Thursday, May 24, 2012

Looking back, again

Two weeks ago, I shared a piece here that I wrote about ten years ago about coming out as a disabled, gay man. Here is another look back - my latest column in the Claremont Courier, recalling the Los Angeles riots twenty years ago.


He told me to go to Hell. Actually, what he told me to do is not something I can say here. In any case, it certainly was not what I was expecting.

I had called my friend, because I was concerned, because I wanted him to know I was thinking of him. I had called him to find out if he was okay. After all, the city had gone into chaos, with people setting fires and looting and beating and shooting each other, and my friend was living at the heart of it. I wanted to know that he was safe.

I had gone several times to where my friend was living was his mother in what was then called South-Central Los Angeles. His mother, who spoke only Spanish, was proud of the way she kept her house and had a spectacular garden. The home was essentially an oasis in an area that looked and felt dangerous, an area where, to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone if my friend wasn’t staying there.

My friend knew this. He had spent a lot of time with me in Claremont and knew that where I lived was much different. He knew that what I was used to was much different.

So when I called him two or three days after the L.A riots began with the inexplicable not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating trial on April 29, 1992, my friend more or less slapped me over the phone line and told me to snap out of it. He told me he didn’t need my pity. He told me I had no business calling him, that I had no idea of what was going on there, that I was putting my safe comfort in Claremont in his face.

I had not thought of this phone call in years, but it came back to me, painfully, when I read the series of articles in the Los Angeles Times marking the twenty-year anniversary of the riots. It could well be that there were other things going on with my friend that brought out this anger (when I saw him one or two times after this, there was a marked strain in our relationship), but, as was pointed out in many of the Times articles, the King verdicts and the subsequent civil unrest put the differences between people and between neighborhoods or areas into the sharpest of contrasts.

These differences and contrasts were all too evident. Before the riots, I thought the neighborhood where my friend was living was dangerous enough. When I saw the television coverage of the riots, with the fires burning out of control, with people running through the streets and breaking windows and stealing anything they could grab in stores, with the National Guard rolling in and patrolling the dead streets at night with guns, it was like watching something happening faraway, most likely in another country. With all this violence unfolding, with civil society coming undone before my eyes, it was like watching another world from the comfort of my nice, safe living room.

Except it wasn’t. Not really.

I don’t remember if it was before or after I called my friend, but it was seeing a play at Pomona College that made me see that what was going on in L.A wasn’t so far off. For one thing, my parents and I had tickets for a play at the Mark Taper Forum, but the performance was cancelled - due to “mayhem.”

So my mother and I decided to check out the show here. I also don’t recall - this was, after all and as the Times reminded me with its series, twenty years ago - if it was a department production. It may have been a student production, because the play was written by a student.

The student was an African American young woman, and her play was about growing up in poverty. I remember it being quite powerful and emotional, and, although I don’t remember it being a sad play, I remember that suddenly I was about to cry. I suddenly saw how people could be so unhappy and so angry that they not only lash out but also destroy all that they have. I suddenly saw that this was indeed what was going on in L.A, and this made it not so far away.

As the Times stories made clear, things are now better, if not much better, overall, in Los Angeles. Yes, there is high unemployment and other economic hardships, especially among people of color, but the crucial relationship between the police and the community is significantly improved, and the vast majority of people said that they get along and that it is unlikely that such civil unrest will happen again.

I got another reminder not too long afterwards, when the Northridge earthquake struck, damaging the 10 freeway near Santa Monica and causing its (surprisingly briefer than expected) closure. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure about getting to various activities. Summer was coming - could I get to my favorite beach?

Then, there was the Landrum shooting, involving the Claremont Police Department, several years later, and, now, we are being challenged by the Occupy Claremont activists to look at the homeless in Claremont. No, we here in our small town weren’t and aren’t so faraway.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lost in a bad budget

“‘All we’ve been told is that it’s really bad,’ said Vanessa Cajina, a lobbyist at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which advocates for the poor. ‘Essentially anything in the safety net is up for grabs now.’”

Is this why, after over five months, I still haven’t gotten my new wheelchair? Is this why, after my wheelchair broke down on January 6 while I was out, I am still using a less-than-ideal loaned chair (but thank God I have it!) and still not able to use my Vmax speech device (which I don’t have the mount for attaching to this chair).

Almost every day, it seems, I read newspaper articles about the horrendous shape the California state budget is, and I can’t help but think about how much I rely on it, not only for my wheelchair and health insurance but also, arguably even more importantly, for paying my attendants, allowing me to live independently. The quote above is from an article that appeared in Friday’s Los Angeles Times in anticipation of Governor Jerry Brown unveiling his revised proposed budget. When the critical “May revise” came on Monday, with Brown revealing the tax revenue from April and his proposal for what to do with it, it was every bit as bad as, if not worse than, what was feared. Instead of a $9.2 billion - with a b - deficit, as was estimated in January, the deficit is now nearly double that, at about $16 billion.

There are many explanations and arguments. People aren’t earning and then buying as much, so tax revenue is down. More people than thought are using state services and resources. Democratic legislators want to raise taxes, but Republican legislators are determined to block such attempts. The governor is desperately hoping that voters will approve temporary tax hikes that he has put on the November ballot.

All this doesn’t make the news any easier for me - not to mention I can barely imagine the sums involved. It is no fun always wondering if the cuts that have to be made, even if taxes can be raised, will mean that I can’t get the equipment and services I need to live my life to its fullest and be productive.

