Entertainment LGBTQ

Strike a Prose

A friend of mine and I always joke that if you get more than two gay men of a certain age — over about forty-two, forty-three — in a room, the conversation has turned to Madonna within half an hour, sometimes within ten minutes, every time. What she has meant to us, what she meant to us growing up on a kind of fundamental, primal, existential level, is impossible to exaggerate.

Matt Cain, British writer

I should have known I was gay in 1986. I’d sit in my room for hours, playing Madonna’s “True Blue” album over and over. (This was before CDs and streaming. After the last song on Side A, “Live to Tell,” I’d have to physically remove, flip over, and reinsert the cassette. You kids get off my lawn!)

I knew not to discuss Madonna with friends and family. For reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I sensed that admitting my admiration would say something about me that I didn’t want others to know.

I’m thinking back to those days because I’ve just devoured “Madonna: A Rebel Life,” the new biography by Mary Gabriel. It’s hardly Pulitzer material (I’m struggling to come up with a Material Girl pun here), but I found it fascinating because, by exploring the effect Madonna had on culture and society, it helped illuminate the effect Madonna had on me.

I’ll start by sharing my thoughts on the book, then dig deeper into Madonna the Gay Icon.

To get you in the mood for this blog post, here’s a playlist I’ve created with the songs from every Madonna album, the new music from the compilation albums, and the tracks released one-off.

Just Some Tome to Celebrate

As befits a meticulously researched, 800-page book about a cultural icon, “Madonna: A Rebel Life” has garnered a lot of attention from book critics. The best brief description of the book is the subhead of Alexandra Jacobs’ review in The New York Times (paywall): “Mary Gabriel’s biography is as thorough as its subject is disciplined. But in relentlessly defending the superstar, where’s the party?”

In my non-professional opinion, the book’s biggest strength is also its primary weakness: Gabriel sympathizes with her subject. It’s a difficult balancing act: Is she humanizing or idolizing Madonna? Is she Madonna’s advocate or apologist?

Here’s how this plays out:

When Madonna thrives, it’s because of her drive, creativity, and openness to collaboration. She isn’t afraid of risk. She seeks out what’s new instead of repeating what’s been done.

When Madonna fails, it’s because the cards are stacked against her. It’s because of resistance in the music and film industries. It’s because she’s ahead of her time. It’s because of political and social resistance.

This doesn’t make the book any less powerful or insightful. What Gabriel does best is contextualize Madonna’s story. It’s not just about her; it’s also about the culture that created Madonna (and, in return, the culture that Madonna helped shape). Remove Madonna from the book and you end up with a fascinating, well-researched piece about the evolution of music and art in New York in the 1980s, the rise of the Religious Right in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the push for LGBTQ rights, and even the politics of Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.

“I Am a Gay Man”

Madonna has been a gay icon and advocate for LGBTQ equality since, well, forever. This book, more than anything else I’ve read, explains why and how Madonna the artist can’t be separated from Madonna the ally, or Madonna the activist.

Madonna said her first visit to a gay club was the first time she felt empowered to be authentic:

I felt like such an outsider, a misfit, a weirdo. And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I just felt at home. I had a whole new sense of myself… Until that point, I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes… When Christopher introduced me to this life, I suddenly thought, “That’s not the only way that I have to be.”

Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

This meant, I think, that Madonna appreciated and understood LGBTQ people on a personal level. She didn’t wink at them like previous artists did. She spoke to them directly, openly, and inclusively.

When an interviewer asked her, “If you were a gay man, would you be a top or a bottom?” she replied, “I am a gay man.” (Italics mine.)

What makes this even more important and meaningful is that Madonna didn’t shy away from LGBTQ issues when speaking to the general public — especially about the AIDS health crisis. In fact, each copy of “Like a Prayer” included a pamphlet about AIDS and safe sex. Remember, this is a time when people didn’t discuss AIDS, or described it as divine retribution against LGBTQ people. Now, from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, anyone buying her album would get the facts they need.

I’m Not Your Bitch. Don’t Hang Your Shit on Me.

The most important thing about Madonna to me is that, through her words and actions, she empowered LGBTQ people to be bold and proud when everyone else wanted them to be silent and ashamed. Her attitude: If other people want to shame me for what I say, what I do, or what I represent, fuck ’em!

You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done.

Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

Madonna showered us with love and visibility long before anyone in mainstream popular culture did. As far as examples go, “Vogue” is a gimme. So is her inclusion of LGBTQ people in “Truth or Dare” and the “Justify My Love” video in the early ’90s. Knowing Madonna was an unabashed ally gave her other songs deeper meaning and more resonance. “Express Yourself” isn’t just about demanding more from a partner — it’s about self-respect and -love in a society that expects you to put up with less than you deserve.

