You Weren’t There

“It’s such a terrible thing when a voice goes unheard. I have seen so many voices die. I have learned, in all my time with all my patients, each of us hold a story and must be given a voice. In the telling there is healing.”

Joon Park (Park has 93,000 followers on Instagram, and 36,000 followers on X, where he shares his most-memorable experiences as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital)

Simply writing one’s truth can sometimes threaten, embarrass, or anger those who were a part of the story, especially family.

Unfortunately, after sharing excerpts from my memoirs on social media recently, I was subjected to a belligerent family member insisting I remove the “garbage” from my blog.

Despite learning from other memoirists that this might happen, my first reaction was of course defensive. But truly, I was hurt that anyone would deny or attempt to suppress my lived experience.

Before I share those excerpts again, plus delve into their context, let’s get one thing clear: my childhood and adolescence were not ideal, but I’m now a happy adult strong enough to confess and confront a not so ordinary coming-of-age.

He ran home from school every day. He ran from bullies who would wait for the final bell, class over, it’s time to beat up the little faggot.

Some days he wouldn’t make it past the school grounds. “Faggot!” they’d yell, before a fist hit his face, followed by laughter.

He had no friends. Nobody wanted to be friends with a sissy, who was degraded and tormented daily.

He ran through back alleys, changing his route frequently.

A male teacher noticed the ostracized teenager and befriended him.

“Would you like to help me move into a new place after school?”

“Yeah, sure.” He’d become teacher’s pet, or so he thought.

They spent hours hauling boxes, joking around, getting to know each other; the freshman and the teacher.

“We sure are sweaty. I’m going to take a shower. You should too.” The authoritative voice more a command than suggestion.

He’d barely rinsed the shampoo from his hair when the burly man stepped into the shower.

It hurt. It hurt worse than a punch in the face.

There were several blocks between my home and school. I can still picture the boy who would stand on street corners waiting to chase me down. He literally terrorized 11-year-old me the entire fifth grade school year.

The teacher appears again in my story, when I run into him (and a couple of classmates) first at a sex club (Steam Works Sacramento), and again in a breakfast diner (Pancake Circus). He also tried to subject me to private lessons behind closed doors, until I dropped out of his class.

Eventually, I would detour via dirt path between our small town’s high school and Portuguese Hall, discovering other delinquents, older boys, and a handful of smut.

I blogged about finding myself on probation at fifteen after participating in stealing a car. Trying to protect the identities of my partners in crime, I was instead accused of stealing the spotlight. Regardless of what role each of us played, we all shared the same charges and sentence.

At first, I was dumbfounded why a family member would become enraged by my telling the story but can only conclude they are more concerned with maintaining a certain image, hiding youthful indiscretions.

I’ll concede, yes it was embarrassing being a newspaper headline for weeks (if not months), particularly one which mentioned my grandmother! But this was decades ago after all. And the second time a family member reacted negatively after learning I was writing memoir and blogging.

Four years ago, a sibling sent a barrage of letters and email threatening legal action, unaware I hadn’t written her into my story, at all. Irrational fears screamed how dare I tell the truth, how dare I be gay, how dare I marry a man, how dare I live happily ever after… “Don’t you have AIDS?” Her displeasure echoed bullying from our past.

I spent decades under a narrative written by others: juvenile delinquent, homosexual, bisexual, unsuitable, divorced, absent father… When I began free-writing I realized my truth is a threat to those who spent a lifetime degrading me.

I’d convinced myself that my grandmother’s taunting, and my father’s anger, were merely attempts to toughen me up for a cruel world. They must’ve known how LGBTQ people were mistreated.

During the Sixties and Seventies, young gay men escaping discrimination and prejudice, migrated to San Francisco; making it the unofficial gay capital of the world. One of the excerpts briefly described my earliest encounter on the city’s notorious Polk Street.

“Hi! How are you?” the raspy-voiced radical faerie asked as I entered the corner cafe.

“Good,” I replied, taken aback by his appearance. A man with a mustache, wearing sandals, tattered jeans, frilly blouse, and a straw hat with flowers.

“Do you know how to apply lip-gloss?” he asked.

“No, not really.”

“Well then, sit down, and let me teach you.”

It was a rainy weekday afternoon. I was waiting for my friend Richard to return from turning his first trick.

A gentleman we’d met at Sacramento’s Bojangles offered us a free ride to one of America’s infamous inner-city streets, known for its gay sex trade.

In the recently published Kids on the Street (2023, Duke University Press), Joseph Plaster quotes a 1984 news report, exposing “40 to 50 hardcore juvenile prostitutes are on that street at any one time.” The following year, another newspaper story revealed, “On a typical night, teenage boys can be seen loitering in doorways, offering their bodies for hire.”

And I was there. Like many runaways, homeless boys and young men, Richard and I turned to survival sex work while simultaneously exploring our sexuality.

Hustling had its risks but always a steady trade, and for an unemployable teenager, sometimes the only option.

The third excerpt included a violent encounter with one of San Francisco’s well-respected executive chefs. Employed by an upscale department store restaurant, in addition to one of the city’s private clubs, he had a secret desire to torture.

“Hi, would you like to go for a ride to my place on Potrero Hill?”

He drove a nice car, so I figured why not? Besides, I’d always wanted to see a view of the bay from Potrero.

But appearance can deceive, and demeanor change just as quickly.

“Here, put these on,” he whispered softly, tossing me handcuffs.

“Why? What are you going to do?” I asked nervously.

“Don’t worry. Just relax.”

Once the handcuffs were on, next came a pair of sweat socks. One stuffed in my mouth, the other tied around my head to hold it in place. He held another sock (with a chemical smell) under my nose.

I would go numb, aware of my surroundings but unable to escape or yell for help, for hours.

Incapacitated, I looked outside the window at the bay, enduring his cruelty until eventually passing out.

When I woke from the assault he apologized in his softest voice, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go that far.”

I’ve also intertwined significant moments in gay history into my story. Not to embellish, but as a member of the GLBT Historical Society San Francisco, I realize the importance of preserving our colorful history, including personal narratives.

Fact is, I was coming of age and coming out during a period of unrest and tragedy: the assassination of Harvey Milk and the emergence of the AIDS pandemic.

“Having lived through the plague, my question was always ‘Why was I spared? Why am I living?’ Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story. There’s a whole generation that was here, and I stand strong on their shoulders. I can be who I am in this space, at this time, because of the legacy that they left for me.”

Billy Porter (Actor, Writer)

Why would I reveal such personal and traumatic events? To remind readers how ugly homophobia and hate are.

For those who have taken issue with my excerpts: You weren’t there.