My mother expected
a good night kiss from her youngest son, just as she expected her skin to
behave as she wished. Each evening, she meticulously prepared her face for
the night. Creams and lotions for the eyes, cheeks, neck.
She did all she could to maintain control over her universe just as smoothly and forcefully as she was trying to maintain the quality of her skin.
When I came in for our good night ritual, she would break from hers. She'd go from focused female to laughing, loving mother.
Tonight there was no smile. She looked right into me, sullen, trying to find some words. I froze because I knew what they were. The moment had come. The one I had been dreading for how many of my fifteen years now? Five? Eight?
"Honey, I've noticed that you do things differently than your brothers," she eased in. "Friquet has a poster of Brigitte Bardot in his bedroom. Christophe has one of Marilyn Monroe in his bathroom. But I notice that you've got Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. And you've been reading a lot of Jean Genet. I need to ask you..."
But she didn't have to say another word. Because tears started to roll out of my eyes. Then hers. We stood there, embracing each other, in the middle of the bathroom. A couple of minutes passed. She wiped her tears, recomposed herself and took the bull by the horns. "So how many encounters with men did you have?"
Taken by surprise, I quickly knocked off a decimal. "Three."
"That Many!" she gasped.
Whenever there was a medical problem in the family, my mother would call our health hotline -- her gynecologist in Paris. She was always determined to only accept the best the capital would provide. In my case, for this "passing phase," this "crisis of adolescence," she got the name of the analyst who specialized in the gay offspring of the well-to-do. Dr. Male was his name, and it made us laugh. "A good omen," I thought.
In Paris, Dr. Male's first question was brusque. "When was the last time you had sex with a man?"
"Last night," I popped right back.
Now he was the one that looked startled. "And other encounters?"
So I told him. How I lost my virginity in a motel on the outskirts of New Orleans while on holiday with my family. How by age thirteen my classmates had nicknamed me "Pussy." I liked to imagine it was really after James Bond's sex puppet Pussy Galore, not only that I was theirs. I told him how I had gotten picked up many times on the streets of St. Germain Des Près while dutifully visiting my grandmother in Paris.
My parents went into his office after me, steeled for his report. "The good news is that your son is quite well-adjusted to his homosexuality. The bad news is that his sexuality is in overdrive. And he's only fifteen. I'd advise you to be in touch with his sex life, or he could get into some real trouble."
On our drive back home, my father made the analogy of my having lost an arm. It was not going to change his love for me, but it meant that there were some practical issues to be addressed. Our being a preeminent family in a small provincial town meant it was critical for me to be discreet. He even proposed a deal: that as soon as I finished high school, they would send me to study in London or Amsterdam. It was 1968, and he assured me that these were the most "accepting" environments.
My mother became quickly pragmatic, too. Out went her warnings about getting girls pregnant. In came the warnings of getting picked up by dangerous men. She knew my game -- like one warm summer night when she realized I had disappeared into the garden with her friend's son.
She grabbed control of the whole situation while barely missing a beat. She made it clear that being gay was all right with her, but being effeminate was horrifying -- it was part a mother's fright of fagbashing and part the dictates of style. If she couldn't change my desires for men, at least, out of a mother's love, she could butch me up.
She showed me how to deepen my voice. She made clear that my brothers could wear the flamboyant bell-bottoms, flowered shirts and high-heeled boots that were the height of late '60's style. But me, never.
She tried to temper my hand movements at the dinner table for limp wrists and flying little pinkies. I tried hard to please her after all she had done to accept me.
Like any good mother, she began to advise me on the quality of my lovers. To her dismay, my first didn't even have a college education. He was a salesman! He gave me a gold chain, and, to her, gold chains were like garlic to vampires. Soon, her advice was feeling more and more like attacks. I tried desperately to be discreet, as promised. Only, discretion was not my strong suit. The more I misbehaved, the more I felt I was cheating my parents. And still two years to go.
My brothers told me about a queen - the first in our little town of Cholet to be out and loud - who was the bartender at the new, hip pub-like-bar (mad, mod London was setting the trends). I managed to tag along on their next visit.
Gerard knew my story the minute I walked in. We developed the tenderest friendship. Whenever I could, I would escape to his tiny studio with its plaster statue of Apollo, stacks of gay books and magazines, gaudy furniture, and embroidered drapes. I knew my mother would never approve of this very out character, but the minute my parents were gone, our small, growing underground network were at my house every night. We had parties. Unlike the messy, spontaneous parties that my older brothers would throw, ours were elaborate dinner parties. I would step right into my mother's hostess role.
Later on we mined my mother's closet to create drag shows. It felt great being a flaming queen in my own home and applauded for it. But when everything was back neatly on hangers, so was the part of me my mother loathed -- the nelly I couldn't shake.
Finally, eighteen. Graduation and my parents' bargain. London. College. My teacher had great instincts from our first tutorial. "Florent, are you gay?" "Well, Yes." "Smashing!"
She had assigned each student to write an essay on the structure of a social organization. One was given the Communist Party; another, the City Council; and I was to do The Gay Liberation Front. My parents were right. London was the place to be.
Having no idea what the Gay Liberation Front actually was, I voyeuristically slipped into the meeting. An animated young guy with a cockney accent was running it. He was passionate. And hot. I fell in love with him and with gay politics all at once. This tough kid from the East End began teaching me to accept who I was. To be fearless. We went marching, we held sit-ins, and we danced all over town. Being a queen went from shame to the glory of a political crusade.
On my next visit home, this rebel returned. I bought the highest heeled shoes I could find on Carnaby Street. I searched King's Road for the brightest patterned shirts -- the ones with long pointy lapels. And to top it off, a multi-colored, leather newsboy cap. I wore that gold chain and more. My mother cringed. I tested her and pushed her with exaggerated affectations. And when she made a disparaging comment, I lashed right back at her. I was angry. I made her cry. But I was becoming my own person. I had been out of my closet for a long time, but, at last, I was coming out of my mother's closet.
FLORENT MORELLET is co-chair of Save the Gansevoort Market and president of Compassion in Dying NY. He is a mapmaker, drag queen, and the unofficial mayor of the Meat Market. The restaurant that bears his name has been a New York institution for eighteen years.