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SAVE YOURSELF is full of funny and insightful recollections about everything from coming out (at a Catholic college where sexual orientation wasn’t in the nondiscrimination policy) to how joining the circus can help you become a better comic (so much nudity) to accepting yourself for who you are-even if you’re, say, a bowl cut-sporting, bespectacled, gender-nonconforming child with an eye patch (which Cameron was). Packed with heart, humor, and cringeworthy stories anyone who has gone through puberty, fallen in love, started a career, or had period sex in Rome can relate to, Cameron’s memoir is for that timid, fenced-in kid in all of us-and the fearless stand-up yearning to break free.
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Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s in suburban Chicago, I didn’t know gay people were real. I thought gay people and leprechauns were mythical creatures for parades with hats and buckles, and some of that’s true.
I do own several buckles.
Before The L Word was pitched, when Lena Waithe and Kate McKinnon were kids, lesbians existed but I couldn’t see ’em. Or hear ’em. Or look ’em up because THERE WAS NO INTERNET.
Ellen had a scripted show on the air and I wasn’t allowed to watch it.
Mx. DeGeneres hadn’t yet voiced a fish, created a talk show suitable for any doctor’s office, or even publicly come out, but my very Catholic parents sensed the cut of her Birkenstock and your grandpa Cameron wasn’t allowed to watch her show.
At twenty, when I realized I was gay, I imagined I’d spend my adulthood alone, a friendless lesbian match girl at society’s window pleading to be let in, and my eternity in hell, barbecuing alongside monsters who killed people or ate people or ate people they killed.
Then I fell in love, found comedy, and met some people who weren’t Catholic, or weren’t as Catholic as me. Slowly, over years, I worked to accept myself as perfectly fucking normal and okay. Now, because of my job, I often present only that part of me to the world. But there are other parts.
There’s this scene in the 1972 film version of Cabaret where Liza Minnelli’s character, Sally Bowles, is backstage, about to walk out and perform at the Kit Kat Klub. It’s 1931. It’s Berlin. And things are about to be awful. Also, Sally’s just had an abortion, which is messing with her bod, and she’s emotionally raw because she’s kinda going through two breakups at once, and THEN THERE’S THE FUCKING NAZIS TO THINK ABOUT. Anyway, Cabaret is a very good movie.
The scene I’m talking about is maybe two seconds long. I first watched it with my Big Deal Ex*—you know, the one who was my first real adult I’m-in-my-midtwenties partner who I thought I’d maybe marry even though same-sex marriage was then illegal? My Big Deal Ex was a modern dancer, obviously, like my older sister, and showed me Cabaret because the dang movie is directed by Bob Fosse and when you spend a lot of time around dancers you learn that apparently it is possible to “tuck your tailbone” and that I should, in fact, “tuck my tailbone,” and you also learn about Fosse and Tharp and Ailey and Baryshnikov (before Carrie Bradshaw).
Here’s the scene:
It starts out dark. The curtains are closed. Sally is alone, head down, looking nowhere at nothing, and it’s just her vulnerable, real, suffering self. Then the curtains open, light floods over her, and in the time it takes her to raise her head, her face—her whole being—is transformed: With a wide red grin and confident shoulders she walks out onstage. And when she does, she stops time. She owns herself and you and you’ve agreed to be owned and you’re happy about it.
And that’s what it feels like every time I do stand-up. Each time I step onstage, I leave my small, worried self behind and become a version of me that is power and projection. Onstage I’m your daddy. Backstage I’m upset and critical. So maybe your father?
Here’s just one example: It’s September 3, 2013. I’m performing on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. It’s my first time on network television. The curtain opens and I walk out onstage and, honestly, crush, Sally-style. Craig and Jay Leno, the other guest that night, interrupt my set and call me over to the couch (the biggest compliment a stand-up comic can get) and I sit between them, my feet not touching the ground even though I’m sitting in a fairly low chair because I’m the size of a Tamagotchi. My then-partner is in the greenroom, watching the taping beside the show’s producers, and the room erupts with cheers when I’m invited to the couch. My parents watch the broadcast and I give ’em a shout-out. It’s one year to the day since I moved to Los Angeles, and my hope is that this TV appearance will put them at ease. That they’ll scream, “She made it!” at one another before collapsing into each other’s arms, exhausted.
Because there was a long time when they—and I—thought I wouldn’t make it. Not as a comic, but as a human. As a queer gay lesbian human being, which I am.
