September

Jackson Square was deserted on this oppressive Labor Day Monday night. The only inhabitants were the myriad of fortune tellers and tarot card readers who floated like spirits between their candlelit tables. 

I was there because I had chased a guy to New Orleans for Southern Decadence that weekend. He and I had struck up an online relationship that I guess we both hoped would grow stronger when we met in person, Alas, that didn’t happen. The spark wasn’t there, so he sat at a table in Harrah’s all weekend while I discovered the pleasures of the Big Easy’s annual gayfest 

As the latest number in Eric’s Big Gay Failed Relationship Tour, he had flown back to Texas earlier that day without a goodbye. All the other revelers had headed home as well, and tonight, I had the city all to myself.

I climbed the steps of Saint Louis Cathedral and sat on the cool marble porch in the darkness. Thunder rumbled in the distance. 

I thought about the sequence of events over the past year that had led me to this moment, beginning with my tenure as marketing manager at an internet startup in Norfolk. The company, Great Bridge, was one of Landmark Communications “new ventures.” I had already worked in two previous new ventures that had failed miserably after only a few months.

Now it was all but certain that Great Bridge was going to meet the same fate.

I had been in San Francisco in the days prior to my New Orleans junket to help convince Sun Microsystems to buy the company. All I remember about those few days was standing in the middle of the bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis, some douchebag marketing person from Sun in my face talking about “the big idea.

I was so sick of that jargon and those inane conversations, so I tuned him out, walked over to the window, and watched an amazing sun burn out as it sank into the Pacific.

My career had wobbled wildly since moving to Norfolk in 1997. Now it looked as if I was about to be unemployed for the first time since I started working at 14.

On top of that, Laurie, my best friend since high school, had been battling ovarian cancer in Atlanta, and she was losing. Two months earlier, I traveled to see her for what was to be the last time. She was emaciated, and her eyes were sad. Her husband took her daughter—my goddaughter—out for a few hours so she and I could spend some time alone.

We sat on a swing in the backyard, and I held her hand. We had been through so much together since we were teenagers: growing up in dysfunctional families, the pain and joy of high school, a failed marriage, a new marriage, and finally, giving birth to and raising a wonderful little girl. 

Now, at 40, she was dying.

We sat in a comfortable silence for a while. She was the only person in my life with whom silences didn’t feel awkward. 

Finally, I said, “What do you want me to do?”

She looked right into my eye and said, “Make sure my family is ok.”

I sat on the steps of the cathedral as the thunderstorm grew closer, recalling my promise to her. Just as I was contemplating heading back to the hotel, the low soulful baritone of a Black man singing an old hymn floated out from the darkness under the porch archways behind me.

“Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

I listened for a moment, entranced. The message was loud and clear: big changes were coming. A close clap of thunder sent me scurrying for cover.

The next day, at a companywide meeting, the president made it official: Great Bridge was closing on Friday, September 4. All employees would receive a severance based on their salary level, and I was happy with mine. But more than that. I was happy to be out of the internet business. It had been a terribly nasty and stressful journey full of greedy, boastful people whom I didn’t really care for.

Closing day was a gorgeous late summer day: sunny, cool, bright blue skies. I collected my check before lunch, literally skipped to the parking lot, and went home to my condo by the Bay. My plan was to do nothing but sleep, sit on the beach, and deal with the PTSD that had characterized the past two years. 

The following Tuesday morning, my cell rang at 9:30. It was my brother. He never called this early, and I knew something was up. 

“Turn on the TV!” he yelled. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

The rest of that day was a slow-motion nightmare. Like everyone, I watched the horror in Manhattan unfold. At one point, I contemplated packing a bag and evacuating. The fact that I lived right next door to the world’s largest Navy base did not escape me. Along with the rest of world, I did not know what was next. I somehow got a grip and opted for a calming walk on the beach.

The day was another stellar one, but there was no one in sight. I mean, no one. The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel had been closed. All shipping coming in and out of the harbor had ceased. All air traffic had been grounded. The only sound was the gentle breeze, then the sound of two jet fighters departing Langley, headed north. 

It felt as if I was the last person on earth.

The next few days were a blur as they were for rest of the world. I watched from the beach as the USS Enterprise departed for the middle east, draped in American flag bunting that was mimicked by the throngs of people watching from shore. I talked to Laurie later that week, and I could tell she was failing. I stayed up almost all night every night and slept late into the next day. I drank way too much.

I passed many of those days writing things like this in my journal:

“I know I will survive all that’s happened lately. I know it will ultimately make me a better person. But tonight, grief has me in its grip and is shaking me to the core. Death is all around, and that long black cloud is coming down.”

I knew the world had changed, and I had changed with it.

Ten days later, I got the call I had been dreading. 

It was Matt. “Eric, she’s gone,” he said.

“I knew that’s why you were calling,” I said, my heart breaking. “Was she at peace?”

“She was, and she had no pain,” he said. “And you’ll appreciate this: her last words were, ‘I can’t fight this anymore, and I want to go home’.”

