My very first daddy bear was a straight guy. Tom was a fortysomething grizzly with a hearty laugh and enormous paws. At Christmas, he was everyone's favorite Santa. Straightaway, my little teenage heart was aflutter. He would become the blueprint for my favorite kind of man: big, rough, and sweet. Of all the big, rough and sweet men I've dated, few have been as attentive or kind. He was like Mike Ditka on anti-anxiety medication.
I met Tom at Henry Street Playhouse. He was the flaming king of our town's community theater scene, and I was a mere child, playing Prince Charming and singing so badly that my mother expressed relief when I began writing plays instead of butchering them. I was not the only little drama fag who dreamed of being his Goldilocks. His mellifluous baritone captivated many hearts and loins, male and female alike. But I knew, even then, that successful romance required good, solid strategy.
Tom owned the print shop around the corner. In high school, I visited his shop once a week to make copies of poems, plays, and stories. I'd stand at the counter and get all googly-eyed as he pulled on his moustache and flashed his wolfish blue eyes at me. He had the kind of broad smile that babies give you when they're messing a diaper. This man destroyed me and he knew it. He never let me pay for copies and always kept a copy of anything I wrote. He'd read from my work and drop phrases I'd written smack dab into the middle of our conversations. The words always sounded better coming out of his mouth.
We became friends. He'd invite me back to chat and look at his scrapbooks, which were filled with theater programs and photos of friends. He'd spent a number of years on Fire Island as a carpenter. I shudder to think what kind of reception he got there as a lumberjackish straight guy who wasn't freaked out by swooning gay men. If ever there were an argument for genetic cloning, he is it.
As if to torture me, he'd listen to his police scanner while we sat and talked. He was a volunteer fireman and rescue squad member. At times I imagined engineering a barbecue grill accident or faking an aspirin overdose just for the experience of being gathered up in Tom's arms and carried to the ambulance. I ask you: how green was my garden?
On the doorway of his shop is a picture of him engaged in his favorite weekend hobby, which I can only discuss in hushed tones. Tom's favorite gatherings involved burly men wearing kilts and throwing telephone poles. It was a cultural thing, apparently.
He became my muse. Perhaps as a way of luring him to my house, I began writing plays with characters who just happened to be protective fortysomething mentors to sinewy, wayward teenage boys. One play, which I wrote when I was 15, was set in the 1950s between a street hustler and a Horatio Alger-type savior figure. Tom wasn't freaked out by the material and kept encouraging me to write. When I went to college, he kept up with me through newspaper clippings and demanded updates on my writing when I was home for the holidays.
Yesterday, my mother told me Tom's got rectal cancer. I've thought about editorial methods to gracefully transition to this point, but it's necessarily brutal and abrupt. My big daddy bear is sick.
He's sick because our culture is scared of butts. He's sick because doctors don't do routine, thorough examinations of our butts. He's sick because an important part of his body has been neglected by medicine. He's sick because guys don't have booty gynecologists.
I'm one of the organizers of the Gay Men's Health Summit, which brought over 400 gay men's health providers together this July in Boulder, Colorado. Anal health care was a major issue at the Summit. Doctors discussed anal pap smears, checkups, and new treatments for warts and anal cancer. These brave souls are pushing the medical establishment to acknowledge the butt as a source of pleasure and identity as well as disease.
Once again, LGBT people have a gift to offer the world. We've dealt with our shame and fear of butts more than any other group in this culture. As we push the gay men's health movement out into the heartland, it is my hope that big heterosexual daddy bears everywhere will benefit from our efforts. Gay people have shifted the sexual, political, and cultural landscape of the world. The gay men's health movement champions the well-being of men whose needs have long been neglected. It's time for us to grease the way for healthy butts, gay and straight alike.
Kirk Read lives in Northern California and can be found at KirkRead@aol.com and www.temenos.net/kirkread