“What Was It Like? Stories by LGBTQ Elders” is a new program by I’m From Driftwood, in partnership with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, and SAGE, the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ older adults. Learn more about the program here.
Michael Anastasio’s 8 Video Stories and transcripts can be seen below.
Early 1960s: Seeing The Word “Gay” In A Magazine “Changed My Life Instantly.”
So when you’re a little gay boy, you don’t know it, really, that you’re a little gay boy. There’s no word detached it. You just know that there’s something different about you. I certainly did.
I remember coming home from school on the first day, first grade, and my parents, or maybe it was my older brother, asked me, you know, “What little girl do you like?” Now, I knew that I really liked a little boy in the class and he was really cute – blonde hair, blue eyes. But I also knew that I couldn’t answer honestly. I knew at that age I had to cover up. I picked out the cutest little girl in class and said her name. This is the 1950s and you didn’t grow up with the “Will and Grace” or anything like that so there was nothing that you can attach to.
I remember probably when I was about 12 years old, I’d say 12 or 13, we’d get Look Magazine every week. It’s a big magazine with pictorials. They had one issue that was devoted to the American male. I remember paging through this magazine and I opened it up to this article, and what stopped me probably was a very handsome man with an earring, I’d never seen anything like that before. And the title of the article was “The Sad Gay Life of the Homosexual.” Didn’t mean anything – gay, homosexual didn’t really mean anything to me. But I started reading and reading, and all of a sudden it was like a bolt of lightning to me. Homosexual. That’s it! That’s it! They’re men who like men.
It changed my entire life instantly. I had a name. I had – this is me! This is me! A homosexual. And gay, I saw the word “gay,” too. Obviously, the article wasn’t a very positive one with a title like that, but the focus of the article really was on how these were very unhappy people. I do remember reading it. I digested the information but none of it really meant anything to me. None of it went to my core. What went to my core of where the truth is really kept was that there was a word “homosexual” and there was a word “gay” and it described me.
I don’t really even remember all the negative things they said about these sad, depraved creatures of the night. What I really remember was that they talked about men going to gay bars in New York and San Francisco. So I knew right then and there when I was old enough to leave Louisville, I would pack up my bags and move to either San Francisco and New York because one of the gay bars was in San Francisco and the other one was in New York. In my mind, you know, there were so few of us that there would be one and the other. So I knew that eventually I would get one of those cities. Little did I know, I found this out when I came out at 17 years old, there were three gay bars in Louisville, Kentucky, alone! Who knew? That was really my, you know, my beginning of understanding who I was and what I was and that I wasn’t alone.
New Year’s Eve 1969: First Gay Kiss, On A Riverboat In The Snow
Having come out in Louisville in 1969, I was 17 going on 18. Obviously, I couldn’t get in to any gay bars in Louisville. We had our little hang outs where clusters of twinkies – although we didn’t have that word then but that’s what we were – hung out at little restaurants and outside bar areas. But I really wanted to get into a gay bar. I just really wanted. And we found out that there was a cruise New Year’s Eve going out of Cincinnati. For some reason, since it was on a riverboat on the river, we can get on at 18. And this was New Year’s Eve going from 1969 to 1970. So we made a plan to go up to this floating gay bar, essentially, on the Ohio River.
I concocted this crazy story to my parents – I still living at home at the time – about going out to a New Year’s Eve party and then we were going to stay out late so we can go to mass the next morning. You know, being a good Catholic boy, and because that’s a holy day of obligation – January 1st – so you’re supposed to go to Mass anyway. So I concocted this whole story so that I can be out late enough and have a reason to be out late enough so that I could get home at like 6 or 7 in the morning.
So we pile into the car, all my twinkie friends and I, and off we go to Cincinnati. And we get on this riverboat and it’s everything I imagined it to be because there’re gay guys everywhere. My little Louisville world is very small and then suddenly there were big city guys in this place. So we take off on the river and it was a beautiful night, it was so much fun, New Year’s Eve on a riverboat with surrounded by nothing but gay guys. And it started snowing. It was magical because we’re going out and looking out and seeing all the snow.
I met this one boy. As I recall, I was standing close to the bar and and feeling very good about myself because I had – this was the year of the chocolate brown shirt and I have my chocolate brown shirt and my striped flares and – hey, it was 1969 – he came up to me and just started talking. I’m sure he was the aggressor more than I was because I was in unchartered territory. We hung out for most of the time together.
