It is 1994, and I am thirteen years old. My family is living in Mill Valley, California, where my father is attending Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s an island of conservative evangelicalism surrounded by a sea of sin. San Francisco is just across the bridge, and we are very careful when we venture out of our bubble and toward that modern day Sodom. Dad loves to take us to the city’s parks, and sometimes we walk its bridges to take in the sea – but it is always an affair in which we stay close together. For no one is invulnerable to the influence of those very specific sick people who have taken over its streets. We’ve even been taught by James Dobson‘s Focus on the Family radio program that “their” mental illness – or demonic possession, if you will – is a contagious disease spreading rapidly into homes and poisoning the children of God-fearing Christians parents. We’re always on guard.
The tribe of people who live across the Golden Gate bridge has been meticulously explained to me, and I live in fear of them. In my mind, I think of them as not far removed from the staggering ghouls of the old horror films I love – ravenous, evil, and traveling in herds. We speak of these feral sinners like they are subhuman – a lower form of humanity living in perpetual depravity and debauchery. Their intention as Satan’s most dangerous tribe is to live selfishly in their sin as they infiltrate every level of our Christian nation and turn it into a Satanic haven that accepts their filthy lifestyle without question.
I cannot speak for everyone’s evangelical experience, but in my home, nothing is met with more disgust than this people group. Yes, there are the atheists, the communists, the liberals, the feminists, the Satanists, the gang members, and black people on welfare – all signs of this great country’s moral decline. And while I’ve been taught to be wary of all of these pitfalls, the kinds of people who have made San Francisco their haven are the compass by which I instinctively measure the depravity of all the rest. And if Clinton’s America has its way, these San Francisco dwellers will be the first to successfully take over our great nation and destroy its holiness once and for all.
It’s spring season after school, and I’m doing what I always do around this time – watching TV and trying to put off doing my math homework. “The Animaniacs” is on, and of all the afternoon cartoon shows, it’s my favorite – because it actually feels made for me. Clearly whoever writes for this show wants to introduce its young audience to the kind of old black-and-white movies that I love to watch. Every episode is loaded with Easter eggs about the Golden Age of Hollywood, and watching this show makes me feel like maybe my people are actually out there somewhere.
Other kids watch movies in the theater or regularly rent new releases from Blockbuster and its ilk; being a family of meager means, these luxuries are rare treats for us. I’m into old movies – not only because they are cheap to watch (they’re all in the library or free on TV), but also because I find them to be treasure troves. The Marx Brothers never fail to send me into a spiral of giggles, and when Errol Flynn grins smugly and pulls out a sword, I know that I am about to be blown away with a spectacular action scene. The murder mysteries were dark and absorbing, the war films gritty and exciting, and the horror films (my favorite) creative and just the right levels of campy. I’m learning the names of more and more actors and directors, because they keep popping up in all of these films. I’m thus becoming a very specific type of movie geek. Give me a library shelf full of VHS movies dusty from neglect, and I’ll find you an entertaining way to occupy your Friday night.
I also love old movies because they are completely safe. James Dobson says so. If you were not raised evangelical, this might be a difficult concept for you to grasp; in 1994, I am in seventh grade and have mostly been taught to be paranoid about the current world’s Satanic influences. Movies, music, television – it’s all suspect because it’s all liberal, and we are frequently reminded at home and church and by James Dobson to be constantly vigilante about Satan’s attacks that come from the world’s influence around us. New movies usually have too much cussing and skin, unless they are Disney (which is starting to become too liberal as well). Our parents usually watch most of them first, just be be sure. On the other hand, old movies represent a time before sin started creeping into media – a time when America’s values were more aligned with what James Dobson and God intended. I can enjoy these movies on my own, without having to worry too much about a sinful world. So I study them with diligence.
So whereas my friends rave about Jim Carrey, I am more interested in talking about the Four Marx Brothers. Freddy Krueger barely interests me, but the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films have become my first sacred cinematic trilogy. Whereas my peers sing pop hits from new movies, I know every lyric to Maurice Chevalier’s “If A Nightingale Could Sings Like You.” I love what I love without shame – even though if I’m honest with myself, I cannot help but admit that I’m a pretty lonely kid without many people who understand me. So when “The Animaniacs” come on, I always stop to watch – even if it’s a rerun. It’s one of the few ways I actually feel validated.
Usually, I have my little sister and brother watching with me. Today, it’s just Dad. We are at the stage in my life in which I hang onto every word he says, like he is the voice of God Himself. Dad is a minister of music, about to finish up his theological graduate degree. I cannot overstate just how much I revere him. I won’t speak for every evangelical’s experience, but when your father is a profound man of God and you are told that God is your Heavenly Father, it is difficult not to give divine attributes to your earthly frame of reference, and vice versa. Dad is in direct communion with God, who has given him a special calling to be a soul-saving gospel minister – just like his father was before him.
