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In the strip club, we watched the girls dance and Ben told me they were molested as children. Ben will move soon to study law in Virginia. He was above it—all those dancing girls. He said that without saying it. What he did say was that he couldn’t get into it about them, because he just knew what most of them have been through. No need to discuss. Then he bought his friend Dave a lap dance. Then he began to rub my leg.

“I don’t even know how we ended up here,” I shouted.

This was how I expressed feeling uncomfortable in a strip club—one that we had walked into through an alley. The alcohol wasn’t wearing off but it was turning inside me. The lightness of the first part of the night always gave away to the dread, the magnification of all the bad things. We did more shots as all the others bars had closed up shop. We smoked cigarettes. We were in the club because we ran into people who had better ideas than we did about where we should be.

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I live in an incredible area. It’s a tough inner city hood boasting an elite private boys school, where doss houses sit alongside mansions and where strip clubs jostle with Portuguese butchers. Six months ago, one of those strip clubs, the iconic Sydney institution, the Oxford Tavern, closed down.

It was 1977, Apple debuted its first computer, Star Wars ruled the world, and my dad started a new secret job. Dad previously was a California Highway Patrolman, just like Erik Estrada in CHiPs. He retired in 1974 after an auto accident and got into the exotic car business, refurbishing and selling cars at several lots around Los Angeles.

I was six years old the first time Dad took me to his work. On the weekends, my younger sister, Kristen, and I played hideandseek in the car lots, giggling away in between vintage ModelT Fords, Rolls Royces and Porsches. Customers told Dad how adorable we were as we climbed in and out of the cars.

Mom liked it when Dad took us to work. It got us out of her hair, and we returned home sapped of energy and ready for bed. When I turned nine, however, I noticed Dad stopped talking to me about work. He had a new job, and no longer shared his wild car stories with me. I thought I had done something wrong.

Mom wouldn’t let me wait up for him, but Dad always came into my bedroom and kissed me goodnight when he got home. My parents shot each other looks at the dinner table, as I shifted in my seat. I wondered what they were keeping from me; why they were upset with me.

My parents started whispering in the kitchen. While we watched Bugs Bunny in the den, my sister and I tried eavesdropping on their conversation.

“I don’t like you coming home every night at three in the morning smelling of booze and smoke.”

I can’t help it, the club was packed tonight and I got stuck working the floor.”

“Can’t you air your clothes outside of the house?”

One Saturday night, the babysitter cancelled for the next day. Mom’s face was strained when she hung up the phone. The inevitable happened: she had to work all day, and the neighbors were out of town. After exchanging tense glances and whispers, Dad walked into the den, grabbed my knee, and announced he was taking us with him to work the next day.

There was nothing more fun than a day with Dad — hello Fruit Loops and Disney, goodbye Corn Flakes and Mr. Rogers! I couldn’t sleep a wink that night.

Amy Grant gospel music played in the kitchen as Mom made us breakfast that next morning, stoically hacking bananas for our cereal. Dad walked into the kitchen wearing a maroon leather jacket and matching ankle boots over grey polyester slacks and a white dress shirt — think Gene Hackman in The French Connection. He grabbed Mom in a bear hug and gave her a Cheshire Cat grin. She squirmed away to place the cereal bowl in front of me.

“Will you let us dance?” I asked. We only knew two things about his new job: they played disco music and served burgers.

He looked down sheepishly while mom stood there, frozen. “I really don’t like the idea of this,” she said.

Distracted and running late, she needed us out of the way. She donned her white kitty-print nurse’s uniform and brushed her Dorothy Hamill bob instead of readying us with a backpack full of sandwiches and coloring books.

She grabbed me gently by the shoulders, leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Stethoscope and nametag in place, she yelled to us, “Somebody clean out Coco’s litter box,” as she slammed the front door, leaving without a kiss goodbye.

We drove down the 405 freeway for about an hour and got off in Inglewood. Kristen and I were both born there, but now it wasn’t that great of a neighborhood. I made sure my door was locked. We drove down Imperial Highway — it was empty on a Sunday morning. Dad pulled our orange van into a gated parking lot. As the door slid open, I could see airplanes flying overhead and a neon sign. We climbed out of the van and I squinted in the sun to get a closer look at the sign. It had the silhouette of a woman riding atop a plane and the name “Jet Strip.” My sister and I exchanged looks of excitement: maybe he worked at the airport! He parked the van and adjusted his handgun resting in its ankle-strap holster. I decided to leave my Holly Hobbie doll behind.

“Here we are.” We walked to the back of the building. He turned off the alarm, unbolted the door and let us in.

It was like walking into a matinee movie. The place was pitch black. It took my eyes awhile to adjust. I smelled Windex and stale smoke.

