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October 27th, 2011

Did I Abandon Family for Gay Community?

Panama City, Florida, with its sugar sand beaches and busy tourist trade, is affectionately considered the Redneck Riviera. Folks from Alabama and its neighbor states make the trip down Highway 231 and straight into the Florida panhandle, breezing through a stretch known as Watermelon Alley, where locals sell fruit and souvenirs along the asphalt in hopes of sidetracking some of the cash the drivers have saved for their weekend adventures.

ManReach GroupBut, if you were to turn northeast from Panama City, venturing further into what could be accurately called “the sticks,” you would eventually come upon the town of Vernon, home to the rustic retreat center Dogwood Acres. And it was here, deep in the woods, that I recently spent a weekend with thirty gay men from rural Florida to talk about gay community and men’s health.

The participants taught me a surprising lesson that wasn’t about AIDS or the state of gay rights. As deeply felt as those topics are to me, something else, something completely unexpected, came up during our time together. And it made me re-evaluate life choices of mine that go back more than thirty years.

Sponsored by Okaloosa AIDS Support & Informational Services (OASIS) and
fashioned from the ManReach retreats in Colorado, the weekend asked us all to examine what (community) meant, and how to find it even when living in rural areas, as these men do.

ManReach 1We sat in circles and shared laughs and a few tears. We hiked, ate quiche and slept in cabins of unvarnished plywood. I was invited to the event to lead one of the workshops, and was the only attendee who lives in a large metropolitan area.

I became fascinated by these out, proud, engaged gay men from towns with names like Cottondale and Chipley and Lake City, towns that require several magnifications on Mapquest before you can find them. How could they possibly feel free to be themselves, to be fulfilled, to be happy? Their answers shamed my presumptions.

“I lived in big cities,” said Rick, who left one in 1985 to live on a thirty acre ranch in Altha. “I’d been diagnosed with AIDS and was given 18 months to live, and knew I wanted a different life, out of the city. I would have died there if I stayed too long.” Rick and his partner grow their own vegetables, care for horses and goats, and dote upon their two pigs, Pork Chop and Lily. “It’s a quiet, natural way of life,” he says.

David lives in Fort Walton, and offered a simply reply to my question about feeling alone in such a small community. “Isolation can happen anywhere,” he said plainly. “I’m open about being gay. I don’t hide. It’s those that try to hide and are not honest about themselves that people have problems with, if you ask me.”

ManReach 2But when explaining their choice to live in small towns, one reason trumped all others. “Family is important,” Marcus told me, as if he was surprised anyone could believe otherwise. “Roots are important.” Marcus left his hometown of Bascom long enough to attend college in Pensecola, but returned to live on his family’s peanut farm.

“This was not some kind of tradeoff for me,” Marcus said. Nor was he particularly concerned about his romantic options. “You meet people in other places nearby, larger cities. But having a boyfriend isn’t a priority right now. My family will always be.”

“I live in my father’s house,” said Ken, who lives in Wellborn, “and I take care of my mother.”

Mother. Family. The words sent a low current of guilt through me, bringing back memories of my last, dramatic days of living at home and how very far away my life has taken me ever since.

ManReach 4Did I leave Bossier City, Louisiana because of my life ambitions, or did I flee? The truth is a little of both. After a scandalous year of bursting out of the closet during my senior year of high school in 1978, all the gossip about me was wearing on my family. I knew I was causing some embarrassment. Only days after graduation I moved to New Orleans for college, and subsequent moves — Houston, Los Angeles — pushed me further and further away from them.

Maybe I kept a distance, geographic and otherwise, out of some deep shame, as if it would simply be better for all concerned if I stayed away. Or perhaps it was pre-emptive.

I’ll leave before you tell me to leave.

Through the years I collected a patchwork of close friends, and I even adopted gay catch phrases like “we choose our own families” because maybe it’s true. And then again, maybe I was comforting myself with substitutes.

When I tested HIV positive in the 1980’s, the stretches between visits grew even longer. I couldn’t bear the thought of household dilemmas — Would they watch which drinking glass I used? Should I hold the baby? — so I decided to sit out those years by visiting less, even if it meant dying a thousand miles from my nearest relative.

But make no mistake about it, my exile was self imposed. Never had anyone in my family rejected me or suggested I wasn’t welcome. They received my visits home enthusiastically, and with acceptance and kindness towards whatever boyfriend I brought along.

If anything, my visits were such a happy event that I wondered what my family was like when I wasn’t around. Who really got along with each other, who preferred American Idol over Dancing with the Stars, that sort of thing. But when you’re visiting from across the country only once a year or so, you don’t get a sense of the day by day. No one ever gets annoyed or loses patience with you. And something about that always made me feel a little sad, as if I were company rather than family.

It was the rural gay men at the retreat who gave me a glimpse of what life might have been like, had I stayed. Minus the goats, of course. And the picture they painted looked simply wonderful.