As I recall it was getting close to the midnight hour for New Year’s Eve. That’s when I suppose he took me by the hand and took me out to the front of the boat, out under the bow of the boat. In my mind, it was at that midnight hour, I’m not certain that it was, but in my mind it was a new year’s eve kiss. And I standing on the bow of this floating gay bar riverboat on Ohio River with snow swirling all around us, I couldn’t imagine anything much more romantic than that.
Well, there is a downside to the snow, however, because by the time we finally got back into shore, it was a really coming down and there was no way we can get back to Louisville, Kentucky. It’s about a two hour and ten minute drive under regular circumstances, Problem is, obviously, I have to call home and tell my parents, you know. I did. An older gentlemen got us a hotel room, which was very kind of him. We piled into this this one room in a hotel.
I had to call my parents and tell them I wasn’t coming home. I still, I could hear, my mother answered the phone, but I could hear my father in the background, “What the hell is he doing in Cincinnati?” So I don’t remember exactly what I told them. Something to the effect of well, you know, the party wasn’t going well and my friends had some friends in Cincinnati and there was a party in Cincinnati so we just decided to go there. Of course, nothing about a gay riverboat.
So that was my job my first gay kiss on New Year’s Eve in the snow on the bow of a riverboat on the Ohio River.
To be in a place where I was surrounded by nothing but other gay men was monumental for me. You know, it’s like, you know, a flower finding it soil. I had understood that this was my environment and the proverbial duck to water. I just – I felt at home, you know. When you feel misplaced because you don’t quite fit in and then suddenly you’re in an environment where you do fit and everybody is there supporting you and you’re supporting them – it was a watershed moment for me.
1971: Drag Queens In Louisville “Widened My Scope Of What I Was Comfortable With.”
I went to school at University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. So it would have been around 1970, 71. And it had a gay bar – The Living Room – that I knew I had to get into that gay bar somehow. I met a guy that was very clever at changing license – driver’s license birthdates. So he worked on mine and made me 21 years old, even though I was only – maybe I was 19 by then. So I get to go to my first gay bar.
The gay bar was on Main Street – that’s where the front door was. I don’t think anyone ever used the front door of that bar because it was on Main Street. The back faced a parking area which was dark, and that’s where everyone parked. And the first thing that I found out was – I was driving – he instructed me to back the car into the wall because he said – we didn’t have front license plates in those days in Kentucky, we only had rear license plates – you had to back the license plate up to the building so that it couldn’t be read because police would apparently ride down behind the gay bar and take down the license numbers and put you on the list of suspected homosexuals. This was terrifying to me because the car that I was driving was registered to my father, whose name is also Michael, just like mine. So I could see something really terrible would happen, so I would always make sure that that license plate couldn’t be read.
So I go into the gay bar for my first time, and in those days the gay bars were usually a Paris whorehouse motif, or an English hunt motif, or a Cowboy bunkhouse, you know, that sort of thing, on the main level. And then they always had a floor upstairs or downstairs, and whichever one it was was where the dancing was and the shows, if they happen to have drag shows.
And so it was at The Living Room where I met my first drag queens. My two best buddies were like the Mutt and Jeff of drag queens. Wilfred was about, I’d say, 6-foot-4, African American. Couldn’t’ve weighed more than 150 lbs. I don’t know what it is about tall guys who want to go in drag, but always, you know, it seems like the taller you are, the more likely it is you’re going to want to be in drag. And then his little buddy, who I think’s name was Leo, was about 5-4, also African American. And they were just – I was fascinated by these two because I’d never met any drag queens, and in or out of drag, they were a hoot.
So I remember one time when Wilfred said he had something very special planned where he was doing a show. He said that I had to be there that night, so I showed up that night. It was probably 1970 and the Broadway show “Pearly” was on Broadway, a musical. And there was a number from it called – I hadn’t heard it before – called “I Got Love” that Melba Moore sang. So Wilfred’s on stage with a tiny spotlight just on his head and starts out very quiet, very slow, “He thinks I’m afraid,” you know, it’s very soft. And all of a sudden, it’s one of those songs, it’s Broadway, one of those songs that just blows out into this, “I got love, I got love, I got love.” I had never seen such a performance before. I had seen drag queens perform and they were just up there lip-syncing, but this was a flat-out performance. It changed my idea of what drag performances could be. He was very good. So that was a fun experience that I had with Wilfred and his “I Got Love” performance.
