I grew up in Lincoln Park, a place that for a time I thought was the gayest of neighborhoods because over the 17 years I lived there, everyone who lived on either side of our townhouse seemed to be gay.
I mean that in a good way. I also beam with pride because not being gay but a rebel I was surrounded by and surrounded myself with gays before being gay was "in."
What I saw in that coterie left me no reason to judge. I didn't necessarily agree with all the activities I saw. The same holds true for the behavior of heterosexuals I know and meet. But like with anything, there's always room for a spectrum of opinion.
I was never taught to judge or hate, but to be nice to people, especially when they were nice to me. In that respect, the bible served me well.
Subsequently, most of my best, best friends (mostly male) are gay. Inherently, I've trusted them more so than any of my straight friends (I can count on one hand how many), I think, because we've gone through so much together. That was an impressionable time, when I was learning as much about others as myself.
Lincoln Park is where I encountered my first drag queen, at age 7. I had living next door to me a rather robust, I think, now, middle-aged man named Gypsy perfecting his schtick well before RuPaul. He taught my mother (and by extension me) how to wear fake nails and mix ingredients for an awesome egg facial.
Not until I entered high school did I understand why when I'd run over to his apartment to ask on my mother's behalf his help dressing her for a party, his boyfriend would say, "He-she's asleep." (This made my father laugh, albeit uncomfortably, when I told him.) Whether Gypsy actually crossed the transgender threshold, I never knew.
Mom may not admit it, but at the time he influenced her level of flamboyancy. I think she may even still have those $500 blood-red crocodile pumps she bought from Joseph's shoe store on Randolph and Wabash. Looking back I realize why Gypsy knew so much about women's fashion: because he worked as a female impersonator. Although he looked like Tony Soprano when he wasn't in dress (read: drag). When he was on, his fashion sense rivaled that of the Chambre Syndicale.
Our Lincoln Park townhouse is also where I met interracial couple Mary and Sonia, the latter a younger black woman who was also Mom's hairdresser and clearly the more feminine of the two. Mary, on the other hand, was more of what some would describe as a biker chick. What I recall most about her is she referred to my younger sister, then about one-year old, as "Baby."
"Hi, Baby," she'd coo, not to nickname her, but more so as if she didn't know my sister's real name.
I also remember Sonia often irked my family when she'd visit, because she challenged them on their acceptance of gays by asking hypothetically what they'd do if they found out a family member were gay. Needless to say, her attempted cajoling always produced a dismissive response, as though nothing of the sort could ever happen to us.
To date, since I have no uncles, aunts, or cousins who've emerged from the closet and my parents are still straight, that fact has contributed (I regret to say) to some level of insolence in them toward gay people. For my part, however, I've chosen to accept them as I would any other person.
During high school, when I worked at the bagel shop on Broadway, there was Joey. He was a beautiful specimen of a man. Perhaps prettier than any woman I've ever seen, with even more illustrious, flowing hair, which he'd whipped back and forth while regaling me on his lunch break with tales of his previous night's "sexcapades." Then tilting his head he'd run his fingers through his locks, clearing a few strands behind his ear, to emphasize how proud he was to be sporting a rug burn the next morning.
I giggled throughout his retelling of the experience, not because I enjoyed hearing the saga of a young gay man having a salacious night out, but more so because my parents would just die if they knew I was listening to something so naughty from anyone at my age. Their stance would have been I should have been playing with dolls or reading a book. True, I was doing both those things. Playing with dolls (when I could possibly be doing fun, more grownup stuff?), eh, not as much. I was going to grow up and lose my innocence, whether the parents liked it or not.
Oh, and I can't forget Ray, who also lived next door to us. Ray and his partner moved in after Gypsy and then the priest after Gypsy moved out. Ray was a refined gentle man probably in his thirties (younger than Gypsy). He was prim and proper, English in his mannerisms, and very discreet in his "gayness." Every morning either he'd leave out going to work before his partner or vice versa. But they never left together.
