Charles went to Balboa Park, “that section along Laurel Street where the trees are gnarled. Then I walked over to the Brass Rail to try to assuage my grief."
We are looking at old photographs. There is the rundown frame house in Lowgap, North Carolina, where Charles, born in 1949, lived for three years. Next in the stack is Charles’s first school picture: blond hair combed into a high pompadour above a wide forehead, above Dumbo ears, pug nose, plump cheeks.
The rundown frame house where Charles, born in 1949.
This evening, more than thirty years after that school photo was snapped, Charles — six feet, six inches tall — ducks under the door frame of his San Diego home as he walks out of the living room into the kitchen to grab another Miller Lite.
Charles was told he was a “cute tucker” back then.
The now concave cheeks show the last of a summer’s tan. Ears lie flat.'*blond highlights come compliments of a hairdresser. He wears a plaid wool Pendleton, jeans, and on his index finger an antique Chinese ring gleams as he twists open the beer cap.
Charles in school picture
Told he was a “cute tucker” back then, Charles exhales a swirl of cigarette smoke then proffers one of his characteristic self-mocking observations: “Yeah, but it was little tow-headed Lance who got to be the basketball team’s mascot that year. I was just crushed. Now Lance works for the FBI.’’ He doesn’t say it, but the implication is. “And look at where — and who — I am.” For the past year, Charles has been the manager of a San Diego bookstore.
Ramey Creek. Seconds after this photo was taken, the preachers plunged the two young women under the slow-moving water.
Charles’s maternal grandfather was a sharecropper, and his paternal grandfather preached. His parents, who married directly after World War II, didn’t finish high school. His mother, a gaunt, nervous beauty, stayed home. His father, one of twins — Earlie Cleo and Pearlie Leo — worked as a weaver in Burlington Industries’ mill. “We were hillbillies,” says Charles, his voice tinged by plaintive hill twang.
A crinkled brownish snapshot shows the house Charles’s mother and father built: four rooms, a brick chimney out of which the pot-bellied stove’s smoke swirls, a one-seater outhouse in back, the wellhouse where metal milk jugs sweated in cool darkness.
Graduation with prouid parents
His father’s vegetable garden, his father’s blue tick hounds, the apple trees that blossomed into celestial whiteness in late spring, persimmon, black walnut, the wide-branched locust, lilac, pepper tree, rhododendron, huckleberries, raspberries, sweet-smelling honeysuckle.
Charles today says some gay politicos are “almost necrophiliac” in their “opportunistic feeding on the AIDS issue.”
Bit by bit, Charles’s parents added on to the four rooms. By the time Charles entered junior high, they had indoor plumbing. His parents live still in this same house. Earlie Cleo, almost deaf from his years in the cacophonous mill, is retired.
Last summer, Charles visited. The three of them — father, mother, Charles — sat on the front porch, rocking in slat-backed rockers. It was evening, getting on to night. Flickering in the far comer of the front yard were the lightning bugs that have fascinated Charles ever since he can remember. Shortnin’ bread with cracklins’ in it that Charles had asked his mother to bake still tasting salty-sweet in his mouth, little grits of cornmeal rough on his tongue, Charles “came out” to his parents. He told them, “Mama, Daddy, I’m homosexual.”
Lowgap was the most rural, backwoods, backward place you could be from. Nearest towns of any size were Mt. Airy, site of Burlington’s mills, and Galax, Virginia, across the mountains. “It’s Look Homeward, Angel country,” says Charles, holding up his yellowed paperback copy of Thomas Wolfe’s thick first novel, whose hero, a Wolfean alter-ego, Charles sometimes quotes.
Under lamplight, we examine a black-and-white photograph of two men and two women knee-deep in water. The women wear white dresses. The men are dressed in trousers, white shirts, ties. The trousers of one are held up by galluses. The water is dark, the bank roughly cut by flood. “That’s Ramey Creek,” says Charles, “and Mom and Aunt Hallie and the preachers, Quincy Higgins and Ed Billings.” Seconds after this photo was taken, the preachers plunged the two young women under the slow-moving water. “Mama being baptized when she was thirteen,” says Charles, smoothing down the photo’s turned-up corner.
The church to which Charles’s family belonged called itself “regular” Baptist, to differentiate its membership from “hardshell” Baptists, who believed man was preordained to be saved. “Regular” Baptists, sarys Charles, “had to get saved by their own ‘prayer initiative.’ ” The “regular” Baptists’ self-educated. Holy Ghost-anointed preachers taught that salvation had to be worked for. “It wasn’t just done for you, like for the hard-shell Baptists.”