I also learned from them the bane of existence for a drag queen in those days, especially if you’re a big drag queen like Wilfred, was getting shoes that fit. Nowadays I’m sure it’s easy with the internet and that, but big feet, little women’s shoes. I learned the terms “shrimp” and “biscuit.” “Shrimp” was when your foot was too big and it curled over the ends of the shoes and it looked like shrimp. And then, with the sandal back, with the heel that hung over the back, and that was “biscuit.” And to this day, I’ve never forgotten those terms because they’re so descriptive, you know, “shrimp” and “biscuit.” And they would talk about each other, “Oh she’s giving us much shrimp and biscuit.”
But they did – my drag queen association in those days really kind of open my eyes to a world and accepting people in the gay world who were so different from the way I was, and appreciating them and enjoying them and just, again, widening my scope of what I was comfortable with.
Often times, I hear, you know, in the gay world, “Oh, this person’s too nelly.” I think sometimes, within the gay world, we tend to group maybe a little bit too closely together with certain subgroups within the gay world. I’m so happy that my horizons were expanded at a young age and I came to realize that being gay is not monolithic. We’re not all the same. The same-sex attraction, maybe, the same – but within that, there’s so many different types. Watch a gay pride parade and you can see that. Every type you can imagine. And so I think that it’s – the important part of that story to me is just the level of acceptance of other gay people who aren’t like me. So I think that’s probably the most important thing.
“Your Son Is Being Seen Around Town With Known Homosexuals.”
After having come out, not to my parents, just come out in the gay world, I know my parents noticed a shift in my activities, a shift in my friendships. These are two very good, kind, loving people who are devoted to their religion and devoted to their children. So, you really don’t want to ask too many questions in that situation because maybe they’re starting to get an inkling about that I might be gay but probably wouldn’t even discuss it with themselves.
There came a time when I was coming home from college for the weekend. I think I took a bus home and my dad picked me up at the bus station. On the way home, he told me about a telephone call he had gotten at work.
A gentleman who did not identify himself had said, you know, “I just want you to know that your son is being seen around town with known homosexuals and you should do something about this before they turn him into one.” So, you know, I was taken aback a little bit.
But I said immediately, “Well, Dad, I am a known homosexual myself. I’m gay and I know that I’m gay.” He didn’t seem shocked by this information.
He jumped in immediately and said, “I love you. Your mother and I love you. We’re there for you. We don’t really understand how this happened.” So when we got home, we sat down with my mother, too, because obviously she was privy to this information as well. The three of us sat down and discussed. I didn’t give them many details at all but that I’m gay, I’m happy being gay, this is who I am.
So their initial response was to send me to a therapist. I went for one visit. It was a Catholic therapist, too, you know, so. He actually told my parents that he thought I was quite well-adjusted and that they probably shouldn’t worry much about me, which was a blessing.
From that point on, their reaction was more containment. And that’s the way it would stay for a long time. I would bring friends home from college or after I moved away out of Louisville, I’d bring boyfriends home. They accepted everyone that I ever brought through the front door. They were kind, gracious. Never wanted to know what the relationship was, really. I’m sure they must have known. They loved all these guys that I brought home. I think it probably made them happy that I did have people in my life, but of course they wouldn’t ask questions and it stayed that way for close to twenty years, probably.
Until my partner – I got into a long term relationship and, of course, I would bring him home all the time. His name was Chase, and they knew him very well. About five years into the relationship, he was diagnosed with HIV and full-blown AIDS all at the same time. And I knew this was a point where, okay, you know, we have to get real with each other now.
So I sat down and wrote a very long letter to them. I remember the first line was “Oh my God! A letter from Mikey! What’s wrong?” So I said, “Nothing’s wrong, really, but I have things I need to tell you about.”
The phone rings and they’re both on. One’s on one extension, one’s on the other. They were so supportive. They asked questions, actually, because they weren’t prone to asking questions. And they asked questions about Chase, how is he doing. They responded very well. Again, these are two very kind, loving people. And they had grown also.
And my father as well, too, it opened the door. He was never really that comfortable talking about it. But one time, when I came home on a weekend and he – I was taking him to work.
I don’t remember what triggered the conversation, but all of a sudden, he said, “You know, I want you to understand. A parent can’t love one child more than another, but,” he said, “I want you to understand that I know that you’ve had a more difficult row to hoe than most people.” And he said, “I want you to know how proud I am of you for how you’ve lived your life.”
