PAST & PRESENT FIND THEIR FUTURE
The people I've met in the Storytelling Lab have had an enormous impact on me. Before creating this class, nobody could've convinced me it would be so easy to connect in any meaningful way with strangers via Zoom. Watching (and listening) my students tap into their own stories is a privilege. With their permission, I'm sharing one of their stories. It's a story of homophobia, self empowerment, time, healing and hope.
Unexpected gifts from the Pandemic
By Ted Fox
When my seasonal job shut down four months early in March of 2020, I figured my crew and I would be seeing each other in a few weeks, and I was far from alone in that train of thought. As more and more of my daily life was being shut down, hope was getting harder to come by. Two months later, I was isolated at home, alone in my room, applying for unemployment and asking the universe “Now what?” I had no idea what a loaded question that would turn out to be. A sink or swim moment, I just needed the willingness to jump into the deep end.
Like so many of us, and in spite of our on-again-off-again love/hate relationship, social media became a lifeline. A necessary evil, if you will, that eventually brought me to the conclusion that far too many of my online “friends” knew nothing about me. In a swallow-my-pride moment of reckoning, I decided to start making short videos telling stories about my bizarre childhood and posting them up once a week. With a little positive feedback, I was still having fun telling those stories six months later.
In late September, scrolling through my newsfeed, I came across a short video from one of my heroes, Lily Tomlin, talking about The Storytelling Lab and a workshop being offered by a friend of hers, Bonnie Garvin called “The Art of Storytelling”. I like telling stories. Intrigued, I followed the link and learned it was an online/zoom class with a six-week commitment, two nights per week, and limited to only six students. Wow. If timing is everything, this felt like my time. I went for it. The following afternoon, I got the confirmation that I was “in”. WooHOO!
In early October, three men and three women, ranging in age from 16 to 60+ and hailing from coast to coast, met our instructor for the first time. Her multi-media approach certainly took me by surprise, and I expect that was the case for all of us. She wasn’t trying to teach us how to write so much as helping us realize we already knew how. Discovering I had something to say, that I had a voice, was a revelation. As the stories poured out of me, I felt empowered. I found myself re-evaluating my experiences and my relationships, gaining entirely new perspectives and insights, and marveling at how much I began to believe I could create my future by finally, whole-heartedly taking ownership of my past.
Back in January of 1974, I was starting to feel buried by the combined weight of knowing I was gay (and always had been), my fears of what the future might hold for being gay, and the oppression of my church’s Youth Minister telling me how people like me were perverts and freaks. How our very existence was a mistake -something he had also told me God was incapable of making- and an abomination. There were no role-models in my world for me to talk to or emulate besides the occasional Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Riley on TV. I appreciated the way they made me laugh, but I just couldn’t relate to them; so, I started grabbing at straws, reaching for any available flotation device as I floundered in the stormy seas of my 14-year-old, sheltered southern life in Memphis.
I had just fired my piano teacher. Or rather I made him fire me. Sixteen months earlier, my mom had hired a new piano teacher she found through her church connections. What a first impression he made when he extended his hand and introduced himself. “Nice to meet you, Teddy. I’m Eldon Percival.” Yes, Eldon Percival. And he looked and behaved -and sounded- exactly the way you would expect a man named Eldon Percival to look and behave and sound. A never-married, lifelong bachelor who still lived with his elderly mother in the same house where he was born, he was tall, in his mid-to-late 50’s, with a frame best expressed as substantial. He sported a full head of short, coarse and wavy mousy-brown hair generously dusted gray, with thick, black plastic-rimmed glasses resting on a bulbous nose which was showing the signs of the broken capillaries associated with heavy drinking. He had the kind of full lips you couldn’t help but watch as he talked, and his voice was surprisingly deep, most likely thanks to decades of smoking, an odor which no amount of mouthwash, swilled in his car, in our driveway, just before my lesson, could hide. Sometimes a necktie. Sometimes a bow tie. Always a suit jacket, with or without patches on the elbows; a bulky gold-plated “I.D. bracelet” on his left wrist with his own name engraved in cursive; and a diamond pinky ring on his right hand. Think a southern “dandy”. A Liberace wannabe, only without the money, the rhinestones, or the sense of humor. Eldon Percival.
