Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 16

Floyd's Times

The last thing I wanted to do after jamming with Jerome Bing was to attend a lecture on the history of AIDS or to have a heart to heart talk on the history of the LGBTQ movement. I remained woefully ignorant of how hateful those times were for gay people. I had no knowledge on how many gay men died during the epidemic. I was nineteen and the idea of death didn't appeal to me.

Other than that, the mushroom soup was delicious. The cornbread didn't taste much like what came out of the cornbread box mixes my mother used to make. It resembled cornbread but Cody's was filled with flavor and it had a distinctive taste. It took Cody fifteen minutes to get it mixed and into the oven, once he had the ingredients on the counter next to the bowl. It was time well spent. With a big dollop of butter, well, I ate three pieces, and bread wasn't high on my list of calories to consume. Once I got beyond hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly and bologna sandwiches, bread became boring.

"There's maybe a bowl of mushroom soup left and plenty of cornbread. Would you like more soup, Floyd?" Cody asked.

"No, baby. Can you put it in the fridge for me? I'll look forward to it tomorrow. This is the most I've eaten since you were here last."

"Chocolate pudding for dessert," Cody said. "I needed to chill it for maximum flavor. It's ready. Would you like bowl, Floyd?"

"No, Cody. You kids have some and I'll try it tomorrow. Sweets might set my stomach off with so much food already in it. I don't want to take the risk. I'll have some tomorrow once I've digested this wonderful meal."

Cody and I sat eating the chocolate pudding. I couldn't remember the last time I had pudding. I loved chocolate in any form but I stopped after one bowl.

"Where do you kids get your information on AIDS?" Floyd asked me. "Knowing about it is the only safe way to keep from getting it."

"Questions we have about sex are to be directed to the nurse and we can have a conversation with her. She's ancient, and I imagine her knowledge on AIDS is as archaic as she is," I said. "Boys tend not to discuss what to do with their junk with old ladies. That's my experience anyway."

"I'm sure they think that if no one mentions sex, teenagers won't think of it and if you don't mention AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, no one will catch it. There's always a chance it'll just go away, and there's a gigantic bird that can't fly and it sticks its head in the sand," Floyd said.

"An ostrich?" I asked.

"That's the one. Sticking our head in the sand doesn't solve the problem," Floyd said. "Have you asked your teachers how ignorance worked for them? For intelligent people, when it comes to sex, well, it's a little like a bird trying to fly using only one wing," Floyd said.

"Not that they want us to know about," I said. "Teachers do it?"

"I would imagine they do," Floyd said, as he considered it. "Otherwise, where do little teachers come from?"

I chuckled. Cody listened.

"The teachers who actually like kids, and who do their best to give us something substantial to take with us, would face repercussions should they try to educate us properly about sex. They aren't the ones with their heads in the sand."

"I smell a politician in here somewhere? God bless them. What would we do without politicians to light the way? I can hear them cussing the dark as we speak."

"A few drive around in cars looking for... fun," Cody said.

"Politicians or teachers?" Floyd asked.

"Both, but hardly even together," Cody said. "If they aren't sleeping with each other."

I laughed.

"One would think they'd have safer outlets for their sex drives," I said.

"You never drove the Silverado around looking for a nice boy you could love until your dick went soft?" Cody said.

"No, I find boys I want to love in arcades," I said, and Cody looked at me. "I did get into a strange car once."

"Do tell," Floyd said. "It has to be better than television."

"I got a lesson on finding what I want so I'm able to tell the person I'm with. He also said, 'It will make it a lot easier on you and the people who try to love you."

"I can't argue with that logic," Floyd said. "Advice to live by."

"I haven't used the advice yet," I said.

"I'm sure you have time to apply it," Floyd said. "The voice of experience. No end to what you can learn in the front seat of cars." "I think out of sight out of mind sums up our sex education," I said. "Teenage boys are told to ask the nurse if we have questions. Athletes are encouraged to ask the doctors. Athletes need physicals before we can play sports at school. Mostly they check to see if our heart is beating and if we have a blood pressure," I said.

