My Own Kind of Normal

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| This is the 115th story of Our Life Logs |


I was born in 1951 and raised in New York City. I was always considered a weird kid, which didn’t sit well with my Jewish parents who desperately wanted everything in life to be “normal.” I didn’t play sports or have masculine interests, I was scared, obnoxious, and to top it off, I was overweight. My mom had to buy me specially made husky pants, something so embarrassing to me at that age. My mom used the term “normal” a lot in my childhood. Once, she asked me, “Why can’t you be normal like the other boys?” I wanted to know, too. Why couldn’t I?

5Me and my sister Rona, dressed for the costume party in the Catskills, 1956
My sister Rona and me (right) dressed for a costume party in the Catskills, 1956.

I didn’t develop self-confidence as an adolescent because I didn’t like myself. I felt like people were always judging me when I walked down the street, because of course, that was what I was doing to other people. I’ve gotten a lot better since then, though it’s something I’ll be working on all my life.

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My father died from a heart attack when I was 13, right after my Bar Mitzvah. I never really got to know him, and his death left a big hole in my life. I didn’t have a male role model, which made me feel even more different from other kids, and I retreated within myself.

6My mother-father-Rona and me Washington DC July 1959.jpg
My family and I from a trip to Washington in 1959, about 5 years before my father passed.

It was during this time that I discovered theater. My mom always took us to Broadway shows as kids, and I fell in love with theater and especially set designs. When I was 14, I joined a theater group where I designed sets and lights and acted (badly). Theater became my place, and doing it, my passion.

Around the time I turned 16, I realized what might be my BIG PROBLEM. I was gay. At first, it was exciting, yet it was mortifying at the same time. I would masturbate to men at night, but I felt cursed and that I was a really sick person. I felt like an abomination.

I was a theatrical, angst-ridden teenager, terrified of being what I was. Instead, I tried to suppress it. I tortured myself with terrible thoughts. I would write myself notes saying things like, “if you masturbate over a man again, you should die.” I’d place notes like these all over, especially in my socks. I wanted to be reminded of how bad of a person I was for feeling that way. Being gay was not an easy reality to accept at the time.

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I could not stop the feelings (thank god) I had for men, so I went to see a therapist around 1967. I walked into his office and said, “I want to become straight.” I remember him looking at me, confused, then asking, “Well, how do you know you’re gay?” I told him that I couldn’t stop having sexual fantasies about men. He told me, “Well, everyone does that.” I wasn’t convinced. I became hysterical and he tried to calm me down. The doctor wanted to prescribe me Quaaludes, a drug meant to calm me down and produce a feeling of euphoria, but I didn’t want any drugs; I wanted to be straight.

I went to another therapist, Dr. Kelly, with a much gentler approach. I think he sensed that I was scared and nervous. He was very kind and spoke softly. I asked him to make me straight. He grimaced and said, “If you want me to make you straight, I’ll help, but I just have to tell you that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay.” It didn’t inspire me to change because I was still so buried in self-hatred, but I’m forever thankful he said that to me. In retrospect, hearing that had a profound effect on my life.

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My mother wanted me to major in pharmacy in college, and I did for the first year at SUNY Buffalo because I tended to do what she said. After my first year, though, I switched to graphic design. Meanwhile on the gay front, I was getting little help from therapy to “make me straight,” so I kept trying to make it happen myself.

I was dating girls, which was torturous. In a pathetic attempt to make myself “normal,” there was one girl that I’d convinced myself I was surely in love with. But the truth is, I found her boyfriend a lot sexier than she. Forced into a corner from my kvetching (Yiddish for complaining), she forced me to ask her to marry me, and thankfully (again, in retrospect), she said no. When I wasn’t inflicting drama for myself, I was experiencing it from others.

I continued through college, trying to date other girls but nothing worked. I was living in an apartment with a guy that was going to school to be an actor. He and I had become good friends. In my senior year, I overheard him having a conversation with his parents. Our walls were really thin, and it was impossible not to hear that he was confessing to his parents that he was gay. He was dramatic too. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him but from my perspective at the time, he made it seem so easy. He came into my room and said, “I guess you heard the conversation I just had.” I nodded in shock. He just looked at me and said, “I’m gay.”

Somewhere within myself came the words, “So am I.” Having those words exit my mouth for the first time felt like a giant weight had been lifted.

He asked me if I had sexual feelings toward him. When I told him no, he got really upset and ran crying to his room. I felt guilty (a Jewish trait), so I went to him and said, “Well, sometimes,” which was totally not true, but I wanted to make him feel better. But 20 minutes later, realizing what I did, I told him that I’d lied and that I wasn’t, after all, attracted to him. He cried more and then, a short while after moved out.

