coming out

at seventeen

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By Janis Ian

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth…

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say “come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen…

A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said: “Pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve”
The rich relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly…

So remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debitures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen…

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
the world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me…

We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say: “Come on, dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen…


i worked a coupla weekend parties in the foothills and came home pooped. it morphed into a melancholy saturday evening mostly due to time travel. i managed to be in 2 places almost at the same time. i was moving small platters of food through a milieu of gentiles, and all the while i was whisked forward to the past. i have an incidental connection with the family i worked the parties for. a now-deceased member of their tribe had a profound effect on my sanity and my sense of self and style.

her name was cat and she still seems as aloof and elusive as she did when we met. i was almost sixteen and really struggling in my life. i had become caught up in teenage self-loathing, hormones, and my homosexual proclivities like a fox in barbed wire outside the coop. i kept running from home because home was so very unhappy and somehow i landed in the very hot and very humid south with an uncle and his bride of 2 years. they were in their 30’s so it wasn’t about a honeymoon for them. i now believe it was about the distraction. but then that’s another story.

i arrived in the late spring and had the whole summer ahead of me. there was a pool, 2 acres, a room of my own and about 8 chow chows that cat bred within the confines of her kennel. it was, it turns out, my own version of armisted maupin’s “tales of the city”. it was the 70’s (spring boarded by the 60’s) and all manner of roles and boundaries were being tested. cat was an extremely exotic person to this 16 year old mid western boy. she smoked pot, drank diet dr. pepper by the case, bred chows, and wore an almost inappropriately revealing 2 piece bikini daily as we sat by the pool and swapped stories about life, beliefs, growing up, and sex.

cat changed my life that summer. she seemed even more odd than i felt and that resonated somehow into my feeling better about myself. i fell in love with the dogs- especially blue and maya- 2 chows- i believe blue was a champion- and then there was sing-sing- an adorable and misfitted pekingese who ended up following me around like a vow had been taken. cat’s life, her aura, and her presence fortified my sense of propriety in the world. her words and her attentions steered me towards believing that indeed i wasn’t the most outrageous individual or foreign particle in the universe, which i had silently believed up until that point. it certainly didn’t rid me of those thoughts internally, but it did provide me with a new direction in which to move my thinking.

i enrolled in the local high school in the fall, but the insular quality of the summer faded like grapes on the vine. within a couple of months cat and my uncle’s relationship had become more volatile. they were avoiding and whisper-arguing and i knew that my time there had come to a close. i headed back up north to chicago and tried once more to sow the seeds of a less manic life. lord knows it was quite some time until things settled a little.

i have come to explain to people my belief- that living with bi-polar disorder is what it must be like living on a ship or boat for most of one’s life. the motion that emanates from the ocean is normal. the strangeness in life comes when the ship docks and one walks on dry land. the lack of motion seems out of balance-abnormal, trippy. instinct tells us to get back to the sea. even though the ground is quiet and less chaotic, it doesn’t feel right. it doesn’t feel natural. the constant motion feels like home. mental health treatment- especially therapy provided me with some tools to understand this. but sobriety is the plow that tilled the way.

i can understand it

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image credit…

oh what a time the 70’s were. bell bottoms, qiana shirts, platform shoes, the gold chain, the nik-nik shirt, double belted high waisted baggie trousers, afros, r&b, the evolution of disco, the emergence of punk, the gentrification of shabby chic…..

this is one of the 1st songs i remember hearing in a gay bar. there was a small little disco called pq’s on the near north side of chicago. i was 15 when i first folded in with the crowd there. sometimes that tiny dance floor would be packed. a person couldn’t move really, so there was a lot of repeating moves and shifting weight.
the original version was by the song’s author bobby womack. much later in my life, i realized just why this particular song had been so popular with my gay comrades. it speaks of tolerance. and a different kind of love. a lover that is only part time, a love that requires understanding. you do yours.. i’ll do mine… i can understand it…

i can understand it… lyrics by bobby womack..

I know everybody realizes that a man works
Better when he works out of his own band
Can you understand that? I can understand that

Woah, yeah, yeah
Something sweet as a candy bar
My girl in need
Thats what you are
Oh, I, I can understand it

Jack and Jill going up the hill
Storybooks and fairytales
I, I can understand it

And if our love gets to be anything but this
If someone gets to feel your warm and tender kiss
Oh, tell me, baby, how will I ever understand it, baby?

Get on down, baby
Gonna do it on the good foot, yeah
Gonna do it on the right foot, baby
Gonna do it on the left foot, baby

Look here, yall
Something cool but not too cold
Girl, you got to give to get, you know?
I, I can understand it

Try my best to make you happy
Woke up early one morning, find you packing
Lord, Lord, Lord, you cant make me understand it

I know sometimes that you wanna get away from home
But I get upset when you stay too long
Oh, your love, baby, your love
— How will I ever understand it?

Get on down
Gonna do it on the good foot
Gonna do it on the right foot, baby
Gonna do it on the left foot
Ooh baby

I can understand it
Baby, I can understand it
Oh, I have no choice about the situation

But Im trying my best to make you happy
Wake up early one morning and I find you packing
Lord, you cant make me understand it

I get a job and I work all the time
When I get home you better lay it on the line
Your love, baby, your love
— How will I ever understand it?

Get on down
Gonna do it on the good foot
Gonna do it on the right foot
I can understand it
You do yours
Ill do mine
Can you understand it?
Can you understand it?
Can you understand it, baby?
I can understand it
Can you understand it?
I can understand it, baby
Can you understand it?
I can understand it, baby

Break it down
God Almighty
Lordy, Lordy, Lordy

Im going to find out can we keep the groove
Is yall ready for this?
Look here
Ooh, yeah, baby
I can understand it, oh
Can you understand it?

Baby, baby, baby
Get on, get on, get on, get on down
Do in on the good foot, there it is
Lordy, Lordy, Lordy
Look here yall
Dont put down a man with a better hand
Old Les trying to do the very best he can
You wear your hair long, baby
I wear my hair short
Come on, baby, talk that talk
I can understand it
Can you understand it?

Baby, Baby, Baby
Get on down
Look here
Gotta say it one more time
Lordy, Lordy, Lordy
Look here
Dont put down a man with the better hand
Old Les trying to do the very best he can
You wear your hair long, baby
I wear my hair short
Come on, baby
Talk that talk
You gotta
I gotta
You gotta
I gotta
You gotta
I gotta
You gotta
Hey, Baby

Yeah, look here
Can I say it?
Can I say it now, yall?
Can I say it?
Can I say it
Look here yall
I can understand it