The Queer Teen Who Ran Away from Home, Joined a Cabaret, and Became an Seattle Nightlife Icon


One of the first friends I met when I moved to Seattle was Zak, standing by a urinal trough wearing golden armor down one arm and shiny metallic underwear. To be fair, it was Halloween; but since then I've seen him dress similarly on more than one occasion since then. He's just that kind of star.

I was lucky enough to interview Zak this week for The Sewers of Paris, my podcast about entertainment that's changed the lives of gay men. I didn't know it when we met, but it had taken Zak years and a lot of searching to become the amazing man I met at The Eagle on Halloween night. Our conversation on this week's episode is all about his upbringing in a house full of strippers, running away to become a homeless youth for several years, and eventually finding himself in the underground cabaret culture of Seattle.

That kind of teenage hunt for identity is fertile ground for exploration in movies and TV. Take, for example, the perfect (and therefore doomed) TV show Freaks and Geeks. It's the story of a high school student named Lindsay -- a good kid who suddenly realizes that she's growing up into someone who is not the mild-mannered girl she'd always been.

She starts rejecting her well-behaved friends in favor of the bad kids. She lets her schoolwork slip, she dabbles with misbehavior, and she does her best to make her parents worry. Throughout the show's one and only season, Lindsay's torn between the safe, secure life she'd always led, and that of the freaks: dangerous, disobedient, uninhibited and also unstable.

Lindsay finds herself running away from one life before she really knows what life she's running to. And so she explores a series of costumes, new outfits, new language, new friends. Lindsay does the same thing Zak did -- the same thing we all do when we're becoming adults, to varying degrees. When we're teenagers, we're turning into a stranger, a grown-up we've never met. So we adopt new clothes and surround ourselves with friends in the hopes that these things will reveal to us who the heck we're going to be.

And while adolescence is about searching and transformation, adulthood -- hopefully -- is when you discover the person you've become.

That brings me to my second recommendation of this week's episode: the 1994 film Ed Wood, one of the most wonderful movies ever made. Tim Burton's semi-true dramatization tells the story of Ed, an outcast in a lovely angora sweater. He's a cross-dresser making a series of movies so strange that they will probably be remembered for hundreds of years as the weirdest visions ever committed to film.

Ed carries his secret deep down inside, never letting on that this is who he is. And like any attempt to deny yourself, Ed's secret tears him up.

It's only when he reveals himself -- his true self -- that things start going Ed's way. In part, that's because he's been lucky enough to have cultivated a circle of people as weird as he is. His friends are freaks, and they like it that way. A vampire hostess, a local psychic, a meathead wrestler and a strange homosexual: Grown-up freaks who've decided that it's better to live authentically as weirdos for themselves than try to squeeze into an a ridiculous business suit.

When Ed embraces his secret, he's embraced by his friends. And he can finally embrace himself. The real himself. It's means he can finally be Ed Wood, dressed in heels and panties and a delicate sweater. Just like he'd been doing all along in his heart.

None of this is to say that costumes are bad and dress-up is wrong, as long as you control the costume and not the other way around. By all means, go out, search, wear a suit or a skirt or a mohawk or crop-top.

Just remember to look in a mirror every now and then and ask the question Zak asked himself: do my outsides match my insides?