From the Wayback Machine, Part I

To get myself back in the habit of posting regular content, I’m adding some occasional work that comes from the past. The first of these is a spoken word piece from 2006.

Performed in August, 2006, as a guest artist for “Two Queers and a Chubby,” a spoken word entry in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

This sounds funny to say out loud, and forgive me if I seem a bit embarrassed to admit it… but I think my “best friend” when I was a child was actually Doctor Who. Do you remember him? The British guy with the curly hair and the scarf! I am starting to think I wasn’t alone in this fascination, that for other young males who were lonely, awkward, and outcast, he was someone we could relate to and embrace. He was enigmatic, clever, outspoken, intelligent, and abhorred violence if he could avoid it. He traveled on his own, outside of society’s structures, a loner even to his own people. The companions who traveled with him were fond of him, but still even to them he was a bit of a mystery.

That was how childhood felt to me—the boy who was singled out for “using big words,” the smart fat kid whose most athletic extra-curricular activity was marching band. I was a child with many, many emotions, and few role models for how to really—authentically—express them. Did you see BrokeBack Mountain? Those men were about the age of my father, and they exemplified his generation of men—especially rural white men—to near perfection. So how, when you’re an imaginative, over-sensitive kid with a big vocabulary and few friends, do you learn to be who you really are, when all the men and boys around look at you like you’re speaking a different language completely from the English you think is pouring out of your throat?  Continue reading


Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City brought my first real attraction to San Francisco. Although still a couple years away from coming out, as a rural Midwestern teen in the early 1990s I sensed something about that miniseries—aside from curiosity about gay culture of the 70s— which drew me to a city that I had never visited. Its vibrancy, its colors, its characters, brought to life so vividly by Maupin, told me that there was a place for people who were different, who were not satisfied with settling into comfortable patterns and routines, who asked questions to which mainstream America offered few easy answers, and who found friendship and kinship with fellow travelers that wondered and wandered in their own spirited ways. When I finally came out, my 17 year-old mind devoured those six novels. I shared them with my new gay friends, and we chattered like only gay teens can about which character we each were—Mary Ann? Michael Tolliver? Mona? As fans of the Tales series know well, Armistead’s stories (always complicated, filled with compelling characters and delicious plot twists) grew more world-weary as the 1980s dragged on, as needless death and grief filled the Castro and a movement began to act up, screaming in outrage at a country (and its government) that didn’t seem to notice or care. In my half-dozen visits to San Francisco since 1996, I’d say I’ve become less fascinated and more familiar, but nothing has diminished my affection for the city. Touching ground in San Francisco means touching history for me, and again I am struck by how much of that story (which emanates out to touch so many people in the world) remains to be considered and shared.

Tonight, I will take a redeye flight back to Minneapolis after nearly two productive weeks. In the year since I last came and studied Randy Shilts’ papers, I wasn’t able to do much on the project except briefly meet his brothers and correspond with his closest associates. But, it’s an understatement to say that I’ve gone cold on the research. I allowed myself this extended time around Spring Break with the promise that I would make sufficient progress on the dissertation over the winter. When I get back, the dissertation goes on the front burner. In the meantime, I spent several productive days in two wonderful archives, the James C. Hormel Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, and the GLBT Historical Society. At one point during my stay at SFPL, I looked behind me to see the busts of Harvey Milk and George Moscone smiling across the room (which I will take as tacit approval for my ambitions). Right now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve examined several hundred, if not thousands of pages of Randy’s papers, from diaries to personal correspondences, college papers, poetry, clippings, drafts, reviews, criticisms, and even his last will and testament.  Continue reading

Diminished But Not Lost

A consistent theme in my adult life has been my fascination with the history of 20th century queer movements. In case you haven’t noticed, in just more than half a century we’ve gone from completely hidden and isolated (visible only in police raids, pantomimes, paddy wagons, and lurid news briefs) to developing politically powerful urban strongholds as well as greater visibility in rural and suburban communities. People have made homes for themselves, both in places where support previously hadn’t existed and in neighborhoods where visibility brought strength in numbers, long-term stability, and eventually generational dispersion as well. My generation (proud Gen Xers) have been inheritors of a rich past and legacy—one that we are just seeing younger queer kids embrace as they blow past college activism and gay-straight alliances to make themselves heard in social media and beyond. That’s a lot of change – dramatic change– in a comparatively short span of our history.

For me, coming out as a teen in the early to mid-90s brought this fascinating mixture of exhilaration and fear, not only because of the homophobia still running through society (DOMA, Matthew Shepard, Jessie Helms ring any bells?) but because I consistently remember feeling like my friends and I—these noisy youth at the gay coffee shop and men’s groups and anywhere else that let us in—were just a nuisance to the older men we encountered. Sometimes a sexual interest, but mainly a nuisance. Gay men over 30 looked tired, worn down, world-weary, and not all that patient with our flighty drama. In those years I came to understand why as I learned about how so many had lost their friends and lovers, and few in the larger world seemed to care. For the most part, our generational social spheres diverged even though I was fascinated by what they must have experienced—not just the horrors of the early AIDS epidemic, but what many of that cohort had tried to build prior to those years in big cities, namely a community with spaces where the dimensions of human sexuality could be more fully explored with other curious, consenting men. My first “coming out” novels were the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, still a favorite and still just as alluring to re-read or re-watch as mini-series. The images of San Francisco in the mid-1970s that period captivated me, both for the major historical events that occurred and also the depictions of how gay people were living their everyday lives, exploring their queerness out in the open and laying claim to neighborhoods that are still recognized as “home” today. I know I romanticize it a bit. But, at the same time I’ve felt over the years that only select parts of that history have been written, much of which pertains to epic circumstances rather than asking simpler questions such as, “Who lived here?” “What kind of neighbors were they to each other?” “How did they take care of new guys who showed up from other parts of the country?”

When I started this blog, I gave it the subtitle, “Where the conversation continues.” A big reason I went with that theme was, in many cases I feel like when friends and I reconnect, we seem to be continuing the same dialogues, building on the same themes we started talking about many years ago. This was true yesterday when I had lunch with an old friend/colleague I had met when I first moved here nine years ago to work in HIV/AIDS services. My friend is someone who looks like a high school biology teacher, yet can talk about queer radicalism like a seasoned pro, which ranks high on my list of people to get to know. Across years of lost contact it felt like we picked up the same chats we had when I was still a new kid on the block in the local service provider circles. When I mentioned some of my writing interests, particularly exploring the history of these earlier times and circumstances, he cut through some of my romanticism in a blunt but helpful way: “Next time you’re in San Francisco, go to this bar and ask if anyone knew Randy.” “Get in touch with this author—I hear he’s actually accessible and probably knew everyone you’re interested in.” It may be a slight conceit for me to think that so much of queer men’s history is lost, when in fact it’s sitting right there, still alive and kicking. It’s maybe slightly more humbling, but also inspiring to realize that what I view as “history” (because I was born while it was taking place) is actually still the collective life story of a living generation, diminished but not wiped out, doing one of the most radical things that LGBT people can do in the face of a history that has mainly recorded our isolation and insignificance: survive.