my experience with the narrative of personal freedom, how can young Black and Brown people do so? The floor of the Pulse nightclub shows us the lie for what it is, gives focus to the realities we avoid, and amplifies the cry for justice. The presidential candidate who would have us believe that we can be great again is aligned not with those people on the floor and their families, but with the terrified, divisive, and xenophobic people who prompted the shooter to understand his behavior to be defensible and his own life to be expendable.
[Four weeks ago, I wrote that I would take a month’s hiatus from daily writing to sort out what I wanted to say before I said it. The month turned into two, and still daily writing has not returned. I am considering a different pace and will keep my readers posted.]