I smiled at the thought. She and I had always shared a similar spirituality, and we both knew that we have been here many times before and would be here again. I also knew that she’d be waiting for me when I went it was my turn to head home.

I told Matt that I would rent a car in the morning and drive down. I certainly wasn’t going to fly.

“Would you like to speak at the service?”

It’s Joan, Laurie’s mom, asking me this six hours before the service. She is a small, diminutive woman, from all outward appearances meek and unassuming. And yet, she is the one who stood by her daughter’s side for over a year. I cannot imagine what that must have been like-to watch your oldest child die.

I have always had mad respect for Joan. Back in the Seventies she took both her daughters and her out of an abusive marriage and started all over again. That was no easy feat in those days-especially for a woman who had no formal education or work experience of her own. 

She had practically raised me as a teenager. I spent more time at her small apartment than I did at my own house, and that tiny apartment became my refuge. Laurie and I would gather there with our other friends on Friday nights to watch “Dallas” or play cards. We skipped school to sit in her bedroom and listen to Foreigner or Styx records and smoke cigarettes. Joan knew but didn’t really care. She had seen worse.

When I was with Joan, I was always reminded that your real family often wasn’t necessarily of blood. Over the years, I had taken to calling her mom. She was a sight better than my own mother who at that time was battling alcoholism.

I thought about speaking at the service. I knew that it would be tough for Matt to get up and speak. And I knew Joan was asking me because she was aware of that. 

I had stood up at every pivotal event in Laurie’s life. I was in her first wedding in 1983, although I knew then that she was making a mistake. Five years later, I drove all the way from Greensboro when she called me in hysterics to tell me that she had uncovered her husband’s infidelity. I found her curled in the bathroom floor, crying unmercifully. 

I was at her pinning ceremony when she became a full-fledged nurse. And when she married Matt, I was there, lighting candles and toasting, my place in her life solidified. I was in the waiting room the night my goddaughter, Sarah, was born in Raleigh, and I was on the altar at her Christening, proudly accepting the role as her godfather. I remember her joking with me on that day that if she went before I did, I would have to grow up and be a father figure.

I told Joan that I had no idea what I would say, but I would be honored to speak at the service.

Matt, Joan, Sarah, Laurie’s sister Barbara and me, piled into Joan’s Park Avenue. On the seat between Joan and me was the wooden box containing Laurie’s ashes. It was drizzling.

We stopped by Barnes & Nobles to buy Sarah a “Bob the Builder” book, a mundane chore in the course of this exceptional day. While we were there, I discovered what I was going to say. I bought a single red rose and the small paperback, which would serve as the foundation of my eulogy. 

We passed a cemetery on the way to the funeral home. I turned to see gaggle of geese fly low over the mute, gray headstones. Matt steered the car into the lot of Lutz Funeral Home, put it in park, and we sat silent for a moment, all of us close to tears. 

“OK, we can do this,” he said. Joan was crying softly. Somehow, we got out and went inside, Matt bearing the box. The moment had come to say goodbye.

Here’s what I remember from the service:

I walked past the funeral director’s office and overheard Matt talking to him about the untested vocalist who was to perform “Ave Maria” at the service. It was Laurie’s favorite song, and Matt was concerned. The last time they had hired a vocalist at someone else’s recommendation had been at their wedding, seven years earlier. She mutilated “Ave Maria”.

“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment,” I heard him say. “I just don’t want my wife coming back to get me because this girl screwed up the song.”

Before the service, I walked into the chapel with Sarah by the hand. We were alone. It had taken her a few hours to get used to me last night, but now she didn’t leave my side. We walked up to the altar where a family portrait of the three of them stood next to the box of ashes amid a sea of flowers. I laid the single red rose next to the box while Sarah wandered up on the stage. The tears came, and then Sarah tugged my hand. 

“I know where mommy is,” she said.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“Right here,” she said, pointing at the chair next to her. “And up there,” she said, pointing up.

I smiled and wished we could all remember what it was like to be a child, in touch with the forces on the other side, in tune with the fundamentals. As we get older, life dulls the signal.

And then people began flooding into the Chapel. I was OK. I never have been at ease in situations like this, regardless of the occasion: weddings, graduations, and funerals. I always wanted to laugh or fidget. But today, I felt this heat radiating from somewhere within, and it calmed me.

The holy man–the same man who married Matt and Laurie–got up to speak, and before I knew it, he was calling my name. I pulled my heavy body out of the pew and walked to the altar. When I looked up, into the faces of those mourning, I knew the time had come for the final testament. 

I told those people how Laurie was the best friend I have ever had. Ever will have. I told them how she was the first and only person up to that point who accepted me as I was from day one and loved me unconditionally for it. I told them that she was not only that way with her friends, but with her husband, and her daughter, and her sister, and her mother.

And then I pulled out the small paperback with the blue feather on the cover. “Illusions” by Richard Bach. I read the very same passages that she and I adopted as our mantras so many years ago, back in the woods of eastern North Carolina.