Public confession, shouting (“getting happy”), and ecstatic visions were not uncommon. Members washed one another’s feet “like Jesus did at the Last Supper,” says Charles gravely. No piano or organ stood in the “regular” Baptists' spare sanctuary. Musical instruments ranked high among works of the wicked world. Hymns were sung unaccompanied: “Would you be free of the burden of sin? There is power, power, power in the blood, in the blood of the Lamb. There is power, power, wonderworking power in the precious blood of the Lamb.”
“We’re talking real poor people out in the country, to whom heavenly streets paved with gold were real gold, for whom emerald doors were real emerald. And hell — running rivers of blood — was real, too. You could truly burn forever in hell, with real fire ” The fear of hell is hell itself, and when Charles says “fire,” the shiver in his voice chills the room in which he sits telling his life story.
“My parents, their family and friends’ lives were very hard. People were poor, died young, came to violent ends. The world was not good, nothing of the flesh pleasurable.” In fact, the world was dangerous. It was the realm of the fallen angel, Lucifer, who was as real as your mom and dad.
“But,” says Charles, “there was Jesus. From the time I was knee high, I saw pretty pictures of Jesus praying. He’d be walking on the stormy water, sunbeams streaming down on his face from heaven.”
How did Charles take this religion? “Literally,” he laughs. Young “regular” Baptist males were expected to be good like Jesus and manly like their daddies. Before puberty struck, goodness came easily for Charles. “I was,” he says, “the most perfectly behaved grownup-like child.”
Being manly — cracking out a base hit, tracking jackrabbits, shooting deer — didn’t come so easily. Charles gazes off into a lamplit corner. “I really failed my dad,” he says.
Excelling in school became “the only way up and — I hoped — out.” Like other Lowgappers, he dropped g’s from ing’s. His nouns didn’t match his verbs. He drawled. “I sounded like a hillbilly,” he admits. He heard standard English spoken on radio and on television (which came over the mountains to Lowgap in 1959). He imitated it.
Schoolmates addressed Charles as “Professor.” Girls, and some boys, liked him. But roughnecks taunted him with “Sissy.” The “regular” Baptist teachings kept Charles from swearing, drinking, going to movies, dancing; the “loose” behavior of his peers dismayed him. His once-plump frame was lengthening — alarmingly. He was six feet tall by the autumn he entered seventh grade, and the fact that he towered over his peers added to his self-consciousness and sense of being different.
In junior high he joined 4-H. Half serious, half joking, he recites, “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger services, and my health for better living...” Charles began to take part in debate. 4-H became his first path out of Lowgap, “a connection,” he says, "to the other world.
"Everyone around Lowgap, you see, was just some variation of Baptist.” In 1964, when he was in eighth grade, Charles’s 4-H club traveled to another part of the state on a field trip, “On our way. we stopped at a restaurant where all the food handlers were black. I was truly scared of eating, was afraid the food might be spoiled or that they — the black people — might do something bad to me.”
As Charles entered his teens, a not uncommon, savage strife between the Charles everyone greeted and Charles’s “I, inside” announced itself. There was what his church demanded of him and what the world, Satan’s world — and his body — seemed to want.
Among Lowgap’s “regular” Baptists, it was customary that a child entering adolescence “got saved." The first step in this process was described by church elders as "getting this burden,” a "consciousness of your sinfulness,” says Charles. "That burden weighed on you. You had to pray with all your heart and soul that God would, in his mercy, roll away your burden. And then you’d get your ticket punched.” Pausing to light a cigarette, he says, “Funny, but I called it that, even then. ‘Getting your ticket punched.’
“Everybody expected because I was so well behaved I was going be the first to get my ticket punched. You were supposed to have an actual physical experience of the burden being lifted and the Spirit entering you. I prayed to have it happen. But I never, not ever, had that experience, and I took it all too seriously to fake it.”
So Charles entered high school without protection of the mantle of salvation. Sunday after Sunday, his preacher grandfather exhorted the gangly, stooped teen-ager to come to the altar. “ ‘Charles, don’t you want to get this right?’ That’s what he’d say. Then all these people would pray and weep over me.”
