They were intelligent people. A few of them were surprisingly intellectual. They were sweet, caring, loving, hilarious, hopelessly broken people.
The 90s doesn't seem that long ago.
Cincinnati doesn't seem that far away.
But it was a time and place where being queer was dangerous.
"Why do you do it?" I wanted to ask. "Why do you walk down the street, get on a bus, or go to a job interview dressed as a woman when you're clearly a man? Why do you provoke people so?"
I couldn't ask because, although the things they did took a lot of courage, they also required no small portion of delusion.
David denied that he was gay altogether. He maintained that the young man who knocked out six of his teeth and beat him within inches of his life was simply a robber. David died a few years ago of a heart attack that was a complication of morbid obesity. After the violent attack that nearly took his life, he became increasingly depressed and agoraphobic. A mutual friend told me that his weight ballooned as a result. David was a soft spoken, intellectual man who would never hurt anyone.
Lisa bragged about how well she could pass for a woman and insisted on using the women's restroom. She was about 6 feet tall with thick, broad shoulders and a large, square cleft chin. The hormones she was taking were giving her breasts, but she had a bit of a beer belly, so she just looked like a tall, fat man dressed as a woman. She had survived daily taunts, occasional physical attacks, and getting fired from every job she managed to get, only to die of AIDS a few years after I met her.
Gina was the sweetest person you could ever meet. At first, she looked ridiculous to me. A little old man with a large, cartilage-laden nose, impeccably dressed as a very dignified older lady. But within minutes of meeting Gina, you would absolutely fall in love with her. She had a larger-than-life personality, and the biggest heart. She greeted everyone with a hug and a kiss on each cheek, which is not customary in the Midwest. She was happy, gregarious and had the best stories. I always tried not to look too deeply into her eyes so not to impose on the ocean of pain she was trying to conceal. A few years after I met her, Gina was found naked, hog-tied, badly beaten and strangled to death in her closet. My cousin Eli was devastated. He told the police who he thought had done it, but they never really investigated. They didn't bother to hide their complete lack of concern about some old pervert who had probably just gotten what he deserved.
I was just a teenager when I knew these people. I was annoyed with them for risking their lives the way they did. They were wonderful people and I loved them all. Why couldn't they just act normal? Just be themselves behind closed doors? I didn't think that was such an unreasonable thing to expect, I knew plenty of people who did just that.
But the truth was that that's what they had spent most of their lives doing. Pretending to be normal. Trying not to provoke people. They decided that that was no way to live. Especially considering that even while trying to hide who they were, they had all been the victims of unprovoked violence and harassment. I wish I had understood their struggle, their sacrifice, and their heroism when they were alive as deeply as I do today.
I miss all of them terribly. None more so than my beloved Eli.
They all dreamed of one day moving to San Francisco.
The Promised Land of queers.