last sunday afternoon, as i stood among the thousands of people corralled into the closed-down southbound lane of 6th avenue between 45th and 47th at new york city's rally for marriage equality, i glanced around and realized i was experiencing an emotion i hadn't felt so strongly since i first walked into a gay bar back in the early 1980s. and i'm not talking about an overwhelming sense that my hairstyle is five years out of date.
that first gay bar was actually in san francisco, california. cliché? maybe. but for a small town wisconsin boy, fresh out of high school, that was going some. my good friend kevin and i had finally taken that long-planned trip to california – (was it late 1979?) – something we'd been dreaming about for years. like millions of other kids, we'd told ourselves we would drive across the country in a beat-up volkswagen van, making pit stops along the way to camp-out. as with most "drive a van to california" schemes, reality eventually set in (where were we gonna get camping gear, much less a beat-up volkswagen van?) and we opted to fly.
we stayed with a friend who'd moved to the west coast from southeastern wisconsin the day after his high school graduation, a couple of years prior. after a long day of travel and a quick dinner, we dropped our bags and our california buddy, eager to show us the town, looked us in the eye and said, "now: do you really want to see san francisco?"
somewhere deep down i knew what he meant. i'm not sure kevin did.
we walked a couple of blocks to a corner bar – nothing special. far from seedy, but certainly not fancy. neighborhoody, like the kind of place my dad hung out after a ballgame. (go ahead, make that leap.) fifteen or so minutes and a beer and a half later, kevin leaned in to me and whispered, "shit tony, i don't think there are any girls in here." and he was right. scanning the bar, we sort of giggled to ourselves, finished our beers, and moved on to "safer environs." kevin was uncomfortable. i pretended to be.
before we left the bar, however, i'd taken notice of a late 20-something year-old man playing a game of pool. by himself. he was dressed modestly – worn-out blue jeans, work boots, a brown hooded sweatshirt – and had an intense, but warm, open face. no one spoke to him, no one approached him, yet he was anything but alone. there was a solace, a confidence. i caught his eye at one point, and something subtle passed between us. nothing sexual, but a welcome, if you will. as if he knew something i didn't, and was telling me everything was going to be okay. at the time i wasn't sure what it was, but i remember it vividly to this day.
after his pool game he perched in a corner, still by himself, and pulled out a small, silver harmonica. a harmonica. what a fantastical place this san francisco is, i thought. no one seemed to care or even notice when he began to play. the tune was sweet and simple, but it was a bluesy, haunted sound that filled the echoy openness of that quiet barroom, interrupted only by the muffled whistles and dings of a lone pinball machine in a back room somewhere. and eventually the jukebox playing the stones' "miss you".
it wasn't the absence of straight folk that i found intriguing about that neighborhood bar, or even the mysterious harmonica player in the corner. it was the stunning sense of freedom. of being at home. it's not something you feel as a gay person growing up in a small, rural town. it's not something you know enough to miss, either. without realizing it, you carry with you a sense of staying hidden, keeping quiet, no matter who you're with or where you are. you must never let your guard down, not for a moment, for fear of not only the shame it could cause your family, your friends, you, but of the physical harm that might follow. even in this bar, thousands of miles from home, that new taste of freedom – palpable as it was – wasn't quite complete because my friend kevin was always present. i couldn't completely embrace it, savor it. as much as i loved kevin and was enjoying our trip together, i longed desperately for him to leave for a hour or two so i could be completely unencumbered by any fear of judgement or ridicule. not so anything could happen, just so i could...be.
sunday, at the rally, i looked around and took in some of the people near me – three couples in particular. two older men, probably mid-70's, standing side by side, one gently rubbing the other's neck. every so often they would share a look that i don't ever remember seeing between my parents.
behind me were two women standing one in front of the other in an easy, casual embrace. now and again the woman behind would rub her nose in the other woman's hair, and they would both smile a gentle, peaceful smile.
the third couple was my partner rob and me. look at us, i thought. we are so strong. happy. together. a team.
and then there was a young man, 17 maybe, standing with friends. he glanced at me, our eyes met briefly, and i smiled. he did too. everything's gonna be okay, i said.
i had to force myself to think, for a moment, about how uncomfortable this scene might make some people feel. to me, we were all beautiful human beings, loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other. the mystery, the solace, the confidence. it was all quite wonderful.
kevin would still probably be uncomfortable, i thought to myself. thank god i don't need to pretend to be anymore. we don't need to pretend.
we are at home.
we are free.