It was Friday, March 8th, 1996. I was 13 years old and closeted. My family decided to see the new Robin Williams film, The Birdcage. I was terrified.
I knew it was a gay film and that he played part of a gay couple, alongside Nathan Lane. Knowing this scared the shit out of me. I was scared to be gay, scared of my future, scared of dying from AIDS. Would my parents see Robin Williams, America’s favorite funny man, as gay and then look to me and figure everything out? Would they hate me?
A lot can be said for what it meant culturally to see Robin Williams play a gay man that wasn’t dying of AIDS, or committing suicide, or being murdered, but rather part of a loving couple that raised a child. Did it lead to more adequate depictions of gay Americans in film and TV? Would we have had My Best Friend’s Wedding, Ellen, Queer as Folk — all of which quickly followed The Birdcage’s release, if it were not for Williams performance? I don’t know, and I don’t care.
Like the rest of the United States, my family loved The Birdcage. Seeing their reactions, listening to them quote lines from the film, this was the first indication that maybe things were going to be alright for me. Maybe they will love me even if I’m gay. (They did and continue to.)
I sit here writing this with tears in my eyes because of the passing of Robin Williams at 63. Like many people, including myself, he suffered from the demons of depression and addiction. He spoke of these demons before, and the fact that they may have contributed to his passing is heartbreaking, but in no way diminishes the amazing gift he gave all of us: himself.
There will be many great things written about Robin Williams, about his body of work, his philanthropy, and yes, his demons. For me though, his passing is personal.
17 years later, after six months of chemo, I produced a live version of my #Chemocation. After the show I had the great opportunity to share a meal with Robin Williams. Let me clarify, in no way were we close. But in that moment, talking with him, seeing that man that so changed my life, who in unexplainable ways has contributed to my being an openly gay writer/comedian, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I was too nervous to tell him about that day in 1996, awestruck not by his celebrity, but by where my life had taken me. We talked about comedy and my cancer. I will never forget his belly laugh upon seeing my lifesize singing tumor.
In a way, I feel like a member of my family has passed, as I’m sure many people who loved him do. It’s important to remember that behind the mask of comedy was a man with children, with people he loved, a man who struggled, but most importantly, a man who lived.
For me, I will always remember the man that made it OK for me to be me for the first time in my adolescence.