Virtue, vice, tolerance and normality have evolved
Mom, Dad and Queen Victoria agreed that homosexuals didn’t exist, but we better be careful of them anyhow.
Just to be on the safe side.
That was decades before my parents could have conceived of (much sympathized with) a Gay Pride Magazine. Growing up in an America of the past was growing up with contradictions, where the two words “normal” and “tolerant” meant the suburban theatre of severely damning with the faintest of praise.
My sister and I were told to “tolerate” Negroes (but we never really saw any.)
We had to “tolerate” Chinese as well, but only because Chinese came from another planet.
“The Chinese people are different from us,” said Mom. “The Chinese people do not have any crime. Nobody does anything wrong.”
“All of them,” said my father, “read and write because education is the most important thing for Chinese people. And they are all very, very clean.”
That good impression dissipated each Sunday afternoon when my father would announce solemnly, “Okay, tonight, let’s eat Chinese,” and my not-quite-normal mind envisioned a dozen well-educated, spotlessly clean people squirming as my parents doused them with soy sauce, asking us to join them in eating Chinese.
We were informed that poor people—like poets, bums and painters—might be pitied, but they were not “normal.”
When 12 years old, I told my mother that I wanted to spend my life working in a bookstore (I had just read Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying). She braked our middle-class Chevy, and stubbed out her Parliament cigarette, and I could see a single tear in her eye.
“Harry,” she whispered, “what you have said isn’t … normal. A bookstore is nice, but it’s not normal for a child like you to … to have such small ambition. Now let’s not talk about this any more. And whatever you do, don’t let your father hear about this ‘bookstore’ business.”
Worse was to come the following year for a Jewish puberty-ritual.
The bar mitzvah sermon is founded on an unwritten decree to state pride in Jewish heritage and self-congratulations on loving Israel. I didn’t say that. Israel, I noted, was the home of two great Semitic people, Arabs and Jews. Thus, we must all live and love together. We must marry together and raise the splendid Arab-Jewish species in this splendid Second Garden of Eden called Israel.
My mother—who had told me to be “tolerant” of those “other” people—almost bawled vocally in the synagogue.
“It wasn’t normal,” my mother told my father sotto voce going home.
Homosexuals didn’t really exist, but my mother always feared that I was not “manly” enough, so she hired for me what is now called a “personal trainer” (actually a teenager excelling in manly things) to teach me how to box, since the Friday night television boxing matches were the height of macho. That would have been harmless enough for this basically uncoordinated kid, but I asked my parents once if I should invite my trainer to see my room.
Their horror was the things of legends. “No, no!!” said my mother. “Never, never invite somebody like that to your room,” said my father. “It isn’t normal.”
While told that “tolerance” was a virtue, my sister broke the rules one evening. A self-styled scholarly nerd, she told my parents that she was engaged to one of her professors. “Wonderful,” said my parents, thinking it was a dream come true.
Almost incidentally, she also mentioned that her groom-to-be was not only a brilliant professor but he was an Indian Hindu, and they would be spending their lives in India together. And I still cringe, remembering the night-long tears, screams and hysteria.
I’m hesitant to write how Canadians were raised, but as the entrepôt of the Underground Railway, Canada is as likely to use “normal” and ”tolerant” as to fret about Illegal Inuit Immigration
And so we return to this month’s Gay Pride in 2012. My parents wouldn’t have understood, but when I returned to New York after many decades in Asia and East Europe, the words “normal” and “tolerant” were anachronisms, t shibboleths.
Republicans hate President Barack Obama not because of race but, well, other things (they say). My Chinese-American girlfriend is (so far as I know) crime-free. My sister and her secular-Hindu professor have been married for 50 years, still living in forbidden India.
Gay life in New York is … I guess it’s as boring as other lives. This morning, the first married female couple to divorce made the news. (The next one won’t.) The Gay Pride parade last Sunday was for family outings. The right-wing cowboy talk-show host Don Imus officiated at a gay wedding. And probably the next mayor of New York will be a lesbian.
Ho-hum. My parents would say it wasn’t normal, it wasn’t even tolerable. The world has changed, their nightmares of abnormality are dreams of acceptance. The walls of Jericho haven’t fallen, but the gates are wide open, promises of hamburgers, beer and dancing, with the joy that we are all aliens.
So let the Bard have the last word: “Hark! What fine change is in this music.”
A Happy Gay Pride to you all.
Montreal’s Pride parade is Sunday, August 19 at 1pm. It runs along René Lévesque from Guy to the Gay Village.
Big Gay toppings are definitely not normal
No, not another “Gay-bassoon-player-quits-music-to-open-a-wildly-successful-ice-cream-parlour” story.
But yes, Douglas Quint and his partner Bryan Petroff, starting with a “Big Gay Ice Cream Truck” in 2009, today have an almost old-fashioned ice cream parlour in the East Village, with lines—both summer and autumn, weekends and weekdays—going all the way down 7th St.
Flavours are the usual, but the toppings are hardly kosher. One example is Salty Pimp: a vanilla cone, coated and injected with dulce de leche, a sprinkling of sea salt, then dipped in chocolate.
The author’s parents would have labeled it “definitely not normal.”