Weeks before graduation from my small-town high school in the spring of 1975, I was caught by a state trooper having sex with another man in the woods of Maine.
We were minors, exploring our sexuality in the back seat of a Volkswagen bug. The implications surrounding this event changed my life and the lives of many around me forever. No legal issues came of it, surprisingly, yet on a social and cultural level the world began to change very quickly.
The trooper radioed in his discovery and word got out quickly that I was queer. A few days later at my graduation party, in front of 150 or so friends and neighbors, and for all to hear, the town bullies stopped me at the door and screamed, “get out faggot!”
What could one do but leave and fast? I lost most of my friends (whether by guilt by association or fear of the unknown). Someone tried to run me off the road. Incessant hang-up calls were made to my home in the middle of the night, waking my folks. Co-workers spoke no more unless by necessity. Friends disappeared.
I had to tell my mother what was happening, and I needed her help. I cried as I spoke the words, “I’m a queer.” She handled it well, thankfully, and was helpful in getting me out of town. She told my father a lie about the need to start school for the summer session to get a jump on academics. He wouldn’t have understood or handled the issue well.
My confiding in her brought us more emotionally close than ever. We had always talked and shared personal stuff, as I was a bit of a mama’s boy, the fourth of six kids. I was the “good one;” she was my angel.
Ten years passed, I owned one of the priciest hair salons in the city, I styled local TV news people, politicians, high-end clientele. I was out, comfortable in my skin and proud of what I had accomplished. I also began a meditation and spiritual practice in 1983.
I decided to return to my hometown for the high school reunion in 1985. It was a bit weird; just a few of the girls that I used to skip school with spoke with me. One said that night, “I want to hang out with the fag!” Those women were happy to see me, as I was to see them, and the healing began.
In 1987 I moved to Los Angeles; I went for change, to study Zen Buddhism, to work in film, to find a lover. I worked on a few films and TV shows, had numerous spiritual experiences with Zen and Shamanism. I met celebrities, and felt worldly. I embraced life and held nothing back. Social mores had begun to shift. At my 20th reunion in 1995, the “guys” I hung with during high school were friendly; no mention of the past was made.
In 2010 I returned again for the 35th reunion. By then I had been a yoga and meditation teacher for 10 years, teaching 15 classes a week at four yoga studios. My life had been nothing like the life in a small New England town, yet something about our personal history never leaves us. This time, the reunion’s reception was ever more graceful and accepting. I took the time to “tell my story” to many who were either once friends or just acquaintances. Everyone I encountered was open and friendly; any past feelings of disconnection had been washed away with time.
I returned a year ago to Portland, and last November the state of Maine was the first state in the union to vote for marriage rights. I am proud of the shift in consciousness and acceptance from what I had believed to be a rural and unsophisticated populace. I have been away a long time.
Mainers are independent, but what I didn’t know is that mindsets had changed dramatically since my departure in 1987. I thought that the major urban cities were the only places for a gay man like me. But the beautiful state of Maine has become home to many from afar who have found in Portland a stunningly beautiful small city, full of acceptance. The city has become a mecca for the free-spirited, the yogis, foodies, hipsters, artists, music lovers, and finally, the “gays.”
I’ve been told a few times since reconnecting to old acquaintances that I had made a difference in their younger lives. All my stylists went on to open their own salons. Many clients – some closeted, some not – had come to my salon, Akari, and realized, like I had, that we can be out, proud, and respected. Many are returning to this place we had called home; it’s so very different, yet kind of the same. The gays dance at the straight bars, the majority of voters supported our equality, most are now more aware of love and kindness. I am thrilled to be home, where Mainers have more rights than even Californians.
I am now in training to mentor other HIV positive men (I’ve had HIV for 10 years); among other classes, I teach yoga for healing HIV. I’m also back to styling hair and helping people feel joy from the inside to the out.
Time is our friend and I am grateful that all we have to do is show up – “be present” as we say, be ourselves.