“The mark of your ignorance is your belief in tragedy. What the caterpillar calls a tragedy, the master calls a butterfly.”

“Do not be dismayed at goodbyes. For a goodbye is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again is certain for those who are friends.”

And finally: “Your true family is measured not by bonds of blood but of respect and joy in each other’s lives. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.”

Then I sat. And that’s when the sorrow came, horrible, overwhelming, inundating. Sure enough, she was gone. An unknown hand passed me a Kleenex from behind. As comforting as those words from Richard Bach were 25 years ago, today was an utter loss. And it hurt so badly. 

It was the first of a long, continuously unraveling realization that Laurie was dead. That so many people were dead. And that I was going to die, too.

Back at Laurie and Matt’s house, I wander through the sea of unfamiliar faces, working the PR face I had become so adept at wearing in stressful situations. The acute sadness that poured out of me at the funeral had dulled into a gentle ache in my heart, and I found comfort among the people that loved Laurie.

Matt is in the kitchen with Sarah and his parents. Joan and Barbara are sitting in the living room with their Aunt Bett, a 75-year-old nun. Laurie’s father sits alone, quietly, in the den, watching the coverage of the destruction at Ground Zero. That’s pretty much the same thing he has done for the past 30 years. 

So strange here, in Laurie’s house. It’s as if we are at one of the many parties we had over the years, and these are all our friends, come to have a good time, to drink, to laugh, to share stories.

Laurie is upstairs, late as always, in the “Lab” we used to call it, putting on makeup, curling her hair, getting beautiful. Typical Leo. I used to get impatient with her, and about now I would go upstairs and burst in the bathroom.

“What in the hell are you doing up her, incubating?” I’d say.

Without looking away from the mirror, she’d glance up at me and raise her eyebrows. “Perfection cannot be rushed,” she’d warn. “Go away.”

I’d laugh, knowing it was all part of our shtick. Then I’d go back downstairs, killing time, anticipating her entrance, which was usually a gentle drift down the stairs, nonchalant and casual, somewhat removed.

Instead, I find myself sitting next to the nun, her Aunt Bett. This is one grand old dame. A bit overweight, possibly a lesbian, very Midwestern. This woman had traveled all over the world in her life, learning four languages and visiting places most of us would never even read about. 

I sit in the uncomfortable dining room chair next to her, and she gently places her hand on my arm and gives me a gentle Mona Lisaesque smile.

“You’re quite the poet,” she says. “Your words at the service today revealed that.”

I thank her for the compliment.

“You know, Laurie talked about you often. She told me a few years ago that you were her best friend.”

The tears were suddenly close and threatening. But I was in PR mode now, so I shelved them for the moment. “She was my best friend, too,” I choked. 

“But I bet a lot of people don’t really know what that means to you,” she said. I gave her a small nod. No, they really didn’t. 

She leaned in close. “I think I know what it means,” she whispered. “I think it means that you are a very independent, reserved loner, despite your gregarious nature. And she was the only person who truly understood the real you.” I looked directly into her eyes. “And I bet you don’t think you’ll never meet another person who knows you like she knew you.”

I felt my shoulders slump. The tears came rushing forward, and I forced them away. A long silence. She had pegged me, and that was too close for comfort.

“You’re a very insightful person,” I said with a feeble smile.

She sensed that I was tottering on the edge of despair and gripped my arm for a brief second, smiled, then turned her attention elsewhere. Just as a woman of God should do.

September 26, 2001, from my journal:

Tonight I’m sitting in her house, at a desk surrounded by pictures of her. Across the hall, Matt sleeps in their bed, alone. Everyone else is sleeping as well. We’ve stayed up late the past few nights, reminiscing, laughing, crying. Grieving, Remembering. And it’s only the beginning.

Earlier tonight, Matt suddenly said, “You know what, we’re all here now. Why don’t we drive up to Asheville and scatter her ashes this weekend?”

We’re leaving in the morning to head up to Laurie’s favorite spot, Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we’ll throw her ashes into the wind. Meanwhile, 900 miles away, New York City sifts through ashes of another kind.

We all must become intimately acquainted with grief. But what we do with that is contingent upon our ability to allow it to lift us up or drag us down.

November 27, 2001 journal entry:

Two months since Laurie’s death, the attacks on New York and DC, and the failure of Great Bridge. I feel like I have dived into a deep, cold, black lake. After absorbing the shock, I am just now regaining the surface.

I am changed. I don’t understand the complete picture yet, but I know the events of September have fundamentally altered my perception of life on this planet. And just in time—I was no doubt headed for a breakdown of some kind.

And as sad as I am over losing my best friend—as distraught as I am over the sorry state of humanity—as anxious as I am about being unemployed—there is this bright, calm center in my heart and mind where none existed before. Gratitude for all that I do have? Gratitude for the experiences of the last two months?

I often speak to Laurie, and in that mental spot, she meets me, tells me how beautiful it is over there—where there is no anger or hatred, nor want or desire.

Only love.

And I am closer to that place in my heart than I have ever been in my life.