I am still in middle school, still figuring out what a Godly man is supposed to look like and what it means to hear His voice. But Dad clearly knows how to listen for the Lord, and he’s thus been my primary model for how to serve God with the most diligence. I thus believe every word that he says to me and listen carefully when he offers advice. Which isn’t often, honestly – because he spends most of his time distracted and in his own head. That’s the price you pay for always being in communion with the Lord – sometimes, you just don’t notice much of what’s going on around you. It’s a small price to pay for being in the company of someone so holy.
I’m laying on the floor in front of the TV, my head propped up on a pillow. Dad sits on the couch behind me, and we watch the show quietly together. “Animaniacs” is parodying an old newsreel from 30s-40s Hollywood that used to play before the movies. Dad says something strange that seems to come completely out of left field. “You know, Danél, you really need to be careful with these old movies.”
This is completely new information, and I brace for devastation. I’ve only ever heard that my precious black-and-white films were safe before, but I understand his low, somber tone – he is going to give me advice in the spiritual category, which means I really need to listen. My heart freezes for an instant. The thought that this one sacred place – the one that felt like it was completely mine – may not please God actually frightens me. If old movies aren’t safe, then what is left to be called safe – except the walls of the Church? “Why do I need to be careful?” I pensively utter.
Dad sits calmly and speaks with conviction. I know this face – it is cheerless and thoughtful, and completely confident that he’s about to tell me something that is absolutely true. He launches right into it: “Because of the queers, son. They love these old movies too. They’ll use them to come after you and try to seduce you.” He’s clearly uncomfortable talking about any of this, the way his tone gets lower and lower. But he pushes through, because he knows it is his responsibility to keep me safe: “So just, uh, be careful who you talk about old movies with.”
I know who he’s talking about when he says “queers.” That is the hellbound, infectious tribe prowling San Francisco and in the world beyond – the ones spoken of by our pastors and favorite politicians with faces knotted and twisted in disgust.
Taking in Dad’s dire warning, I recall a day from a few years prior – long before puberty. My older sister Tirzah was noting the hottest guys on a TV show. Having no comprehension of what “hot” meant, I teasingly pointed to another random guy on the TV and said, “No, that one’s hotter.” My father, sitting beside us, launched right into a nervous laugh fest in which it was made perfectly clear that I would not be continuing to tell my sister which of these male models were hotter. He was laughing, but it was clear that he wasn’t kidding. “That’s something queers say. You’re not a queer, are you?”
Even as a prepubescent child living in an exclusively conservative Christian home, I comprehended who the “queers” were. They were the ones destroying America, and allowing this group to prosper was surely going to be the fastest path toward God’s wrath against this country. James Dobson preached that AIDS was God’s curse on them for refusing to repent. Jerry Falwell – a guy on TV that Dad liked to watch – likened the ramifications of their continued existence to the wrath from Heaven that destroyed Sodom. Benny Hinn, a faith healer about whom we were admittedly skeptical, drew applause from his packed-out Trinity Broadcasting Newtork audience when he prophecised, “God will destroy the homosexual community of America. He will destroy it with fire, and many will turn and be saved, and many will rebel and be destroyed.” I remember hoping he was right, even though I was told he was a fraud.
Over and over again, “queers” were described as the cesspool society of the most disgustingly unnatural sin – the very idea that a man could lie down with another man as a man lies with a woman. It is something so taboo that we have to be very careful to barely talk about them at all, except in harsh and succinct condemnation. So when my father rebuked me harshly for calling one of my sister’s television models hot, I understood instantly that what I had done was “queer,” and I instantly silenced myself and conjured up prayers of forgiveness as I burned with silent shame. God was undoubtedly very disappointed with me.
I was probably eight when that happened.
But today, it is 1994. I am at home watching “The Animaniacs.” And Dad has just warned me that old movies can be weaponized by queers to seduce me to their side. I now have no choice but to associate something I dearly love with this terrible group of people whom God had already condemned – a group that would not rest until they’d made every Christian child in American as queer as them. I don’t feel the shame today that I did when I was first rebuked by Dad for my “queer” statement. Yes, maybe panic briefly swells – is Dad issuing this warning because he fear I am queer? But I’ve passed through enough of my puberty to know I’m one-hundred percent interested in girls. And while Dad thinks I’m too fat to find a girlfriend, there’s no question that if Benny Hinn’s predicted fire from Heaven ever shows up, I’m going to be just fine. You might say that my crush on Sarah Welling is my fire insurance.
Anyway: It’s not like the kids at school ever want to talk about old movies. Come to think of it, they must associate the movies I love with queers, because they so frequently call me one when I try to strike up a conversation about Groucho Marx or Boris Karloff. It’s not just in church where the queers are hated; it’s in our schools too – at least, on the lunch grounds. To be one of those is worse than anything, even here in California where these depraved people live in relative safety. I am often struck, however, how it also seems equally as difficult to be considered a Christian in my school. I’m not sure if it is the belief system itself or simply the way that its structures have made me and other kids from the seminary so isolated that we don’t really know how to engage with anyone else or how to stand up for ourselves. When some secular singer named Kurt Cobain died last year and my classmates realized I’d never heard of him, they would form a circle around me and point and laugh like I was some sort of terrified, captive animal to be poked, prodded, and kicked.
