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My First White Party

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The Way We Were

A White Party? You actually went to a White Party? At your age? And a clergyman?

One of our friends found it difficult to believe that Gary and I had joined at least 2,000 other gay men in a White Party (at least the Atlantis cruise version) on the high seas. Believe it. We were there. Here’s why.

I had recently returned from at least four weeks in S.E. Asia researching and writing with an old friend at a university in Singapore, working with Indonesian gays to help develop an HIV/AIDS prevention program for the rent boys of Bali and visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, being run by a Soulforce volunteer struggling to find support for 62 orphaned &/or vulnerable children. (More about these post retirement projects later).

With little time at home I left Gary again to spend 35 days on The Amazing Race with my son, Mike. (More about that when CBS approves.)

During this recent spate of media interviews, Gary was asked how we have stayed together for 27 years. He replied without a moment’s hesitation: “Because Mel is always gone.” He wasn’t joking. Gary has worked 7 days a week for ten years as Business Director of Soulforce much of that time alone. It was obvious that we needed some quality time together a long way from our office phones and fax machines.

The next thing I knew we were standing on the deck of an Atlantis cruise ship absolutely awed by the site of so many gay men dancing in elaborate white costumes (sailors, firemen, French maids, cowboys and Indians) or bare-chested and even bare-legged wearing nothing more than their tiddy or is it tighty whities.

I had never been to a White Party and knew almost nothing about what happens during those long nights or even weekend celebrations. According to Wikipedia, a white party is “a mega dance event, extending through a night and into the following day…they are typically lavish affairs with elaborate lighting, music, and décor.”

Somebody should add to the article that you may feel underdressed if you join that mainly shirtless crowd without a hard ripped muscular physique displaying pecs, abs, and biceps sculpted by Michelangelo (or by 10,000 hours in the gym.)
On that unforgettable Friday night as we sailed back towards Miami on the Freedom of the Seas, giant woofers pounded out the beat as spotlights pierced the dark skies, klieg lights lit up the deck, a wall of colored lights danced with the music, strobe lights flickered and black lights made those tiddy whities glow.

Gary and I are both “early to bed, early to rise” types, but that night we didn’t return to our cabin until approximately 3:00 am. We stood for hours on a slightly raised deck crowded with dancers right in the middle of 2,000 buff gay men who had abandoned all inhibitions in a kind of tribal celebration of the male body.

At first I felt like an outsider. In fact, I have always felt like an outsider at a dance even at those junior high sock hops or senior high proms. I was raised by parents who saw dancing as “the devil’s play ground.” (Or was it the game of pool that professor Harold Hill condemned before the “good people of River City?”)

Everyone has heard the old joke told about Southern Baptists who “don’t condone premarital sex because it might lead to dancing.” To my Mom and Dad, and to the good people of our home church, sex was bad and never discussed except in warnings about its dire consequences. How many times have I heard sermons about the war of flesh against spirit? If masturbation were a sickness and a sin what eternal penalty would I suffer if I ever yielded to my powerful same-sex desires? How many times during my childhood and youth did I pray for God to “take away these awful, unnatural urges,” to “heal my sickness” and “forgive my sins?”

As a result of all these sex-negative influences, from about the seventh grade I felt a growing shame about my body and its ever increasing desire to make love to my tent mate at the Boy Scout Jamboree or to touch the body of the boy lying beside me on a sleep-over visit. Shame was the result of all those years trying to avoid an erection in the shower room or to pretend I wasn’t turned on by my fellow “thin-clads” on the track team or to keep people from noticing how I stared at the basketball players with their stuff clearly outlined in those silky nylon shorts.

Even long after knowing without a doubt that my homosexual orientation is not a sickness to be healed or a sin to be forgiven; even after realizing at last that being gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) is a gift from God to be accepted, celebrated and lived with integrity; even after two short term boy friends and a long -term loving relationship with Gary I remained a victim of the shame I felt about my body and its secret desires. After a national media tour promoting Stranger at the Gate, after coming out proudly on Sixty-Minutes and Larry King Live, after speaking frankly about my homosexuality at universities across the country I still felt shame when my body acted up.

