Love Or Hate? What’s Really Deep in the Heart of Texas?

Written by | Columnists and Letters, Gay Voices

Gay Cowboys

Every year, I try to get back to Texas, and my New York friends never understand why. And so I explain again: my politics are strictly North Eastern liberal. But my manners, tastes in music, food and friends? Those were all forged in the Southwest.

It’s hard to leave Texas behind — at least in terms of distance. When I left Austin to take a job at The Hollywood Reporter in LA, our map reported that at the halfway point between Central Texas and California, you’re still in Texas — El Paso to be exact. Several of my sisters still live in El Paso, where we were transplanted from New York by my Mother’s third of six husbands. Mom had a unique gift for drifting into a bar, finding a man to get bombed with and waking up sporting a hangover, a wedding ring and someone new that we were all supposed to call “Daddy.”

“El Paso Daddy” was a piece of work — a large, boorish drunken Army lifer who adopted us for our Social Security benefits and treated us like he was our drill sergeant. From him, I learned to answer to “Mister.” As in, “Mister, that patio needs policing” and “You don’t have brains God gave a pissant, Mister” and “Mister, you’ll never amount to a Goddamned thing.”

What did I love about El Paso? Not much. I did discover Mexican food there and will swear on a stack of tortillas that I had better enchiladas in my high school cafeteria in most restaurants  serve outside Texas.

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After graduating high school, I did half my degree work at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. There, when the wind turns in just the right direction, you can smell the stench of the slaughterhouses barely outside town. “Oh, that?” a local once said to me with a shrug. “That’s the smell of money, son.” In Lubbock, I also witnessed something truly Biblical: In mere moments, a clear blue sky could be overcome by an approaching brown curtain, and when the dust collided with the rain, we’d find ourselves in— I kid you not — a downpour of mud. I learned to drink there and two-step there. Deeply closeted, I also learned to cruise with secret agent-level stealth. My last semester in Lubbock, I sat in front of a boy in magazine writing class. Quiet kid. His name was John W. Hinckley Jr. and soon after, he’d leave Lubbock, too — to shoot Ronald Reagan.

I moved to Austin and finished my degree at St. Edward’s University, the poor Catholic cousin of  Norte Dame. I also got a job there as head resident of the men’s dorms. My boss was a butch, no-nonsense nun who unwittingly guided me to the end of my years as a Catholic. Previously I’d been an altar boy, taught Catechism and drank deep the Kool-Aid of the Holy Roman Church. She called me to her office one day to skewer me about beer busts in the dorm. “But sister,” I protested,“they’re allowed to have beer busts in the handbook of regulations.”

“I know they are,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “I want you to make them stop.”

On Sundays, I would twitch in a pew next to my girlfriend as the priest railed against the sins of homosexuality. Then after mass, I’d be hit on by a parade of the Order of Brothers who taught at the school. “What size waist are you … like a 28? I have some jeans that don’t fit me. You should come over and try them on.” I soon took my diploma and left the dogma behind.

In Austin, I came out, found my first partner and got my first journalism job as an entertainment reporter for The Austin American-Statesman. That gig gave me access to Willie Nelson’s bus, where I declined a toke offered by the man himself. People like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Donna Summer and Lily Tomlin called us to publicize their latest projects. And I learned to write.

Once I came to hate life behind the wheel of a car in LA, I returned to Austin to recharge. I spent valuable time there as one of the hosts of Kevin & Kevin, a weekday morning drive-time radio show. I loved that job because it taught me to reverse engineer everything I’d learned as a journalist. Rather than agonizing over finding the right word, I learned to shoot from the hip, be funny, be fast and as quickly as possible “get to the out” — radiospeak  for the commercial break.

I soaked up all Texas could teach me before I felt ready to return to New York. El Paso taught me to respect cultures other than my own and that I should stand up to bullies like my stepfather. Lubbock helped me appreciate how people who lack sophistication might still possess strength of character. And Austin helped me get that the coolest thing I could be is me.

As I write this I find myself on a flight back to Texas — where two weeks ago, a gay couple was attacked after a night out at the same Austin bars I used to haunt. And over the weekend, my Facebook page blew up with reports that St. Ed’s has just barred one of the retired brothers from campus because of what they judged ‘inappropriate contact” with a then-17-year old student.

It makes wonder: Has the Trump era pushed Texas to provide aid and comfort to the same bullies and hypocrites who defined the worst of my time there? Will the Lone Star State ever live up to  all its potential? That’s a lesson I’d love to learn.   

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Last modified: April 24, 2019