Meade Memorial

Eastern Standard Time:
Welcome to the Talking-Bird Farm


This column appeared in July, 1995, in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

REHOBOTH, Del. -- G. Hiroshima is sipping his coffee and leafing through the copy of Peterson's Field Guide to The Birds that I bought for the screened porch here. One of his feet is ticking as precisely as a metronome -- he is almost never completely still. "Those black birds with the red shoulders?" he says. "The ones I like so much?"

"Yeah?" I say.

"Are you sitting?"

I glance down at my chair. "Yeah."

"They're called red-winged blackbirds."

"Golly."

He is quiet for a minute, turning pages in the Field Guide. Everyone else is still asleep. G. Hiroshima and I have been talking about the previous weekend, about how our quiet beach house became a Peyton Place of sexual intrigue and envy. "The bird that makes the coo-coo-coo sound?" he says. "It's the mourning dove."

"Not some kind of owl, as previously hypothesized."

"Well, I never said it was an owl," says G. Hiroshima.

"You know the back way Ron told us about for getting here? On 16? You pass this great sign: 'Welcome Scott's Talking Bird Farm.' If I had any imagination at all I'd write the novel that that's waiting to be the title of."

"And it would be about?"

A robin is splashing and preening in a puddle at the lawn's end. "It would be about men who preen too much, and men who love them," I say. "Next on Oprah. Will you come with me on the book tour?"

Actually the red-winged blackbird is my favorite too, at least among the birds we see here regularly. The Field Guide calls the red markings on its shoulders "epaulets," and their subtlety appeals. It's a garish world out there; the least restraint seems positively elegant, in birds as well as in people. Red-winged blackbirds present themselves as restrained.

But then they have no choice. We, on the other hand, get to make all kinds of choices that affect how other people think of us -- what to wear, what to drive, how to behave, how selective to be in picking our friends, whether to work out, whether to keep up with movies, music, wine, Details, The New York Review of Books, the oh-so-A-list beach-house parties touted in the gossip column of Letters From Camp Rehoboth. The sum of all these choices is who each of us is, stylistically. And maybe more than stylistically.

Gay people get to make a lot more of these choices, on average, than do straights. Once you come out of the closet, once you violate the most important of society's thousand prescriptions, you get to deal with the other 999 any way you want, even making yourself over entirely. You can become butch or femme, drag queen or gym bunny, opera buff or leather daddy or fraternity boy, or anything in between. This is harder than it sounds. In a subculture as hypercritical as ours, it's not easy choosing a personality that's both comfortable and credible.

Albert has chosen to be quiet and preppy, to wear starched Ralph Lauren button-downs or his Penn sweatshirt, although with those eyelashes he could be just about anything and get away with it. Paula Jane has opted for kitsch-cool glasses, the same kind my mother wears in photographs from 1959, and for an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. Scott has chosen to collect antique appliances -- a rotating Westinghouse fan, a floor-model radio in a Deco cabinet, a black dial phone with a real bell. Tom has decided to be beefy, and has done a good enough job that a hundred pairs of eyes watch him as we walk onto the beach, that a hundred men don't look away until we have unfolded all our chairs and towels and he slips out of his shorts to reveal the Speedo beneath.

G. Hiroshima has decided to drive a station wagon that he calls "The Donna Reed Mobile" and to know as much about table etiquette as Miss Manners ("We put the fork on the napkin only at picnics, or in other circumstances in which the napkin might blow away"). Sometimes he also affects a childlike, whining selfishness in which he has discovered great comic potential: He tells stories that set you up to think he's absolutely horrid, but then he comes out with a funny and self-deprecating punch line that makes you laugh and relax and breathe a secret sigh of relief -- you don't have to hate this guy after all.

Me, I'm still working on my choices, although it feels like I've been making them forever. In eighth grade I started crossing my sevens and my Z's, thinking that made me more sophisticated. In my high school's lunchroom I started drinking coffee, in college Yushki told me which gin to buy. After I moved to Washington I took up cooking, got my ear pierced, bought a mountain bike, inherited Limoges, got my ear pierced in another place, started making my own bread, traded in the sensible Jetta for the midlife-crisis Jeep. (Paula Jane's eyes go wide when she hears this. "So you have," she says, pausing as if breathless, "two gearshifts?") What other people think of all these contradicting styles I can no longer guess.

"Is it a good thing," I ask my friend Wil while we're out biking, "that we're always trying to make ourselves over into what we think other people want, what we hope they'll perceive as cool? I mean, shouldn't we just be content with who we are naturally? Does every gay bar have to look like some kind of talking-bird farm, chock full of men who've preened and preened in hopes of being attractive?"

"Or are we nothing naturally?" Wil asks.

"You mean, like, we have to borrow from here and there to be anything at all? A little drag, a little opera, a little leather? Is that good?"

"Leather? No, none for me, thanks." Wil's a vegetarian.

"I meant the preening."

"Maybe it's not good or bad," Wil says. "Maybe it just is."

Copyright © 1995 by Lawrence Biemiller. Published July, 1995, in The Washington Blade.