When I first moved to Austin in early 1998, I was in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy state of confusion. I was freshly thrown out of the closet much the same way 250 pounds of muscle tosses out a drunk underage teenager from the only bar in town… with everyone watching. It was swift but messy, larger than life, larger than my life, and word spread like wildfire that the 23 year reign of the perfect golden boy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had ended with his excommunication. Rumors surrounded my parents, was he gay? is the question on everyone’s mind. I seemed gay, I acted gay, I never had a girlfriend… I was cast at the flamboyant Fairy Godfather in my middle school’s production of The Liberated Cinderella, so anyone paying attention (from space) could naturally assume that I was possibly gay. But no one in the church could see it either by choice or denial so once word hit, the fiery gossip was uncontainable.
It was described (at the time – mind you Jehovah’s Witnesses change beliefs often) that homosexuality was like alcoholism. It may be something genetic, something a person didn’t have a choice in but it didn’t make it healthy or socially responsible. Therefore being gay was acceptable, but the practice was still detestable in the eyes of God. I thoroughly enjoy both sex and alcohol, so this analogy was lost on me. And this “love the sinner, hate the sin” promotion of abstinence and celibacy made it difficult for me to accept that I was going to be alone for the rest of my life as homosexual acts were considered a ‘gross sin.’ Since childhood it was ingrained in me that ‘men are not to lay with men as they would a woman.’ For my part, I was certainly not laying with men as I would a woman, but nonetheless there is a disproportionate setting of laws in the church. A single act of homosexuality deemed that person a sinner fit only to be tossed into the lake of fire (this means the second death, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in “hell”) but straight sex offenders were simply reprimanded with a stern talking to.
With this, one can understand how fucking one’s same-sex roommate while working as a full time volunteer at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wallkill, NY is somewhat frowned upon. It was not something we planned (or at least I didn’t). We never declared our love to each other or felt that we were in some sort of romantic affair or that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. We were having fun in a militaristic setting neither of us were suited for as free spirits and thinkers, poets and musicians. We were enjoying life – and not just life at the compound but outside as well in New Paltz, in the Catskills, and especially in New York City. The drastic difference between how we lived and the drone volunteer workers soldiered around us was apparent as their visual scope limited their diction making it difficult to even have simple conversation with them.
“How was your weekend?”
“Great, bro! I went n’ stayed with a fam from our congregation. We went out in service, then ate at a buffet. They paid for everything! You?”
“Some friends and I took a train to the city, barely made it in time to see the Friday night performance of RENT which was fantastic considering the writer just died last week. We walked by the Limelight, but the line was too long. The next day we had a nice stroll through Central Park, gave our regards to John Lennon and waved at Yoko. However, we decided to come home early after spending all afternoon at Tower Records… Spent way too much money on CDs.”
(Yeah. I’m gay.)
“RENT? Isn’t that the play about homos?”
“It’s a musical based off the opera LA BOHEME.”
Sometimes I would just play along with their language because even the simplest diversions confused Joe Volunteer. These were people who fully admit that the best part of the week was being served ice cream on Thursday so sometimes we had to go through a translation process. Having a roommate and friend to talk normally to was refreshing, and from that came an instant attraction being each other’s oasis from the constant rote lifestyle of dark slacks and pale shirts. The ingrained mentality of those working at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the middle of fucking Nowhere, New York sometimes bordered on obtrusively assumptive while maintaining a circular repetition in a clinical-type setting. They went in circles today, and were content with going in circles tomorrow and accepting of other people controlling everything outside that circle. For such, my roommate and myself quite joyfully threw our parents into poverty just to separate ourselves from that depressive existence so we can maintain some grasp on life as a whole. I dare anyone to condemn a 23 year old who had never felt that level of peace, comfort, and joy by simply having someone in the same vicinity if they are painfully troubled in letting that situation go. Particularly when I had already made peace that kind of situation was never going to exist for me.
Everything was nice for about a year but eventually the ‘bothers’ in the organization began to scrutinize the amount of time we spent together. When I had to leave because of a knee injury to go back home, all hell broke loose. The one person I did everything to protect from overseers, elders, myself… was being drug into meeting after meeting and hammered constantly until he finally confessed to our relationship and a host of many other over-the-top admittances that I will not relate because they simply did not make sense to me (then or now).
