Growing up Tom: an Echo contributor shares how Phoenix’s LGBTQ community impacted his youth

By Tom Reardon

There was my cousin, Mitchell, when I was young. It was the 1970’s and I was just a little boy who was not about to pass judgment on anyone. I was always taught that everyone was to be treated with respect, especially if they were respectful to you, even if they were a little (or a lot) different than you.

I knew Mitchell was different and I loved his visits. So what if he carried a purse?

I remember him carrying this satchel, well, it was very much like what 5 or 6-year-old me considered a purse and I could have cared less. He was kind and he listened, and he was just cousin Mitchell, and everyone loved him. I loved him and still do even though we very rarely see each other.

As I got a little older someone explained it to me, or maybe I figured it out, who knows, but the concept of being gay or lesbian or straight or somewhere in between became part of my awareness. It was never a thing, though, because of how I was taught to view and accept others.

My mom and aunt (more on them later) had gay and lesbian friends and we had gay and lesbian members of our family and they were people I looked up to and loved to see. When I would hear or see people saying derogatory things about gay people, it hurt me.

I’m sure my dad had gay and lesbian friends, too, and probably some family members, but it wasn’t something we talked about much until I got to high school and my friends and I discovered punk and new wave music (it was the early 80s now) and I started wearing eyeliner a lot. Dad didn’t dig it and one time said to me, “Do you want the neighbors to think you are gay?”

“You mean the lesbian couple across the street?” I said.

He looked at me as if I had two heads, but his point was made.

The next day, when he got home from work, I made sure I was in the front yard kissing my girlfriend for the neighbors (and him) to see. It was the last time I got to do this for about a month as I got grounded for my display. Not long after, I moved in with my mom, but that’s another story altogether. My dad is a really good guy, though, and understands now that the world is made up of all kinds of dudes who like eyeliner.

For me, I loved wearing smeared black eyeliner around my eyes and to be frank, the girls (and probably a few boys) really dug it. Anything to make the blue eyes stand out a bit more, right? It hurt that my dad thought it made me somehow someone different than the son he thought he knew. Sure, I didn’t go out for sports teams like he thought I would, but I still loved sports. I just didn’t look like it anymore.

He wanted it to seem like he was so genuinely concerned about what the neighbors thought, but what hurt me the most is that he apparently didn’t know who I was.

It was really about what he thought. At the time, I lost a fair amount of respect for my dad because what would it have really mattered if I was wearing eyeliner because I wanted to make a certain guy notice me? My outward appearance was changing, but who I was inside was really not that much different. I had just realized there was a lot more world out there to take in.

This is probably one of the reasons, professionally, I have gravitated towards jobs where I could help empower people to be the best they can be, but I’ll talk a bit more about that later.

My mom, Diana, and Aunt Julie had bought Easy Street Sandwich and Oyster Bar on the southeast corner of 24th Street and Osborn from their aunt, my great-Aunt Lois, in the early 1980s.

Easy Street had a pretty huge following in the gay community. Local legend, at the time, was that they were a lesbian couple probably because it was pretty common for them to go dancing at the Incognito up the street with friends in those days. Looking back, I’m sure there were more than a few ladies who were disappointed to find out they were sisters and had boyfriends.

The restaurant was really a hub for all kinds of interesting, beautiful, and intelligent people for the 15 or so years it was in my family and I learned so much about humanity working there off and on between the ages of 11 and 25.

During my high school years, I would work there in the summer and on Saturdays and my teenage trials and tribulations became open fodder for the conversations of the regular customers. My life was an open book, as far as my mom and aunt were concerned, and I would regularly get life advice from our family of friends who were regular customers.

One of these friends was Katie, the barber, with her close-cropped red hair who cut my hair and busted my balls on a regular basis. Katie had purchased “Ralph’s” barbershop two doors down from Easy Street and she became fast friends with my family.  If I remember correctly, she kept the name “Ralph’s” for a while before eventually changing it to “Mid-City” but I could be wrong on that, too. She had no problem telling me to get my act together when I would fuck up and she was pretty intimidating. My first truly butch lesbian friend, and ultimately, my protector. When I got off the rails a bit in my early 20s, Katie steered me toward a way to get out of some pretty scary drug use situations and I’ll always be thankful to her for that.

