I stopped gyrating my hips and looked down at the tall, portly man before me. Pushed back in a boyish smirk, his apple cheeks seemed incongruent with the mop of gray hair matted against his forehead. He dangled a greenback in one hand.
“Nice beads,” he shouted, pointing to a string of giant purple and gold faux pearls swinging around my neck. I’d collected the prized baubles earlier that day while walking around the French Quarter during Mardi Gras festivities. “What’d you do to get ’em?” he asked with a wink.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I replied.
The man pulled my waistband, popped in the bill, and let the elastic on my briefs snap back against my hip.
I felt no shame.
Stripping down to my underwear in seedy gay bars would’ve been unthinkable a few years earlier, when I was still sick with internalized homophobia. I’d hated myself since early childhood, when I first felt embarrassed for being different.
“Look at the way he walks,” Coach said to the other students in gym class. I was new to the school, a shy first-grader from another city who moved to Austin, Texas, just before the end of the year. Coach flopped his hand on his hip as he pranced. The other kids laughed. My face burned. I ran, struggling to hold in the tears.
“Faggot!” another kid called out on the kickball field when I was 9. He elbowed me in the stomach. “God hates fags!”
I’d heard the phrase many times, but never hurled at me. Uncertain of its meaning, I looked up the “F” word in the dictionary. “An offensive term for a male homosexual,” it stated. I kept reading. My fingers started trembling. In England, the term could refer to a cigarette, a bundle of firewood sticks, or a heretic burned at the stake. I closed the book.
Heretic? It must be true. God really did hate fags, and boys like me were once roasted alive. I felt sick.
As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist family in Texas, I already feared that any misstep would send me to hell. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. My stepdad would’ve been a deacon, but for his divorce before meeting my mom. Our church had strict rules: no dancing, liquor or fornication.
I tried to rid my mind of impure thoughts, but it didn’t matter. My presence on the planet seemed to be a sin, regardless of what I was — or wasn’t — doing. I felt like a hypocrite when I sat through a sermon. If the other parishioners — including my own relatives — knew I was gay, they’d throw me out of the building. Even though I’d never acted upon my sexual desire toward other boys, I was sure my family would still find me revolting.
Throughout my teens, I did all I could to deny, reject and change my sexual orientation. I was the “good boy” in high school. I didn’t drink or do drugs, always did my homework, and feigned an interest in the girls at school and youth group. But none of it made me straight.
In my second year of college, a brawny stranger at the gym suggested a post-workout protein load.
“Let’s go eat some meat,” he said, which scared me, but I said yes. After our meal, he offered to give me a ride home. Outside my off-campus apartment, the guy put his hand on my knee. I started shaking.
“You’ve never kissed a man?” he asked. I shook my head no. When we pressed our lips together, I finally understood the cliché about romantic fireworks. It had never happened with a woman. The haziness and self-deception around my sexual orientation dissipated. My success with dating women had been nil because I was repressed, insecure — and very, very gay.
From the pulpit of my church, I’d learned the importance of evangelizing. Members were taught to lead the holiest life possible in order to bring others into the fold. “Better to be dead than damage your Christian witness,” I’d heard many an elder say. So I knew I either could accept the homophobic dogma and die at my own hand — or reject the church’s teachings and live.
I quit the church.
If God hated me, then I decided to hate him back. Drinking, drugging, smoking — I’d do anything to spit in God’s face. I might as well slide down the pole to hell in a fiery blaze. Before going into gay bars, I always had either a cocktail, a dose of Ecstasy, a cigarette, or some combination.
A year after I decided to embrace my sexuality, my friend Brian asked me to celebrate his birthday. He wanted a “Men Are Pigs” night — one drink at every queer bar in town.
I had a mad crush on Brian, a sweet and smart frat boy with a linebacker’s build. Taking baby steps toward finding a sense of community, I’d made two gay friends. One of them knew Brian and introduced us. We bonded quickly, as both of us were University of Texas students, came from strict religious families, and were fumbling with coming out. He had said he wanted us to remain platonic, but when he invited me to barhop across downtown Austin, just the two of us, I hoped he’d changed his mind.
We started out at a gay country-and-western watering hole, moved to a leather bar, and finally ended up in a piano bar. Twenty years younger than the other patrons, Brian and I definitely stood out.
A couple of silver foxes sauntered over to us, and one asked, with a mock wag of his finger, “What’re you fellas doing out on a school night?”
“My buddy here turned 21 today. We’re on a ‘Men Are Pigs … But We Like Pork’ outing,” I said. The “M.A.P.” rule was that you could only have one drink per locale, but our new acquaintances insisted on buying us a few rounds. Brian didn’t seem to mind the free liquor.
