I’ll tell you a secret: I grew up in poverty. At school, I marveled at the electronic wonders that other children brought to Show & Tell — the Satan-possessed talking Teddy Ruxpin bears; the little light-up ET alien creatures, and for the little gay boys in my class, the Pound Puppies.

Me? I had a Bible and a sharp stick. That’s all a Christian needs.

But in fifth grade, I made a 25-cent garage-sale purchase that would change my life: a 1976 battery-operated Bi-centennial cassette recorder with a Barry Manilow tape inside. The first song I ever heard on a cassette tape was “Mandy.”

The first time I played that tape, Mama chased me through the house and screamed about my devil music. But I ran into the woods and listened to that tape, over and over, until Barry’s voice began to fade and then the batteries died.

I began thinking about Barry when I saw a Kansas City AIDS Walk poster at the Heartland Men’s Chorus last week. The ribbon on the poster reminded me of the red ribbon I wore after my best friend Eric died. I wore a red ribbon to his funeral. And when I had to have his cat, Mrs. Beasley, put down a few years later, I put a red ribbon on one of Eric’s sweaters and wore it to the vet as she took her last few breaths.

And I’m wearing it now, knowing that every year I need ... no, I have to do something to stop the spread of AIDS.

I believe that being gay or lesbian is a choice. Sorry, sinners, that’s my view. But if you get yourself into trouble, it’s my Christian duty to help out.

I just keep thinking of the time I told Eric the story of my first cassette recorder, and we giggled that a closeted Barry Manilow was my first big crush. He teased me for years, even talking about Barry on the day he died.

Soon after that horrible day, as I was clearing out Eric’s apartment, I found a package wrapped for Christmas underneath his bed.

It had a card tied to it in Eric’s handwriting. “To Francine,” it said.

My hands shook as I unwrapped the paper and opened the box. There was a 1976 Bicentennial cassette recorder he had found on eBay, along with a Barry Manilow cassette. It came with a note:
"You’ll never realize how happy you made me, oh Mandy Francine. Keep the faith, and remember you’re loved."

I remember, Eric, and I continue my fight.

Please visit my AIDS Walk page below so we can fight together.
The Chorus and a Hummer Help Me Stop the Drone
Test, test, test. One, two, three. Sweet darlings, I am running late this week, and I have no time to transcribe this audio tape, so I’m going to give it to those Camp people and ask them to transcribe it. You evil editors, take out the parts that may embarrass me. That’s all I ask.

I won’t go into my Christian duty here, talking about gay marriage and the dreadful way the world will end if we allow that to happen. I’ll allow you gay and lesbian Mormons, Catholics and Republicans do that for me. You’re my super-secret double agents. I love you boys and girls.

Start with this instead: I am the spiritual adviser for Loch Lloyd’s Alcoholics Anonymous club, and last week’s meeting was as dull as ever. Every two weeks, I must endure hours of monotone droning, and the only way I survive is by consuming two dirty martinis before each gathering. An hour before, I raise my glass with a hearty “Here’s a toast for the quitters” to honor their journey into sobriety, and more important, to the 12 steps of the Lord.

This past week, I nearly fell asleep in my folding chair as each person described his or her life without alcohol. Families reunited, jobs saved, marriages mended -- it was all terribly tedious.

Suddenly a few of my alcohol-engorged brain cells sparked with an answer of how to end the suffering of these dullards. I quickly ended the meeting and loaded the group into the Loch Lloyd Community Center’s stretch Hummer and had the driver navigate through Kansas City, ending at an event I knew would enliven these poor souls’ existences: the Saturday evening performance of the Heartland Men’s Chorus.

As my former alcoholics filed into the Folly, I saw them glance nervously at the audience crowding into the auditorium. There were mostly bald and graying Caucasian men, their mothers and minimally overweight sisters. I smiled as I realized I was at an event you could take the whole family to. Here in Kansas City, only gay men and people of Asian heritage take Grandma on their romantic dates. You gay boys are so good to Mama!

But all the chorus did was sing and spark controversy and protest the lack of civil rights. Where’s the fun in that? However, they projected images and words on a transparent screen in front of the chorus and that was a brilliant move. Two reasons: 1. It let the audience see movies and the chorus at the same time, and 2. It reduced the glare from a bald spot or two on stage.

On a side note, that transparent screen I was talking about? As gay men know, it is called a “scrim.” I had to make that clear, because some of the lesbians in the audience thought it was a softball safety net, and the grandma sitting behind me thought she had cataracts.

My sober friends screamed and clapped all the way back to Loch Lloyd, loving their first experience with the gays. I have to say I was bit proud of opening their eyes to the world. I was even happier when someone slipped me a sip of brandy.

Brandy is candy, but liquor is quicker. How do I turn this recorder off? Hey driver, stop at the Quik Trip, I gotta go ... (static … click).
Francine offers her slightly skewed viewpoint on issues in the Kansas City metropolitan area’s LGBT community in each issue ofCamp. And since you’re asking, yes, she’s a fictional character. Well, you asked.

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