“When We Rise” (Review)

This week we experienced an amazing television series about the LGBT+ movement’s history titled “When We Rise.” It is based on the memoir of the amazing Cleve Jones.

To my knowledge, this is the first time our community’s history has been documented this way. It has received some backlash about ratings and portrayals of conservatives (of course), but that does nothing to diminish the series importance and power to positively impact our community, efforts, and country.

The power of the series was its ability to have many stories unfolding on the screen and in my memory at the same time. Simply powerful and often overwhelming. Here are a few examples:

  • When the cops hurt and threatened the characters on the screen, I vividly remember bleeding in the snow after suffering a physical assault (one of many). I remembered feeling powerless and hopeless as the cops talked to and took the word of my attackers (that I had flirted with them…not) and then the police officers turned smirking and saying, “he got what he deserved.”
  • When the AIDS pandemic first manifested as depicted in San Francisco, the looks on their faces and tears of terror, we experienced those exact emotions as the gay community in Nashville was also decimated. I remember, vividly, erupting with grief in a Krystals burger place at 3 am one morning when I found out my first boyfriend (we had broken up by then) had died of AIDS. He didn’t even know he had it until two weeks before he died.
  • When the AIDS Quilt went to DC in the series, I remembered and grieved, again, my friends who have been memorialized with panels in the quilt.
  • During the third and the beginning of the fourth installment, I felt the guilt of having betrayed my own community. I went into the church closet in 1992 and eventually was vocal in my opposing of LGBT+ rights.  I remembered everything that happened that was shown (and more) but from an opponent’s viewpoint. The contrast of the emotions from being in the community, to being an opponent of the community, and now trying to find my place in our community, broke my heart. After the third show, I cried myself to sleep.
  • When they showed the Prop 8 Protests, I remembered seeing that footage after a night of celebrating the passage of it. At the time, when I saw the footage, a small voice inside my head said, “How could you do this to your own people?” I wept then and wept again when I saw the same people and protests in the movie. It would take quite a while, but it was that moment that began my return home to the LGBT+ community and living an honest, authentic life.
  • When Ken Jones left his conservative church environment in the series, I saw his heart in his eyes (very well acted) when he recognized his LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Christ as authentic believers.
  • When DOMA was struck down on-screen, I remembered being silently happy and wanting to join the celebration but feeling, at that time, I couldn’t. At that point, it was another moment of being compelled to come out again which happened a little while later.
  • The sentence they showed at the end of the Supreme Court recognizing our right to marry, I remember the country erupting with joy, Facebook turning into a rainbow, and texting/calling my boyfriend at the time simply elated and crying with happiness all day. Also, I joined the Orlando community that night at a fantastic celebration. It was one of the best, and most memorable, days of my life.

Of course, the binary unfolding of the series and the stories that weave throughout my journey happened ALL throughout the series. I know some of the conservatives portrayed and a LOT of the specifics of the behind the scenes details. I don’t get invites to conservative shindigs anymore, and I am ok with that ;). I have met some of the gay rights leaders portrayed in the series as well. But as importantly, maybe, more importantly, I remember all the amazing people I was honored to be in a relationship with and their stories throughout almost the entire timeframe documented in the series.

Powerful.

When We Rise, even though based on a memoir, told all our stories. There is no way to document the entirety of almost 50 years of history in 8 hours, but they did a great job in showing both the big vision and personal impact of the events that unfolded. I also love that it showed humility by revealing our strengths and some of our weaknesses as a movement. I am very proud to live in a country that, at times, is willing to humble itself (ourselves) and correct wrongs. A country that at our core does want to bring further equality and freedom to people who deserve the exact same right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

We rose. We are rising. We will rise. No going back.

Thanks to all those who pursue(d) full equality and justice for LGBT+ people.

Getting Tested for HIV at Orlando Pride

Many things happened last Saturday at Orlando Pride, but in this post, I wanted to share about how I ended up doing something I hadn’t even thought of as a possibility during the festival; getting tested for HIV. My friend Crumpy and his friend New Baldy (both nicknames obviously) mentioned the possibility of getting tested right there, right then. So, I did.

The last time I was tested was the first time I was out in the ’80’s. Back then, to get an accurate test result, you had to wait for 3 to 6 months after the risky behavior. Early on in the pandemic, it seemed like almost everything was risky behavior. Many of us lived in constant fear of AIDS. When you got tested back then, they drew vials of blood and sent them off to be tested in a lab. Then, you waited for what seemed like an eternity (at least several weeks, one time for me it was longer) for the results.

