“It’s all in the mind.”
― George Harrison
“Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know, the birth of Santa?”
― Matt Groening
“I'm really glad that I found a few gay friends, because it totally saved me from becoming a monk or something.”
― Kurt Cobain
Last week, before complete lockdown, I walked through a local mall and saw a sad sight – Santa’s empty chair in the middle of a faux-North Pole vignette.
It was sad for a couple of reasons, most obviously, it reminded me of what Covid has robbed from us.
I was also sad because it seemed like it was just yesterday that my kids couldn’t wait to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
Nowadays I couldn’t get them off their devices if I told them Saint Nick was at the front door – unless BTS was pulling his sleigh instead of eight magical reindeer.
But as my sadness receded, I thought back to a much more pleasant Santa-related experience, one that reminded me of how much my thinking has evolved since I was a kid.
Every boy in the 3rd grade at Burke Elementary School knew that a would-be pursuer in a game of freeze tag could be stopped in his tracks by pulling out an invisible can of “gay” and spraying it towards him.
On the adjacent football field, queers were smeared on a regular basis, often multiple times per day.
And though implying that they were a small imaginary being who wore a sparkly dress and carried a glitter wand would rub any eight-year-old boy the wrong way, that wasn’t the intended meaning when the word “fairy” was thrown about during a dodgeball game.
This was the world I grew up in during the mid-seventies in Southern California, where the prevailing view of gay men wasn’t as derogatory as it may have been in the Midwest, but surely wasn’t as evolved as it was in San Francisco.
To be fair, my pre-adolescent view of gay men was abstract at best.
I didn’t know any gay people (as far as I knew), nor had I ever met any gay people (as far as I knew).
I certainly never heard my parents — or any adults for that matter — speak negatively about gays and looking back it is hard to figure out how that low-level, subliminal homophobia crept into my friend’s and my psyche.
But it had.
By the time I got into high school, my friends and I understood what it meant, in real-world terms, to be gay, and the idea made us uneasy.
Adolescent boys are idiots to start with — just ask adolescent girls — but in the early 80s’ their idiocy in relation to homosexuality was severe.
Nobody I hung out with, or that I knew, would ever have condoned or participated in any actual violence against someone we suspected of being gay, but we certainly didn’t want them teaching at our school or playing on the football team with us.
What if they taught us to be gay? Or used their gaydar in the locker room to try and convert us?
Some of this prejudice stemmed from an unenlightened idea of what being gay meant in a time before schools were willing, or legally able, to broach the subject.
And some came from hormones.
I can’t speak for every teenage boy, but I can speak for all of my male friends at the time, and the only thing that was on our minds was sex.
If you had been able to look into any of our brains during the adolescent years, at any random time, day, or night, all you would have seen were the letters S-E-X projected against the walls of our cerebral cortex.
And that’s the lens through which we framed our view of gay men.
I for one didn’t know anything about relationships, or commitment, and I sure as hell didn’t know anything about love.
In the absence of that understanding, when I thought about a gay relationship, all I thought about was sex.
The type of sex that was foreign and scary to a straight teenage boy in the 80s’.
Ironically, not unlike what we were probably doing with girls at the time, my friends and I were objectifying gay men sexually, which kept us from understanding and relating to them like, well, just like people.
As I said, adolescent boys are idiots.
It’s safe to say that by my senior year I’d reached the zenith of my latent homophobia.
Then everything changed.
One day a girlfriend of mine told me her parents were looking for someone to work for them part-time, and since my folks had recently told me I would soon need to start earning my own gas money, I jumped at the chance to take the job.
A job at an interior design showroom.
The following is not a stereotype, in fact, I believe it can be mathematically proven that there is no other industry in which a higher percentage of gay males work than in the interior design industry.
I am not exaggerating when I say that there were two types of interior designers that came into the showroom where I worked, females, and gay men, and the females were in the minority.
It was at that job where I first met a gay man, or at least a man who openly, and proudly, self-identified as gay.
It was also there where I learned that the cliché’ of most gay men being intelligent, articulate, talented, funny, and goddam well-dressed human beings was not a cliché’ at all, but a demonstrable fact.
After graduating from high school I left that job and started a logistics company that catered specifically to the interior design industry, and most of my initial customers were those same great gay men.
And over the next 20 years, as I got to know my customers better, I had the pleasure and the good fortune to become more involved in their lives.
During that time I had more dinners at the homes of gay couples and more drinks at gay clubs than any other heterosexual man I knew.
I also witnessed the AIDS epidemic explode and watched more friends die than anyone, straight or gay, should ever have to.
Then at some point, I don’t know exactly when it happened, I ceased to see “gay people,” and just saw people.
I didn’t have “gay friends” anymore, I just had friends.
Being gay became remarkably unremarkable to me, something I was reminded of from time to time.
Like when I was with my wife and a group of friends at dinner in San Francisco and our male waiter flirted with me.
The sixteen-year-old Brian would have freaked out, but I was flattered, maybe even more so than if it had been a female waiter.
I felt like somehow I had “made it” by being hit on by a gay man.
A number of years later I was in Hollywood to meet a friend for dinner when he texted to say his meeting was running long and he’d be about an hour late.
No problem I figured, I’ll just grab a drink at a local bar and cool my heels, so I found what looked like a good Irish bar, went in, and ordered a Guinness.
After about fifteen minutes, a thought struck me.
There are no women in this bar.
Then it dawned on me that the bartender was rocking a pretty accurate post-WHAM George Michael look.
On a hunch, I pulled out my phone and searched Yelp.
Sure enough, I had wandered into the only gay Irish bar in West Hollywood.
“Huh? What are the odds of that, I thought?” Then finished my drink and ordered another.
Which brings me back to Santa.
Maybe five years ago or so I found myself standing in line with my kids, waiting to get a picture with a department store Santa.
The line was long. Too long. And too slow.
But that gave me time to strike up a conversation with the man behind me and his partner, who like me, were there trying to make holiday memories for their kids.
We talked about our children and what we hoped for them.
We discussed being fathers and our insecurities about how good a job we were doing as parents.
We talked about our own fathers, the weather, sports, the state of the public school system, and why the line was moving so deathly slow.
Three dads, talking like all dads do, just that two of those dads were from one family.
And I was happy to say that I found that fact remarkably unremarkable.