Losing Dorothy Parker

Writer and composer Joel Derfner realizes his childhood dream of acceptance has arrived -- at a cost.

BY Joel Derfner

September 09 2008 11:00 PM ET

Five years ago,
when I was 30, I started teaching a musical theater
workshop for high school students. Given the subject, I
wasn’t shocked to find that most of the male
pupils were the sort of guys whose response to a
football would be to cover it in glitter. My mandate was to
teach these kids how to write musicals, but, recalling
my own difficulties with teenage social life, I also
looked forward to reassuring them that better things
lay in store.

What became clear
almost immediately, however, was that to these kids,
being openly gay was about as remarkable an achievement as
flossing. “My last ex-boyfriend…”
trilled one 17-year-old; my staggering astonishment
caused me to miss what he said next.

I came out at 15,
but in 1989 -- in South Carolina—it was inconceivable
that I’d ever begin a sentence with “my last
ex-boyfriend.” I suspected that there were a
few other boys my age who harbored feelings similar to
mine -- a suspicion confirmed, I am pleased to note, with
the passage of time. But on the few occasions I dared
approach the subject, I was met with stony silence.

Luckily, I
wasn’t forced to go through my teenage years alone; I
did find a community of like-minded friends. But they
weren’t my peers. They were a group of older
men and women who congregated regularly in a chocolate
store one of them owned. It was from these people that I
learned how to duel à la Oscar Wilde, hurling
epigrams like hatpins. With them I first saw The
Women
and gasped with delight to learn that most
of its stars had been passed over for the part of Scarlett
O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Among them I
understood there was a place in the world for a person like
me.

But years later,
the kids I was teaching didn’t need to search for a
gay community, because their place in the world was
already clear to them from watching, Will &
Grace
, talking to their gay next-door neighbor,
and running into their ex-boyfriend. I was deeply moved: The
future I had only dreamed of was coming to be.

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