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. Once, my mother 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.

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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.

Around the time I turned 16, I realized what might be my BIG PROBLEM. I was a gay, theatrical, angst-ridden teenager, terrified of being what I was. 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.” Being gay was not an easy reality to accept at the time.

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I could not stop the feelings I had for men, so I went to see a therapist. I walked into his office and said, “I want to become straight.” That didn’t work out (obviously). Then I found Dr. Kelly. Sensing that I was scared and nervous, he was very kind and spoke softly. I asked him to make me straight. He grimaced and said, “I can 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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I was getting little help from therapy to “make me straight,” so I kept trying to make it happen myself. In college, I started dating girls, which was torturous. In a pathetic attempt to make myself “normal,” I convinced myself I was surely in love with one particular girl. But the truth is, I found her boyfriend a lot sexier.

I continued through college, trying to date other girls but nothing worked. At the time, I was living in an apartment with a guy. Our walls were really thin and one day, I heard him talking on the phone. After the call ended, he came into my room and said, “I guess you heard that conversation with my parents.” I nodded in shock. He just looked at me and confessed, “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.

Though I had come out to my roommate, I still, vehemently, did not want to be gay. Ever.

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Around 1973, I graduated college and 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 that I found myself listening to everything he talked about. He would talk about 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.

Through him, I saw it possible that being gay didn’t have to feel like a prisoner of quarantine. My attitude towards homosexuality changed quickly, drastically, and forever. It was the first time in my life I felt “right.” Finally. I realized living life was not about being normal or abnormal, but about being who I was.

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With this newfound understanding about life, I felt it was time to come out. I couldn’t live a lie anymore. I told my friend at work first, and then broke up with my girlfriend at the time. I wanted to tell everyone because I was so excited that finally after all these years, I was happy. 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 never stopped loving me.

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I had begun meeting men, and most were nice, fine, okay. But there were no great sparks, no “Hallmark Card” relationships.

In 1985, I visited my sister in Sacramento, California 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. I couldn’t find him in the phone book, so I figured, well, that’s that.

Not long after, I was buying a pair of vintage pants in a store near Chinatown when I heard someone call “Cliff.” I turned around, and there was the guy I had been looking for. We caught up and he started introducing me to some of 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 planned to move to San Francisco to start over. He suggested that he and I should get an apartment and be roommates. I tried to shut down that idea because I didn’t feel we knew each other well enough. 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. A few weeks after that, 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.

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On October 30, 1985, I finally moved to San Francisco into an apartment with Julian, and we’ve been together ever since. There were ups and downs in life, but we always had each other.

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

In the late 90s, I went to grad school in Austin, Texas for an MFA in stage design, something I wanted to do when I was young. Soon after graduation, I found a professor position at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), and we moved to Alabama in 2002.

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. 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 too. Gay people are simply human beings like straight people (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. 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 August 13, 2018.

    | Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |

 

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

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