Good Tidings of Comfort and Joy?

It’s official! The holidays are here! 

When Eric and I do our grocery shopping, we go to a market we affectionately call “Freddy’s”; a Kroger brand store. This store is huge. It not only sells produce, but has home furnishings, electronics, and apparel. 

For major feed holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we plan as if we’re going on an all day excursion. We make sure that we’re both caffeinated, have food in our bellies to prevent either one of us from getting hangry, and gas in the tank. Our market provides groceries not only to local residents in North Portland, but also residents in neighboring Vancouver, Washington who take advantage of Oregon’s sales tax free status. This means we sometimes must drive around the market several times to get a parking spot. Normally we’d walk to the store but when we are doing large scale entertaining for dinner, we drive so we can minimize the stress on our fingers and save our backs.  

In the store, the game is on. Eric and I double-check to make sure one of us has grabbed the grocery list! It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve arrived at the store thinking that the other remembered to bring the list and are forced to shop from our work-worn memories. We’ve also had this with our wallets too which meant that one of us (me) has to quickly walk home to retrieve them and return without having to abandon our cart. Not even in the store for a minute, we have our first challenge to overcome in the outer lobby; finding a shopping cart. We split up to check the other entrance for a cart to begin the Adventures in Holiday Shopping; 2019 edition! 

After methodically checking things off the list, it’s time for check out! Both self- checkout sections are packed with lines trailing into the produce aisles. The regular lines aren’t any better either. Some people lose all common sense during the “holi-craze” and block the path with their cart. Then we have to do a dance to jockey for a path to get by. Eric and I have this system when we shop together and head to checkout, whomever isn’t pushing the cart will walk ahead and check for a faster moving check out line. Usually this is the line with the most experienced checker. This time it doesn’t matter, all lines are jacked. We have no choice but to be patient and wait it out. Lucky for me I have Words with Friends on my phone to help pass the time. After 30 minutes, we inch our way forward but now there is a problem. We’re three people back, and the elderly person at the checkout is having technical difficulties. I’m not sure exactly what’s causing the issue but there is a collective groan from everyone behind them. Finally, the person completes their transaction and soon it’s our turn! By the time we returned to the car, more than an hour passed and it’s dark (the downside to Daylight Savings Time).

With Thanksgiving now a recent memory, the Christmas season is in full swing complete with holiday shows and carols. The ads for Black Friday and Cyber Monday splash on the screen like rapid fire strobes in a dance club; buy your loved one a car (usually a Cis heterosexual couple), your family will appreciate you year-round with an 85” inch television, or give her diamonds to really express how you feel this year. The commercials practically say we’re all losers if we don’t comply. Thank goodness, Eric is happy with his wheels, our 52” inch television, and isn’t fond of jewelry. I’ll have to find another way of showing my affections! Maybe I can bundle up my love, respect, and adoration? I understand. It’s hard not to get swept up into the madness of the season. When it comes to purchasing gifts, neither Eric or I have a want for anything that falls into the realm of materialism. If it’s something we need, we’ll simply buy it. The element of surprise and shiny wrapping paper (which isn’t recyclable btw) to conceal the gift isn’t necessary. 

If this is the most wonderful time of the year, as a certain holiday song would have us believe, why do I want to scream and it’s only the first week of December? For those of us who celebrate Christmas, and for those of us who must endure it, this jingly holiday season feels like it started back in September. Some well-known chain hardware store, actually had their artificial trees in place before Halloween. Yes, retailers are trying to tap into the green money stream sooner. I would also encourage sharing some of that holiday shopping love by supporting local small businesses too!

The winter holiday now has become less about the significance of its origins and more about the driver and fiscal savior to the economy. I love a good sale too, it’s just that I wish it could happen without the hype and drama. I think it’s tragically entertaining that some people will line up hours or even days in advance just to save money on the latest digital trend of the moment. The “doorbuster” deals often live up (or down) to the name when shopping frenzies begin at “o” dark-thirty. This often results in crowds of sleep deprived people pushing and shoving each other to quickly snap up the merchandise. Hopefully this year’s gift grab will be less violent. Last year at the Riverchase Galleria shopping mall in Alabama there was a shooting. Former US Army serviceman Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. was mistaken as the shooter by police was killed. Bradford, who was carrying a licensed firearm was also African American.