It was always scary to get tested back then because so many people and friends had passed away very quickly after they found out. The first man I ever was “with” in that most intimate of ways passed away from AIDS. He didn’t know he had AIDS until a few weeks before he passed. I can remember, with crystal clarity, the night I found out he had died. I was in a Krystal fast food place after the bar closed and literally broke down in sobbing grief when a mutual friend told me. One, because he, Ron, had died. Secondly, because of our sexual history, I thought for sure I had contracted HIV, too.

Compounding the problem, the religious and cultural stigma of gay men was horrible to begin with. That same systemic bigotry used HIV/AIDS to only make things worse as gay men. It was an incredibly difficult time.

Now, decades later, here I was walking up to a mobile clinic (a fancy truck/van), and everyone was super nonchalant about it. As I walked up a couple of stairs into the mobile clinic, I didn’t show it, but I was genuinely fascinated that this could all be done in a “mobile clinic.” I understood you could give blood in mobile blood donor buses, but had never thought you could do something like this as a mobile testing service AND get the results right there. Amazing. Even so, fascination changed to fear as the doctor introduced himself. My gut turned inside out with a flash of sorrow as long-ago memories and a moment of fear tried to resurface.

Regardless, I sat down in this itty-bitty chair in this itty-bitty mobile clinic doctor’s office, where a very nice doctor with an Indian accent and blue rubber gloves covered all his educational and legal bases. Then he took an itty-bitty pin needle punch type of mechanism and pricked my middle finger. He squeezed out about two drops of blood (instead of two vials.) Then mixed my blood with three itty-bitty solutions (looked like the mixing was done in a particular order) and then he said;

“Mr. Thomas, we got the result as you can see by the one blue dot, you are HIV negative. Did you expect this result? Are you surprised in any way?”

I said that I expected it to be negative. I didn’t go into the fact that the only sexual activity that I have had with another person in 25 years was a guy I dated last year. He and I had deeply honest conversations/preparation so by the time we did come together, we knew neither of us had STD’s and were HIV negative. No, I wasn’t surprised by the result, and yet a part of me was relieved.

Sitting there I was astonished at how simple and fast the test was. It took less than ten minutes; maybe even less than five. When I walked out, I smiled at the youngins’, New Baldy and Crumpy with his new flip fan (I let him have mine that they were giving to people who got tested.) As they chatted on and on, I didn’t say anything to them but I thought how grateful I am that they live in a world where you don’t have to live in fear of being seen to go get tested. I was happy they had mobile clinics with quick results instead of living with high anxiety for weeks or months on test results that were not anywhere near as efficient and accurate as today’s tests.

And as Crumpy and New Baldy laughed and picked on each other for various reasons, I remembered Ron and some of the friends we lost when they were that age. Today, I was glad these young men still take this health issue and process seriously. I also felt peace to know that if any of us did find out we were HIV+, there are many options, resources, and possibilities for living a long and beautiful life like many of my HIV+ friends have.

If you have not been tested, please do.

Being free is good,

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Together, We Won’t Let Hatred Win

It was 1991, and I was waiting for the bar, Britches and Bloomers (yes, that was the actual name), to close. The DJ and I had been flirting a lot for a few months, and that night, when his DJ duties were done, we were going to an after hours party at a club in Dallas. The Book of Love was going to be there. My date was cute, fun, and exciting.

The music went off, and the lights came up, my favorite blond bartender said, “Alright girls, get the f* out!” We walked out of this small dance bar with about 40 other people. The next thing I remember is a white pick-up truck with men crammed into the back came screeching up to the front door. They were screaming and cursing us in English and Spanish. They all seemed to have guns and shot up into the air a couple of times. I remember shoving my date down in between two cars and trying to push us as far under the car as we could get.

The gunslingers never did come over to where we were, but the hair was standing up on the back of my neck where I thought a muzzle would be placed if they did.

I heard other guys from the bar yelling in terror, and one in defiance. Saw one of the regulars take off down the street with another man from the truck chasing him.

The pursuer eventually stopped and turned around laughing. These violent men were all laughing, cursing, threatening, and terrorizing us. The police showed up very quickly, and the truckload of gun toting homophobes took off with one of the cruisers chasing after them. The police asked a few questions and interviewed a couple of our group at length. Deeply shaken, my date and I eventually got up and dusted ourselves off.