We examine the photo of Charles taken when he entered consolidated North Surry High School, to which students from five surrounding towns were bussed in. He wears white shirt, tie, dark jacket. The face has become more squared. Short hair is wet-combed flat. He’s scowling behind black-rimmed glasses, and his full mouth is set and grim. "That’s the young fascist tyrant,” says Charles.
Setting the photo aside, he shakes his head and says, "I was so ambitious.” When he entered high school, he intended to become a "BMOC, the president of everything," he says. And once he grew up, he wouldn’t work in a factory or farm, as men in Lowgap did. He would go to college, become a teacher, get married, father children, "become a pillar of the community.”
In his sophomore year, 1965, Charles ran for student council. All but a few among his 200 sophomore classmates cast their ballot for him. His junior year he again won a student council seat, became Drama Club president, won the Pep Club award for outstanding school spirit, garnered awards for debate, and became the Young Patriots’ president. This group, one of the school’s largest organizations, was a “pro-America” service organization. "Our faculty sponsor,” says Charles, “tried to get John Wayne to sponsor it.”
During his junior year, when Charles heard rumors that the cheerleading squad smoked cigarettes, he demanded that squad candidates be “screened” for morality. An adult drive-in opened in Mt. Airy. Charles heard that pornography was shown there. He started a petition to shut down the drive-in. “It was part of my campaign to clean up America, to stamp out evil and sin,” he notes with asperity.
Charles’s parents didn’t encourage or discourage him in these activities. “They were just astounded at everything I did in high school.”
In his senior year, Charles was tapped for Honor Society. “I lived for that for years,” he says. He was named a state finalist in debate, a finalist in 4-H public speaking — his topic, teen-age immorality and juvenile delinquency. "I wasn t voted Mr. North Surry High School. That went to Harold McGraw, whom I always detested — he was a milkweed, sappy person.
"I never fit in. Kids my age thought I was uppity, that I was just a poor country boy who had forgotten his place, very affected in my language and interests. I refused to wear jeans. I wasn’t into cows, or cars, or pussy. I was six feet six and wouldn't play basketball. Hated it. I spent a lot of time alone. I was miserable.”
Lying in bed at night or trekking alone through the deep woods that grew to the edge of his backyard, Charles would ask God, “ ‘What do I need to do to be saved?’ I had this game, my private version of Let’s Make a Deal. There would be things I wanted — a good grade, to be president of something. I’d tell God, ‘If you let me get an A or win this election, I won't whack off for thirty days.’ I’d win an election, get an A, and it would seem that it was a gift from God. Then I’d get hard again, and I'd want to whack off. I'd pray. ‘If you really don’t want me to masturbate, you won’t let me get hard in the next sixty seconds.’ Of course I got hard. And of course I would whack off. And then I would think I had done the ultimate — to sin against the Holy Spirit. So I was convinced, for a long time, I was irremediably lost. I had done the big one. I had lied to God.”
The roughnecks who in junior high had taunted Charles with “Sissy” kept up their teasing through high school. ‘‘Eat me,” a fellow high school boy jeered. To which Charles, who did not understand the jeer’s context, replied, “I wouldn’t even feed you to a hog!” Charles did not think of himself as “homosexual,” did not identify his feelings or desires with sneering cries of “Queer,” “Pansy,” “Fairy,” “Faggot.” or “Fruit!” Almost entirely ignorant about sexual practices and innocent as to his own urges, Charles did not understand what that meant, to be “queer.”
At night Charles did his homework while listening to a Chicago AM station. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison. The Beatles. One Sunday night, his father let him stay home from church to see the Beaties on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I thought the Beatles’ long hair was terribly bold,” he says, adding quietly, “I knew there was something happening out there in America, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Going off to college, thought Charles, would catapult him out into “America." During his junior year, his high school debate team went to nearby Wake Forest University. Charles decided that was where he wanted to go to college.
He applied. “Every day, I would dig my way through the snow to the mailbox, to see if my letter of acceptance had come.” The acceptance came. There was also a scholarship. Right then, Charles vowed — as had, years earlier, his fellow Tarheel, Thomas Wolfe — “I will go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotions I am able... ”
But from the first, what was out there shocked him. During a springtime weekend orientation for Wake Forest’s future freshman, Charles attended Wake Forest’s First Baptist Church. “The pastor gave a quite a preaching that morning, inveighing against the U.S. role in Vietnam. I went back to my Young Patriot club sponsor and told him. This preacher sounds too questioning about our being in Vietnam. I'd rather be dead than red.’ ”
The Sunday before Charles left for college. he stood up and told his church, "Everything is okay with me. I’ve gotten things right with God.” He said, “You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
They wanted him to join the church then. He refused. “I realize now,” says Charles sadly, “this was a huge slap in the face to them and that they really didn’t trust that I’d gotten saved. They were afraid for me.” They were also puzzled, says Charles, “because I was smart and the best-behaved kid around.”
