DADT Repeal and My Friend Charlie

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Buried deep in the bowels of my memorabilia, I keep a newspaper clipping with a photo of Charlie Finnessey and me in all our pimply glory at our junior prom. The photo is black and white, because that was the only option back then. But I remember Charlie’s tuxedo. It was baby-blue polyester, with clavicle-consuming lapels. It swamped his gangly frame, and he had topped it with one of those huge, mid-1970s bowties now donned only by clowns and thrift store aficionados.

Nonetheless, the blue tux served as a nice complement to my turquoise-and-blue Indian print, 100-percent cotton, hit-the-top-of-your-hiking-boots length dress. No scooped-back, breast-enhancing misogynistic fashions for my gang and me. We were iconoclasts. We questioned authority every chance we got. We occasionally got high. We ridiculed the football team and cheerleaders. We wrote darkly naval-contemplative poetry. We took art and music and theater. We didn't hold back. We were free, man, free!

Or we were weirdos, if you were on the football or cheerleading teams. But they were still spiking their sodas at pre-prom parties, and we arts-and-music geeks were the only ones in the gym when the newspaper photographer arrived.

Thirty-six years later, I easily return to the moment of opening the next day’s paper and finding the photo of Charlie and me representing the West Morris Central High School junior prom. It was a stellar moment for all arts geeks everywhere, and it was one of the most deeply satisfying moments in my entire half-assed high school career.

What made it so satisfying was that Charlie was gay, a fact that, oddly, revealed how absolutely lacking in freedom we actually were — because we never talked about it, not once. We never talked about the tight little tushies on the jocks or the fabulous singer in the sophomore class for whom Charlie and I surely both lusted. We never discussed how Charlie might come out to his parents, as we did with my daughter’s friends. Charlie wasn’t even out to us!

But we knew. Some of us knew, maybe all of us. I wondered if Charlie knew that. But each of us remained in the dark about the others, because we also knew the unspoken rules, and for all our iconoclastic posing, we honored them.

Sadly, as fond as we were of each other and despite our prom date, I never got to know Charlie, not really; nor he, me. We were too busy dancing around the truth, determined not to engage it — to Charlie’s detriment and to mine. I can be a lot of fun, but how brutally lonely he must have been.

After high school, we danced off to distinct pursuits. Charlie delved into work and community theater, went to Texas for a while. I left town, and then another and another, hopscotching my way to California.

And as I witnessed the evolution of attitude and acceptance, the sometimes painful revelation of intimacies and rejections, the slow acquisition of rights and respect, I often thought of Charlie. With the advent of Google, I looked for him now and then, when a memory managed to speak his name, when he came up in retrospective conversation.

Then on Saturday, when the Senate voted to repeal the military Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — 65 to 31 — I thought of Charlie again.

Back in high school, we did not need the legislature to hinder our relationships. Prejudice and precedent and cliques worked just fine. But oh, how fabulous it would have been if we could have repealed that prejudice, if we could have let the precedent sunset, if Charlie and I could have been lifelong intimates, short though that would have been, for I searched for him one more time, and I found him. Charlie died in Florida on December 28, 1995.

I searched further and learned that he had embraced himself, of course, and found a partner, sold antiques, had a fondness for gambling cruises, contracted AIDS, was as happy as anyone might be. And, as a friend told me, up until the end “he was the same old Charlie — wide open.”

Wide open, except for that critical part of him that he felt compelled to mute in his youth.

Today, I ache for all the Charlies who could not be themselves at school or in the military or at work or within their faiths or among their families. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell places them one step closer to freedom, and I am grateful for us all — as I mourn that Charlie missed it.

Love, K-B

Click here to sign a letter thanking those Senators who voted to repeal DADT.

Crossposted at The Progressive Post and San Diego Gay and Lesbian News.