Like Days Without Sunshine

© Tim Garcia 2020. All Rights Reserved.

As dawn approached in the early morning hours of November 4th, impassioned aromas wafting through election night had entirely evaporated, as large city trucks swept over remnants of protests littering the damp city streets. The wooden stakes with stapled construction paper, featuring words scrawled on makeshift signs in red marker, “I AM A VICTIM OF H8,” “NO H8,” and “FIGHT H8MOPHOBIA,” were now dripping and smeared by the morning dew. The scene evoked an unresolved gory battle waged between good and evil. The piercing, guttural chants still rang in Mikey’s ears as he grabbed his messenger bag and sped out the door of his apartment deep in the heart of the Castro district. “VOTE NO ON PROP 8” signs were prominently displayed in establishment windows up and down 17th and Castro. Store windows were dimmer than usual. A solemn mourning flooded the streets as individuals and couples holding hands somberly meandered aimlessly.

            Still reeling from the previous night’s electrifying march down Market St. to City Hall, Mikey’s pace maintained acceleration as he darted across streets, passing morning commuters, bikers and the sparks of electric MUNI lines. The frigid, biting air aroused a fresh alertness in him. Living in the city had thoroughly transformed him. He was no longer the timid youngster desperately yearning to disappear. He had found a voice. “MILK” was prominently displayed on the Castro theater marquee. Mikey knew Harvey was watching from up above. After all, it was thirty years to the day that Prop 6 was defeated. H8 was the new threat. Although he secured a strong sense of hope and inspiration in Harvey’s legacy, he had also developed a morbid fascination with the “evil forces, ‘round about us – disguised as something good.”

            Alone in his room, Mikey would sway to the mellifluous crooning of Anita Bryant, brightly singing along with the former beauty queen as she glowingly endorsed her product: “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree! Fresh tastin’ orange juice naturally! Orange juice with natural Vitamin C, from the Florida Sunshine Tree!”

Waves of bewilderment would overwhelm him as he pondered: how could a public figure emit such seemingly infallible and wholesome imagery while simultaneously promoting discriminatory and harmful convictions?

Bryant’s urgent sound bites warned, “If homosexuals are allowed their civil rights, then so would prostitutes or thieves or anyone else.” The bold crooked X in banners declaring “Save Our Children from HomoseXuality,” the perverted pamphlet captions reading “There’s no human right to corrupt children!” alluded to vicious and archaic falsehoods insidiously correlating homosexuality with pedophilia.

Even in the face of such blatant and venomous lies, like others in the gay community, Mikey found that by re-envisioning foes, in a satirical light, effectively disempowered the very same icons synonymous with homophobia. He never got tired of watching Craig Russell slip on a buoyant, lime green moo moo, flamboyant make up and grandly prim hairpiece as Anita Bryant belting Battle Hymn of the Republic. The infamous interview clip of a gay activist smacking Anita Bryant with a pie in the face, and her quick retort, “At least it was a fruit pie!” never lost it’s quirky charm. Perusing vintage memorabilia, pins quipped “ANITA SUCKS ORANGES” and “Anita Bryant like I need a hole in the head,” and recalling postcards sent to Bryant by gay club and bar patrons stating “Dear Anita, We are switching to prune juice, and we will send you the results,” never failed to incite a funny sense of relief for Mikey. He found that branding bigots with comedic illustrations, thus incorporating humor into the fervent debate, had the capacity to debilitate corrupt, intolerant forces bent on imposing their draconian views, while simultaneously lessening the severity of a sometimes disheartening reality.

After years of enduring the violent and traumatic wrath of schoolyard homophobia, Mikey had grown accustomed to the satirization of homophobia as a direct means of coping. When juxtaposing the provocative and condemnatory disseminations of anti-gay figures with a visual mockery, effectively exposing the absurd and broadly discredited vituperation, anti-gay tormentors were ultimately rendered laughable and posed less of a threat in Mikey’s eyes. Still, he craved psychological insight. He longed for a glimpse inside the depraved homophobic mind. Where did they come from? What fueled their prejudice? Was it contagious as it seemed?

As Mikey approached the courthouse, he saw a small band of protestors gathering outside. A familiar face swiftly greeted him, inquiring, “Are you ready for round two mister love warrior?!”

  A rush of enthusiasm beamed from his face as he gleefully answered, “I was born ready! Where is everyone?”

As he squinted up to the steps of the large federal building, a disconcerting yellow banner, “MARRIAGE: 1 MAN 1 WOMAN,” an ostensibly simple and harmless phrase embedded with profoundly scathing messages, stung his eyes. The festive spirit of three counter-protestors, in sunglasses and hats that cast shadows over their faces, did not particularly faze Mikey as he walked past them into the lobby. He was too focused on rushing inside to view the posted schedule of upcoming court hearings, specifically – the one determining H8’s constitutionality. As he entered the elevator and pressed 6, a man unexpectedly sprung out of nowhere hurling himself between the closing doors.