So before anyone calls me out for being a “holiday hum-bugger” or Scrooge, this time of year does force me, and hopefully others, to slow down and appreciate what we have, rather than focus on what we don’t. I’m grateful for my partner, family, and the diverse friendships I have. Eric and I attended a Friendsgiving this year (Thanksgiving celebration with friends) and some of the attendees, we hadn’t seen in a while. In addition to the delicious dishes that were shared, what I enjoyed most was celebrating our time together. Christmas brings me the same joy. Instead of turkey, we serve prime rib as the main course purchased from our local butcher Gartner’s Country Meat Market. This savory dish has become a tradition with Eric and his visiting mother Joan from Lemmon, SD, during her annual Christmas visits. Last year after pulling a service number, they waited over an hour to purchase a 17-pound marbled beauty, due to the volume of eager carnivores waiting.

It’s hard to escape all of the influences and sparkly things pulling at us this time of the year. But what really keeps me sane, is focusing on the wonderful new experiences and special memories we can create. This is what makes me smile and gives me peace so I can feel the real joy in the world, things that can’t be boxed or bowed.

However you choose to celebrate, have a happy and peaceful holiday!

Time Escapes Me (US)

The constructs of time have been debated by scholars for centuries. For me, these “constructs” are too cerebral for my little brain to comprehend. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity stated, “time and space are not as constant as everyday life would suggest.” I only know enough about time to prompt me to get me where I need to go and when I need to be there. And like most people, time is something that we never have enough of. 

As a kid, I remember thinking about having an abundance of time and being bored because of it. Growing up in the 70s, my imagination and activities were fueled by my love for Saturday morning cartoons specifically the animated-series, the Super Friends; produced by Hanna-Barbera. My mother encouraged my older sister and me to go outside and play as a way of giving her time for herself. I didn’t mind, I would spend my time running around the neighborhood pretending I was flying and fighting monsters, bad guys, and occasionally my sister, like one of the caped heroes from my favorite show. 

That was then. Now the older I become, the more time I spend wondering and pondering about my life. I am officially a middle-aged man if you look at the numbers. In fact, my partner jokingly mentioned that we probably now qualify for senior discounts at certain businesses; a thought that never previously crossed my mind. I know that I’m not the only one making assertions about their state of maturity having recently made another trip around the sun. This year however, I’ve been confronted by a number of questions where there are no easy answers. Questions pertaining to my health (mortality), my career, and even the question of my and our purpose as global citizens. 

Time has made us complacent (intentionally and unintentionally), when it comes to engaging with others or taking action. For example, we say things like,”We should do dinner”, “Let’s do lunch,” or “I’ll do that tomorrow”, and more often than not, nothing ever comes from these proposals. I’ll be honest, I too am guilty of doing this, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. A short time ago I made a rare appearance at a club. I met this guy who was curious about the number of people I was being greeted by. He explained that he and his husband moved to Portland a while ago, but didn’t yet have a good network of friends. We exchanged digits and would text back and forth about getting together, but could never find the right time. In late July whilst texting about favorite fried chicken spots in Portland, that I learned via Facebook,that this friend died in his sleep. I too am guilty of allowing life’s distractions to interfere with my well and good intentions. My excuses usually include things like work, insufficient energy, lack of money, and even Eric (the hubster). With regard to Eric, he doesn’t ever prevent me from doing things, I sometimes just want to spend my downtime with him ❤. 

I have been thinking a lot about time lately. My recent birthday has caused me to seriously reflect on my life. Maybe I’m suffering from some version of a gay man’s “midlife” crisis. What makes this a gay man’s midlife crisis you may ask? Well, I’m gay in case you didn’t catch earlier hubster reference!  I don’t have any plans of buying a shiny new hybrid/electric car or suddenly running around with some young and muscled 20 – 30 something year old who’s looking for that “Daddy” figure; a title that definitely comes with this age. Personally, I would rather travel than deal with any superficial and temporary needs of someone’s fixation. 

Each morning as I awake, I wonder about the aches and pains that seem to appear out of nowhere for doing nothing out of the ordinary. I understand that our bodies can and do go through processes of shutting down over time, I’m just not there yet. I want to be around when we find a cure for the common cold, AIDS, and bad political decisions. Even as I write this piece, I’ll be heading to see the gastroenterologist later this week for a colonoscopy. The procedure is an important part of colon cancer prevention (Your courtesy Public Service Announcement). This isn’t my first time my ass gets probed (guys will know what I mean) but I hope to at least get a warm blanket and maybe a hug this time. With every check up I feel anxious, nervous, and even a little fearful. The question of whether cancer will again invade my body never really fades from my mind.

