The Kid in the Clover Grill
How I (Eventually) Grew Up and Changed My Mind About Homosexuality, Same-Sex Marriage and Lots of Other Things
In junior high on Long Island, “gay” was an all-purpose term for “lame,” “overwrought,” “ill-advised” or “uncool.” It was a more forceful “no” in reaction to your mom holding up an unfortunate sweater at Marshall’s. It was what Rush were when they didn’t rock, which was an alarming percentage of the time.
Really, it meant anything you needed it to mean.
“Fag” was a harsher word, deployed less casually. If it were aimed at you publicly with sufficient malice, you had to throw down your books and put up your fists or voluntarily accept exile to the lower castes. And you did have to throw them down — you couldn’t just put your books down in a stack and fight, because that was gay. No, being called a fag was serious shit — Trapper Keepers had to pop open and papers had to go flying.
I knew – vaguely – that there were gay people, that the word we flung around described actual human beings somewhere. But as far as we knew, they lived in New York City, which we regarded as distant even though it was about 30 miles away, or San Francisco, which might as well have been another planet. Actual gay people were theoretical, which made them safe targets. No one I knew was openly prejudiced against blacks or Jews, but gays were routinely disparaged – by us, by our parents, by teachers and coaches. Nobody objected – or if they did, it wasn’t because of prejudice but because you were talking, however indirectly, about sex.
In prep school schoolyard taunts were no longer heard and prejudice wasn’t so naked, but there were no openly gay teachers or students, just rumors. I was at Yale before I knew someone who was more or less out – the acting master of my residential college described himself as a bachelor, but that was a fig leaf for the dopier parents. He was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, which I’d like to say changed my thinking, but things went on pretty much as before. Why didn’t I change then? Part of it, I think, is that at Yale sexual orientation was intensely political and the stuff of trendy theory, both of which I’m profoundly allergic to. But that’s probably giving myself too much credit.
During college I was a newspaper intern in New Orleans, and lived on the edge of the French Quarter. Gay culture was part of the Quarter, from leather bars to rainbow flags. This seems as good a place as any to address something I’ve wondered about: What was the root of my youthful homophobia?
It’s hard to reconstruct what I thought then, but I don’t think it had to do with an excess of penises. I’ve always suspected a lot of male homophobia is an odd form of jealousy – not of men having sex with other men (though that’s undeniably it for some homophobes), but of aggressive sexuality unleashed in consequence-free encounters. I know that’s reducing gay life to an outsider’s stereotype about a pretty small subculture, but homophobia thrives on stereotyping and a lack of information. Leaving aside the specifics of body parts, the rough-trade, promiscuous slice of gay culture feels like reptile-brain male sexuality – faceless encounters in which you take what you want without commitment. On some level, that’s deeply appealing to anyone with a Y chromosome.
Maybe that was it, or maybe it was just learned behavior I had yet to question. During my two summers in New Orleans, two things happened that began to change me. First, I fell in love with a woman who made it clear that homophobia was out of bounds – on one of our first dates she reacted to some stupid remark of mine by saying calmly but angrily that she considered “fag” the same kind of term as “nigger,” and she didn’t want to hear either one. I was embarrassed, in the way people sometimes need to be embarrassed, and stopped saying such things around her. I think that was more important than it might seem. It didn’t change how I thought, but it stopped the reflexive shows of prejudice that short-circuited any change in my thinking.
The second change was more gradual. Yes, the Quarter had its share of dudes in assless chaps, but it was also home to a lot of average-looking guys who happened to be holding hands. At first I only noticed the dudes in motorcycle gear, but after I got used to my new neighborhood, I noticed the average-looking guys too. I saw them taking out the trash and trying to parallel-park and supervising stoop repairs and a thousand other mundane things – things everyone else did, and that I had never thought about in connection with being gay.