There are words that describe tiers beyond ‘heartbroken.’ I’m not sure what they are. It was the first time that living a normal, happy, same-sex relationship comparable to the marriage of my parents was presented to me and it was beautiful. It made sense to me so much more than having the same scenario with a woman. And this person, this gorgeous and full-of-life young man and the only person I trusted with my deepest, darkest secret is spilling everything about everything… then kept pushing to areas too obnoxious to describe. The person who was the closest thing I have ever had to a trusted partner not only exposed me to everyone I knew, but then heaped up tons of other fabricated bullshit that I couldn’t even digest properly to give a coherent response when the elders of my local congregation decided they needed to have a little sit down discussion on the matter.
The fall of my facade as a whole was tremendous. I was excommunicated (or “disfellowshipped” in Jehovah’s Witness jargon) which meant everyone that I ever knew, loved, and associated with, both friends and family from birth until age 23, was instantly gone from my life. The loneliness was a welcomed blessing since the month that everything went down sounded like the constant collapsing of a steel building decorated entirely of pots and pans. The silence brought a unique placid calm allowing me to mentally grasp my next steps. I had $500.00, my cell phone, and the number of a guy named Dale who I met one time while playing cards a month before at a friend’s house… I should say a former friend’s house. Dale was also a Jehovah’s Witness but not a very strong one, so I thought I would be safe to hide out at his place in Austin for while until I had enough money to get find my own place. When one is excommunicated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is a cutting off completely, so I never told Dale I was disfellowshipped. He figured it out once I got my tongue pierced.
When I arrived to the Live Music Capital of the World, I collapsed. I was fully and totally… free. It was great, but fucking terrifying. It seemed this would be a good time to learn about the out gay community, a community that (in the United States) used to be entirely comprised of persons like myself getting kicked out of homes like my family’s. I thought getting to know my new ‘family’ could best be accomplished if I applied for a job at a gay gathering spot or club, so I picked someplace that I was already familiar with from my closet days in Houston that had a facility in Austin – Midtowne Spa, a gay bathhouse (don’t worry, there is no gay sex in this story).
This was a conscious decision as the ‘perfect golden boy’ tap-dance can come with some pretty extreme douchebaggery-type consequences. In other words, I was a fucking asshole. From the time I was six I had no problem telling a girl she was fat or another that her dress was hideous (gay!). By the time I was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness I could make people cry on command. In my years as Witness, I put a lot of negative energy out into the world. I figured that it was time to stop snapping out judgmental insults and take some time to learn a little humility… and there is no better place than a group of gay guys who will listen to you dish, and then throw that shit right back at you unapologetically. Generally speaking, being part of any exclusive religion makes one grow a covert sense of superiority due to the fact that, in the back of their minds at all times they know they have the one true answer, and you do not. That is why they are always smiling. They’re just being nice to you before you die at Armageddon. I made the ‘slight sense of superiority’ a razor-sharp art form, a precise killing mechanism. I fully admit that even with the crumbling mountain of the excommunication of James Perez, I still needed to go down a few additional few notches.
I decided to ‘retire’ from my normal computer drafting career that was thrust upon me (it would be useful trade to help rebuild the Jehovah’s Witnessworld after Armageddon) and applied for a cleaning job at the bathhouse and was hired the next day. I was trained at the job and let loose for the night shift. At the time, there were many strict city ordinances that were at work so it was easy to go to bathhouse, do my job, and walk away with little invasion as there could be no open-view sex. I was cleaning semen off every surface, disinfecting everything in and out of sight, and bleaching the shit out of sheets and towels. Being raised by a stay-at-home mother then moving to a religious headquarters with housekeepers, I’m going to admit that this was literally the first time I ever cleaned anything on my own. Everyone working with me thought I was lunatic for the dumb smile on my face, enjoying the novelty of scrubbing drunk indiscretions from the mattresses and collecting towels soak with accidental spillings of amyl nitrite. It was all novelty to me and it all started once I learned how to work a washing machine (yes, I had to be taught how to work a washing machine). I also learned one can never have enough Lysol and what cleansers aromatically worked with Lysol, and which did not. As a person with a keen olfactory sense this was important to me, sending out the manager to get different chemicals when the wrong ones would appear in the laundry room. It was my job to make sure everyone’s filthy sexual recklessness could take place in the best sterile environment possible while fueling my strange new enthusiastic fascination with dusted latex gloves. This was a perfect match.
About a week or two into the job there was a staff meeting, of sorts. Midtowne was getting the place ready for a holiday weekend and the entire building needed to be cleaned (and I will use the term “cleaned” loosely) and decorated for those that wanted to celebrate the weekend with a nameless stranger dressed only in a towel and an erection. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate any holidays, including birthdays. So the concept of getting ready for a holiday weekend was not only foreign to me, but as a person who was raised on the ridiculousness and absurdity of the holidays I wasn’t sure how to participate in these events. Regardless, I arrived and started scrubbing away wherever I was told to scrub (and then some). The manager at the time, Bob, elbows me and lifts his eyes to outside. There stood Jeb with his shirt off, water hose in one hand, broom in the other scrubbing the deck of the outside hot tub area like he was scrubbing a deck of a ship. Later I would find out Jeb was actually in the Navy, so in retrospect I can say his experience was certainly noticeable.
