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Queer Town

L.A. Gay Pride 2012: Candlemaker Tim Sullivan Answers 'What Does It Mean to Be Gay?'

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Tue, Jun 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM
click to enlarge Tim Sullivan
  • Tim Sullivan

Los Angeles Gay Pride weekend is coming, and we thought it's a good time to ask, 'What does it mean to be gay?' In a weeklong series, different gay folks answer that question.

Tim Sullivan is owner of Timothy Jay Candles in West Hollywood. Over the past several decades, Sullivan has seen dramatic change within the gay community and in Americans' attitudes towards gays and lesbians. He shares his story and his thoughts:

I'm a 71-year-old gay man who, when asked to write this piece, decided to write it from a more historical perspective. I grew up in the Bronx, New York, in the 1940s and '50s -- one of four brothers, I was well aware that I was different from the age of five. I knew my feelings were unique, but they were not a comfortable unique because even at that early age I knew what I was feeling was not the norm...

I would hear words like "fairy" and "queer" and realize they were words used disparagingly to describe my own proclivities. I knew I was going to turn out not like my brothers and, what's worse, as someone less acceptable in society.

So I hid my early sexuality rather well, and imitated my brothers in their quest to excel at sports and being jocks among jocks. It was my cover for my "affliction," as my teacher once referred to it.

All I really wanted to do was draw, design, paint, listen to opera and read, read, read. Now considered great gifts ... back then they were albatrosses around my neck and pointed to the fact that I was probably, another term, a "girlie."

School didn't help.

I was educated by Irish Christian Brothers in a private parochial school where every thought, word or action had the potential of being a major and mortal sin promising hell and damnation on death.

But one thing was for sure ... being a "homosexual" was perverted and degenerate ...

hands down ... no salvation! I wasn't sure of the meaning of these words until later on, but, boy, they stuck to me.

I really didn't even believe that I was a victim of bullying until the recent anti-bullying messages became common and I realized they applied to me as well, even though it was so many, many years ago. But then again, all us kids who were not athletic were always considered weak, questionable and "less than."

It wasn't until I was discharged from the army in 1962 that I really got into my "gayness," a word I don't remember from the early 1960s.

I met a guy who decided my sexual fate -- he was 10 years older and very successful. I was just starting my career on Madison Avenue and we met on the Avenue one day in April. He was all I could think about and I had to make a choice ... go with him and his gay friends or stay with my college group who were all getting married and having children. There was no straddling the posts or middle roads. I chose him and I couldn't be more thankful in my life.

He didn't last long and dumped me, but I entered the fabulous gay underground of the '60s in New York City and was exposed to a world where all my talents were admired, not criticized or suspect.

My writing now worked in advertising, my knowledge of the arts a plus. I threw out my old life and the people in it because, back then, I knew they would never accept me for who I really am. I have, and had, great friends and grew up with some guys who are household names.

From that time until now, I have never looked back and thank my God for giving me this great gift.

My sexuality is nothing and everything at the same time and has influenced my creativity. Since I came out, I have had a wonderful life developing and exploring even deeper that notion of who I really am. I was successful in my career and I even came out career-wise in the mid-'70's. At 47, I changed my life and career again and now live very contentedly here in Los Angeles.

Looking back, AIDS had one of the most major impacts on my life and changed everything.

I am so fortunate to be alive today and to somehow have escaped the fate of so many of my beloved and remembered friends. I became an activist and my work galvanized my dedication to gay rights.

I will not accept the preaching and ramblings of imbeciles who claim to be church leaders and followers of Jesus. But that's another issue. All I do know is that I will be standing proudly on Santa Monica Boulevard on Pride Day so I'm counted in the thousands who line the street.

I now watch the younger gays marching who were never "in" and who are so proud of themselves. I'm also so proud of the thousands of straights who have joined our cause. It's a better world. We're not there yet, but we have to keep pushing and "acting up" until all of those tags that uneducated people like to hang on us disappear.

Read essays by author Robert V. Taylor and activist Michael Weinstein.

If you would like to share your thoughts on what it means to be gay, contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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