I met Bert Fontana in grade school at Copperton Elementary, second grade or so, before man stood on the moon, when the Kennedy brothers were still alive, when Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X spoke to inequality, before the Beatles, when Liberace was simply considered flamboyant and Rock Hudson was kissing starlets like there was no tomorrow. Actor Sal Mineo was yet to publicly announce he was gay, so, by that simple math, I met Burt a long, long time ago.
We grew up in Bingham Canyon. The Bingham Canyon mine was yet to devour or bury our homes; there were still businesses on Main Street and we heard rumors the old fashioned way—at the barber shops, in the taverns, on the playgrounds and occasionally, during mostly secret telephone calls. They were mostly secret because some homes had party lines, meaning their phone line was shared with that of a neighbor. Lord knows that some things are better left unsaid rather than discussed over a transit that someone else can listen in on.
If you asked any former Bingham Canyon resident if there were lesbian women or gay men living among them, most likely the answer would be, "maybe, but I never knew any." Such an answer is reflective of a bygone time when people not only didn't ask questions about sexuality, but also reflective of the fact that gay men and women just didn't live their lives openly. Except for their secrets known to but a select few, they blended in perfectly with everyone else. They were hardcore miners. They were hardy drinkers. They were hardass military men and women. They hardly went to church. They were just like everyone else near as one could tell. Canyon residents never really spoke about knowing "homosexuals." They merely cited rumors that so-and-so might very well be one, as often as not in the vernacular of the times, like "she's a regular tomboy" or "he's light in his shoes," or, "you know, one of those."
I knew Bert was "one of those" before we were both 10 years old. He was my buddy, one of my best friends as a kid, as a young adult, and well past middle-age, when he finally up and died. His had not been an easy life, though you'd never know it by his ever-present smile and twinkling eyes. He was a bright light with a wicked sense of humor, yet he bore a tragically dark side as well. Before we were 20, he'd seen and done more things than most people might ever do in a lifetime. His prop as a male dancer was a python. He was not naïve. He could be cunning and charming at the same time.
I really never learned what killed him—bad heart, AIDS, loneliness or all of the above. He was loved by all, mainly because he loved so many first. The local hair and wig community took the news hard. He could do hair like no other and I can certify that as I was among those he started on. He always wanted to cut my hair. I spent many hours in the Fontana home growing up—Burt introduced me to the Four Tops and Cream (really? What kid had that range in the 1960s?)—and it seemed like every time "Bernadette" or "White Room" began to play, Burt would grab the scissors and ask if he could cut my hair. I got lots of free haircuts and heard lots of good music back then. I'm not sure what Bert got back.
Actually, I do, because he told me so. He got a straight friend back who never once questioned who he was or judged him for being himself, what God created him to be: half Greek, half Italian, full-on gay male.
Everyone knew Bert was gay—different—by the time we were in third grade. We just didn't know the word for it, and we never tried to find one. He was just like all the rest of us—hiking, biking, throwing rocks—plus he had the additional juxtaposition of adoring his mother's beautiful and rare doll collection. Some of us saw him in a dress. Everyone envied his artwork.
He didn't choose to be Bert, he was simply Bert. He would not, as a third-grader, know that someone out there would want to beat the shit out of him simply for being Bert, for being gay, he learned that later. Because he was gay, people who would otherwise gladly count him as a friend or companion, scorned him. Or hated him. Or worse. There's worse than hate, and Bert knew that, too. Professionally, he came to know men in our community who were deeply closeted—politicians, businessmen, priests. He told me about some of them, family men I'd seen on the news, and he'd say, "He's kinky. I have to keep my mouth shut or I'm dead."
Burt died either before or during the Pride celebrations in 2014. I remember seeing him at Pride a couple of years before that, and he looked forlorn. I said, "C'mon, Bert, isn't this what you've waited for?" He said, "Yes, but I'm sad. I'm one of the oldest ones left. All these little faggots are running around and they don't even care what we went through. They think being gay is easy. It's not easy. It's hard. You have to fight.
"Do you know how many friends I lost?" he continued. "Do you know how many times I got the shit beat out of me? They think I'm an old hag. They'll see. You watch. They'll see. They think gay is a party. They'll see. They better see." CW
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