A central theme in my life is the difference between intellectual versus visceral knowledge. Our viscera, our guts, is where we feel things while our heads are where we think things. Visceral knowledge isn’t exactly “gut knowledge,” that certainty that something is so despite a lack of confirming data; visceral knowledge is intellectual knowledge that has been lived, experienced and reinforced so we not only think it, we know it. Theatre taught me myriad wondrous intellectual things, but the greatest gift of theatre wasn’t expanding my head, it was expanding my heart, and Cameron Byrd provided an essential element to my heart health.
I was born in 1961 but I’m older than that. I’m older than that because my parents were born in the nineteen-twenties; Mom in 1920, Dad in 1929. The age and background of our parents, our first and therefor most influential teachers, effects whom we become. Children, especially children who were reared at home rather than in child-care centers or by babysitters, absorb via osmosis the attitudes and values of their parents and my parents were early Twentieth Century, middle-class, middle-Americans. The mores of the Nineteenth Century were their mores and they passed conservative beliefs on to me.
Hard-work, self-reliance and do-unto-others were my parents’ core values. So was homophobia.
Homosexuals were anathema in my childhood household. Sex was reserved not only for women with men but specifically husbands with wives; their own wives! Sexual conservativeness was a message delivered via word and action in the Kenel household and homosexuality had no place in the world view of early Twentieth Century America. (For the record, my father was very progressive for a man of his time and one of my primary guidelines in my treatment of people is to ask, “What would Betty do?” because “backward” as a woman born a century ago may seem in modern times, my mother was a beacon of love and civility. If my actions pass the Betty Test, then they are civil and courteous.)
The old saw about theatre being filled with homosexuals is true, there are a lot of beautiful, creative men who love men and women who love women in theatre and my involvement with theatre brought me together with men and women whom I adore and look up to. Theatre troops, I quickly learned, are teams and they are teams teeming with love.
Great! Intellectual knowledge achieved! Ding, ding, ding! Ring the bell! “Yes! He can be taught!” But what about visceral knowledge? That came more slowly.
Mike Wilhelm, another man I met through theatre, provided one of my earliest, “ah-ha,” moments. I saw Mike on stage before I met him and loved his portrayal of Douglass Panch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hooked me. Soon after, we were in a show together and I made a borderline homophobic joke in his presence, not a hate filled statement but an insensitive one. I soon learned that Mike was gay and did what Betty would do and apologized. The man told me he had no idea what I was apologizing for. This simple act of tolerance, love, understanding and team work was a seminal moment in my path to visceral knowledge that gay is an attribute, not a definition and that love is love.
Later that same year I auditioned for another show that Mike was also interested in. I arrived for the audition and he, along with my friends Brian and Bryant, were sitting together at a table. Being a constant joker, I asked, “What is this, the gay table?” and one of my friends looked up, smiled welcomingly and replied, “Yep. You want to join us?” I froze.
I don’t know if my hesitation was visible or not, but I know it was real. Do I want to join my friends at the gay table? Say what!?
What would Betty do? I sat my ass down and chatted with three lovely and loving friends while we waited to audition.
Cameron, Miss Nevae Love, Byrd came into my life a short time later when we performed together in A Christmas Carol. Cameron was fun-filled, fun-loving and a hoot to rehearse with. He is also a talented make-up and hair man and he was helping some of the young actors with their hair. I watched as he combed and curled a young girl’s hair and he looked up to me and said, “I bet you loved doing this to your little girl’s hair.”
I replied, “I don’t have any girls, just two boys, but you’re right, I would.”
“Well,” twenty-four-year-old Cameron said to fifty-year-old me, “you never know, it could still happen.”
“Ha! That wagon don’t deliver. Maybe a granddaughter someday.”
“Yeah,” he said with a wink and a smile. “Someday.”
Cameron was a treat, but it was his before show ritual that chipped away at my ingrained, life-long homophobia. Backstage before Curtain Cameron would walk up to each player, arms outspread and offer us a hug and kiss. Huh?
Hugs from men? No problem? Kiss? Even a short, cheek-kiss? I’m a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-class, stick-up-the-butt WASP. What is he thinking?
My response involved no hesitation. I opened my arms, embraced my young Byrd, accepted his kiss to my cheek and felt just a little of my ingrained, taught, ludicrous, fear-filled intolerance slip away. Cameron Byrd kissed a little bit of it away, night after night, show after show and for that I will always be grateful.
Among the many things Cameron does he enjoys performing in “Drag Shows,” a term right out of the nineteen-fifties. He performs regularly at Club Basix as Miss Nevae Love, the woman pictured above. If you’re ever in Cedar Rapids, Iowa you should check MS Love out at Belle’s Basix.
By the way, one of the stories my mom Betty shared with me was a trip she took to New York City with some of her office mates in the late nineteen forties. Review Shows were very popular at the time and the review featured beautiful dancers who sang like angels. The show, she later learned, was a female impersonator show and all the beautiful ladies were men performing in drag. Betty said she had no idea that this was so until one of her friends clued her in.
Exactly, Mom. Exactly, Cameron. Be who you are, love what you do and realize we can Nevae have enough love in this world.
Happy thirtieth, Cameron. Love you.