Today my guest, speaking on this special year and the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and what the world knows as the birth of Gay Pride, is my special friend Jamie Fessenden. And you are in for a treat.
Jamie is a man who will always keep you guessing and always be a source of the unexpected. That is a small part of what I like so much about him. Five him free reign to do something, and he always gives me what I didn’t expect. For instance, when I asked him to write a story for my anthology A More Perfect Union, to write a story about same-sex marriage told from the perspective of a legally married gay man who figured he never would be allowed to be legally married, he turned in a breath taking story that I realized was almost entirely autobiographical. Not what I expect—but perfect.
And when I asked him if he would participate in this celebration of fifty years of Gay Pride, told him that I would appreciate a minimum of 250 words, but he could go on as long as he wanted, guess what Jamie did? Well, unlike my other guests who gave me wonderful essays that ranged from about 250 to 700 words, Jamie gave me just short of 3.000! And I love him for it!
Jamie said to me after sending this essay to me: “Looking at your blog, I can see that mine is far too rambling, compared to the others. Don’t feel you have to use it. It was fun writing it – kind of therapeutic.”
Not use it? Is he crazy? Of course I was using it, and am using it! Because it is long and really tells his truth and his story, and because I hope that it might be “therapeutic” to you as well.
I have so much to say about this man, this wonderful writer, this man who always blows me away with his insights and his pure passion, and the best roommate ever, but if I don’t stop now, my into will be as long as his essay.
I do have to say that Jamie’s participation makes me especially happy since this means that all the “boys” from the A More Perfect Union anthology wrote an essay. Jamie, J. Scott Coatsworth and Michael Murphy (you can read their essays by clicking on their names). Tomorrow you get mine and that really is all four of us!
So, this is it…I am stopping! And letting you go on a read something that should not be missed. Enjoy! I know you will!
And thank you so much Jamie,
And a Happy Pride to You and Everyone!
BG “Ben” Thomas
Thirty Years of Pride
by Jamie Fessenden
I came out in the early eighties, when I was still a teenager. I also had the misfortune of attending the Assembly of God church my father attended. So right out of the starting gate, before I’d even had my first sexual experience, I was EVIL. I prayed about it in secret, read the Bible, and fought my “sinful urges” for about a year, until I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t deny how I felt, I couldn’t accept the lame explanations for why sex with someone of the same gender was wrong, if both of us were consenting adults, and I couldn’t continue to participate in a religion that made no sense to me.
So, I gave up on Christianity.
Maybe if I’d known my stepfather at the time (a Baptist minister my mother married, when I was in college), I’d have stuck it out. Bob is a wonderful man with an inclusive view of his religion. But I didn’t know him back then. While my mother accepted me without condemnation, she was divorced from my father and no longer attended church, which didn’t make her the best person to bring me back into the fold. (To be fair, I didn’t come out to my father back then, and I’ve since discovered he’s a bit more open-minded than his church.)
This was a decade after Stonewall, but though things had changed, it was still not a welcoming world for a young gay man. As a teenager, I was convinced I had to be the only gay man in my small town. I could find no evidence of an LGBTQ community. Keep in mind, this was before the Internet. There was nothing to guide me, except the few gay porn magazines in the bookstore. The used bookstore in town had some gay novels. I bought pretty much every one I found, as well as the ones that popped up sporadically over the next several months (this should have been a clue that other gay men were in the area, but I was slow.) Unfortunately, nearly all ended tragically, which just sent me into a downward spiral of depression. I was convinced that gay men could never find love and settle down with a family. We were doomed to anonymous encounters in porn shops, and death from AIDS or gay-bashing.
I’d come out to a family friend even before coming out to my mother. I knew she’d be supportive, and she was the one who convinced me my mother would be accepting. Through her, I found out that the local supermarket rag, which carried mostly coupons, had a Personals column in the back, and she’d seen some MFM (male-for-male) ones. I picked up a copy of the paper and there were, in fact, a few MFM ones. Most were intimidating, implying that they were looking for sex. At nineteen, I was still a virgin.
But one stood out. The age was five years older than me, which seemed okay, and he specifically said he wanted friendship and someone to hang out with, rather than a hookup. The only way to respond to the ads was by snail mail, and I had no idea what to say, so I copied his ad to show I was looking for the same thing, and simply replaced my age for his. Then I mailed it.
A month went by, and I grew even more depressed. Apparently, I wasn’t appealing, even to a total stranger who knew nothing about me. My attempt at humor had backfired. My mother caught me sobbing in my room over it and hugged me, while I told her how lonely and miserable I was. She couldn’t do anything, but it helped, knowing she supported me. I had no idea at the time just how lucky I was, in that regard.
