As yesterday was the 25th Anniversary of the television show ‘Frasier’ and National Coming Out Day’s 30th Anniversary is next month, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my childhood.
I was just a little kid in 1993 when Frasier Crane moved back home to Seattle to reconnect with his family and roots. I was trying to make friends with a boy named Jason, because he had the name of a Power Ranger. But, I was too invested in the television personality Lamb Chop and afternoon tea to be bothered with—in his opinion. I didn’t enjoy the apparent thrill that scooping mud, playing in the “crick”, and riding bicycles seemed to give the other boys. Nor was I interested in playing dress-up, house, or skip-rope with the girls. I wanted to have a discussion about the Hellenism or how we were going to clean this spot out of the rug. Yes, in Kindergarten. I don’t tell you this to “other” myself in some sort of special way--to make you all /ooh/ and /aah/ at the circus trick of loneliness that I’ve mastered, but rather to lay the groundwork for one of the most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had in my life.
I came out as a gentleman in 2nd Grade. It was roughly around the time I started getting into reading leather-bound copies of Dickens on the playground. I hadn’t yet started carrying a parasol, attaché case, and bowler-hat—those would come soon—and this was still the most preferred of the comings-out I would have in my life. At least to others. This was also around the time that my family started going on weekly vacations with the Crane family in Seattle. It was an oddity of quiddity. My ex-step-father was still with my mother at this time, but as you can tell from his title, he wasn’t quite good at being around. Our family at that time mirrored the Crane family in an odd way—if you swapped some gender roles. We even had a dog. This show brought us together around a central interest, and a central theme. Being different was, yes, weird, but not worthy of scorn or admonishment. If anything, it leads to success. It was because of this show and, incidentally, my family that I learned the value of independence at a young age. And it was with David Hyde Pierce’s character Niles—Frasier’s… unique... brother—that I learned perhaps the most valuable lesson.
“I know all the symptoms I can expect to experience. I’m especially looking forward to something called the ‘munchies’ stage. It’s where one enjoys bizarre food combinations. I’m thinking of pairing this Chilean sea bass with an aggressive Zinfandel!”
— Episode 11.11 High Holidays
In Niles Crane I found love as I had learned from Victor Hugo, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves”. Niles was the careful, yet foolish, intelligent, yet nebbish, kind, yet constantly wounded, character of the show. I would stare across the glass chasm of pixels and airwaves into an older, but not so distant, caricature of myself. At a time when a boy kicked a kickball into my head while I was reading on the swings at recess and knocked me unconscious. At a time when a girl spat on me because I complimented her ensemble. At a time when I had a birthday party and kids showed up and no one knew it was my birthday because their parents had brought them and no one knew who I was. At a time when the next year, they just didn’t even bother coming. At a time when even the teachers would ridicule me in front of the class for cleaning my chair before I sat in it, Dr. Niles Crane was experiencing the same exclusion. What kept me warm at night as I curled up in a cardigan and read of Alexander the Great’s use of Macedonian phallanx strategy, was the knowledge that as Niles Crane was also worried about the wrinkles in his squash pants, and he was laughed at, it was a different kind of laughter. Laughing at Niles Crane was a likable laughter. He was the butt of the joke, but in a world where everyone was the butt of the joke—and in a world where he was still the smart one, and revered as such. It was where I learned the difference between intelligence and knowledge.
I was also a child with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s. I had odd tics and tendencies. Another thing Niles Crane and I had in common. And, like me, Niles didn’t care what anyone thought. He wiped down his chair before he sat in it. He carried a handkerchief. And when someone looked askance at him, he didn’t apologize. He didn’t alter his behavior. He looked them dead in the eye and asked them why they weren’t hygienic, witty, or capable enough to do the same. Niles was an outsider who didn’t bemoan his exile from humanity. He demanded better from the rest. He demanded better from himself. He and I were on the outside looking in, but while I wanted to come in from the cold, Niles laughed at the absurdity of the fireplace. And still, as... queer as he was, he was loved by friends, family, and others. As silly as it was, this brought peace to myself. And, more importantly, a temporary respite to my family.
“I’m ALWAYS the girl! In every prep school play I was the girl! Guinevere, Marian the Librarian, Ado Annie. Well, no more, I’m through with it! When do I get to be Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo?!”
— Dr. Niles Crane, Episode 3.6, Sleeping with the Enemy
I believe it’s been obvious to this point that my obscure interests were probably not the entirety of the root of my problems in my adolescence. And, with Niles Crane, I was perhaps able to fall into a believable story-arch for everyone’s comfort. Niles and I were almost identical in most ways. However, Niles Crane was married. Three times over the course of the entire show. He worried about the quality of his chardonnay, but more than that, his passion burned for a woman. His life was odd, but it was “normal”. In this world, I wasn’t a homosexual... I was... effete. ‘Will & Grace’ started up in 1998, around the time my family started watching ‘Frasier’. And, though we found the comedy hilarious, there was always an odd edge to the show in my household that didn’t become clear to me until the first time I kissed a boy three years later. I learned a lot that year. I learned that boys have lips that both simmer and smolder, that life can explode with color and joy, that people can’t be trusted, that humans... living, breathing, non-fictional, non-historical, alive, and present human beings... can be the cruelest, kindest, most malicious, and thoughtful creatures in existence. And I learned that it doesn’t matter who you are when the world wants to pigeon-hole you into either Jack or Will. But, I wasn’t a Jack. I wasn’t a Will. I was a Niles, I just didn’t understand what that meant.
“Oh, look, that must be Roz’s coffee companion. Wow! He’s really handsome, isn’t he? Good Lord, I’ve never said ‘Wow’ when describing another man before. I wonder if that means something.”
— Dr. Niles Crane, Episode 1.24, My Coffee with Niles
I’d be dishonest if I pretended as though I was always comfortable being Niles. That I never fought against my family’s placement of me in that role. That, though I’m content now with whatever role I find myself in, I still wanted the Alpha Dog status, the mainstream appeal, the leading man bravado of Frasier. And, yet, my family’s comfort in my being Niles was what gave me the ability to move naturally, however unnaturally I still moved.
The first time I came out as gay did not go well. Some might say the second time didn’t go too well, either. Others may argue that it’s still not going smashingly. That was, truly, the darkest dawn. I put away my squash pants and tried to force myself against the tide. As I got closer to high school graduation, Niles finally married Daphne—the love of his life. He had followed his passions, and in the end, they won out.
I was still burying my wingtips under the loose soil of my fears when David Hyde Pierce came out of the closet publicly. In the greater world, it barely mattered. But in my world, it was as deafening as a grenade. I was a fool. A bigger fool even than when I read ‘Moby Dick’ on the dodgeball court in elementary school. Like a drunk William Tell, I had completely missed the point. Life wasn’t about settling for a loveless marriage with Maris. It was a constant battle within and without to find your Daphne. To feel yourself in their love. To be loved in spite of ourselves. It was then that I truly understood what and who Niles Crane was. And so, with time, I was finally able to pull out my squash pants, dust off my handkerchiefs, and unbury my wingtips. I was going to live my life as Niles Crane said in Episode 2.23, ‘The Innkeepers’:
“When people hear the name Niles Crane, I want them to think ‘big soufflé.’”