There’s so much of the story yet to be written, but right now, I don’t have anything else to say.

For now, I’m floating, waiting for the big one to come.

Free At Last

December 2011

It wasn’t until about a year after my father died that I finally exhaled.

It was one long gargantuan release that began in the depths of my soul and crept through my bone-tired body. I couldn’t stop until every bit of it was expelled into the universe like a huge black cloud of poison.

At that point, it had been six years out of a total of 10 that would ultimately be characterized by sickness and death, anger and fear, and stress so unrelenting that at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive it.  

I refer to that time as the Tipsy Teapot. That was the name of a quaint little café in my North Carolina hometown that that my parents loved. It was also a spot-on metaphor for my family’s chaotic and often violent history. 

Let me short hand it for you. The Prince of Tides meets The Royal Tenenbaums. Dysfunction meets genius.

Now, with my father dead and my mother in a nursing home, not far behind him, the teapot had stopped tipping so violently, and my brothers and I could relax our grip. A little bit.

But it brought me to the realization that I was damaged goods, a product of a highly dysfunctional upbringing. And that damn teapot would always be tipping to some degree for the rest of my life.

My brother called me the other night. He had experienced the worst of it. He was molested by a family acquaintance. That, coupled with the fact that he inherited our family’s long-running alcoholic gene had resulted in a miserable sentence of substance abuse that nearly killed him. He had recently sobered up, and we were now able to explore our mutual experiences.

This night, we simply picked up where we left off, which was right in the middle of our marathon 40-year long therapy session. I had consumed a couple of martoonis, and he had probably smoked a fatty (sober was always a suggested guideline in our family). Our conversation was long and uninhibited, and I went outside so as not to infringe on Andrew’s peace.

“I love mom, and I want what’s best for her,” I said, “but I can’t help it, I still resent how she neglected us when we were kids.”

“I know, Eric, she has always just taken and taken, and here we are at the end, still giving her everything,” Jon said. “I know she can’t help where she is now, and she needs our help, but I’m still pissed over everything that came before.”

We continued along this path until I grew weary of hating on her. You have to invoke a lot of bad mojo to maintain that negativity.

We hung up after a quick “later,” and I went inside to my husband-whom-I-cannot-marry.

“So how’s Jon?” he asked.

“Oh you know, same conversation different day,” I replied.

“I don’t know why you two keep going through that same procedure and digging up all that stuff,” he said. “I guess you’re just programmed that way.” He turned back to his cooking show.

I let it go as best I could, but I wondered if I would ever feel anything other than a tumultuous jumble of guilt, resentment, and sadness when it came to my family.

Andrew and I watched the rest of America’s Test Kitchen. Bridget made some delicious-looking chicken and slicks, and Adam tested meat grinders in the Equipment Corner. This is what normal is, I thought. Andrew had demonstrated that love did not have to walk in the room with drama in its hand.

Late that night, I awoke in tears. The last vestiges of my dream were slipping into the abyss, but I still saw my father’s face. He was grinning at me, that same easy, goofy grin brought on by a dirty joke or too much booze.

He had been here, I was sure of it.

I thought about him, and I sank deeper into the realization that he was really gone. My tears began to spring from some deep well of sadness that I had not allowed myself to tap into after his death.

I didn’t want to wake Andrew, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my office. The house was dead quiet and cold. Outside, the oppressive mid-winter’s night pressed against the windows. I sat at my desk, head in my hands, and let the huge lumbering wave suck me under. I cried for my father. I cried for my mother. I cried for a world full of the neglected children. I cried for the abused animals in the Sarah MacLachlan SPCA commercial. I made myself cry over anything so I could begin to get it all out.

My sadness began to come from another place, from a vision of the little boy who never had the chance to be that kid without worries; that kid who never experienced unconditional love from his parents without the expectation of something in return; that kid who was never free from the burden of the awful family secrets of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction; and that kid who always struggled to get through the goddamn day by keeping the peace and not upsetting anyone.

I had never grieved for that boy. Sure, I had thrown my share of woe-is-me pity parties. But I had never been able to pull back to 60,000 feet and truly feel what he went through. It was comforting to finally acknowledge him, to see his early life through the telescope of years for what it was. He was a mess in so many ways. But to be fair, many times his life was really fun, exciting, and full of lots of cool adventures and incredible people that many kids would never experience.

There’s a scene with Meryl Streep and Gene Hackman in “Postcards from the Edge,” Carrie Fisher’s hysterical and touching 1994 autobiographical film. Streep plays a recovering drug addict who’s tortured by the memories of her dysfunctional childhood. Her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic played by Shirley MacLaine, is at the root of her self-loathing. Hackman’s character gives her a piece of advice that has stuck with me for decades.

I recite it silently: “She did it to you, her mother did it to her, and on and on, all the way back to Eve. And at some point, you have to say, fuck it. It stops here. It ends with me.”