Shortly after that, I did get a call. My attempt at humor hadn’t failed. It had actually come across as cute. The man—Michael—asked if we could meet. He understood I might be nervous about meeting a total stranger, so we arranged to get together for coffee in the mall, where I could easily escape, if I felt uncomfortable. I was nervous about the meeting, not only because, like every red-blooded American boy, I’d grown up listening to wholesome campfire stories about psychopaths and serial killers, but also because my expectations were high. I wanted Michael to be The One. I wanted him to sweep me off my feet and be my Prince Charming.
He wasn’t Prince Charming. He was, however, a handsome, compassionate man. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that, after establishing he wasn’t going to murder me (hopefully), I went back to his apartment with him and more or less threw myself at him. I was still a virgin and getting kind of desperate. He was a gentleman and politely refused, telling me I should think about it for a few days. I did (sort of) and we became boyfriends soon after.
Again, I was damned lucky. This was the same year a young gay man in the town I was born in was thrown from a bridge and drowned, and only six years before the news of Jeffrey Dahmer broke. (That gave me nightmares so awful, I kept waking myself up with the sound of my own screams.) Michael himself told me stories about having to throw himself from moving cars to get away from personal ad dates gone bad.
Fortunately, he was a sweetheart, and although we were only together a few years, he taught me a lot about the world and getting involved. His experiences were so much more intense than mine: he’d been thrown down a flight of cement stairs by school bullies, billy clubbed in the stomach by a cop at a Pride march, and teargassed in an underground gay bar. I didn’t even want to think about these things, at the time. I wanted to hide out from the world and pretend everything was hunky dory. Michael wouldn’t allow me to, and for that I will always be grateful.
He also introduced me to the LGBT world. It was there, even in my small town, just under the surface. There was a group (Monadnock Gay Men, now defunct, as far as I know) with a printed newsletter you could have mailed to your house or a PO box in a nondescript envelope with just “MGM” as the sender. I don’t remember much of what was in it. Personals and/or hookup ads. Miscellaneous news in the community…
And parties. There were parties every month, and the location moved around to make it harder to locate. I don’t recall if addresses were listed, or if it was just “Jack’s house” or something like that. Everybody knew everybody, so that would have worked. What I do remember is, when you pulled into the neighborhood, there were two indicators to look for: a house with a lot of cars parked near it, and helium balloons (often lavender) tied to the mailbox. At these parties, men let their hair down, “camping it up” in ways they never would in their day-to-day lives, and flirting over alcohol and hors d’oeuvres. There was always porn playing on the TV (though some of us did think that was tacky), and the older men hit on the younger men. (The definition of “sexual harassment” was extremely fuzzy.)
I recall one party where three young people showed up—a straight guy who was friends with the host, his girlfriend, and another young woman. They hadn’t realized a gay party was in progress, but either because they thought it was “exotic” or because they didn’t want to appear homophobic, they chose to stay. This didn’t go over well with the rest of us. The parties were our space, and now we felt self-conscious. The solution? Rather than ask them politely to leave (which is what I think should have happened), the host put on the raunchiest porn he had available, and we all gathered in the living room to watch it. Nobody behaved obscenely, but after a few minutes of trying to appear open-minded about guys having anal sex on the TV, the straight people laughingly excused themselves and left.
These days, it seems silly to think the neighbors wouldn’t know there was a gay party on their street, but back then most people were ignorant of all things LGBTQ. They heard very little about us, so they didn’t recognize us when they saw us. We “hid” in plain sight, as it were, while most straight people continued to believe there weren’t any of “those people” in their wholesome community. Even today, I keep hearing straight people my age making ridiculous statements about there being no LGBTQ people around, when they were young.
We were there. Oh, boy, were we there.
You may be wondering why I keep saying “gay,” and only occasionally “LGBT” or “LGBTQ.” It’s because gay men and lesbians were very distinct groups, at least in my area. We had our get-togethers, the lesbian groups had theirs, and there was a lot of hostility between them. To say the men were misogynist is putting it mildly. “Jokes” about women and lesbians abounded, fueled by the fact that many of the older men were divorced, had fought ugly custody battles, and had little good to say about their ex-wives. To be fair, Michael and I rented rooms from a lesbian couple. They were awesome. But when their friends came over, we were banished from the living room, and we overheard plenty of nasty comments about men.
I remember expressing the thought to Michael and our landladies/friends that the GLB community (as it was called, before the letters were rearranged and trans people were included) would be better served if we were unified, instead of fighting against each other. It turned out, I wasn’t the gay Norma Rae. Others felt the same, probably ages before I thought of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see the LGBT community presenting a more unified front as the years went by.
I confess I’ve never been particularly involved in Pride celebrations. After Michael and I decided to call it quits (amicably—by my mid-twenties, I was attending one college and he was at another in a different state), I moved into a small dorm. It wasn’t hard for me to be out there, especially as I wasn’t the only gay man in the dorm. For a while, one of the guys and I even had a kind of relationship. Not exactly sexual, but we liked to make out in the lounge. It was impossible for anyone to live there and not get used to the sight of two men kissing. I’ve been contacted in recent years by a few people who thanked me for that, and for just overall being visible and accessible. I got along with everybody, and they could talk to me about my sexuality without feeling uncomfortable. So for them, this was their first exposure to the LGBTQ world, and it demonstrated it could be a perfectly normal, casual thing.
