The Gay Nineties

Saturday, October 11. Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It's also this year's National Coming Out Day, though the two aren't related as far as any of us know. I hope the temples have a better turnout than the Coming Out Dance at the Valley of the Sun Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Or rather, the dance that was supposed to be held there. It's now more than two hours after the scheduled 7 p.m. start, and there's nobody here except me, my companion and the organizers.

We had expected a horde of people new to the scene, eager to come out of the closet in a nurturing environment. But nobody showed up. Or rather, a few people did, but they were outnumbered by the organizers and they didn't stay. The organizers are friendly, but seem depressed--not to mention mortified with embarrassment. They apologize to us for the nonevent. We tell them not to worry, it's okay. They're still embarrassed. Debbie, my companion, asks me what I want to do now. "Go and get some coffee or something," I suggest.

"There's coffee here, if you want some," one of the organizers says.
The prospect of spending a Saturday night sitting around a deserted community center decked out with balloons and a sound system doesn't enthuse either of us, so we politely decline and head for a cafe.

"So where are the gay people?" I ask her as we drive.
She shakes her head. "Probably dancing at the Biz, as usual."
Does the dismal showing mean nobody around here is in the closet, or just that nobody can be bothered making a statement? She'd like to believe it's the former, but she knows it's not true.

The Coming Out Dance should have had special resonances for Debbie, as some of her friends consider her to be in the closet. She works in a gay bookstore, Obelisk, on Camelback. She wears a rainbow bracelet. If anybody asks her, she tells them she's gay. But that's not enough for some of her gay acquaintances. "They think I should tell everybody I meet," she says. She has another job, and most of her colleagues there don't know she's a lesbian. She doesn't hide it from them; it just doesn't come up. "But sometimes I feel like I'm a coward because I don't go in there and talk about cute girls I've seen," she says.

And she admits she's not out to everybody. Her mother doesn't know. Or at least, Debbie hasn't told her. "I'm planning to tell her. But I'm pissed at her right now, so if I tell her now she'll think I'm just saying it because I'm mad at her."

Phoenix isn't San Francisco. But gay people here are far from invisible. You just have to learn to recognize the symbols. Drive across town or on the freeway when it's busy, and a half dozen or so of the cars you see will have rainbow stickers.

Is there any reason to make such an issue out of something as personal as sexual orientation? It's not gay people who've made it an issue.

While the climate is better than it was, Arizona is still in the dark ages when it comes to gay rights. As recently as the mid-'80s, Arizona State University's newspaper The State Press refused to publish meeting announcements for the Lesbian and Gay Academic Union. This year, ASU had a Coming Out Dance of its own. But, on the whole, improvements are slight. In Arizona, it's legal to fire someone for being gay. In a civilized country, rainbow stickers would be irrelevant. But, in America near the end of the 20th century, festivals and marches are necessary.

So are people like Jody Ohrazda.

Tell Jody that his business card should read "Militant Homosexual," and he'll laugh. He'd never dispute the statement, though. He's the manager of Obelisk. But he does more than peddle gay literature. His entire being is based on his identity as a gay man.

The story of how he came out may cause uneasiness in homophobes secure in their straightness. Jody was 19 before it ever occured to him that he might be anything other than straight. Then he met a man he was attracted to.

When he came out to his parents, they seemed to take it well at first, saying they didn't understand but could accept it. Then they made him promise not to tell his aunts and uncles, and banned him from having his friends in their house. But karma visits itself upon the close-minded--it's not just one of their sons who's gay. Jody's brother is, too.

I meet Jody late on Sunday morning, and we head for South Mountain Park. There's to be a barbecue for Coming Out Day. Like last night's ill-fated dance, it's aimed at those who haven't gotten as far as rainbow stickers and bracelets, a way for them to take the first step.

The barbecue is organized by the community center that hosted the dance, but that's about all the two events have in common. Maybe it was pushing it to expect people to give up Saturday night's hedonism to attend a political event, but what's wrong for Saturday night seems just right for Sunday afternoon.

In 1989, 25 people turned out for Coming Out Day in Phoenix. Last year, 250 people attended the barbecue. Today, 500 people will show up.

The atmosphere is idyllic. It's a warm day, not hot. People sit around on benches or lie on the grass. There's music, dancing, games, a raffle. Hamburgers, hot dogs, veggieburgers, soft drinks and beer.

Some guys are wearing kilts so short that they're skirts. Two big, redneck-looking men in cowboy hats appear. They're holding hands. A guy wears a tee shirt with the slogan: "Jesus is coming--look busy." The women are a mix of butch and fem. Some could have stepped off the cover of Spare Rib, others from Cosmopolitan. People walk around with their dogs. It's the kind of scene you rarely come across east of California. Everybody seems welcoming, a far cry from the cliques who frequent the bars.

Jody is stoked to see so many new faces. He's so active on the scene that he thinks he knows just about everybody else on it, but he says only about 5 percent of the faces here today are familiar to him.

There doesn't seem to be any separatism going on; men and women are hanging out together. Jody admits to some sympathy for lesbians who're hostile toward gay men. "The average gay man who's out is white and middle-class, and is complaining about being denied the privileges society would grant him if he wasn't gay. But women are denied those privileges anyway, so I can understand women seeing their problems as being different from men's." He also believes gay men to be more solipsistic than lesbians. "You see lesbians at AIDS marches. You tend not to see gay men at pro-choice marches."

But there are women who have the opposite view. Jody runs into a woman he knows, and asks about some others. She shrugs and says they haven't come along. "I don't know what it is with women," she says. "Men will come along."

"We'll do anything for free beer," Jody tells her, and they both laugh.

I don't see Emily at the barbecue. But, since it's Sunday, she's probably in church. She had her first gay relationship in her senior year at a private Christian school in Oklahoma. "If there was any suspicion of homosexual activity, you had the choice of quitting school or going into counseling. Needless to say, that was not the time for me to come out . . ."

She didn't come out then, but the relationship lasted about nine months. It would be three years before she had another. That was after she'd moved to Phoenix. "Although Phoenix is conservative, it's a lot more liberal than Oklahoma. The possibility became real again, and I found myself attracted to women."

She started coming out to close friends she trusted. "I was fortunate because I work with a lot of gay and lesbian people, so I didn't receive any negativity." But she came out selectively. "I know who I can trust and who I can't. If I don't trust someone, I don't come out to them. I let them assume whatever they assume."

The only negativity she encountered was when she outed herself back home in Oklahoma. "That's not something you do there. It's just not within the realm of possibility. I come from a small town out in the panhandle, with about 600 people. Right in the middle of the Bible Belt. When I came out to my mother, she just went into denial. I was raised Southern Baptist, and so were most of my friends. Many of them just wouldn't interact with me."

Surprisingly--or shockingly, considering the way churches revile homosexual behavior--Emily has never lost the Christian faith she was raised with. Couldn't she smell the brimstone as she realized she was gay?

"Oh, yes. Especially during the relationship at school in Oklahoma. Before anything had even happened, when I was just having feeling towards my friend, I was almost paralyzed with shame. I thought I was the biggest sinner in the world, and I hadn't even done anything yet.

"It took a while--it was a gradual process--but I realized that God knew me. He knew my heart, and this wasn't something I'd asked for. I couldn't fathom the loving God that I knew would let me have the feelings I did if it was such a terrible thing."

In the Valley, she found churches whose congregations were made up of gay Christians. She now worships at Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Church.

"God and I are great. My problem's not with God. It's God's people who tend to get in the way."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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