Decision Tree

This is a pretty simple concept. When I was in fifth grade all of the kids in the neighborhood decided we were going to steal alcohol and cigarettes from our parents and throw a little party. Needless to say, my best friend and I were the youngest, 9 and 10, while the other kids were almost in high school. Because they were much older, the told us we should bring the beer and cigarettes. If I remember correctly, I volunteered to bring the cigarettes and my friend stated that he would bring the beer.

Later that night, we met in the middle of the cul de sac, our loot in tow. We ventured out to the woods and began to have our party. I think we might have lit one cigarette and shared a fourth of one beer before a parent found us and the party was busted.

Being the my parents had recently divorced, but continued to always parent on the same page, my mother called my father. Later that night he showed up. I don’t remember much about what happened that night but I do remember sitting on the steps in our entry way talking to my parents. Although I cried the entire time, my parents were not harsh or bitter, only asking me to be as honest as possible about the activities of the evening and who decided what was to be brought to the party.

I didn’t know it at the time, but every other kid involved lied and placed the blame of the evening on me. Apparently I was the one who came up with the idea. I was the one who volunteered to bring the beer and the cigarettes and I was the only one who drank or smoked. Funny…I didn’t remember it that way?

My parents asked me only once, “Are you sure that’s the truth?”, and I answered yes. “If you say it’s the truth, then I believe it’s the truth.” My father said. “We raised you to be honest and I believe we did our job.” There was some discussion about what I thought my punishment should be and then I was dismissed while my parents sat on the front porch and talked about the incident…while drinking a beer.

For the rest of that summer, all of the kids in the neighborhood were unable to play with me because their parents had termed me a “bad influence”. They would ride up and down the street and shout “smoker, smoker” and “drinker, drinker” at me, knowing they had been part of the party as well.

I was 10. During that same summer, my friend and I had been caught by his father dressed in drag in the front yard of my house. My mother took a picture of us, every bit the Kennedy clan in wide brimmed hats, smoking tree twigs as cigarettes. His father had been furious. My mother laughed as our neighbor hauled my friend away while tripping on his long gown.

When I was in high school I got in trouble for another drinking party. While talking to my father over dinner he brought up the incident from the summer of my tenth year. “You know, I was always very proud of you for that night.” He said. “The other kids were rewarded by their parents for lying because those parents couldn’t deal with the fact that their children could possibly engage in such behaviors. They received new hockey equipment and shoes while you were punished for your involvement. Their lies will haunt them.” He told me.

“In life, there is a decision tree. The tree grows into a trunk which supports the rest of the tree. This is the foundation of your morals and values given to you when you are young as well as any of your genetic makeup. Next, we have the branches. Each branch splits in two eventually. Each branch represents choices you make in your life. Each choice leads to two or more choices and so forth. As you grow, your decision tree grows and all of your choices compound on top of one another. I wish I could show you my decision tree, and explain all of the good and poor choices I made in my life so that you could live your life to the fullest based on my experience. Unfortunately, you have to grow your own branches. Your mother and I always understood that which is why that evening, whether you had been telling the truth or not, we knew your choice would ultimately affect mostly your life. One lie would lead to another lie and to another lie. As life moves forwards, those kids who lied that not will display similar behaviors but you will be a finer human being for telling the truth and moving through difficult choices.”

And then he patted my back and the lesson was over.

I won’t bore you by telling you I became one of the most prolific liars this century has ever seen or that I had countless arrests and addiction treatments. I won’t bore you with how I treated people horribly, felt that I was owed something from my family and blamed other people for all of my mistakes. I won’t bore you with the countless drugs I did or how much alcohol and cigarettes I used over the years. I definitely won’t bore you with details about how I didn’t care about others’ feelings for years and only, selfishly, thought about my wants and needs.

But I will tell you that because of those years, I do not behavior in any way like that today. In fact, I attempt to live such a right life by the standards I set for myself that I am completely offended when others challenge these values. About a year ago, a business associate accused Alex and I of lying about how we had witnessed an event and reported it. I won’t dredge up the past because, as I stated, I’ve learned from those behaviors and don’t react the same way today, therefore we are friends again and both apologized for hurting each others’ feelings.

Needless to say, in being called a liar I explained that I was completely offended because that challenged the foundation of my sobriety and my values. If I am a liar, then the rest of it is a scam true; my recovery, my relationships…all of it. I might be a lot of things. But I am not a liar. Those behaviors of yesteryear were my picking the wrong branches to climb. Today, I choose different branches because I’ve learned…and my dad was right. In looking at his choices and the choices of others, and learning from one another, I’ve been allowed to live a better life.