Admittedly, our first season together as teacher and student was a quite a success. While I wasn’t much of a sight-reader, I was able to memorize my music quickly, and he was so encouraging, telling me repeatedly how none of his other students could match the emotional depth he heard and felt when I played. There was no denying his musical brilliance, and my piano skills increased by leaps and bounds.
But our second season was a whole other story. During one of our weekly lessons, I was struggling with a new assignment, and what began as a simple discussion about the composer somehow devolved into a pointless argument over the pronunciation of “Beethoven”. As he grew more insistent about how wrong I was and I more flippant about how stupid I thought this was, something inside me cracked, triggering an awful, frightening realization. Still hammering home his point, my ears had shut out any sound but the voices in my head. I leaned back, seeing him from a rapidly changing visual perspective, like those creepy Alfred Hitchcock camera angles in “Vertigo”, and I had to fight the urge to scream: “Oh my god. He is my future? Am I looking at myself 30, 40 years from now? Oh, hell no! There’s no way I am turning into that!! Not me. That will NEVER be me! Okay, he has to go. Get him out of here.”
Only two weeks later, he stopped mid-lesson to say, “All right, what’s going on with you, Teddy? I have no idea what has happened, but your attitude has taken an ugly turn and, frankly, I don’t appreciate it. So, I’m telling you right now, if you don’t start behaving like a gentleman and treating me with a little more kindness and respect, I’m not teaching you any longer”. In my state of panic at that moment, his declaration was absolutely NOT the threat he believed it to be. In hindsight, I’m stunned my mother never confronted me about what could have occurred between us, but he quit before the end of February. I remember dancing around my bedroom singing “I win! I win, and he’s gone! Na na na na na na…”.
The warm glow of victory was short-lived. Needing to feel like I was in control, I decided to basically try to become the Apostle Paul. The next 17 months were a blur of Christian school and church, two summers of missionary work in the Canary Islands and the Austrian Alps, and countless tent revivals, bible studies, and tearful prayer meetings, all in the hopes that Jesus would fix me and make me NOT gay anymore. But by 11th grade, I decided once and for all to give up the fight since Jesus was clearly a powerless, useless and worthless fraud. I knew my only option moving forward was to figure out how to be myself AND survive being gay, with no clue what that was going to entail. But I promised myself I would NOT be “Eldon Percival-gay”. I vowed to never be like Eldon Percival. Not me. No way.
Within three years, I was loudly, adamantly, marching-in-the-streets-of-my-hometown gay. The first gay rights protest I attended, there were only 33 of us who were willing to brave it, but there were hundreds of counter-protesters lining the sidewalks, screaming and spitting on us and throwing the occasional rock. We were so afraid of getting separated, we held hands for the entire length of the march. When the cops finally showed up, we quickly learned they were there to protect the people spitting on us from us, but we kept on marching. I kept on marching all through the 80’s and beyond. ACT-UP die-ins became more common and far more urgent than Pride celebrations, and still I marched.
After testing HIV-positive myself (and apparently believing I still hadn’t been loud enough), in the spring of ‘92 I released a cassette of original songs, called “One of Us”, with lyrics about love and pride and empowerment and the need to “come out” and stand up for myself and each other. Honestly, it only sold a few hundred copies, but it eventually earned me a spot on-stage at the 1993 National March on Washington D.C. for Lesbian & Gay Rights, as well as a concert slot during the 1994 Gay Games in NYC.
Spending most of the summer of ’92 playing shows and concerts and Pride Festivals, I absolutely loved the performing, but the travel was brutal. Flying into Albuquerque always meant changing planes more than once, often with long layovers, followed by the 3-hour drive north to Taos before I was officially home; so, I was enjoying a relaxing early-autumn afternoon on the mesa when the phone rang. It was a man from the Houston area asking to purchase a copy of my cassette. Cool.