The day in the fall of 1968 when his parents left him in his dorm room at Wake Forest, his father wept openly. “He was so proud,” says Charles.
Settling into the dorm room he shared with two other freshmen, unpacking from cardboard boxes (he had no suitcases) the clothes he’d had his parents buy for him in Mt. Airy, a sense of unease struck the eighteen-year-old former Young Patriots’ president. True, from Lowgap to Wake Forest was one hour and fifteen minutes up Highway 52 past Pilot Mountain, but the world he’d come from and the one he’d landed in seemed centuries apart to him. “I’d been living, all my life to that point, in the Middle Ages”
His purple bell bottoms and matching vest, accessorized with a color-coordinated ascot, was not what the Wake Forest majority wore. They dressed in a quasi-preppy style. “Me just trying to be hip,’’ says Charles, “and it was all wrong.”
One of Charles’s roommates, a “sophisticated, obnoxious, messy left-winger," at once began to challenge his beliefs. Charles’s English teacher looked like a hippie. He had his first run-in with "aggressive” Yankees: “Now, you have to understand, Yankees were like any other foreigner. In some ways, they were worse. Worse even than ‘coloreds’ or Catholics or ‘Comminists.’ ”
Six feet six inches of rawboned, burning-eyed, unreconstructed Dixie hick still pleading with God for a salvation experience, a virgin so ashamed of his body and physically modest that he could not bear to dress and undress in front of his roommates, a Southern boy who’d never tasted liquor, fusty with his over-elaborate “country" manners, almost quaint as he spouted his “country” notions, Charles hoped “to be just like everyone else, only more so.” He longed to be in a fraternity. He couldn't — financially or morally — pay the price of fraternity life, but he went through rush anyway. On the night that bids were to be delivered, rushees waited in their dorm rooms for the envelope that held the invitation to become a Greek. “I waited in vain,” winces Charles.
For the first time in his life, he was meeting bright, worldly, easily well-mannered, well-dressed people. He studied “how they negotiated things, what they could talk about, words they would use, jokes they told. What jokes I knew were rude, crass, redneck ”
He intended to major in biology, then acquire a teacher’s certificate. He did well, academically, in high school but was as ill at ease in Wake Forest classrooms as on its dance floors. “I didn’t feel I could make it. I was terrified. Lost.”
Spring semester, freshman year, Charles took his first drink. Terrified that he was "falling away" from his faith, that Satan would grab him up, equally terrified for his sanity, Charles made an appointment with a psychiatrist. He laughs: "This guy had a big Confederate flag hung on one wall. After I told him what was happening with me, he said, ‘Oh, you’re going through this stuff earlier than most people your age.’ He gave me tranquilizers and sent me back to my dorm.”
But he got through freshman year with respectable grades. He couldn’t bear going back to Lowgap. He’d seen an advertisement wanting college boys to sell Bibles door-to-door. Carrying a sample case packed with Bibles, Charles was sent to Kentucky to knock on doors. "I didn’t have that kind of slick insincerity it took to stand in someone’s living room and say, ‘Mrs. Jones, don’t you think if every person in this country had this Bible and spent time with their children around it, there wouldn’t be these awful things happening in America?’ ’’ Charles started drinking beer and whiskey and smoking cigarettes. By August he hadn’t sold enough Bibles even to cover his expenses.
No snapshots exist of the next few months, as Charles, more unsure of himself than ever, started sophomore year. “I no longer found biology fascinating or aesthetically pleasing. I just wasn't making it. I was depressed. I wasn’t sure why I was there or what I was doing."
He drank, smoked, made resolves, broke them, dwelt in the perpetual squalor of shame over his sins, his poverty, his “hillbilly" roots. The "burden” was on him. He could not speak candidly to one soul. His “I, inside" was hidden from everyone; he had no close friends. There was a first sexual experience, quick and covert, with another male. “This part of me that was narrow and moralistic and this part of me that just wanted to embrace the world —” He pauses, reconstructing his thought, and starts again. "I was the epitome of this moralistic, righteous person, and yet I had all these other longings for a larger world, a juicy sinfulness.” The "great submerged struggle” of which Thomas Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel expanded to all-out war within Charles. That fall, he tried suicide. “In a very calculating, sloppy way, I took some pills, made sure my roommates saw me, got thrown into a psychiatric hospital for a week.”
