My mom and I had our version of the "I'm gay" conversation in 1977, over Filets o' Fish and french fries, sitting in our station wagon in the parking lot of a Bay Area McDonald's. I was 14. The talk came about thanks to a program that had aired a few nights earlier on PBS called Word Is Out, a documentary about gay lives. In 2012 a program like that wouldn't garner a second glance, but back then it was something entirely radical. My mom and I had a close relationship, but she was as much a product of her environment as I was of mine (she grew up in Depression-era Baltimore, become a 1960s housewife who clipped coupons and held bridge parties, and then, in the 1970s, suddenly found herself a divorcée), and so, as we discussed the program, she said the requisite thing that so many people say when addressing the idea of same-sex unions: "I think it's unnatural."
The dialogue quickly escalated between us, with Mom eventually blurting out, "Are you gay?" and me responding, with impeccably self-righteous teenage insouciance, "How dare you ask me that question" -- which, of course, meant "yes." I followed that up with a very stern laying down of the law. "If you have problems with this, I'll see you later," I said to her, with complete seriousness. And in short order my mom's problems with same-sex unions evaporated.
I've always been gay. I've never been anything else. I never dabbled in girlfriends, and it never occurred to me that my yearnings were in any way peculiar or shameful. My mom, once she got over her initial resistance, was actually pretty ahead of the game, consciousness-wise. But that was how I experienced my identity privately; beyond me, my mom, and our station wagon, the world in which I lived as a 14-year-old was typically American Brutal. I can't remember a time that there wasn't a background chorus following me around, calling out "faggot," "sissy," "femme," "girl," "woman," "gay," or "queer" -- the whole tiresome litany. By the time I was 16 -- the year when I was nearly killed in a gay-bashing -- I'd had enough. I dropped out of high school and moved in with my 37-year-old boyfriend, Charles.
The story of how I came to be interested in food is as uneventful as the story of how I came to be gay: I simply always was. Whatever I've been doing in my life, I've been the food guy -- when I was in art school, working in the movie business, traveling the world, whatever. My dad was the cook in our family, and although he and I were never close, it was through food that we found closeness. My memories of him are always entwined with us cooking together, eating together, exploring restaurants together. When he left when I was 13, I took over as the cook in the family, and this way that I'd found to communicate with my dad became a way to communicate with everything.
My love for the stories and histories that people tell through food is what brought me to Saveur, and in the work that I do as a magazine editor, being gay is not really something that stands out. But the world of food, particularly of high-end cooking and restaurants, is dominated by heterosexual men and a very heteronormative machismo. As food has taken on a larger role in popular culture, the idea of culinary brutality -- the fire, the knives, the butchering -- has become status quo, and those who don't fit the mold of the rugged, rock-star chef can suffer. As an editor, I'm not required to be the subject. I'm not considered in the same category as those chefs; I cover them in the pages of the magazine I edit. But an interesting thing has happened in my parallel role as a critic on Top Chef Masters. There, I share the screen with the chef contestants, men and women who are at the top of the culinary world, and it's my job to judge the fruits of their labors.
Being a part of Top Chef Masters is an unadulterated joy, and when I'm on camera I embody a character, one whom viewers seem to find polarizing: They either like it and find it entertaining, or they're really not into it. And in my casual survey of the Not Really Into Its, who frequently like to make their opinion known on Twitter, in their blogs, and in the comments sections of others' blogs, there's a surprising amount of commentary along the lines of "ew, I think James Oseland is gay." Whenever I read one of those comments, I'm immediately plunged back through time to be, again, that kid who's being chased around the playground. Maybe I'm just too sensitive to be on TV.
But at a moment when those comments seemed to be at their height, a wonderful thing happened. Last December, I got married to my partner of five years, Carlos Daniel Dos Santos. I wrote about it in the pages of Saveur (in one of the proudest moments of my career, Out called Saveur the gayest magazine of March 2012), and our de facto wedding album was hosted on BravoTV.com.
Never before have I been the recipient of such love and support. Sure, my husband and I received a handful of negative notes, but the overwhelming majority -- 99 percent of hundreds of communications -- were positive. I got emails, tweets, handwritten letters, cards from the CVS, from friends and loved ones but also from strangers, fans, people who only knew me through the character they see on Bravo and who were moved to happiness by my own happiness. What an amazing thing that in my lifetime, in the relatively short period between that wrenching conversation in the McDonald's parking lot and that moment late last year, the world could change so much. How fabulous is that?
Top Chef Masters premieres tonight, Wednesday, July 25 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. Click here for more info.