Cities and Closets:
A Holiday Tale
The airport in Burbank, California is a throwback to an earlier
era of flying; in its earliest days, business from movie studios
kept it running, and even now you can spot briefcase-toting entertainment
types jetting around, trying to make a meeting that's further than
a car ride away.
Burbank's anachronism is more than cultural, however. It is perhaps
the only major airport on the West Coast with no motorized Jetways,
which means passengers have to scale and descend steep narrow stairs,
and people like me get to be ported onboard and off by an enormous
and complicated forklift. But the fares are cheap, and Burbank airport
is within twenty minutes of my mom's house in Hollywood, so I tolerate
Now at this point, if I were writing a conventional queer holiday
tale, I would use the stairs and the forklift as symbols of the
alienation and angst yet to come; were I obsessed with cultural
theory, I might see them as a paradigmatic re-imposition of the
queer crip closet on my otherwise happily liberated existence. But
whether you are reading me for the first time or the twelfth, you
should know I'm not that kind of guy.
While the analogies and oppositions (San Francisco vs. Los Angeles,
freedom vs. oppression, blah blah blah) are convenient and tempting,
my reality is much more complicated. The two cities that have bracketed
my life represent a mixed legacy, an inheritance that resists easy
categorization. Understanding them requires a tour that's much more
nuanced than the one at Universal Studios, and alas, the Danny Tour
can boast neither a phony Red Sea nor a cheesy mechanical shark.
But hang on anyway. Keep all extremities away from open windows,
and do not taunt the tourists from Ottumwa who are gamely attempting
to match footprints at the Chinese Theatre.
Palm Trees, Smog, and Silence
fashionable in both New York and San Francisco to excoriate Los
Angeles as a city without a city, a shallow company town filled
with equally vapid people, any one of whom would be an ideal contestant
for reality television. And I admit, I've done my share of mudslinging,
giving my friends the various reasons I'm glad I don't live in LA:
it's too spread out, too close to everything and everyone I grew
up with, not to mention cursed with inadequate transit. I maintain
that I could never have been fully myself had I stayed in Los Angeles.
This pessimistic assumption is always underlined by the time I spend
with my extended family. As I shared Passover with them, I realized
that even after all these years of being "out," my sexual identity
remains very much obscured. Part of this is my fault. After all,
I still hide, and ironically, the more strongly I assert my disabled
identity, the easier it is to push queer identity aside. I've even
gotten into the habit of telling them that I write for a disability
website. Maybe it's because "cripgay voices" is a harsh and confusing
phrase for the uninitiated, or maybe I am so known in my family
as the Disabled One that falling back on that role just feels safer
and more comfortable. I suppose I am leery of pushing people, of
making them uncomfortable on a family occasion.
And let's face it. What kind of actual communication can you have
at large family gatherings anyway? Start off with any more than
a dozen adults, add three or more kids, and you have a recipe for
noise and chaos. Meaningful conversations are possible if two or
three relatives can find a quiet corner to talk, but that kind of
time is rare, especially if the relatives in question are parents.
Mostly the talk is just catch-up, news updates, "since our last
I would love to have deeper conversations, but to do so, I'd
have to kick a very old and deeply ingrained habit. Ever since I
entered graduate school and got engulfed in neglected aspects of
American history, I've realized how hard it is to talk about academic
study with outsiders, how easy it is to think that no one
could possibly be interested; ever since my descent into depression
and long-term unemployment, I've rarely known how to begin a serious
conversation about those issues, without feeling like I was trying
to turn Passover or Thanksgiving into a narcissistic therapy session.
So I've perfected one-sentence answers to most questions, and I
am the master of quick topic shifts. I'll spend twenty seconds on
myself, then ask a relative about her or her kids; I turn things
around quicker than a cable-car driver. Of course, some relatives
are canny enough not to let me get away with it, but even then circumstances
can keep us from finding time to open up.
Do I think my extended family would shrink from open conversation?
Based on how some of them have reacted to previous columns, I don't
think they would. Part of my confidence comes from knowing that
my immediate family has become much more comfortable with my sexuality.
Of course, if you'd grown up right next to West Hollywood with a
theater-queen mother, with happy successful same-sex couples as
models, and without the theological burdens of sin and hellfire,
you'd be ahead of the game, too.
So as I wound up my trip to LA, and found pockets of community and
really good transit, I found myself wondering what living there
again might be like. Could I handle it? Could I be happy and gay
in a city I associate with logistical nightmares, isolation, and
a complicated adolescence? People who know me might say no, pointing
out that I have now lived longer in the Bay Area than I did in LA,
and that they could not see me leaving the place I have grown to
Mecca on the Couch
I hear how much moving to San Francisco has answered the yearnings
of queer folks from every corner of the world, I feel happy, and
thankful that such a place exists. And yet, I worry. Someone from
a small town elsewhere in America might be coming to the City by
the Bay to escape all the indignities that a bigoted, homophobic,
and terrified world can throw at someone queer, and that's great.