And I realized later that I could have probably opened up the dialogue much earlier than I had. But you just don’t know these things. And as long as things were going really well between us, you know, I just didn’t feel a need.
I think it would be important to understand your parents first, because not everyone can be upfront with their parents, and to understand that there might be consequences, negative consequences. It did bother me that there was so much of my life that I didn’t share with them, and I realized that I probably could have much earlier than I did. So I would say sooner rather than later is what I would tell most people who are thinking about coming out to their parents.
Early 1980s: Fear Of Death “Gave Me A New Freedom That I’d Never Had Before.”
In the early 80s, people started dying all around you. If you were gay, people were dying. I started having friends getting sick and dying one after the other. You couldn’t avoid it. If you were out and gay in the 80s, this was happening all around you.
I think a lot of people don’t realize there was no HIV test for quite some time, so you never knew whether you had it or not. And I made the assumption that with friends dying all around me, I’d be next. Anything that they’d done, I’d done. No one really knew exactly what was causing this, but I knew that I was in maybe the last year of my life or so. I was certain of it.
It actually gave me a new freedom that I’d never had before. A freedom that was based in the fear of dying but then also – maybe not even the fear of dying, just the reality of dying. Everybody else was dying, so my turn – it was just a matter of time. So I dramatically changed my life.
So I quit my job, sold the BMW and changed my life dramatically and started my own little business, store design business, and it actually started going quite well. I was surprised at that. What was more surprising was that I wasn’t getting sick, which was good news, but I kind of changed my life to accommodate dying soon, and it seemed like I wasn’t dying.
Eventually, when the HIV test was developed, I still didn’t take it because there was no treatment. So what was the use of knowing if there was no treatment? So I still didn’t want to know. But it gave me an appreciation for life in the moment that I hadn’t had before. It was always about planning. I was very driven in my early career. I had to be a vice president by the time I was 30, and I was a vice president by the time I was 30. I had to have this, I had to have that. I had a great apartment, I thought, in Chicago, but ended up in Boston, so then I lived in a beautiful apartment in Beacon Hill in Boston. All these things that I thought were important suddenly weren’t important anymore because of what I had to do in my lifestyle to support all of that.
So then I shifted my lifestyle and I found out I could still keep the apartment in Beacon Hill. I didn’t want the BMW anymore because owning a BMW in Boston – which means “Break My Window” – was a nightmare. So I learned a lot about living in the present, because that’s all you have, really, if you’re convinced that you have no future.
Eventually when I did finally take the test, I was HIV negative. So it seemed that while everyone else was dying, I wasn’t going to. So I again sort of adjusted my life, but never went back to the insecurity of having to have a real job and I thought, I’m going to stay self-employed. I lived really for today and as long as I felt I was taking care of today, tomorrow would be fine. And when I get to tomorrow, I’ll deal with tomorrow as today.
So that was really the gift that AIDS gave me. It took an awful lot away, an awful lot of friends, loved ones. I miss them all today. But the one thing that it gave me was the ability and the understanding of living life in the moment and living today for today.
Late 1980s: “When I Think I Have A Problem, I Think Back To That Time For Randy.”
It was the mid-to-late 80s and my best friend Randy had been sick for quite a while. It was clear he was dying. We’d lived together in Louisville, we’d live together in Chicago, we’d lived together in San Francisco. We were always best friends, never lovers. But he stayed in San Francisco, I moved to Boston. So we had a coast-to-coast friendship at that point.
He was living out there with his boyfriend at the time, but his boyfriend was not capable of taking care of Randy in his advanced stages of AIDS. So I flew out to the West Coast to help him wrap things up and essentially take him back home to Louisville to die. This was what so many gay people faced at the time.
We set Warren up in a new apartment, got him all situated, moved all of Randy’s things in there, and then Randy and I set off for Louisville. As we waited to board, I made a tactical error. We should have boarded first but because he was moving so slowly at that point, we waited till the end. As we boarded the flight, the first thing that registered to me was the horrified look on the flight attendants’ faces. This was San Francisco in the late 80s. Clearly, Randy didn’t have one of the acceptable diseases like cancer, leukemia, he had AIDS. There was no question about it. It was a time when people didn’t really understand the disease or how it was spread.