The older of the two invited us to enter the amateur strip night he was on his way to run at Charlie’s, the bar he owned nearby. The prize was $200.
Brian was so West Texas bashful he kept his shirt on while swimming. “Court’ll do it,” he volunteered. “We’ll finish up our drinks and see y’all there in a bit.”
“Are you nuts?” I said, once the bar owner and his buddy were out of earshot. “No way. I’m going home.”
“It’s my birthday. Do it for me,” Brian lifted his eyebrows and smirked.
I looked up into his brown eyes. He clearly was flirting, and I saw the possibility of more. Maybe if I took off my clothes in public, he’d see how crazy I was about him. Maybe I’d be worthy of his attention.
“Boys, you came!” the owner cried out when we walked into Charlie’s.
“Give ’em whatever they want — no charge,” he told the bartender. Before the contest began, Brian and I downed a couple of rounds of tequila shots.
The DJ announced the start of the show, calling one contestant at a time onto the stage. My name got called near the end, enough time for the alcohol to have soothed my frayed nerves.
“Good luck!” Brian said upon hearing my name. He gave me a shove. Once on stage, I pulled off my shirt and flung it to the side. So far, so good, although I’d only been dancing for 30 seconds.
I looked down. To strip off my jeans, I’d need to wiggle out of my cowboy boots. I thrust my hips to the beat while pogoing on one foot, straining until the shitkicker on the other foot popped off. Relieved, I inhaled a deep breath and wriggled with the other boot.
I’d partied in bars for the last few months, but under the surface I remained filled with Baptist boy guilt. It felt embarrassing to unzip and slither out of my jeans in front of randy strangers. After the initial stage performance, entrants were instructed to strut in their underwear on the bar for tips. I hesitated before joining in.
Brian waved a bill at me. “The applause says you’ll either win or be runner-up,” he said. My main competition was a buff guy rumored to be a professional stripper from Houston.
When the judges called it a tie, I felt giddy. Fully clothed, I never got much attention. But after the contest ended, several men tried to chat me up and offer their numbers. Mr. Houston and I joined the owner of Charlie’s onstage, and the cash got split between us. That was fine with me. Brian was my prize. I went to find the birthday boy, proud of my win and eager to see Brian’s reaction. But when I spotted him in the crowd, he was making out with someone else.
I was crestfallen. My ploy to win Brian’s heart that night hadn’t worked, but I still buzzed with all of the extra attention from other patrons.
The next time I needed cash, I entered the same bar’s amateur strip contest. This time I won first prize on my own. I started entering amateur strip-offs whenever I needed extra cash, or whenever my ego was bruised from a breakup.
In the New Orleans dive bar three years later, I’d been dancing for a while when the portly man approached me again. “Come on! What’d you have to do for those beads?”
With a toothy grin and a wink, I thrust my crotch forward to accept his tip. He ran the bill down my midsection until it reached the band of my gray Calvin Kleins, which appeared purplish under the glare of the disco lights and haze of cigarette smoke. Tugging the elastic, he popped the money into my briefs. I slid the Mardi Gras string around his neck and tousled his hair.
After an hour, I slipped off the bar and put my clothes back on.
“Buy you a drink?” the man asked with a big smile. “I’m Ron.” He bought me a beer and asked me where I went to college.
“U-T Austin. But I graduated already.”
“My son went there!” Ron said. “What was your major?”
Ron’s face blanched. “What year?” he asked, his deep voice seeming to quiver.
When I told him, his face turned even whiter.
“What’s your son’s name?” I asked.
“Jay,” he murmured. His eyes looked down at his shoes. In a university with some 50,000 students, his son and I had been friends. We’d taken at least three classes together.
“Don’t tell Jay. Please. My boys are everything. I can’t lose them,” Ron said with a choke in his throat. “I divorced my wife before I started dating men.”
We promised to keep each other’s secret. Neither of us wanted Jay to know we were gay; I feared my former classmate might tell mutual friends that I’d been caught stripping. I was out, but not that out. Ron asked me for my phone number and invited me to meet for lunch.
Over seafood at Brennan’s a few days later, Ron told me about his marriage and the pride of his life, his two children. He was a U.S. Air Force veteran, an avid participant in Houston politics, and a diehard Longhorns football fan. I thought that being an out-and-proud gay man required being a renegade, but Ron had come out late in life and kept his middle-class respectability, which baffled me.
“I’m going to be a grandfather!” Ron exclaimed the next time we met over lunch. His face beamed until he confessed his great fear: If his sons found out he was a homosexual, would they cut him out of his grandchildren’s lives?
Though I’d never met Ron’s younger son, I knew Jay. “He’s a good, really decent guy. I’m sure he won’t banish you.”
