To LGBTQs coming out today, I say, “YOU ARE AWESOME!”
Your creativity, compassion, courage, and community service make me proud and hopeful.
In 1972, at age 18, I came out as a gay man in college. To give you an idea of the turmoil buried in that statement, before I auditioned for Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band in ultra-conservative Greeley, I almost threw up. The repercussions of public exposure and guilt by association terrified me.
The world you’ve inherited is different from the world I inherited. But easier to come out of the closet?
You have the internet. We had books. Sources affirming you’re not alone are available in seconds. Scrounging to find info about my tribe, I discovered a bleak world with no positive role models. Then in 1976, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Jonathan Ned Katz was published, chronicling and rejuvenating our hidden past since the 1500s. But sitting on my bookshelf with its red cover and wide spine, the title seemed to scream GAY in a 50 point font.
Whenever straights were visiting, I’d put the book in the closet, myself as well.
You have gay/straight high school alliances (and Glee). We had Drama Club. You also have The Trevor Project and It Gets Better to combat skyrocketing suicide rates among LGBTQ teens. The web and social media are sources of both bullying and support.
You have Andrew Christian selling underwear as soft porn. We had Calvin Klein. Klein rescued gay men from the Sears catalog and Jim Palmer in Jockeys, and still does.
You have porn 24/7. We had dirty bookstores.
You have This Is Us and Modern Family. We had Dynasty and Soap.
You have Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We had jeers of ‘queer’—and a dictionary of others. The shows’ unapologetic embrace of the word queer neutered much of its derogative force. Yet ‘queer’ still kicks up a storm of protest within today’s community as a catchall label.
You have Ellen and Will and Grace. We had them first.
You have the Biebs. We had Bowie. Just sayin’…
You have Kevin Spacey. We had Rock Hudson. Whether forced to come out because of sexual abuse or AIDS, neither is a healthy example.
You have 37 different genres of dance music. We had disco and soul.
Long live Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, The O’Jays, Three Degrees, Boy George, Sylvester, Jimmie Sommerville, Holly Johnson, Marc Almond. One of the first musicians to come out, Melissa Etheridge was a hero to me. So was Patrick Cowley, an early AIDS casualty. Like his Menergy, every dance tune owes their synthesized thumpa thumpa to this eighties pioneer.
You have David Sedaris and RuPaul’s Drag Race. We had Quentin Crisp and Divine. Lucky all of us!
You have Orlando and Pulse. We had New York and The Ramrod and Sneakers.
The massacre in Florida made world headlines. In 1980 a man opened fire with an Uzi on two gay bars near Christopher Street, the center of my gay New York universe. The murders barely registered in the straight media. My roommate had been in the Ramrod, and I’ll never forget him bursting into our apartment, trembling and hysterical.
You have accepted military service. We had dishonorable discharge, then Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Beginning January 1, transgender people can enlist.
You have same-sex marriage. We had laws prohibiting our right to exist. Sodomy wasn’t legal until 2003.
You have Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. We had Amendment 2 and Romer v. Evans. Like a sour déjà vu, the Supreme Court rules soon on another Colorado gay rights case.
You have Roy Moore, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, et al. We had Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et al. Christian bigots and obsequious politicians never seem to die. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump removed content about LGBTQ rights from the White House website. To the fans of lying hypocrites I say: “Beware false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). I’ve no doubt Trump and Moore wear wool suits. The dangerous irony is their fans don’t see themselves as Satan’s agents.
You have Trump. Oh god, so do we, but we had Nixon and dumped him. Someday we’ll dump Trump.
You have Midnight and Call Me By Your Name. We had Longtime Companion and Philadelphia. AIDS dramas—groundbreaking for their time—are not the only stories explored now. Our cinematic history was brilliantly brought to light in The Celluloid Closet (1981) by Vito Russo.
You have PrEP. We had AIDS. The “gay plague” defined my generation of gay men. Today, it’s just not a big deal. However, rising infection rates belie all the progress.
You have VGL, Grindr, GROWLr, Scruff, Tinder, DaddyHunt, Manhunt, Adam4Adam. We had bars, baths (the Ballpark!), dunes, truck stops, rented lofts, tearooms, parks, abandoned warehouses, Boulder’s Dream Canyon. My generation had to invent places to meet. Then came print ads. When I discovered websites, I was like a kid in a candy store. Poz since 1982, I had to battle the stigma and prejudices of DDF and clean, UB2. Identical to both our worlds: your value as f*ckable depends on how young, pretty, buff, rich, and hung you are. You swipe left. We snubbed. I wish I’d been kinder.
You have sex drives. We had sex drives (and still do). At some point everyone gets horny. SEX! Sex, sex, sex. SEEEXXX! Avoid my mistake: I confused sex with love. Blessed and cursed with overabundant sexual energy, the inevitable heartbreaks didn’t end until I turned 60, when I found a great partner who treats me like gold.
Coming out of our closets of hiding is about revealing the connection to our innermost being, to others, our community and world. It’s about love. You define what that means. You decide if coming out is easier today.
For me, it was messy, shameful, confusing, painful, stressful, depressing, sexually frustrating. It was also the joy of endless possibilities: the music I danced to, the books I read, the sexual liberation, the laughter with the people I met, the raw passions of youthful self-discovery. Other people’s stories helped me live my own with authenticity and integrity, not just as a gay man, but as a human. Period.
Coming out is not a single, completed act like checking off a to-do list item. We come out until we die—if and when we choose. Issues, opportunities, questions arise every day. Each hurdle. Each hurdle we leap over is not only a personal success story, but a community success story. Even our stumbles pave the way for future successes. We must remember and honor our history to preserve and ensure a better world for future generations.
Reminiscing about the good ol’ days from a gay geezer may have caused your eyes to glaze over, but I hope someday you have the same luxury.
LGBTQs are the bravest people I know. In 2016, the child of a friend of mine announced a gender change and new name to a first-grade class. (As a parent, imagine getting that phone call from a principal.) This little whippersnapper proves the world is better than when I was her age and knew I was different.
Another proof? This coming spring, The Boys in the Band will celebrate its golden anniversary with a Broadway premiere, starring Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, and Zachary Quinto. Andrew Rannels will play Larry, the role I played in college over 40 years ago. I doubt any of these A-list, out, gay stars threw up before their audition.