Dad held our hands and escorted us in until we could see. He tossed his keys on the bar and turned on the stage lights to reveal a rotating disco ball. Soon the Bee Gee’s Night Fever played over the stereo system.

Kristen and I ran to the stage and climbed up with Dad’s help. We danced on brightly-lit colored floor panels surrounded by mirrors, and laughed as we pointed to where the disco ball reflected on our swaying bellbottoms. We played hopscotch with the colored panels, and our hands squeaked as we swung around the shiny brass pole in the middle of the stage: it was little girl heaven.

Bright blinding sun filled the room as pretty women filtered in one after the other, smiling, laughing and giving us puzzled looks as we carried on. Somehow I thought I could blend in as an adult at the club, I mean I was eight years old after all. That was only two years before double-digit years. But when the dancers arrived, I felt embarrassed. I froze in place, and fumbled off the stage like a little girl.

“Oh girls?” Dad yelled across the club. Kristen and I ran over to the bar and met a tall, thin woman, with perfect blond hair straight out of Alice in Wonderland. She told us her name was Kelly, as she played with our pigtails and asked, “What would you ladies like to drink?”

Unsure of what to order, I asked for milk.

“I’m fresh out of milk. How about two Shirley Temples?” she suggested, and came back with two drinks for us, decorated with umbrellas and maraschino cherries.  “What’s in it?” Kristen asked. I had already slammed down half of mine and asked for another cherry. Dad had his signature tonic water in hand. He was always trying to get me to like it, so I pretended I did.

More women came over to us at the bar; Dad was proud to show us off. We met dancers named Crystal, Amber, Destiny, and I could swear I met one named Jell-O. “Those are their stage names, not their real names,” Dad revealed. I wondered why anyone would want two names.

We grabbed our drinks and followed Dad into the games room in the back corner. It wasn’t at all like the vibrant and crowded video arcade at our local mall. This one was dark, empty and complete with cigarette machine, pool tables and video games. Dad pushed some buttons so we could play “Space Invaders” for free.

I was buzzed from all the excitement, and the chance to experience the adult world. But what was so adult about it? It seemed like the perfect place for kids.

The club officially opened at 11 a.m., as customers trickled in. Dad told us the women were professional dancers. They would each dance to three different songs, but we were only allowed to watch the first. This sent my mind racing — what the difference was between each dance?

Crystal was the first to dance. She wore a long, red rhinestone dress with slits up the side. She looked like a beauty pageant contestant. She slinked onto the stage and danced slowly. Men tossed dollar bills on the stage and applauded when she ended her dance.

As another song started, Dad rounded up my sister and me and herded us through a secret door. The passage led upstairs to an office with wood-paneled walls, beige shag carpeting, a gray metal desk, and a worn out burgundy, pleather couch with gold rivets. There was a TV sitting on a glass coffee table. Along the wall opposite the couch were several security monitors displaying small, fuzzy, blackandwhite views of the parking lot, the bar, the door, and the stage.

A door opened onto the roof, and we joined Dad out there to watch airplanes fly overhead. When we returned inside, he slipped a bootlegged copy of Star Wars into a Beta videotape player.

Dad told us we could eat anything we wanted from the kitchen, and his cook Carl took our order for lunch. We both went straight for the hamburgers with extra ketchup and pickles.

“Don’t watch the security monitors,” Dad said sternly. “I’ll come back up to check on you in a bit.”  We sat on the couch, ate our burgers, and watched the movie, drinking from glasses of Coke garnished with umbrellas.

After lunch we shoved Double Bubble gum into our mouths and read the comics on the wrappers. I ran over to the monitors and Kristen followed me. There was no audio feed, but we could feel Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” vibrating through the floor and walls as a dancer, now topless with high heels and dark hair, swung around the pole. Our jaws dropped; our eyes were glued to the stage monitor.

Carl returned and collected our dishes. “Would you young ladies like a tour of the kitchen?” Actually, I was pretty settled in at the moment, secretly watching naked women dance, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“Sure,” I said. Kristen was silent but followed us back downstairs for a tour of the kitchen.

We stood mesmerized by ice cream and the raw meat hanging in the walk-in freezer. As Carl walked away, we peeked through the order window at the live stage. Kelly came on, wearing high-heeled shoes and a sheer nightgown.

She shimmied out of her nightgown to reveal bright pink sparkling underwear which, as she swung around the pole, I noticed was missing the back. How did she get her underwear to stay on?

The customers whistled, and she seemed to be having fun — dancing around, flipping her hair, legs in the air. As the song ended, Kelly grabbed her clothes and the dollar bills, and scurried off the stage.

“Isn’t she embarrassed?” Kristen whispered to me.

