The Lavender Torch
The first time I recall ever really knowing someone was gay was in 1976 at Wilfred’s Beauty Academy in Red Bank, New Jersey. Most of the kids I went to school with went to barber shops if they were boys, or hair salons if they were girls, but Mom liked a bargain. She’d drag her three kids kicking and whining to Wilfred’s. Wilfred’s would give you the deal of the century, if you were willing to let their students practice on you. It was a total crapshoot. I never knew if I was gonna walk out as Farrah Fawcett or Harpo Marx. I was 12 years old. We’d just moved schools for the third time in 3 years. This last move took us to the uber-rich town of Rumson, New Jersey. Some of the kids arrived at school via their chauffeur. They looked at us like we were aliens from Planet Trash. I didn’t want any more surprises.
In 1976, it seemed most hairdressers were hung up on emulating Farrah Fawcett’s feathered locks. Dorothy Hamill’s wedge cut was also pretty popular, and then there was the shag. Jane Fonda looked gorgeous in the shag, but Joan Jett rocked it.
As I sat in the reception area, I held my breath and silently begged God to give me a student who had at least a small level of talent. I was still traumatized by my last Wilfred’s cut. A square shaped young woman had interpreted Dorothy’s wedge as Dorothy’s bowl. I looked like the kid from the Dutch Boy paint cans.
“Well, hello, darling!” I heard. “Are you ready to look beautiful?”
I looked up and saw a tall young man with long, strawberry blonde hair. He had a pleasing face, and soft kind eyes. I couldn’t help but look him up and down. He was wearing snakeskin cowboy boots, a tight purple V-neck and the tightest jeans I’d ever seen on a man. His right ear was pierced, and from it hung a pink feather earring. I remembered one of the kids in sixth grade saying to another kid that when men pierce their ear, it means they’re gay.
“The view’s even better from behind,” he said, laughing, and led me to his chair.
“Now, what shall we do today?” he cooed, lovingly playing with my hair. I looked in the mirror. My bowl cut was growing out, but it was still horrific. If I never got another haircut, I supposed I’d look like Cousin It from the Addams Family.
“Something. Different.” I said, but what I was really saying was, “Save me!”
He smiled, “I know just what to do.”
This was the first time in my life anyone ever spent more than 20 minutes cutting my hair. He played with it, cut a snippet, stepped back, smiled and played more. When he was done cutting, he took me to the shampoo station and rather than just soaping my head up and hosing me down, he massaged my scalp for what felt like a century. I’d never felt anything more soothing. I fell fast asleep. He woke me up laughing.
“I’d say you needed that darling,” he said, affectionately.
When he was done styling and blow-drying me, I didn’t look like Farrah, or Jane Fonda, or Joan Jett or Dorothy Hamill or anyone else. I looked like … me. Only a better me. I looked like a tomboy girl with curly hair getting her first good curly-hair haircut.
Today, I have big words I can throw around like “transformative.” But back then, all I could say when I looked wide-eyed in the mirror was, “Wow!”
“Be good to yourself,” he said as he waved good-bye. I spent the entire car ride back to Rumson thinking about his words. How can a person be good to themselves? Eat more? Eat less? Exercise? Do things that make them happy?
He was kinder, more patient and more talented than any hairdresser I’d ever met before. Was this what it meant to be gay?
When we went back to Wilfred’s 6 months later, he wasn’t there. I asked about him and the receptionist said he’d graduated. The unpleasant woman who came to work on my hair that day only took 15 minutes to undo all of it. Getting shampooed by her felt like torture. I walked out looking like a bastard child of Harpo Marx who had already lived hard.
By the time I was 14, I shook off my nice Jewish girl pretense and discovered an all-female rock band called The Runaways. These girls were only a couple of years older than me, and they were badass. Cherie Currie, the lead singer was beautiful, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Joan Jett.
“You know she’s gay, right?” a pal in my freshman high school class said.
“Really?!” I was all the more fascinated.
There didn’t seem to be “out” celebrities in the ’70s. I’d heard rumors that Billie Jean King was gay, but I wasn’t into sports.
In Rumson, New Jersey stepping out of line seemed unforgiveable. In this khaki pants, Izod Lacoste alligator shirt, Docksider shoes, preppie army, something as minor as wearing basketball sneakers was rebellious. I didn’t want to look like I was going yachting. I wanted to look like I was going to a rock concert.
My new friend Lauren turned me on to buying bootleg import 45s that came in brown paper bags in the back of Jack’s music store in Red Bank. The first 45 I bought was the Sex Pistols screaming “God Save the Queen.” Something inside of me started to rumble.
I’d been a warrior in my younger kid years, playing in the dirt with the boys, but became a quiet kid going through puberty. Moving to three schools in 3 years and sprouting boobs overnight had sent me into a tailspin. Listening to Johnny Rotten scream out in punk rock glory, I felt my power coming back. I didn’t want to fit in. I wanted to bash out!
I met a girl in my freshman French class named Jenni. She had the Rumson preppie look, but not the mindset. She took one look at my ripped Sex Pistols t-shirt and Frye boots and decided we’d become friends. Four decades later, we still are.
Jenni was an actor and singer and quite good at both. In my sophomore year, she joined a community theater group that met at the Barn Theatre. The group she joined was putting on a production of Cinderella only to the music of the B52’s and David Bowie. They called it “Cinderella Flash Fantasy.” This was the Jersey Shore in 1979. You could get beaten up for being gay or a for being a punk rocker. This show sounded like just what I was looking for. Jenni got me in as a stage hand.
My first day at the Barn, I walked in and saw two men kissing. One had short strawberry hair and pale skin, and the other had a beard and shoulder-length blonde hair. Turned out strawberry boy was Matthew, the mastermind of the Cinderella production, and the bearded man was Wolf, his boyfriend.