Without really thinking, I picked up my trusty old Tarot cards, wrapped in the teal bandana I bought in Tortola 15 years ago. I spread them out in a fan on my desk, closed my eyes, and pulled one. I opened my eyes, turned it up, and there, like the baby Jesus had heard my questions, was the two of Wands.

I contemplated the intricate and colorful portrait. A regal man in red flowing robes is holding a small globe and stands on the roof of a castle. He’s looking out over a vast terrain to his right and the ocean on his left. The globe represents a world that is his oyster with huge potential. He understands his ambition, and he knows what must be done–if he can make the choice to release the past and embrace broader life experiences.

He was me.

I smiled, the last of tears drying on my face. I silently thanked my father for waking me up with the message, made my choice, and went back to bed.

An Early Attempt at Escape

The tan woman was looking down at me, her feathered hair cascading around a perfectly formed face punctuated by two beautiful blue eyes.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

I remember wondering why she would ask such a question. I didn’t think I was.

The Florida morning was warm but not steamy. Puffy cumulus clouds rode on a fresh breeze that rattled the palms. It was a gorgeous day, and I had decided to go for ride.

“No,” I replied, “I live right around the corner.”

“OK,” she shrugged, rolled up the car widow, and drove away.

I grabbed the handlebars, hit the pedals, and took off in the other direction.

I didn’t know that back on Minnesota Drive, my mother was freaking out. See, it was 1966, I was four years old, and I had disappeared from our house about an hour before. 

On my tricycle.

I also didn’t know that she had called the police, and at that very moment she was in the back of a black and white, riding the streets of our neighborhood in search of her missing son.

I didn’t care about any of those things. All I knew was that I was having a ball riding around in circles in the middle of the Volusia County Hospital emergency entrance three miles from my parent’s house. 

I had somewhat mastered the art of two-wheel tricycle doughnuts, which involved accelerating to a breathtaking speed, pulling a hard left, then laughing delightedly as I rose up on two wheels and careened in a circle.

The emergency room entrance seemed in many ways the perfect spot to practice my stunt.

I don’t know how much time passed before I saw the police car approaching. My mother was hanging out the back window, screaming my name. She jumped out before the car had barely stopped and ran to me.

“Eric, Jesus, you scared me to death Are you OK? Stand up and let me look at you.”

As she examined me from head to toe looking for wounds and some sign of regret, I looked up into the eyes of a tall dark man in a blue uniform. He had a black bushy mustache. On his muscular left forearm, he had a tattoo of an anchor.

He squatted down next to me.  “Son are you ok,” he asked in a deep calm voice.

“I’m fine!” I exclaimed. My mother was almost whimpering with relief.

“Well, then, let’s get you home,” he said. I watched with awe as he stood and picked up my tricycle with one hand.

My mother gripped my arm tightly, and we followed him to the cruiser. He opened the back door with his free hand, and I scooted in next to my mother.

“Eric, I thought you had been kidnapped or worse. Don’t you EVER run off like that again.”

I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was peering over the back seat at our officer who was lifting my tricycle into the trunk. I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he slid behind the wheel.

He turned around and put his hand on my shoulder. “You scared your mother buddy. Next time, be sure to check with her before you take off, ok?”

I nodded sheepishly. He tousled my hair, then started the car.

As he drove us home, I drilled holes in the back of his head with my eyes.

Now I knew: he had saved me from certain death. He was my hero, and I wanted him to be my daddy.

Spring At The Hermitage: Chris + Thomas

I’ve known Chris for almost as long as I’ve lived in Hampton Roads, and when Thomas came on the scene, I knew….I just knew…what would soon follow. These two are crazy in love. After they became engaged and started planning their April nuptials at The Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, I also knew that I had to photograph my friends in that spectacular setting.

Eighth Annual Outer Banks Pridefest Has It Genesis In A 25-Year Old Grassroots Movement.

I moved to the Outer Banks in the early 1990s to take a job as Director of Marketing and Public relations at The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama, and it was a dream come true in so many ways. Seriously, a job at the beach in theater marketing?

I was a 30 year-old out gay man. My family knew, my co-workers at The Lost Colony knew (90% of them were gay, too), and I had nothing to hide.

I simply assumed that the many gay locals I met were out as well. Surprisingly, that was not the case. The Outer Banks then was generally not an LGBT-friendly community, Lost Colony notwithstanding. My impression was that many of the locals considered the gay enclave clustered on the north end of Roanoke Island to be a necessary prerequisite for having a thriving and professional theater company.

But, boy, if you were a gay native of Dare County, you stayed deep in the closet.

There were no gay bars and social or support outlets in Dare County. When we wanted to go out on the town and dance with our people, we’d pile in someone’s car and make the two-hour (or sometimes three, depending on traffic) trip to Norfolk for the weekend. In the harsh winter months, it seems as if all we did was huddle up at someone’s house and drink ourselves silly.

Finally, a group of my Lost Colony friends and co-workers decided to create those missing social opportunities. The name of our fledgling group was the Outer Banks Gay and Lesbian Community (or GLC for short—because we had to have a secret code).

