There was Liberace, Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, Alan Sues. What a quartet of flamboyant personalities who blazed on prime time when I was coming of age. In the 70s their very names were punchlines, code for every euphemism of that other f-word even as the longhaired hippies and sensitive folkies began to challenge the old patriarchal ways, giving the finger especially to their forefather’s hoary definitions of masculinity.
When Sues flailed his way through a Laugh-In sketch, I laughed like everyone else. But his humor conjured a private horror. If Alan Sues was all there was to gayness—what did that mean for me, a kid who feigned fascination while other boys bragged about their sexual fumblings with the neighborhood girls, all the while playing my same-sex desires close to my hand-me-down vest. Such destiny was abhorrent, and it would be years before I’d met others whose head scratching in the face of such camp displays mirrored my own.
Queerness comes in many colors. Knowing that now, I can appreciate Sues’ gifts—and bravery—in ways that eluded my adolescent self. In retrospect, I was burdened more by the wrath of brutish male-naysayers than the fear that Sues’ one-note song of chandelier-swinging effervescence would one day be my own. Real courage means not caring a whit about the attitudes of small-minded lug heads. It’s about learning to own it, the way Sues, in a varied career that spanned television as well as the Broadway stage (where he played, among many characters, the duplicitous Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes), managed to do while having the guts to be himself. RIP.