"Sounds thorough," Floyd said.

"About as thorough as they think a red blooded American male needs," I said. "We're tough, especially if we play sports. Everyone knows that."

"The last time I saw a doctor was when I was born, I think," Cody said. "I'd live if I decided to. Otherwise, all bets were off."

Each mentioned of Cody's childhood made it sound ominous.

"Did you tell Clete about your father?" Floyd asked.

"Oh, he knows I had one," Cody said.

"We know surprisingly little about each other," I said. "I see him in between his dates. Of course this date isn't what I thought. What I've learned about Cody's dates, he has good taste in friends. I'm a well bred boy from the burbs and I don't have friends like his," I said.

"He's in a place where there are only two kinds of people," Floyd said. "There are the jerks. I call these the a'holes, and then there are the real people who have learned to live with their disadvantages and we turn out surprisingly well. Disadvantages happily supplied by our culture, I might add. No end to their generosity, but we learn to adapt, cope, and thrive."

"I never felt disadvantaged," I said.

"You weren't. You didn't come out. You made the most of the advantages you had," Floyd said. "And there's nothing wrong with that. Many kids are motivated to live simply while they grow up. It's not for everyone but it can work out fine. You're OK," Floyd said.

"I have my moments. It surprises me how little I know," I said. "I did stay celibate until after I graduated from high school."

"I bet that's an interesting story. How old were you when you realized that you were different?" Floyd asked.

"I knew when I was nine or ten but I don't remember a time when I wasn't interested in boys. I like girls fine but I have no romantic feelings for them. Otherwise, I'm a normal boy."

"Except your teammates would have run you off had they known you were gay," Floyd said.

"My closest friends were on the same teams. One wasn't athletic but he went with the team, handed out towels when we came out of the showers, and he was a gopher for the coaches," I said.

"Handed out towels and kept an eye on things?" Floyd asked.

"I can't prove it but I think so. My best friends from high school had circle jerks. I watched but didn't participate," I said. "I suppose if they knew I was gay, they'd have been less willing to have let me watch. That was my sex life back then."

"This is celibacy athletic style?" Floyd asked. "It sounds a lot like boys having sex with each other. Were all the athletes that celibate?"

"Half claimed to be celibate. It's what they told coaches."

"Right, and I've got some mountain top property I'll sell you cheap," Floyd said. "The ones who say they're celibate probably don't masturbate either. Which means they aren't only not celibate but they're also liars. That's my opinion. I went to school a long time ago. Maybe sex isn't on kids' minds these days. I can't recall thinking about anything else when I was in high school."

"The computer is sex education for most of us. I guess, if boys stay off the porn sites for long enough, they might get their questions answered." I said.

"If you have safe sex, you'll avoid STDs. That's the main thing you need to know. Everything else is directly connected to that," Floyd said. "Any information that doesn't tell you to use a condom is woefully incomplete."

"Which is technically called the thing you put on your dick, when you're having sex, according to my friends," I said. "They had it all figured out by the time they were twelve."

"If you're smart you'll fall in love and remain true to your partner. Since people change their partners regularly these days, even that has become a reason to practice safe sex all the time. If you've been together for over six months, are monogamous, and you test negative, you are fine. The drugs today leave HIV+ folks with an undetectable viral load. You can't transmit AIDS when you're undetectable. That's why it's so important for someone like me to take his meds. The drugs are no picnic, but when taken accordingly, you won't infect someone else."

"Technically we should see the end of AIDS soon," I said.

"No, the rate of transmission is still pretty high. Tens of thousands of men are infected in this country each year. The highest infection rate is among teens and African Americans. Education is lacking," Floyd said.

"Why, if they have drugs that can make it so you can't give it to anyone, are people still giving it to other people," I asked.

"The same reason the hemophiliacs died and for the same reason it took ten years to develop the first drugs to treat AIDS. The powers that be refuse to fund a comprehensive program to eliminate AIDS. They eliminated small pox and polio, and they can eliminate AIDS if everyone tested and if HIV+ folks take their meds. It's the same ignorance that allowed the disease to run rampant that allows it to continue to spread."