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Though I had come out to my roommate, I still, vehemently, did not want to be gay. Ever. Freaked out about what people would think, I started dating a girl. She wanted to have sex, but I, definitely, did not. I am not proud nor happy that I’ve hurt many people in the process of trying to accept myself. But sometimes life was like that, when I stumbled through it, trying to be something that I wasn’t meant to be.

After college (around 1973), I started working in the Empire State Building doing graphic design. A coworker who was openly gay, was so smart, funny, and confident with his sexuality and I found myself listening to everything he talked about. He wasn’t proselytizing homosexuality. Rather, he was just talking about his life in the most appealing, humorous, also meaningful way. He made it look easy, accepting his gay existence. It completely altered my very distorted view of what it was all about.

He spoke about everything, so one day I would hear about all his excursions to the baths, and the next day he would talk how the core of the gay life (no different from the straight life) was love. Loving a man. That had never even entered my consciousness before. I just thought being gay was about abnormal sex. The more we talked, the more my fears about being gay began to soften. Being around this good man made me realize that maybe being gay was not the death sentence I’d thought it was.

My mother had instilled in my sister and me, that love, above all, was the purpose of life. I thought that falling in love couldn’t ever happen to me, because not only did I feel not capable of living or of being loved, but also, of course, because I was gay, AKA sick. But the more I heard my new friend speak, the information was quickly seeping in that this was what I had been waiting for, but never expecting in my life. He became my gay mentor insofar as his information fed my hungry soul. Through him, I saw it possible that being openly gay didn’t have to feel like a prison like I had convinced myself of. My attitude towards homosexuality and my life changed quickly, drastically, and forever. It was the first time in my life I felt “right.” Finally. Being gay, I realized, was not about normal or abnormal, but about being who I was.

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With this newfound understanding about life, I broke up with my girlfriend in 1974 the night I was supposed to meet her grandmother for the first time. I really loved the girl, and I felt bad about doing it to her, but I couldn’t live a lie anymore. That’s what any continuation of that relationship would have been. It was time to come out. I told my friend at work first, then my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider how it might affect her at the time, because I was just so excited to finally have come to terms with who I was. I wanted to tell everyone because I was so excited that finally after all these years, I was happy. I realized, I could have felt that all my life, but I just didn’t have the right information about being gay. I had heard the good news and there was no turning back. Jeez. I, morose me, felt happy!

I expected everyone would be just as excited as me, and some were. It didn’t come as a surprise to a lot of my friends. But not everyone thought this was a good thing. My newfound acceptance of my sexuality came as a tremendous shock to my mother. Having a gay son is not really a Jewish mother’s dream. But in my family, you have to love your kids no matter what. And she always had loved me.

I had begun meeting men, and most were nice, fine, okay. But there were no great sparks, no “Hallmark Card” relationships. In 1983, I started working as a freelancer designer for a Jewish organization (which was like working for my family). I made great friends and (amazingly) fell in love with a guy I worked with. It was almost like a dream come true for me. For him? Not so much.  Determined to find that love I craved and have deprived myself of for so long, I continued pursuing him even in the face of a doomed relationship. I was, as usual, very dramatic about it. I felt like I had to get out of New York to get away from all the pain. The Jewish phrase “oy vey” comes to mind. In 1985, I visited my sister in Sacramento for a couple weeks. One day, I took a bus to San Francisco, and I was going to call a guy I used to work with at the Empire State Building. I couldn’t find him in the phone book, so I figured, well, that’s that.

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Not long after, I was buying a pair of vintage pants in a store near Chinatown when I heard someone call “Cliff,” and I turned around, and there was the guy I had been looking for. He started showing me all around San Francisco and introducing me to all his friends. On August 16th, he made plans for another friend, Julian, to meet us at a store on Polk Street. I do remember the moment I heard the bell on that store’s door jingle, I turned around and looked, and there he was. When I think back, what I remember was not that I thought, “OH WOW, THAT IS THE GUY FOR ME,” but for a brief second, there was something of my father’s gentleness in him. The three of us got coffee and talked, and I got Julian’s number. The next morning, before I headed back to Sacramento, I called him up to ask him to breakfast. He said, “Who is this?” I said, “Cliff.”

He said, “Cliff who?”

To this day, he insists he was joking, but I don’t think so. In any case, we had breakfast and talked a lot. I told him I’d made up my mind to move to San Francisco. He suggested that he and I should get an apartment and be roommates. I tried to shut down that idea because I wanted to be alone. He kept pushing it, so I told him that if he could find an apartment with a Julia Child kitchen and a Maxfield Parrish view, I’d agree.

