The following is an excerpt from Shut Up, I’m Talking, a new memoir from gay actor and comedian Jason Stuart (Birth of a Nation, Love Is Strange).
Just because I let a Latin man blow me… twice… didn’t mean that I was ready to come out. With all the negative stigma around being gay in the 70’s, I still thought my life would be easier if I suppressed any homosexual urges I had, and just settled down with a woman.
Amanda was more like my sister; she was my family.
Ick. Strike one.
I had already dipped my… toe… into disconnected gay sex.
Too uncomfortable. Strike two.
I was starting to get a little desperate. My friend Bobby and I decided to go to the movies one night, and I was going to make it my mission to find a girlfriend in the process.
By the way, the movie we were going to see was A Star is Born. Yes… the one with Barbra Streisand.
Writing themselves, these jokes are.
I drove to the theatre in my ’68 rust colored Camaro with Bobby… his hair flowing with more layers than a lasagna. As we pulled up to a stoplight, I spotted a girl sitting at a bus stop. She wore a long maxi-dress with a bustier in the middle. She had a curly reddish perm and the sweetest smile. I thought, ‘What could be more heterosexual than picking this girl up?’
So I flirted with her like my life depended on it because to me, it did. I never would have had the guts to put myself out like that, but Bobby was a friend, and more importantly, an audience. I think I was trying to impress him as much as I was trying to impress her.
Seeing that she was receptive to my charms, I boldly asked her to get in the car with us. She accepted the invitation.
Hey, it was the 70’s… people did this all the time. Of course, little did I realize it would be one of the top two massive mistakes of my life.
Her name was Lisa, and she lived with her mom and her grandfather in a house that looked like a murder took place there thirteen years ago, and the neighbors still talked about it.
Don’t go near that house!
I don’t believe they owned a lawn mower, or tires for the car they had up on blocks. The first time I looked into the house, I remember seeing stacks of boxes, and through a gap in the stacks, I saw her grandfather slowly rocking back and forth in a back room while watching Let’s Make a Deal on an old Magnavox portable TV. If I was closer, I would have put a mirror under his nose to make sure he was still alive.
Maybe he was the one murdered thirteen years ago.
The place had such a creepy vibe. On one window, there was a clump of old spaghetti that looked like someone threw a fistful of it during a fight. What got to me the most was that they never cleaned it up.
For thirteen years.
But that didn’t stop me. As far as I was concerned, she was my girlfriend the second she agreed to let me pick her up.
I remember the first time I almost made it into her house. Her mother, who I believe was from somewhere in Europe, wanted to meet me. I seriously couldn’t tell you where she was from, nor the dialect of her accent.
“Lizz-ah, Lizz-ah… we must have your new boyfriend in the house for tea. We must!” she implored.
Lisa was so embarrassed that she screamed, “Mother! I don’t want him in the house! I can’t have him in the house! Don’t let him in the house!”
She reminded me of Hayley Mills in The Chalk Garden. “Motha! Motha!”
I eventually did meet her mom. Something was a bit off though because whenever I asked her where she was from, she would never give me a straight answer.
It was like she was in the witness protection program.
I will say though, that this woman was very smart. She was always taking a class, or painting, or going to a ballet recital. And she was a voracious reader… which was very different than my own mom. The only book I ever saw her read was Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. I didn’t see her read it very often, although it stayed on her nightstand for the better part of a decade. And even then, she never finished it.
Lisa took after her mom. She was smart and sweet and a diva who oozed character. And she was my girlfriend. I was so thrilled that I actually had a legitimate heterosexual girlfriend to bring to family functions.
Attending those functions was not always the most pleasant experience, however. While very smart, she was also very liberal … and an opinionated vocal liberal at that. Normally, a man would be proud to bring his aspiring doctor girlfriend to familial gatherings. I did my level best to constantly run the conversation so that she had few moments to actually speak.
It was for her own protection.
My parents were not the biggest fans of who she was, even though they liked what she was: a girl who their son was dating and, hopefully, a girl with whom he was having sex.
They got their wish on that one. Lisa was the only girl I was ever able to have sex with … to completion. And even though we did, I still didn’t understand all the intricacies behind it. Or in front of it or beside it, for that matter. I’m a guy… everything’s out in the open. She was a girl… and it’s all on the inside. And if you can’t see it…
… is it even there?
And don’t get me started about going down south!
But she liked me, and more importantly, she was a girl, which was my only requirement for making this work. And besides, maybe I could learn to like it. I mean, it wasn’t worse than brain surgery, even though it felt as complicated. I think I would have had an easier time with long division. But I had hope that it could get better. It would get better. And if it got better…
… my God, was this it? Was I cured?
I was now… the Daddy. (And I had the candy!). The heterosexual boyfriend!? It would take me a long time to realize that homosexuality wasn’t a disease that needed to be cured. I needed to get past my innate talent for self-loathing, but Lisa was not to be the magic potion. I think she knew who I was, but it didn’t seem to bother her, at least on the surface. She would always ask me if I was gay, and of course, I always denied it.