It’s also no fun when, as happened last weekend, I saw a friend who uses a power wheelchair using a pick-up truck to get around. I asked another friend how this is done and was told that my friend is taken out of his chair and put into the truck cab and then a board is used to get the chair into the truck bed.

“Why doesn’t he have a van? He should have a van,” I said. Yes, I was mad but not at my friend. I was, and am, angry at our rich society that makes it so hard to get the help that they so clearly need.

Meanwhile, I got a notice in the mail yesterday saying that my Medi-Cal is being terminated, because I didn’t return a form which I didn’t get in the mail. The notice was mailed the day after I mailed back the form I got after discovering the initial mailing got lost.

No, it’s definitely no fun.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Coming out of the past

Back in the Fall, I wrote about going to a P-FLAG meeting in L.A and how it made me miss the P-FLAG chapter that used to be in Claremont when I came out. It also made me remember a piece I wrote that was published in the chapter’s newsletter, and I thought about sharing it here but couldn’t find it. Then - as always happens, right? - when I was looking for another paper a couple weeks ago, I came across the newsletter. You can read the piece as it was published in the summer of 2001 below.

A short note: At the time, I was using a small voice synthesizer called a LightWriter, which was attached to my chair and consisted of a keyboard and a one-line screen. Unlike the device I now have, it required that I actually type, which ultimately proved to be too laborious, tedious and tiring.


When I attended my first P-FLAG meeting two and a half years ago, I was terrified. In fact, I went only on the condition that my friends Jim and Alan would be attending. I needed them there for support, if not to hold my hand.

Part of my concern had to do with how folks would deal with my impaired speech, even with my use of a speech synthesizer. I face this whenever I encounter people who don’t know me or aren’t used to conversing with me. A bigger fear was in saying, “Hi, I’m John, and I’m gay” in a public setting. I had come out a month or two earlier, and I was now announcing it for all to hear. This is a huge step and scary for many P-FLAG newcomers, but it was scarier for me, because I was afraid people would say, “Yeah, right!”

In addition to having impaired speech, I use a wheelchair. Having Cerebral Palsy, I am disabled - “severely disabled” is how it has always been put - and have been all my life. Although I had had vague sexual feelings and yearnings, I never saw myself in a sexual relationship, and I was never treated as if I would (or could) be, presumably because of my disability. Now, suddenly, at the tender age of 39, I found myself in a sexual relationship, and, in coming out, I wasn’t only saying that I’m a gay man; I was proclaiming myself to be a sexual being.

Although it was and is a great joy to say this, I feel that I was and am taking a real risk when doing so, not only in the straight world but also, and perhaps even more so, in the gay community. I have always loved dancing, but I have always been wary of dancing in bars or clubs, for fear I might freak people out (“Oh, he’s having a seizure!”).

Likewise, I didn’t and still don’t go to gay bars and clubs. I didn’t and don’t want to deal with the “What are you doing here?” stares and the “You think I’d want you?” laughter. (I’ve realized that this is why I didn’t come out five and even eighteen years ago.)

Real or not, these were the messages I got. Shortly after attending my first P-FLAG meeting, I began attending a local gay men’s conversational group. Although I was welcomed - it was an open group, after all, and there were rules about everyone being allowed to speak and not putting anyone down - it was clear to me that I was not wanted there. I went nearly every Thursday evening for the better part of a year, but it was a chore, and I only realized more and more that I didn’t look forward to going. I once had my former boyfriend attend, and he spoke quite movingly and in some detail about being with me, but it didn’t help. I still wasn’t one of those sexually active gay men, that is, if I was even gay. “What are you doing here?” was still the message I got.

In the past year and a half, as I have continued to attend Claremont P-FLAG meetings, if on a sporadic basis, I have become involved with several other groups with much more success. Two of these are the Moon Circle, a L.A area of the Radical Faeries, and, just recently, the California Men’s Gathering. Although my first meetings were still terrifying, I have found the mostly gay and bisexual men in these groups to be, for the most part, quite friendly and warmly accepting. There are still awkward pauses and side glances, and I do wish that I didn’t have to travel so far to participate in the many and varied activities, but I deeply appreciate these groups’ commitment to openness and diversity.

This isn’t to say that all is nice and easy. There have been plenty of times when I’ve had to get on these guys’ cases, rattle their cages, to remind them that I’m there and to accommodate and assist me. However, I sense that they mean well and that, for the most part, they are trying, and there is always the guy like the guy at a recent clothing-optional pool party who, without my saying anything, offered to and was not afraid to take me into the pool.

And there are still times when all my cage rattling doesn’t help. At the California Men’s Gathering over Memorial Day weekend, I read a poem of mine at the talent show. The poem is about my body, about how my body is sexual and desirable despite being crippled and contorted, and the reading was a dramatic one. A friend read it along with me, and, for the first time, I read it as I meant it to be read when I wrote it a few years ago - in the nude. For me, and most of the 250 or so men in the hall, it was a profoundly powerful experience and one of celebration.

I say most, because, as my attendant told me later, a man came up to him in the restroom afterwards and said that my reading was “the saddest part of the show.”

“Man,” my attendant said, looking at the guy as he left the restroom, “you’re missing the point. You just don’t get it.”

He doesn’t. And it’s his loss.