I found out my older brother was gay when I jokingly called him gay to one of our coworkers.
«Yeah,» said the co-worker absentmindedly, busy finishing his work for the day «but he’s a great guy. What are you gonna do?»
That was 1986. Words like that were still de rigueur in my family and I was decidedly not the type of dude I am today. I didn’t mean anything by it, and in using that word back then it certainly wasn’t meant to be loaded. Back then, calling someone ‘gay’ didn’t mean you thought they were actually gay. Everyone I knew used it. It was more like saying «what a jerk.» We obviously know more about the power of microaggressions now. Nevertheless, that’s what I said, and that’s how I found out. Just kind of making fun of my brother to a mutual friend, and it was laid there in front of me, bright as the light of day.
«What are you gonna do?» Said the co-worker. «What are you gonna do?»
Because what could we do? He already bore the mark of the beast, right? He was already damaged goods. He was already less of a man, if he still counted as a man at all.
That’s how it was back then.
When I found out, I went to the bathroom, a single-person kind, and turned on both water faucets to high, because I thought I’d probably cry. What else would you do when you find out a nightmare of that magnitude?
Instead, I just stared at my face in the mirror, there in that shitty little bathroom on the ‘sales’ floor of my dad’s crummy, black-hole-of-Calcutta-esque factory and thought of my big brother. He used this bathroom all the time. He probably looked in that mirror a thousand times, and each time he saw a gay man. Holy shit.
My poor brother.
He must have felt so alone.
By then he had drifted away from the family a bit and I had just started high school so I was kind of never home and he was rarely around. He and I were never as close as we might have been with an eleven year age difference between us, and so I wrote him a letter. I don’t remember what it said other than I knew and I loved him and to please not fade away. I never heard back. But I heard that he got it, and that he appreciated it. I just never heard it from him. We’ve never talked about it.
He endured so much. I never told anyone else, but eventually my family found out and they didn’t understand. They tried to push him to conversion therapy. My dad, a child of the depression, was embarrassed. How could his genes have created a person so…flawed?
It was awful for a long time. But to his credit, my dad talked to my brother and tried to understand. He read his bible, and prayed for answers and ultimately decided to just accept my brother as part of god’s plan. Admittedly not my avenue of choice, but okay. The outcome was kindness and love and I don’t care how you get there as long as you get there. Bizarrely, what really helped was my brother’s long-time partner is probably the funniest person in the universe. He lampoons my dad so blithely and flawlessly every time they see each other that it somehow softened my dad’s reluctance to accept. My dad loved having him around. He’s still around, still the absolute life of the party, decades later. Alas, the lord works in mysterious ways.
Slowly, as the world changed, and more of the younger generation in my family began to come out, it was less of a thing, until it became a virtual non-thing.
When my brother and his partner got married a couple of years ago, pretty much my whole family was there. My dad in his suit. My conservative brothers. Time had healed wounds and my family had healed and grown with it. A lot can happen with prejudice when love is a factor.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I was watching Survivor last week (this season is so damn good, and some of you know I’ve been giddy about recapping it) and there was this amazing scene. Like, one of the best things I’ve seen on television this year.
(You can watch it here. Start at the 56:00 minute mark.)
Two Survivor contestants were sitting on the beach, drinking beers from a reward challenge they had won. The premise for this season, and the thing that originally hooked me, is Survivor: Gen-X vs. Millennials. So we have one of each in this scene. There’s no one else around when the older one, Bret, a Boston Police Sergeant, says to the younger one, Zeke, an Asset Manager:
«Well, I will tell you. You’re not the only gay guy out here.»
And Zeke is like «you?»
Right away I’m like holy fuck. Because his straight-guy act was so perfect that even the one other gay guy’s gaydar never sniffed him out.
And Bret says:
«Shhhhh. I’m playin’ a game here.»
And Bret, in that moment, reminded me of my brother. Also from Boston. Who also was forced for decade after decade to craft this straight-guy shell. To have this exterior that didn’t necessarily match his interior. Because around him in every direction, family, vocation, gym, sports teams & society itself, was a world that wasn’t ready for his inner person to be his only person.