While Charles was in the psychiatric hospital, the preacher from home visited. “ ‘Don’t you think if you had gone ahead and joined the church, none of this would have happened?’ he asked me." The church, getting saved, all that “had all become empty to me. It couldn’t answer the fear and moral confusion I felt."
After his release from the hospital, Charles took a leave-of-absence from Wake Forest and went back to Lowgap. "I had no place to go but home.”
In the summer of 1970, having been out of school for a year, Charles returned to Wake Forest. He stayed there, off and on, for five years. “What rescued me was getting involved in theater." He was props manager for several productions and "hung around" when the cast had diction exercises, “standing on the sidelines, repeating after them in my head, still trying to learn to ‘talk right.’ ”
When he dated, he went out with girls. He did not think of himself as bisexual or homosexual. His image of the homosexual male was that stereotype of "swishing queens who lived in apartments full of rococo furniture,” men who lead a “homosexual” private life separate from the day-to-day professional world. Since high school, Charles had occasionally wondered, “Am I what some people call me? A ‘queer?’ ” The thought was just so frightening, he says, “that I would immediately have to dismiss it.”
One evening he was invited to a “gay” party. The guests, men in their early twenties, confirmed Charles’s suspicions about homosexuals. They addressed one another as “she" and acted more like women than like men. The next day, for his class in abnormal psychology, Charles wrote a paper that described — as abnormal — the behavior of those present at the party.
By the fall semester of 1972, Charles's junior year, he had changed majors from biology to psychology. “There were hippies by then at Wake Forest. All that had finally made its way to the South. I really got into it. I grew my hair. I was ‘cosmic.’ I started smoking dope, reading about Tibet." He took up painting, felt he had finally begun to make good on the vow he’d made when he left high school: that he was going to try everything. He told himself, “I have led a narrow life.” Late that fall, he dropped out of school.
“I took off to look for America. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I was going to hitchhike across the country to L.A. because I thought that’s where Haight-Ashbury was. That’s how hip I wanted to be and how hip I truly was.”
As things turned out, his girlfriend didn’t accompany him to California. “And,” says Charles, “I never actually made it to California. I stopped in Yuma to see my cousin Millie, whose father, my Uncle Orville, had moved there for his emphysema." Millie lived with a Marine, whose “Marine pals hung around the place, dropping acid and smoking dope. I was hanging out with this topless dancer. I can still see her — Donna,” Charles stretches out his long legs, closes his eyes: “Incredibly bosomy, with a big, beautiful, luscious mouth that women who are a little fleshy have, bleached blonde hair cropped short.”
Donna worked in a biker bar, which was painted in Dayglo with “violent psychedelic” art. Scared, fascinated, Charles had found "that dark arena” where his parents and the church had forbade him to go.
He went back to Wake Forest, finished school, graduated in 1975 with a degree in psychology. We find ourselves smiling as we look at the photo of Charles’s parents, his father in a dark suit and his mother, gray-haired by then, in a red dress, grinning shyly into the camera. Charles, in academic gown, stands next to them. His hair, short and neatly combed in earlier snapshots, hangs down from the mortarboard almost to his shoulders. "My folks were just thrilled. I had a college education at last. The first one ever in the family!”
Over the next five years, Charles attended school, first seeking a graduate degree in art history, then in psychology.
He lived alternately in North Carolina and Boulder, Colorado. His picture of the person he wished to become had acquired sharper — if not yet sharp — focus. ‘‘I was still trying to find a place to fit into. And I still had no clear sense of who I was. A Quaker woman friend had turned me on to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Dangling Conversation.’ I wanted to be the kind of person who could carry on a ‘dangling conversation,’ who could ask, ‘Is the theater really dead? Is analysis worthwhile?’ I visualized myself sitting in some dark cafe, smoking cigarettes, talking about things that mattered.
"There was a part of me that thought — that still does think, and hope — that I might do something in the world that would matter and last.”
The ashtrays are emptied, chicken bones are tossed into the garbage, freshly brewed coffee sits steaming in white cups. Under the lamplight, we study a black-and-white glossy of a mustached man leaning over a page of music manuscript paper. The pen in his hand draws in the flags of eighth and sixteenth notes.
