Imitation of Life
Lying usually implies the liar isn’t prepared to face the truth – or is rationalizing that the world isn’t ready for their honesty.
Remember the movie Imitation of Life? A black girl passing for white. The film judges the girl, not the man that beats her for lying, not the society that inspires the lie. No substantial look at her motivation. 1959. The world wasn’t ready yet.
But come on. Technicolor angst? An instruction manual for passing?
Sign me up.
When I first started performing comedy, I’d tell the audience I was divorced. I wasn’t, but I said I was, to shut up the haters before the haters could hate. By implying I was straight, they couldn’t say I was gay.
Then I fell in love for the first time. Real, consequential love. Love that challenges you because you’re really sharing yourself with someone. He convinced me, lovingly, that not being out to my family was choosing a lie over him and us.
So, I went home to confront my own Imitation of Life.
My dad was a fish camp, Jack Daniels kind of guy. Women noticed him. By the time he was forty he had a lot of children with a lot of women. I have a half-brother I didn't meet until I was 24. I think that's because sex was about power more than love or aftermath for my dad.
I learned that when I came out to my parents. My loyal, loving mom on the plaid couch. Dad on his Lazy Boy recliner. I handed them a copy of the book Coming Out, An Act of Love as Oprah had taught me. I took a deep breath … and told them what they probably already knew.
Then my father asked: "How many other people know about your sex life?"
Hilarious. An unfaithful husband. A man who had abandoned a son. A man with illegitimate children. A person who had been arrested and thrown in jail, was worrying about what other people thought. He confirmed something I already knew.
Most people think being gay is about sex.
Imagine doing that in reverse. "Oh, MRS. Jones, is it?" Automatically we give ourselves permission to see the midcentury stereotype of a heterosexual woman. Flannel nightgown pushed up around her ample hips. Mr. Jones in the traditional position for marital relations - thinking of his own gratification while poor Mrs. Jones plans Sunday dinner.
It's unfair, but that’s what my Dad was doing 36 years ago, when he asked, "Who else knows about your sex life?"
I said, "I haven't told you anything about my sex life. All you know is that when I commit to someone it will be a man."
By that time, my dad was sick. I wasn't sure I’d see him again. I tried to make our time together meaningful and profound. I was earnest in a way that borders on annoying. It didn’t work. He was distant and more isolated than he had been in years.
But I had changed.
So, I left. I didn't call. I didn't write. I let the dust settle. But it turns out we had both changed. Eventually my phone rang. There was a pause. Then my Dad said, "Okay, tell me about the guy you mentioned …"
The consequence of no longer trying to pass. The consequence of honesty.
Years later in 2001 I wrote a column suggesting that the closet indoctrinates a habit of lying.
At least 10 friends asked if the column was about them.
People still trying to pass. Willing to settle for an Imitation of Life.
In those moments I remember a slightly tweaked version of William Saroyan’s prelude, to his beautiful play The Time of Your Life. My sisters read it at my wedding.
“In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness for any life you touch. Seek goodness. Bring it out of its hiding place. Let it be free and unashamed.
Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by shame.
Be the inferior of no one, nor be superior. Every person is a variation of yourself. No one's guilt is not yours, nor is any one's innocence a thing apart.
In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. Through others, learn the things you would not otherwise know.”
Saroyan wrote that in 1939.
Let’s finally start earning that world.
Demand the real thing, for yourselves and those you love. Let others do the same.