I will begin with a brief overview of my first and third run-ins with the law, because they seem to serve as somewhat less succulent end pieces for the spicier and more salacious substance of my second incarceration.
My first ride in the back of a cop car was at the tender age of sixteen when some high school friends and I decided that it would be good idea to sneak into the local Pussycat theatre. After all, I did grow up in the porn capital of the world, and the pervasive and titillating waft of XXX forever hung low in the hot San Fernando Valley air. One summer afternoon in the late 1970s, the ever-present lure of adult entertainment – coupled with the lingering effects of a sloppily rolled joint – clearly got the better of us. In the baking heat of mid-afternoon (or – as we were – baking in the heat of mid-afternoon) my buddies and I waited in the alley behind the adult movie house for someone to covertly exit through the theatre’s back door. Before long, a gentleman emerged from the dark portal and hurried past. A member of our group grabbed the heavy door before it could swing completely closed, and we quietly shuffled inside and stealthily made our way to one of the shadowy, vacant rows down front. Trailers for the venue’s coming attractions were playing on the massive screen that towered above us. For about fifteen minutes we watched as naked men and women grappled with each other in a wide variety erotic scenarios. Before the feature presentation began, however, our viewing pleasure was interrupted by the shockingly bright shine of a couple of police flashlights. Apparently, the projectionist had watched us sneak in through the backdoor in an eye-catching flood of sunlight, and summoned the officers. We were hauled into the lobby, cuffed, driven to the station, and our parents were called to come and pick us up. Because we were underage, and because the theatre chose not to pursue litigation, that was the end of it – except, of course, for months of ribbing by my father.
My third confrontation with the fuzz was more than a decade later. In 1991, California Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of AB 101 sent a repugnant message to the statewide populous implying that it was OK for private employers to discriminate against gays on the basis of sexual preference. At the same time the gay community was reeling from an ever-increasing death toll due to AIDS, and seething with frustration because of the government’s steadfast indifference in the face of the growing epidemic. Our collective Queer fuse was dangerously short, and the veto of AB101 was just the spark it needed to ignite. When the governor arrived in town for a political event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art soon after the veto, protesters began to gather outside. I happened to be working as a waiter for the company that was hired to cater that evening’s affair and when the melee outside began to move off toward Century City where the Governor would be staying for the night, I dropped my serving tray and joined the angry, vocal throng. By the time the chanting mob converged on the street in front of the Century Plaza Hotel, a small gang of protesters had piled into the bed of the pick-up truck I was driving. The melee grew and before the end of the evening I found myself sitting in the back of a police bus with my wrists zip-tied together. My public defender was eventually able to negotiate my charge down to a traffic violation, and my record was cleared after a couple of visits to court and a day-long stint in traffic school. I consider that night in custody, and the days and weeks of community unifying marches that followed, to be the episodes of my political awakening. And so it is that I look back on that particular arrest with a certain amount of nostalgic fondness.
So, now to the serious meat of my rap sheet sandwich – the humiliating incarceration that happened in between those two arrests.
It was 1988 and hard on the heels of my breakup with Guy I was feeling down, lonely, and burdened by a heavy load of guilt – specifically for having spent two years in an intimate relationship with someone while keeping my HIV diagnosis a secret. During this low period of self-doubt, I found myself in Long Beach one weekend visiting a good friend. This person could always be depended upon to provide me with a blast of life-affirming energy, and I thought that some time in his company might help me to get my mind clear.
After a night of bar hopping, my mind was still cloudy, somewhat distracted, and also awash in alcohol. Somewhere along our frolicking journey that evening my friend and I made the acquaintance of a reveling stranger, and much like Dorothy and Toto on their way to Oz we decided to add him to our wandering foray. Eventually my friend and I wound up back at his house with our new buddy in tow. The three of us lounged platonically for a while in the living room, talking and laughing. When the night began to wane, our new buddy decided that he should probably be on his way. I walked him out – in my socked feet – just to say goodnight. Before too long, however, the two of us were caught-up in a relatively heavy petting session in the front seat of his car.
A short time passed and somehow in the frenzied wrestling my new buddy’s shirt had been removed and flung into the backseat. With the radio playing and the windows sufficiently fogged, neither one of us noticed the arrival of the squad car until the sharp glare of two police flashlights cut through the car’s steamy interior. The harsh intrusion put a quick end to our passionate grappling and before I knew it I was sitting handcuffed and shoeless in the back of a cop car. Similarly restrained on the seat next to me sat my new buddy. Still shirtless, he was shaking and sobbing to the point that snot was dripping from his chin and trailing down his bare chest. He was petrified. To this day I still wonder what life circumstance he was in that had him so terrified to be caught. Was he completely closeted? Would he have no one to call for help? I would never know. His crying continued and he didn’t once look at me during our ride to the station, and after processing we were placed into separate holding areas. I was subjected to a variety of homophobic insults and ongoing verbal humiliation during my booking, and there was a constant, disdainful snickering aimed in my direction by passing officers. Eventually, I was photographed, fingerprinted, and then tossed into a large drunk tank with five or six other detainees – still no sign of my new buddy.
For hours I sat shoeless on the cold, concrete floor. I did my best to avoid eye contact with my cellmates and prayed that I would be out before I needed to use one of the completely exposed toilets that sat at either end of the wide-open cell.
I was not quite twenty-five-years-old that night. I contemplated my existence. It had taken me almost a quarter of a century to get to that moment. And there I sat. There I sat, eternally judged a sinner by the Catholic Church. There I sat, long deemed as less-than and undeserving in the land of the free. There I sat, three years poisoned by a dirty and deadly virus. And there I sat, now an accused degenerate in the eyes of the law. I had arrived at the bottom of my existence, or very near, and the view from that depth was frighteningly dim.
My roommate bailed me out the next morning, and after a series of court appearances over the following months I was convinced by my public defender to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and a lewd act. The secret of that horrible night followed me like a shameful shadow for decades. I did my best to keep the information from almost everyone I knew, and I long lived in fear that the details of the incident would somehow surface during a background check for employment.
In the years since, I have learned to emotionally embrace the memory of that night. I cling tight to the lessons I learned, and I am grateful to have had an opportunity to view my life from such a unique perspective. I eventually went back to court in 2000 and had my record officially expunged.
So there it is; the scandalous meat of my rap sheet sandwich. Exposed. No pun intended. Exhale.
It is almost exactly another quarter of a century since that awful night, and again I find myself shoeless and in the wee hours of the morning. Contemplating the nature of my existence. It has taken me a full half century to get to this moment. And here I sit. Here I sit, still eternally judged a sinner by an archaic religion that I have long left behind. Here I sit, more equal than ever in the land of the free. Here I sit, almost three decades a survivor of a potentially deadly virus. And most amazingly, now here I sit in the eyes of a child as someone’s dad. I may not have yet reached the pinnacle of my existence, but I am feeling that it may be very near, and the view from this height is amazingly bright.