Eric has his dream job designing award winning homes. Even as a young boy, he would create home plans. He even made a wood-covered leather bound book to display his residential wonders. Once upon a time I did have my dream job performing (dancing, singing, and acting) in a variety show at a San Diego, California theme park (🐠🐙🐬+🌎) . It was joyous and physically demanding work. Sadly, it took its toll on my knees and very flat feet. I’m realistic, I don’t see myself dancing again in a show as I did some 30 years ago. What I enjoyed most, aside from the performances, was the positive energy we created. I also gained some amazing friendships too. My current job feeds my desire to do something good, just without the physical intensity. I also work with some talented, wonderful, and underpaid colleagues, but there are components of this work that make it feel uncertain and insecure. Is it too late to try and figure out what I want to do and be when I grow up? 

I view myself as a global citizen. In fact, my personal mantra is “Community-Motivated & Globally-Driven”. At one time in my life I was fortunate to spend several years living in Europe. While abroad, I traveled to other parts of the world and experienced some amazing and also harsh realities of our world. My life has been forever changed by these experiences and how I view myself in it, especially being a brown-person. Our foreign neighbors often know more about our American history and political climate than we do about theirs; not to mention the multiple languages individuals are required to learn. So what can we do to make us (U.S.) less insular and really be a global partner? Maybe it’s time for “US” to do better for preparing our kids for a future that has them thinking about their part in the world rather than just within their own cities, states, and country. 

These are just a few things that come to my middle-aged mind, and with the year 2020 less than 2 months away, only time will tell what the future has in store for US all. 


Liar, Liar, Couch on Fire!

Kids will say and do the darnedest things. I think the earliest memory of my first word was no. Not Mama or Dada. I was told that I was a cute child, and I was a tad mischievous too. When my Aunt Sally would visit, she would often catch me in an act of trickery and bad behavior (such as grabbing buttermilk biscuits when I wasn’t supposed to) which generally led me to get disciplined. I was probably 2 or 3 years of age, and for this particular infraction, it was usually a couple of smacks on the hand as a “warning”. I would retreat in an over-sized cabinet and pout. After about 15 minutes or so, I would quietly reappear and strike again. When successful, I would enjoy my forbidden contraband! When I was again caught, the punishment went from a smack on the hand to a spanking on my young and ample behind! 

When I began to understand that my actions led to certain consequences, I changed my behavior to minimize any negative reactions. Besides, I could no longer fit into any cabinetry and the tools of discipline had also changed to reflect my age and size. No longer was the swat or a rapid- fire spanking by hand the instrument of discipline. I, we, had graduated getting a whippin’ by belt, shoe, or even worst of all, the switch. The switch was usually the preferred tool of torment when I, or my older sister, really misbehaved. Yes people, in this Black, African-American household, corporal punishment was alive and thrived! There was no time out, sitting in a corner, or the suspension of computer privileges for us like there is for kids today. My mother had her hands full as a single parent and she strongly believed in the rule, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child”. She wanted me and my two siblings to be truthful, respectful, and courteous. Not just to her, but with other adults, and more importantly, towards each other. 

Sonya 10, Latonya 4, Me 9

When my mother married another military man, we soon found ourselves leaving the east coast and heading for Texas. Having only knowledge about Texas from the handful of western shows, we thought that we’d be living on a ranch and would be riding horses to school. We were living in San Antonio, TX and attending John Tyler Elementary school. Sadly, no horseback riding for us. In fact, we actually walked to school since it was only two blocks away. Truthfully, my two sisters and I were great kids for the most part. My youngest sister (Latonya) at the time, wasn’t really old enough to get into any trouble without being provoked by either my older sister or me. With my stepfather working on base and our mother working a part-time job, we needed to carry our share of the workload when it came to doing chores around the house. This sometimes even included cooking. Nothing too extensive or complicated, something simple like Kraft Hamburger Helper or even rice.

I remember one Sunday evening my mother and stepfather had a military friend over for dinner. Afterwards, we kids were assertively requested to go outside and play with Brutus, our loving German Shepherd Husky mix puppy. We didn’t view this exile or a punishment by any means and besides, they were going to be “talking” about grown up stuff. This friend of theirs must have been a smoker judging by the ashtray and matches that remained in the living room. It smelled of something else was being smoked and it wasn’t cigarettes! With my adult experiences today, I now know that it was a little herbal delight (weed, pot, ganja…you know what I mean) that was lingering in the air! 