While dissecting your life, ask yourself, Am I happy? Are there things I want to change? Are there things I believe are out of my control? What would I change today that would make me happier?

Now look at your choices!

You have many choices. The fact is not that you don’t have choices. The fact is that you don’t like where your choices lead. Many of us don’t like our choices, but sometimes choices we didn’t want to take led us in the right direction. I had no intention of staying in treatment on December 17, 1994 but by going I’ve been allowed to have the most amazing life possible. While working in treatment, I was adamant I was not going to participate in a new family group therapy program that had been designed, but after making the choice to participate rather than be fired, I learned I loved working with families. I was also forced to do an internship in an inner city elementary school. I begged and pleaded with my dean to let me do another internship, but due to my lack of planning, it was all that was left. During that internship, I met my mentor and had some of the best life change experiences ever!

It is easier to let go than to resist.

That branch was my most important.

My parents were very wise. They knew how to raise me with enough liberty to become the person I was meant to become while guided enough to have the values and morals they had learned would further me the most in this life. They were wise because they never allowed me to see them argue, with the exception of a few occasions, and they never spoke poorly of each other. They never made parenting decision without consulting one another. They did this because they loved me. They were the best parents any kid could wish for in life.

My mother was very, very wise. She never threw anything away in fear of possibly needing it again someday. Downstairs in our basement, right on top of her old Smith-Corona typewriter, sits a gorgeous photograph of the Kennedy sisters, both draped in beautiful dresses, wide-brimmed floppy hats shading their faces as they drink lemonade and smoke cigarette tree branch twigs.

I might post that picture someday…hell, we’re on borrowed time as it is!

Spotlight 2010…LOVE!

Love. Red. Ribbons. Lots of them. Smiles. Embrace. Voices carry. Dancers tango on an orange dusk wind across the stage. Children sing innocently just moments before a seven foot drag queen discos her Last Dance across the stage to Donna Summer. Front porch soliloquies so southern they make you want to throw in The Color Purple. At last the jazz heats up the stage a frying pan simmering rendition while strings collide melodically and prose weaves together our heartstrings, our hands held over the arms of our seats in the auditorium. Ribbons. Red. Lots of them. Love.

Spotlight 2010…A magical journey and cacophony of 18 of the best performers in Indianapolis all together tonight at Clowes Hall, raising over $300,000($4 Million in the last 15 years)for HIV/AIDS prevention and education. All proceeds benefiting the Indiana AIDS Fund.

Love.

We had our favorites, of course. The Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre and the Kenyetta Dance Company. Absolutely amazing. And Milicent Wright from IRT. No words can explain…especially Tasha Jones, whose words about Love…LOVE…inspire us even tonight.

What an amazing time we had, running into people from all of different worlds, in one place, for one reason. It was a little hard to understand, then, that to our dismay, the evening would take an interesting twist. As the Indianapolis Men’s Choir sang softly and tenderly from the stage, the two women in front of us would decide to begin calling their friends on their cell phones. For several minutes we tolerated this, coughing under our breath and slightly tapping their chairs, all decent signs, to please…be quiet. Even from rows behind and in front of us, the small chatter of uncomfortable coughing could be heard. Finally, we had had enough. “Shut up!” We said. The response, a twist of a weave, head flip, flip phone closed with one hand. “Did he just tell me to shut up? Oh, no! I’m grown!” And we were silent.

Silent.

Until she said quietly, but audible enough to be heard for several rows, “Faggot”. Silence. Until the man next to her said, “You didn’t really just say that did you.” I mean…let’s be for real, we no longer corner the market on HIV and AIDS propaganda but quite a few seats were filled by the gay men-nation, not to mention lesbians, bisexual and several, several transgendered people. And then they laughed.

But maybe we’ve been silent long enough. So we complained. Trying to remain classy and not say what we would have really liked to have said. Class is the true sign of a “grown” person. And the poor, older, white haired woman seating people said, “Oh my, I’ve never dealt with anything like that before.” But the two women got progressively louder and louder, until they were asked to leave.

And love for the respect of the performers persevered. And somebody grown got told.

And after the show, the man in front of us said, “can you believe she said that?” and a woman behind us said, “you did the right thing.” And for years and years, so many of us sit by idly and don’t say anything and allow this kind of injustice. But not tonight. And not from now on. And maybe because rows of people, and performers donating their time and organizers and planners got together and said, “shut up” to HIV/AIDS, maybe…maybe…one person’s life will be saved…and that makes all the difference.

