A White Party? You actually went to a White Party? At your age? And a clergyman?
One of our friends found it difficult to believe that Gary and I had joined at least 2,000 other gay men in a White Party (at least the Atlantis cruise version) on the high seas. Believe it. We were there. Here’s why.
I had recently returned from at least four weeks in S.E. Asia researching and writing with an old friend at a university in Singapore, working with Indonesian gays to help develop an HIV/AIDS prevention program for the rent boys of Bali and visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, being run by a Soulforce volunteer struggling to find support for 62 orphaned &/or vulnerable children. (More about these post retirement projects later).
With little time at home I left Gary again to spend 35 days on The Amazing Race with my son, Mike. (More about that when CBS approves.)
During this recent spate of media interviews, Gary was asked how we have stayed together for 27 years. He replied without a moment’s hesitation: “Because Mel is always gone.” He wasn’t joking. Gary has worked 7 days a week for ten years as Business Director of Soulforce much of that time alone. It was obvious that we needed some quality time together a long way from our office phones and fax machines.
The next thing I knew we were standing on the deck of an Atlantis cruise ship absolutely awed by the site of so many gay men dancing in elaborate white costumes (sailors, firemen, French maids, cowboys and Indians) or bare-chested and even bare-legged wearing nothing more than their tiddy or is it tighty whities.
I had never been to a White Party and knew almost nothing about what happens during those long nights or even weekend celebrations. According to Wikipedia, a white party is “a mega dance event, extending through a night and into the following day…they are typically lavish affairs with elaborate lighting, music, and décor.”
Somebody should add to the article that you may feel underdressed if you join that mainly shirtless crowd without a hard ripped muscular physique displaying pecs, abs, and biceps sculpted by Michelangelo (or by 10,000 hours in the gym.)
On that unforgettable Friday night as we sailed back towards Miami on the Freedom of the Seas, giant woofers pounded out the beat as spotlights pierced the dark skies, klieg lights lit up the deck, a wall of colored lights danced with the music, strobe lights flickered and black lights made those tiddy whities glow.
Gary and I are both “early to bed, early to rise” types, but that night we didn’t return to our cabin until approximately 3:00 am. We stood for hours on a slightly raised deck crowded with dancers right in the middle of 2,000 buff gay men who had abandoned all inhibitions in a kind of tribal celebration of the male body.
At first I felt like an outsider. In fact, I have always felt like an outsider at a dance even at those junior high sock hops or senior high proms. I was raised by parents who saw dancing as “the devil’s play ground.” (Or was it the game of pool that professor Harold Hill condemned before the “good people of River City?”)
Everyone has heard the old joke told about Southern Baptists who “don’t condone premarital sex because it might lead to dancing.” To my Mom and Dad, and to the good people of our home church, sex was bad and never discussed except in warnings about its dire consequences. How many times have I heard sermons about the war of flesh against spirit? If masturbation were a sickness and a sin what eternal penalty would I suffer if I ever yielded to my powerful same-sex desires? How many times during my childhood and youth did I pray for God to “take away these awful, unnatural urges,” to “heal my sickness” and “forgive my sins?”
As a result of all these sex-negative influences, from about the seventh grade I felt a growing shame about my body and its ever increasing desire to make love to my tent mate at the Boy Scout Jamboree or to touch the body of the boy lying beside me on a sleep-over visit. Shame was the result of all those years trying to avoid an erection in the shower room or to pretend I wasn’t turned on by my fellow “thin-clads” on the track team or to keep people from noticing how I stared at the basketball players with their stuff clearly outlined in those silky nylon shorts.
Even long after knowing without a doubt that my homosexual orientation is not a sickness to be healed or a sin to be forgiven; even after realizing at last that being gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) is a gift from God to be accepted, celebrated and lived with integrity; even after two short term boy friends and a long -term loving relationship with Gary I remained a victim of the shame I felt about my body and its secret desires. After a national media tour promoting Stranger at the Gate, after coming out proudly on Sixty-Minutes and Larry King Live, after speaking frankly about my homosexuality at universities across the country I still felt shame when my body acted up.
