I couldn’t believe that I had actually been granted permission to go and pick up Dad without a chaperon. Driving alone in San Francisco for the first time since joining the New Hope program was exhilarating. Treks into the city without a member of leadership present had been explicitly forbidden. And now here I was, enjoying a sense of freedom I hadn’t experienced in months. I glanced at my watch and quickly calculated how much time I had before I needed to be at the airport. I had about an hour and a half before Dad’s plane landed and since I was only about fifteen minutes or so away from the airport I figured I had at least an hour to spare.
Should I dare venture into the unknown? I could feel a multitude of butterflies taking flight in my stomach and my heart raced a million beats a minute as I contemplated making the slight detour into San Francisco’s gay district or as Jake referred to it – the den of iniquity – a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
As I continued to travel south down 19th Avenue, I spotted an Arco station up ahead and decided to stop and ask for directions to the Castro. I hesitated for a bit before finally heading inside where I grabbed a coke and snickers bar. After I paid the small bald man behind the counter he hurriedly scribbled the directions onto the back of my receipt while anxiously eyeing the line of customers behind me. Once inside my truck I immediately ejected the cassette that had been playing. Somehow listening to Christian music right now seemed blasphemous. And truthfully I was afraid Amy Grant’s words would cause me to change my mind.
It didn’t take me long to get there. I knew I had arrived once I saw brightly colored rainbow banners hanging from the street posts. After driving in circles for what seemed like an eternity, shocked by the sight of men strolling hand in hand along the busy sidewalks, I eventually found a parking space. My visit was brief. After walking just a few short blocks, it didn’t take me long to realize that Jake was right. The shop I passed with dildos and whips and chains hanging from its windows disgusted me. It all seemed so wrong – so perverse – and I wanted no part of it. I practically ran to the safe confines of my truck, muttering a quick prayer of forgiveness as I hurried along; and then headed to the airport as fast as I could – trying hard to forget what I had just seen. Little did I know then that just a couple of years later, I’d be celebrating Halloween amidst those vibrant streets, dressed in full regalia as Glenda the good witch, gently tapping my scepter onto the heads of cute boys as they passed by, seductively looking into their eyes, whispering, “there’s no place like MY home.”
Since that first encounter with San Francisco’s gay district, I’ve learned that the kinky shop on Castro Street is not representative of the gay community at large, but rather just a small snippet of a culture that is both complicated and beautiful. I’ve learned that the gay community is mostly made up of average Joes who enjoy lives very similar to their straight counterparts. We go to work, come home, make dinner, and enjoy relaxing evenings with our partners. We too enjoy loving, monogamous relationships that span years – decades. We enjoy dinner parties on the weekends, we go hiking, and we go to movies. We volunteer. We go to church. Contrary to what I was being taught, the vast majority of gay men lead very “normal” lives. We are not a bunch of sex-crazed perverts . . . but that’s what the leaders of New Hope wanted us to believe. So it only seemed natural that the sex toys hanging in the window were the first thing to grab my attention.
I arrived at the gate with a half hour to spare, nervous as hell, not knowing how the weekend ahead would pan out. I saw him before he saw me. He was tanned, sporting a plaid polo, tan shorts, and sandals. Only twenty years my senior he looked young and healthy. We could have easily passed for brothers. Once he caught sight of me he broke into a big grin, “How ya doin’ son?”
“Good man . . . but gotta admit I’m feelin’ a little anxious about the weekend. I really hope you feel comfortable with the other guys and their families. It means a lot that you came all this way.” My words felt stilted and I became extremely self-conscious. I was afraid that Dad and I would quickly run out of things to talk about and that our time together would be filled with long periods of awkward silence. It had always been difficult – for me at least – to find a commonality between us that kept conversation flowing easily. “Hope you brought some warmer clothes. It can be cold in the city this time of year.”
“Yah, I packed some long pants, a sweat shirt, and jacket. Hopefully that’ll do it.”
“Should be fine . . . So how was the flight?”
“Flight was good. The woman sittin’ next to me was a little plump. Damn, they make the airplane seats so small nowadays. . . but hey, nothing Jack couldn’t help me deal with.”
We walked in silence toward baggage claim. After we retrieved Dad’s suitcase and stepped outside the terminal, the dense fog wrapped its damp arms around us, and Dad declared, “Holy shit son you weren’t kiddin’ – it’s August for God’s sake. What’s up with this weather?”
“Welcome to San Francisco! Don’t worry it’ll be at least fifteen degrees warmer in San Rafael. One of the many strange phenomena about the Bay area is its micro-climates. Ten miles can mean the difference between a t-shirt and a coat.”
Dad did most of the talking on the way to San Rafael. It was his first time visiting San Francisco, and as a tourist, every sight elicited a comment. My silence was broken by his occasional question. Once we crossed the Golden Gate I suggested we drive up into the Marin Headlands and pull into one of the parking lots with an impressive view of the city. The fog was thick and only the very tops of the towers of the bridge were visible. The downtown skyline was completely enshrouded. All Dad could say was, “Wow.”
Once we arrived in San Rafael, we stopped at Taqueria San Jose, a hole in the wall Mexican joint hidden underneath the 101 Freeway. We ate our enormous al pastor burritos in silence, and then headed to the small motel where Dad was staying. Once we got him checked in and settled, he pulled out his hidden stash of Jack Daniels from his suitcase. “Wanna drink?”
As much as I would have loved to join him, I politely declined. I didn’t bother telling him that I couldn’t partake because of the program’s strict rules prohibiting the use of alcohol. Dad channel surfed until he found ESPN. As he sipped his Jack and coke, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “lucky bastard.”
“Hey, Dad, I gotta head back to the house, take care of a few things,” I lied. Truth of the matter is I didn’t have a thing to do except retreat into my shell and process all that was going on. I dreaded the evening ahead. “The barbeque at Frank and Anita’s place starts at seven. I’ll pick ya up about six-thirty, k? And Dad. . .?”
“Yeah son. What’s up?”
“Is this weird for you? I mean . . . well . . . what’s going on in your head right now?”
He looked at me with an expression of both empathy and amusement, “You worry too much. Just relax. All that’s going through my head right now is that I love you, and I want you to be happy. I’ll always support you no matter what.”
Photo credit: Jamison Wieser via Flickr, cc.
L.T. MILLER was born in a small southern town. While in college, he became involved in ex-gay support groups, and in 1996 was accepted into the New Hope Ministries residential program in San Rafael, CA. During his two year stay, he questioned everything until finally he completely abandoned a misguided ideology that made less and less sense. He found a gay church in San Francisco where he was accepted for who he was, and with the loving support of a lesbian pastor he was able to begin life anew as an openly gay man. L.T. Miller is the Ex-Gay Survivor.