I laid out my pin-striped suit, a Paul Smith that cost too much, but I’d bought it anyway because there were a number of weddings I had to attend. This would be the third. As I got ready, I blasted Whitney Houston’s greatest hits, a two-disk set with the ballads titled “Cool Down,” the up-tempo dance mixes titled “Throw Down.” A friend called the whole collection a “Let Down.” For me, the only real “let down” was that I didn’t have a date for the wedding. Didn’t have dates for the other two either. It should have been easy, a mid-thirties gay man like me—living in New York City where thousands of other gay men made their home, and where each week a handful of same-sex couples announced their civil unions in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. Instead it was the same old problem: All the good ones were taken. I cued up my favorite song of survival, “It’s Not Right, But It’s OK.”
The closest I ever came to married was a miserable live-in situation with my first boyfriend, whom I always refer to as Blame, because he gave me a grim rainbow of grief, and because that fault-finding word sounds pretty close to his actual name. We met in Houston in the early nineties, through the personal ads of a free weekly called Public News, which covered the alternative music and art scene of the city’s bohemian downtown. His ad promised lazy weekend mornings with coffee and both the Sunday Chronicle and the Post (it was that long ago—the Post was still around), walks through Memorial Park, and drives to Galveston.
I still have his first letter, three-pages long, in which he tried to guess my name (when I responded to his ad I only used initials). “The mind wanders,” he wrote, “Eric? Ernie? Elwood?” I enjoyed the fact that he was never going to get it.
He claimed the physical was not really important to him. “But, as it seems the custom: I’m 5’8,” 150 lbs, auburn hair/eyes, straight white teeth (with a slight gap in the middle, even after six years of braces), birthmark on my left arm.” He included a picture. He hated—and he underlined the word twice—the term “straight acting.” “There is no such thing as straight or gay behavior patterns,” he wrote. “END OF TOPIC. I LOVE a good kisser. Kissing is VERY important. I think long-term gay relationships are possible, but I’m not so sure people were meant to be together forever.” He said he was 23, “politically liberal, but morally conservative.” Then he took a final stab at guessing my name: “Edward? Elias? Efrim?”
We dated for a while. Blame loved to quote William Shakespeare. He wrote sonnets on the back of postcards. He also sent me the occasional sappy card that idealized romance. One was even from a line of cards called “the romance of life.” I’ve kept these letters and cards for the last 14 years.
Early on he wrote that he wasn’t one to rush into saying “I love you,” but it was becoming “perfectly clear to me that I could fall in love with you.” Not that I was easy to love. Blame came from a hippie, liberal-minded family in Mineral Wells, coming out to everyone at age 14. I was a closet-case from the Rio Grande Valley, where if you didn’t shoot your first javelina or white-wing by age 10, you were called a joto. So I had my own stinging brand of self-hating homophobia.
Eventually he popped the question: Did I want to move in with him? I had no idea what I was getting into when I said yes. I had never lived with another man (or woman), had never been in a real relationship of any kind, but I wanted to know what it would be like. We moved to a two-story fixer-upper in the Heights, which reminded me too much of the clapboard wreck in which I’d grown up in South Texas. Blame and I started fighting when I announced that I wanted my own bedroom. That’s how inexperienced in love I was in my early twenties.
In our better moments, we worked together to fight the injustice that we suffered as gay men. In the summer of 1992, we stopped traffic on Westheimer during the nighttime march, Take Back the Streets, protesting the violent murder of Paul Broussard. Broussard had been killed by a group of teenagers who first asked him for directions to a nearby gay bar and then beat him with a two-by-four studded with nails. Later that summer we marched against the Republican National Convention when it swept through town and took residence at the Astrodome. We blew whistles and chanted calls to action. “What do we want?” “Equal Rights!” “When do want them?” “Now!”