"Do you watch television?" Cody asked.

"Not if I can avoid it," I said.

"I watch during the day," Floyd said. "It's in the background. I'm not really watching most of the time."

"The war on drugs is alive and well," Cody said. "I've never heard AIDS mentioned but there are drugs for everything you can imagine. If there's a war on the stuff, why don't they stop advertising drugs? Does that just mean people are going to want to buy whatever it is they see advertise on TV?"

"Common sense never cured anyone of hypochondria," I said.

"Why let them push drugs if there's a war on drugs?" Cody said. "It sounds counterproductive and people should let doctors tell them what to take to keep them healthy. Isn't that called health care?"

"It was once illegal to advertise drugs on television," Floyd said.

"I hate to change the subject, but you were talking about there being no LGBTQ before AIDS? What's that about, Floyd?" I asked. "There's always been LGBTQ as far back as I can remember."

"You've got to remember that before the modern gay movement, and that would take us back to June 1969, gay people were invisible. We didn't know which of us were gay. We knew the lesbians, they had boobs, and they knew us, we had dicks," Floyd said. "Other than that we were clueless."

"I don't get it. We suddenly became visible and thought LGBTQ sounded good?" I asked.

"That's not that far off, Clete. The drag queens dragged the rest of us kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. The leather boys and butch guys were far to frightened to fight back."

"Drag queens? How did we arrive at drag queens?" I asked.

"Drag queens including all trans women of the day. No one considered the idea of being transgendered beyond those who were."

"I don't know how that would work," I said. "A drag queen is a man who dresses like a woman. They aren't gay but they are LGBTQ."

"When there was no LGBTQ, all transgendered women were considered to be drag queens. We've come along way since then."

"That's where it's confusing. Why did the drag queens fight?"

"I don't want to bore you, but if you'd like to listen, I'll tell you the story," Floyd said.

"If it's part of gay history, I should know where the fight for equal rights started, shouldn't I?" I asked.

"You should. They'd be female impersonators, entertainers, or transgendered in today's parlance, or as Vanilla says, 'They dress up,'" Floyd said.

"When the Stonewall was raided by the cops in June of 1969, it was nothing unusual, the drag queens were incensed. Gay men, patrons of gay bars, were doing something illegal at that time. There were laws against being homosexual. I'll say that again, being homosexual was illegal."

"Isn't that a little bit ridiculous?" I asked. "How do you make a law against a state of being?"

"Ask the politicians who wrote the laws that one," Floyd said. "It sounds crazy when you say it. The drag queens were tired of being hassled by the cops and on that night they fought back. Their anger and resistance surprising the cops. They fought the cops. "

"Drag queens pushed the cops out of a bar?" I asked.

"They did. In those days cops went into gay bars, dragging out one or two patrons, and they beat the hell out of them and then they'd leave quite pleased with themselves. The cops believed the faggots were lucky they didn't arrest them, and the cops worked off some of their aggression. It's the way it was back then. That night they went into Stonewall and they got their asses handed to them by drag queens," Floyd said.

"I'm not qualified to explain the violence. There were fires set, cars overturned, and it qualified as a riot. The cops said the queers were out of control and they were unable to contain the violence," Floyd said.

"In any event, it wasn't very macho and New York City's finest considered themselves to be macho. They didn't intend to take an ass kicking lying down," Floyd said. "Which is why we refer to Stonewall as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement."

"You said the cops weren't taking it lying down and that's how we get to Stonewall being significant in gay history?" I asked.

"We do. The cops, being cops, did what came naturally. They called the incident at the Stonewall a gay riot and they asked for reinforcements, and that's when it became a police riot," Floyd said. "They could have walked away and let the drag queens think they'd won a victory. They could have returned at a later time and given them a taste of police justice."

"The cops came back with more cops and more cop cars. What started as good old boys bashing a few queer heads escalated. They intended to take their wrath out on the crazy drag queens. The original cops and their bruised egos mounted another raid with even more cops this time, and they advanced on the Stonewall. The drag queens once again attacked the cops, pushing them back into the street," Floyd said.