The next day as we returned from school, my mother reminded me and my older sister that we had a few responsibilities to take care of while she and our stepfather were at work. I was responsible for cleaning up the dog poop in the backyard and Sonya, had to watch after Latonya and cook up a batch of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese before the parentals came home to finish up dinner. I really got the crappy end of the deal with the duties, but luckily Brutus didn’t leave too much of a mess in the yard. After I cleaned up, I headed back inside the house. Sonya was with Latonya in the kitchen measuring out the ingredients for the macaroni and cheese dish. I kept my sisters company briefly as they lovingly and patiently prepared this cheesy and zesty delight.

Out of boredom, I headed to the living room where the ashtray and matches still remained. At this point, I became fixated on the matches and did exactly what we were taught never to do, which was never play with fire. I struck a match and held it in my little fingers mesmerized by the smell of the sulfur and the color of the flame. I wasn’t paying attention to how close the flame crept towards my fingers. In a panic, I dropped the match in the ashtray and turned it over on the couch to prevent the smoke from alerting my sisters. I just forgot to check to make sure the flame was really out. I quickly retreated back to the kitchen as if nothing ever happened. 

What happened next really is a bit of a blur. I could still gaze in the living room from where I was seated in the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted smoke where the ashtray was placed. When I reached the couch, the match had burned (melted) away a perfect circle on the arm of the couch. Oh, shit! My little brain was working in overdrive to concoct a viable story as I set the ashtray inside the hole, now burned down to expose wood, hoping that no one (Ma) would notice. All of this happened within minutes as I stealthily returned again to the kitchen with my sisters. Then our mother came home (cue impending doom track)! The very moment our mother stepped into the kitchen, she knew something wasn’t quite right. She asked what was burning. Being that we were in the kitchen, that would be the logical source of the scent. It wasn’t until she went to the living room that we realized something was terribly wrong. “Sonya, Junior (me), and Latonya get in here,” she growled!

The interrogation was short and sweet, “Who did this?!” We all said not me. Sonya further clarified that she and Latonya were in the kitchen and I claimed that I was there too. My mother knew someone was lying. Because no one owned up to this infraction, we were all punished. We each were spanked and sent to our rooms. I knew what I did was wrong, but was afraid of what my mother do if she knew I was really responsible. For years, even as we kids grew into our late adolescence, my mother would bring up the couch and our responses remaining the same. It wasn’t until about five years ago when we, now adult kids, were together to celebrate my mother’s birthday when the subject was again mentioned. Now towering over my mother, I proudly proclaimed admission to the deed. Yes, it was me and I was playing with matches! My mother smirked but had her suspicions. My older sister smacked me on the back of the head because she received a punishment for my refusal in telling the truth. We all laughed, and then my mother said to me, “Boy, don’t you ever think you are too big that I can’t throw you over my knee!” “That may be true, but you’d have to catch me first,” I replied.

Food. Fight. Love?

October is Domestic violence month. This piece is dedicated to the survivors. May you find strength to move forward!

I love food. The colors of fresh spring fruits, the tantalizing smell of steak searing on a summer grill, the medley of oven-roasted vegetables (squash, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil) in fall and winter are some of my favorites. Yes, I really love food and it provides me, and likely most of us, with a certain level of comfort and satisfaction. Many of our global cultures and traditions are also enhanced and even revolve around food. These occasions can create truly long lasting memories, good and bad.

In my early life, much of the things I still remember today were based around food. At the age of 4, I almost choked to death on a fish bone. It was a small piece and my mother thought all the bones had been removed. To this day, I eat fish with a bit of trepidation. Aside from the fish faux pas, my mother was a good-ish cook. She was the youngest of 9 children (8 girls and 1 boy) and was raised in a small rural community in North Carolina. Growing up in the late 40s and early 50s, she was taught at an early age to obey your man!

My mother was pregnant at the age of 15 with my older sister and wed an army serviceman (my father) from a neighboring town. He was 12 years older and rumored to be quite the lady’s man. Being wed to my father was my mother’s ticket out of this small close-minded town and a future for a better life, at least that’s what she thought. My father was accustomed to having things a certain way (his) and as long as he had his drink(s) and meals on the table when he got home, life was tolerable. If he was unhappy, life was very unpleasant for my mother. Now enter baby number two, me.

