Monday, January 26, 2009

Destroying Closet Doors by Shelley Gillespie


Last night I watched The Times of Harvey Milk, the documentary that the recent movie Milk credits as a source of inspiration. You must find his story, Anne. Such an amazing, dynamic man. The documentary came out in 1984. We were nine in 1984. We probably had sticker collections and talked about Michael Jackson's hair catching on fire. Okay, I'll speak for myself. Sometime in 1984, it must have been that year, or possibly the year before, my mom sat me down on the wood steps of our house in Leschi to tell me about my dad. I already knew about him and didn't want to talk about it. I do remember a sense of safety and relief, however, that she was willing to be open. I didn't talk about my dad and Kirk for the next nine years. Not even with you, right?

Do you remember that piece I wrote that evolved from a fiction into a non-fiction version, exploring the idea that I inherited my father's closet? I've been thinking about it. The opening scene in both versions was sparked by something my grandma told me. She said that my dad pulled their telephone into the hallway closet to call my mom to invite her to the high school prom. My dad says he doesn't remember this. My grandma isn't the kind of storyteller to make up such a detail. Of course, I am the kind of storyteller that latches on to such a detail and turns it into a bloated metaphor. In the fictional version, I wrote a scene in which I came out of my bedroom closet after I couldn't take how ashamed I felt for denying my father and stepfather. That's what I mean, bloated metaphor. Thankfully, I realized that I didn't need fiction, nor the closet scene to explore how deep the silencing runs and how much courage it takes to come out. Of course I can not compare my experience with my father's but the silencing is inter generational. Harvey Milk is quoted as having said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door."

That bullet was shot in1978. My parents were still married in '78 and living in Eastern Washington with a wood shingled house and a garden and a law practice in which my dad's services were sometimes paid for with venison and sides of beef. My dad says he doesn't remember Milk's assassination. San Francisco was a long way from our life, I suppose. Still, the closet was as real as ever for him.

Hours after watching Milk many weeks ago, I burst into tears while I was brushing my teeth, thinking about the opening scenes of footage of round ups in gay bars in the fifties. My dad knew he was gay as a boy. He says that all he could figure out about how he felt was that it was criminal or a mental problem. My grandma told me recently that even when they took him to have an encephalogram done she had a hunch. An x-ray photograph of the brain. They both knew the truth.

I didn't tell anyone about life at my father's house in middle school, or later when I went for summer visits to San Francisco in high school. You know this, Anne. Here's something interesting: I didn't remember ever having told a soul, until I was eighteen. About a year ago, I hung out with my high school boyfriend. We talked about our crazy days together, and how we helped one another to grow and change. I said, I never told you about my dad. He said, Yes you did. I did? After a night when he was with a bunch of friends and they violently harassed a gay man. I broke down crying, telling him that that man could have been my dad. That changed him forever, he said. After so many years of silencing, and feeling ashamed for that silencing, this shift in memory gave me a small dose of redemption. Damn, Anne, I hope our children and on down the generations will only know closets as places to store things. And hopefully, they won't have excessive amounts of things to store.

Write me,

1 comment:

  1. Amen, sister. I remember when you told me; I feel like it was earlier than eighteen, more like sixteen, and I remember how much I loved you for trusting me with your story, for sharing your own fear, shame, and vulnerability, and for being the woman that you are. We all have our own silences, our legacies we've inherited. Thank you for sharing a part of yours here.



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