People frequently come up to me after shows and tell me I am the first out gay person they’ve met. This still happens. Today, the day you are reading this, this happened. I’m sure of it. Some are straight and I’ve “changed their mind about queer folks.” Some are queer folks raised with a few more queer characters on TV but still isolated in the real world, who see, in me, an example of a possible future they might have, with a career and an extensive collection of button-downs. I’m proud of that, but it feels a little like only watching that one scene in Cabaret, and I’d like to tell the whole fucking queer-as-hell story.
This is a book about the small, worried guy left backstage.
It isn’t a sidebar to a straight person’s rebirth—I don’t give a makeover or plan a wedding or get a couple back together. It’s not a tragedy. I don’t die at the end of this book, having finally decided to kiss the girl. It’s honest and bumpy and scared and sexy and real.
It’s the dyke’s tale my younger self needed to read.
And I hope you enjoy it.
* Cammy’s Note: It would seem that as this book publishes, I will have an even Bigger Deal Ex. It’s an excruciatingly painful loss that I chose not to write about in this book except here where I’ll say: GODDAMNIT.
LITTLE GAY KID
Today, I am a Big Gay Adult, but I got my start as a Little Gay Kid (LGK).
In between, I was several other things, including a preteen battling her body, the proudly abstinent girlfriend of the captain of the football team, and an actual Republican. So it was a bit of a winding path from Little Gay Kid to Big Gay Adult.
I grew up the tough, square-jawed middle sister in a fiercely Italian, very Catholic family. My hometown is an idyllic suburb fifteen miles west of Chicago called Western Springs, and can best be described as quaint—it’s like the village in Hot Fuzz, but no one’s gone missing and instead, all thirteen thousand inhabitants are happy and fulfilled. Across from our George Carlin–less Shining Time Station, there’s a fruit store called—wait for it—Fruit Store. The two-block strip of downtown holds a butcher, a baker, and several places wherein candlesticks can be purchased, though not from their original maker. The baker makes legendary smiley-face cookies frosted with either pink or yellow buttercream. EVEN THE COOKIES ARE HAPPY.
We also had a literal milkman a good forty years after the rest of the country decided to suck it up and go to the store to get their own damn milk. Not us! We lived blissfully behind the times in a land where front yards were large, divorce rates were low, nearly everyone was white, and all those white people went to church on Sunday.
And goddamn if it wasn’t friendly there. We knew our neighbor’s neighbor’s dogs’ names. Every June, we’d put costumes on those dogs and on ourselves and march in the annual Pet Parade held one town over. There was AYSO soccer in the summer, king-size candy bar trick-or-treating in the fall, caroling in the winter, and Rollerblading in the spring.
Now, when I say I was raised very Catholic, I mean I attended Catholic school, said rosaries during my free time, and eventually became an altar server (a sort of priest’s assistant and rather new role in the Church for gals because, in Catholicism, women are for listening). I had this tiny plastic bottle marked HOLY WATER that contained—you guessed it—holy water, which is water a priest has been nearby and said some words over, and I used it to bless myself before falling asleep under this huge poster of a pretty scared-looking polar bear wandering through the snow that I had framed because, myself a scared white animal wandering through a white world, it just felt so me.
My family prayed before dinner and had Filet-o-Fish on Fridays during Lent. My parents both grew up in the kind of Italian Catholic families that made their own wine in the basement and their own sausage in the kitchen. They attended Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and met at a Catholic college. When it came time to raise their own family, they started us early with all Catholicism, all the time. My mom and I said Hail Marys together as she braided my hair. My dad, a lawyer, often stopped at a chapel downtown to pray before going to court, which would be unfair to opposing counsel if prayer affected legal outcomes.
My sister Allyson and I played church-inspired games. One favorite was Mass, in which we would line up our stuffed animals or our grandparents, whichever was around, for a quick sermon about Muppet Babies. My sister and I took turns priesting and my nana took the Eucharist with a solemn “Body of Christ” and an “Amen.” If those years of at-home games of Mass taught me anything, it would be to recommend thinly sliced bananas or Better Cheddars as a great stand-in for Eucharist (and if you use bananas, may I recommend leaving them out for a bit after slicing to allow the fruit to brown up a bit and more naturally match the skin tone of real Jesus, who, I was shocked to learn in college, was Middle Eastern and so probably looked Middle Eastern).