When did Charles begin to think it possible he was homosexual? “When I first loved a man,” he answers. They met, Charles and Ken (a composer several years Charles’s junior), through friends in Winston-Salem. After several months, they became lovers.
Their relationship was very different from what the younger Charles had seen and imagined such relationships to be. Because he had fallen in love with a man, he saw no reason, he laughed, “to buy a poodle or a ball gown.” Loving a man didn't transform Charles into a “swishing queen,” as he had once feared. He began to realize that such a relationship as his and Ken’s was not that different from that of their straight friends. The two men shopped for groceries, cleaned house, cooked meals, paid bills, played the record player, went to the movies, rode their bikes, hiked. And while they did all this, they remained each other’s “loving best friends."
Meanwhile, Charles decided that a career as an art historian was not for him. He had been working in a psychiatric hospital and concluded that he wanted to become a therapist.
Two years passed. The relationship between Ken and Charles came to an end. On the surface, it ended when Charles decided to move from North Carolina to California to attend graduate school. Looking back to that time, he recognizes undercurrents unrelated to the academic decision that influenced his move. “I always felt when Ken and I were together, ‘No matter what happens with me, Ken can always go bed down with Mistress Music.’ That was not going to be enough to me. I wouldn’t be centrally important ” Also, staying with Ken meant, to Charles, settling into what was in effect a marriage, with all opportunity cut off to “get out there and experience” what he felt he’d missed during his Lowgap adolescence.
A woman friend of Charles’s had moved to San Diego. In 1976, when he came to California for the first time, it was to visit her. “I went to Pacific Beach, and there it was: everything I had imagined California was. There were all these beautiful California bodies. People were drinking beer, smoking hash, and listening to rock ’n’ roll on their portable radios.”
In 1980 Charles arrived in San Diego to enroll in United States International University to attain a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Ken drove here with him from North Carolina, stayed a few days while Charles got settled, then flew back home. The day Ken left, Charles went to Balboa Park, “that section along Laurel Street where the trees are gnarled.” He thought, “I must be crazy to separate from this man. Then I walked over to the Brass Rail to try to assuage my grief.
“I left Ken — this brilliant, loving, tender man, because unconsciously I wanted to have an adolescence — with men — that I never had. I got here to San Diego and still couldn’t have that adolescence because, first, I wasn’t any longer an adolescent. And secondly, I didn’t know how to handle myself in the bars. I couldn't be casual with people unless I was really drunk. I didn't know how to play the ‘dating game’ — chitchatting my way into a sexual encounter. Then the AIDS thing came down, and it became suicidal to have that kind of adolescence.”
Charles’s identification of himself as homosexual, he says, was further confirmed when he met a variety of gay men in San Diego “who weren’t into screaming and swishing. I could be who I had always been and didn’t have to assume that stereotype.”
Although he was no longer involved in romantic or sexual liaisons with women, Charles “hung on” to an image of himself as bisexual. “I truly didn’t want to take on an identity that people found so hateful — that of the ‘homosexual.’ All my life. I had been so different from those around me. and I didn't want to compound that ‘feeling different and alien' by adding this new difference to my identity.”
After several years in San Diego (during which time he attended USIU and worked in Mercy Hospital’s psychiatric ward), Charles ceased defining himself as bisexual. “It was really clear I wanted to be with men.”
It seems to Charles that the heterosexual majority imagines, incorrectly, that for the homosexual the great life-struggle is that of coming to terms with sexual identity. For him, the most troubling, perplexing problems have stemmed from shame at being a poverty-stricken hillbilly, from the fear and guilt acquired in his “regular” Baptist church, and from his ongoing dilemma over vocation. (Two years ago, while working in the psychiatric ward. Charles was hospitalized after he hurt his back lifting a patient. During his recuperation, he decided to abandon psychotherapy as a profession and find work that would permit him to pursue his interests in art and literature.)
When Charles sees picketers in Hillcrest carrying signs that read, “Hell, God’s Closet for Queers,” he recognizes that “there but for the grace of God go I ” He knows that he hasn’t entirely lost the sense of righteousness that, for example, led him to demand cheerleaders be screened for immorality. “I have to ever be vigilant about my own judgmentalism. It demands at times a tremendous exertion on my part to be tolerant."