As our relationship continued, I began having uneasy feelings about Lisa, or more specifically, her past. My mind went to places where young minds should never have to go… places where there is spaghetti on the window and it’s never cleaned up … places where there are stacks of boxes in the middle of a hallway and no one ever moves them, empties them, or gets rid of them.
And what made her get into a car with two young men that night? What did she think might happen? And now just thinking about it, she had literally no reservations about her potential consequences. I mean, we were decent people, but we could have been ax murderers for all she knew.
And where was that bus taking her that night? She never did say. It could have been to the store. It could have been to run away.
I think something absolutely horrible happened to her in her past. I never had the nerve to ask her about it, whatever it was. In fact, I think if I did ask, it would have broken her because she held it up so high, safely out of reach of anyone who dared to get too close.
As we struggled through our fifth year together, I was scrambling to grow my career. I was living on my own, and looking for any part I could muster. I saw an ad in Variety asking for contestants for the hottest game show on television, The Dating Game. I knew that if I was picked for the show, I would make union scale. So casting my excuse of a relationship aside, I applied and was selected as one of the eligible bachelors.
The bachelorette came out on stage, where she proceeded to ask multiple questions to the two other bachelors and me. I was not about to let my first appearance on television go to waste, especially since I was looking particularly fabulous that day with my layered hair and toned body.
Of course, back then I thought I was fat. My today-self would sell a kidney for my Dating Game-body, but c’est la vie. And my answers were straight out of A Clockwork Orange. They had absolutely nothing to do with her questions, much to the amusement of the audience. And because I was literally so completely out of my mind…
… I won the date.
As it turns out, I was not the only struggling actor looking for a paycheck that day. The bachelorette was also a struggling actor needing to make some cash. And she had a boyfriend, who wanted nothing to do with her going out with a guy like me.
If he only knew the truth.
So she gave me the prize-winner’s package of five fun-filled days in Mexico City. I thought it was the perfect, and really final, opportunity to save my dying heterosexual relationship with Lisa.
When I asked her to go, she enthusiastically said, “Yes!”
This should have been my first clue that it would be the second biggest mistake of my life.
Even though The Dating Game gave couples the means to have copious amounts of sex away from prying eyes, it was technically a show on a family network, so they set us up with two rooms.
This was the 70’s… there was no hanky-panky on a first date!
I insisted that Lisa and I sleep in the same bed because I was supposed to be practicing my career in heterosexuality. She wouldn’t let me touch her, which I have to say slightly conflicted me for about a minute.
She knew this was a last-ditch effort at a loveless relationship, and it really hurt her, so she cut off sex with me as a punishment.
Oh, the irony.
Later that afternoon, while out for a walk, we happened upon a movie set. The film was called Missing, directed by Costa-Gavras. It starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, and I really wanted to watch them film it … hoping that someone on the set would look at me and say, “I want That Girl!” Like the TV show starring Marlo Thomas. And then everything would freeze, and I would say, “Well, I’m a boy, not a girl, but I’m still available.”
I was not prepared for Lisa’s reaction.
“This reminds me of the time I was on set for my last job as a child actor on the TV show Combat. I hear this is violent, and I don’t want anything to happen to me. Because you know, I have dancer legs.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. It made no sense, and neither did she. As I tried to work out the rationale behind her outburst, she screamed at me, “You are sooooo insensitive!”
It was that precise moment when I admitted to myself that I had been incredibly selfish, with just about everything that had to do with the girl I picked up at the bus stop. She was my last gasp at being straight, and for five years I had used her as an experiment to see if I could change.
On our last day, she had arranged for us to visit a museum to see some 500-year-old paintings. As we viewed the art, I noticed these two handsome Latin boys across the room. One of them looked like Esai Morales from La Bamba and now Ozark, and I could feel the perspiration start to form all over my body. He was just breathtaking, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw him.
Our chaperone from the Dating Game Frankie (who became a lifelong friend), wrapped up the day by encouraging all of us to go out that evening as the entire group had gotten on so well. He told us that we should keep an open mind to new experiences as he gave us the address to a gay bar. I was giddy… awash in the possibilities.
Lisa wanted to rip my fucking head off.
I told her she didn’t have to go, but she felt like making sure I had a lousy time with Ritchie Valens’ older, hotter brother. She wouldn’t miss this for the world.
On the way to the bar, all I could think about was the boy. I couldn’t remember his name or anything either of us said, but it just felt right… pure… and real. I had never had that feeling before. I still get goosebumps thinking of the anticipation.
Only, it was not to be. I waited for hours, but he never showed up. I danced with Lisa for the very last time ever that night.
And on that dance floor, in a country where I could not speak the language, I finally accepted my fate.
I was gay.
When we got home, I dropped Lisa off at her house in the same ’68 Camaro I picked her up in five years earlier.
I never expected to see her again…
… but fifteen years ago, I ran into her at a restaurant called Souplantation in West Hollywood. She walked over to my table like we had seen each other the day before.
“We’ve seen you on TV,” she barked… almost as if it was an accusation. “So you’re an actor now.”
“Uh… yes. Yes, you’re right.”
“Well, I’m a doctor now,” she said.
“Lisa,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to apologize to you.”
She took a pause, and she choked back a tear.
“I KNEW IT!!!”