“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
By Rich Keys
I was 13 years old. Entering high school, discovering jazz piano and improvisation, peer pressure, my need for privacy and a space to call my own, thinking about the future, how I fit in…and Hormones with a capital H. Suddenly sex was on my mind 24/7, and my closet was born, full of secrets from my parents and everybody else. But for a faithful Mormon boy, there was no straight or gay back then, only righteous and evil, morality and immorality. It was never a matter of sexuality. It was a choice, a temptation, a sin. It was the devil tempting me: “If I can’t get you with girls, I’ll get you with guys.”
That same year, West Side Story was released. Its message to youth was as old as Romeo and Juliet and as current as racism and jazz. Like everyone else in school, I had to see it, even if it meant going to San Francisco because it hadn’t yet come to Sacramento. My parents agreed to take me to see it as a family activity. The theater was the biggest screen and movie theater I’d ever seen…ground floor and two balconies, stereo speakers surrounding on both sides…and actual curtains that opened and closed for the movie. I had the perfect reserved seat—lower balcony, first row, center seat, and no one else around us.
The lights dimmed and the overture music began. Suddenly I was in a totally new world. Doors opened to new rooms I never realized I had, and there were fireworks all around. Like the Wizard of Oz, life had suddenly gone from black & white to Technicolor. Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, the choreography, the opening graphic of the NYC skyline, the shot from overhead of a perfect Manhattan slowly descending to the gritty reality of the street, finger-snapping as an actual instrument of the orchestra, 3/4 rhythms, counterpoint, and on and on to the end, using graffiti for the end credits, and a last somber chord of a haunting augmented 4th. I was riveted from beginning to end, not even moving or speaking during the intermission.
The lights came up, but I didn’t want it to end. I’d discovered something new about me that was an authentic part of who I was. I didn’t fully understand it yet, but I knew it would be a part of me and change my life forever. I sat there motionless for another five minutes until my dad tapped me on the shoulder and said we had to go. I walked back to the car and got in the back seat for the drive back to Sacramento. After ten minutes of total silence, I couldn’t stand it any longer and finally said, “Well, what did you think?” I expected them to be as excited as I was, especially with my dad’s love of music, but my mom said, “We didn’t like it.” I was shocked. “Why?” “It was too violent.” “Too violent? There were only two stabbings, they didn’t show any blood, and they were choreographed with dance moves, and the gunshot at the end was just a sound! And what about everything else—the music the choreography, Romeo and Juliet?” “No, we didn’t like it—too violent.” I lay down with a blanket over me and did some serious crying all the way back to Sacramento, doing my best to muffle the sound of my sobs.
A real part of me had been rejected by my parents that night, and things were never the same after that. The generation gap, me vs. them, more secrets, defining and defending my turf while mom tried manipulating me with shame and withholding of love to always get her way, and Dad’s response to my problems was always the same: “Well, son, just do the best you can.”
I saw the movie on TV many times over the years, but it finally came to the theater on their biggest screen about four years ago as a part of their Classic Series. I sat near the front, away from everyone else sitting near the back, so I could get fully absorbed in the film. I knew the music so well, I did my best impression of Bernstein, conducting the orchestra throughout the movie (it’s a power trip—non-music majors wouldn’t understand). Suddenly during the middle of the film, I realized this is the gayest movie I’ve ever seen: Street gangs defending their turf with ballet moves, a gang leader singing so high it’s in the alto range and playing dress-up in a bridal shop, lyrics like “boy, boy, crazy boy…got a rocket in your pocket….” What could be gayer than that?!!! Then it became crystal clear to me: I had come out to my parents at age 13 the night of West Side Story, but it was totally symbolic. Sex and sexuality never came up. It never even entered my mind, or theirs. But the rejection felt just as real. My parents were both gone when I finally figured it out, but I’ve often wondered how they would have reacted if I had come out that night as gay. No doubt my mom would have made an appointment with the bishop behind my back, and my dad would have said, “Well, son, just do the best you can.” If it had happened today, I have faith they would have been much more supportive.
Each of us has their own coming out story. It’s part of their unique journey. Some are out of the closet, while others haven’t taken place yet. Whether it’s family, friends, employment and the workplace, where we live, even the legality of it and the possibility of assault, imprisonment, or worse, or any number of other reasons, it’s a personal decision. Each of us owns that too. It’s part of our birthright, and no one can take that away from us.
West Side Story came to the big screen again this month on June 27…during Pride month…makes total sense to me. Again, I was down front, away from everyone else, wearing one of my Pride t-shirts, conducting the music. This time though, totally out of the closet, celebrating street gangs who dance ballet in public, sing falsetto, and play dress-up, as well as who I am and where I am on my journey and in this world. Here’s hoping each of us can take pride in that.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.