I’m From Buffalo, NY.

by James Heffron

Satellite overhead image of New York State from Google Earth 2022

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.” This was the mantra with which I breathed nearly every breath since puberty.

There is no doubt that I loved, and still love, Katie Phillips. Who wouldn’t love Katie Phillips? Katie Phillips was the hipper, sexier, funnier Kelly Kapowski. And it’s true we were, and still are, best friends. Back in high school, we would spend hours together. No one could, or can, make me laugh like Katie. She is my soul mate.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay. But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay. But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.” The words were on repeat in the soundtrack of my mind throughout much of my youth.

“Mike Hartney…ew!” I thought upon meeting this new boy sophomore year. “Isn’t he the gay one, the one who came out last summer? Doesn’t he have a Katie Phillips of his own?! Isn’t he normal?!”

I shunned Mike for his bold decision to come out in high school. I thought him weak. In hindsight, I resented him. But that is not what I thought at the time.  At the time, I simply continued with my constant credo.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

I adamantly affirmed this to myself and to my new friend for the entire first year of knowing him. Despite the fact that Mike was gross for being gay, he was, after all, one of the smartest and funniest boys that I had ever met, so I had to be friends with him…just as long as he remembered that I wasn’t gay. Remember, I had Katie.

Yes, I had Katie, alright. I had Katie despite the fact that I didn’t get hard when I made out with her.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

And so I continued, for four “straight” years, reciting this mantra to myself and to anyone that might listen. I wanted so badly to not be gay that I believed that I wasn’t. I was sure of it. I was convinced.

Despite the fact that I would accompany Mike to the gay bars, I would tell myself that it was just for his sake and I would snidely mock the guys that hit on me.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Despite the fact that I had memorized all of the lyrics to every Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdul, and Milli Vanilli song that I had ever heard.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Despite the fact that I could recite verbatim the soundtrack to The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Despite the fact that I would recoil in fear at the thought of joining my two older brothers and the other neighborhood boys in a pick-up game of street hockey down the block.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Despite the fact that when Mike came to visit me at NYU freshman year, I went into the bathroom stall with that disgusting blond guy from California while Mike sat by himself at the bar of Splash on 16th Street.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Despite the fact that I had fallen in love with Victor, the long-haired Peruvian dancer from my acting class.

“But I love Katie Phillips, I can’t be gay.”

Until one day…it finally happened…I boarded the bus. Mike and I were heading back to Buffalo together the summer after my freshman year in college. The way it actually went down, I can’t say for sure; the memory is foggy.  Hence, I will not create a coming-out story. I will not tell you, dear reader, that there were tears…though there surely were, suppressed as they may have been. I will not tell you that there was laughter…though there surely was, boisterous and free. All I will say, all that I can recall, what my mind distinctly remembers, is the joy. Riding alongside Mike, coming out to him en route to our hometown, I shared with my dear friend an intense catharsis and resultant joy.

We had come to a rest stop; I don’t know where, the details elude me. My mind was too busy with the present to absorb where my body physically was. All I knew was that the bus was stopped and it was bright outside. And, no doubt, I had to pee. Thus, we stepped outside the bus, skipping merrily down the steep steps to the awaiting sun outside.

“Oh my God! You have got to be kidding me! Jim…LOOK!” Mike exclaimed, pointing behind me towards the Greyhound from which we had just sprung. I turned around to see what he was so enthralled with and, I kid you not, there, before my eyes, in all of her vestal glory, shone Dorothy illuminated by the radiant, blazing sun. Placarded on the side of the bus, my coming-out vessel, from stem to stern, was a bright, bold, bus-length advertisement for a touring production of The Wizard of Oz! Behind Dorothy and her chums, Cowardly Lion et al., painted in the background beyond the vibrant, yellow brick road and shining, emerald city, streaked a rainbow. Clear as day: a rainbow in the sky behind Dorothy, on the side of the bus, the bus I had just come-out in.

In hindsight, does it make sense? Am I making this up? Why would a Greyhound bus be advertising for a production of The Wizard of Oz? And why would the image they used have a huge rainbow streaking behind the main characters? Were it not for Mike’s confirmation, I might think perhaps my mind was making this up, exaggerating some story for the sake of the story. But it is because of Mike’s solid and clear recollection that, rest assured, this is how the story went. The confirmation of this story is not all that Mike gives me.

Since that initial acceptance, and by each breath with which I accept myself more and more, I am a better actor, I am a better writer, I am a better person. I have since adopted a new mantra; a masseuse I once had who I am convinced was an angel gave it to me. The mantra is: “I unconditionally love and accept myself in every way.”

It is my sincere wish that all my fellow Cowardly Lions out there might have as dear a friend as did I and that this understanding friend might button their lip and hold their hand, as did mine, until that beautiful, sunny day when they are ready to ride that rainbow-lacquered Greyhound to the brighter, more radiant future that awaits…

Sharing your story can change someone's life. Interested in learning more?