We became a family of misfit toys at Easy Street. There was Jay, who was the weekend weatherman at Channel 3 at the time, who became my gay older brother after being adopted by my mom as one of her own. He came into have lunch almost every day, it seemed, and to our family gatherings as well when he wasn’t able to head back east to see his family. We went to see Heathers at Camelview when it came out in 1988 and I remember being a little flattered when I overheard Jay explaining who I was and why we went to the movie to his then-boyfriend over the phone. He had been a DJ in college and turned me on to tons of cool music.

Marty was a minister and Johnny O and Tim the flight attendant (who my mom would say was secretly my dad because we are both tall) also frequented our Thanksgivings, Christmas celebrations, and Valentines Day parties, and Dick and George, Randy, Brian, and Nick … oh, Nick. Nick would come in wearing high heels and clean our huge picture window sometimes. Nick worked at Bashas on 7th Avenue and Osborn, as well, and when I went to Phoenix College in 1989 and lived in Lanai Apartments on the corner of 7th Ave and Earll, Nick would sell me beer even though I wasn’t quite 21 yet. Occasionally he would come over after work for a beer or whatever else was happening at the time and we’d laugh for an hour before he went off to meet his flavor of the week.

When Nick died of AIDS it was crushing to me. I remember the last time he came in for a sandwich like it was yesterday and this was 1990 or so. It was the first time in my life I looked into the eyes of someone who was in the process of actively dying. My friend wasn’t there anymore. The light in his eyes was gone and the reality of AIDS became truly real for me, even though I thought I knew how bad it was. The fact that he was even able to come in at all was amazing, as I look back on it now. In a week or so, he was gone.

Marty died, too, and Randy, who was maybe the most handsome guy I have ever seen in person, and Jon, who was Jay’s boyfriend after the slightly jealous guy. Jon was awesome. He had eyes like David Bowie, although I think Jon’s were truly two different colors and not caused by a medical condition like Bowie’s.  A gentle soul with an amazing sense of humor, Jon also showed me the horror of AIDS when I went to visit him in the hospital and his lungs were so full of fluid that he was literally drowning in front of me.

So many of my friends from Easy Street died of AIDS that I thought I might eventually get used to it, but I didn’t. Many of these guys had become my family and I miss them to this day. Their laugh, their smiles … the way that they accepted me for being a strange misfit, too, even though all I had to was stop dyeing my hair and dressing funny to get people to easily accept me. For a time, I remember wishing that I was gay because I thought somehow it would allow me to feel even closer to my friends, but that wasn’t in the cards for me.

Easy Street closed for good in 1995 but it wasn’t the end of my relationships with many of my friends and adopted family from there. Social media is a way I get to keep tabs on my friends, or I hear from my mom or aunt about what people are up to. Our world is so much different than it was when I was a teenage punk who would get called “faggot” 15 times a day just walking down 24th Street or Indian School Road for having pink or orange hair.

As an adult, I have done a lot of work in the non-profit world and it brought me into the Anytown camp universe, which strives to fight racism, bias, and bigotry in all of its forms. I have been fortunate to work side by side with some amazing gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women empowering a fair amount of LGBTQ+ youth (as well as helping them to build a huge network of allies with their peers) over the years to be who they are and know they are loved.

As a dad, I have two gay stepchildren. Over the past few years my stepdaughter and stepson have come out and while we don’t talk about their personal lives that much, I think they know I have their back. I’m not sure they understand the depth of my understanding of the world they are just beginning to explore or how many family members from my side of things understand what they are going through as they learn about their sexuality,  but I am here for them however they need me to be. I wish the world was as accepting of all people as it often pretends to be, but I know this community in Phoenix is strong and they will meet good people and allies who will be there for them when their mom and I are not.

There are so many people I could talk about here, but I also want to protect people’s privacy, which is why I haven’t used last names. People who are currently in my life, which can be a little public at times, might not want to be mentioned in a public way. The last thing I want is for this to hurt anyone. For me, this is all about love and being thankful.

Being accepted is one of the best gifts we can receive from another human being and I have never felt like I wasn’t accepted by this community. I wish more people were more accepting, yes, but I also know that everyone comes to the realization that people are people in their own way. I was watching the utterly amazing show, Fleabag, the other day, and yes, I know, I’m late to the game, but there is a scene where Kristin Scott Thomas’s character tells Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character, “People are all we’ve got.” I agree with that.

I’m thankful to have lived the life I did and to have been, at least for me, a small part of the gay community since a long time ago. This is why I feel so honored to write for Echo and to get to tell the stories I do. Thank you for reading and thank you for giving me this privilege.