Walking down Bourbon or Decatur Streets, you’d periodically see the doors of one of the Quarter’s gay bars fly open, disgorging alarmed frat boys in yowling retreat. (Once they were followed by a muscle-bound, leather-clad dude who cooed, “Boys! Come back, boys!”) I found this amusing, but it came to seem like a bit of an overreaction. There were gay bars, but there were also places where folks mixed easily enough. One of my regular late-night destinations was the Clover Grill, a Bourbon Street greasy spoon (motto: “we love to fry and it shows”) whose clientele was mixed but whose employees were almost exclusively gay. (When it’s 3 a.m. and the entire staff is singing along to Abba, even a slower student like me can figure things out.)
During Mardi Gras one year, I was having a burger at the Clover Grill when I noticed a kid come in out of the scrum. He was still in his teens and had obviously never been there before, and he froze in the doorway, looking around in disbelief and slow-dawning happiness. You could see poorly maintained guards not just dropping but crumbling, replaced by … nothing. Because nothing was needed – despite the Clover Grill’s BE NICE OR LEAVE sign, people were almost always nice, and whatever you were was OK. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that kid’s dazed smile wasn’t just a reaction to the Clover Grill – it was a reaction to all the places he’d been where whatever you were wasn’t OK.
A few years after college I got engaged and moved to New York, where I got a grown-up job and settled down – and little by little, gay people became part of my life. I had gay neighbors and gay colleagues, and eventually (through my more-progressive wife) gay friends. At the beginning I thought of them that way, but gradually I didn’t – to channel the grandfather from the famous public service announcement of the 1970s, they were just my friends.
But the final change in me had little to do with straight or gay. I was 26 when I got married, and as I entered my early 30s, I became a sort of Confucius figure for my younger friends as they struggled with being single in New York City. Those years as counselor and consoler taught me something you can’t know as a teenager, or in your early twenties: that the all-or-nothing soap operas of youthful infatuation and heartbreak eventually become exhausting, and if they go on long enough, they can damage you. Being heartbroken was bad, but most heartbreak passes. Being lonesome was far worse, because for some people it became permanent.
At some point, witnessing all that hurt and doubt and confusion, I came to believe being gay couldn’t be a choice. No sane person would voluntarily double-down on the normal terror of adolescent longing by signing up for having to interpret signals from other people also struggling with being different, with no one to tell them how to navigate those unmarked roads. No sane person would risk the penalties for guessing wrong (or sometimes right). Being young and scared and in love was hard enough without the possibility that someone would actually hurt you for it.
And if you accepted that being gay wasn’t a choice, what about gay marriage? A lot of the revulsion about the idea seemed based on the same outside stereotypes of a very small slice of gay culture I’d had once. But gay marriage was a rejection of that subculture. Gay marriage wasn’t about mainstreaming bathhouses and Gaetan Dubois-like strings of partners, which were the kind of things that seemed to terrify homophobes; rather, it was asking to be included in the mundanities of traditional American life. Opponents of same-sex marriage seemed to want gay people to be normal and invisible – but when gay people asked to be just that, they were still told “no.” That struck me as not just unfair, but heartless. And, for the first time, it struck me as un-American.
I wanted my friends, whatever they were, to be happy. But not just my friends. I wanted that scared kid from the Clover Grill to be happy too. And the fair way for that to happen wasn’t to ask that kid to spend his life in the handful of places that were like the Clover Grill. Rather, it was for the rest of the world to become more like the Clover Grill. (Though perhaps with less Abba.) I wanted that kid to not have to be scared and lonesome while trying to figure out what all the rest of us were trying to figure out too. And if he did figure it out, I wanted him to be able to celebrate it by pledging himself to someone else for life, accompanied by goofy pomp and awkward parents and bad dancing, and for that union to be valid in the eyes of friends and family and the state and God and everybody else.
When New York State allowed same-sex marriages, Facebook lit up. I didn’t post anything (that old allergy to causes again), but the joy was infectious, and I liked post after post. Then, I noticed someone on Foursquare had created “Marriage Equalitocalypse” as a place. I thought that was funny, and it felt right – it was what everybody was thinking and talking about, and the sense of celebration was palpable.
So I checked in. Foursquare acknowledged the check-in, and gave me points – including credit for “Your first gay bar!”
I was taken aback. And then I laughed.
“That’s awesome,” I said.