It’s the quality of the heart that’s important

The first time I walked into the North Jersey Playhouse where I apprenticed throughout high school, I was met with the late openly gay comedian Charles Nelson Reilly wearing a dress preparing for his role in “Charlie’s Aunt.” Another apprentice and I began to observe more closely and came to the conclusion that many of the crew, performers and visiting actors were gay, too. We spent hours on the telephone discussing our suspicions and incredulity that people lived that way, and as time passed and work became a bond, suspicion turned into amazing and in some cases lifelong friendships. The actors were always fun to be around and I spent most of my after-school hours with them.

I loved nights in Greenwich Village at piano bars where we sang show songs until the wee hours of the morning and I often sang my favorite and only song that I knew by heart — “On a Slow Boat to China.” In off hours, I envisioned myself as Sally Bowles, the quirky and somewhat hapless protagonist of the “Berlin Stories,” by Christopher Isherwood, later incarnated as the Broadway play, “I am a Camera,” and finally as the long-running musical, “Cabaret.” The easy affection and camaraderie of my gay friends was wonderful and far less frustrating than the gawking I got as an early developer whose big breasts in those days of Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe caused a stir.

Mario was one of my first gay friends as a young adult and our friendship was much like that of Sally Bowles and Isherwood in the original story. He and I met when I was working in a Peruvian boutique on MacDougal Street. One summer day, Mario, an acquaintance of my boss, sauntered into the store and proceeded to climb upon and “ride” one of our decorative pieces, a stuffed toy llama. That was the beginning of our relationship. When we met, I had barely graduated from high school and he was an aspiring artist who lived in a converted rooming house on West 12th Street. The rent was about $10 a week, with a shared bathroom and kitchen. Despite the tiny space, his room was magical. He cluttered it with antique birdcages filled with feathers, jars of lemon soap, old peanut cans and a huge map of Paris where he had highlighted the Rue de Rivoli. With little money for meals, time with Mario was full of beautiful gestures like feasting on sauerkraut served in crystal dishes.

Apartments were inexpensive and I was soon able to rent an apartment on East 6th Street for $28 a month. This was a converted coldwater flat and the first place that had been mine alone. The bathtub was in the kitchen along with the one sink; I had a tiny bedroom that was ample. Immediately I set out to emulate Mario by decorating with dried peppers and Spanish onions over the sink. Unfortunately they soon began to smell and this decorative touch was soon in the trash. Mario gave me a real Tiffany shade to put over my table and I was in heaven. Together, we began to supplement our incomes by selling gigantic homemade paper flowers in local bars and boutiques.

With the passing decades, although we live in different parts of the country, Mario and I have remained connected. He has become a very successful artist living in Colorado and I could not be more elated at my friend’s success. Through happy and sad times, my life has been so enriched by having gay friends, some of the dearest of which were lost at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the US. I am so happy for my gay friends that the State of New York has granted same sex couples the right to marry.

Six states have shown increasing acceptance of gays by legalizing gay marriage. I hope that existing attitudes of prejudice, bullying and violence against gays will disappear. I hope that the tragic suicide of promising musician and Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, the former Mayor of Wasilla’s try to remove the children’s book, “Daddy’s Roommate” from the local library in the late 1990s, and that statistics like three of the top 10 most challenged children’s books in 2008 had gay or lesbian characters (two gay penguins in the Central Park Zoo, and a pair of gay guinea pigs in “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding”) will become societal aberrations.

I would like to congratulate the new Glee 3D Concert Movie that features a gay protagonist. “Glee” hammers home variations on the message of reassurance and self-empowerment: “Just screw up your courage, hang in there, be who you are and you will triumph.”( This is the kind of self-acceptance I see in many of my students who, in terms of tolerance and basic human decency, may be ahead of adults.

I was fortunate to learn early on that it is the quality of the heart, not sexual orientation, color, gender, or religion that is important. I feel so fortunate that for most of my life I have lived among people who are gay. My hope is that civil rights will continue to be an issue of importance enough to educate and grow a more tolerant society.