It’s hard to explain that shame. Here’s an example. I didn’t have the courage to admit even to myself (let alone to Gary) what I really wanted in bed. I couldn’t even acknowledge the fact that I liked those boys in leather and wanted a pair of leather pants myself; that I preferred white silk pajama bottoms (and no tops) to those matching flannel sets my father used to wear; that I liked tight t-shirts, fitted jeans, and Calvin Kline more than Fruit of the Loom underwear (especially silk Calvin Kline low rise briefs); that I liked playful bondage and love making that went on for hours instead of rushing to a climax and turning on Law and Order reruns.

Don’t misunderstand me. During our 27 years together Gary and I did experience our share of great sexual moments; but during all that time I was living in another kind of closet, where I hid my sexual fantasies and didn’t trust my trustworthy partner to accept my desires let alone to understand them. My psychiatrist answered that fear with a very non-directive “bull shit” and a rather pointed promise that Gary could accept and understand my desires if I would just give him the chance.

It was a great coincidence that I came out to Gary during our Atlantis cruise on a ship named Freedom of the Seas. I may be two months into my 70th year; I may be old enough to be the grand father to many of our competitors on this season’s Amazing Race and father to the rest; I may have two great children in their late thirties, a three year old grandson who can beat me at Wii bowling and a beautiful 16 year old grand daughter who knows more about computers than I will ever know; nevertheless for the cruise I packed my favorite tight t-shirt and fitted jeans, my Calvin Kline silk bikini low rise briefs, and even some playful cloth tie-downs and a blindfold. Don’t laugh. We older men dress up fine.

Gary may not have understood where all this retarded adolescence was coming from but he had no trouble accepting my fantasies (and even enjoying them). Apparently I am still on that journey to see my sexuality as another of God’s gifts to be accepted, celebrated and lived out with integrity. Apparently coming out about the sexual fantasies we have locked away in another kind of closet lasts a lifetime. Happily on that gay cruise I took another long step in overcoming the shame I once felt towards my body and its desires.

Right now you might be thinking, “Is this all he’s going to say about White Parties when so many in our community share a growing concern about the proliferation of drugs like ecstasy and the high risk sexual practices often associated with these drugs?”

I admit that I am naïve about the White Party circuit. I’ve only experienced the Atlantis Cruise version. I do worry about the dangerous and ever more exotic drugs that plague our community. I am concerned that this new generation of young gay men, especially gay men of color, seem to be the population where new cases of HIV/AIDS are most rampant. These are important topics that may be the subject of other blogs that I write somewhere down the line. But right now I have no interest in preaching the sermon everyone expects me to preach. I’m only interested in celebrating what happened to me during that cruise and especially during that fateful White Party on the Atlantic.

For awhile we just stood there fascinated by the unfamiliar scene, emotionally moved by the sound and light show that had engulfed us, entranced by the dancers who were moving, touching, massaging and embracing all around us. Then spontaneously I began to dance in place as they were dancing. I put my arm around Gary and moved up and down to the music’s loud beat.

For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like an outsider at a dance. In fact, I was surprised to feel entirely at home with that mass of buff gay men dancing the night away. I would never look like those beautiful young dancers. I could not recover or relive those testosterone years when I too could (but didn’t) dance ‘til dawn. I might never overcome entirely the shame that I had inherited over decades of biblical misuse and psychological abuse. But I knew for certain that though we were from different generations, these were my brothers and in my way I could join them in celebrating my gay sexuality without shame or guilt or fear as they were celebrating theirs.

At least 30 years ago, I was directing a documentary film on the life and times of Ken Medema, a singer, pianist and composer who could sit at the piano and improvise music and lyrics that always moved me deeply. Ken is blind and when I heard him sing his “Dancing with a Stranger” for the first time I had to blink back the tears. I didn’t know why then. I do now. All those years that I was afraid to dance, my Creator was holding out Her hand to me. She created me to dance, to celebrate my sexuality, to enjoy my body and its pleasures. On that cruise I finally took Her hand. Ken sang it this way:

She asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of everyone laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “It just wouldn’t be any good.”
She gently insisted. Finally, I told her I would.
Unforgettable. She was a fresh breath of spring
on a cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. She taught this singer to sing a whole new way.