We began by approaching those few businesses we knew were gay owned. At the time, that was Sam and Omie’s in Nags Head and Art’s Place in Kitty Hawk. We asked and they enthusiastically agreed to host an occasional private party just for us: invitation  only, closed to the public. Plus you had to know the secret code to get in if we didn’t know you. Privacy was paramount. There were many prominent people who joined our group as long as we guaranteed it.

We also built a newsletter mailing list by quietly networking and spreading the word—quite an undertaking in the days before email. I wrote it on the computer in my office and printed copies on the company Xerox machine. I figured that was OK after all the gay community had done for The Lost Colony over the years. We funded the postage out of our own pockets.

We started holding GLC Beach Days during the warm months at Coquina Beach (we called it CoQueena). Those beach days were some of the best of my time on the Outer Banks. We flew a ginormous rainbow flag on the dune so that any weary gay travelers on Highway 12 would know where to find our safe spot.

We always had a big crowd. We held ocean kayaking races, fishing tournaments, and best tan competitions. Afterwards, we wrapped it up with a visit to the Oasis Restaurant on the Nags Head Causeway to hear Laura Martier wail the blues.

Eventually, we started collecting donations to fund the newsletter. We collected enough to take out classified ads in regional gay publications such as The Washington Blade and Our Own Community Press (in Hampton Roads) promoting our private parties and beach days to tourists. We often had vacationers join us as a result, and I made some great friends, many of whom I still count among my besties today.

I moved to Norfolk in 1998, and the group kept plowing away. Eventually, my new life took precedence, and I lost the pulse of what was happening with the GLC.

Then eight years ago, one of the GLC’s founding members, David Miller (who has been associated with The Lost Colony since the colony was lost) founded OBX Pride, Inc. and produced the first-ever OBX Pridefest.

Imagine that! A full on, in your face gay pride celebration on the Outer Banks. It was exciting and somewhat disconcerting at the same time. How would the community accept this public display? It had its challenging moments, but in the end all was for naught. The local norms had evolved in both attitudes and acceptance, and the timing was finally right.

Today, hundreds of visitors from Richmond and DC to Raleigh and Charlotte, both gay and straight, come to celebrate. The Dare County Tourist Bureau is our primary benefactor. The list of businesses that participate in the three-day event has grown impressively long. And I am involved once again as a board member and marketing director for Pridefest.

My husband and I are headed down to the eighth Annual Pridefest this weekend, and I’m excited to see my friends from the GLC days.

But most of all, I’m excited to be home again in a place I’ve loved for 50 years and know that our little grassroots underground movement helped change it for the better.

Poppy Champlin Talks Comedy, Coming Out, the Casting Couch, and Basketball

Poppy Champlin’s stand up pedigree is flawless, from her Showtime special Pride: The Gay & Lesbian Comedy Slam and Logo special One Night Stand Up, to The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a featured story on Entertainment Tonight. She was a winner on The Joan Rivers Show and a panel guest on Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen. She is also a favorite on Atlantis and Olivia Cruises.

Champlin has opened for such comics as Ray Romano, Denis Leary, Bill Maher, Bill Hicks, and Rosie O’Donnell. Her club appearances are many. The Chicago Sun-Times calls Champlin, “Blisteringly funny.”

This Sunday, she brings her wildly successful Queer Queens of Qomedy tour to the Virginia Beach Funny Bone. She combines forces with two equally renowned lesbian comics, Vickie Shaw and Jess Miller—plus two special guests from the local LGBTQ community.

OutWire757 spoke with her recently about the tour and her long history as an out–and sometimes not out–comedienne.

Congratulations! This is the 12thyear of the Queer Queens of Qomedy Tour.
Thanks. We started in 2006. I wanted to be recognized in the lesbian and gay  community, and for each tour I’ve pulled in two other lesbian comics to go with me. I’ve had some really good bills. At our first show, we had 450 people show up.

This weekend’s bill is great. What can we expect?
With Vickie, you’re going to get that Southern style and that charm. It’s so infectious, her delivery. She was on one of the original Comedy Central shows, Premium Blend. She’s a regular and a favorite on Olivia Cruises. And she always dresses up real nice. Jessi is like a ringleader, she just really engages the crowd and talks with them. I like her style and mannerisms. She’s been working really hard in New York at Caroline’s. We also have a special appearance by an up and coming local comedian, Carmen Crow. And of course, Julie Clark is going to open the show. I performed with her in Provincetown years ago, and she’s one of my absolute favorites.

Tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen comedy embrace the LGBTQ comics over the years.
That whole thing has changed so much since I started in the 80s. I was right out of college, and I was definitely afraid to come out. It just seemed that all the comedy clubs were so straight-male oriented. Not that the regular comedy clubs have changed that much, but as far as having gay comics on the bill, the audiences don’t flinch as much as they used to. They’re much more accepting of gay color. So that’s really good.