Another beloved game was Birth of Christ: Allyson was Mary and I was Joseph (naturally), and she would deliver a Cabbage Patch Kids doll into a brown piece of Tupperware with a yellow pom-pom inside—the “hay” was essential to make the manger feel true to life. The most complicated game was Jesus/Moses. During the winter, we’d walk on the frozen ice crusts between driveways. If you made it all the way from one driveway to the next without falling through to the layer of soft snow underneath: Jesus. But if you fell through: Moses. (Which is a gross misunderstanding of Moses’s relationship to water, but Catholics don’t really read the Bible. We’re more of a “What Does the Pope Say the Bible Says?” kinda crew.)
And if you thought all of this was chill, my parents also sort of raised my sisters and me like marines. Their number one rule of Espositohood: Don’t Leave Your Sisters Behind. An intense family motto, really. To this day I’m not totally sure what they were preparing us for, because we straight-up lived in the suburbs and that sounds like something from Band of Brothers. The house I grew up in was very warm and full of love—my parents often slow-danced in our kitchen—but it was strict and stressful, too. I was never supposed to operate outside the family’s collective will, and I was expected to Spider-Man my privilege (“with great power comes great responsibility”) and make sure my sisters and all future generations of our line were pulled up to the next rung on the ladder. That’s a lot to carry. I have a fucked-up right shoulder from metaphorically pulling that weight and, yes, metaphors can hurt your shoulder.
Allyson is three years older than I, but we were raised like twins, although I once said as much to Tegan Quin (of the twin band Tegan and Sara) and she looked at me like I was out of my mind. Oh well! Sorry, actual twins. What I mean is that we acted as counterpoints to one another. (Is that twins? Whatever.) My little sister, Britton, wasn’t born until Allyson was ten and I was seven. Britton was The Baby and The Witch (she was born on Halloween and has one of those personalities where she can speak to the moon) and Allyson and I were the First Two—best buds, but also polar opposites with none of the same interests or hobbies.
Allyson was a careful, delicate kid who studied ballet and talked softly. She choreographed dances and alphabetized her toys while I jumped off the tops of swing sets and yelled a lot. She collected Barbies. I collected Kens. I had six of them. Mattel didn’t actually make six varieties of Ken at the time, by the way. I had multiples of the same model that I differentiated based on “moles” created by errant paint drips. I’d pop a Ken into his best sleeveless snap-on tuxedo onesie and send him out for a date with Barbie—or, scandalously, with Skipper, Barbie’s sister and closest friend. All the Kens shared a ride—a hot pink T-top—and they looked glorious in it. I couldn’t wait to grow into a tuxedo of my own.
It was like Allyson and I lived in a binary system, where she was the daughter of the family and I was the son. Since both these slots were filled by the time she was born, Britton the Witch kind of did her own thing, including, for a solid year of her young life, identifying as a dog. She wore a Dalmatian costume every day and would only eat on the floor. We were just another family in Pleasantville with a girl daughter, a girl son, a human-shaped dog, and a milkman.
As the girl son, I was and continue to be protective of both my sisters, even though Allyson is older. I was very invested in savior behavior, which felt very male to me, based on movies, TV, and that dude Jesus. Allyson was demure and if the word “femme” means anything, she was that. If anyone messed with her I’d throw my much younger and smaller body in front of hers, yelling, “LEAVE MY SISTER ALONE!” When she started to date and her boyfriend was a dick, I logged on to my parents’ AOL account and emailed him, Don’t ever talk to my sister again! By the way, I’m 12!
In case you think the difference in our gendering made me the only tough guy in the Esposito family, Allyson has a completely solid roundhouse kick and Britton will lure you in with her yogic exterior only to FUCK YOU UP. Which is to say, I have physically fought both my sisters many times. We played with dolls, but we also sat on each other’s heads and farted. Our sisterhood was boundaryless, full of screaming, tackling, and squeezing. And A LOT of cuddling, too. We were so in love with each other—we still are—and our childhood was one big montage of the three of us repeatedly flinging our entire bodies at each other. We each had our own room, but on weekends and holidays we’d always sleep together in one of our twin beds.
Sometimes Allyson would try to pretend to be older and cooler than all that. “Get out of here, lesbians!” she’d scream when Britton and I piled into her bed. Yes, she frequently called us lesbians. No, lesbians don’t sleep with their actual sisters. But when Allyson slung that then-contextless word around our house, Britton would be like, “I will kiss you on your LIPS!” and then do it. My dad kisses his male friends on the lips as a greeting to this day, so this was all very normal in my extremely Italian household.
God, I love my sisters. They feel like parts of my own body sometimes.
