A few years ago my friends and I went to San Francisco's Castro Theater to see -- and sing along to -- a sold out special showing of The Wizard of Oz. We got there early not only to nab decent seats, but to watch the pre-show costume contest. I was amazed at how seriously so many people took that contest, and how creative they'd gotten.
The competition that Friday night was fierce. Even today, almost nine years later, I can still see the platoon of hairy-chested Dorothys, the Wicked Witch in glam-rock sunglasses, the women wearing yellow sponges on yellow body suits and calling themselves the "Yellow Brick Road." My favorite was the group who had gussied themselves up -- and brought props -- to re-enact the scene in which the Wizard floats away in his hot air balloon, leaving Dorothy behind.
But not even the balloon team could overcome the night's grand prize winner: a little boy in a brown snorkel jacket and brown face paint, hamming it up as the Lion. "How do you like your first taste of show business?" the emcee, a woman dressed as Dorothy, asked the new winner. The boy cried into the microphone: "Good!"
I didn't wear a costume that night. I've never been one to wear a costume, not even on Halloween. I'm not much for singing, either, at least not in public. But when the lights went down and the movie got going, the lyrics of every song flashing at the bottom of the screen, how could I not take part? I lost my reserve somewhere between "Over the Rainbow" and "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead."
And we didn't just sing. When Dorothy appeared on screen, we cheered; when the Wicked Witch zoomed in on her broomstick, we hissed. (I drew the line at barking like a dog whenever Toto showed up.) I didn't know most of the people around me in the packed theater that night, and yet I felt connected to them all. I count that night as one of the happiest of my life.
A little more than a decade before I went to that movie, I moved to San Francisco from the Boston area, where I'd grown up. One of the T-shirts I used to see in one of the Castro shop windows featured Dorothy's iconic line: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." She says that, of course, right when she first catches her first glimpse of Oz.
And back then, that was the myth I'd bought, the myth promoted by that T-shirt. You're gay, you're lonely, and you want a better life? Then all you have to do is walk out of the black-and-white house. And soon -- or as it's presented in The Wizard of Oz, instantly -- you'll find yourself in a candy-colored fantasyland where the inhabitants seem to have nothing better to do but dance and sing under the supervision of a kindly witch in a ruffled pink dress. What could be easier?
I've never set foot in Kansas, but I'm going to guess the T-shirt was accurate. But if San Francisco wasn't Kansas in the mid-1990s, neither was it Oz -- not for me, at least. I had no job, knew only a few people, and had seemingly endless hours to wander this strange city. The hills that created such sweeping views on my previous visits were now the hills I trudged up and down with my laundry bag. (How does Dorothy keep her dress so clean in Oz?) Worst of all, I found myself having trouble meeting and connecting with new people -- even other gay people. And some of the gay people I did meet were, shall we say, less friendly than the Munchkins.
I remember this guy who snapped at me in a crowded Castro bar because he thought I'd pushed him. I was too terrified to do anything. Another guy came to my defense, almost getting into a shoving match with the first guy. Then, after my aggressor moved away, my defender told me I should take comfort in knowing that the jerk probably had a miserable life. But, instead, I felt sad for him -- sad for all of us. We were a community, weren't we? If we couldn't get along in a gay bar in the gayest neighborhood in the gayest city in North America, I thought, then where could we get along?
From this place, I started to write. Writing down everything -- what I saw, heard, felt -- and crafting it into fiction became my own version of the Yellow Brick Road. With no golden paving to show me which way to turn, and with no pink or black costumes to help me separate the good witches from the bad, I used pen and paper to try to sort out everyone I met. Eventually I moved from writing a journal to writing fiction, and the result eventually became my novel, You Are Here.
Since then, I've covered almost 20 years of road in both San Francisco and my new home of Oakland. And, to quote Dorothy, "Some of it wasn't very nice, but most of it was beautiful." I've made friends with many loyal Scarecrows and Tin Men -- one of them was even nice enough to marry me -- and I've also come across a few flying monkeys and one or two Wicked Witches. Emerald City is nowhere in sight; I still have many more miles to cover.
And me? Where do I fit in the Oz universe? I'd like to think I have the innocence of Dorothy, the intelligence of the Scarecrow, the heart of the Tin Man. But who am I kidding? I'm the little kid in the snorkel jacket: the Cowardly Lion.
After nearly 20 years of writing in the Bay Area, I've learned that it takes courage, real courage, to put my name out there. And just as I needed the people in that The Wizard of Oz showing to give me the courage to sing, so, too, have I needed the friends I've met along my life-path to give me the courage to write.