That was my Pride. I didn’t march, but I was visible. Later, at every job I had, even in the corporate world, I was out. I’m not condemning those who have to stay closeted, due to hostile work or home environments. New Hampshire, for all its conservativeness, is pretty casual about sexual orientation. As my husband likes to put it, “We don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t scare the chickens!” Which is why we legalized same-sex marriage six years before the SCOTUS made its landmark decision.
I’ve rarely felt threatened in the communities I’ve lived in, but every once in a while, something happens to make me nervous. One incident occurred when I was in my Freshman year, living in a different dorm from the one I eventually settled into. That first semester, before I was out on campus, I had a roommate who confessed he and his friends used to hang around outside the gay bar in his hometown and beat up guys who came out. He had the good graces to be embarrassed and say it was “stupid,” but one of his friends responded, “I think open huntin’ should be declared on gays.” Supposedly, this guy had a gun in his room. He might have been lying, but since New Hampshire hardly regulates guns at all, it could have been true. I didn’t feel any desire to test it.
I also don’t want to imply legalizing same-sex marriage was easy in this state. It was a long-drawn-out battle, and religious conservatives fought us tooth and nail. But ultimately, they were outvoted by about 70% of the population, and even our Republican governor had to concede that signing the bill was the right thing to do.
So, yeah, I understand why some people wouldn’t want to be out, depending upon the environment they live and work in. But I strongly believe the more of us who are out there, visible in our communities, the more things will improve for all of us. My husband and I live in a conservative town (and target practice is common all around us, especially on weekends, since it’s legal to fire guns on your own property), but we’re out to the neighbors we see regularly, as well as many local businesses. If anyone has a problem, they keep it to themselves.
To say things have changed over the past 30+ years since I came out is a massive understatement. We were a dark, shameful secret back then, one “decent people” rarely spoke of. Believe it or not, even the conservative fundamentalists rarely talked about us. When I belonged to the Assembly of God church, I knew homosexuality was a sin (according to them), but I didn’t hear a full sermon about the evils of homosexuality until I was seventeen. It shocked me, because I hadn’t realized how hateful my “friendly” pastor was, until that moment.
Now it’s impossible to escape the vitriol spewed by people like her, but they’ve ramped it up in response to the rest of society beginning to see us as human beings. They can be dangerous, especially when so many of them are running our government, but Pew Research Center polls have shown a more or less steady increase in support for same-sex marriage over the past 15 years among the general population in the USA. It’s gone from 31% to 61% in that time. In the early 2000s, I would never have thought it possible that I would be legally married today, and my corporate job’s HR department would send me a congratulations basket with two little champagne bottles the week of our wedding. I wouldn’t have thought it possible there would be Hollywood films with gay leads and so many major LGBTQ characters on popular TV/Streamed shows and ads from major corporations with gay men and lesbians depicted as married couples with children. Or that I would be a published author, making millions of dollars in royalties on stories about gay men.
Okay, that last thing is still a work in progress….
Yes, I know things aren’t all rosy and wonderful. In most states, LGBTQ people can be fired for sexual orientation without consequence. Landlords can refuse to rent to us. Conservative evangelicals and homophobes of all stripes have been emboldened by a dangerous shift in the political climate around the world. We could lose everything, if we aren’t vigilant. And now that the public is generally growing tired of hearing about “evil homosexuals” destroying their way of life, the people who just have to put others down in order to feel better about themselves are targeting trans people and immigrants. They have to be resisted, or things will get much worse for everybody. And I’m not even touching upon the horrors still being visited upon LGBTQ people in other countries….
But as I’m sitting here writing on the front porch of the house I own with my husband, watching our two dogs sun themselves in the yard on this beautiful summer day, I think back to the days when I was terrified to hold Michael’s hand or give him a quick peck when we were in public, terrified the landlord might find out we were more than friends and kick us out of our apartment, terrified my boss would find out I was “one of them” and fire me… and I know things are better.
Happy Pride Everybody,
About Jamie Fessenden
Jamie Fessenden is an author of gay fiction in many genres. Most involve romance, because he believes everyone deserves to find love, but after that anything goes: contemporary, science fiction, historical, paranormal, mystery, or whatever else strikes his fancy.
He set out to be a writer in junior high school. He published a couple short pieces in his high school’s literary magazine and had another story place in the top 100 in a national contest, but it wasn’t until he met his partner, Erich, almost twenty years later, that he began writing again in earnest. With Erich alternately inspiring and goading him, Jamie wrote several novels and published his first novella in 2010. That same year, Jamie and Erich married and purchased a house together in the wilds of New Hampshire, where there are no street lights, turkeys and deer wander through their yard, and coyotes serenade them under the stars.