Tangentially related to gender, I spent my childhood constantly injured. Some of the injuries had to do with my reckless swing-set-jumping attitude—like when I broke my arm in three places bailing off a bike at full speed—but many happened because I’ve never been able to see a goddamned thing.
I mean, I can see, but you better be three inches from my face, because I am awfully nearsighted and always have been. Being a little kid with glasses, that’s one thing. You’ll smash your glasses playing basketball or lose them in the ocean. You might get called Four Eyes or some other nonsense. If you were a glasses kid, I feel you. It’s tough walking in the rain in those things, and it’s super creepy going to bed when you can’t quite figure out what that blob in the corner might be (it’s always just a pile of clothes). But let me lay this on you: I also had crossed eyes and wore an eye patch for eight years of my childhood.
One morning when I was two I woke up and walked downstairs to greet my mom (this is a story I’ve been told; I do not remember anything before I was five except for one moment I’m gonna mention in the next paragraph—GET EXCITED FOR THAT!) and my right eye had lost its iris. My left eye still contained the brown iris I’d gone to sleep with and my right eye was totally white, a blank eyeball. So this appropriately SCARED THE SHIT out of my mom, who called my dad and had him paged on the golf course (yes, I had a privileged golfing-parent childhood) with something like “No emergency but if Mr. Esposito could please come to the clubhouse, that’d be great. Your wife just called and your girl son’s eyeball is blank.” From what I’m told, when my dad got home I was blissfully running in circles in the front yard, likely because my newly unbalanced one-eyed vision had me thinking that was a straight line and I haven’t been straight since.
No, but for real, I was definitely gay before that. I remember being in my mom’s womb and being like “I’m a Shane,” and it wasn’t until almost twenty years later when The L Word debuted that I learned what that meant. And of course that is a joke and not the thing I remember from before I was five because that’s actually in the next paragraph. This paragraph is simply an aside. I am a Shane, though, not an Alice. Don’t you tell me I’m an Alice!
Anyway, my parents rushed me to the hospital, where the doctors reassured them by saying, “Is this a girl? We can’t tell from the bowl cut. Okay, well, she didn’t lose her iris, it’s just off to the side, facing back into her skull, and we think it’s a brain tumor because that’s what makes eyes cross this drastically and quickly. Oh wait, never mind, we did many tests and her brain is A-okay. Whoopsie-daisy. It’s just that one of her eyes has super weak muscles on the side. And sorry, just to be double clear: Is this a girl?” So after those two things happened, I was scheduled for laser eye muscle surgery (pew-pew) and I got a crapload of presents because I survived a brain tumor I didn’t have. I remember the giraffe nightgown I wore to the hospital the day of the surgery—THERE’S THE MEMORY—most likely because, even at that time, I’m sure I was like, “Ugh. A dress? Y’all couldn’t get a Ken tux together for the occasion? I MIGHT DIE ON THE TABLE IN A FREAKING DRESS.”
I had that first surgery very quickly, because there’s a chance with crossed eyes that your brain will get mad about seeing images that don’t combine well and choose to blind you in one eye to save you the trouble of double vision. Yeah, the crossing creates double vision, making it really hard to not hit your head on everything. After surgery, I had to wear tiny adorable humiliating children’s glasses that looked almost exactly like the ones Dustin Hoffman wears in Tootsie, a movie about how hard it is to be a man in the entertainment industry because all the good roles go to older women.
And not just glasses. Also an eye patch. Here’s the drill: I patched my strong eye (left) so my weak eye (right) had to actually buck up and get some seeing done. Without the patch I’d let my left eye do the looking, oftentimes turning my head to the right so that my left eye could fully take over while I rocked myself slowly and rhythmically in a cross-legged position, seated directly in front of the television because I also couldn’t see distance, though we didn’t know that yet. I guess my parents could have been like, “Um, sweetie, this tilted-head rocking-too-close-to-the-TV thing is terrifying and we’re curious if you are yourself a ghost or have been visited by ghosts,” but instead they just yelled, “BOTH EYES,” meaning I was supposed to straighten out my face during the times when the patch was off.
Which really wasn’t that often. As a kid, that patch was my life. And I’m not talking about a black pirate eye patch. I had to wear a disposable Band-Aid material eye patch. The patch was the same color as my flesh and, from a distance, made it seem as if I was perpetually winking, or doing a long-term impression of Sloth from The Goonies.