So we turned to go down the aisle and it seemed like every face on that plane was watching us. When we got to our aisle, our row, the gentleman in the aisle seat got up and made way for us to sit down. I quickly grabbed his barfbag and put it in my pocket because I wanted to make sure I was prepared. I needn’t have worried, he didn’t return. He found some place else to sit on the plane.
I remember looking at Randy sitting in his window seat, all hunched over. This was a man who was four years my junior who at this point looked 40 years my senior. This shriveled, little, old man sitting next to me, I could hardly believe was my friend Randy.
Got him to Louisville and he went right into the hospital with pneumocystis. Usually, when that happens, when you were that far advanced with pneumocystis, it’s the end. He had a wonderfully supportive family, terrific people, and we were all in the hospital room constantly with him.
And I remember sitting at his side and looking into his eyes and wondering when – how many minutes were left. He was looking at me and a tear escaped out of his eye and I wiped it off with my finger, and then I looked down at my finger and remembered that I had a papercut on that same finger. And the thought that – oh my God – could I contract HIV from a tear from my best friend’s eye? It was like this horrible treasonous thought, and yet I did remember wiping it off on my pants leg and feeling much smaller for the action of doing that.
He was days from dying and then all of a sudden, as happened with this disease, he suddenly started getting better. He was responding to whatever treatment they were giving him. The pneumocystis went away. He started getting better. He started getting stronger. I went back to Boston. He stayed with his parents. He was getting better and better and better.
At the same point, Warren, out in San Francisco, his boyfriend that we had set up in the apartment, was diagnosed with AIDS. So Randy picks up and moves back to San Francisco to take care of Warren this time. And Warren wasn’t the fighter that Randy was, so Warren went downhill really fast. So Randy moved into the apartment that we had rented for Warren, and all of Randy’s things were in there.
During their relationship, Randy had asked many times about his family. And he said, “I have nothing to do my family.” He said, “They’re bible-thumping Christians from Southern California.” And that’s all Randy knew about them. Well, unfortunately, when Warren took a turn for the worse in the hospital, the hospital had next-of-kin information and phoned the parents in Southern California, who didn’t even know their son was gay, that he was dying of AIDS.
So the mother and sister came up from Southern California. Didn’t want to even know that Randy existed, but they moved into the apartment with Randy. And one day, when he was out, they locked him out. They had the locks changed and locked him out of his own apartment that he had rented for Warren, full of all his own things. To make matters worse, one day when Randy was there – like I said, you never knew whether death was imminent or whether someone was going to bounce back – and he left Warren one evening when he was still alive and as well as could be expected. And Warren died that night.
They notified the parents, the parents came – or the mother and sister came for the body. Loaded up a U-Haul with all of Randy’s belongings and disappeared into Southern California, and left Randy, with AIDS, with a dead and vanished lover, and homeless.
I think sometimes, when I think I have a problem, I think back to that time for Randy and the strength and fortitude that it took for him. I remember being in Boston when all of this happened. There was nothing I could do for him.
A friend took him in. He stayed out in California and continued to do okay. We’d talk on the phone every day. I remember talking to him and he said, “I don’t know what to do with my life. I’m feeling better. I don’t know if I am going to live. I don’t know if I’m going to die.”
I said, “This is Sunday night. What do you usually do with your Sunday nights?” I knew the answer to this.
He said, “Well, Warren and I would always go to the beer bust at the Eagle.”
I said, “Go to the beer bust at the Eagle. Do something normal.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’m going to go to the Eagle and I’m going to wear my white oxford cloth shirt and jeans and penny loafers.” Because that was his favorite outfit and Warren would never let him wear that to the Eagle.
He went to the Eagle and he’s standing out there among all that leather and jeans. And across that crowded space, he sees a man in a white oxford cloth shirt, jeans and penny loafers. And there’s this instant attraction. His name is Art.
He went home with Art and spent of his life with Art, until he died. And then Art died two years later.
It was an incredibly cruel story that, apart from dying, had a very happy ending because he was loved and cared for for the last two years of his life by a man who absolutely adored him who he absolutely adored.
Post-It Note Snaps Man Out Of Grief: “The Laughter Was As Uncontrollable As The Crying.”
My partner Chase died October 23, 1993, which was 10 years to the day that we met. I had, after that point, sort of receded behind the walls of our Beacon Hill apartment. Having lost Chase, my best friend Randy, and dozens of friends before them left me with sort of a paralyzing numbness. I cried all my tears and packed it away for the winter, you know, behind those walls, and really just stopped feeling anything. You know, feeling was just too difficult at that time.