"How do drag queens win a battle with the cops?" I asked.

"They stood their ground. The Stonewall belonged to the queers and they decided they'd had enough," Floyd said. "Now there is a caveat to this story that no one paid attention to at the time, but it explains the mood of the drag queens."

"I'm afraid to ask," I said.

"Judy Garland, goddess to most gay men and every drag queen worth her salt, died that week. Judy was the most beloved figure in fagdom. Judy Garland saw us. She adored us and we adored her. Like Liz Taylor, who would later bring a great deal of attention to the AIDS crisis, Judy endured the constant harassment from being a sex object. Gay men appreciated them without chasing them and wanting them physically. For goddesses this is irresistible, and a love affair with gay men was inevitable for both women and Judy had just died."

"Judy got gay men or gay men got her. They weren't invisible to Judy and she was an avid supporter of gay men. Gay men with all our peculiarities, fetishes, and paranoia. Believe Judy loved them and they adored her right back. Because of this, the drag queens were in a particularly pissy ass mood. That's when New York City's finest came upon the scene. They learned it was best not to fuck with angry drag queens, while they were in mourning over their goddess."

"The modern gay movement came about because a movie star died?" I asked. "It had to begin somewhere, I guess."

"A symbol died. In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland, Dorthy in the movie, won the hearts of gay men everywhere. During World War II, with gay men coming together from all over the country as soldiers, they identified each other by saying, 'I'm a friend of Dorthy.' That was code for, 'I'm queer.'"

"I always liked that movie," Cody said.

"They used to play it every year at Thanksgiving," Floyd said. "We did have our little victories. And Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow was singing to us queers."

"Somewhere over the rainbow," Cody sang softly.

"The raid on the Stonewall would have been quickly forgotten, except this is when the people got involved. Word went out, 'The cops are raiding the Stonewall and the drag queens are kicking their asses.' The people in the Village were artists, writers, musicians, people on the fringes of acceptability, They were having none of it and people flooded into the street in front of the Stonewall. They stood between the police barricades and the bar," Floyd said. "They just stood there."

"On the Yellow Brick Road," Cody said.

"The cops stood behind barricades with a force they planned to use to subdue the drag queens. What did they do now? Hundreds, maybe a thousand residents of Greenwich Village stood between the cops and the Stonewall. By now many if not most of New York City's police cars lined the adjoining streets, lights flashing. People stood in the way of an assault on the Stonewall," Floyd said. "The police were perplexed."

"What did they do?" Cody asked, focused on the story teller.

"The cops stood on their side of the barricades and watched the people standing on the other side of the barricades. They couldn't charge into the crowd and start busting heads, no matter how badly they wanted to do that. It had become a standoff. The news had spread. Reporters came to talk to cops and take pictures. How did the police explain that a bunch of drag queens threw them out of the Stonewall, not once but twice? This was not the image the New York City Police Department wanted to project."

"So now it was making news?" I said.

"Now it had become a big fucking deal. They hadn't confined it to the Village. Everyone knew that there was a standoff in the Village and people came to see what was going on," Floyd said. "The assault on the bar was off. The mayor and the city administrators, along with the honchos from the police department came to put their heads together to end the standoff. There had to be a peaceful solution if they wanted to avoid further embarrassment," Floyd said. "Even politicians knew there needed to be a peaceful ending."

"Today they'd have brought up the armored vehicles and opened fire on people in the way of a police raid," I said. "No one would care how it looked. You fuck with the cops and your ass is grass."

"No doubt," Floyd said. "This went on for three days. Actually it went on from Saturday night, all day Sunday, and Monday morning, when the police finally made their move."

"I haven't heard any of this," I said.