The company that made these patches must have felt bad for the kids who had to wear them. To soften the blow of having to wear a flesh flap, they put a few stickers in with the patches. “Use ’em to decorate,” they said, woefully unaware that an eye patch can’t be cool. Plus, the specific stickers added insult to injury. Each was perfectly round, the size of a penny, and featured a bucolic farm scene printed in only navy blue, tan, and brown. I guess little eye-patched kids were meant to show up at school and say, “Oh, you’ve got a Lisa Frank iridescent pony on your Trapper Keeper? Well, I’ve got a drab vignette of a deer, a silo, and an owl on my eye patch!” Luckily, I was also chubby, had a bowl cut, and insisted upon only wearing red jeans, so the eye patch blended nicely with the overall tragedy of my childhood aesthetic. I think my patch had a great influence on my later career in comedy. When you’re a little gay Sloth pirate running around the suburbs, you better be hilarious. And I am.
When I first came out to my parents, they insisted that there had been no signs that I was gay in my childhood. There were, in fact, seven billion. Maybe we were looking for different signs. Perhaps they had expected to walk in on me kissing an entire softball team whilst wearing a vest made of Subarus, or as a baby to have cried until they put Melissa Etheridge’s and k.d. lang’s albums on at the same time, which can’t be done without ripping the space-time continuum. Those voices are too strong, and if united must be fought from within the confines of a giant robot driven by Idris Elba.
By the way, Little Gay Kids are the best, except of course if our hands turn everything to ice and then we have to wear gloves and can’t build snowmen with our siblings. The entertainment industry has been copping our steeze and bestowing it upon the coolest characters for quite a while. And why wouldn’t they? We are the ones who push things forward. We’re creative, we’re innovative, and if LGK Idgie Threadgoode’s appearance in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes taught us anything, we’re pretty much the reason women can wear pants.
Why are Little Gay Kids so creative? Probably because we are working hard to make sense of our own identities. We know there is something different about us but can’t figure out what it might be. We often don’t have the language or space to ponder our sexualities or gender presentations. So we feel like outsiders or bystanders or both.
Perhaps the best way I can start to identify the hallmarks of my LGK childhood would be to present some of the greatest hits from my Little Gay Kid-oweens. I grew up loving October 31, and not just for the monster mash or the graveyard smash. When you’re an LGK, Halloween is THE BEST. It’s the only day when you can dress exactly as you feel comfy with no backlash. I mean, probably with A LITTLE backlash, but way less than usual.
CAMERON ESPOSITO’S LITTLE GAY KID-OWEENS: A GREATEST HITS COMPILATION
AGE 8: BLOODY PIRATE
My birthday falls close to Halloween, and I had some girls over for a dress-up birthday party when I turned eight. The other girls were things like Jem or a kitten or a nurse. I went as a pirate and kept leaving my own party to add sweet effects to my costume—once to draw on a beard that went all the way up to my eye sockets, and once to dip my best plastic bowie knife in red paint to simulate the blood of my enemies. I think some of the girls were unnerved by my upgrades, but I didn’t give ONE FUCK because the added toughness put me in the exact right frame of mind to kill the shit out of my piñata. Candy from heaven, muthafuckahs!
AGE 10: ROBIN HOOD
I was really into whittling my own bows and arrows at this point in my childhood. Mostly, I’d use them to shoot into the yard of my parents’ long-suffering back-door neighbors. This was after I had both snapped the heads off all their flowers because I thought they were “haunted” and dug up a power line in their garden because I thought they had buried a body there. What can I say? I was a spooked-out kid. And they were old and I had seen the Tom Hanks film The ’Burbs and there was a white-haired dude in that movie who MURDERED PEOPLE. Anyway, this costume was great. Green tights, and one of my mom’s chunky belts over a green tunic that maybe I constructed from a pillow case or something? I tied it all together with a homemade felt quiver that kept spinning upside down and dumping out all my arrows—that was the WORST!
AGE 11: CHARLIE CHAPLIN
I spent my early childhood donning culturally acceptable gal garb like colorful Multiples-brand clothing separates—cotton tubes of neon fabric that could be worn as a tube top or tube bottom. Nothing could be more confusing to an LGK than a skirt that could also be a shirt. I’d ask myself, if this fabric tube could be both, then wasn’t it also neither? By the time I was eleven, I was hankering to spend some time in menswear. A Halloween spent as Charlie Chaplin was the perfect excuse to wear a full suit and pay homage to some rad Hollywood shit. Did you say full suit? I did! What about a mustache? You bet! Unfortunately, they don’t make child-size novelty canes, so my Chaplin cane was twice my height and I ended up looking like a suited wizard or shepherd Hitler.
AGE 12: GARFIELD
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing