A few years ago during Pride weekend, my son went downtown to watch the parade.
“I was on a bus full of lesbians, Mom!”
He said one woman was telling him that 30 years ago, two women holding hands would be jumped and beaten up.
“Now things are much better,” she said.
When my little sister was 19, she came out to me.
“I knew you would still love me.”
I was a little shocked and surprised at first, but she was still the same funny, caring and helpful person she’d always been, and I soon got used to this new aspect of her and accepted it. When our mother found out, she tried to put the blame on me. (I am adopted.)
“You’re rebellious. That’s why your sister is Lebanese.”
Accused, but not guilty. Yet after our father died, my sister moved in to help our mom, who was elderly and frail. My sister had a new baby, and our mother is a fool for babies, so they each got something they wanted. My mother was beginning her descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s. Lucky for her my sister was there for her. My sister managed her baby, day care, the house, the yard, three dogs, a full-time job as a counselor at a crisis line and our mom.
As I said, our mom had Alzheimer’s for eight years and she had a massively serious drinking problem. And she smoked. A lesser woman would have walked away.
Earlier in my life, I had found it necessary to voluntarily go into foster care after being attacked by my mother at age 14. I spent several months in the Juvenile Detention Center in Dallas, Texas. They found a wonderful placement for me: the Settlement Club Home in Austin. So much fun! I had a lot more freedom. Austin was a liberal university town, and we could ride the bus for 15 cents. Austin was a place where you felt encouraged to have new ideas and to read books and see foreign movies with subtitles.
I met my friend Casey there. He was gay. He was from Abilene, Texas, which is very conservative. Most of Texas is very conservative. At the time in the early 1970s, just being a guy with long hair in the wrong bar could get you beaten up. Casey had long, straight hair down to his elbows. He was effeminate, but he worked it. And he was funny and witty and acerbic. Like Holden Caulfield, but fun — not irritable and whiny. He inherited his intellect and confidence from his psychiatrist mother, and he could be himself at last. I don’t think he got up every morning and sang “I Gotta Be Me”; he was already that.
One day he wanted to go down to Pearl Street to enter a drag queen contest. Pearl Street had all the Mafia-owned gay bars. This was in the champagne days after Stonewall and there were a lot of men having some fun being themselves. Casey knew he was underage, but he had fake ID and sometimes you could bribe your way inside. He would take a chance.
Our friend Peter drove us in his enormous boat of a car. Me, Casey and Tricia in the back. Peter, Robbie and Jenny in the front. Casey brought his gym bag. We said goodbye to our house parents, who thought we were going to the movies.
We left the driveway of our children’s home, and we were on our way to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Casey warned us not to tell anyone. If our house parents found out, we would be in a lot of trouble. “Especially me,” he said. Our house parents were supposed to be guarding our morals.
Driving south on Lamar, Casey started his transformation from Casey, high school sophomore, to Kaycee, Miss High School Gay American. He was a young American. Tricia and I helped him with his clothes and makeup; we were his bridesmaids. He removed his shirt.
“Get out my bra.” He donned the bra. Genuine falsies inside.
“Find my girdle.”
“Look out the window for a minute.”
Pants came off, and he struggled into the girdle with the fake hips and adjustable butt cheeks.
“Hand me my dress.”
The dress was in a large plastic bag. It had been heavily starched and ironed and carefully rolled up in a towel to prevent wrinkles.
We helped him shimmy into his beautiful dress. It was a fantasy of blue satin, floor-length, and had little spaghetti straps. Very nice.
“Is my bra showing? No? Good!”
We clipped a towel over the front of his dress so no makeup would soil it. Moisturizer. Foundation.
“Drive slow,” he commanded. “Try to stop at all the red lights.”
Concealer. Eye liner. Eyebrow pencil. False eyelashes. Blush. Lip liner. Lipstick. Eyeshadow. Pencil.
“Oh, oh, stop at the Safeway. I need a Dr. Pepper.”
So we turned right on 38th and pulled into the Safeway parking lot.
We all got out. Kaycee was 5-foot-10-inches and she was wearing the Shoes. They were 7-inch platform soles covered with fake snakeskin. He wasn’t allowed to wear them to school, as our house parents were afraid he would break an ankle.
Kaycee wrapped her ivory cream shawl around her shoulders. She was never all that good-looking, but she had an undeniable presence. Her feminine side was definitely on display. Amazon girl. The floor-length blue dress. The waterfall of hair. The shoes. The entourage.
We were ready to cause a commotion.
People saw us, and they scurried down the aisles to get away from us, like nervous cats.
“Goddam. They’re afraid of us.”
Grownups are so easy to fool. They don’t bother to look below the surface or see things the way they really are. It was a 17-year-old boy expressing his artistic vision, pushing boundaries, committing the ultimate act of rebelling against society. But not doing anything particularly harmful. Why wouldn’t they see what a tremendous amount of courage this skinny kid possessed? Or the strength of character to be herself and not hold back? Even though we were with her, she was the one taking the risks.
We had our Dr. Pepper, but we wandered the aisles a few more minutes just to irritate people who thought our friend was bad. All this attention for the price of a can of soda. It was gratifying.
Oops, here comes the manager. He was pissed at us. We were disturbing the other customers.
“You can’t make us leave.”
“We’re not doing anything wrong!”
“Leave us alone!”
“We’re in high school. We’re just getting some soda.”
We decided maybe we should leave after paying for the soda. Back in the car.
Had we been political, we would have been thinking about how to file a lawsuit, and we would have been furious. But we were just kids, goofing around. We were protected by our youth. We wanted to have fun and enjoy whatever happened.
We drove to Pearl Street and parked the car and walked as a group to the bar.
“Hey, it’s Kaycee!” This from the bouncer. “You can’t come in today, dude. We got raided last night, and the competition was called off.”
“Ah hell, and after all that work too.”
“They don’t understand. I am so ready for the stage. I bought all new makeup.”
“If I were you, I’d stay away from this bar until the owner gets his money thing worked out. He had to give money to the police to look the other way. They were shaking him down for more cash.”
We felt deflated. Disappointed. “OK, let’s go.”
We got in the car and began the process of helping her shed her female persona.
“We can’t take you anywhere looking like this. We should go have some pizza.”
All done, we went to the pizza place. We bought a newspaper to agree on what movie we saw and when it started, and what was the plot. Just in case anybody asked.
We had our favorite pizza: extra pepperoni, extra jalapeños. Then we went back to our children’s home.
We never went with him again to any contests. Of all the kids I met there, I feel like he was the one I knew the best. The sad thing is, once you leave foster care, all your old connections and your old life blow away in the wind. You never learn what becomes of anyone. So, hey, Casey. I know you won’t read this, but I’m thinking of you. Happy Pride Day.
More essays from Liz Smith:
A place to rest
Compassion takes a holiday
Job satisfaction in the salsa aisle
Check out the full June 27 - July 3 issue.
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