My mother tried to shelter my sister and me from the volatile impacts of our home life but she couldn’t control sound escaping through the thinly insulated walls of our apartment. Screams and arguments, though muffled, have no boundaries and living in military housing, our neighbors became peripheral participants in our family struggles. The “mornings-after” were often filled with awkward silences at breakfast. If my father were present, there was little eye-contact between he and my mother. The neighboring wives acted as counselor and confidant while my sister and I played in the distance. As for family support, my aunts were of no help. They actually blamed my mother for all our family’s woes, “just obey your man” they would say. At ages 6 & 5, my sister and I weren’t blind to what was going on and we sensed the tensions between our parents. We just didn’t really understand what was and what had been happening for some time.

Then one Sunday evening our mother made the most mouth-watering golden savory fried chicken dinner. It was served with mashed potatoes and gravy, and mixed vegetables (peas and carrots). The whole house smelled of this delicious bounty. My mother, father, my sister and I were just sitting down to dinner when the harsh reality of the moment suddenly and violently hit took place. Out of nowhere, and before our eyes, my father cocked his arm back and slapped my mother across her face. My sister and I reacted in horror by what had just happened. In defense of our mother, we began throwing food at my father as an attempt to defuse the fight. Feeling blood pooling from her lips, my mother had had enough. Something snapped in her. She had had enough, and for the first time, she hit my father back. Intending to land another blow at my mother, my father inadvertently hit me. The neighbors, having had their fill of this drama, called the MPs (military police). When they arrived at our home, my father reluctantly complied as he was taken away to the base brig for holding.

This dinner set the stage for the final act between our parents. Shortly after this evening, they separated and later divorced. My mother couldn’t and didn’t want to remain in a relationship that was oppressive and more importantly physically abusive. Her mother taught her to “obey your man”, but that didn’t mean she would have to subject herself to a life of physical abuse and mental torment. She deserved better and decided to take a chance on life’s uncertainties and raise us kids (now 3) on her own. It wasn’t easy and now there was a new battle, alimony. After a time on food stamps and a stint of odd jobs, my mother landed on her feet. She would never let anyone lay a hand on her or us kids again.

Now more than fifty years later, the memories of that night still stirs sadness and even a bit of anger. My mother was lucky and found the courage and strength to move forward. She had to break the cycle of violence and pain not just for her own wellbeing, but for mine and my sisters too. My mother wanted us to learn that violence, physical, psychological, or emotional,  should have no part in a relationship. Other victims aren’t always so fortunate and pay for their love with their lives. She never had the support of her family or of an organization such as Portland, Oregon’s Bradley Angle to help provide resources or safe housing for victims of domestic violence. 

Domestic violence affects everyone and knows no gender or sexual orientation. 

Love should never have to hurt.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline

My Inheritance

My gay DNA …not really

When I was younger I really loved to dance. I would get lost in the rhythms, moving with the highs and lows of the music. It allowed me to express myself; it still does. Though, I can no longer move at the level of a professional dancer, I can clear the dance floor when I’m really feeling the groove. Dancing through its various forms, helped establish my physical foundation and I’m still hitting the gym 4-5 days a week to maintain my condition. It’s important for me that I remain committed to a healthy lifestyle. I’ve even been told by other gym members that my dedication inspires them. It’s not easy waking up at “o’dark-thirty” and dragging my groggy and tired ass to the gym, but I do it. 

In 2013, just short of my 50th birthday, I started getting these strange and painful headaches. These weren’t the regular tension headaches or migraines I would occasionally experience from life. These headaches seemed to linger longer and even continued on during my sleeping hours. At times, they were bad enough that they would wake me from a sound sleep. Ibuprofen brought only temporary relief and when the morning came, I felt drained of my energy, and extremely on edge. I thought perhaps that it was the stress of my job, the lack of world peace, or climate change; I really didn’t know. 

It was a Wednesday evening and my partner (Eric) and I were invited over to the neighbors for libations. As the evening went one, my face started to tingle. I didn’t really think much of it until we returned home. While looking in the mirror as we were preparing for bed, it looked like the muscles on one side of my face weren’t working. The timing of this anomaly couldn’t have been worse. The following day Eric and I were fIying to San Jose, California to see his cousin and her family. Luckily, I was able to get a doctor’s appointment first thing in the morning to hopefully shine light on this mystery. Since my regular doctor was out of the office, I was assigned to another physician. Blood tests revealed nothing and due to the amount of time I’d been experiencing headaches, I was sent to have a CAT scan to ensure there wasn’t any nerve damage or even a stroke. It was about two hours before our flight when I received a call from the doctor’s office; I had Bell’s Palsy.