I had Chase’s body cremated and I’d gotten several notices from the crematorium to pick up Mr. Leon’s ashes. I just couldn’t do it. I guess it was the finality of the situation but I just couldn’t make myself go out into the cold, brutal Boston fall/winter and pick those ashes up, so they just stayed where they were. They were in four boxes because Chase had requested that his ashes be disposed of in four different places. I could foresee a future where I was going to have to divide ashes into four and I wanted no part of such a thing, so I asked them to do that. So they were holding those four boxes in South Boston somewhere and I was doing my best to just avoid the whole ash situation.
Christmas was approaching and, as I said, I was just so depressed. Christmas is my favorite time of year. I was always of the “If it doesn’t move, decorate it” school of decorating, crazy with Christmas. Chase wasn’t as much so, but he enjoyed the fact that I enjoyed it so much.
Well, it was just me and I started realizing I didn’t buy any Christmas presents that year, I didn’t bake any cookies, I just didn’t do all the things that gave me so much joy usually. When I realized I wasn’t going to have a Christmas tree, I got even worse. I had never had a Christmas without a Christmas tree and I thought, well, that’s what you’re going to do for yourself. Go out and get a Christmas tree.
So I went out and got a Christmas tree. I put it up, started decorating. I had all of the boxes of stuff out. I had carols on. I had mulled cider. If I planned ahead, I may would have invited people over and it would have been better, but I hadn’t. So I wouldn’t have been there, wallowing in self-pity, but that’s just what I was doing – wallowing in self-pity.
I remember just getting partially done and I just sat down on the chair, ornaments in hand and surrounded by this mess. I don’t know how long I’d been that way and the doorbell rang. I couldn’t imagine who it was, but we had a garden apartment so I had to go outside into the garden and open the big gate that I’d been hiding behind for months. There was this skinny man, all dressed in black, of course, with – a Dickensian-looking man, right out of central casting for somebody who would be told to bring ashes. There were four boxes in his hands and I recognized them immediately. Chase’s ashes.
So I walked back into the house and closed the door and sat down where I was before the doorbell rang, with those four boxes. They were all like little cubes about that big, four of them, just resting heavily in my lap.
All of that pent up grief that I’d just been storing just all came out at that moment. At possibly the worst moment of my life, through the bleariness of all this crying, I looked down at those boxes, just holding them in my arms, and I noticed a little yellow Post-It note on top of one of them.
I just kind of wiped my eyes and read it. Clearly it was meant to be removed before the boxes were delivered. It said, “Deliver four boxes of Leon to Michael Anastasio.” This struck me as funny. In the midst of all that crying, Chase had a great sense of the absurd, and all of a sudden, it was like I was seeing that note through his eyes. “Deliver four boxes of Leon.” That was his last name, Chase Leon. Four boxes of Leon. All of a sudden, I started chuckling. And then I started laughing. And then suddenly, the laughter was as uncontrollable as the crying had been.
It was like I had released so much grief that all of a sudden, this one little post-it note that some little office worker must’ve written out and stuck on there saved my life. I think probably what it did was it resurrected him for a minute because I saw the note through his eyes. Four boxes of him. Just the thought of four boxes of Chase – too funny.
I looked around that room and – it may sound corny or whatever – but it was like everything in that room came to life suddenly. There was so much death and dying and sadness in that room, and then all of a sudden, it just sparkled with life. Everything, everything that I saw, it was just like he was in every molecule around me. It was just this beautiful experience where suddenly everything had been about death and suffering, now everything was life.
I got out the prettiest wrapping paper that I had, wrapped all of them – very good gift wrapper – wrapped them all. Best ribbon that I had and tied them up and made these beautiful, four beautiful bows, and I put those four boxes of Leon under the Christmas tree. And that was my Christmas that year.
It was that little Post-It note. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without that little Post-It note, but it changed everything for me and it seemed like that was my hurdle. I had to get rid of that grief somehow, and those four boxes arriving – you know, if I was looking for something to pick things up, getting for boxes of your deceased lover’s ashes while you are decorating a Christmas tree is not going to cheer you up, but the Post-It note did.
“When I Am Up There Dancing, I’m Connecting a Spiritual Past With a Spiritual Present.”