Then my mother called one afternoon to say that my cousin Juan, whom we all knew was gay, had hung himself with an electrical cord strung over a tree in his mother’s front yard. Juan was 25, had recently tested positive, and probably couldn’t imagine trying to survive the disease amid the intolerance of our own family. I can only guess that’s why he did it. We never talked about being gay and I never knew he was sick until he killed himself. My family, with their put-downs and warnings, had always tried to keep us apart.
I want to think that I ignored the ridicule, that I always knew that those jotos and marimachas were just like me. Not that I defended them. Not that I ever reached out in private and told them that we had to stick together. It was only after Juan’s death that I finally came out of the closet. And found my voice as a writer. Blame, who was nothing if not encouraging, bought me a black T-shirt that read Silencio=Muerte.
In the spring of 1993, we drove to the gay rights march on Washington—one of the largest civil rights marches in our nation’s history—and walked with the Houston contingent with its rainbow and lone-star flags. As I marched among hundreds of thousands of men and women, I realized that it was the first time I could really take pride in myself. Growing up along the Rio Grande, there was no such thing as gay pride. Then again, there wasn’t much pride in anything when you lived on the border and were born working-class, poor and brown. We lived in a corridor of isolation and oppression.
After Houston came New York. Blame had applied to film school. For his portfolio, he created a storyboard for a film on gay marriage, using the black and white snapshots he’d taken on our trip to Monterrey, Mexico, where he’d become fascinated by the beaded gowns in the windows of the downtown bridal shops. In New York, we broke up—over and over again. Then one day he left the city for Miami. He’s been moving around ever since.
Some days I like to imagine that there’s a great big Mexican boda in my future, with a long list of padrinos to help pay for everything from the matrimonial pillows to the salted peanuts served with the pan de polvo. With not just one, but two good-looking grooms held high in the chilled air of the local Catholic War Veterans Hall. Other days, I don’t know if I will ever get married. I want to, but love is hard, whoever and wherever you decide to love. On my lonelier nights, I call my mother in Texas to complain about living alone and wonder aloud when I will ever find anyone. One recent night she shushed me, telling me that it took time finding the right man. “Not those guys in the bars or clubs who only want the sex,” she explained.
“What do you want them for? To get a disease no mas? Or, like these young girls, jovencitas who sleep with qualquiera, making them dumb by saying that he loves them and leaves them pregnant? Those guys are nothing but sin vergüenzas.”
Not long ago, a young cousin of mine announced to everyone that she might be a lesbian and was dating a girl from her high school. My mother was later relieved to hear that a qualquiera got her pregnant at age 16. So much for sin vergüenzas. A teenage single mom seemed more acceptable than a lesbian.
And maybe I’ve accepted the idea of single parenthood as well, because even if I don’t get married, I still want kids. My mom seems thrilled, too, until I remind her that I am gay. “So what?” she huffs. “Get married and have your kids with your wife and have your lover on the side.” She claims a lot of people do that. It’s that sad life “on the down low” that I never wanted to live. When I tell her we could wait until my moody brother gets hitched, she complains, “Who’s gonna want to marry him con ese bad attitu’e?”
My brother has been single for so long that she wonders whether he might be gay, too.
He isn’t. My brother just hasn’t found the right girl. Whether he does or he doesn’t, I’d just like to be sure that I, too, could take my time to find the man for me.
I’d also like to think that I could count on my family to reject Proposition 2, the proposed constitutional amendment that Texas voters will be deciding on November 8. We don’t talk about politics much. In the last election my parents voted for—as my mother says in her tejano accent—”Butch.”
She explains that he was going to win anyway, so they just decided to “throw away” their vote. Or so she says. I don’t know for sure if she was misinformed or afraid to tell me the truth. As much as my parents love me in private, they don’t approve of my being public about “you know what.” They don’t have the courage to come out of the closet as parents of a gay son. I know this because for a long time I didn’t have the courage to come out either.
That’s one way of surviving, I suppose. But It’s Not Right, and It’s No Longer OK.
Born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Erasmo Guerra is a writer in New York.