While “Human Nature” is based on Madonna’s experiences after “Erotica” and the “Sex” book, the lyrics are a rallying cry to everyone who doesn’t fit the tiny box that white, straight, cisgender, Christian men want to force everyone into.1

Wouldn’t let me say the words I longed to say
You didn’t want to see life through my eyes

Express yourself don’t repress yourself

You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room
And silence me with bitterness and lies

Express yourself don’t repress yourself

Did I say something wrong?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex
I must’ve been crazy

Did I stay too long?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t speak my mind
What was I thinking?

And I’m not sorry
I’m not sorry
It’s human nature

And I’m not sorry
I’m not sorry
I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me

“Human Nature,” Madonna

You’ll See

In 1990, after the success of “Vogue” and “Dick Tracy,” and before the blowback from Sex and “Erotica,” Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition tour. She captured everything — good and bad, on stage and off — in “Truth or Dare.” Anyone who saw the documentary will remember the tension between Madonna and her boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty:

Warren Beatty would say that Madonna didn’t want to live off camera. Christopher said he was wrong: Madonna didn’t want to live offstage. She agreed. “I love reaching out to people and I love the expressions in people’s eyes and just the ecstasy and the thrill.”

“Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel

Why do I bring this up? Because I need a segue to introduce some of the videos I took when the Complimentary Spouse and I saw Madonna in Washington D.C. in 2015!

This is the end of my long post, but I hope we’re nowhere near the end of Madonna’s long career. Britt and I will see her on stage next year. I might be a middle-aged curmudgeon, but when it comes to Madonna, I’ll always let my body groove to the music … let my body go with the flow …

Don’t just stand there.

Let’s get to it.

Strike a pose.

There’s nothing to it.

1 Check out the box imagery in the “Human Nature” video:


DNF (Did Not Finish) and DNF (Did Not Fail)

Not completing the Amsterdam Good Morning City Run — a short guided run the day before the Amsterdam Marathon — was one of the best things I’ve done this year.

I didn’t make it to the end, but it was a victory.

Let me explain: When I realized I would be in Amsterdam the weekend of that city’s marathon, I considered signing up for the shortest option, an 8K. I hadn’t run in a while, so any race would have been ambitious. I knew I’d need to walk most of it.

The 8K was sold out, but the Good Morning Run was available. There were two options: 6.5K and 3.5K. I decided to play it safe and go with the shorter route. I didn’t think it would be a challenge.

I was wrong.

Turning Around

Since it was a guided run, the roads weren’t closed off and we were broken into small groups. One guide led the way, and another brought up the rear. The pace was slow, and I could catch my breath momentarily when we paused to let cars and bicycles pass at pedestrian crossings. Despite this, I fell from the middle of the pack to the back.

Around one kilometer in, I knew I was spent. I told the guide in the back I needed to drop out and walk back. He said he needed to accompany me (which, I assume, is for insurance reasons). He and the other guide arranged to have one of the other runners be the caboose, and then we turned around.

I barely finished a third of the run, but I felt fine about it. In fact, better than fine. And that’s because of something that happened to me here in Tampa a few weeks prior.

The Wisdom of Meb

As I said, I hadn’t run in a while. However, a few weeks before the Amsterdam trip, I started walking on Bayshore in the mornings. One day, I saw Meb Keflezighi1 and waved to him. He seemed to recognize me, slowed down, and asked how I was doing. I said something about trying to get back into running but lacked confidence and was just walking.

He looked at me and said, “You’re here. That’s the hard part.”

Those words meant a lot at the time, but became even more profound in Amsterdam. Being there and running was the hard part, and I had done it.

The starting line was more important than the finish line.

I’ll Take the W

I thanked the guide for walking me back to Museumplein, got a bottle of water, and found a spot in the shade. I felt like a million bucks (about €913,000 at the time) and wanted to hold onto the feeling.

After that, I took a tram to the Olympic Stadium to pick up my preordered T-shirt. Most everyone there were anticipating the marathon, which would be held the next day. I knew I had already won. I rewarded myself by buying an additional T-shirt.

Pointing at my name on the list of Amsterdam race participants.
I found my name on the list of Amsterdam race participants.

The next day, I walked to Vondelpark to cheer on the marathoners. I felt inspired, not intimidated, by them.

Across the road, another spectator was holding up a sign that struck a chord with me:

Man holding "You Are Great" sign along the Amsterdam Marathon route.
A good sign.

It’s not just the message on the sign that resonated with me, but the fact that we were nowhere near the finish line. It was another reminder to celebrate where I am, not where I think I should be. The effort is just as important — perhaps more important — than the achievement.