As fate would have it, I left the men’s retreat and flew home to Bossier City for a visit. As I write this, Mother is reading the morning paper. One of my brothers has come by to join us for coffee. I’ve tried to be good about loading the dishwasher and doing chores to keep Mom off her feet.

When I presented Mother with my theory about having abandoned family in order to follow my gay destiny, she dismissed it with a smile. “You had places to go,” she said, “and everyone has a life to lead.” It never occurred to her that her love couldn’t travel whatever miles lay between us.

I haven’t started to annoy her at all, unfortunately. But I do know who she wants to win the mirror ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars.

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18 Responses to “Did I Abandon Family for Gay Community?”

  1. Micheal Sapp Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Thought-provoking piece, Mark. Thanks for sharing. It must be nice not to have to run away to be gay. I wouldn’t know from my own experience. I, like you, sort of chose to do that myself; but, in my case it was away from my wife and kids. That sort of makes things different, doesn’t it? Does it?

  2. Joe Samler Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Mark, this is so timely for me! I have been thinking about this so much lately…. I see friends on facebook I grew up with(in the DC metropolitan area), living their lives as gay men and women, who are still very much involved with their families and old friends who didn’t turn them away because of their sexual preference. Thanks for sharing this Mark!

  3. Carole Ann Kaplan Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 11:23 am

    This post brought chills and made me think, “Yes, we can go home again.” Your writing continues to reflect a deep sense of “mining for the core of the truth.” In the end, our truths are much more similiar than different, gay or straight. We mothers know there are no miles to separate us from our children. I hope you go “home” more often.

  4. Butch McKay Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks Mark, first for attending the gathering and presenting and second for your post about the event. As one of the organizers, I’m so thankful when those who come to present also leave with something. I am so proud of my rural brothers who value family and childhood roots and choose to stay home to make our communities better places to live. We change alot of hearts by doing so. Enjoy your time with your family and good luck on your move to Atlanta.

  5. richard Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    As it was and ever shall be: Welcome home, Mark

  6. Buck Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Mark, Enjoyed your piece on leaving or staying with family. It reminds me of my own journey and the journey of friends Ive had over the years. “Home is where the heart is.”
    Thanks
    Buck

  7. Sam Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Ok, dude, every time I visit your site to read your blog I tell myself that this time I won’t leave a comment. I’ll just read what he has to say and leave it at that, I tell myself. But then you write something that’s so moving that I find myself leaving a comment. And you did it again this time! Because I wanted to go to this retreat but was unable to, and so reading about it is really great.

    I went to my stepfather’s funeral yesterday. He was a good husband to my mother who passed away about 10 years ago. My sister, who is a devout Mormon from Utah, and I talked and she gave me a disc of family photos spanning nearly a hundred years. I went back to my house and spent hours looking at these picture and printing some of them off to frame later. I felt good not bad. I felt connected to my mom again and to my dear sister from Utah and my two brothers who were at the funeral, and to all the many other brothers and sisters I haven’t seen for 20 to 30 years. (Being Mormon usually means you’ve got ten brothers and sisters.)

    Thank you, Mark, for this blog. I hope I can attend the retreat next year. I live in a semi-rural area and often wish I could live in a large city where there are more gay activities, etc., but now I feel kind of grateful to be able to go outside now and enjoy nature and the animals like deer and wild turkeys and sandhill cranes I see almost every day. I can hear the highway, but I have my privacy and my woods and space to grow my veggies. Peace.

  8. Anne Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    It’s important to know that you can leave home, but home is always ready to welcome you back. Love and acceptance have no geographical boundaries.
    Glad you’re back, and thanks for loading the dishwasher! Mom

  9. Jeff Says:

    October 27th, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Thank You Mark for a great reminder.My shame kept me closeted and afraid.When the truth became known the humiliation to all made me run.I left family to face the reality of who I had become.They survived. I had a harder road survivng. Today being honest open and loving gives me the courage to go home each summer and hold my head high.Time has helped and current public opinion has changed so much from my early days as a gay man in the late 60 s that being proud today is easier.

  10. Shawn Decker Says:

    October 30th, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Great article, Mark. Touching, honest and funny!

  11. Joseph Cotton Says:

    October 30th, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Mark,
    You really hit home with this article. I left my rural roots to move to New Orleans to live my gay lifestyle. I left, as you know, with my first love which we know was you. Sure I missed my country roots and upbringing but it took love for me to leave and I thank you for that. I have to say that now my family from Winnfield, Louisiana accepts me and my lifestyle choice. As you know, I lost Rob (my life partner of 24 years) to cancer in 2010 and I have you to thank for taking me from the sticks of Northern Louisiana only to meet such a wonderful life partner as Rob was. You will always have a special place in my heart since you were my first mate and my reason for leaving my family behind.
    Love Yah Kido
    Joseph L. Cotton

  12. Bobby Smith Says:

    October 30th, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Being also from Bossier City (and actually went to Parkway Jr. High) my feeling of family is it would be difficult even today after 40 years to be at ease in family matters there. My family, including nephews and nephews are aware I’m gay but even today it’s definitely never talked about. I’m sure some of my Facebook comments are well discussed as in, “…did you see what Uncle Bobby posted or liked…” When I got out of the Marines in 1977 I spent one day in Shreveport, took a jet out the next day to Atlanta and have never looked back. I’ve been back to Bossier City maybe three or four times since graduating from high school. The atmosphere for gays in Shreveport/Bossier is simply stifling.