What kind of clubs did you work back in those days? Did you have a gay following?
I didn’t come out until 2000. Because a lot of people around me kept telling me that it would ruin my chances of making it. I wanted to be star, to get a TV show, and get all that going on. Because Hollywood is so casting couch, as is being revealed, and those opportunities were there, I pretended I was straight so I could get these guys to give me a frickin’ leg up. But if I didn’t go all the way and walk the walk as straight, I wasn’t going to get it. And I just couldn’t get a break and make it happen. So I just came out, damn the torpedoes, and since then I’ve been embraced by the gay community. Now I support myself by doing comedy just for the LGBTQ community.

You’ve had your own comedy specials, been on Oprah and Joan Rivers, the list is endless. And you have some great comedy connections.
I really do. I came up through the ranks and paid my dues and have some really nice credits under my belt. I was America’s Funniest Real Woman on the Joan Rivers Show!

It seems that much of your comedy is informed, as much is, from observations in daily life. How do you decide what’s good enough to go into your act?
I skew things towards the audience. Like last night, I was in Denver for a show at a Matthew Sheppard Benefit, and I figured the audience would be more gay men. And when I do the Atlantis Cruises, it’s all gay men, so my routine trends more blue, which gets the biggest laughs from them. Whereas the lesbians, they don’t want it to graphically sexual. And if it’s a straight crowd, I don’t try to jam too much gay and lesbian sex down their throats. I try to keep people just on the edge of their comfort zone.

I love your segment comparing lesbians to postage stamps: once you lick them, they stick.
I have that as a bumper sticker!

When you were in college in Rhode Island, was performing on your radar screen?
I went to college to play basketball.  I was really good in high school and broke the standing record with 33 points in one game. So, yeah, that was my thing in college. The coach was a big dyke, and I loved her. I always wanted to play under her. So I played for two years, then dropped out entirely to take a break. And when I went back, acting wason my radar screen, so I got a BFA in Acting. I didn’t know my thing was comedy until I landed the role of a fish in a cabaret, and I had a monologue “My Fish Stick.” I killed every night. “Kelp! Kelp! Is there a sturgeon in the house?” I was like, wow, this is so easy, and I can do this as a job.  Then I went through classes at Second City in Chicago. Never made it to the main stage, but was there with folks like Mike Meyers, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Farley.

Where does the tour go from here?
I just put them together throughout the year, depending on which clubs will book us. So from here, I have a one-night with Suzanne Westenhoefer in Syracuse, then down to Texas with Vickie for a couple of nights, then Palm Springs and California in September and November. We just go where they’ll have us.

Are your shows all benefits for LGBTQ organizations, such as this one is for the Life Center?
Yes, everywhere I go, I give back to the centers.

Burt Reynolds Was My Childhood Crush And Adulthood Role Model

When I was 12, in 1974, my parents started bidding me out as a babysitter for all their party animal friends with kids.

“Yes, Eric loves children,” I overheard my mother say to one of their Ice Party drinking buddies. “We’ll bring him over abound seven, and then you can ride with us.”

I hated it. But I loved the cash in my hand at the end of the night.

After I put their kids to bed, I also loved investigating their houses.

A German couple that I particularly enjoyed babysitting for had a wall full of self-help sex books, including the iconic Joy of Sex. I would inevitably be drawn to it, with its pen and ink illustrations of various sex acts: long haired women and mustached men getting it on in every form and fashion.

But artist renderings of heteronormative sex were not quite enough for my burgeoning libido. It wasn’t until my parents pimped me out to our neighbors, Bill and Stephanie, that I experienced the truth of my sexuality.

I discovered Burt Reynolds at their house.

On my first visit, I walk into their den and was greeted by a life-sized version of Burt’s famous Cosmopolitan nude centerfold displayed unabashedly above the sofa. My eyes grew wide as I slowly examined the length of the six-foot long poster, taking in every inch of his incredibly muscled, tanned, and hairy body. He was stretched out on a bear skin rug, one hand placed strategically between his legs, the other supporting his head of jet-black hair, and a mischievous smile that said, “I know what I’m depriving you of.”

After my parents left with Bill and Stephanie, I couldn’t wait to get their girls to bed so I could examine Burt more carefully. Once they were tucked in, I cued up “The Age of Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension and hopped up on the sofa for a closer look.

Little did I know that what was turning me on had also turned on women all across the globe.

The 1972 photo — Cosmopolitan magazine’s first male centerfold — was a radical statement at the time. With its publication, Helen Gurley Brown put it out there that women had desires that deserved be acknowledged and catered to. Its publication sparked revolution a in women’s magazines.

Looking back after Reynolds’ death yesterday, the centerfold has a powerful legacy. It captivated readers, challenged ideas about sexuality and spawned a wave of new publications. And while it was the start of Reynolds’ legacy as a sex symbol for women, it was also the start of a longtime male crush for me.

From that moment on I was an uberfan. I saw all of his movies of the 1970s, from Smokey and the Bandit to The Longest Yard. I picked up any magazine that bore his face on the cover. And I fantasized that he would someday arrive on my doorstep to rescue me from my dysfunctional household and adopt me as his son.

