I'm sitting here having a cocktail and trying not to think about this week's surgical adventure while my mother is dozing on the futon in the den. She came all this way to go with me to New York, and still made me biscuits and gravy for dinner. So, in her honor, here is a piece I wrote ages ago about my boyhood.
I was not what could be called an All-American boy by any definition. My male cousins, like all boys from our part of Kentucky, played basketball. I played house. My most frequent partner in crime was my cousin Pam, who had the Easy Bake Oven I circled every year in the Sears Christmas catalog and was repeatedly denied (I lost faith in Santa at a startlingly early age).
Pam had something else I coveted in spite of my Baptist upbringing – a pair of tiny baby pink satin ballet slippers. I was unaware at the time that even if I were to be sent off to dance on my tiptoes as I knew some boys did, the slippers would be off-limits to me by virtue of my penis.
The thing is, I liked my penis. I simply failed to realize why it would preclude me from having pink ballet slippers. All evidence would point to the probability that my mother understood it all too well, thus resulting in her firmly stated “no” to my request for such things.
My mother is an intelligent woman, and despite her religion and rural origin, quite forward-thinking in many ways. In any other child, she likely would have seen the inevitable. Perhaps she would even have advised the parent of that child to give in to her delicate son’s pleadings for dance lessons. But I was not someone else’s son; I was her son. Her firstborn son, and like it or not, I was not going to dance on my toes, then or at any other time.
In addition to some seriously deviant tendencies, I also manifested a tenacious belief that I was always right that must have made me seem like a miniature Eva Peron. A brief stint in Little League didn’t stem my habit of attempting to spruce up my own ugly red curls by borrowing Aunt Nanny’s disheveled brown Eva Gabor wiglets ordered from the back of The National Enquirer. My sun-worshipping mother’s insistence that I go outside for a healthy dose of sunshine led me to do little more than transport my ever-growing library to the front porch, already strewn with my step-father’s tools, spare car parts, and ill-tempered pet dogs.
She also never quite managed to curb my desire to dance. Thanks to a teenaged aunt who spent hours practicing her hair-curling skills on my tender head when she babysat for me, I was to learn all the latest disco dances (at least the latest which had made it to Eastern Kentucky). It was with Angie that I discovered an obsession destined to surpass any longing in my heart for ballet. In the late 1970s, Solid Gold premiered. Thanks to the increasing power of broadcasting, an Appalachian living room became my own personal portal into the world’s tackiest disco club where unlike school, everyone was like me.
From the first episode, my desire for pink satin was supplanted by an absolute need for gold lamé. And in my stubbornness, there was no convincing me that I was not going to grow up to be one of the fabulous Solid Gold dancers myself. Not just any Solid Gold dancer, of course, but lead dancer and choreographer Darcell. Darcell had everything I wanted: long legs capable of kicking up to her ears while maintaining a sultry gaze; flashy, barely-there costumes constructed of cheap material, designed to thrill; a ponytail to flick about with all the attitude of a hardened hooker; and two hunky male dancers on either side with bulges the size of cantaloupes.
Mom was understandably concerned. She had so carefully sidestepped the embarrassment of ballet only to have her son whipping about the living room like a cat on an acid trip. She tried to convince me, but she couldn’t fight what I knew was fate. No matter how much she tried to stem the tide with her pleas – “Honey, people don’t really dance like that!” – it was no use. I was caught up in a religious fervor, and Marilyn McCoo was God.
Eventually, it did pass, but probably only because the show was cancelled. Still, the impact those half-rate Rockettes had on my isolated country life cannot be underestimated. And despite all her contrary efforts, my mother still ended up with an eldest son who sleeps with men and who is far more fond of cheap animal print material than anyone other than Peg Bundy should be. She also got an actual daughter with somewhat more subdued tastes and another son who is…well, let’s just say he made my issues seem far less deviant.
I also got over a few of those childhood obsessions. At 24, I moved cross-country to New Mexico where red heads, a dime a dozen in Appalachia, are a rare and special commodity. I don’t need the Easy Bake Oven anymore…I have my own real oven for making the elaborate dinners of my dreams, all served on my own dishes in the palette of a deluxe box of Crayolas. My library has moved from the front porch to many indoor shelves that make me appear far more cultured than I actually am.
My mom has even come around. Granted, it came as a surprise to her when I came out my sophomore year of college – she was the only surprised one, but she was the one who counted. After the initial shock, she adjusted like she has to all the uncomfortable situations life can throw at you. She even came to visit me in Albuquerque, where I took her to see a drag queen beauty pageant and my friends treated her like a visiting dignitary from a foreign land. To many of them, that is exactly what Webbville, Kentucky is.
And now, back in Kentucky and settled into a long-term relationship with a loving person who nevertheless wouldn’t know a laundry hamper from a hole in the ground, I’m discovering how much Mom and I have in common. The difficulties in navigating the ways of love are enough to bring anyone together, but I’ve also learned that if I am a little nutty, it is only because I’m merely a reflection of the somewhat eccentric and vibrant woman who brought me into the world. It seems it took moving out of Appalachia to discover I am my mother’s son.
I said to her once after I came out, “Mom, when I was five, you wouldn’t let me take dance lessons. When I was 10, you wouldn’t let me get my ears pierced after I got a crush on George Michael from Wham. You told me I couldn’t be a Solid Gold dancer, and yet I still ended up a big fag!” She sighed and replied, “Well sweetie, we tried.” I don’t blame her for trying. I’m glad she finally gave up.