“Whew, that was close…”

Mikey recognized him immediately. The YES ON 8 coordinator spearheading statewide efforts to eliminate civil rights. Drew Pugno. Pugno, like pugnacious. Pugno, like a pug’s beady eyes. Suddenly, an eerie montage of glaringly putrid yellow YES ON 8 ads began racing through Mikey’s mind. “Protect Our Children, VOTE YES ON PROP 8,” mimicked the scare tactics of yesteryear. Suggestively virtuous slogans “Restore Traditional Marriage, VOTE YES ON PROP 8,” were cunningly geared toward emboldening both active and prospective supporters. The chilling ad featuring an oncoming freight train, the suspenseful tempos, thumping heartbeats, and stimulating pledges:  “STAND UP FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS,” “INTERCEDE,” “VOTE YES ON PROP 8,” flashed before his eyes.

In that moment, even the smooth serenading or catchiest ode to Vitamin C was unable to alleviate the degree of rage and adrenaline coursing through Mikey’s body. The inherently vitriolic messages and incendiary insinuations within the YES ON 8 propaganda triggered a frenzied anger in him as he stood two feet away from one of the most powerful, contemporary anti-gay crusaders. Mikey stared at the back of Pugno’s head, examining his crisp grey suit and polished black briefcase. He resembled some of Mikey’s co-workers, everyday business men. Mikey remained fixated on Pugno as he painstakingly attempted to discern what made him different from others who looked like him. He was staunchly anti-gay. There had to be something about him to spoof.

Suddenly the elevator jolted and came to an abrupt stop, catching both off guard as they stumbled to cling on to the cold steel railing. The two briefly exchanged startled looks at each other.

“I’ll push the call button to alert somebody,” Pugno murmured.

Mikey didn’t answer, took out his phone and began texting his friend in disbelief. After a lengthy pause he finally blurted out, “You’re Drew Pugno, right?”

“Yes, I am. Have we met?”

“No. But I know who you are and what you stand for. And to be honest it disgusts me.”

The gripping tension conjured by the suffocating intimacy, exacerbated by the subsequently awkward silence, unleashed feverish emotional and physical manifestations. Pugno began to visibly perspire, loosening his tie. Mikey became short of breath. He could hear his throbbing pulse. The anxiety of both individuals generated a stagnant stillness. Mikey wasn’t sure what to do. On one hand, this was his chance to personally confront the forces of inequality Pugno embodied. The flagrant duplicity, the ferocious fear-mongering, the sugarcoated misrepresentations – they had to be refuted, they had to be stopped.

Mikey paused then forcefully asserted, “Institutionalized discrimination that you advocate generates a rampantly hostile and homophobic climate. What you stand for perpetuates the marginalization of an already historically disadvantaged and persecuted minority in our society.”

He had carefully memorized critical and succinct talking points if ever approached by the press at protests. Pugno stood in the corner of the elevator, avoiding eye contact, provoking Mikey to abandon his training that previously censored any egregious confrontation, “Kids are killing themselves because of the fucked up messages homophobic pricks like you propagate! Sick bastards like you have blood on your hands! Seriously – how the fuck do you sleep at night?!!”

Pugno stared at the wall. Confusion surged in Mikey. He wasn’t sure if he should interpret Pugno’s silence as fear, embarrassment, or a pathetic fusion of both. Maybe he didn’t care. As a few more silent minutes passed, Pugno was noticeably shaken. Mikey began processing a clear and surprising recognition of oppressors in a new light: as real, living, breathing flesh, with the capacity to exhibit raw, vulnerable emotion.

These were actual people Mikey was up against. They were not the caricatures he loved to hate or mock. The explicitly nonsensical elements and venom secreting from mainstream religious fanatics, transmitting fraudulent biblical interpretations, were shot down in a matter of seconds. Mikey felt powerless in delegitimizing Pugno via parody like he had with Bryant. He could not shake the uneasiness accompanying this newfound comprehension and interpretation of those actively working to sustain an iniquitous status quo and second-class, gay citizenry.

The boogeyman now had a familiar face. It wasn’t the shameless, recognizable playground bully or teenage punk he had learned to heal from and dismiss.  It did not greet him with a sunny smile, emitting any superficial motherly warmth or reminding him to take his Vitamin C. It came with no catchy tunes. It wasn’t directly aggressive. It exhibited no flamboyant features. It did not preach fire and brimstone. It was human. It had a name. And that horrified Michael, more than anything.

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