I looked back to Bob and asked, “What?”
He just gave his eyebrows a few little lifts and smiled and walked away.
I looked back over to Jeb. I didn’t see what Bob was looking at. Jeb was a skinny pale white boy with puffs of hair coming out two sides of his head… the top and the chin. His baggy green cargo shorts were old and entirely way too big, so the belt bunched up around the waist. His hair had no style, his eyes looked menacing, and he was imprinted with this permanent “I don’t give a fuck” look on his face.
An hour or so past and everyone was finally gathered inside for a last minute rundown of how the weekend is going to go. Jeb had his shirt back on. And I happened to be standing beside him. “Awe. Why’d you do that? Bob was enjoying you having your shirt off.”
“Bob enjoys anyone under 25 who’s hairless and skinny with their shirt off.”
“You’re not completely hairless. You have… this,” I waved my finger at his chin, “whatever this is… going on.”
“You don’t like my chin strap?”
“Oh, no, it’s cool. Although if you keep your shirt off and no one will even notice.”
Jeb gave out unexpected and spontaneous laugh. It caught me because it felt like that didn’t happen very often. Once all the chores were accomplished we all clocked out with a series of clangs from the old school punch cards that had to be slid into the metal clock. Jeb and I continued to talk in the parking lot. He had a job listing from the Austin Chronicle for an adult bookstore that was offering $14.00 an hour, three dollars more than what we were getting paid at Midtowne. He wanted to know if I wanted in.
An adult bookstore? The peddlers of smut and sin? I know exactly what those disgusting places were, mainly because I used to go to Diner’s Adult bookstore in Houston off Westheimer. I am very comfortable with the concept, and I was definitely interested from a monetary standpoint. But a bookstore is blatant sex and raw bodies… a job of tits and dildos. I wasn’t sure how many more notches under a “gay bathhouse” I was willing to go in such a short amount of time, I was only out of the closet less than a month. I had difficultly digesting the environment where sex was a common and flighty form of entertainment, something open and shameless. I’m sure I could get there at some point, but I wasn’t there yet. Granted, I work at a facility where people would know each other, stop and chat, then fuck, find someone else, fuck, then chat some more, before going off to continue their daily routine. It gave an impression that the community was nothing more than interlocking rings of revolving doors. To me it was a horrifying bazaar, void of dignity and appreciation for the levels of enjoyment sex can actually bring when attraction comes from the chest and through the eyes. At Midtowne Spa, everyone just needed to ‘get off.’ I didn’t understand why they didn’t save their money and just get off at home.
Granted, “dignity” in that above paragraph was my euphemism for “I am so much better than all these bitches” and I didn’t want to be that person anymore – I wasn’t better than them. We were all equal. And if I had to make my peace with oversize breasts and silicon molded body parts, then so be it. “I’m in,” I replied. We hopped into his white Jeep, and drove off to fill out an application (neither of us heard back from that bookstore).
It didn’t really hit me at the time, but Jeb was the first gay friend I made while venturing into my new, religious-free and out-of-the-closet life. We started talking at a random point and took off, laughing about the world. My warped sense of humor began to fly out of my mouth in projectile fashion. I sat in his Jeep with the wind blowing thinking, “I don’t have to watch what I say.” I was consumed by loose unrestriction. He immediately connected to my sarcastic punches and absurd, over-the-top ideas which I usually presented, not as real ideas but as concepts used as shock value and get people to think. Jeb loved shock value and he loved to be made to think. But I wasn’t shocking Jeb. I was so used to the dainty frail ears of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Jeb was not easily impressed. So it seems I had a new mission to shock the unshockable. It is in that comedic challenge where I began to form who I was going to be for the rest of my life. He made my mind work and it hurt at first, but with that we started talking that afternoon and didn’t stop for over a decade.
When he dropped me back off to get my car, he mentioned he and his boyfriend’s roommate was moving out soon. If I needed a place to stay, they had a room open. I went back to Dale’s apartment and sat on the couch I almost cried myself to sleep from joy. Not everyone is about fucking and being self-obsessed. There are good people outside the controlling walls of the religion. I met one. His name was Jeb, and he wouldn’t be the last one I met.
James P. Perez © 2014