Knowing this is more valuable than all the medals in the world.

1 I wrote this about Meb on LinkedIn earlier this year:

In the world of running, Meb Keflezighi is a rock star like no other. But what impresses me most is not his record, but the way he treats others.

Meb (so famous he only needs one name) is the only person who has won the New York Marathon, the Boston Marathon, and an Olympic medal. (Actually, he has won two Olympic medals, but who’s keeping count.) He now lives in Tampa, and I’ve run into him a few times. Every interaction has made a mark on me.

🏃‍♂️ When I wave to him on Bayshore (my usual running route), he’ll acknowledge me, smile, and wave back. He has no idea who I am. He’s just friendly that way.

🏃‍♂️ When I met him for the first time and told him a good friend (who lives in Colorado) was a huge fan, he sat down and wrote a short note praising her accomplishments (a marathon on all seven continents) and encouraging her to keep going.

🏃‍♂️ When he hosted his first 5K on Saturday, he thought nothing of taking photos with everyone who asked. He never once looked annoyed or indifferent, even as the line grew.

Even short encounters like these can have a big impact. When we’re surrounded by egos and pretentiousness, someone who is approachable really stands out.

When I tell people I want to follow in Meb’s footsteps, it doesn’t mean I want to win marathons. It means I want to be warm and make others feel special.

Although winning an Olympic medal would be cool. 🏅

Current Events

A Chickenshit Proposal [Update: Not Gonna Happen]

10 p.m. update: People came out in force to decry the proposal. It looks like it’s not going anywhere. I’m delighted that someone discussed the impact shutting down Ybor would have on the LGBTQ community.

Today, the Tampa City Council will discuss a proposal to shut down bars in Ybor City at 1 a.m. There’s another proposal for a youth curfew. Both of these proposals are a response to a mass shooting in Ybor over the weekend in which two people died and at least 16 were injured.

These proposals are bullshit. They’re attempting to fix something that isn’t broken while ignoring the real problem. We shouldn’t stand for it. Think of it this way: If you went to your doctor with a high fever and a sore throat, you’d be shocked if the treatment were to put a cast on a healthy arm.

And let’s not overlook another issue: For some, bars are the only place they feel safe to be themselves. If you want to pass judgment on that, so be it. I’m a cantankerous old man now, but I remember that in my 20s, gay bars were some of the only places where I felt welcome and validated.

Here’s the letter I sent last night to the City Council. I’m not sure if they’ll listen to or care about what I have to say, but I want to go on record.


To steal a phrase from Saeed Jones, the proposal to shut down Ybor City at 1 a.m. is “… a testament perhaps to the unique talent Americans have for talking all the way around exactly what needs to be said.”

Bars being open late isn’t the problem, and everyone knows it. This proposal doesn’t mitigate the risk of another shooting — gun violence doesn’t care what time it is. This proposal would deprive Tampeňos and visitors of a place to gather and celebrate when everywhere else is closed — and hurt a lot of local business owners and employees.

I’m sure plenty of people believe that folks out past 1 a.m. in Ybor are drunken partygoers who should be in bed. And they might be right. But there’s another issue to consider: For some people — especially those in marginalized communities — areas like Ybor are the only places they can be themselves and be accepted for who they are.

I worry the most for my siblings in the LGBTQ community. They are being erased from school curricula and demonized by state leaders. Must the city of Tampa compound the harm being done by kicking them out of some of the only places they feel welcome?

Closing down Ybor at 1 a.m. isn’t the solution to what happened last weekend. It only distracts us from what really needs to be discussed, and deters us from what really needs to be done. The only thing that should be shut down quickly is this proposal.

Travel & Food

When Life Gives You Lemons, Eat Cheesesteaks and Make a Playlist

Getting from Camp David to Amsterdam last month was a comedy of errors, minus the comedy. There were delays, downgrades, rerouting, and some truly horrendous customer service.

But two good things happened.

First, I got to enjoy a cheesesteak at Chickie’s & Pete’s during a much longer-than-expected layover at Philadelphia International Airport.1 I even struck up a pleasant conversation with another traveler who had been delayed, which helped distract me from the raucous Phillies fans watching the playoff game.

My cheesesteak sandwich
Not pictured: The other half of the cheesesteak sandwich. (It was in my stomach.)

Second, since I couldn’t sleep on the plane, I had plenty of time to scroll through my music library and rediscover songs I hadn’t heard in a while.

Here’s the playlist. You can listen to it now — you don’t have to wait until you experience your own travel nightmare.

1 Check out my post about Philly cheesesteaks: A Cheesesteak Is a Hug in Sandwich Form.