Shocking news (not): gays sighted in Raleigh

by Rob Tiller

Raleigh is frequently assumed to be a somewhat sleepy middle-size southern city, but from our new digs in the Glenwood South area it feels bigger and livelier.  Walking around the neighborhood, you hear foreign languages that you can’ identify.  You see lots of young women with long straight hair in sleek black dresses.  And if you’re observant, you’ll notice that there is a substantial gay population.

Sal picked up on the gay presence before I did.  It isn’t obtrusive or militant.  You don’t see black leather (except on apparently bona fide bikers) or feathered boas.  Mannerisms are not exaggerated.  Some of the male couples are on the borderline of straightness.  But it slowly sinks in that there are a surprising number of male couples in the restaurants and bars.

We hired an interior designer to help us avoid costly mistakes in fitting out the new condo, and guess what — he isn’t straight!  Working with Keith has been inspiring.  He is, in point of true fact, an artist — creative, driven, and visionary.  He clearly loves his work.  He’s also lively and funny.  

As Sal observed, this is something that most typical, mildly homophobic Americans don’t get:  gayness isn’t only, or even primarily, about sex.  There is nothing in that line to fear.  Your gay neighbors will, almost certainly, not attempt to seduce or molest you.  On the other hand, there’s a substantial up side.  From our New York days years ago, we learned that a gay community has a cultural vibrancy.  There’s more attention to how things look, sound, and smell.  There’s more interest in high art and low, more interest in clothes, more parties and clubs.  There’s also more interest in people, in their subtle cues, their beauty or oddity.  There’s tolerance, curiosity, creativity.  Of course, there are at times less admirable traits, just as in other communities.  But much of what I think of as the most meaningful and entertaining things about city life are things that gay communities bring to the mix.

Today’s New York Times has a front page piece on President Obama’s plan to commemorate the Stonewall riots that are considered the beginning of the modern gay civil rights movement. http://tiny.cc/ID7S6  As the piece notes, there’s increasing acceptance of gays in America, but there’s still a strong and at times frightening counter-current of homophobia.  Frank Rich’s column in the Week in Review is entitled “40 Years Later, Still Second-Class Americans.”    http://tiny.cc/5YUfR  It’s a good short history lesson.  Rich calls for the President to get off the fence and take serious action on gay civil rights.  That would be good.

The Times also has an interesting piece in the Styles section about relationships between gay and straight men._ http://tiny.cc/yCDrD   Not surprisingly, the story is mostly entertaining anecdotes, but there is an important message — such non-sexual friendships exist, and they count.  And it seems to be getting easier both to have these friendships and to acknowledge them publicly. 

When I read the Styles piece, I thought, as I frequently do, of my dear friend Tom, who died twenty years ago of complications from AIDS.  Tom was a brilliant guy who introduced me to lots of theories, literature, and  music, not to mention haute cuisine.  He inspired me to study political theory, to go to Paris, and to go to New York.  I first learned about Stonewall from him, and about the existence and meaning of the gay community.  

I also learned about the pre-AIDS downtown NY gay scene, in all its uninhibitedness.  Tom loved the baths and the clubs, and he had some shocking experiences.  At the time, I was an aspiring novelist, and Tom figured I could use the material.  I couldn’t, at least not for a book.  But I’m grateful for all the inspiration he gave me.  I’m sorry he’s gone.