As I matured, that obsession mellowed a bit, but never dimmed completely. I watched his movies that had been released before I was old enough to see them: Deliverance, White Lightning, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. I kept my eyes out for old reruns of his episodes of Gunsmoke and his super-sexy lead role as police investigator Dan August.

When Boogie Nights was released in 1997, I was astounded by his performance as the creepy yet lovable porn filmmaker—a role that lead to an Academy Award nomination.

Much to my delight, he turned up in a hilarious cameo on The Golden Girls in 1986—still one of my favorite episodes. I watched Evening Star every week just to watch him chew up the scenery in a role that lead to numerous Golden Globe and Emmy nominations.

He possessed an incredible charisma on screen and off, and he delivered his performances with an infectious grin and twinkle is his eye. He was the complete package, my ultimate definition of strong masculinity and gentle kindness all in one.

And he is still one of the sexiest men in the world.

Here’s to Mr. Burt Reynolds (said in Blanche Devereaux voice) who passed away yesterday at the age of 82.

Here’s Why I Support Black Lives Matter: AIDS

In 1987, the American AIDS epidemic had ravaged the gay community for six years. Beginning with a smattering of mystifying cases in 1981, the number of reported deaths from the disease doubled every year afterwards. By the end of 1987, the deaths of 41,000 primarily gay men brought the toll nationwide to over 86,000.

Already stigmatized and mostly closeted, the LGBT community was horrified not only by the scope of death, but by the lack of action on the part of President Regan’s administration.

Regan’s policymakers routinely joked publicly about “queers deserving to die.” Misinformation regarding spread of the disease ran rampant without any attempt by the CDC or the administration to research or rectify it. And our president refused to acknowledge the crisis. Indeed, it was five years after the first deaths before he even mentioned the word “AIDS” in a policy speech.

By 1987, the gay community’s frustration had grown into outright anger, and legendary gay activist Larry Kramer had had enough. In March of that year, he stood in front of an agitated gay audience and asked, “Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Two days later, he founded ACT UP.

For those of us old enough to remember, ACT UP gave us the first glimmer of hope that maybe our voices would be heard. On my 25th birthday that year, I lived in Greensboro, NC, the heart of the conservative South. I was one of those disenfranchised gay men, angry, scared and sad. I had already lost one friend. I would lose four more before all was said and done. I had little hope for my future, and remained mostly closeted to all but my closest friends and family.

The evening, I watched a segment on the national news about ACT UP. That day, 250 members arrived on Wall Street in Manhattan and began to protest. Waving signs, including the historic slogan “SILENCE = DEATH,” and chanting “Act Up, Fight AIDS!”, they called attention to the inequitable alliance between the FDA and Burroughs-Wellcome that prevented drug research from moving forward–even though the drugs were somewhat effective in treating HIV. An effigy of the FDA commissioner, Frank Young, was hung. As the day progressed, the protestors sat in the street, stopping traffic and leading to 17 arrests.

Several weeks later, the FDA announced the speedup of other AIDS-fighting drugs. Many groups credited ACT-UP. I became an ardent fan of this revolutionary group, devouring everything I could find about them in the media. Chapters were confined to larger metropolitan areas, but amongst my inner circle of gay friends, talk began to turn towards ways we could join the fight. We took some small actions towards AIDS awareness in our red community, many of my friends came barreling out of the closet, and we began to feel hopeful.

In the years that followed, ACT UP’s membership increased in size and volume. Their urgent and disobedient protests became regular stories in the national media. In 1988, one such protest successfully shut down the Food & Drug Administration for a day. Media reported that it was the largest such demonstration since those against the Vietnam War.

They also took on the Catholic Church, the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the public school system. They even disrupted a 1991 live broadcast of the CBS Evening News.

By the mid 1990s, their demand for a national dialogue about the AIDS epidemic was beginning to show results. Public opinion shifted in favor of the gay community and AIDS research. Government funding became available, first in trickle, then in a flood.

And ACT UP’s mission began to change. Today, they are still an active, albeit a much quieter, gentler organziation. Founder Larry Kramer is still alive and kicking in New York, still leading and challenging the LGBT community at every turn.

He believes (as do I) that the federal government basically murdered over 500,000 men due to their indifference towards the LGBT community. But he also believes that the gay community is partially responsible for those deaths because we took so long to speak up.

In 2007, Kramer wrote, “Our own country’s democratic process declares us to be unequal, which means, in a democracy, that our enemy is you. You treat us like crumbs. You hate us. And sadly, we let you.”

It took years, but ACT UP’s policy of civil disobedience did effect a fundamental change. In fact, their success proves that if any disenfranchised community is subject to the blatant and unfettered murder of its people with no adequate response from our lawmakers, it becomes a requirement.

If you have never felt the utter despair and anger, helplessness and hopelessness that comes from the avoidable death of someone you love simply because your leaders didn’t care, then you probably won’t agree with this statement: Black Lives Matter.

I fully support the African American community in their loud and proud dissent. Because the alternative is silence.

And silence equals death.