Michael Grana says he knew from the age of 10. That was back in 1963.
"I was infatuated with Barbra Streisand," he explains. "I bought black liquid eyeliner and would lock myself in the bathroom and practice drawing her Nefertiti-like eye extensions. One day the maid knocked. 'Open up. I need the Comet,' she said. 'Give me a minute," I asked, both eyes fully done. 'Open up now. I got work to do.' 'Just a second,' I pleaded. 'I don't have a second.' She wasn't going away. It would take too long to wash the eyeliner off. I was trapped. I opened the door a crack. Our eyes locked as I handed over the Comet. 'You should meet my nephew Bobby. You two would get along,' she said as she turned back to work." Grana's tidy anecdote is titled "When the Maid Knew."
As for Barry Karas, the day the light bulb went off was in 1953 on a street in Brooklyn. "I was 8 years old, playing hopscotch out on the street," Karas says. "My dad and his friend Mickey Herzog are standing against Mickey's car watching me skip and hop around for a while. Mickey finally turns to my dad and says, 'Ben, I think you got a problem.' "
These are just two of the sometimes startling, often wildly funny and occasionally moving stories that fill When I Knew, an oversized compilation of family photos, words, illustrations and smashing layouts that illuminate the "eureka!" moment that most gay men and women say they've experienced concerning the nature of their sexuality. The work has been edited by Robert Trachtenberg, illustrated by Tom Bachtell and published by Regan Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Sometimes, the book can sound like an episode of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," with quips and wisecracks careening through the air at breakneck speed, each entrant trying to top the last one. But for the most part, this is a serious piece of work that tries in an entertaining way to disclose a considerable measure of truth about gay life. As might be expected, many of the subjects, like the editor himself, are Jewish.
Take Andrew Freedman. His moment of reckoning came in 1969. "My father was watching the evening news. The announcer said that Judy Garland had died. I fainted. I was 9."
As for Howard Bragman, he notes: "I knew I was gay when the most exciting part of my Bar Mitzvah was meeting with the party planner." The accompanying photo shows Bragman standing by one of the tables at his reception, which we're told was held at Congregation Beth Israel in Flint, Mich., on March 1, 1969.
Then there's Stephen Orr, who grew up in Abilene, Texas. "My father was tossing a football with my brothers in the front yard. Seeing me sitting alone on the steps, my mother took my dad aside. 'Dub,' she said, calling my dad by his nickname. 'I think Steve is feeling a little left out. Why don't you ask him if he'd like to play too?'
"So my dad walked over. 'Wanna throw the football some?' he asked.
" 'I'd really rather go pick flowers,' I replied.
"And we did.
"My father, a former football coach, spent the rest of the afternoon picking flowers with me in a nearby field."
There's a picture here, too, and it shows tow-headed Steve in his yellow football jersey, bending down in a wide field filled with purple wild flowers.