This day was not going well for me. Later in the evening after our flight landed in San Jose,  I received an email from the doctor with results that caused me to literally do a double-take. Here is a portion of that email. 

“Nothing huge to report although I did note that you have kidney failure. It’s stage 3 which is in the middle of the road. You need to make sure you follow up with your doctor.”

WTF!!!  First of all, this information is far too casual to share as an email to someone who’s not a regular patient, and second, I’d never heard anything about having kidney failure!  Apparently, I had been walking around with an undiagnosed case of prehypertension. But why wasn’t this information disclosed during other visits? The reason why my assigned doctor didn’t tell me about my potential organ failure was because on previous visits, I was being seen for something else. Really? If there was any indication of organ failure most people would want to know regardless of the time? (As you might imagine, I have found another doctor!)

But the story doesn’t end there. Right before Thanksgiving, I was given the news that no man ever wants to hear from a doctor; you have (prostate) cancer. Fortunately, it was discovered early (Stage 1), but getting a cancer diagnosis can be a life changing experience.

So, why am I writing about this? Most men aren’t ever motivated to go to the doctor, but complacency, avoidance, and denial can sometimes be a death sentence. The American Cancer Society recommends prostate checks at age 50. But in reality, men starting at 40 years of age should get their Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels checked twice a year just to make certain their levels are consistently low (4 and under). 

As a gay man, the diagnosis of prostate cancer sent a wave of emotions over me. The one thought that echoed in my head was MY SEX LIFE IS OVER! When the urologist discussed the results and treatment options, he mentioned a procedure called a Prostatectomy , the removal of the prostate. I just wanted the cancer out of my body and decided that the Prostatectomy  was the best course of action. This was a knee jerk reaction. Eric asked about the number of these procedures (300+) the doctor had performed. This was a valid question. We were given a couple of brochures and a DVD detailing the robotic procedure. I was strongly encouraged to take the weekend to think things over; a weekend that was filled with a trip out of town for a family birthday celebration. Celebrating, was the farthest thought from my mind.

I didn’t know how to tell my friends what was happening to me, but it had to be done.  It was difficult enough to say the word, CANCER, aloud so I did something I never thought I’d do,  I shared my news on Facebook. The outpouring of support by friends and the community was beyond anything I could have imagined. Even the local LGBTQI newspaper (PQ Monthly) ran a story on my disclosure. Soon other men disclosed to me that they have either had prostate cancer themselves or knew someone that was currently seeking treatment, which made me feel less alone in my diagnosis. After speaking with others and researching treatment, I was able to think further about my options. Feeling more informed, I decided to forgo an irreversible surgery for external radiation. This treatment option was better suited to my cancer’s progression, my age, and lifestyle to ensure my quality of life.

Man up guys! Prostate cancer is nothing to be ashamed of or be embarrassed about. Having a conversation within one’s circle of friends can also be a great way to gain peace of mind during a very personal illness. Unfortunately, none of us are immune from health issues that are embedded in our DNA no matter how fit we may appear on the outside. But when we share our stories, we can empower and engage the community in ways no one can imagine. It can be a very humbling experience if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable!

What’s in a Name?

This piece is dedicated to a December without 31 days, a Major without a squadron, and a Doctor who doesn’t practice medicine. For those of us with different names, these designations are real conversation starters! 

What’s in a name? A question penned long ago for the romantic tale Romeo and Juliet written by William Shakespeare. Throughout my life, whenever I either introduce myself or when I’m introduced by someone else, I’m often met with a raised eyebrow, a groan of surprise, or an “Excuse me?” of disbelief as a response. For me, these reactions are sometimes comical, predictable, and slightly irritating when people hear my name for the first time. Judge Wapner, Judge Dread (an awful film), Judge Judy, and Judge Reinhold (real name Edward Ernest, Jr.) are the usual comparison responses I get. Some of the questions are equally obnoxious. Is that your real name? This is probably the most frequent and least popular question. Did your parents want you to be a Judge? If you were a Judge then you’d be Judge Judge. Ha, ha, ha. Ugh!