Ron wanted to believe I was right — that love would prevail. “Maybe your family will accept you too,” he said.
“Fat chance. They’re super religious. They’ll disown me in a heartbeat.”
The more I came out of the closet in my life, the less I interacted with my folks. I figured it would hurt less when they eventually rejected me if I’d already drifted away on my own.
As our friendship progressed, Ron became the gay uncle I didn’t know I needed. He was someone of my parents’ generation who knew I was queer but didn’t care, someone I could count on for romantic advice. He hadn’t been dating men all that much longer than I had, but he was wiser about affairs of the heart. And at least once per visit, he’d admonish me to “always use a condom.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I’d wave him off. Secretly, Ron’s concern about my welfare struck me as very sweet. He always said goodbye with a warm bear hug and kiss to the top of my head. Our friendship became a refuge. We could practice being our full selves with someone who reminded us of the most beloved people in our lives.
One thing about Ron didn’t make sense to me: He remained a prominent member of his Methodist church. Being gay and Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim or a member of any other organized religion) were incompatible, as far as I knew.
“If you think God hates you because of who you are, maybe the problem isn’t with God. Maybe you need a new religion,” Ron said when I asked how he stayed involved in a church that believed he was going to hell. I explained how I’d given up my faith when I came to terms with my sexuality.
He directed me to books like Stranger at the Gate by Mel White, a former speechwriter for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who said Christianity and homosexuality were not only compatible, but that being queer was a gift from God. Ron steered me toward a Reconciling Congregation of the United Methodist Church, which welcomed LGBTQ+ folks and was in my neighborhood.
During Easter Week, I looked online for the upcoming Sunday’s schedule. I spotted an event that night for Maundy Thursday, a Christian holy day I’d never heard of. (Southern Baptists don’t generally commemorate that particular one.) Curious, I decided to go.
When the service began, I learned we were celebrating the Last Supper. Congregationalists soon stood up and moved into a line. A worshipper sat down and removed a shoe and sock. The next person in the queue poured a little water and dabbed the naked foot with a towel, symbolically washing the seated person’s feet. The washer sat down, and the sequence repeated.
Standing in line, I teared up, moved by the gentleness and humility exhibited by the other people, some of whom I suspected were queer like me. I was surprised to see a female minister officiate. In her brightly colored stole, she explained and guided the ceremony, which centered around a Bible verse, John 13:34: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Then she said lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and gay folks were all welcome in this space.
I started crying like I was at a funeral. Snot ran down my face. I attempted to stifle my sobs, afraid I was causing a scene, but lost all control. Noises erupted from across the aisle. A gay man I knew from the gym was also bawling. Maybe he, like me, was new and couldn’t believe there were churchgoers who didn’t rebuke people like us in the name of Jesus.
After the service ended, we attendees filed out of the sanctuary. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy. The pastor stopped me and gave me a hard embrace.
In my car driving home, I realized Ron had been right: My issue wasn’t with the divine, it was with one particularly rigid denomination of Christianity. I began looking for a new faith, one founded not on hatred and fear but on charity and love.
Three years later, I was headed to Mexico City, where I planned to take a sabbatical before beginning grad school. I met Ron to say goodbye, and he told me he had come out to his boys. As I’d predicted, they were great.
“They’ve always wondered if I might not be at least bi,” he said. I like to think I helped make his coming out process easier.
My folks had stopped asking me if I had a “special lady in my life.” But on an international call six months after I left Texas, my mom said that since I was turning 30 soon, she wished I knew what it was like to be in love.
“I’ve been in love,” I answered.
“Are you … uh … um. What I mean is … are you … gay?” she stammered.
My friendship with Ron had helped give me the courage to tell her the truth. I’d had practice being my authentic self around someone my parents’ age.
My mom cupped her hand over the phone. I could hear her yell at my stepdad in the living room. “Court’s on the phone long distance from Mexico. Says he’s gay.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he shouted back. “I love him just the same.”
“Yes, we love you just the same,” she echoed.
They’d known since I was 16, when a boy I liked called me long distance from Nebraska, and I stood up from the couch to answer the phone — and fainted.
For many years, when I heard “God hate fags,” it had bothered me because I’d hated myself. I’d projected that revulsion onto my parents, family, friends – and even my higher power.
But it wasn’t true. My family had known I was gay for nearly 15 years and never said a disparaging word. Even most of my old Southern Baptist church friends treated me with understanding.
These days, I can’t believe in a God meaner than me, as an old friend used to say. I no longer believe in the anthropomorphic, vengeful deity of my Southern Baptist upbringing. For me, God is the universal law of harmony.
My God treasures me because I cherish myself, thanks to taking my clothes off in seedy gay bars and meeting a mature man named Ron.