Monday, August 20, 2007

Refuge of Tolerance

from The Austin-American Statesman, February 25, 2007

In 1984, I moved to Austin from a socially oppressive land, a desolate place, void of any freedom to question authority and inhabited by dogmatic conformists. This place is known as the Texas Panhandle.

My move was really more akin to a ''pressured relocation.'' My suspicious neighbors in Amarillo had become more brazen. The glares and whispers I had become accustomed to had turned to name-calling and veiled threats. I wasn't flamboyantly open about my sexual orientation, but my reluctance to fully embrace Reaganomics, the Dallas Cowboys and, well, women, made me highly conspicuous.

In the 1980s, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance providing health benefits to domestic partners of city employees, including those in same-sex relationships. I remember a grim-faced TV anchorman in Amarillo announcing the item on the 6 o'clock news. I half-expected to hear, ''Coming up next, a perspective from Anita Bryant regarding a city here in Texas that has chosen to defy God and create a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.''

That was when I seriously started to consider making Austin my new home. I had thought about moving to Dallas or Houston, both of which have large, visible gay communities. However, Houston's Montrose and Dallas' Oak Lawn areas are confined to only one section of the city. I didn't want to move to a gay ghetto, where acceptance was guaranteed only within certain street boundaries.

After all, choosing a new city was more than a matter of just counting the number of gay bars - it was a safety and security issue. I wanted to live in a place in Texas that would be tolerant to folks of my persuasion, a place where I wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night greeted by narrow-minded villagers wielding pitchforks and carrying torches. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

Upon moving to Austin, I discovered that it is not the queer community that draws gays to Austin, but instead the larger, accepting heterosexual community. The lack of an identifiable gay ghetto in Austin means that we can roam almost anywhere and don't have to confine ourselves to certain neighborhoods.

However, I had to make some serious adjustments to my ''gaydar'' in order to detect other gay men in Austin. It seemed that very handsome, well-dressed, slightly effeminate, cosmetic-wearing men (what we now call metrosexuals) were more likely to be heterosexual. And the T-shirt, Levis- and boots-wearing men were more often homosexual.

It was a ratio almost inverse to what I was accustomed to in the Panhandle. So when I met a guy, I had a hard time deciding: Is he really gay or did he just get here from Lubbock?

In Amarillo, I had tried to keep my homosexuality a well-guarded secret, to be shared only with family and close friends. Once I moved to Austin, I felt comfortable enough to begin sharing my sexual orientation with my new fellow citizens. Maybe too comfortable.

At first, I found myself coming out to just about everyone I met: the postman, bank tellers, employees at drive-up windows of fast-food restaurants, H-E-B grocery sackers. There were a few surprised or bewildered looks, but most responded by saying, in effect, ''OK we get it, you're gay.We don't care.''

Austinites, I learned, are a jaded breed. It takes someone really bizarre or scandalous to get their attention, like a panhandling, bikini-clad cross-dresser or a state senator soliciting sex on Congress Avenue.

I, however, am just a run-of-the-mill, garden-variety gay man, homosexualus familiaris. homosexualus familiaris. To be viewed as unremarkable, really. Which is exactly what I was seeking, to be treated by my fellow neighbors as normal and ordinary.

Once I settled in, I reported my findings to friends in the Panhandle, and soon my Austin apartment had become a terminus on a gay underground railroad for queers who wanted to relocate here. Feeling safer in this environment, most decided to ''come out'' to their friends and family back home. Once, a straight friend of mine still living in Amarillo asked, ''Just what is it about that city? It seems like everyone who moves to Austin turns gay.''

I wanted to tell him that the his former Amarilloans were already gay and that they only felt comfortable enough in our city to express who they really are. I wanted to tell him that with given the opportunity to live in a place that tries not to judge you, you have permission to become whoever you want. But the cultural divide between us was too vast; I didn't think he would grasp what I was saying.

So instead I made a joke: ''It's the cedar pollen, the cedar pollen is what turns you gay.''

I had planned to move to Austin with my best friend from high school. For years, we had dreamed about living in a different place and wondered what it would be like to wake up in the morning and not smell cattle feedlots or the oil refinery. But when the time finally came for us to move, she abruptly did an about-face and decided to stay in Amarillo.

I wasn't really surprised, having sensed her apprehension days before. ''Not now, someday I'll move,'' she said.

It's been almost 25 years, and she still lives in the Panhandle. She visits me at least once a year, and every time she comes, she marvels at what a wonderful place Austin is and swears she's going to move here.

I like her annual visits - they serve as affirmations of my decision to relocate. Because despite the long lines of traffic, the increasingly high cost of living and the messy, loud scavenging invaders (the grackles, not Californians), this is still the best place in Texas to live.

Take it from a former Panhandle boy, happily living his own unremarkable life.


Larry Cuellar, left, with partner Andy Davis, moved to Austin from Amarillo in the 1980s and found he was accepted here as a gay man, as were others who joined him from the Panhandle.

Austin became a refuge of tolerance

DATE: February 25, 2007
PUBLICATION: Austin American-Statesman (TX)

SECTION: Insight

This is one of a series of personal essays grounded in Austin. Our aim: to give readers an intimate glimpse of life in our town. Do you have your own tale of the city to share? Submit your original essay of 1,000 words or less to for consideration by our editors.

(i paid my $5.95 to the American-Statesman folks for this article.)
(then i violated the HELL out of their copyright by posting it here.)
(i am not proud of that)
(but it needed to be liberated from their archives)
(which are in Naples, Florida)
(and brought back to Texas)
(to be FREE!)

... ... ...

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