Don’t get me wrong. Having a name like mine should warrant attention with regard to its association with our American legal system. As a young kid growing up in Virginia and North Carolina, my family actually called me Junior. That’s because my father is named Judge too. Apparently unique names run in my father’s side of the family. My grandfather’s name was Pleasant. I guess you could say that even on his worst days, he was still…Pleasant! I think within the African American and other minority communities, as a way to honor our ancestors, an official (profession), or friend, a parent would name their child after that person. My friend and colleague, who also is a person of color, had a grandfather with the name of Doctor. I can bet that he too had his share of similar experiences when introductions are made. 

I recently asked my mother about why I was named after my father. She said that there was no historical connection other than the convenience of sharing my father’s name.

I really hated my name when I was in grade school. Some kids tend to gravitate towards others or things that are different. I won’t go as far and say that I was bullied, but in terms of the frequency, it was often. I was called whatever could rhyme with Judge; sludge, drudge, and fudge. Sometimes it was even a combination of all things rhyming at once: Judge, fudge the big fat drudge. First of all, I would consider my skin color more like a spiced cinnamon rather than fudge. Secondly, I wasn’t fat although currently my metabolism isn’t my friend. Lastly, drudge? I never even knew what a drudge was until I was in middle school. It made no sense at all. 

When my mother remarried, I had this idea of having my name changed to pay tribute to the new patriarch in the family. My new name was going to be Christopher Odel Hughes. It had a nice sound to it. I would rehearse calling myself Chris in the mirror and even practiced writing my new name so I could get used to it. I just wasn’t aware of the amount of work needed, on my mother’s end, to make a name change happen. In fact, too many steps and forms were required and my mother wasn’t having it. It really didn’t matter anymore, because my mother ended up divorcing my stepfather not too long after they were married. Any future ideas of having a “normal” name ended when that relationship did.

After the divorce, we moved to California (CA). As a teen, I remember taking a trip with my mother and sisters to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, CA. After spending a day riding the park’s roller coasters and gorging ourselves on golden fried chicken goodness from Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant, it was time to head back to San Diego. But before we reached the parking lot, I popped into one of the many novelty money-sucking souvenir shops to see if they sold those mini license plates or stickers from the revolving display racks. Maybe, just maybe, I would find my name here. Sadly, in all of the options available, the name closest to mine I came across was the name “Jude”.  

Judger (Judge + Jr.), was a nickname given to me in middle school. Somehow, it also ended up on my student ID card in high school. It was like someone inside the administration at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego was deliberately playing a joke on me with my name. It took more than a full school quarter before my name on my scholastic records were corrected and teachers called by my given name. Surprisingly, some of my classmates actually thought the name Judge was pretty cool. This name, and or this title, that was often compared to courtroom shows and a bad movie, finally made me start smiling with pride. It was this pride that gave me the confidence to step on stage and start dancing in high school. After appearing in several successful productions, I won a Sunny Award! A Sunny Award is named after the high school mascot (Mt. Carmel Sundevils), and awarded to actors for quality performances. 

Here comes the Judge! From my fourth birthday on, this was a saying I heard. In 1968, comedy and soul singer Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham released a single with the same title. During the 70s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced a comic sketch featuring comic entertainers Flip Wilson and later Sammy Davis Jr. as the shuckin’ and jivin’ Judge. Now that I was living in Los Angeles, as an actor, this was my motto. I even made bumper stickers with the slogan that I would include in my actor’s press kit to agencies. I wanted to make an impression one way or another with my name even though my press kit likely landed in the garbage. Everyone says you have to have a gimmick to stick out and the bumper stickers was my attempt at doing that. 

Though the acting never really took off, my name continued and still does, cause a stir. I previously spent five years working at the Oregon State Capitol for the Governor. During this time, I was frequently addressed as Your Honor and even received mail addressed to The Honorable Judge Kemp. At the gym, I was once chastised and called an “asshole” by an ease-dropper on a conversation for having other gym members address me as my supposed title. It was only after confronting this douche-bag, that he embarrassingly apologized when he learned that Judge was actually my name. I articulate my name when I order my venti blonde latte with two pumps of chai at Buckies (not the real name). When the barista called “Jubie” (pronounced joo-bee), all I could really do is to laugh. 

Our names are more than the labels we carry with us to our deathbeds. They carry with them a sense of power, mystery, and whimsy. They can also instill confidence. Either by nurture or nature, I’ve accepted my name and wear it like a badge of honor. It’s bold, unique, and reflects my quirky charm and personality. My name is Judge Kemp (Jr.).

