I knew him from a time when we were comfortable calling gay men “fruits,” but we didn’t mean anything by it. It was considered quite the positive descriptor, since back in those days folks were comfortable calling gay men much worse things. Though I haven’t been his boss for decades, there is still that tone of respect in his voice when he greets me. He now toils in a grocery store, moving things from boxes to shelves, herding other workers toward their tasks, and being the lightning rod when lightning has to strike somewhere. Even with the pigment-draining evidence of middle-age, he still greets me with a big, sincere, youthful smile. He may be a little greyer than when we were both young men, but his eyes are still the same lively piercing vitality.
When my parents were young people, they came to the United States from Canada, and brought with them a less xenophobic mindset possessed by many people in California in the late ‘50s. Much like my parents, my word choices were of the culture, not out of hate. That being said, my father still uses the word “negro” when talking about black people. From his time, this was the respectful way to reference those whose skin is darker than ours, who were not Mexicans. I don’t feel the need to mention that the word has fallen out of favor when I hear him sing it out (always too loudly), because it is usually in the presence of others of his age--who see the word as the height of political correctness.
On a good day it compels me to assess the linguistic artifacts that pepper my parlance. Sometimes when I hit the store after a night of running movies at the theater, I see my long-lost employee slicing open the top of a box of cans with a deft, lightening flick of a box cutter. I watch him for those few seconds before me notices me, and in that pause I wonder what damage I might have caused by my comfort with a term long past its pull date.
As I pull hard past the age my dad was when I was a kid, I never would have guessed that my job would be to interact with customers and be the face of the business I run. It is not at all uncommon for me to offend people with my untidy sense of humor. It is usually the force of conversational momentum that finds words outside my head that were meant to stay inside. I am nothing more than a biological machine that turns food into spoonerisms, puns, and non sequitur observations. My lower-case version of tourette’s has imbued me with a lifetime of things to relive at three in the morning.
There was a time I strove with gusto to avoid offense. When I was younger, I tried to be a beacon of progressiveness and embrace the latest boycott of words from the last generation. It was a lot of work. Turns out I was just retrofitting other peoples’ beliefs du jour into my empty consciousness. It took a while before I started thinking for myself and choosing my battles based on my life experience, rather than on what was cool for that moment. Life experience contributes to consciousness. With any luck, some of that life experience is spent trying to understand that to which we may never be exposed.
I do not know what it is like to be a gay man. In or out of the closet, the gay community will experience levels of fear and self-hatred that I will never understand. In my experience, many gay men affect different facades for different situations and become quite good at being what is expected of them. Though my using the word “fruit” might have appeared to have had no impact, I have no idea what was going on under the public face. When I lived in Canada as a child, I was beaten badly by the other kids for the crime of being an American. I learned then to deny my citizenship to reduce bruising. Perhaps this experience should have made me aware that there are whole tribes of people I move among whom are also denying their citizenships. And maybe they don’t like being called “fruits.”
Though I am an ardent motorcyclist and lean toward macho in how I handle most matters, I also collect ceramic cats. Usually from the ‘40s through the ‘70s. I prefer the long necked to the stubby, and the elegant to the kitschy. I also have wooden cats and shampoo bottles shaped like cats. When I cruise a thrift store, I seek out the figurine section and look for some form of kiln-baked felinity to be staring back at me with yellow freak-show eyes, begging for a place on my dresser. Everyone who sees my collection seems to have the need to tell me how gay it is that I collect these things. What strikes me is their discomfort with my disregard for their standards of masculinity. Their heads almost explode when I tell them I like to line them up in front of the entertainment center and watch TV with them. Whether or not that really happens is irrelevant. I enjoy a bit too much forcing their minds to imagine something so outside their comfort zone. Thankfully for them, my affinity for faux felines hasn’t led me to sitting in a gay bar with ass-less chaps. Not that there is anything wrong with that (unless you have the misfortune of imagining me in ass-less chaps). Perhaps it is my inner homosexual that seeks out cat statues, because having a pride of ceramic felines in one’s bedroom does not make women violently ovulate.
So, when I let slip, “Well, that’s gay,” I have to remember this is a word that has been used on me. As an insult. Just because I might use the phrase to describe something so flamingly homosexual no other descriptor makes sense, doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry the implication that there is something wrong with someone being gay. Or that gayness denotes weakness.
The irony is that some of the toughest men and women I know are homosexuals. The lesson being, a person’s sexuality has nothing to do with their character, or their worth as a person. Or with what they like to collect.
Many years ago I shuttered the theater where this grocery store manager worked, and scattered him and the other employees to the wind. I worried about him more than the others because he was trapped in an abusive relationship, and the theater was a place he ran to, often bruised. But now, all this time later, he is no worse for wear. He seems healthy and happy and speaks fondly of our years together. We reminisce about the difficult customers and the drunken New Year’s parties and kids we watched grow up, one Saturday matinee at a time. Whatever insensitivities I indulged in at his expense seem to have either been deflected by his armor or were reconciled by shared memories.
But I’ll never know. I just have to resign myself to a lifetime of rebuilding my lexicon so I stop sounding totally retarded.