It snuck up on me recently when I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know how this happened…. but the calendar says that I came out 30 years ago. Is this a milestone that people keep track of and celebrate? What is the anniversary stone or fiber that should be gifted in celebration of declaring yourself a homo for 30 years? Tobacco? Taffeta?
I can’t pinpoint the exact date when this occurred – I got the boyfriend and then started to come out to friends and family. It was the spring of 1987. I was 18 and a senior in high school, which was uncommonly young for people of my generation and average-to-late for younger people. A friend of mine from college now has a 10-year-old trans child. When I came out, I felt like a trailblazer. Now I feel like I wasted a few years. On the other hand, my partner Chris was a late bloomer and I don’t want to make him feel bad, so I’ll just say we all move at our own pace.
We watched the ABC miniseries When We Rise that aired in February. It didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare – people on Facebook either loved or hated it. But for Christ sake, we’re talking about a prime time 4-night miniseries on broadcast network television about the history of the gay rights movement. That’s something, right? It also helped me to dust off some cobwebs and have a look back at when I first came out. Chris is quite curious to learn about our history over the past 50 years and while he sometimes beats himself up about what he doesn’t know, I remind him that he’s a lot more knowledgeable than a lot of younger people. And when I say this, I picture some generic air-headed twink who doesn’t realize that gay history goes back further than season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This applies not just to the history of gay activism, but to gay icons and the history of camp as well. Thank god for Ryan Murphy and his FX show Feud – the younger generation has now discovered Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I’m afraid for the moment that Garbo and Dietrich are shit out of luck.
Together Chris and I have watched many of the documentaries that were integral to my coming out process and understanding of gay history. We watched the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall. I sat with my computer nearby and as each interview subject appeared onscreen (and that includes Ms. Audre Lorde herself) I would Google their names to see if they were still alive. Only one or two are left. And some of them lived to ages in their nineties, but the documentary is now 33 years old. Again, it’s just that passage of time that has gotten away from me.
I know this is going to sound ridiculous but … I forget that everyone continues getting older, even when I am not paying attention. It’s like the first time I was at a beach house in the wintertime. And I went for a walk on the beach in the snow at 4 am and I thought “My GOD! The waves are crashing on the shore all the time!” It’s one of those moments that I smack myself in the head and go … “Well, of course they do, you idiot. Of course they do.” And so… my Captain Obvious Statement of Stupidity is… time just keeps marching on. And before you know it, a generation is gone and you are moving one seat down to make room for the younger ones.
We watched the 1977 documentary The Word Is Out. It holds up well – this was a groundbreaking documentary for its time. There’s a remastered DVD version that I highly recommend, with updates on the cast, which had a lower mortality rate than Before Stonewall, which came years later.
I noticed something interesting while revisiting these documentaries, as well as The Times of Harvey Milk. I hadn’t watched these in many many years. Certain people would appear onscreen and I would remember how I felt about them but I couldn’t remember exactly why. I’d say “Oooh I love her! Ugh I hate him.” …without remembering what it was that they were about to say or do. I started to realize that some people who rubbed me the wrong way as a 20-year-old viewer seem perfectly fine to me now that I am 48.
Some of it is due to a changing view on life or love or recognizing the defensive stance that previous generations might take when openly discussing their sexuality. But I also realized this: I had a low tolerance for effeminacy when I was just coming out. Yes, I was fine with being gay but I wanted to be the one to TELL you that I was gay. I didn’t want you to be able to guess. And someone who was flamboyant was not my cup of tea. I was also an actor and effeminacy was the last thing you wanted anyone to detect. AND this was during the AIDS crisis, of course, and I think that, in my not completely enlightened brain, this inability or unwillingness to hide also broadcast that you HAD it. I know how ridiculous that sounds. I would like to sit down with my younger self and talk about it.
When did this change? I assume it was gradual. But there was one moment that sprung to mind. And I had written about it in an essay called The Bus Stop back in 2005. Bush Jr. was inexplicably elected for a second term and I was feeling pretty disgusted with the conservative portion of the country that would vote for that simpleton. And then we took two steps forward, and one giant step back… and here we are… and now George W doesn’t seem like the worst choice in the world, does he?
The Bus Stop was supposed to be my first published work. It was accepted into a gay anthology that collapsed before the book made it to publication. One thing I must say before I read this: I apologize in advance for anything perceived as racially insensitive. But this is where I was at the time:
I was on my way to work one morning, waiting for the uptown bus on Third Avenue at 9th street. It was a frigid 8 degrees that day – I was all bundled up in a hat, scarf, gloves, and bomber jacket. Nothing flamboyant. Nothing extraordinary.