You’re What?!

By all American standards, my family was pretty was normal. Dad was a Master Sergeant in the US Army and Ma was the obedient wife, cook, and caretaker of my older sister and me; we even had a dog. My father and I did all the stereotypical activities expected with society’s male bonding rituals; fishing, playing sports together, and I even had my first sip of beer. One of my favorite activities however was our time at the base swimming pool. It wasn’t the refreshing waters that I enjoyed most, but viewing all the naked male frames in the locker room. Every size and every shade of man was presented before my young wide eyes.

From a very early age I’ve known that I was gay. I just didn’t know what to call it. Maybe the feeling stemmed from my expulsion from nursery school for biting? This wasn’t my finest of pre-scholastic moments, but it’s true! Was this a future sign of rainbows, glitter, and red dresses? Probably not, but I did have an issue with biting. I chewed on everything from my headboard and footboard of my bed, to the aluminum blinds in my bedroom window. Once, I even bit my mother. This was a HUGE mistake. She bit me back, forever curing me from any future behavioral nibbling…at least as a child.

In grade school I was shy and kind of different. Not outer worldly different like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, with his pointed ears and amazing intellect, just different. From all outward appearances, I looked like any other African American boy my age at John Tyler Elementary School in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was only when I was around certain male classmates that I would feel anxious and strangely giddy. Jeff was one of those classmates. He had strawberry red hair, freckles, and an infectious laugh. My little heart ached when we weren’t together. Movie time was my favorite part of class because it gave me a chance to sit next to my favorite classmate. In the dark we felt free and didn’t have to worry about judgment or opinion. I don’t ever remember what films were shown, but I do remember holding hands with my special friend!

With my parents divorced, my mother moved my two sisters and me to San Diego, California. I was a teenager and my feelings for guys remained the same. This wasn’t “just a phase” as some people then and now still might suggest. I attempted to conform to the “norms” of the hetero world and even had a girlfriend but that relationship felt awkward and made me more aware of my sexual identity. I was also now old enough to be aware of the cruelties, and horrific names that were being psychologically branded on guys like me. Being a young black male was difficult enough, and in our conservative suburban neighborhood of Rancho Penãsquitos, this “queer” nuance I was experiencing was something I had to keep to myself for the time being.

My mother was and still is a very social person. She used to love to go dancing and would frequent a gay disco called Dillion’s. Here she made friends with several gay men and women; many would later become family friends. One such friend, Mark B., was in his early 20s and was just adorable. He had blonde hair, pale blue eyes, and a big mustache (think Magnum PI). Mark was always invited over to celebrate birthdays and holiday meals. I don’t think he had any family of his own in town so my mother sort of adopted him into our family. He was a sweetheart and my older sister and I secretly had a crush on him. I think my mother knew it too but then one day Mark stopped coming around. We later found out he moved to San Francisco and was never heard from again.

So at sixteen I decided it was time to come out. It was early in the evening and my mother was in the kitchen doing dishes. I slowly approached her and quietly told her that I thought that I might be gay. In my mind, time stopped and I could hear my heart literally pounding in my chest. She continued to wash dishes and without missing a beat, asked me to explain why I thought I was gay. I think my words to her were something like,’ because I really, really, like guys. That answer wasn’t sufficient enough so she asked me to write her an essay entitled, “Why I Think I’m Gay”. In my essay, I explained to her that I had been aware of my sexuality since I was in grade school and though I had had a girlfriend, it just didn’t feel right and I remained infatuated with guys.

I was the only male in an all-female household. My mother thought the lack of a masculine influence or her gay friends may have contributed to my admission. So she suggested I speak to her church friend Wayne. Wayne was gay and about 15 years older than I. Finally I could speak to someone who could understand my situation. Wayne allowed me to speak freely and in depth about my awareness and the occasional physical confirmations that my dreams would produce; things I couldn’t tell my mother. Wayne confirmed to my mother that I was indeed gay and the rest is history.

I was fortunate to come out to someone that embraced me with love and compassion. Many young gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered children are sometimes abandoned for living or disclosing their truth. Luckily, there are amazing LGBTQ role models such as Michael Sam, Lavern Cox, Ellen Degeneres, and George Takei that have broken down barriers of race, transphobia, and homophobia by living their truth.