  13. Wesley Says:

    November 3rd, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Mark,

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the retreat and thank you for the web site address. I have enjoyed reading your postings and the comments. I think I have just about read everything here and from my perspective you are having a life full of rich experiences. Truly blessed.

  14. Jose Says:

    November 4th, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I saw the title of this article in an e-mail I received and immediately knew it was something I needed to read! I am a 20 year old male from Long Beach, CA. I came out last October, 2010, so it has been just about a year since I have been out to my parents. Since February of this year, 2011, I have been out to friends and some family. I have realized I do not need to share the truth about my sexuality with everyone because it is none of their business; however, at first I was sort of trying to come out, strong, and loud to everyone! I am happier now knowing I do not need to pressure myself into coming out to people because it really doesn’t matter whether anyone knows or not. I am out to the majority of the people who matter to me so I am fine. I have been with my first boyfriend for 7 months now whom I met 4 months after I came out. I have had girlfriends in the past but none of my relationships have been as meaningful, life-changing, deep, or real as my relationship with my boyfriend. I do sometimes question myself and my actions because of not being able to bring him around home, which is hard because i am very connected with my family. not being able to hang out with him at home, watching tv, doing simple things, is hard. it is something ive had to become used to. we are forced to always be out, spending money. since he lives in hollywood and i in long beach, it is quite expensive to see one another. we mostly see each other on the weekends which takes up most of my free time because i am busy with school and work during the week which leaves me with no family time. my parents had a difficult time taking in the truth about my sexuality as well as learning about my molestation during childhood. although it was hard for them in the beginning to even hear me out, i have slowly begun to share with them the great experiences and tremendous personal growth i have had with my boyfriend. it is hard having a long distance gay relationship because we cannot see each other as often as we’d like and when we do see each other, its usually for hours on end or whole days and even weekends which takes me away from being able to spend time with my family. at first i was the one trying to flee from home because of their disapproval but i have realized i am blessed to be able to continue living at home. i love my parents dearly and they love me very much. i hope one day i will be able to bring together the two most precious things in my life right now; my boyfriend and my home 🙂

  15. Sue Says:

    November 6th, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Tears in my eyes for the angst and pain that you and others go through just for being yourself.

  16. jose Says:

    November 22nd, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    thank you sue ^

  17. Guy Says:

    November 18th, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Nice article but only works if your mother hasn’t told you to never come back and your father hasn’t told you that you deserve to die. Both happened to me so have had no other option.

  18. Steve Says:

    May 4th, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    That was really a touching story . Speaking of Lake City FL , my boyfriend and i bought a house there for the small town life and were drivin out by the locals and the corrupt police department thinking we were satanists or something . Going back to my parents to help them out a few years back (small town in U.P. Mich) we once again were harrassed so badly that we had to leave . Many who are adults now that had bullied me when i was a kid,statred there same crap and got many others involved,and now with the internet it just spread like wildfire to drive us out of town. Them having no concern for us helping my elderly parents . Now 3 days ago i find out my father has brain cancer and neither of them can be left alone because my mother suffers from dementia . It rips at my heart that i cannot be there to help while my sister is put in charge of there finances and is the biggest crook and con on the planet with no concerns of anyone but what she can get out of them . My childhood im sure was different as i had suffered alot of abuse from both parents but still love them enough to want to help. I came from a small farm town of 300 people and ran as soon as i got out of high school with $100 and a buss ticket,needless to say i ended up on the streets hustling for money for food and to support my drinking habit. I am now 50 married since August 15th 2013 and we have been together 26 years. The last time we went to help we were not even wanted in there home unless we were giving them money . We cleaned out a 5 bedroom hoard that was unlivable for 10 years,painted,cleaned the whole inside without expecting anything in return but love from my parents. Well as soon as our banc account went dry so did there kindness. Now they only have a daughter there who sells there belongings behind there back, passes out drunk upstairs nightly and only talks bad of my parents . We have also had to move 2 times a year because of people keeping track of where we go and spreading there hate and to harrass us over twitter and facebook. You are luckey you have a family who wants you, i MISS mine and the small quiet town life, I miss the country and i hate apartment living . We are planning a move once again to another state in 6 months, the harrassment started day one when we moved here .

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