"There move was a strategic withdrawal. The people lived in the Village and a few hundred came and stood for a few hours and then a few hundred more replaced them. The same people didn't stand there from Saturday night until Monday morning. They had an advantage. As people came and went, the police cars started driving away. One at a time officers got in their vehicles and drove away. In the early hours of Monday morning, they took down the barricades and the last cops left. The people watched, not knowing what they were seeing. Once the cops were gone, the people began to leave. The drag queens left the bar and Greenwich Village began to wake up for a new week. The siege was over."

"There could have been a bloodbath," I said.

"Yes, it could have ended badly but cooler heads prevailed," Floyd said. "The people in charge, the political class, wondered, 'What would happen if we just drove away.' When the reporters asked, they could say, 'What trouble with the queers? We all get along just fine."

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if conflicts could be ended that way," Cody said sadly. "Everyone simply goes home."

"Nothing is that easy," I said. "There's that whole testosterone thing. Real men don't back down."

"I saw that movie," Cody said.

"Not usually. Then the city fathers of New York and of every major city around the country realized what really happened at Stonewall. You can't keep a thing like that under wraps. The reporters reported. People read about it. Every mayor of every major city knew that he was sitting on a queer time bomb, and if something wasn't done to disarm it, it was going to blow them right out of office."

"What did they do then?" I asked.

"They began changing the laws. They took laws making it illegal to be homosexual off the books. They headed off trouble. As coincidental as all these things were, the confluence of them became represented by Stonewall, and there was where we jump started the modern gay movement, and once we were no longer criminals, we could have our bars, baths, shops, and businesses. We could add a considerable amount of value to the economy. Who knew faggots had so much money to spend? No politician could object to that and they all took a victory lap. They sure were enlightened folks," Floyd said.

"I'm sure the cops thought, 'We'll get you faggots next time,' but there would be no next time. Gay people, and the word gay replaced faggot and queer during the 60s, were more visible. We weren't seen as disgusting by everyone. The people in the Village didn't see us that way and the modern movement had begun," Floyd said.

"You weren't at Stonewall?' I asked.

"No, I was just reaching my teens when that happened. It became part of my growing up gay. Stonewall was what gay pride is about and gay kids had something positive to look at," Floyd said.

"I didn't know the details," I said. "I knew Stonewall was where the modern gay movement started, but I couldn't imagine what love was all about until now. And to think, we owe our rights to a dead movie star."

"Two dead movie stars now. And a lot of gay men died to bring attention to the cause," Floyd lamented. "A lot of dying went on before real progress was made and a lot of people ended up in the streets before we were seen as something other than perverts."

"It could have ended with a lot dead queers," I said, thinking about the standoff and of what happened at the Stonewall.

"It's up to the people to change things," Cody said.

"Yes, it is," Floyd said. "We are the people. It's up to us, and it's up to you kids. You've been given a foothold on equal rights. You'll fight the politicians for any gains you make, and they will resist and call you names, but if you don't back down, you'll reach equality."

"I know more than I knew," I said. "I appreciate you taking the time to tell me these things," I said. "I've never felt like I was part of anything. Since I came downtown, I'm beginning to realize I am a part of something very important. We're at a critical time if we truly want equal rights."

"I think we are," Floyd said. "Marriage was the shiny object. Since some of us are able to marry, there's a tendency to think that is the prize, but it isn't. What politicians have given, they can take away. We need to keep moving forward so we aren't pushed backward."

"I'm still not clear on LGBTQ," I said. "I know what the initials mean. How did AIDS make those initials mean something. I don't get that. Weren't we always here, no matter which letter we fit under?"

"Yes, we were always there but we were invisible. You might say the drag queens at Stonewall trashed our invisibility shield. People began to see us," Floyd said.

"How did they see what was always there?" I asked.

"We were invisible. We knew nothing about each other. We were kept separated from our people. Each letter represents millions of gay people. At first there were gay men and lesbians. Before Stonewall we were queers and dykes. Everyone knew lesbians were girls because they had boobs. They knew we were boys because we had the stuff that hangs," Floyd said. "That was the easy part. The BTQ took time to develop. We had no idea who we were. We each came out of our own closet. Look at the inside of a closet. There's room for one only. We grew up isolated and alone. We discovered a few people like us. We told no one and we didn't speak about it. This is how they kept us as their whipping post for so long. We were simply people you insulted. Everyone hated us and no one gave a damn. It's the way it had always been."