And Zeke is just shocked. He immediately gets up and toasts Bret, and they share this moment. And Bret tells him that he was planning on telling everyone, but then he ended up aligned with this macho group of guys…
…and a church worker named Sunday and he says «I just gotta shut my mouth here. It just didn’t happen.»
Now, that’s not to say those guys are homophobes. We have no idea how they would have reacted, but the smart money was on not even risking it.
I was moved watching this. Because Bret must have spent his whole life just defaulting to that course of action. Fuckin A. The Boston Police Department? It’s much more progressive than a lot of other departments, but still. That world? It must have been so tough for him. My brother doesn’t have a single friend from high school. He had two really close buddies who absolutely dropped him like a hot coal when they found out he was gay. Can you imagine? Because as a straight guy I’ve never had to endure one solitary second of that. Not the hiding, not the confusion, not the loss, and not watching loved ones step away from me because of who I was. None of it.
Zeke is just processing all of this, and Bret says:
«I’m from a different generation. We don’t talk about it.
And then we’re back to Bret’s talking head piece and he says:
«I didn’t grow up in a time when it was normal to talk about being gay. And the Millennials DO NOT CARE. Zeke finds comfort in being himself and I think that’s great! And I’m hoping that, as my life goes on, from here on out, I can be that way.
And then we’re back to the beach, where Bret is talking about his experience:
«I’ve never had a problem. You know what I mean? You tell your friends, nobody cares. It’s just in my head. It’s been in my head my whole life, y’know?
And Bret shrugs.
You become forty and you’re like ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks of me,’ y’know? I am who I am. I have great friends, I do whatever I do, y’know what I mean? So.
His voice just kind of trails off and this is how he looks. And you get the feeling that the voice in his head is so goddamn powerful, and his self-image and life experiences are so overwhelmingly terrifying that he may never get there. Just look at him thinking there. Look at what that man had to deal with. What he’s still very much actively dealing with.
Zeke, a vibrant Survivor game-player and a millennial who wears his sexuality openly, says:
«It’s interesting because I never even thought about not saying anything.
Then we get Zeke’s talking head, where he elaborates:
«I owe a lot to Bret’s generation. I would not be able to come out at 15 were there not the pioneers who paved the way. And I really think he reflects the Millennial / Gen-X divide, right? He spent time in the military during the don’t ask don’t tell era where he couldn’t have been in the military if he told people he was gay. And I’m excited that Bret is now getting a chance to reap the rewards of what he has sown.
Something drew me to Survivor this season. This is season thirty three and I probably haven’t seen it since season five or six, but this is the reason I tuned in. This amazing, phenomenal TV moment. You want to know a major difference between Gen-X and Millennials?
The fact that, in only a few short years, one generation was in hiding and the next one gets to be open. So open, in fact, that the option of hiding didn’t even cross his mind. I mean, holy fucking shit. This is definitely the greatest thing I’ve seen on television this year. And yes, I’ve seen great television that I gush about regularly, but that’s FICTION. This is a man’s life. This is the chronicling of a huge generational shift, right before our eyes. It’s real. It’s powerful. This is the best of what that often-gross, usually corrupt medium of reality TV has to offer. Truth. Human truth.
«I’ve lived with not saying anything.» Says Bret. «So for me to come out here and not say anything? I’ve lived like that.«
Because he had to.
But we can bear witness to a world, a much much better world, where people get to be who they are, all the time. Without fear of reprisal.
I’m a guy who used to casually use hateful epithets. But a few years ago, I was visiting a close friend in California, and while we were hanging out making out plans for the afternoon, his brother in law came home. He was about ten years younger than us, handsome and charismatic. Kind of a kinetic, wry, modern day Oscar Wilde type with a twenty-eight inch waistline and hair that’s never going to recede.
My friend said «David, this is [Lord Castleton]. He’s one of my closest friends on the planet earth, we used to work together, he’s from Boston, and he’s visiting for the night. [Lord Castleton], this is David. David is my brother in law, he’s gay, he’s staying with us for the summer and he’s studying art.
And I shook his hand and said «Hey David! Nice to meet you. We’re going to grab a late lunch. You should join us if you’re not doing anything.»
Okay. So fast forward a few years and I’m visiting my friend again and hanging out with his wife and she’s talking about her little brother and she says that he’s trying to figure out a way to pop over and see me during my visit because «of course, he loooooooves you.»
