Positively Stranger Than Fiction
Everybody has secrets and some are bigger than others.
I had one back in high school. It was the mid-60s, and I was the good little girl, dating boys, wearing heels, and repressing a sexual orientation I didn’t even have a name for. Did I know? I think so. Did I admit it, even to myself. No way.
I joined the high school drama club (or, as comic Jaffee Cohen once called it, “gay head start”) and had a ton of friends. Among them was a girl named Carmen.
Even then, 1965, she was an out lesbian, although no one used the word. She held hands with girls and both fascinated and terrified me. Some of my friends warned me to stay away from Carmen—she was, “you know, ‘funny.’ One of ‘them.’” The 60s counter-culture may have been about to explode, but gays were still closeted, feared and shunned.
But I didn’t stay away from Carmen. We were in school plays together, at cast parties, running around Greenwich Village, me playing the guitar at amateur nights in the clubs, Carmen and our other friends singing along. We were casual friends, friendly acquaintances. There were rehearsals and school lunch hours and staying over at our friends’ houses. Underage drinking, too. Did Carmen and I ever mix it up? No. But I think there was one night when it was awfully, awfully, tantalizingly close.
And then we graduated, everyone went separate ways and I continued on my repressive road for many mostly miserable years. And my frightening senior-year fascination with a butch dyke named Carmen was something I never ever breathed a word about to a single soul. Until right this minute as I type these words.
After high school I went to college in D.C., dated guys, did the “right” thing, got married, changed my name, got divorced, kept my married name because of my directing career, and finally came out of the closet a long, unhappy 14 years after high school.
Fast forward to a June 2010 lesbian/bisexual writer’s conference in Orlando. Of course, at this point I could not be more out—a lesbian author and advocate plus being happily same-sex married for almost 30 years. Life takes its own path in its own sweet time. And now is a sweet time for me.
At this conference, I taught a class on humor-writing and did some readings from my books. Flipping through the conference program I saw the sad news of the passing of a long-time bookstore owner and writer, named Ruth.
Following my class, as I talked with author, publisher and reader friends, I spied folks going over to give their condolences to the lone man at the conference—Chris, Ruth’s husband, who was there in her stead. I too went over to extend my sympathies, telling him I remembered his wife from a visit I made to their bookstore in Albuquerque.
A few minutes later, as I was chatting with friends, I saw Chris moving towards me with a spectacularly funny look on his face. “Hey,” he called. “Did you go to high school in New York?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Rhodes Prep School?”
“Exactly.” He had my attention.
“Fay. From Drama Club. You played Maggie in The Man Who Came to Dinner?”
“Yes,” I said cautiously, amazed that a 41-year old connection was being offered and wondering why Chris knew me and I couldn’t place him. It was a small school and an even smaller drama department.
“Omigod,” said Chris, “I was listening to you talk and I knew I recognized your voice. I’m, Carmen, I mean I was, Carmen.”
Oh my God, Carmen. I stared. I grinned. I stared some more at the handsome, mustached man before me. He stared and grinned back. I thought my head might explode. Carmen.
We headed for the nearest bar in the hotel to share much needed full-strength cocktails and catch up.
I know that my path to coming out was long and filled with angst. But Carmen, now Chris, made, what seems to me, a much harder, riskier, but in the end, quicker path toward authenticity. Right after graduation Carmen made a decision considered brave today, so I cannot imagine the courage it took in the late sixties.
She, soon he, left home immediately, moved to an East Village hotel, and began finding ways of obtaining black market male hormones. He worked at the infamous 82 Club where performers were all drag queens; waiters were tuxedo-wearing dykes. Soon, he was fortunate to find a medical study to accept him and provide the testosterone legally and under medical supervision. Carmen became Chris and never looked back.
Well actually, he did look back long enough to return to our high school and have his legally-changed name put into his transcripts so he could go to college. He moved out West, met Ruth and they lived happily as husband and wife for 30 years, until her passing in April.
Over inhibition-banishing alcohol, we easily recalled high school friends and events—the casting of our production of Dracula, the night we listened from the sidewalk on West 4th Street to the sounds of the Lovin’ Spoonful before they were famous; the students who drove us crazy in drama club; our wonderful friend Mary, my friend to this day, whose stunning beauty was attractive to us both. And the sad loss of at least two of our drama club colleagues to 80s-era AIDS.
You know, as a writer, I always use the LGBT alphabet to describe my community. And while I advocate for and admire the transsexuals in our population I have had precious little personal contact with trans men and women. Finding Chris has had a profound impact on me.
Here is a man mourning the loss of his spouse of thirty years, so happy is an inappropriate word to describe him. I have empathy for his loss as he grieves and tries, I would hope, eventually to move on—made all the more difficult by his being a trans man. I know that often neither the straight nor the lesbian community is welcoming, and as he said to me, “I’m 61 and transgender. I don’t expect anything to be easy.”
Probably not. But for me, I want to use the word happy to describe the choice Chris made over forty years ago. He was desperately unhappy being made to live as a woman, just a girl, really, and was willing to buck all of society, and sadly, his own family, to become the man he knew himself to be.
For what my opinion is worth, I am so proud of him. And for this Pride season and beyond, I have a new and personal connection to the T in LGBT. I hope Chris and I can stay in touch. I’d like that. But I frankly, I hope he doesn’t tell any of our mutual friends what a god awful actress I was back in our pre-Glee high school days. That’s one secret we should keep.
Life can be so much stranger than fiction. And more surprising and wonderful, too.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir and Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach. Contact her at www.fayjacobs.com.