Friday, April 16, 2010


Here's a cautionary tale for a Friday in early spring.

On the elimination episode of "Dancing with the Stars" this week, I saw ten young dancers, each in his or her teens, each purported to be the future of professional ballroom dance.  I couldn't disagree.  These five young men and five young ladies were spot on in their movement, as well as confident and aggressive.  I was impressed with their skill and their poise, and it was a pleasure to watch them.  If they are the up and coming face of ballroom dance, as far as I'm concerned, the industry is in great shape.

As I sat there admiring their talent and their beauty, something occurred to me. Perhaps I could have been a great ballroom dancer, too.  I certainly like dancing. I've always liked to dance.  While I've never taken formal dance lessons, how do I know I wouldn't have been as talented as any one of this young group?  Maybe thirty or forty years ago, I would have been considered the future of dance as well.  Who knows?

Then I began to think about the choices, or the lack of them, that were open to me when I was a teenager, in terms of activities I could involve myself in or potential careers I could pursue.  It wasn't only dance that interested me.  I was attracted to any number of fields, including the travel industry, hair styling, and interior decoration.  The performance arts appealed to me, too, such as figure skating, acting, and singing.

Here's what happened.  I had been teased so badly for so many years about being gay--when I didn't yet know I was gay--that I eschewed any of these interests or potential career paths.  I remember thinking seriously about becoming a travel agent, a hair stylist, or an interior decorator, even looking into the schooling that would be involved, and envisioning myself in any one of them.  But, in my heart, I knew none of them was meant to be.  Not for me, anyway.  

Back in the 1970s, it was women who pursued these areas, or gay men, and, as a result, I knew there was no way I could show any outward interest in them, let alone actively pursue one as a field of work.  What would people think of me if I did?  What would my family think of me, my father, who had always been so hard on me?  What would I think of myself?

If I showed a serious interest in any of them, perhaps I really was gay after all, like so many of my classmates had thought I was.  And, because I was so sure I wasn't gay, or, above all else, didn't want to be gay--couldn't accept that possibility--I turned my back on choices that might have been open to me, that might have been so much better than the ones I made.

Who knows how talented I might have been in any one of them?  Perhaps I could have been a world-renowned designer, or an Olympian figure skater, or, yes, an award winning ballroom dancer.  So many gay men, who had the courage to pursue their interests and their talents and their passions, are famous today for what they've brought to our world in terms of making it more beautiful and a better place to live.  I might have counted myself among them, too.

Who knows where I would be right now, how different my life might have been, how much more of a contribution I could have made if I hadn't concerned myself with what people thought of me.  And all because being gay then was so stigmatized, and I considered it so important to prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I wasn't gay, I wasn't what they thought I was.

I'd show them.  I'd show myself.  I'd be the straight, masculine male they didn't think I was.  No matter where my talents and passions lay, I'd turn my back on them, and I'd pursue a career a man could be proud of (although I had no idea, at the time, what that would be, or whether I could really follow through with it).

Ironically, I ended up in the banking industry.  There may be a lot of men in banking now, but, back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, bank branches were filled with women employees.  Almost all the men in banks were managers.  You rarely saw a male teller or ledger keeper, discount clerk or administration officer.

So I'd eschewed female dominated careers for years, because I was so convinced they were tied to sexual orientation.  Yet I found myself in one.  I was a teller for nearly seven years and never, ever wanted to have anything to do with numbers.  I hated math in school, scarcely passed it, didn't understand the supposed logic of it, because my mind didn't work in that way.

Instead, I wanted to be in the arts.  More than anything else, I wanted to create something.  I wanted to make people more beautiful, make homes more beautiful, make the world more beautiful, because I'm an escapist at heart, and any time I can avoid reality and immerse myself in some kind of fantasy world, comprised of softness and comfort and beauty, that's where I want to be.

I have so much admiration for any young gay man who has the courage and the temerity to follow his heart, and to be what he wants to be, despite what people think of him.  Clearly, not being gay for me was more important back in the day than being who I was meant to be.  And I have enormous regrets that I failed to pursue any one of my passions that I might have been so good at, that I may have been so much happier doing.

If you are young, and male, and possibly gay, heed my words.  Always, always be true to yourself.  Do not turn your back on who you are and what you are most passionate about, because you're worried what people will think of you.  So what if you're gay?  It turns out I've been gay for the past fifty years, and I've been out for nearly half of them.  And, you know what?  The world hasn't come to a crashing halt because of it.  I've gotten this far, and you will too, despite what people think of you (which doesn't mean anything anyway).  

Don't do like I did and regret for the rest of your life choices you made because, above all else, you didn't want people to know you were gay.  It's not worth it, believe me.  It's just not worth it.

