Mom and Apple Pie
Celebrating the new America
This started out as a tribute to the articles I couldn't get enough of as a kid. There was something intoxicating about the full color spreads in my grandmother's and mother's magazines. 35 holiday entertaining ideas. 10 patriotic centerpieces. Best Independence Day ever! In a way, they paved the path for my career. They taught me to respect the table and nudged along my palate. Even the hokiest ideas were about nurture and care. My childhood could be lonely, and others could be unkind, but it was always easy to live in the America of whipped cream, no-sew pillows, and helpful household hints.
Especially on a day like the Fourth of July, when the invitations to pool parties and cookouts never came. True, I was never the type of boy who spent the day throwing lit firecrackers and I only pretended to be interested in activities that required sunscreen and bug spray. I knew I would never be a smiling face calling out "Marco Polo" at the community pool, but the pages of Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens promised another sort of holiday. There, red gingham tablecloths covered every table and platters of watermelon were cut into perfect stars. There, pyramids of fried chicken loomed over icebox pies. It was the promise of plenty and the promise of community – even when both were out of reach.
If you were different in Levelland, Texas, there wasn't much better comfort than daydreaming about growing up. The real-life examples notwithstanding, I saw adulthood as an endless parade of lawn parties. I imagined myself in a clapboard house with a porch festooned with flags and bunting. I would be the consummate host (by then surely I would know someone to invite), thinking nothing of hand-squeezing 50 lemons into a hobnail pitcher or spending the day making my mother's fried pies. I would whisk up homemade buttermilk ranch for a cucumber salad. I would use blue curaçao in all my cocktails.
I would be married.
Even in my daydreams, I knew that part would be tricky. It never really escaped me that I was reading magazines intended for women. Or that my image of the person living with me in the imaginary house was never a blushing bride. I had crushes on boys since the fourth grade and came out to my best friend in the sixth (via a collaborative passed note/comic book). She drew a frown and said she didn't want to talk about it. In my made-up world, she would have made a cake.
But in the actual world, the only thing I knew about being gay was from the red bound book on my father's bookshelf. Those pages described my future adulthood as involving shadowy back rooms and jail cells. There were no color photographs, just angry, scribbled drawings. Satan loomed over shoulders. There was certainly no marriage in all that depravity.
Better to buckle up. Especially with Independence Day approaching, and the threat of swimming pools filled with shirtless guys. We moved out of the Panhandle that year, and I joined the Robinson Junior High football team. I made it through the showers by always looking downward. And I learned how to use the word "faggot" like a shield. If I spit it out just so, they would never know.
Still, I never really gave up the habit of reading magazines aimed at homemakers. By then, I was aware that a teenage boy in small-town Texas wasn't supposed to know how to make Fiesta Pasta Salad or care about cake decorating techniques. I somehow found a girlfriend; I fumbled my way through sex. I resigned myself to being the silent specter of those magazines, the jocular if useless husband. I would be married, although the wedding (and honeymoon) seemed like a sad chore. Maybe my future wife would let me help pick the caterer.
The act eventually became too exhausting. After high school, I stuck my head out of the closet again, this time telling my family and friends. It was close to Independence Day, but that hardly meant I could throw off the yoke. There would have been a certain neatness to it, just deciding that I no longer cared. But in the Nineties, the act of being gay was illegal. The one gay bar in nearby Waco (I don't remember if it was then Talulah's or Maxine's) was hid behind hedges and barely lit inside (my father's book was right). Gay marriage was not in the language. I could barely even imagine the vague idea of a commitment ceremony.
I eventually learned to stop hiding. I eventually met more people like me, had relationships, watched a Pride parade. And after a few years, I found myself engaged. Writing it down, it almost seems like a fiction. He popped the question, I said yes, and then almost immediately freaked the fuck out. We had been a couple for a while, and I was happily playing the role of the homemaker. By then, my grandma's grocery-bought mags gave way to subscriptions of Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, and Cooking Light. I had long fantasized about the life described in those pages, but when it came time to buy in, I was terrified.
Who would I invite? Would all my relatives come? Would the "happiest day of my life" seem somehow illicit? I never made it to telling my parents. That's what it means to be second-class. There is constant fear that society will question your pain, your happiness, and your love. You have seen it examined, loathed, or waved off as "lifestyle," the same cudgel used to dismiss women. (It's no coincidence that Redbook, McCall's, and Good Housekeeping are called lifestyle magazines.) Lived experience becomes an empty trifle. 35 holiday entertaining ideas. 10 patriotic centerpieces. Best Independence Day ever!
And that all gets internalized. As a queer person, I have been blessed to see public opinion change. It's heartening to see that young people don't carry that same weight. Heck, last year Family Circle ran an article titled "Modern Life: Two Dads, Two Kids and Two Dogs Make a Happy Home in the Heartland." But it took a lot of work to change that opinion. It took even more to see a change in my own. I spent too many years believing that I would always pretend and never practice. On occasion, I still found myself monitoring myself in front of my parents, as if holding a man's hand should be met with deep shame.
I'm sure that's why at 9:02am last Friday, I started bawling as the news of nationwide marriage equality popped up on the SCOTUSblog feed. I'm still tearing up now. I'm not naive enough to believe that this solves homophobia any more than electing a black president solved our festering racism, but homophobia is no longer the law of the land. And although I'm not sure if I still want to get married or that normalcy is even worth pursuing, it's nice to have that choice. I can spend my days frying pies. I can spend my nights in dark rooms. The ability to navigate both is what it means to fully participate in America.
I started this as a story about the best Independence Day ever, and even in a deeply troubled country, it may well be. But I'm not going to tell anyone how to celebrate, even if that's what gave me comfort all those years ago. This year the Fourth is truly about freedom.
Let it ring.