"So the L and the G came first," I said.

"They did," Floyd said. "The bisexuals were always there. We didn't trust anyone who said they liked boys, but they liked girls. Faggots, the most hated people around, didn't want bisexuals to be entitled to their identity. Do you see how insane that is? Who are we to tell anyone what they feel? And so we have our B on our letter salad," Floyd said. "Now we are well into the time of AIDS and dying makes you want to find out who you are."

"Now, what was once lumped together as drag queens and cross dressers have become transgendered. The usual suspects are seeking to deny them their identity. Who the hell are they to tell anyone what they should feel? They crapped out with how they dealt with AIDS. They have no credibility with queers, and so we have our T, because we are beginning to understand how diverse queers are."

"We need to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to recognize people as being who they tell us they are. We are finally standing up for each other. We're standing with the blacks, women, indigenous peoples, and they're standing with us. Anyone denied equal rights will get them when we stand up together and demand equal rights. And the Q, queer or questioning, takes us back to our beginnings. We're all queers. They once tormented us and made us fear them by calling us queers. Now we stick it in their ear. They have no power over us. They are as flawed, if not more flawed, than we are," Floyd said. "And there you have LGBTQ, Clete. Be proud that the word that once made us cower is now our battle cry. We are no longer afraid. We are no longer alone."

"I do," I said. "Now I get it. It took a while to get here from where we started."

"It did," Floyd said. "We weren't as careful as we should have been with listening to other people about their feelings. When you remember how long gay men were denied a right to their feelings, how did we get off trying to tell anyone how they felt?"

Cody sat next to me on the couch after collecting the rest of the dishes and taking them to the kitchen to wash them.

He leaned against me and took my hand in his, kicking off his shoes, he curled his feet under him.

His hand was soft and warm.

As Floyd ran out of things to say, I ran his words through my mind. He'd given me an education. I now knew the basic history of my people, people like me. I felt like I was part of something special."

The LGBTQ movement was young, as I was young, and we'd be intertwined for as long as I lived. I didn't know where I was heading or how long I'd stay, but the first thing I'd do when I got somewhere was to make contact with whatever LGBTQ movement I could find.

I was going to move. I would travel. While I traveled I'd keep up with the movement I belonged to. I could carry messages from one group to another. I could inform people in one town what was going on in other towns I visited.

What I'd learned would allow me to have greater opportunities and no matter where I went, I'd always be with people like me.

"You look tired," I said.

"I am. I'll go to bed early tonight," Cody said.

"Who with?" I asked.

He dropped my hand and sat up.

"I'm sorry. I say stupid stuff but I don't mean anything by it. This is new to me and I'm still figuring it out," I said.

He leaned back against me and took my hand.

"I'm too tired to argue."

"I feel good," Floyd said. "Being able to pass on what I know to you kids gives me strength. I may not be done yet."

"You'll be fine. You always come back," Cody said.

"You should write a book, Floyd. You make history exciting. I had no history beyond my life, until you told me about it."

"I should," Floyd said. "I see things much clearer now. You want to hear something funny?"

"I'm game," I said.

"When Anton died, I figured I'd find another lover one day. Not the perfect fit he was for me, but someone I could love. When my friends died, I didn't want to know anyone that well again. Especially I never wanted to love anyone again. Today, though I haven't had a sexual relationship since Anton, I love him more than ever. Those feelings are as clear to me today as they were when he was alive. Love doesn't go away. You can put it way, but it's always there."

"You definitely should write a book," I said. "I've never loved anyone but you make it sound like something I want to do."

Cody snuggled closer.

I smelled Cody for the first time. His body was warm against mine.

I'd never felt this way about anyone before. I didn't know what love was, but I was sure I was heading in the right direction.

I felt better about myself for knowing more about gay history. I was connected to millions of people by virtue of what I felt and I felt good about it. The words, 'my people,' came to mind.

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