Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/16/2010

The “It Gets Better” Project, Old Gay Men, and Gloria Gaynor

To Ft. Worth, Texas, City Councilman Joel Burns, I add my thanks for your courage.

If you have not seen his statement to the Ft. Worth City Council on October 12, go to
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax96cghOnY4

"Play Ball!"

"Play Ball!"

My life has been messier, I think, than Councilman Burns’. It still is.

In 1965 I was Chapel Organist at my university, back in the Dark Ages when private universities could require students to attend chapel services. Ours had by that time evolved to a “secular” presentation on Tuesdays and a “religious” service on Thursdays. The university took attendance.

One Thursday the service began with the familiar Protestant Doxology, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” The Church Music Professor instructed me to play it full organ. That was an impressive wall of sound—an enormous organ with four keyboards, French reeds and all. I played the short hymn with all of the power of that organ.

At the end, as the sound reverberated through the cavernous chapel, some student screamed, “Play ball!”

His outburst was, in fact, amusing to most of the 1500 people—except the chaplain, my teacher, the student church music majors, and me. I was so self-absorbed and serious that I could not possibly take it other than as a public put-down of me. Of course, it was not. It was an exuberant and spontaneous reaction by a young man who was forced to attend a religious event he had no interest in which began with a thundering noise out of the blue.

But “It Gets Better!”

It became one of the most important moments of my life.

I wrote a letter to the campus newspaper noting that among the student body were many (yes, I used these words in 1965 and the newspaper printed them) “drama queens and music faggots” learning our craft, and that no other student had the right to make fun of us. I said, as one of the “music faggots,” I resented the demeaning reaction to my playing in Thursday chapel.

I never looked back. The music faculty and my friends were horrified that I had opened myself to ridicule, but I never experienced any ill-effects from my coming out that way. Perhaps my words were so unheard-of at that time that the student body thought I was joking. I don’t know what they thought, but I was dead serious.

I did look back once. A week before my graduation, I married my best friend. I don’t know how she and I thought we could make a life together, but we were ready to try. One simply got married in those days, even if everyone—including his wife—knew he was one of those “music faggots.”

Oh, that Dear Old U of R

Oh, that Dear Old U of R

A couple of differences between Joel Burns and me are worth pointing out. First is that I came out before Stonewall (1969). No one came out before Stonewall. Certainly there was no gay rights movement at that time, nowhere to go for aid and comfort. My favorite professor was fired the year after I graduated because the university discovered he was gay. My coming out was a moment of anger and defiance. Joel Burns—I don’t know him so I may be terribly wrong—does not strike me as an angry or defiant man.

The second is that I have struggled with personal demons that have nothing to do with my being gay. I’d like to give my own promise to LGBT persons with addictions that their lives can get better. Get sober and “It Gets Better.” But that’s another writing for another day.

Just how being gay—as my refrigerator magnet says, “before it got trendy”—addiction, and other unhelpful aspects of my personality that I did not choose (but which I chose not to address for many years) have worked together to get me to where I am now, it’s impossible to sort out. And I don’t particularly care. Where I am now is that I have survived.

NO!

I have more than survived. I’m most likely not the most “happy, joyous, and free” person you’ll meet today. But for fifty years I made music (sometimes brilliantly, sometimes badly) every Sunday and many other times—live music, not iPod music. For the last thirty years I have been a college professor, adjunct, tenured, or contract. But always involved in the process of education. I have a PhD, the highest credential for my profession.

I am successful enough to live independently in my own apartment (it could use an extreme makeover, but I’m not one of those faggots who cares very much about that). I have a pipe organ in my living room. I have three strange, not-very-cuddly cats.

I have had the love of my life—a superbly self-realized and loving man whose death I still mourn.

Oh yes, “IT GETS BETTER.” Better than those high school days when I knew I was gay and had no one—NO ONE—to tell. (Many years later I discovered friends who were in the same situation, and none of us dared tell the others.)

The beginning of “IT GETS BETTER” for me came five years after Stonewall when my wife and I moved to Iowa City for me to earn that PhD. We divorced (eventually we became, in a strange way, each other’s best friend again), and I began to “Work out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). (You’ll have to read other postings here to understand my love/hate relationship with the religious tradition that lies at the heart of my needing to “come out”—the tradition that even today wants me to “go back in.” See Proposition 8, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. etc.)

I’m not greatly invested in “pop culture,” but one of the most fortuitous events in pop culture—and in my understanding of the trajectory of my life—occurred at the end of my time in Iowa City. I had learned (finally) to be comfortable in gay bars, and Gloria Gaynor was the queen of disco. Imagine the charge of energy that went through the gay disco the first time we danced to “I Will Survive!”

No Disco without the ball

No Disco without the ball

The LGBT teenagers who are so at risk today don’t understand Disco, much less the fantastic new-for-us sound of Gloria Gaynor. The words of the song’s verses, about broken love, were only peripherally interesting to me. It was the self-affirmation of the bridge of the song that became a private mantra for me:

I will survive
as long as I know how to love
I know I will stay alive
I’VE GOT ALL MY LIFE TO LIVE
I’ve got all my love to give
and I’ll survive
I WILL SURVIVE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Faf1ch7Q9XE

I HAVE MORE THAN SURVIVED. My friends may be surprised that I have internalized a song so different from what they might expect me to hold onto. Survival has given me the necessary time to enter, most of the time to stumble upon, an interior world that grows and changes privately and—although it perhaps does not appear so to others—joyfully. That’s what I want young LGBT folks to understand about “IT GETS BETTER.” It’s not the success of the material world, but the discovery of one’s private, intimate, conscious self.

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Responses

  1. I had forgotten that any good songs came out of disco. I think I was distracted by motherhood at the time.
    I’m curious how you manage having a pipe organ in an apartment? Are you blessed with pipe organ loving neighbors?

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    • The building was built in the ’50s when buildings were built to last. The floors, ceilings and walls are HARD concrete slabs 6 inches thick. The only sound I ever hear is people talking in the hall. My apartment is located at the corner of an “L,” and I have no neighbors sharing a wall. Almost as if my apartment was made for a pipe organ. The organ is from a practice room at Redlands, built by Steuart Goodwin–his Opus 1. It is 8’x8’x8′, and my living room (it’s actually a loft) has a space exactly that size! When U of R decided they needed the practice room for a faculty office, we jumped at the chance to save it.

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  2. It sounds like a series of blessings.

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  3. Hi, Harold, It’s been a long time since I heard of you. Talked to Linda four years ago after Mom passed away and got a card from Dave at Christmas this year. Haven’t heard from anyone else from the old gang in years. gene

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  4. […] happy is preposterous. I’m pretty sure marrying Jacqueline Bouvier would not have made me happy any more than marrying Ann did. Perhaps there is a similarity between Jack and me—but for different reasons. Even an affair […]

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