The first time I ever got up on a box and danced and had my first dollar stuffed into a speedo, I was hooked. I love to dance, first of all, but when you’re dancing on a dancefloor, you’re either dancing with one person or the people who are just around you, which is fine. But when you’re up on an elevated platform, you’re dancing with everybody. I always knew that if i could get up on another level and dance, that I can dance all night. And that’s the way it’s been since that first time at the Bistro in Chicago, when I got up there and had my first dollar – which I still have, by the way. This has been going on throughout my whole life.
One day, I was walking down Seventh Avenue South and I walked past this printing firm and there was a coffee table. Someone – just seeing it through the glass from the outside sidewalk – someone picked up this thing on the coffee table and opened it up. I thought, what is that? And I stopped. I saw them doing that, and I thought, that is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
So I went in and picked it up and started playing with it. This was really cool, so I asked the people behind the desk, “What is this?”
And they said, “Oh, somebody who works here picked that up at a shop over on Greenwich Avenue.” I just thought, that would be kind of a neat thing to dance with maybe. So I went to that shop on Greenwich Avenue. He not only had the ball, but he had it in a glow-in-the-dark variety. This one was like this dark blue, that I’d seen, but he had a glow-in-the-dark – with all the ultraviolet lights, it could really be something.
So I bought it, took it home. Of course, being the ingenious gay that I am, I decided to add mirrors to it, too. So on all the pivot points, I put little mirrors, which makes me essentially a human disco ball. I decided to take it out for its first time out for the Black Party, at the Black Party at Roseland Ballroom.
I remember getting on stage. I was kind of at the back of the stage, because there are a lot of people up there dancing, and waiting for a good song to come on. All of a sudden, I don’t remember what the song was, but I thought this it, this is the one. And it seemed like – I love the universe, the way it works – but people just sort of parted to allow me to move to the front. And I did and I started dancing with it but held it small until the music blew and I then blew with this and started spinning it.
I was unprepared for the response because all of a sudden, all of these hundreds of people and thousands maybe just stopped and they were all pointing. What I didn’t realize was that spinning this ball around, it looks more like I’m spinning a ball of light than anything solid. And of course, people on drugs and that so they’re high anyway, but they’re seeing this guy up there dancing with this. It was like the missing piece. I’d been dancing like this all these years with nothing in my hands. So it was like I’d trained myself for this and it was a natural extension of me. That was probably about twenty years ago.
So throughout the twenty years, I’ve done this is so many places. It’s an energy thing for me. I’ve done this on – we go on gay cruises now and I’m referred to as the “man with the ball,” which always worry – makes me sound like I’ve got one big testicle. But it’s still, you know, I’m the “man with the ball.” I’ve been on the streets here in New York and people come up and say, “Excuse me, are you the man with the ball?”
So I guess this is part of my legacy and I don’t mind it because I enjoy being the man with the ball. As I’ve gotten into my advanced years now, I do have in the back of my mind, when’s the time to quit? When have they seen of me enough? When are they saying, oh my god, get her down from there with that damn ball?
But as recently as last year, we were at the rapido in Amsterdam, and I looked down and there’s this beautiful cherubic face with a beard and had these sparkling eyes and going like this to me. So I leaned down.
He says, “Promise me something.”
I didn’t even know who he was but I said, “Sure. Sure. What?”
He said, “Promise me you’ll never stop doing that.”
I said, “Okay!” So now I’ve made a promise that I won’t.
My husband, Eric, says that “Between Michael’s ball and his mouth, we meet everybody.” It’s true. Some of our best friends are people who came up to me because of the ball. So some of the closest people in our lives now have all started with the ball.
For me, parties, circuit parties, the whole thing is a spiritual experience. It is communing not only with these people out here – and this is the other part of it, the metaphysical part of it – I never go out dancing without talking to my buddies on the other side. When I am up there dancing and connecting with these people, I know that I am connecting with those people, too, and that they’re just coming through me and I’m spreading them out and then pulling the others in, and I’m connecting a spiritual past to a spiritual presence. And that’s what I’m doing out there. I feel like I’m a conductor. And the ball just makes it a little easier because it’s an attention-getting thing.
I know there must be people who look at me and say, “Oh my god, does he ever have a need for attention!” It isn’t that at all. It’s the fact that it’s the only place where I am fed by this spiritual energy constantly and I can’t not do it.