Southern Exposure: Did California make me soft?
I lived for 25 years in California, including 5 years in San Francisco, 18 years in Los Angeles, and 2 years in Laguna Beach. This part of my life was dominated by my big corporate roles and engagements, including roles at The Gap, Disney, Dreamworks, AwesomenessTV, and Fox Film and Television. I was a very involved advocate, donor, and volunteer leader for many causes including GLSEN, Make-A-Wish, GLAAD, and the American Red Cross. I truly believed and still believe it was my duty to give back Time, Talent, Treasure, and Testimony to amplify the important work of the Non-Profit organizations I supported. After my first 30 years throughout the Midwest and as a proud Ohio native and Indiana University Hoosier, I thought California was the promised land, especially for the Queer community. Living in places like The Castro, West Hollywood, and an Arts Community like Laguna Beach fed my soul and filled my lifelong learning and curiosity goals. I had inspiration, gorgeous weather, constant innovation, safety, community, and traffic! Most importantly, I had neighborhoods where I felt safe to live as an open and visible Gay couple with our dogs and moved comfortably about our daily tasks and work.
At the beginning of the Covid pandemic and lockdown, I was in transition at work and in my personal life, so I decided it was time to sell my home in California and return to my Midwestern roots and friends. I wanted to get closer to the stomping ground of my youth and to my alma mater, Indiana University. This would enable me to spend more time on my philanthropic ventures there and engage with mentoring opportunities with students. It turned out that despite my best intentions and efforts, I did not find what I was looking for in Indianapolis, and it was too much of a drastic change from California. I began to research alternatives. I loved reconnecting with friends and my University, but I was missing a community connection.
I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man who happened to live in Atlanta, Georgia. After a year of long distance dating and several lengthy visits to the Peach State, I decided to make the move to a charming home and area in Atlanta. I had visited the city for years, had friends there already, and knew that my partner’s friends and family would welcome us with open arms. My partner, who is a Doctor and has lived in Atlanta since he was 11, also is Black and younger than I am. I moved with enthusiasm, curiosity, and an open mind. I did not anticipate some of the emotions and challenges I would face.
I was instantly thrust into the reality of the New South. Atlanta is vibrant, diverse, innovative, growing rapidly, and liberal. However, if you venture 20 minutes outside the radius of our neighborhood and the story changes. This is the SOUTH, honey, full of history, legacy, and drama. This is the land of dichotomies like Senators Warnock and Ossoff and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. The state of Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. I have lived through and voted in 2 divisive elections and 2 runoffs in 2 years. I have hesitated to put yard signs up for Democratic candidates due to fears of reprisal and neighbor issues. Covid-19 evidently was not a reality here, as 2 weeks into the pandemic, all restrictions were relaxed in the entire state, except for Atlanta, which caused nasty exchanges between our Mayor and the Governor. All of this while emergency rooms were overflowing with Covid patients , and the front line workers, like my partner put their lives at risk every day treating a disease that over half the state refused to get a vaccination for initially. The anger, the vitriol, the blue vs red divisiveness is palpable. It is sometimes hard to believe it is 2023 and issues of civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights are still being debated at all levels of government and society. This is also and area with continuing realities of poverty, racial disparities, and distrust of the police force and government.
There were many times I thought “Dorothy, you are not in Kansas any more” (sub California for Kansas). I had to relearn my radar for scanning rooms, situations, and public places for hostile elements or potential conflicts. I had to watch what I was saying or opinions I was expressing in certain situations. Not only was I part of an out gay couple, we are an interracial couple. In some situations, I do not know what is worse, being gay or being with a Black man. I have witnessed my partner be treated completely differently than I am by service professionals, police officers, and in banks and restaurants. My partner is assumed to be the landscaper, the dog walker, or some other service provider in front of our own home. So many times, hosts or hostesses at restaurants address me first, regardless of their race or background. I feel my white male privilege too often, and it honestly makes me uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as innocently driving into areas littered with Trump 2020 and 2024 signage, but still concerned. In California I never thought twice about wearing a T-shirt with Biden/ Harris or a pride flag. Here, I consciously think about my day and my route as I choose my outfits. Living here is making me address my lack of knowledge and understanding of areas like Civil Rights history and racism, Black History, and the Black experience.
So, I ask myself if California had made me too “soft”? Did 25 years of liberal politics, social justice, and basic, essential human rights make me complacent? I know California has numerous issues: homelessness, cost of living, taxes, and climate change to name a few, but I never felt different or ill at ease, in any situation, as a Gay man. Was I living in some kind of vacuum or echo chamber, where I was not open to other viewpoints that differed from my own? Had I taken the community and the safety for granted?? You always hear commentary about the differences between the “liberal coastal states” and the big middle or flyover states, and the large political and ideological divide in our country. I am living in this stark reality daily now. And, yes, I took the basic tenets of human rights, personal safety, and community belonging for granted.
The current state of the USA political situation is making me question geography and where we choose to live and invest our time, tax dollars, and support. I am lucky that I have a choice, but what about others in my community that do not have a choice? What do I do to support, elevate, and protect them? Our entire queer community cannot only live and thrive in certain states. I need to work to insure that everyone can live authentically and safely in their community and hometowns. By living out loud and using my voice and platform, I am increasingly moving from advocate to activist. I do not feel like we have an option. I refuse to give in to the negativity, the discrimination, the hatred, and the false information. I have to use my position and voice to support and protect others who do not have that luxury. I admit it…..I had grown soft, but I am going to change and strengthen my resolve . Never take safety and core, essential human rights for granted.
Living in a democracy is hard work, but I will use my right to vote, my right to free speech, and my right to live safely to help others in any way I can. I am also going to support candidates at all levels of government that are willing to be vocal leaders in the human rights arena. Finally, I am going to lean in to the famous Southern charm and hospitality and educate and advocate wherever I can. I love my new home and want a community that works for all. Remember……. Y’all means Everyone!!