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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Three Old Men Dancing

For more than a year, on two Sunday nights a month, a group of middle-aged men — including me —have been holding a “men’s support group” meeting at one or another’s home. The purpose of the group is to give each man attending the meeting — the core group is about six guys, ranging from mid-thirties to late fifties — a chance to “check in” and tell how they are feeling about themselves and their lives.

We are not alcoholics. We are not wife batterers. We are not there because of a particular sexual orientation. The primary things we have in common is that we all are either married or have been married and have children. By coincidence, each of has at least one son. We never discuss sports, although we could, if we wanted to. We sometimes discuss wives and/or significant others and/or the lack or abundance of either. We discuss what it’s like to be a parent and a child. We also discuss topics — “Chick Flicks vs. Dick Flicks” (films for women and films for men), “Which Came First: The Resurrection or the Egg?” (creationism vs. evolution), and “Women Are Insane: Does That Make Us Crazy for Loving Them?” (relationships with the opposite sex).

We hug each other at the beginning of each meeting and do it again later. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we laugh. And most importantly, we have learned to love each other as friends and brothers, in the very purest sense of those words. We also discuss why men feel the need to act the way they do, i.e., “What’s all this macho stuff about?” Our conclusion so far: We don’t know why, but it’s probably killing us.

One theory is that men are afraid, for whatever reason, that someone might think they are gay. Consequently, we do a lot of things to ourselves — like not hugging or demonstrating other kinds of affection to our family members and friends — that leave us isolated, depressed and destined to have years cut off our lives because of the bottled up feelings we carry around. We don’t cry when we’re hurt, because it’s supposedly unmanly and a sign of weakness. In other words, we’re stoic old Spartans, and it’s killing us. Belonging to a men’s group where we listen to each other and give each other permission to be vulnerable is probably the healthiest thing any of us have done for ourselves.

Women — straight and gay — figured this out years, maybe centuries ago. Gay men’s groups with similar purposes broke the ground for the rest of their gender, as well. The men’s group I’m a part of is starting to experiment with the rituals of being a man — no, we’re not wearing loin clothes and emitting primal screams, a la Robert Bly, although we do occasionally drum. We’ve learned about how the touch of friends can help an individual’s pain. We’re learning to care about each other’s children and families and discuss the importance of ceremony in the stages of life. For example, the son of one of our number just officially became an adult. Short of registering to vote and signing up for Selective Service, there isn’t much society provides to welcome someone into adulthood. And so, we decided to make our own ceremony to welcome a child to adulthood later this month. It is another kind of ceremony I want to discuss though.

Recently, the daughter of one of the brothers in the men’s group was married, in a very nice, traditional ceremony which obviously had a lot of thought and finances put into it. The father of the bride played the traditional role during the planning process: stay out of the women’s way and keep the checkbook handy. As preparations developed, the guys discussed the role of men at weddings and how the day seems to be more about the women than the bridal couple. The bride’s father was very clear that he wanted his friends to attend and we were glad to oblige, not only because he was our friend, but because it meant free food, free wine and free beer. Being middle-aged guys, we sat at our tables, some with our wives and the single guys by themselves, taking it all in.

Being the father of a gay son, I watched the business of tossing the bouquet and the garter and wondered what the equivalent ritual will be now that same-sex couples can legally have civil union ceremonies in at least one state. Will it be the tossing of the boutonnieres? Or will one or both of the bridegrooms wear garters that can be tossed? Or maybe there will be no tossing at all. When the disc jockey says it’s time to dance, will the two bridegrooms or two brides dance with each other’s mothers or fathers or both? Of course, these questions are already being answered by couples and their families who have already gone through commitment ceremonies, both sacred and secular. And all the answers, just like the questions, are just trivia, compared to the bigger issues of sexual orientation and lifetime commitment to another.

When the dancing started, my buddies cheered as our brother, the father of the bride, danced with his beautiful only daughter. The music picked up soon after and it was time for everyone to celebrate. Physical disabilities prevent my wife from dancing for any extended period of time. Because she knows that I am the greatest middle-aged male dancer this side of Mick Jagger, she encourages me to go out on the dance floor and strut my learned-it-all-in-the-sixties stuff. The trouble is, I don’t feel comfortable dancing with any other woman than my wife, unless it’s my mother or sister.

I turned to my men’s group buddy Jim, who was downing his third glass of wine, and said, “You wanna dance?” He looked at me with a grin and said, “I won’t do it unless Larry does,” referring to the father of the bride. I went over, grabbed Larry and said, “Come on, Jim won’t dance unless we do too.” And so we danced. Three middle-aged guys in their forties and fifties, doing The Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato, The Freddy and other dances so complex they haven’t even been named yet, to tunes like “Sugar, Sugar” and “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” When “Great Balls of Fire” came along, Larry’s wife snatched him up and Jim and I were left with each other.

Still frugging away, we looked at each other and grinned. “I’ll lead,” I said, grabbing his right hand and swinging him under my arm in classic jitterbug style. My wife, watching the tomfoolery from her sidelines perch, whooped with delight. Pretty soon, the wedding photographer caught our act, and the next thing we knew, we had an audience of people smiling and looking confused.

A trio of young girls came up and insinuated themselves between us, asking, “Who ARE you guys? Like, what is this?” “We’re two guys dancing,” we said. The girls, laughing, wanted to know more, but couldn’t bring themselves to ask what was really on their mind. “Like, what is this?” One of them asked. “It’s a wedding. We’re friends of the bride’s father,” we explained. “But are you, like, um, in some sort of uh, club, or something?” “My wife doesn’t dance and he’s getting divorced next week,” I said. “We’re friends and we’re dancing.” “But you are, uh, like, old guys, and you’re, uh, like, dancing!”

I pointed to the bride’s mother and another woman of about the same age who were boogalooing across the dance floor. “Look at them!” I said. “No one ever questions it when two women dance together, do they? And Jim and I danced away together, celebrating our friendship and the liberation that not giving a damn about whether people think you’re gay or not can bring. He and I, my wife, our families and our buddies in the men’s group all know the truth — and no one else’s opinions matter.

Published 31st July 2000


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