LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO MY BIG-HAIRED BOSS WHO MADE ME COME OUT DOOR TO DOOR
BY GREG MARSHALL
I’ve always done voices at home: the robot sister from Small Wonder, Jane Pauley from Dateline, Karen Walker from Will & Grace. I spoke in a British accent for most of junior high, calling my parents mutha and fatha or mum and pup, sometimes when just my family was around and sometimes when my brother had friends over.
The thing about a voice is that it takes you over. Once you start talking like that you can’t stop, even when you really want to. That summer, I found myself doing you.
“Theenk you, sweetie,” I’d tell my brother when he finally left the bathroom or my dad when he piled my plate with stir fry from the grill. “Awesome, awesome, awesome! This looks so yummy, babe! Yahoo!”
Out for all of two months, I landed the job as your intern at the Don’t Amend Alliance because your first intern had walked out on you during Pride. Plus, my family had a Jeep that could fit lawn signs in the back.
Don’t Amend was part of the campaign to oppose defining marriage as between one man and one woman in the Utah constitution. If passed, Prop 3 would outlaw same-sex marriage as well as anything like it: domestic partnerships, civil unions. We talked more about wills, power of attorney, medical visitation, taxes, inheritance and child support that summer than we did gay marriage. Don’t Amend’s carefully chosen slogan was “It Goes Too Far.”
This also became my slogan for you. You were like a boss from a blooper reel: bizarre, tragic, easy to play for laughs. There was a staggering and rarified air of complete self-unawareness about you. I was jealous of it. I didn’t know words like “appropriation.” Within the first few minutes of meeting you, though, I was struck by the sense that you had joined the fight for marriage equality to, I don’t know, make your parents mad? You reminded me of the Mormon girls in high school who slummed with skaters, but only so they could talk about it at ministry on Sunday. Were you G, L, B, T? Q? Nah. You only referred to yourself as an ally.
You dressed like Divine on laundry day, rolling your jeans at your waist, your hair pulled into a greasy ponytail. You could finish off a rack of Oreos in your small front office, this after your perfeect, wonderful, amazeen boyfriend had already brought you Arby’s. Your favorite hobby was collecting twisty straws that looped and corkscrewed Diet Coke to your small, puckering lips. “You know what they say. Three mills a day and a glass of melk!”
At the end of your workday, usually around three, you’d flip off the lights in your office and, with a big wave, tell me to have a divalicious day. People were still talking about the show you put on at the Golden Spike’s closet ball, where you wore a zoot suit, jacket slung over your shoulder, and drew a goatee on your chin in Magic Marker. Your alter-ego: Kash.
Don’t Amend was located a few blocks from Temple Square. It sat above a dress shop called Latter-Day Bride and looked, I’d think in later years, like a small-town gay bar with the lights turned on. Desks were piled with banners, pins, envelopes, rolls of stickers. The place always felt empty—there were more offices than full-time staffers—though we had our share of semi-unemployable volunteers milling about, too, including me: a teenager in high cotton socks with a shag made of Sun In and chlorine as much as hair.
A sense of humor about it all would come later: the boyband-loving returned missionary who told me I looked like Lance Bass, the bearded hippie in rainbow suspenders who always needed a ride, the potbellied massage therapist who was in a sham marriage with his best friend. “She lives in Arizona, but it works out because she has a job at Southwest and I have a season’s pass to Disneyland.” It was good I’d come out before having a boyfriend, he said, looking me up and down. “Otherwise, when you break up, it’s back in the closet. I’ve seen it a million times.”
The only other kid my age in the office was obsessed with horses and so bitchy he managed to look mean while licking envelopes.
“These people are just too weird for me,” I’d tell my mom when I got off work, and then I’d make her take me to the Estée Lauder counter at the mall like she’d promised, and if we happened to stop by the naughty card store on 900 South to try on pink boas or buy shot glass that read “YBU” and “I heart SLUT” —then so be it.
My days were filled with signups and scheduling, data entry and leaving phone messages asking for donations. Thursday nights and Saturday mornings consisted of knocking on doors and talking blithely about my sexuality to strangers. I was nervous putting a Vote No on 3 sign in my parents’ front lawn in Holladay and even more nervous donning one of the campaign’s bright yellow T-shirts to canvass Salt Lake’s Pioneer Day Parade.
I had come out to my friends and family over spring break and now here I was with a clipboard, handing out pamphlets among the Mormons who had come to cheer the procession of handcarts, marching bands and covered wagons. When women in bonnets waved from the back of pickup trucks, I waved back at them.
Not everyone was happy to have us there. I remember one gal saying that denying me the right to marry was a wonderful idea. Some parade goers told me that if I wanted to marry a man, they’d go ahead and propose to goats and sacks of flour. A ruddy guy in a trucker hat asked if my parents knew I was out there, like shame alone might get me to go away. It probably would have if you hadn’t been by my side.
“How’s it goeen, sir?” You had done your hair up big, painted your nails, even slipped on a fake wedding ring for the parade. “Are you haveen a super awesome, amazeen wonderful Pioneer Day? Isn’t it nice that the sun is shine-een?”
It was strange putting myself out there like that before I’d so much as kissed a guy, and I wondered why I was doing it, this awful work of telling people I was gay again and again. Who was I fighting for? The fast boys back at college who couldn’t bother to friend me on The Facebook? I was pretty sure I’d never marry anyway.
In the fall, a few months after I returned to Chicago for my sophomore year, Prop 3 passed by a wide margin and President Bush won a resounding electoral victory. I watched John Kerry’s concession speech in the basement of the student union, eating a tuna sandwich. According to conventional wisdom, the success of marriage bans like the one I had fought had cost him the White House. They had gone eleven-for-eleven across the country.
I was taking a lecture course called Gay and Lesbian History in America that quarter. Most of the material had been jubilantly affirming: bathhouses, cruising, imaginative uses of Crisco. Plato liked guys, Native Americans revered cross dressers as multi-spirited shamans and Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with another man for most of his twenties.
The post-election lesson was more somber. We could debate the merits of marriage as an institution all we wanted. We just couldn’t take part in it.
For class that day, Professor Fenrich slid red and blue transparencies on the overhead projector and pointed out that Bush’s victory map had the same contours as the Confederacy. He turned out the lights and told us that we were going to watch a documentary about San Francisco’s first gay city council member, a man with the funny name of Harvey Milk.
I thought of how you’d say it: Melk.
Sitting in the lecture hall, my stupid summer of clipboards and pamphlets and having doors shut in my face took on new significance: Harvey Milk talked about the necessity of coming out and I had. I’d come out to my parents and high school friends, to the lady who worked at the naughty card store and to the one at the Estée Lauder counter. I’d come out at concerts, rodeos and arts festivals. I’d come out because I knew people like you would have my yellow-shirted back. Some days that would mean phone banking and knocking on doors and other days it would mean sitting in a quiet office above a bridal shop, sharing a sleeve of Oreos and waiting for other volunteers to trickle in after a long, hot parade. Your voice may have irritated me that summer, but imitating it gave me the courage I needed to find and use my own. Theenk you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Marshall’s work has appeared in Best American Essays and been supported by the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. He is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and lives in Austin, Texas with his husband. Find him on Twitter @gregrmarshall and on the web at gregrmarshall.com.
Header photograph by Jaxon Lott.