“Randy, let’s still go have fun. We cannot let these assholes ruin our evening. We won’t let them win.”

And so, we went to Dallas at 2:30 AM and listened to great music, dancing, lots of laughter, and plenty of kisses. While we numbed ourselves against the fear we always lived with, in our private way, we did not let the assholes win.

But, we also didn’t expect they would be punished for doing what they did. That type of stuff happened all the time in various ways and levels of intensity with little to no outcry from the public. We also understood that the police simply weren’t going to spend time worrying about the “homosexuals” down at the bar. When I was out in the ’80’s until I became a “born again” Christian in 1992, it was always dangerous going to and leaving gay clubs. You always went with your guard up and eyes open. There were a few local and national LGBTQ organizations, but they did not have the influence to change the systemic anti-gay bigotry in the areas I lived in. We lived our lives knowing that we weren’t safe, that we might lose our jobs, family, and family. We understood we could even lose our lives for simply being who we are and loving who we loved.

After becoming a Christian in May of 1992, I quickly adopted an ex-gay worldview and began removing myself from all things “gay.” For the next 23 years, I didn’t go to clubs or date men. I viewed the growing power of the local and national LGBTQ groups with suspicion and in some cases alarm. I didn’t listen to them and what they were saying. I was listening to the talking points my “side” came up with to get the “right and scriptural” view of what they were saying. In other words, while I have always condemned physical violence and advocated for respecting self-determination, I was far far away from knowing the truth and correctly understanding how the LGBTQ rights and equality movement grew into the major change (for good) agents they have become.

I came back out in January of 2015 not truly knowing or understanding anything about grassroots or national level LGBTQ groups. I thought I did, but I didn’t. After some time to catch my breath and get used to being “out” again, I began investigating how I could contribute to the health and welfare of our community. I first contacted the local HRC Orlando / Central Florida group in March of this year. They were incredibly kind and gracious. I began learning about how different the world had become for us since the first time I was out. I was overwhelmed with joy as the depth and complexity of our communities resources and leadership have grown since I had been out the first time.

Then on Friday, June 10, 2016, I shared my story for the first time as an out gay man at a local HRC Federal Club event here in Orlando. Then around 30+ hours later at 2 am Sunday morning June 12, 2016, 49 of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters were murdered at a gay nightclub that had just started shutting down for the night. They didn’t have a chance to pick themselves, and their loved ones up and go to an after-party like we did. My heart shatters every time I think of June 12th.

For all the good that has happened, LGBTQ people are still targeted by murderous hatred empowered by systemic cultural bigotry. This was true before the election. Now, with the election of Trump, many of us who have been around a while, see some alarming reminders of a darker time in our LGBTQ history. Our community has already been directly terrorized and threatened this year. Now we have what seems to be a new political reality that will continue to empower a systemic bigotry and strip away the safety, protections, and equality we have gained.

However, I do draw encouragement from knowing that today’s LGBTQ world is much stronger than ever before. In the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy, I was honored and completely humbled to watch local Orlando LGBTQ leaders swing into action firsthand. I saw tremendous resources surface. Incredible wisdom in action. I watched selfless service and abundant grace. I saw leaders at every level of government offer their support. I saw our brothers and sisters around the world cry out for love and justice.

That is a very different response than what would have happened in the ’80’s and early ’90’s. Our LGBTQ community is more mature, full of wisdom, full of experience and influence, and more powerful (in kind and humble ways) than ever before. Yes, our enemies are still out there, but instead of being numb and living in fear, we have found our voice. We have taken our place in society.

To quote a cute DJ I used to date, “… We won’t let them win.”

Hatred only has one path to a momentary victory; that path is to turn us into the very thing we hate. When we allow hatred into our hearts, we turn into the mirrored reflections of those we hate. That’s the only time hatred wins.

The real power to transform for the good of the individual and the common good truly comes from one source, and that source being love. Love destroys hate:

  • Loving our opponents enough to engage them as equals, not better than or worse than, disarms hate.
  • Selflessly sharing our lives openly with humility, dismantles hate.
  • Sacrificially forgiving, humanizing our enemies, and abiding in grace, destroys hate.
  • Overall, love always wins.

*You* are loved and I pray you are filled with and know you are surrounded by love. Together, we won’t let hatred win.

Being free is good,

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Send Me An Angel… Right Now…

Back when I was seventeen, I used to sneak out of the house and/or call in sick to work to go hang out at the gay bars. Initially, the euphoria and my naiveté made a powerful mix. As any traumatized slightly neurotic 17-year-old looking for any semblance of escape would be prone to do, I made a lot of bad decisions.

