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    Alphabet Tent

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Let’s talk tents. I don’t like them.

    Shockingly, I was a Boy Scout, for a brief stint. That was just one of the activities my parents enrolled me in, trying their best to get something masculine to “take hold.” I would have been fine with the BS (Boy Scouts), had they offered merit badges in the things I liked. But, alas, they did not. I was shipped off to a one-week summer camp. It was the beginning of my hate/hate relationship with tents. It was cramped and dirty. It was hot and smelly. And there was nothing to keep the state bird of Texas (mosquito) out! On a positive note, I did learn to pitch a tent.

    An aside: When I came out at 35, I asked my Mother when she first knew. She said it was around 5 years old, when I preferred to go to the fabric store to look at dress patterns rather than to play outside with my friends. There was not a merit badge for that. As you will see from the picture, I did love that orange bandana thing (later to be known as a pashmina).

    Dan likes tents—for just one week per year (thank goodness). He is preparing for his eleventh AIDS/LifeCycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. 545 miles. 6 nights in 2-person tents after daily rides between 50 and 100 miles each. I can imagine that a tent looks pretty good at the end of a grueling ride. I’m proud of him and all who do this!

    Clara likes tents. Her Dad bought her a tent when her school had a Father/Daughter overnight in the beautiful woods of the Bay Area. I am praying they never think of a Grandfather/Granddaughter camp outing. We’ll have to do that in her living room.

    San Franciscans have a troubled relationship with tents. While many pull out a tent for a weekend or even a full week, that is not the case for thousands in our beloved city. They literally live in “tent cities.” Where did the tents come from? There is a brilliant op-ed in The New York Times by Daniel Duane in which he describes the tent phenomenon. At one point, city governments issued tents. One individual gave away $15,000 worth of camping tents. The city now has 80 “encampments.” Some are run by tent slum lords who rent tents by the week. It is cynically called the “urban camping experience.”

    The San Francisco Chronicle reported the South of Market district has been a gathering place for the homeless since at least 1872, when an observer noted the concentration of “blanket men” who seemed to be mostly “runaway sailors,” “old soldiers” and “bankrupt German scene painters.” That’s almost 150 years we wish to solve.

    Sorry, I got side-tracked. This is not an article about the homeless plight in San Francisco. It’s about tents.

    People romanticize tents. The circus tent has piqued every child’s fantasy from the smallest town to the largest city. What a thrill it was to see exotic animals arriving on train cars. When we lived across from AT&T Ballpark, we even had a Cirque de Soleil tent pitched outside our apartment window. Who didn’t fantasize at some point about running away with the circus? The early days of the big top were the theme of a recent questionable fantasy about the circus, The Greatest Showman. It depicted a loving “tent” that served as a haven for outcasts and misfits. It was not historical, but was popular nonetheless.

    In reality, we are all tent builders. Since deciding to write an article about tents, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we build our own life tents, deciding who to let into the comfort and safety of our “circle.” These tents are fragile and transitory. They are not bunkers.

    Your Facebook page is your tent. You accept friends into your tent based on a variety of factors. Either you know them or you know someone who knows them or know someone who knows someone. As the days go by, you find out if they really qualify for a place in your tent. If they don’t like the cot, bash your choices of sleeping bag, or argue with others in the tent, you un-tent them. Out they go. Our “tents o’ friends” have exploded. Facebook limits you to 5,000! No problem. Start a second page.

    The concept of a “big tent” political party dates back to the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt. We hear a lot about political parties as “tents” and camps. We continue to be more and more divided in our ideology. Camps take sides far from each other, insisting on litmus tests to remain in the tent. Can a Democrat be Pro-Life? Can a Republican fit a log cabin in their tent? There are a growing number of people in the middle who don’t want to be in a tent at all. It’s not so bad to come out of your ten. After all, the campfire and s’mores are in the middle.

    Finally, we get to the name of the article: “Alphabet Tent.” It’s the LGBTQIAPK tent. It’s a huge encampment with lots of small tents underneath it. There’s the “L” tent, and the “G” tent and the “B” tent. Because we share this alphabet tent, it is assumed that we get along, support each other and each other’s’ agendas and issues. All of our tents, regardless of differences, strive for many of the same things: recognition, equality, unity, respect, and dignity.

    BTW, if the letters confused you, this specific arrangement of letters stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Polyamorous, Kink. Everyone has a right to a tent. The question remains, “Is everyone required to support every tent in the encampment or letter in the alphabet?”

    In my 3+ decades of working full time in our community, I have often experienced what some refer to as the Gay Firing Squad. It stands in a circle. It is defined as “a group whose internal disagreements and attacks end up doing more damage to each other than to their opponent or adversary.”

    These disagreements often result in further harm when people leave a tent for one reason or the other. Perhaps they tried to change it to fit their own taste. Rather than be happy after moving on to a new tent that fits them better, they stand outside the tent from which they came and attempt to tear it down. It is often the very tent for which they felt an affinity.

    As we travel this journey called life, we learn some important lessons. Not all tents are for us. We leave those for others to use without spoiling them. Not all humans can fit in our tent. You can’t make everyone in your tent happy. Tents change over time. So must their inhabitants.

    There are times in the middle of tent turf battles and “your tent vs. my tent” when the drab, dirty pup tent deep in the woods of snake-infested Texas in the middle of July with a sleeping bag on the ground and communal toilets looks pretty darn attractive!

    But there is no going back.

    A couple of years ago, I was conducting a concert at Carnegie Hall. There were two choirs—mine and one other. As the other choir took the stage, I leaned over to the producer and said, “Their orchestra is bigger than mine.” She leaned back over to me and said, “Keep your eyes on your own yoga mat.” She dropped the microphone—on my head!

    And thus, this word to myself and to all of you who made it this far in the article. Keep your eyes on your own tent. Keep your eyes on those who are under that tent with you. Take care of yourself. Take care of those around you. And when you look at the other tents in the encampment, show them love and support in amounts you are able to give. And, regardless of how you may feel about their tent—or a tent you have left behind—allow them to exist and grow and thrive. Remember, tents are fragile and transitory. They are not bunkers.

    I love my tent. And I love my tent peeps. I love what we do when we are under the tent—and when we venture out. I love other tents, too. I like visiting them and learning from them. I love it when others are happy and build their tent. I love the encampment where my tent lives.

    OK, I guess I don’t have a hate/hate relationship with tents after all!

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.