“I am, I said.” Neil Diamond’s voice filled the gay bar in Detroit when I walked in.
The place smelled of Aramis Cologne, beer, and cigarette smoke. I can remember every detail, but mostly what I recall is how significant those few words from that song were in my life. My heart swelled when I heard them.
“I am I cried. I am said I. And I am lost, and I can’t even say why. Leavin’ me lonely still.”
My dramatic coming out in 1974 didn’t happen in a bubble. I was prepped for years by books, movies, and songs, among other influences. “Hey, Neil. I am, too. I’m gay, I cried. I’m gay, said I.”
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Do you remember that line from the song, “Me and Bobby McGhee?” Janis Joplin sang it. Kris Kristofferson wrote it. Most people my age won’t remember any other words from the song, but many of us were touched by the message. Sometimes, I can’t get the lyric out of my head.
“Why shouldn’t I come out? What do I have to lose? I want to be free of fear, of loneliness, of caution. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
“Whether I’m right, or whether I’m wrong, whether I find a place in this world or never belong, I’ve gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me. What else can I be but what I am?”
Raise your hand if those lyrics by Walter Marks spoke to your struggle to be authentic. “I’ve gotta be Brian who is gay. What else can I be but what I am?”
Undoubtedly, my folks in their youth heard songs and read books that impacted the choices they made in their lives. I wish I had asked about them, but I didn’t because I assumed everyone was listening to the same songs as I, and getting the same clear messages. I can’t say whether my folks ever heard, “Me and Bobby McGhee.”
“We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.”
“This little light of mine, Lord, I’m going to let it shine.”
Did you see the film, “Harold and Maude?” Cat Stevens sang, “If you want to be me, be me. If you want to be you, be you. There's a million things to be, you know that there are.” The song spoke to me. I didn’t want to be you. I wanted to be me. “If you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free.”
If you had to name the five books that most influenced your life, what would they be? “The Man Without a Face,” by Isabelle Holland, and Malcolm Boyd’s, “Are You Running with Me, Jesus?” would be among mine, along with “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse and “Society and the Healthy Homosexual,” by George Weinberg.
I love where I am in my life, and am grateful for every influence, including the film, “Auntie Mame.” It makes me sad that our nieces and nephews who are in their forties have never seen any of the films that molded my consciousness. “Life is a banquet, and most suckers are starving to death.”
Bob Marley and Bobby McFerrin each made popular the phrase, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” I bet even our nephews and nieces in their forties know that song. But, neither man wrote those words. They were originally spoken by Meher Baba, an Indian mystic who said, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Do good and leave the rest to God.” How could my life outside of the closet be anything but sanctified by that message?
Do you remember the song, “I Am What I Am?” It’s from the musical, “La Cage aux Folles.” The words of Jerry Herman had to have influenced the coming out of many people. They certainly fortified my resolve to never duck the question, “Are you married?” which at the time, I couldn’t be.
“I am what I am. I don’t want praise. I don’t want pity. I bang my own drum. Some think it’s noise. I think it’s pretty … Your life is a sham 'til you can shout out, ‘I am what I am’.”
How could anyone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, and heard those lyrics, not be moved to tears, as Ray and I were, or inspired to bravely take the first step out of the closet?
Did you see the films, “It’s a Very Natural Thing” and “Making Love.” The second one was commercially released by a major studio, and it contained the first male-on-male intimate kiss anyone had ever seen in the movies. Harry Hamlin said playing “gay” negatively impacted his life as an actor, but I hope he takes comfort in the impact he had on hundreds of thousands of LGBT people. For the first time, we saw ourselves portrayed not as a tragedy. “The Children’s Hour,” had the opposite effect.
Younger gay men and lesbians sometimes can’t understand how one positive gay movie could be a big deal lifeline to us Elders. Today, if asked what song, book, or movie impacted their identity, and whether or not they would come out, I imagine younger LGBT people could fill a book with examples of happily being gay, and that book wouldn’t contain any of the examples of songs, books, and movies I just gave you.
Neil Diamond’s song, “I Am, I Said,” wasn’t written by or for gay people, but at the time we took refuge in any lyrics that reflected our tortured lives. In the musical, “The King and I” one song was “We Kiss in a Shadow.” For me, that song reflected the fear of getting caught publicly showing any affection for another man, gay or straight. It also became part of the whole anthem of lyrics, books, and movies from which I found the courage to come out and proudly stay out.
What about you? Can you remember a book, a song, or a film that influenced how you saw yourself as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer person, or ally, regardless of your age?
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.