When his check arrived, I learned from his letter his name was Homer Luna, from Spring, TX, and that he was 13-years old, an 8th-grader from a large homophobic Catholic family who had found me by listening -in secret- to the only local LGBTQ+ radio show once his parents were safely asleep. I was floored. I knew this kid. Hell, I was this kid. Believe me, he got much more than the simple standard “thank you for your purchase” note included with his cassette.
For the next few months, we were pen pals. He asked lots of questions, while I tried my best to be open and honest and encouraging. All he wanted was to know he wasn’t alone. To feel seen and heard. How could I not give him my time? We even spoke on the phone a couple of times. At my insistence, he called collect so there wouldn’t be a paper trail on their phone bill. But soon enough it happened: the letter from his parents.
It seemed they had ransacked his room while he was at school one day and found his hiding place for my cassette and letters. They accused me of being everything but a Christian, threatening me with the police and having me arrested on charges of corrupting a minor, followed by a big ugly legal battle in court if I didn’t immediately stop all communication with “their baby”. While their accusations and threats were legally baseless, as I had been obsessively conscious of my words, it was 1992. They had what seemed like the entire world on their side.
Even though I had no recourse but to walk away, Homer was never far from my thoughts. I wondered if he was able to hang on for a few more years until he could move out and build a life of his own. I repeatedly searched for him online over these past 10–12 years, to no avail. Since he never included a photograph of himself, I always relied on my imagination, and anytime he crossed my mind, I chose to believe the best. That he was happy and healthy. Maybe even married and living in the burbs somewhere with a husband who makes him laugh. A couple of dogs in the backyard. Maybe a kid, who knows? But it made me feel better to think of him as safe and well.
In the process of exploring how I could tell our story, in June of 2021 I reached out to an old friend, renowned Houston-based LGBTQ+ historian and archivist JD Doyle, looking for authentic details. He told me the amazing history of the “After Hours” broadcast on KPFT, certain that was the show Homer had been listening to when he wrote to me. Fascinated by my story, he begged me to send him a copy of Homer’s original letter, which, sadly, was long ago lost to history.
An hour later, much to my surprise, JD posted the cover of my cassette and my story on social media, with the headline “Where is Homer Luna?” asking his thousands of followers to help me find him. His post got shared all over the country and a small army of internet sleuths got busy. In less than 24 hours, I had reconnected via Facebook with Homero Luna. When I told him how I found him, he was blown away. Now 42, he’s living in Brooklyn, NY.
Whether or not you happen to believe in “the miraculous”, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a word or phrase that better describes the manner in which all these dominoes fell into place. And as I trace their patterns backwards to their origins, I have come to realize something. There’s solid evidence for the argument that the initial thump setting them in motion was from Eldon Percival’s fingers. I am now 100% convinced he knew exactly what was going on in my twisted little teenage brain when my attitude and my behavior changed so drastically. I can clearly see and understand -and appreciate- the fact that the biggest difference in our lives is/was merely generational. His insistence that he was worthy of kindness and respect, that his existence deserved to be valued and acknowledged was, in that time and place, his version of every angry street protest and march for gay rights I have ever taken part in over the past four-plus decades. In more ways than I ever could have imagined, I have turned out to be just like Mr. Eldon Percival, M.A. Well, obviously noisier, but still... Who knew? He was exactly the representation I needed of what an adult gay man could be, at exactly the right moment, even though it took decades for me to comprehend that simple fact.
I’m so excited as I write this, knowing it’s finally time. I am flying to NYC to spend September 14th (my 62nd birthday) sitting face-to-face with Homero “Homer” Luna. We’re both fully vaccinated and unless COVID-19 and its Delta variant prevents it, he and I will meet for the first time, and we shall raise our glasses to Eldon Percival in grateful tribute.
I can hardly wait.