Of Cities and Closets:
A Holiday Tale

Prologue While Airborne


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 the hassle.

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

It's 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 episode" stuff.

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 love.

Putting Mecca on the Couch

When 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 this—I really want a boyfriend!" Saying it is the easy part. Figuring out what to do about it is more difficult.

I 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 distinction—friends 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

Now, 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 it.

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

 

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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 at dkodmur@comcast.net. His 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.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/May 2003