Because only Ray visited us (usually to taste what Mom was cooking) I can no longer remember what his partner looked like.
Then there's my acting coach, Victor D'Altorio. Ah, was he the epitome of "tall, dark and handsome." Someone whom I actually had a crush on. Forgive me, guys: I hadn't yet calibrated my teenage eyes accurately enough to spot someone's sexual orientation. On the other hand, he wasn't what someone might consider "obviously gay." In other words, he was not "flaming." Simply a funny but loud-assed Italian man of lean muscle.
Last I heard, he had moved to San Francisco because he felt out of place in Chicago and is now working as a playwright, director and coach for more famous actors. I was shocked when he told me nearly 20 years ago he thought Jodie Foster was in the closet. "It often takes a gay to spot another one," he said.
Too numerous to name, these are just some in the LGBT community who are near, dear, and special to me because they clearly had a hand in my upbringing in the sense that they taught me about compassion, unconditional love and acceptance—all the tenants any good, well-balanced person should have—and about what being gay means. It certainly didn't mean hurting or mistreating anyone, but celebrating life and living it, and perhaps loving, to the fullest.
The atmosphere they nurtured was so innocuous that I don't even really think about it.... In fact, I know my acceptance of gay people was no more conscious than accepting anyone else (who isn't gay). It was like accepting someone of another race or someone who has a handicap or blues eyes and black hair. Gays are no less people, just different from me in how they choose to cohabit.
So now, every year as a photojournalist I'm eager to cover the gay Pride Parade as a way of giving back to a group of people who've given so much to me. This is in addition to my writing academic papers on gay-related social and political issues for school (and, I guess, you can add this particular blog) is how I choose to remain open-minded.
I was too young to really understand the significance of the parade when it passed by the bagel shop the two years I worked there. Now, I have the opportunity to make their annual celebration mine, by ejecting myself from the sidelines into the action in a way that represents my own way of living and loving: by taking photos of happy people.
It's a wonderful job to have, where everywhere you look mostly smiles abound.
I arrived late to the parade on Sunday morning after a night of working on a non-journalistic project that had me going to sleep a mere few hours before.
Initially, I was zombified by the lack of sleep. But as I approached Sheridan Road walking up Montrose Avenue a little after noon, the parade was already in progress; my body renewed at the sound of cheers and distant music.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, probably engaging in a bit of campaigning, had decided to jog the full parade course, shaking hands and bumping fists along the way, in between sipping bottled water to relieve himself from the 85-degree heat.
Although not yet fully awake I thought to myself, I'm in decent shape; I run marathons and work out five or so days a week. But had I known trying to keep up with him while also slinging two pro-body cameras (one with a 500 mm zoom lens attached to it) would give me a charley horse that I'm still nursing, I would have paused to stretched first.
Well, at least, this year I had the good sense to wear real running shoes for arch support (Asics), instead of the Dsquared2 fashion sneakers I wore last year. While hip and colorful (in support of the gay rainbow), the sneakers were clearly not designed for long walks, let alone extended runs.
I didn't dare complain (or curse) out loud, though, about how hot and uncomfortable I felt because Emanuel's security men were also jogging the course wearing suits and ties. I didn't want to drink too much water either, for fear I'd have to potty and miss something, mainly, Wade Davis. Shortly after Mayor Emanuel completed his jaunt at Sheridan Road on Diversey Avenue, the former NFL player arrived at the same spot in a chauffeur-driven Chrysler to receive a congratulatory hug for having bravely come out.
Tags: Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, Chicago, Dick Durbin, DOMA, Drag Queen, Equality, Gay Marriage, Gay Pride Parade, Governor Patrick Quinn, Homesexual, James Gandolfini, Jodie Foster, Lesbian, LGBT, Mayor Rahm Emanual, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Nation Football League, NFL, Pat Quinn, Patrick Quinn, Richard Durbin, RuPaul, Same Sex marriage, Toni Preckwinkle, Tony Soprano, Transgender, Victor D'Altorio, Wade Davis