He asked me to dance.
I’d never tried dancing before.
I had visions of saints and angels laughing me right off the floor.
“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”
He gently insisted. Finally, I told him I would.
And it was unforgettable. He was the coming of spring on a cold winter’s day.
Unforgettable. He taught this singer to sing in a whole new way.
The coming of spring, on a cold winter’s day.
Taught me to sing, in a brand-new way.

  • Mel,
    It is amazing to read such honesty. You are always such an inspiration. Thank you so much!
    From the first time I read Stranger by flashlight in my dorm room at Liberty to now being able to learn from you on a daily basis, you make me want to be a better person and a stronger activist.
    Be blessed!
    SH

  • Mel,

    Thank you for sharing such a touching part of your private lives. As a woman who married a man because it was “the right thing to do”, I can understand repressing feelings, urges, and desires. It took me 17 1/2 years and a toll of mental, emotional and physical abuse before I took my two daughters and left him. I met what I thought would be my soul mate in the first woman I had allowed myself to be with. After 10 1/2 years with her I was facing myself in the mirror realizing that I had “married” the same person all over again just in a female.

    I have been “divorced” from her since June 2008 and I have experienced many emotional challenges all along the way. I have also met some incredible people that reminded me that I was strong, intelligent and equipped with all I needed to become a self-sufficient individual. Along the way, I met a woman that was much older (nine years) and who wanted nothing more than friendship in the beginning, as she too had been hurt in the past so deeply that she doubted that there was ever going to be a person she could trust.

    Time has been good to both of us and we are a loving couple today that takes one day at a time and we thank God daily for putting us in the same row of seats at a Comets game a year ago on July 27th. We have been living together since Memorial Day and we take each day one at a time as we meld together cats (my 2), dogs (her 2), and habits/traditions/beliefs.

    You reminded me that no one is a mind reader and if our relationship is to continue to blossom and grow, I need to be more vocal with my wants, needs and desires. I need to remember that these are things that make me who I am and I should want to share them with her and if she loves me as she professes, she will try to meet them as best as she can. I also need to remember to encourage her to feel as safe with me to be able to confess the same.

    I hope that you and Gary continue to evolve and be blessed with the love that you have shared thus far. You both are a wonderful example for us. And I cannot thank Samantha enough for pointing me your direction.

    Love to both of you!
    Lisa

  • Jessie

    Mel,
    I really enjoyed this. I lived in terror for most of my 38 years that anyone might discover my bisexual and transgender identity. Now that I am embracing who I am, I still have fears, but I am at least being true to who I am. Being true to others and true to my partner has also been very freeing. I think so many people (gay, straight, or whatever) repress their true identities and desires to try to fit in or be what they think others want.
    – Jessie

  • Randi Reitan

    Dear Mel,

    You continue to amaze us all with your passion to bring understanding.

    I love the photo of you and Gary. You are still those two people …. still handsome and full of life …. still time
    for many more White Parties.

    We love you,
    Randi

  • Mia Cotroneo

    Dear Mel,

    Thanks for sharing your interesting experience on the cruise. I like how you described the “tribal celebration” on the deck. I’ve felt similarly at pride celebrations in New York City. For myself and my friends, the sheer magnitude of the visible gay community at these gatherings can be intoxicating and almost make you feel high on the sense of connection to so many other humans.

    Thank you also for being so open and honest about your feelings and your personal relationships. Even once we come out, there are still those tender, vulnerable parts of ourselves that we keep in their own little closets. You’re very brave for sharing your passions with Gary, then with the rest of us. I’m glad to have your positive example.

    Keep blogging. We need more smiles in our lives.

    Always,
    Mia

  • Ah, Brother Mel! You do speak Truth!

