By John Corvino
I live right around the corner from “the oldest jazz club in the world,” as the sign proudly proclaims, and yet I’ve never been there. It’s not because I don’t like jazz (I do) or because I’m some sort of recluse (I’m not). It’s because, to put it in an odd but accurate way, I don’t know HOW to go there.
It may sound strange to say that I don’t know how to go somewhere that’s just around the corner, but it’s true. I don’t know what nights to go, when to show up, what to wear, what’s expected of me (Should I order drinks? Tip the singers?) etc. And so, when a friend mentioned that he goes there regularly, I begged him to take me. I’m sure I could have figured out on my own, but inertia is a powerful force, as is fear of making a fool of oneself.
So it is with many things in life: we want to do them, but we don’t know how. I’m not talking about relatively complex tasks, like changing your spark plugs or making a souffle. I’m talking about things that seem mundane and obvious to most people, but only because at some point they were taught (or taught themselves) to do them. The rest of us observe from a distance, eager to take the plunge and feeling rather silly for our seeming inability to do so.
Sometimes we force ourselves. I remember the first time I went to a gay dance club, when I was 19. I was tired of having crushes on straight guys at school, and so I resolved to go out and meet gay people. (There was no Internet at the time, and if there had been, my Commodore 64 wouldn’t have been able to access it.) I had heard about a local disco (“The Silver Lining”), but I had no one to go with, so I just looked it up in the phone book and showed up one night.
At 8 p.m.
Anyone who goes to gay clubs regularly will find that funny, because everyone who does so knows that they don’t get busy until 11 at the earliest. It’s one of thousands of cues we absorb so thoroughly that they become second nature. Like leaving the bottom button of your suit jacket undone (something my grandfather taught me), or peeling a mango before you eat it (something I learned the hard way). It’s “obvious” only to those who already know the drill.
Thanks to some friendly drag queens, I quickly learned the club’s patterns. Wednesday and Friday were the nights to go. Nothing really happened before 11:30 p.m. Always park on the main street, never around the corner. You could say that they helped to “initiate” me into the scene.
Except that “initiation” has become a bad word, suggesting (to uncharitable observers, at least) something predatory. Hence the American Family Association’s complaints every time Prof. David Halperin teaches his “How to be Gay” course at the University of Michigan. In particular, the AFA loves to attack Halperin for, as his syllabus explains, exploring “the role that initiation plays in the formation of gay male identity” – as if, by this exploration, Halperin were coercing students into gay sex.
But “initiation” is not a bad word, and initiation is not a bad thing. People need to be initiated – mentored, guided, socialized, what have you – into new places, groups, and identities. It alleviates their fears; it smoothes their transitions. It exposes them to the delights of the mango while preventing them from swallowing its tough, bitter skin (how was I supposed to know?). Thank goodness for those who take the time to do it, like those motherly drag queens at the Silver Lining.
And this process is especially important for gays, given the vulnerability inherent in the coming-out process. Often misunderstood and rejected by their own families, gays more than most need the guidance of veterans. While the point can sometimes be overblown, we are in many ways a wounded people. Remember that the next time you see the goofy guy standing alone in the corner of the bar (maybe since 8 p.m.).
During the famous episode of “Ellen” where Ellen comes out, Laura Dern’s character jokes about her apparent failure to “recruit” her new friend to lesbianism. “Damn,” she exclaims, “just one more and I would have gotten the toaster oven!” There are no toaster ovens or other prizes for initiating people into the complexities of gay life. (If there were, I’d have the lavender Cadillac by now). But there is a powerful satisfaction in helping one’s fellow human beings.