Dad found us in the kitchen and promptly returned us to the office, where we stayed put until he drove us back home.

On the ride home he promised we could visit the Jet Strip again, “Just don’t tell your mother you saw the dancers fully nude.”

We asked questions about the girls being naked in front of an audience.

“They make really good money, that’s why.”

“So are they real dancers like me? Do they take ballet?”

“Yeah, some do have a dance background.”

“Do you feel bad about the dancers being naked?”

“No, sweetheart. The girls make good money, so I make good money, which means I can provide more for our family. Do you understand that?”

“Yes Dad.”

His customers were mostly married, he said, but wanted to look at pretty girls with nice bodies. “Not all women have bodies like that.”

“Why do the men’s wives let them come here?”

“Oh, I doubt they tell their wives, honey.”

As we walked in the front door, John Denver blasted on the stereo, and Mom greeted us with dinner. Kristen and I told her all of our stories. She mostly responded with curt “mhmm’s,” but continued listening.  “Mommy, don’t you want to know who we met?” We told her about Kelly serving us Shirley Temples and Carl grilling us burgers. We left out the naked dancing part because we wanted to go back.

I was afraid to tell her that I was still full from all the food I’d eaten, and tried to finish dinner. Her face was stiff, her eyes weary, but I knew she wouldn’t be mad at us if only she knew how much fun it was. “Girls, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell your friends at school about the Jet Strip, she said.

Kristen and I looked at each other and giggled, trying to conceal our smiles. And that’s when she knew.

After dinner, we ran to play in the backyard, where we put two picnic benches together in a Tshape. I played Barry Manilow’s “Copa Cobana” on our tape player, and Dad introduced us with our new stage names, Holly and Coco, as we walked onto our stage, dancing around.

“Look Mommy, look!” we waved to her in the kitchen window as she washed the dishes. She gave us a halfwave and said “Hi, girls.” Then she bowed her head down to the sink and returned to her work.

I should have known that I was gay a long time before I figured it out. As a young kid I was a fan of Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Woman, and Wonder Woman. I couldn’t see enough Broadway musicals as a teen and took to wearing argyle socks. My favorite movie in the 10th grade was The Little Mermaid and I dreamed of both getting married and honeymooning in Disneyworld. Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” was, and still is, my favorite song to dance to with “It’s Raining Men” running a not-too-distant second.

It wasn’t clear until later that there were millions of others just like me, that I was a walking cliché growing up with gay clues circling all around me; big ones that were the equivalent of head hitting hammers.

I came out in 1994 when I was 20 years old, seven years after I found a man stunningly beautiful for the very first time, or at least the first time I was cognizant of it. Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride made me desperately want to do anything he wished, if he had asked it of me and not Robin Wright. I don’t remember being particularly disturbed about finding a man attractive; it seemed so natural what with his perfect features and all.

The attractions steamrolled from there one after the denied other. As an unpopular teen on Friday nights, I would join my parents when they went over to my aunt and uncle’s house to play pinochle. I did not go because I was a fan of watching card games. No, I went because they had the Playboy channel. As I stumbled across it by accident (and it was an accident) that first time while alone in their den, I quickly started to realize that I was more interested in the pool boy than the bored housewife trying to seduce him. I was watching Playboy for the men and got annoyed when there were half hour specials on the playmate of the month. My time was limited; pinochle did not revolve around the Playboy channel’s programming.

Yes, this should’ve tipped me off.

Or maybe earlier when I insisted on singing the entire Annie songbook during one of my parents’ dinner parties…from “Maybe” all the way to “I Don’t Need Anything But You”. As I had stage fright, I performed from underneath the table so I was not able to see what had to be looks of bored desperation on people’s faces.

Or maybe this should’ve raised some rainbow flags…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could never get into watching football and only saw it as a hindrance to eating dinner at a reasonable hour on Sundays. I was obsessed with women’s gymnastics during the Summer Olympics and figure skating during the Winter ones. I grew up watching WWF wrestling because it was chock-full of drama and shirtless men, not because I could appreciate a well-executed piledriver.

I taped General Hospital everyday while at school starting in the 7th grade so I could watch it at night and cried when [spoiler alert] Tania Jones died. I spent days with the theme song to Jem and the Holograms stuck in my head.

There was the time I helped my mother and other women clear the table during a big family barbecue. One of the adult men constructively commented, “Don’t be a fag.” I didn’t realize that helping to clean signified being gay. Though, people do insist that Mr. Clean is gay, don’t they?

I excelled in my 12th grade typing class, a trait I inherited from my mother who used to say that Typing was the only class she got an A in. The captain of the basketball team sat beside me looking on in envy of my speed. His best bud one row back reassured him that it was only typing. “Dude, it’s for girls.”