But does such a refugee arrive with unrealistic expectations?
Do they think that acceptance is waiting around every corner, that
the streets are paved with boyfriends, and that every gathering
simply radiates support and solidarity? They might, and indeed,
they may perhaps be more likely to find such wonders in SF than
elsewhere, but often what awaits many of us here is disillusionment.
Sure, it's great being in a city where even some heterosexuals consider
themselves culturally queer-identified, where you can construct
your own insular world and rarely even see straight people if you
don't make an effort. But how many hopes end up dying within a world
that sees no need to challenge or improve itself? How many people
are frustrated and lonely in this city of liberation?
When I chat with guys online, they talk about how easy it is to
find casual sex in SF. If anything grows on trees here, it's hookups,
not husbands. It's possible to find whoever and whatever you are
looking for, and that's great, as long as encounters with no strings
and no attachments are what you really want. But as someone who
has confused horniness with loneliness on more than one occasion,
I wonder if the very availability of sex has made it a convenient
substitute. Getting laid may be what we want, or what we think we
want, but is it what we need?
The road to casual sex can leave you mired in insecurity, feeling
more alone than you were before you met anyone. After all, the guy
you meet could be a jerk and a waste of your time, which is depressing
enough, or he could be perfect for you, with great boyfriend potential,
and never call you again, which is even more depressing. So people
say to themselves, "Enough of thisI really want a boyfriend!"
Saying it is the easy part. Figuring out what to do about it is
think we are all lonely and afraid, worried that we'll get hurt,
scared to death that someone will see behind our careful facades
and be repulsed, petrified that the guy we like can and will find
someone better tomorrow. How many times have I heard guys say that
they wouldn't date themselves, that anyone who really knew them
wouldn't want them? How many times have guys terminated a date because
they feel the "friend vibe," distrusting the comfort they feel because
it might lead to barriers coming down? How many times have I been
in gay environments that are so afraid of being sexually cruisy
or dating-obsessed that they make dating effectively impossible?
If you talk to couples that have been together for decades, they
will tell you that the most important thing is to be each other's
best friend. This is a hard-won insight, the idea that a relationship
must be based most solidly on friendship and honesty. Since all
too many of us are trapped by pain and low self-esteem, it can be
tempting to make a permanent and self-destructive distinctionfriends
are the people you trust and are honest with but don't date, and
dates are the guys you fool into liking you until they're hooked
and it's safe to let them see the flawed, imperfect "horrible" you.
So much of this thinking is not limited to San Francisco, to large
gay communities, or even to gay men, but I do think the problem
is worse in this crucible of gay pride. It's simple human mathematics.
More people, less cohesion. More people, less time or opportunity
to focus. It is the down side to having a huge, vital community;
that enormity breeds impersonality and isolation.
One Big Remodeling Job
I've listened to enough West Hollywood sob stories to know that
everything I've said about being queer in SF could be said about
LA as well. But maybe I retain enough comfort with my So Cal identity,
and more importantly, have gained enough emotional and temporal
distance from it, that I can see its positive aspects. Although
living in the Bay Area but not in San Francisco itself does help
a bit, I have yet to create a healthy distance from gay life in
the Bay Area, which could account for my jaundiced assessment of
Ironically, San Francisco has inferior wheelchair access and superior
transportation, while Los Angeles suffers the opposite predicament.
Maybe I could magically transport the BART system to LA, or make
all the Everest-like Victorian flats of SF into single-story ranch
houses. That would make one city, one environment, the clear favorite.
However, changing each city physically would help but little.
What makes each city a home of my heart is the people I love who
live there, people I care for deeply, from whom I have distanced
myself for too long. I need to open dialogues, to break through
the closet of inane habit that cheapens my quarterly visits to LA,
to destroy the closet of fear and loneliness that separates all
of us who dwell in this queer Nirvana by the Bay. Thought outwardly
a jocular travelogue, I hope this column will start real and meaningful
conversations, for my family and friends, for all of us. We've wasted
too much time already.
©2003 Danny Kodmur
Let us know what you think
of this BENT feature.
DANNY KODMUR resides,
writes, and tries to figure out his life in the Bay Area. Despite
the song, he wonders if he has actually left his heart in Los
Angeles. If you would like to report a sighting, write to him
work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their
Stories," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, Harrington
Park Press, December 2003.
by Danny Kodmur
Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability
On Being (Un)Representative
Testing My Faith in Romance
No Need to Kick My Tires
Balcony Scenes with a
The Music and the Mirror
The Music and the
Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03