It’s hard to explain that shame. Here’s an example. I didn’t have the courage to admit even to myself (let alone to Gary) what I really wanted in bed. I couldn’t even acknowledge the fact that I liked those boys in leather and wanted a pair of leather pants myself; that I preferred white silk pajama bottoms (and no tops) to those matching flannel sets my father used to wear; that I liked tight t-shirts, fitted jeans, and Calvin Kline more than Fruit of the Loom underwear (especially silk Calvin Kline low rise briefs); that I liked playful bondage and love making that went on for hours instead of rushing to a climax and turning on Law and Order reruns.
Don’t misunderstand me. During our 27 years together Gary and I did experience our share of great sexual moments; but during all that time I was living in another kind of closet, where I hid my sexual fantasies and didn’t trust my trustworthy partner to accept my desires let alone to understand them. My psychiatrist answered that fear with a very non-directive “bull shit” and a rather pointed promise that Gary could accept and understand my desires if I would just give him the chance.
It was a great coincidence that I came out to Gary during our Atlantis cruise on a ship named Freedom of the Seas. I may be two months into my 70th year; I may be old enough to be the grand father to many of our competitors on this season’s Amazing Race and father to the rest; I may have two great children in their late thirties, a three year old grandson who can beat me at Wii bowling and a beautiful 16 year old grand daughter who knows more about computers than I will ever know; nevertheless for the cruise I packed my favorite tight t-shirt and fitted jeans, my Calvin Kline silk bikini low rise briefs, and even some playful cloth tie-downs and a blindfold. Don’t laugh. We older men dress up fine.
Gary may not have understood where all this retarded adolescence was coming from but he had no trouble accepting my fantasies (and even enjoying them). Apparently I am still on that journey to see my sexuality as another of God’s gifts to be accepted, celebrated and lived out with integrity. Apparently coming out about the sexual fantasies we have locked away in another kind of closet lasts a lifetime. Happily on that gay cruise I took another long step in overcoming the shame I once felt towards my body and its desires.
Right now you might be thinking, “Is this all he’s going to say about White Parties when so many in our community share a growing concern about the proliferation of drugs like ecstasy and the high risk sexual practices often associated with these drugs?”
I admit that I am naïve about the White Party circuit. I’ve only experienced the Atlantis Cruise version. I do worry about the dangerous and ever more exotic drugs that plague our community. I am concerned that this new generation of young gay men, especially gay men of color, seem to be the population where new cases of HIV/AIDS are most rampant. These are important topics that may be the subject of other blogs that I write somewhere down the line. But right now I have no interest in preaching the sermon everyone expects me to preach. I’m only interested in celebrating what happened to me during that cruise and especially during that fateful White Party on the Atlantic.
For awhile we just stood there fascinated by the unfamiliar scene, emotionally moved by the sound and light show that had engulfed us, entranced by the dancers who were moving, touching, massaging and embracing all around us. Then spontaneously I began to dance in place as they were dancing. I put my arm around Gary and moved up and down to the music’s loud beat.
For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like an outsider at a dance. In fact, I was surprised to feel entirely at home with that mass of buff gay men dancing the night away. I would never look like those beautiful young dancers. I could not recover or relive those testosterone years when I too could (but didn’t) dance ‘til dawn. I might never overcome entirely the shame that I had inherited over decades of biblical misuse and psychological abuse. But I knew for certain that though we were from different generations, these were my brothers and in my way I could join them in celebrating my gay sexuality without shame or guilt or fear as they were celebrating theirs.
At least 30 years ago, I was directing a documentary film on the life and times of Ken Medema, a singer, pianist and composer who could sit at the piano and improvise music and lyrics that always moved me deeply. Ken is blind and when I heard him sing his “Dancing with a Stranger” for the first time I had to blink back the tears. I didn’t know why then. I do now. All those years that I was afraid to dance, my Creator was holding out Her hand to me. She created me to dance, to celebrate my sexuality, to enjoy my body and its pleasures. On that cruise I finally took Her hand. Ken sang it this way:
She asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of everyone laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “It just wouldn’t be any good.”
She gently insisted. Finally, I told her I would.
Unforgettable. She was a fresh breath of spring
on a cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. She taught this singer to sing a whole new way.
He asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of saints and angels laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”
He gently insisted. Finally, I told him I would.
And it was unforgettable. He was the coming of spring on a cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. He taught this singer to sing in a whole new way.
The coming of spring, on a cold winter’s day.
Taught me to sing, in a brand-new way.