From the time I was 13 until I was 18, my parents found gay porn in my room 15 times. Sometimes they’d give me warnings before they’d search (giving me time to dispose of the pictures I had painstakingly chosen and printed on our inefficient bubble jet printer or on the black-and-white printers at school). Other times the inspections were sudden, tornadoes that left drawers overturned and tears in their wake. The searches would begin with my exclamations that I had been framed (once, I blamed my brother for planting the material; another time I told my parents I was holding the porn for a friend) and end with promises that I would never, ever look at such things again.
My mother would sometimes buy the excuse that I had printed the photos because I wanted to look like the men in the pictures (not untrue, although it was hard to ignore the fact that most of the images were of two men engaging in sexual congress), but my father would always end the proceedings with angry eyes, saying in his thick Russian accent, “One day, Mark, you will say, ‘Daddy, I am gay,’ and you will not be a part of this family anymore.” I hoped that day would never come.
But I knew I was gay, and in high school, I was starting to feel ready to tell people. The first person I came out to was a woman named Patricia. She was in her late 20s, new to the city, and taking the N home from the Powell Street station. I sat next to her, asked her the time, and before I knew it, I was telling her I was gay. When she got off at Carl and Cole Streets, she told me that it was going to be okay. “You’re in the 11th grade now,” she told me. “But next year you’ll be graduating, and then you can move out of your house and just live your life. You’re going to be fine.”
By the time I was in 12th grade, I gradually slid out of the closet. At first, I told my friends that I was attracted to people, not genders, and then I feigned surprise that most of these people were usually (always) male. “It’s not like I planned this,” I told my friend Jukey as we walked home from a play we had just seen at Lincoln High School one night. “It kind of just happened. The heart wants what it wants, you know?”
“Does this mean you like shopping now?” Jukey asked. “Because we should go shopping.” Instead, we went to her house and went trolling in the chat rooms of America Online for eligible bachelors.
Coming out at school was surprisingly easy. I attended School of the Arts, a visual- and performing-arts school that was then housed on San Francisco State University property (now a soccer field) and had the distinction of being one of the most liberal and progressive high schools in the Bay Area. While there were drawbacks to going there (asbestos falling from the ceiling and the fact that I never once had a math teacher who could make me understand geometry), homophobia was not one of them. But before I officially came out at school, I had been fairly homophobic myself.
In the 10th grade I told an openly gay classmate to “keep his fag mouth shut” (and then felt bad about it for the rest of the year). While there’s no excuse for being hateful, it wasn’t easy being open to homosexuality growing up with parents who once told me that being gay was worse than being a drug addict (you could be cured!) or having cancer (you could be cured, or you could die). And every gay person, they told me, has AIDS. Hearing all this made me a little anxious around people who were flamboyantly out. “I’m different than they are,” I told myself. But I wasn’t.
When I stopped hiding the fact that I was gay at school, I went through a phase of becoming more and more of a caricature of myself. I don’t think this was because I embraced stereotypes as much as it was a defense. If I made the jokes and flung my wrist around before anyone else made mention of my sexuality, then there was no way anyone could hurt me with their comments. I turned up the show tunes and went through an awkward period of wearing only processed silk shirts that I had found at the back of my dad’s closet.
On my 17th birthday, I visited the Castro for the first time with my friend Dawn. I had been to the Castro a handful of times growing up, but always when my parents’ visiting friends were in town and wanted to see what San Francisco was known for. We’d drive the car down the Castro drag and stare at the men holding hands. My brother and I would count rainbow flags in windows while my parents explained what was going on to their shocked friends from out of town. For my family, the gays were a landmark, just like the Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street.
I don’t know what I expected the Castro to be like outside the windows of my family’s minivan, but it was both exhilarating and terrifying. Here were stores full of exotic wares and stacks of pornographic films in their bright centers. At Phantom I found both Muscle Cops 3 on clearance and temporary body jewelry that attached magnetically. Down the street at A Different Light, there were tarot cards and gay-themed literature in the same store. I fantasized about standing outside of Hot Cookie, eating giant chocolate-chip confections while trying to catch the eye of someone attractive. But that, unfortunately, wasn’t something I would be ready for until years later, when I grew more secure with myself, and my flamboyance faded a little and merged with the person I really was: loud and boisterous, sure, but also less of a cartoon.
I finally came out to my parents shortly after my 18th birthday. I had gone for a jog, and when I returned, my mother came to me with a pack of nude playing cards in her hands.
“I found these in your backpack.” She said.
“OK.” I replied.
“This is gay stuff.” She explained. “Why you have this?”
“I got it for my birthday. It was a joke!” I told her.
“OK, we throw away.” She made a move toward the back door of our apartment, planning to throw the deck directly into the garbage chute, but I stopped her.
“No, I’m 18 now, and those are mine. Just put them back where you found them.” I said politely, thinking that regardless of how this conversation was starting, it would end with the gnashing of teeth and the rending of clothes, with spilled tears and slammed doors and an ultimatum about changing my ways or moving out immediately,
But none of that happened. I took the deck of playing cards and walked back to my bedroom and tossed them into my backpack. My mother remained in the kitchen, looking dumbstruck that for once I was denying nothing, that the day my father feared had come. And faced with the choice of having to accept my sexual orientation or disown me, my parents made the harder choice. They’re certainly never going to wave flags at the Pride parade, but they’ll also stand up for me if one of their friends or family members says something disparaging. But of course, old habits die hard.
“Mark, gay is forever, right?” my mom will sometimes ask me, somehow blocking out the fact that I’ve been in a committed relationship for the past six years.
“Yes, forever.” I tell her.
“Just checking,” she’ll say. And considering how much she’s had to evolve to understand and accept who I am, I really can’t blame her.