I turned around and saw this 250lb black kid come out of the deli followed by his three skinny little girlfriends. They were young – probably around 13 or so. The linebacker would have passed for much older but the loud immature behavior was a dead giveaway.
He flings the door open yelling “We in the Village. The Village is gay. Let’s get out of here. Gay people live here.”
Now… to be honest, this kid seemed pretty light in his linebacker loafers. Granted, he was young, but given his size, puberty had paid a big visit. Yet, the voice was pretty high, and the inflection had those telltale signs. And here he was, hangin’ with the girls down in the Village. It was so blatantly obnoxious that I thought perhaps he already did know that he was gay and that this was some sort of a joke that he was making with his friends.
I had only glanced over as they came out the door. I’m a New Yorker. Direct eye contact can be considered an overt act of aggression. You get used to it. So I heard these comments over my shoulder as I peered down the street, praying for the bus to come.
The behemoth continued. “This place is where gay people live. I want to get out of here. Look at him. He’s GAY.”
In an instant, I was 13 years old again on a junior high school playground. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of me. He had to be talking about me. We were alone on this stretch of street. There was nobody else he could be referring to.
The teen flashback only lasted a moment. Because I am not 13 anymore. I am in my thirties, and I am angry. My next impulse was to turn around and say… “Are you black? Do I need to point out that you are black? Yes, I’m gay. What ARE you gonna do about it?”
This didn’t seem like a smart thing to say to a brutish man-child who did not yet know his newly acquired strength. Besides, in front of his friends, he’d really have to prove himself, and he’d snap me like a twig. Or clock me over the head with his box of scam-candy.
The impulse to confront passed. I heard my mother say “Stay above it. Don’t stoop to his level.” So I did what I would have done when I was 13 years old. I ignored it. I stood there.
I started wondering what could have tipped him off. As I said, eye contact was minimal. I wasn’t even paying attention at that point. Age, gender – it didn’t matter. I started to examine my clothes. No bright colors or patterns. Too neat? I hadn’t said anything, so I can’t blame the voice. This time. I wasn’t dancing pirouettes singing show tunes. Was it my earring? The little tuft of gelled hair sticking out from under my hat? (I had more hair then. And hair products.)
Then I stopped myself. Did it matter? Why was I dissecting myself over this? So what if he could or couldn’t tell! Why SHOULD I have to cover my tracks? Why couldn’t I be a big ole fag, in 2005, waiting for a bus in Greenwich fucking Village and NOT have to worry about some dickhead whupping my ass because he couldn’t deal with his own burgeoning sexuality?
The kids were now beating the crap out of each other, smacking their drinks out of each other’s hands as they waited for the same bus that I had been praying would show up already.
Finally, it arrived. This crew pushed their way onto the bus first. I thought about waiting for the next one. But no – let them get on first and then I could make sure I sat as far from away as possible.
Surprise, surprise. Something’s wrong with gay linebacker’s bus pass. He starts arguing with the driver, and they’re all kicked off before they can even get on. As I board the bus, the driver is yelling “I’d have let you go ahead if you hadn’t mouthed off at me.”
As the bus door closed, I turned to the crew, smiled sweetly and waved my gayest little Marlo Thomas wave. That Girl really pissed them off.
The bus began to pull away, and they ran alongside screaming and giving me the finger. I returned the gesture with one hand while blowing little kisses with the other, hoping that the boy would think of this moment for a long time to come. I wanted him to remember my face, and the faces of every gay person that he had ever caused any trouble. I hoped they kept him awake at night as he tried to understand why he wanted the guy who sat next to him in English class to fuck him and why his family raised him to behave this way and why they hated what he secretly was.
I sat down and continued reading a book I’d started earlier in the week: Alan Helms’ memoir Young Man From The Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall.
We don’t have to put up with this shit anymore.
So – that was written 12 years ago. And magically, we no longer had to put up with that shit anymore, right? Yay! Two steps forward, and hopefully now only one step back.
I just had another one of those time passage / epiphany moments, as I realized that the kids in this story are now twice as old. It was half a lifetime ago for them. They are in their 20’s now. Maybe the girls have kids. Maybe that boy was ON RuPaul’s Drag Race. Who knows? The thing is – I’m not mad anymore. I hope he sorted himself out. I hope his family doesn’t hate him. I hope he has a good support system. And I hope by now that he would want to sit down with his younger self and talk about it.