It wasn’t legal for me to be in the bars, even way back then. They had raised the drinking age a couple of years before I turned 18. Yes, it used to be lower than 21. Back then I think people had to have a strong drink handy in order to put up with all the dinosaurs and lack of electricity. ::: grin :::

Over time I would go to many … and I mean *many* gay bars across the south. Went to them all the way from Dallas on up the eastern seaboard to New York City/Long Island.

I was so obsessed with bar and party life I burned out on it before I was ever legal to drink. I look back on those crazy years and praise God I didn’t die. I should have died several times because of:

  • Nearly over-dosing on prescription meds (Kentucky was a dangerous place for me), and substance abuse in general.
  • Being the victim of violent crime (more than once and held at gunpoint twice.)
  • And a really angry freebasing drag queen decided he really really didn’t care for me. There are very few things in this world more dangerous than a really angry freebasing drag queen.

There were other cringe-worthy OMGoodness! “issues” but … you get the point.

The other day an old song, Send Me An Angel, popped up on my iPhone playlist. It was a reminder of something that happened every time I “went out.” This was a vivid gay nightclub ritual to always spend time getting lost in the music. Every bar I went to there was always a point in the evening where I would hit the dance floor and literally get swept up in the music. No matter who I was with, I would just disappear. My friends could join me if they wanted to but their presence was not required.

I danced by myself, with strangers, on top of boxes, in the DJ booth, with groups of strangers, in front of speakers, around the bar, on a bar, on a car in the parking lot once, not a nervous bone in my body … Yep, #WhirlyRandy

Of course, that was around 30 years ago and the younger me knew I would draw attention and enjoyed it. Even so, at some point I wouldn’t care who was watching, I just wanted to get “lost.” That’s what I called it too. In those moments I felt blissful and inseparable from the music. I always took my friend Meredeth’s advice, “Don’t dance to music, let the music dance you.”

One club I went to would always play Send Me An Angel if I happened to be there when the bar closed. The club wasn’t known for that style of music but they would play it as the closing song because, I was told, that the Dj and some of the staff liked to watch me dance to it.

I very much doubt that 48-year-old Randy would get the same attention. That’s quite ok with me.

Flash forward around 30 years to a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night. I stopped by Southern Nights here in Orlando because I knew some of my friends would be there. Had a good time but I was also aware that while the young(er) guys were polite and treated me with respect, I couldn’t help but feel like an old man. I smiled as I sipped my beverage while they sucked down their drinks. They were just starting to get revved up at the same time I was sober and planning my escape. Their goals? I dunno, doing young people things. My goal was to be home at least by midnight, in my PJ’s and asleep by 12:30am.

It’s fun thinking about how things are so different gay bar whirly Randy of the ’80’s is compated to who I am today. Now, I am the older dude who gets there before they start charging cover and keeps saying, “What?” because he can’t hear for snot because of the “just a little too loud” music. But, I also realize that the difference this time around is a bit more profound than just getting older.

The younger me went to the gay clubs as a haven, a sanctuary. I went to escape because I needed to numb the pain and desperately craved attention. Plus, in Nashville, it was the only semi-safe place for LGBTQ people to hang out. Not every, not even most, young gay men visiting the clubs go for similar reasons as the younger me.  I didn’t know then what they probably know now, that you can be happy, healthy, whole as a gay man. I didn’t appreciate (because I didn’t know what to look for or how to recognize) healthy relationship and community back then.

Now, I rarely go to gay nightclubs unless it is to visit with friends. I certainly don’t dance like the little Janet Jackson backup dancer wannabee I used to be.

We are glad for that; yes, we are.

The gay clubs are still a sanctuary but instead of needing attention and a place to numb the pain, I go in to socialize with my community, people I love. Instead of looking around for a party or distraction, today I look around and see beautiful brothers and sisters wanting to belong, to be in relationship, to enjoy the music, and have fun.

Back then, I was hurt and lost. Today, I am healthy, at peace, and at home.

:::the following is said in a cranky old man voice:::

Now, if those youngins would just play some reeeeallll music like Miami Sound Machine, Teena Marie, George Michael AFTER Wham but BEFORE his ’90’s weirdness, and Chaka Khan… I might stay longer! Just kidding, I love today’s music, too.

I have a feeling my ’80’s playlist will be fueling my next run…

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