A few days later, I went back to New York. After a few weeks of being back, Julian called me to say he’d found a place.

“It has a great view. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of kitchen Julia Child would want, but it’s a nice kitchen.”

I made plans to move to San Francisco two months later. During those eight weeks, Julian and I began writing letters to each other. There wasn’t any email yet, so we wrote letters or talked on the phone. Julian wrote me really beautiful letters talking about the beauty of San Francisco, and I began to see what a gentle soul he was. My letters were pretty nice too, and in that two-month period between letters and phone calls, we fell in love. It makes sense that it happened this way for me because I had been so self-protective my whole life.

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So on October 30, 1985, I finally moved to San Francisco into an apartment with Julian, and we’ve been together ever since. Six months later, we moved back to New York after Julian fell in love with the city after a visit. It was a great time to live there until crime had become a bigger problem. After we got mugged one day, we decided to move. In 1993, we moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the late 90s while in Santa Fe, after years of self-loathing, the trauma of which was still inside me, I realized I had to get help to stop my excessive drinking and to restructure my life. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and it was just amazing. It’s taught me how to live a better life, and ultimately led to my decision to grad school for an MFA in stage design, something I wanted to do when I was younger, but didn’t.

8Julian and me, Santa Fe, 1993
Julian and I in Santa Fe, 1993.

In 1999, I got into a great design program at UT Austin. Soon after graduation, I found a professor position at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB). We moved to Alabama in 2002 and have been there ever since. I can honestly say that I’m still in love with Julian as much as I was in 1985. We’ve lived a happy life together where we follow each other’s ambitions. When gay marriage became legal in New York, we got married, but it didn’t feel any different for us (though we loved our wedding). We had been committed to each other for decades by that point. Our relationship didn’t change by the piece of paper. We already knew we were invested in each other for life. But I’ll tell you, there is nothing so sweet to me as two grooms on a wedding cake.

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I believe that the day I came out, I started living. It is not just a statement, coming out of the closet. It is entering a world full of possibility, honesty, humanity and love, and as Lin-Manuel Miranda said so eloquently in Hamilton, “Love is love is love is love.”

I also learned a big lesson, which is that coming out did not solve all the problems of my life, like I was expecting it to. Gay people are simply human beings like straight people are (well, we’re funnier maybe), and we’re prone to life’s curve balls as much as anyone else.

It’s not just about being gay, it’s about being honest. When you’re honest, you can succeed in all parts of your life. I was allowing myself to be deprived of happiness because I was worried about not being “normal.” I see now that being normal is different for everyone, and my version of normal is very nice.

 

9Julian, me and my best friend John, Birmingham 2003-Painting is one I did of my mother Lil
Left to right: Julian, my best friend John, and me. Behind us a painting I made of my mother, 2003.

Section Break

This is the story of Cliff Simon

Cliff is a Professor of Scene Design at UAB and lives in Alabama with his husband Julian. After years of growing up deep in the closet, Cliff found the courage to come out after seeing the confidence of an out and proud coworker which in turn helped him learn to love himself and find love. Cliff has done so many wonderful things in his life that it all couldn’t fit within our format. Before UAB, he had been a graphic designer in New York, and a well-known cake designer creating edible painted cakes for many celebrities including Madonna, James Taylor, and Diana Ross. He wrote and published a book about these experiences. You can learn more about his cakes here: http://www.cliffcakes.com/

These days, Cliff doesn’t do as many cakes because he’s focused on teaching and designing.

Cliff also designed the original off-Broadway production of Fame (in its pre-Broadway run at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre). He’s designed at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, at the Cleveland Play House and has done shows for Zach Theatre in Austin as well as for the Riverside Theatre in Florida, the Walnut Street Theatre in Philly, and many more. Recently his design for Les Mis and Grease has toured to Los Angeles, Fairbanks, Alaska and several other cities around the country. Cliff doesn’t give himself much free time because he loves working so much, but he has rediscovered reading thanks to his husband who loves to read. He loves teaching students about set design and is happy that he decided to be honest with himself in his early 20s. He feels his life gets better with each passing year.

11Me and Julian 72 Birthday 2014
Cliff and Julian, 2014.

 

 

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This story was first captured by the VideoOut team on June 5, 2016 and completed by Our Life Logs on July 26, 2018.

    | Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Adam Savage; Colleen Walker |

 

You can listen to Cliff’s retelling at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbcOt20lcpE

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