In Hillcrest, the geographical center of San Diego’s gay community, Charles finds himself sometimes discomfited. He sees men who are what he never wanted to be: “They're still campy and swishy. It makes me sad. That so many gay men are still caught up in superficial stereotypical images troubles me.” It is not the image’s "aesthetic” that pains Charles, but what that image says to him: “That many gay men are misogynistic and don’t understand that their own oppression is tied up with the way the majority culture views and treats women."
Recently Charles went to a new Hillcrest bar. “It was, for me, a time warp. I could have dropped in the Anvil in New York ten years ago and seen the same thing — an environment that is industrial looking — the corrugated tin, big, raw beer case boxes. People decked out in black leather pants, vests, boots, caps. Wearing spiked leather arm bands, leather harnesses, handcuffs hanging from belt loops. Nipple clamps were attached to bare breasts.” This type of dress, says Charles, derived from "uniforms of men traditionally seen as oppressors,” and it makes men who wear it look like “people who could have turned on the ovens at Dachau.” He takes a long puff from his cigarette. “Maybe,” he says, “this isn’t the most appropriate costuming at this time.”
Some San Diego gay politicos, says Charles, have advanced their activist careers by exploiting the AIDS catastrophe. He says they are “almost necrophiliac” in their “opportunistic feeding on the AIDS issue.”
What in part jarred Charles in the new “industrial"-looking Hillcrest bar, he says, “were things written on the blackboard above the trough — about fist-fucking. With so many people dying around us from AIDS, so much pain and suffering, it’s such a challenge to truly be loving with each other, and I saw so much happening in that bar that wasn’t loving. Gay men have a unique opportunity to meet the challenge of this disaster with new ways of being and loving and healing each other — rather than the hyper-masculinized violence epitomized by fist-fucking.”
There is a “daily terrorism” caused by fear of AIDS: “You get a cold and wonder, is this it?' Or you find a bruise and ask yourself, is this the first lesion? Is the bugger in my central nervous system?’ AIDS,” says Charles, “has invaded my subconscious. You ask yourself, ‘What if I meet and fall in love with someone, only to have them die within a year?’ ” And AIDS has meant, he adds, that “you can never really be able to abandon yourself with someone, because it could kill you. This virus is always there. Everybody you look at, or love, or think about, could be dying.”
Last July Charles found a knot under his right arm. “I was sure it was lymphadonopothy come home to roost. I’d catch myself, again and again, reaching up under my arm to feel if that knot were still there. I wanted to believe, ‘The next time I feel for it, it will be gone.’ That magic thinking again. One of my deals with God. I went to the doctor. He said, ‘It’s a benign cyst from your deodorant.’ ”
After that, Charles decided he would have the HIV antibody test. “I realized I couldn’t possibly be more anxious than I had been about that knot under my arm and that I’d rather know, had I or had I not been exposed to AIDS?” Three days had to pass before he could get the results. If the results were positive, Charles would have to tell those with whom he had sexual relations, and they then would have to face the possibility of their own tests being positive.
The test was negative, a good sign that Charles has not been exposed to the AIDS virus. “When I came out of there, I felt religious.” But the relief was personal relief, not a generalized sense of at last being at ease. It was like having survived a horrendous storm at sea while many of your fellow sailors went under. "AIDS,” says Charles, “has made having sex like Russian roulette. I got an empty barrel, and some people get blown away.”
Among gay men, those who are HIV-negative don’t publicly celebrate that fact. Charles talks about the guilt felt by survivors: "There’s the utter delight of one’s own personal pleasures, of course, which you realize go on in the same instant that it’s possible that someone you know is hearing from a doctor. After this first bout of pneumocystis, you may have nine months to live. There’s an embarrassment, and there’s just this awful shame — and wonder — that I have escaped while a friend has been handed the AIDS death sentence.
"The other night I woke up in a sweat, and my God! The panic! — I was having night sweats [an AIDS symptom]! I remembered that I had gone to bed with a long-sleeve T-shirt on. I said, out loud, 'That’s why I’m dripping sweat.’
"With this HIV-negative result, the next cold I have can simply be a cold. It doesn’t have to mean the beginning of the countdown of the last of my days. And if I’m going to be one of the survivors,” he says in tones as passionate as one imagines his "regular” Baptist preachers employed, “then I’m beholden to carry on gay culture, to carry on and make things better for future generations.”
We return again to the stack of photographs. “Look at this,” says Charles, showing a snapshot taken when he was home in North Carolina this summer. His father is seated in his recliner, and his mother, plump and white-haired now, sits on her husband’s lap.
