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“Talking of Michelangelo”
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Excerpt from A Slow, Painful Death Would Be Too Good for You (and Other Observations) © 2018-2021 by David Roddis. All rights reserved.
THIS IS GOING TO BE A little bit of queer history, and I'm grateful for your indulgence. Trust me, guys, I know you're just joshing, those of you who roll your eyes and mutter:
Oh, yippee! Golden Grandad on The Olden Days of Gay. Could you wait for a sec while I run a bath, then plug in the toaster and lob it right at me? Many thanks!
I grew up, using the term loosely, pre-Stonewall. For those of you for whom history begins with the appearance of Lady Gaga, Stonewall refers to the watershed moment, in 1969, when patrons of an illegal, Mafia-run gay bar in New York City, tired of police harassment and almost nightly raids, fought back, precipitating a gorgeously dramatic full-blown riot and giving lie to the notion that the queer community can never agree on anything, because that was the night we did.
Weird coincidence: Judy Garland died the same day, adding a dollop of tragedy, not to mention her finest moment of theatrical one-upmanship, to the proceedings. And please don't ask, Judy who??? We'll be here for hours.
Until 1969, when, for the record, I was a bottle-blond, floppy-haired fourteen-year-old male bimbo in early-adopter hot pants—
—and thanks for that surprise birthday present, Mom, five minutes after excoriating me for being obvious; though you've gone to your reward, the cognitive dissonance lives on—
—as I was saying, pre-Stonewall you lived your life like anyone else did: Going to school, riding your bike, playing whatever sports were suitable to the season, except curling; taking out the garbage, raking leaves and shoveling snow; listening to Ethel Merman in Gypsy and watching new episodes of I Love Lucy. It was nice.
Of course, there was that little extra task—of keeping under wraps the shameful secret of your terminal faggotry, your vileness, your perversion, your queerness; of containing the malevolent genie of deviance who, should he escape, would, with one twitch of his nelly, Arabian Nights curly-toed slippers:
compel your parents to throw you out, or possibly declare you dead, depending on what passed for God's tough love in their chosen rite;
force your friends to abandon you, utterly, in disgust (unless you'd already gotten drunk on Baby Duck and made a sloppy pass at the latest target of your free-floating man-crush, which meant you'd have to leave Dodge City anyway); and
ensure your condemnation to an eternity of various fiery and hideously ironic tortures in the innermost circle of Homo Hell.
Otherwise, it was all pretty low-key.
Social life for gay men was similarly pared down. There were, in fact, two options:
To meet someone in the conventional manner, if you’d managed to work out that there was probably another one to meet, you went to a gay bar, often just a regular men's tavern that either ‘tolerated’ you or hadn't clued in yet that there were cuckoos sashaying all over the nest.
If you were lucky enough to live in a big city, there would be a bona fide, dedicated gay bar, where you could butch it up or camp it up, drink cocktails instead of beer and tomato juice, and listen to your preferred music, even dance.
This was like attending Gay University and getting your credentials for a lifetime of alcoholism and Carpenters albums, a surprisingly popular career track.
Or, second option, there was furtive, anonymous sex in a public washroom—the microwave method, as it were. Quick and dirty, this made up in sheer outlaw terror, speed and quantity what it lacked in anything approaching your preferred candlelight-Champagne-Swan-Lake vibe, i.e., quality.
If you are aware of the tendency of gay men in those days to sit at home alone after dinner getting all weepy on gin, performing Liz Taylor's climactic speech from Suddenly, Last Summer, then deliberately botching a suicide attempt, these two options were why.
This, then, was pre-Stonewall, and our camouflage, developed over centuries, was chameleon-perfect. All we required was no rocking of our tiny, exquisitely decorated life rafts.
I think it was around 1970 when butch, simpatico spinster aunts and funny unmarried uncles, homing in with infallible gaydar on their young brethren, began to offer the following unsolicited tip:
"Don't worry, dear. After all, Michelangelo was gay."
(This at least was like getting everything you wanted for Christmas compared to my mother's war cry, "You don't have to flaunt it, you know!?" which squeezed every last drop of blood out of the emotional trajectory from thinly-veiled hysteria to pulmonary embolism.)
Michelangelo. Gay. Michelangelo was gay. This little slice of the zeitgeist, which these days would be called a meme, in its original sense of a self-replicating, viral idea, was offered up, I've since discovered, almost universally, however irrelevant it seemed to the topic of conversation.
Michelangelo was gay. What could this possibly mean? Why were they telling us this? Was it one of those too-clever adult jokes? A precursor to another one of those ‘talks’?
Surely we were paying too much attention to a completely random occurrence! It reminded me of those unsettling synchronicities when a complete stranger suddenly assumed the foreground, crossing your path multiple times in a day, then disappeared again.
A controlled experiment was in order. [...]