Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Magician/Debunker "The Amazing Randi" Comes Out at 81

When I was a kid I used to watch magicians on TV and wish I could do the stuff they did and fantasized about how cool it would be to be able to do real magic. I saw my first live magic show at a birthday party when I was 7.  I even bought a few magic tricks from novelty shops and can still make a handkerchief disappear into the great beyond, then miraculously make it reappear. When you know how the trick works, it's really hard to believe that anyone ever falls for it, but they/we do time after time.

There is a big difference between a simple "slight of hand" parlor trick and deliberately scamming people. Magician James Randi, who for over half a century has billed himself as "The Amazing Randi", made a career out of debunking charlatans and fakers who hoodwink the public with paranormal claims of being in touch with the other side. Now it's Randi who, at the age of 81, is the focus of his own outing.

On his blog Swift, Randi shines the light of truth on his own life for a change and tells the world, "Well, here goes. I really resent the term, but I use it because it’s recognized and accepted. I’m gay."

At first I took issue with Randi's resentment of the term "gay". He uses the word not so much to identify himself, but because it's a word that people understand. For me it would be the same as using the word "gringo" to describe myself. In the strictest sense, it's true that I am a white North American male, but it's a word from another language that I wouldn't use in my daily life to describe myself, not a word that I identify with.

It's an interesting perspective coming from someone who grew up in the pre-Stonewall years. We know that every new generation is more open-minded and accepting of the LGBT community than the generation that came before. It's easy to forget that once upon a time, there were no annual Pride parades, no marches on Washington, no court challenges for marriage equality and no brave teenagers fighting for the right to bring the date of their choice to their senior prom. There was no in-fighting between gay rights organizations about how to best wage the battle, because there was no battle. There were no gay rights groups at all.

Once upon a time, there was nothing but rejection, shame and the closet.

Randi writes in his post: From some seventy years of personal experience, I can tell you that there’s not much “gay” about being homosexual. For the first twenty years of my life, I had to live in the shadows, in a culture that was — at least outwardly — totally hostile to any hint of that variation of life-style. At no time did I choose to adopt any protective coloration, though; my cultivation of an abundant beard was not at all a deception, but part of my costume as a conjuror.
Like a lot of queers, Randi found refuge in the entertainment industry, where being different helps you stand out and maybe land the next gig. I think a lot of us do that for the applause and approval that we never got growing up, fearing that if anyone ever knew the truth about us, they'd reject and despise us. It's particularly poignant to me that Randi chose to become a master of the art of illusion. Without having to put on a dress or a wig, he became a drag queen of sorts, creating an illusion to earn the approval he didn't find in his daily life.

We are often quick to judge the older generation for their reluctance to accept us and to embrace the changing attitudes of society, but we forget that sometimes the old actually learn the young and from those pioneers that came before them. Randi writes: "This declaration of mine was prompted just last week by seeing an excellent film — starring Sean Penn — that told the story of politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. I’m in excellent company: Barney Frank, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, are just a few of those who were in my thoughts as I pressed the key that placed this on Swift and before the whole world…"

There comes a point in all our lives where we stop ranting about the older generation and start bitching about the youngsters. For a short time we occupy that odd place in between where we rage against both. I find it encouraging that Randi, who has spent decades exposing others, has finally found the courage to be honest about himself.

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