Before last August, Charles had never mentioned his sexual preference to his parents. "But when I went home last summer, I had been writing book reviews for the local (San Diego) gay press. I had done a tremendous job in establishing a gay and lesbian book collection at the bookstore and was bringing lesbian writers in for readings. And my heart was broken over a man I’d lost. I was just crushed, the most anguished I had ever been in my life.” He pauses and laughs. “And I had also just met somebody new I was excited about. So if my parents were going to know about my life, if they were going to know me, they had to know this.”
Before Charles even bought his ticket home, he studied his Bible, for he believed that the New Testament exhortation to love would provide a context within which his parents could better understand their only son’s need to find a partner — albeit male — for life. Flying from San Diego to North Carolina, Charles rehearsed what he would say: that his life was full, that he had a “family” of friends, straight and gay; that he did not engage in practices that would make him a high risk for AIDS; that he would like to have somebody he really cared about to grow old with, and if he found this person, he wanted his parents to know and love him.
The first day Charles was home, he was busy. Most of the people he started first grade with and went through high school with still live around Lowgap. He visited with his cousin Patsy. “She’s a little mastermind with Avon,” says Charles. He saw the cheerleader whose morals once concerned him. “She’s a born-again Christian now, who, bless her heart, looks a lot like Tammy Faye Bakker.”
That evening, Charles, his mother, and his father sat out on the front porch. It was hot, still, the air was thick with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. In a dark corner of the front yard, the lightning bugs flickered. The rhythmic creaks of the three slat-backed rockers filled the rural silence. “Mama, Daddy, I’m homosexual.” Charles said it.
“They said they were a little overwhelmed,” says Charles. “I told them, ‘My relationship with you has dried up because I’ve been hiding all this stuff.’ I told them I knew how much they loved me, how much they’d sacrificed for me, that I loved them. I said, T’m not worrying about you all stopping loving me. What I worry about is that we’ll talk about this now and then it will go underground, and we’ll never talk about it again.’ They said they weren’t comfortable with it, with homosexuality. But they also said they were willing to stick with me with in this.”
In a rush of talk, Charles went on. He explained that his “gayness” had not changed who he was, and they agreed. He was still the same “sweet, loving, playful Charles they’d always known.” He assured them he’d continue to have a family of male and female friends, to read and think, to take his spiritual life seriously. He said that it was not important to him that he didn’t make much money, although he’d like not to be in debt. He said he didn’t know why he wanted a man rather than a woman as a “life partner,” that he had never heard or read an answer that satisfied him as to why some people prefer people of their own gender.
“We were getting bitten by mosquitoes, so we moved back inside. Mama made iced tea and treated me by warming up the ham biscuits she’d made especially for me — I’d been eating them practically nonstop since I got there.
“As we went to bed that night. Mama hugged me and I cried. I hugged her back and said, ‘Now we have a chance to love each other better.’ She agreed.’’
In his childhood bedroom, Charles tucked his long frame into the bed in which he’d slept for most of his first twenty years. A breeze had come up. It rattled through the apple trees, which had set thickly with the red Jonathans Charles had always liked to bite into. He drew the patch quilt over him. He went over, in his mind, the last lines in Look Homeward, Angel, in which a man stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say, “The town is near,” but turns his eyes upon the distant, soaring ranges. Like that man, thought Charles, he’d never truly been at home here.
If he’d followed his first dream — to marry, become a schoolteacher, community pillar — he would have still been here. His love for men would have “stayed buried.” Eventually, he would have joined the church, maybe even preached on some Sundays. He would have loved his wife but would have “psychologically beaten” her, would have adored his kids but felt trapped by them. He would, he mused that night, have bought a little parcel of land, had his house built by his cousins-in-law. He would have encouraged his bright students, tried to push them out in the larger world that he hadn’t dared to take on.
“But that’s an awfully nice picture compared to what would have happened,” says Charles, pulling himself up off the couch and gathering into a neat pile the photographs at which we’d been looking since early evening. “It would have been absolute death for me to stay there. I would’ve had to so dissemble and squelch myself. I’d be swallowing massive doses of Elavil.”
Now, he says, pulling on his coat, “I just want to get to Paris before I turn forty. Meanwhile,” he says, standing on a San Diego porch, the palm trees behind him revealed by bright moonlight, “I have the ambiguity of the rest of my life to confront.”