Three bullies in junior high knew that I was gay before I did. They called me a fudge-packer every time they saw me. I thought this term referred to my over-weight and fondness of chocolate. I didn’t realize until later that they were being remarkably homophobic at an early age. But what did they see in me that I hadn’t yet?

They weren’t the only ones. When I was 15, I spent six weeks travelling on a teen tour with 35 other teens. One night, one of my friends revealed that some of the girls thought that I might be gay. “Oh,” I replied out loud. “Maybe I am,” I kept to myself. I cannot say that my friend was as calm as I was. He was truly offended on my behalf; he seemingly wanted to defend my honor. Was I making a tactical error by not defending it myself?

For a talent show performance that same summer, my friend Deena and I were going to reenact a song and dance number from One Life to Live. When I saw the look in some people’s eyes as we rehearsed on the bus, I quickly realized that if I went through with it, people would not just suspect that I was gay. So we found an alternative that did not involve the use of jazz hands.

In high school, I concentrated my attraction to men on one classmate in particular who had a reputation for being a ladies man. I flirted, I touched in passing, I made inappropriate propositions…all in jest, of course, but not really. I thought I had a chance (I’m not sure at what exactly) because he was in the drama club and chorus. Then one day he confided in me with a concerned tone that he thought I was bisexual. I quickly retorted that I was just kidding, whatever I did or said I was never serious. This shut me up for good with him. The secret I was keeping from myself almost got out.

During my junior year, I was caught in a love triangle except that the two other parties involved were not in love with me. Laurie and Jake were both my best friends yet hardly friends with one another. I convinced myself that I had a crush on Laurie so when Jake and she started dating, I didn’t take it well. I took it much worse when it felt like Jake was abandoning me to spend more time with Laurie. It didn’t occur to me until years later that Jake was the one I had a crush on. I somehow missed that minor detail.

As a frequenter of Broadway, I often passed by certain kinds of unreputable establishments that could be found on 8th Avenue in the theater district. One in particular always caught my attention because its sign above the door read “Cock Around the Clock”. What in denial gay teen didn’t dream about going to a badly pun-named strip club?

One day I had the occasion to be in Manhattan entirely by myself and so decided to take advantage of my solitude and pursue the fantasy. I was ready to see naked men in real life rather than just on pay cable.

I was positively terrified yet excited. I had no idea what to expect once I entered and had no idea what kinds of other men would be inside. I self-consciously opened the door and was confronted by a steep staircase worthy of a Hitchcock film. Once I made my nervous ascent, I quickly bought my entrance ticket and made my way to the “theater”, barely taking in my surroundings.

I was crestfallen when I entered. I suppose that I imagined a beautifully muscular man dancing in a G-string to the hoots and hollers of good-looking men in the audience. It was 11am on a Tuesday. The audience was empty save for the dirty old man up in the corner. The naked performer on stage was sitting on a chair, touching himself with what smelled like Coppertone 8, and he wasn’t the least bit attractive. I had seconds to decide where to sit and so chose the front row, directly in front of him. Anywhere else, I worried, would’ve been insulting.

There I was, an uncomfortable 17 year old wearing a toggle coat from the Gap, khaki pants, with a book in hand watching a stripper at “Cock Around the Clock”. It was not exactly the moment dreams are made of. Shortly after my arrival, the man put on his G-string (there it was), stepped down from the stage and approached me. Oh God, he sat on my lap.

“I’m just here to observe,” I insisted in a panic. It didn’t even occur to me to bring singles.

“That’s ok,” he reassured me without getting up. “Don’t be so nervous.” He gyrated a bit. “How’s your book?”

I ran. I got up in a flurry spitting out apologies, and fiercely made my way to the exit and flew down that hellish stairway back to the safety of daylight. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t be gay. I wouldn’t be gay. I would stop thinking about men. I would make sure of it.

I should have known; it didn’t stick.

I grew up before Ellen came out on prime time and passed the baton to Will & Grace who helped bring homosexuality to the mainstream. This was before Tom Hanks barely kissed Antonio Banderas, before there were Angels in America, before three drag queens Abba’d their way across the Australian Outback and before Rosie O’Donnell pulled the ole bait-and-switch.

I wouldn’t dare suggest that I grew up in a difficult environment. Compared to many, I had it easy. It’s just that homosexuality was not yet discussed openly and if so, it was certainly never done so in a positive manner. My only gay role model growing up was Jack Tripper and so that doesn’t count.

Yes, certainly, somewhere in the midst of all this confusion I realized that I was gay. I just wasn’t ready to accept it yet. If only I knew then what I do now, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.

All of that being said, one cliché didn’t take; I never cared much for Barbra.