I pray we've come far enough over the past forty years that men can be whatever they want to be.  That choices are no longer made on the basis of denying who you are.  And that  each and every human being can use his or her God-given talents to the best of their ability, regardless of what other people think of them.


  1. I really wish you & I could have spoken more about things like this back in high school. I would have encouraged you to follow your heart no matter what others thought. My words may not have changed your mind, but I'm sure it would have been nice to know someone was in your corner. On that note, it's not too late to try things that you think you might like. You may not be a virtuoso at it, but it's not too late to give things a whirl just for the fun of it. I knew a fiddle player who picked up the instrument & won every contest in the area - after he retired!

  2. Here's the thing, Jeanette. I now have the perspective on my situation back in high school so I can look at what happened and see how things could have been different, under very different circumstances, of course.
    Honestly, I was so adamantly not gay back then, and our culture was so homophobic, that admitting to you, or to anyone, that I thought I might be gay wasn't even within the realm of possibilities. The idea of being gay was pushed so far back into my consciousness that I never could have confided in anyone I had these feelings that I'd been taught, through various means, were completely unacceptable. Does that make sense?
    I don't know if teenagers in high school today would feel differently. I hope so. I hope we've progressed enough in our understanding of diversity, including being gay, that, one, young people don't feel as threatened about being gay as I did, and, two, they would be more inclined to admit to someone how they felt.
    If I have any teenaged readers who also happen to be gay and who would like to offer up a comment on what it's like to be gay in today's school system, I'd love to hear it. Please let me and my readers know.
    I smiled when I read your story about the retired fiddle player, Jeanette, because I understand how he or she must have felt picking up a fiddle after the age of sixty-five and using it to make music. Part of my problem is that I've never liked to start something without knowing first that I could be exceptional at doing it, or, as you say, a virtuoso. Unfortunately, what that means is that I've held myself back from doing many, many things because I was worried about not only failing but also not becoming the best at doing it.
    If I had my choice now, I'd probably most like to be an interior designer. When I left my job at the bank three years ago, I looked into going back to school to study design, and to start another career path altogether. But I think I lacked the passion and the drive to do it to the degree I thought I should. I'm not as hungry for it now as I once was. One of my earliest passions, as I've written about before, was to write, and I believe I'm well on my way to doing that now, with the plans I'm working on to write a novel. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be a successful writer. That's where my passion lies. That's where I believe I can make my greatest contribution.
    And, speaking of contributions, thank you so much for your contribution to this post. Your compassion and your generosity come through clearly in your comment. I consider myself most fortunate to be your friend over all these years.

  3. Choices . . . a subject I mull over a lot. Ask my kids. I am forever asking them what they think might have happened if they had chosen this instead of that - how all of our lives would be different because of one choice. Drives them nuts. I like being able to write with that in mind. I get to live out the "what ifs" in my stories and it's quite a wonderful thing. Like you, banking was not something I EVER thought I would make my career, especially since I didn't even pass my grade 12 math provincial. I wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer or a flight attendant (which is really dumb because I don't even like flying that much). I think most of all, I just wanted to be a writer. But because of the view of the masses (namely family, in my case), I didn't follow that route. Writing wasn't a "real" job. Besides, I married young, had lots of kids, and that became my job. Banking was always just a means to an end. Lots to think about here, Rick. I don't think we're too old to try on some of those choices we considered back in the day.

  4. You know, Wendy, when it comes right down to it, life is nothing but an endless series of choices. And, as you said, our lives would likely have been different if we'd made other choices.
    Sometimes, as I suggested in this post, I feel the weight of the choices I made. And yet, did I have any choice in the choices I made? Given how our culture viewed homosexuality back then, and, even to some degree now, I don't think I did.
    More than anything else, I needed the pain associated with possibly being gay to end, much more than I needed to be true to myself at the time. Did I know then that I'd be truer to myself if I chose to pursue any of the careers I mentioned in the post? No, I don't think so. I was as mixed up as the next teenager, trying to figure out where he fit in the world. All I knew was that in addition to that decision, I needed to make the decision I wasn't gay, too. That complicated all of my decisions, as it would for many years to come.
    As both you and Jeanette wrote, we have the opportunity to revisit some of our choices later in life and to make different ones. But I'm not so sure that's always the case. As I wrote, I probably would have loved to be an interior designer, but I've had to settle for designing the homes Chris and I live in, and assisting a few people who have asked for my input. In that sense, I've had some involvement in another area I love a lot.
    Despite the choices we make, do we eventually end up where we were meant to be? Curiously, I think so. I may not be an interior designer today; however, I'm happier than I have ever been to pursue writing seriously, which I've always wanted to do, even before I wanted to be a designer. Did I end up in the right place, ultimately, even though I made earlier choices that would deflect attention from me for possibly being gay? I think I did.
    Thank you both for your comments and for your encouragement to follow my heart, no matter what age I am. I really appreciate your friendship.