    I hadn’t heard of White Parties, and I am so glad that you found one and used the experience to share with us the truth that we all come out again and again, about way more than the “big things” (like sexual orientation and gender identity). Communication is key to relationship health, and knowing ourselves comes before tell our truth to another. What a journey!

    As I constantly ponder how the Still Speaking God urges me to “say what I need to say,” I cherish this story of yours and the many points of resonance I feel with it.

    At the National Gathering of the United Church Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns, we spoke with similar honesty – about the mystique of bare-backing and the dangerous drop in safer-sex practices among young gay men; about the rise of HIV infection among young Black women; about the damaging effect of the APA categorizations of Transgender people; about the failure of the Church to get over speaking “nicely” and speak up about so many real-life concerns, and do so in church…!

    Thank you for sharing in such a personal and vulnerable way. Your courage is inspiring.

    Blessings,

    –Kyle

  • Hi Mel,

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I think you’ve hit on something that a lot of people feel. Gay men have such a rich cultural heritage, and it makes me sad that much of that has been lost to shame and fear since the AIDS epidemic began. I love the idea of circuit or white parties and in the words of one of my good friends, One thousand men on a ship, Yay, yay, yay!!!! You and Gary look wonderful in the picture. It’s never too late to love the way we want to and to celebrate the things we might have missed before. Thanks for posting this great piece of writing.

  • It is truly inspiring to read of people who live their lives in a compassionate, open loving way and are not in the shadow of fear and doubt!

    Your story is very inspiring and I look forward to following along!

    Peace

    ~Mollena

  • Ken Medema — he played at the YFC conference in Ocean City one year I went — 1974, maybe? That was the year I took a copy of The Well of Loneliness. It’s hard to be 15 and Baptist and bisexual.

    I am so pleased to see this honest, loving depiction of a longterm relationship between men. I only hope that your marriage will soon be recognized by the state as well as by God.

  • Dear Mel,

    You are an inspiration to me and so many other people. Thank you for your honesty in sharing this wonderful experience. You have proven that learning and adjusting continues throughout our life here on earth. You’ve shown that the renewing of the mind is an ongoing process as oppossed to a single experience.

    It is always heartwarming to read about or see gay relationships that stand the test of time. It is through the open testimonies of yourself and others that the rest of us can find hope and encouragement. Especially at a time when many gay relationships don ‘t make it past a couple to few years.

    Thank you for sharing your life in such an open, vulnerable, way, speaking truth and giving light to the concerns that many of us have and live with day-by-day. Thank you for being a beacon of hope and encouragement, allowing us to know that we’re not alone or the only ones having certain thoughts or experiences. Thank you for guiding us to greater heights through your openness of words, to know that we too, regardless of who we are, or, where we have come from, can stand up and be recognized as gay children of a loving God who loves us just as we are.

    May God continue to release the blessing ordained for you and may you continue to bless others.

    In God’s Love,
    Ron

  • Nancye

    Hi Mel,
    thank you so much for sharing your experience and particularly your innermost thoughts. Your honesty is so helpful and particularly for those of us who are still finding our way after years of being locked up and playing the role that we thought we had to. You show us that the journey is an unfolding one no matter what age or stage of it we are at and at any point we can make changes for growth.
    Blessings to you and Gary

  • Mel, as always the truth teller. Thank you! You are, in the best tradition of the berdache and others, a true spirit guide — showing the way between the worlds and linking in all together with the deep desire, the eros, God gives us to share. I intend to share your commentary with my partner, Jonathan, as we continue to evolve in our sexual lives. Jonathan is 50 and I am 62 and our histories are quite different and our shames are also. But we have them, even as seek to shed them. Thanks for showing me what courage looks like, in leather or Calvin Klein or . . .
    Much admiration and love,
    Robin

  • Bea Green

    I’ve heard gay men describe circuit parties with their sexual indulgence as “spiritual experiences”.
    In a relationship, you experience intimacy with one person but at a circuit party where you have sex with dozens of men, there is no “one other” but rather you loose your individuality in essential maleness.

    I suspect it is a liberating experience for people who have only experienced repression.

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