FANCY DANCING

Philadelphia City Paper - June 2-9, 1989

I started a new job a month or so ago - working as a contractor for a large government agency downtown. I was pleased to discover someone had established a "Book Swap" in our floor's lunchroom - a bookcase filled with books which you could take for free, with the idea that you would replace them with your unwanted books. Giving me access to a resource like this is like letting a kid loose in a candy store, and I never failed to least take a glance at the selection every time I was in there.

One day, passing by, I took a quick look and what should be sitting face up on one of the shelves, begging someone to take it, but Patricia Nell Warren's The Fancy Dancer. My heart racing, I looked around to see if anyone was watching, grabbed the book and quickly raced back to my desk to hide the book in my briefcase.

This paranoid behavior deserves a bit of explanation. When I was twelve, my libido flicked on as if someone had hit a switch - at which point I found out to my chagrin that those creeps who called me "faggot" in gym class were right. From the attitudes of my peers, and from what I had gathered from the world around me, I had every reason to expect that being gay meant lifelong harassment, taunting and ostracism, and (worse) - no one would like me any more. I had no religious objections to being gay, just the usual fear of rejection by family and society, plus the scientific view of the brainy eighth-grader - thoughts were running through my head like "biologically, homosexuality makes NO SENSE AT ALL!"

Well, I spent the next eight years of my life ignoring the insistent demands of my libido ("Eric, look! Over there! Man with moustache! Go for it!"), trumping up the slightest sign I might be straight ("That girl looks kinda cute - hooray, I'm normal!"), and reading every gay book I could get my hands on. Having older bohemian friends, I did get my friends on The Joy of Gay Sex and I'm amazed that I continued to delude myself after my reactions to that book. But one of my more exciting adventures was checking out The Fancy Dancer from the library when I was fourteen.

Funny how I've never seen that book in hardback - it's always been a tattered paperback on the library shelves, looking like no one in his right mind would want to read this sleazy book (then why is it so tattered, you may ask?) The Fancy Dancer is the story of a young priest in a small Montana town (who just happens to be incredibly handsome and well-built) being "brought out" by a gay tough-guy biker. The cover looks like an all-male Harlequin romance - macho brooding stud in leather jacket; and behind him, looking pensive, handsome blond priest.

Watching to see if anyone saw me , I quickly grabbed the book (sound familiar?), put it in the middle of my stack of books so the librarian wouldn't ask me about it (those librarians, you know, not only know the contents of every book they deal with, they are also the guardians of public morals) and managed to get the book checked out without getting arrested. Then of course, I had to hope my parents wouldn't rummage through my library books and jump to (correct) conclusions.

Reading that book was quite an experience - it really is a gay romance novel and affected me the same way those Harlequins do the female adolescent. I must have read it four times in the two weeks I had. I returned it to the library with regret, but when a few months later, I noticed the same tattered copy in the "For Sale" pile, I didn't have the guts to buy it.

Well, here it is, ten years later, and I discover a piece of my history in the vending machine room. I've been out of the closet for three years, actively involved in the gay community, and open with all my friends and loved ones. My parents have been wonderful - my only sibling is also gay and their open- mindedness has been stretched to the limits, but they've handled it well.

And, goddammit, I've found out that "Gay Pride" means being proud of accepting yourself and handling your life in a culture that disapproves of what you are. So why should I still be nervous about being seen in public with a gay gothic romance? The truth is that three years of self-education, support groups and discussion aren't going to erase the formative influence of a culture that teaches that homosexuality is bad, and until that guilt is purged, I'm still going to keep my eyes open for whoever is watching.


Copyright Eric Peterson, 1989