A bouncy, energetic pretty woman with black hair, grabbed my hand.
“I’m Annie! Welcome to the jungle!”
An impossibly tall, broad shouldered woman wearing a pink leather mini-skirt, strode over and shook my hand.
“I’m Magdalena! All Plutonians are welcome.”
There was a striking woman with crayon-red hair, in a chair with her legs draped over one side. I thought she looked like a punk rock Audrey Hepburn. I’d never seen a woman wear leather pants before. I waved at her and she turned her head away.
“That’s Cindy. She can be a little chilly,” Annie explained.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
After, rehearsals I started hanging out with the Barn gang. I was preoccupied with my new mission making Cindy laugh.
“I can crack her,” I said to Jenni.
“Good luck with that, Doll. That girl is damaged.”
The first time I made Cindy laugh, it felt as though I’d been given a present.
“You melted the ice queen!” Annie said.
One day Cindy invited me to punk rock night at a local bar in Red Bank called Toad Hall. There weren’t too many places you could go to hear punk rock in New Jersey. The night before we were to meet I had a strange dream. I dreamt that Cindy and I were kissing, like a real Hollywood kiss. I know it sounds incredibly naive to say this now, but I really had no idea what the dream meant.
After we’d been slam dancing for a while, we went into the bathroom. I fixed my eye liner and Cindy spiked up her hair. I turned to her and said, “I had the weirdest dream about you last night. I dreamt that we kissed, like a real Hollywood kiss!”
“Oh really?” She said laughing and promptly put her tongue in my mouth.
I was frozen in fear at first, but then seemed to loosen up from the inside out. I felt like we kissed for hours, but it was probably only 5 minutes. She pulled away, laughed at my stunned face and said, “I’ll see you at the bar. I’m getting more drinks.”
After she left I felt like my entire life came crashing into my head. All the puzzles and mysteries that never made sense suddenly did. That’s why I had to bring Mrs. Mahon my first grade teacher an apple every day! That’s why I had to watch the Bionic Woman every Wednesday night, or I would just die. That’s why I squirmed every time my mother made me promise to marry a nice Jewish boy. That’s why I felt like a pretender when girls around me talked about boys.
I didn’t realize I was gay that day. Lots of my friend were bisexual, and I went with that. I needed three more years before I tallied up the fact that I hated dating men and loved dating women. But you know, we get there when we are ready.
I had a little coaxing from a flamboyant young man I met after I left New Jersey and moved to Brooklyn. Rodney took me to my first Gay Pride parade. I’d never seen anything like it. There were thousands and thousands and thousands of gay men and women. They weren’t hiding being gay; they were celebrating it. They were screaming it for the whole world to hear. It was like for one day they ruled the world.
“Rodney, I whispered, “ I might be, sorta, gay-ish …”
“Gayish!” He screamed, “You mean like stylish? Honey you’re gay! You are so gay! Shout it out!”
And so I did. Again and again and again, all day long, until my throat felt like sandpaper.
My life changed after Cindy kissed me in Toad Hall. My life changed again at my first Pride parade when Rodney prompted me to scream my truth to the world.
I’d like to say being out and gay was all sunshine and roses after that first Pride, but it hasn’t been. I’ve had my heart broken several times. (Haven’t we all?) I’ve been gay-bashed several times. The worst incident was on Bank Street in Greenwich village, one of the prettiest blocks in the West Village. A gang of kids who’d come down from the Bronx to go gay bashing in the Village, surrounded my girlfriend and I when they saw us holding hands. They yelled ugly things, that I won’t repeat. The youngest pulled a gun. To this day, I thank God that a police car came by at just that moment. I might not be here today to tell you the story.
I felt scared to hold a woman’s hand in public for some time after that. Sometimes I still do when I don’t trust the environment. I try to force through it. You can’t let the haters ruin your pride.
My girlfriend Lyla and I held hands walking along a quiet street in the East Village the other night. I saw a gang of kids hanging out ahead of us and started to pull away. “Are you scared to hold hands?” she asked sweetly. I shrugged and grabbed her hand harder.
These days, I see young gay couples holding hands all the time. I often stop to tell them how beautiful they are. I marvel at how carefree and bold they seem. The younger gay generation has come out in a different world than the one I came out in. Billie Jean King came out the same year I did. So many, many more came out after that. I had a party the night Ellen DeGeneres came out on her TV show. We couldn’t believe it when she said those words: “I’m gay.” That was prime time TV! Television changed so many minds. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Willow become lovers with Tara! That was mind blowing. Then came Will and Grace. I once heard someone say “Will and Grace” did more for gay rights than a thousand marches.
Maybe we were getting accepted on TV, but we still had a long way to go when it came to our rights. Then came Edie.
The dazzingly beautiful Edie Windsor paved the way for gay marriage to become legal. I knew gay marriage would pass the first time I saw Edie speak. She looked like a gay Betty White. No one could not adore her. Who could say no to Edie?
Lyla and I met Edie at the Gay Community Center at our friend Barbara’s book launch. There were dozens of people clamoring for Edie’s attention, but she fell into a deep and wondrous conversation with Lyla and I and didn’t want to leave us.
When they finally pried her away she looked at us both in the eyes, grabbed our hands and said. “I know this sounds crazy, but I really love you two.”
“We love you, too!” we cooed.
I’ve never meant anything more in my life.
I think of that sweet young man who gave me my first good haircut at Wilfred’s.
“Be good to yourself.”
Proper diet and exercise and fun is all important, but standing proud, being honest about who I am, living my life authentically? That’s how I can best be good to myself.
Happy Pride, y’all. However you spend Pride month, be good to yourself.