After a while, the bullies figured out that I am the fragile, shy kid at whom they can throw fruit on the basketball court because they know I’ll never tattle. My school tribe mostly consists of the other nerdy kids who take turns getting pelted while we try to eat our lunches.
It goes without saying that church is far more my domain than school. Sunday School teachers and the youth pastor all think I’m smart there, and they praise me for my knowledge of the Bible and the Gospel. I study scripture, answer the questions correctly, and participate with an increasing reverence for Jesus. These are rules and formulas that do not make me feel like an outcast, but rather part of something bigger and of the utmost importance. I can certainly tolerate an orange flying into my face if I know that God has saved my soul and has called me to a higher purpose. I’m still not sure how well I fit with the popular and good-looking kids within church, whose tribe consists of the same sort of pretty faces and preppy attitudes that I see at school, but at least they are nice to be there – not least of all because Tirzah is one of their leaders. I don’t feel like one of them, but at least I feel safe from my peers and seen by the church leaders.
So when Dad tells me to be careful talking about old movies, I mostly just feel relief. Not talking about my love for old movies is much more manageable than if James Dobson had reversed engines and said that the old movies are now also under Satanic influence. Okay, this is fine – I can still watch them; I just have to be careful with whom I discussed them. No problem – talking about them wasn’t really all that safe for me anyway.
Looking at Dad as “The Animaniacs” plays its opening credit, I still silently churning his warning around in my head. He looks unusually nervous about this conversation continuing. “I’m not telling you to stop liking old movies,” he feels compelled to clarify. “Just… but careful.”
“Okay, I’ll be careful,” I say obediently, awkwardly – but with an unexpected twist of defensiveness that takes me a little by surprise. “But I’m still not going to stop liking old movies.”
Dad doesn’t like being spoken to with that kind of defiance; when Tirzah talks to him in such a way, I’ve seen him snap harshly – and she usually ends up grounded. I bite my lip, but he stays calm after I utter my retort. He simply shrugs and shoots me one of those indecipherabley smug looks in which his eyebrows goes up in an arch and his eyes squint authoritatively. He says, “Sometimes following the Lord comes at a cost.” This seems like a rebuke, but it is one that ends the conversation instead of prolonging it.
I file his closing thought for later, because I know that my father is a wise man of God. “Sometimes following the Lord comes at a cost.” I know that this is sound advice, and I will take it to heart.
Later as I lay in bed, I wonder if the writers of “The Animaniacs” are actually queers trying to slip secret messages into their show to make children watching just like them. It’s totally in line with what I understand about their methods and their culture. But I still like the show, and I’ll wait until James Dobson say something about it before I stop watching. Then I won’t have a choice, because my parents will forbid it. It’s why I had to quit watching “He-Man.”
In the coming years, the most important part of the conversation between me and Dad on that day remains the part about the queers trying to hook me in. I heed Dad’s advice and am very careful with whom I discuss it – mostly with older people at church, who are tickled that I can school them on the Marx Brothers (“There were actually five brothers altogether”). I’m wary of any of my middle school and high school instructors who also know these movies – especially the ones teaching evolution and who seem to be okay with Clinton being president. I always make sure that old movies just rarely come up.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that queers aren’t the ghouls I thought they were when I was younger – they are able to disguise themselves to look like normal people. Otherwise, I’d recognize them when they start talking to me about old movies. This realization makes me wonder about those two older brothers from one of my childhood churches. They used to tape so many classic movies off AMC for me. I actually used to check the TV listings and came to church prepared with blank VHS tapes with a list of movies I’d like taped that week – and they were always happy to do it for me. To them, I owed so many Universal Horror films.
Come 1995, 1996, etc., I recall those brothers fondly whenever I return to my beloved old movies. But I also cannot help but spend time wondering if they were actually maybe a couple of old queers. After all, they weren’t married and lived together. They also loved to talk about old movies with me – matching my enthusiasm. And they sure took me to a lot of Star Trek conventions, even without Dad around. Maybe they were trying to hook me in? The more I think about Dad’s warning, the more I cannot help but wonder. No, I tell myself over and over again – they were just a couple of older bachelor brothers. They couldn’t be queers – they were active in church. They were good Christians, just unusually single. I take turns convincing myself they are good Christian brothers and being plagued with doubt that my love for old movies made me an open target for predator queers.
I finally figure we will find out the truth about those “brothers” definitively if Benny Hinn’s prophecy ever comes true. I progress into my teenage years; every time I swirl my doubts about those two men around in my head again, I am trained to be just a little more paranoid about the sea of sin always on the brink of slipping through the defenses we have built through the salvation and grace of Jesus Christ, whom we shall all one day confess is Lord. I finally let the brothers go, and I start to wonder who else might be the queers that James Dobson and my pastors and my Dad keep warning me about. I start seeing them in my neighbors, in my school peers, in all the lonely kids like me who stand on the edge in search of their tribe.
Meanwhile, I’m finally finding my own tribe within the church walls.
Read Part 2 — “Only Humans” here.
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