And I was like huh? What?
«Oh, you don’t know?» She says.
Because when I had first met him, her husband (my friend), had kind of jumped the gun because David had just come out to them, and they weren’t ideally supposed to tell anyone.
«But he told you and David was like in shock for a split second. But you immediately accepted him and invited him to hang out and you made it so that him being gay wasn’t a thing. He was terrified that being gay meant he couldn’t be a ‘man’ or a ‘guy’ any more. And you, [Lord Castleton] who is so very clearly a straight man, just accepting him for who he was? It was a big moment in his life and it gave him the confidence to be more open about it with everyone.»
I got tears in my eyes when she told me that, because I had no idea about the weight of that exchange and thank god I didn’t accidentally mess it all up. But I remember the moment, and I remember not really knowing what to say since it was kind of odd that my friend threw in being gay as part of his brother in law’s resume and…he seemed great, so I was like come hang out. That’s it.
You would never think that a person that…fabulous (he is, honestly) would give a rat’s ass about the opinion of a ballcap-wearing troglodyte like me. But in retrospect, that’s exactly why it mattered.
Thus, as it played out, the quantum magic of my general, waking stupidity and having a teeny-tiny bit of limited experience with people coming out because of living most of my life in the theater and film worlds, ended up helping one person feel a little less misunderstood.
Thank fucking god.
The point is that if I can change, and grow and hopefully contribute to moving this gigantic stone even a fraction of the way up the hill, then anyone can. I repeat: I found out about my brother being gay because I casually called him gay. I’m shaking my head as I type this. Who the hell was I back then?
What I saw on Survivor was life affirming. Everyone my age or older has pretty much had some experience of being gay in the way Bret has. More and more, my younger gay friends are showing signs of being like Zeke. Where it’s just something that is, has been and always will be. Even now, at the zenith of accepting society, true open acceptance seems to only happen in fiercely won parts of the country that are thought of as gay-friendly. San Francisco. West Hollywood. Provincetown. When we have to label something gay-friendly, it obviously implies that outside of those areas, society is significantly less so.
That scene on Survivor was powerful, and gave me a glimpse at a better world. But as much as we’d like to, we can’t just sit here and pat ourselves on the back. We can’t remotely say ‘mission accomplished’ because if the current political crisis in this country confirms anything, somewhere around half the citizens of this country aren’t altogether cool with this sort of progress. Which means that in the coming years, millions upon millions of gay and trans people may be forced to go back into hiding. Until this election, I remember feeling that we, as a civilization, were inexorably on a course of understanding and moral principle. That as much as the assholes in congress wanted to bring us back to the dark ages, they couldn’t stop the momentum of fairness and inclusion and decency.
But with more bigots and hatemongers propelled to even higher offices, that future is somewhat in jeopardy.
So, it’s incumbent upon all of us, especially those of us who haven’t necessarily had the repressive boot of societal stupidity pressing on our necks our whole lives, to stand up. To take up the cause of equality. Not just for our gay and trans friends, but minorities from all walks of life. We have made such great strides in this country, but we have to keep fighting, even that much harder in the face of overt callous ignorance and hatred, to keep building a world where everyone -for any reason- gets to be a Zeke.
«I never even thought of it.»
We may mess up along the way. I’m still enough of a relic that I get mixed up about when to use the term cisgender. I may have unintentionally used ‘straight’ improperly in this very piece. I may unintentionally still be promoting norms from my childhood. I may still, unintentionally, be saying the wrong terms or seeing things through the spectacles of a long dead reality. I don’t know, but by all the love left in the world, I want to be better. I want to help. I want to be on the right side of things.
Bret deserves better. David deserves better. My brother deserves better.
Everyone deserves to just be who they are.
I spent time with my brother this weekend, and while we’re very different people, I love him with every fiber of my being. And I’m humbled by the strength of his convictions and the unwavering courage with which he’s walked the road of life. He’s an inspiration to me. Always has been. Always will be.
We all need that kind of hope. So the next time you get too depressed, watch this scene — from Survivor of all things — and think about how far we’ve come in only one generation.
And then dig your heels in and fight for more.
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