All because of love baby. All because of love.
Ain’t it great!

A Project of Love…

Often we cross paths with someone we never expected to meet who profoundly changes our life. Today was one of those days for me.
Recently we had been contacted by the marketing executive for writer Barbara Benjamin Marcus who developed the book Inside Out; a tapestry of photographs and interviews of drag queens from Key West, New York City, Tampa, Provincetown and Los Angeles. When I first skimmed through the book, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I thought the pictures were amazing, but none of the drag queens were extremely stunning and honestly, I didn’t delve into the words written between the photographs; until today.
Barbara called me for our interview and at first I was taken back by her impressive quality of storytelling and her deep love for her characters. “You have to understand these are all people on the fringe”, she explained, “There is something beautiful in each of them. They feel beautiful. Getting dressed in drag is a big deal. It’s expensive. And above all else, it’s very personal. This book became a project of love.”
She continued to tell me the story of how the idea for the book was given birth. She explained how her daughter told her to take pictures of the drag queens. After that, she found herself at a Red Ribbon fundraiser for AIDS and although admittedly shy, introduced herself to Margo, the oldest drag queen in the book, and asked to set up and appointment to take her portrait. She allowed Margo, like every queen in the book, to choose her own makeup, hair, costumes and presentation, as well as pick their own pictures to be used. She allowed each model to choose their own pictures and she either threw out the ones she didn’t use or she gave them to the models. “It was important that they understood I wouldn’t hurt them. Margo served as my sponsor, introducing me to some of the drag queens and showing them the photograph I had taken.”

What resulted was 40 individual stories of how each person reached this stage in their life. Stories varying from a drag queen who was a Pentecostal pastor for 12 years to a man involved in the Gay Games to marriages, children and a lifetime of misunderstanding, acceptance and growth. But all of them share that feeling of beauty which Barbara caught on film. “It’s not about who you can have sex with, it’s about who you can love. I know what I’m looking for. That’s the difference”, as explained by The Lady Dante. “You’re not born in a closet, you’re pushed into it.”
As I spoke with Barbara, her own personal story came out. When asked about her concept of beauty, she explained that at 17, she won a local beauty contest in New York City, Miss Surf Maid, and was awarded a two week trip to Europe. While traveling she was introduced to all kinds of people and realized that everyone has something beautiful in them. She also shared that she was married to actor Robert Duvall, who she endearingly referred to as Bobby, during his filming of Godfather II . She and I discussed his playing Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird and how it had always been one of my favorite films and how Boo Radley was somewhat a symbol for gay men in hiding today. She explained that while married to Robert Duvall, she learned about the importance of acting as characters in all of our lives. “I’ve always loved that RuPaul quote. When I was working on this book, I wrote it down and posted it up in my house to remind me.” The same quote is eloquently posted at the beginning of her book. “We’re all born naked, everything else is drag.”
As I spoke with Barbara, flipping through her book as she explained stories about the different drag queens, I learned that each of us has our own story which makes us beautiful and unique. “Vinnie on page 19 is deaf. Deaf? Can you believe that? He knew I would want to interview him so he came with his questions and answers written down. Musty Chiffon came to my house and I photographed him at the cemetery. The next day, he came to my house out of drag and my husband didn’t even recognize him! And Scabby, Scabola Feces”, she laughed to herself, “so colorful and creative. And oh so clever! When he performed Marry Me Bill I almost died!” Her love for each drag queen was evident in her grand storytelling of how she met each model, photographed them and was allowed to hear their story. And it reminded me of months ago when I wrote a piece about drag and a reader commented that not every drag queen wanted to win a pageant, some just liked dressing up, feeling beautiful and performing. And for that, they should be greatly appreciated. I agree.
Inside Out reminded me of a book I read years ago about twenty women on death row, each one intricately and vulnerably sharing how they had reached that place in their life; inviting the reader into their lives, pain and pleasure.
Barbara Benjamin Marcus has been kind enough to open her lens and introduce us to these 40 fine “ladies”, who remind us that we are joined in the commonality of being gay but our individual stories create an amazingly, beautiful tapestry known as the gay community. On the outside, looking in, we’re all alike. But on the inside, looking out, we’re very, very different. Barbara has exposed that truth. We each have our own voice; sometimes singing in tune, sometimes singing to our own rhythm.
Thank you Barbara. What an awesome songstress!
Barbara’s book Inside Out can be purchased at Barnes and Nobel, Amazon.com, Freg Segal and Marc Jacobs. You can also find out more about Barbara and her story at InsideOutthebook.com.