Let me start the second part of sharing this journey by pointing out that the story has a happy ending. I like to think I ended up a fairly well-adjusted, successful, happily partnered Gay man. But it’s not something that just happened on its own.
Let me also say, I think my journey would have been easier if I had not been stuck in Danville, Virginia during the early years of my coming out and coming to terms with who I really was.
There is a monologue by Little Edie, in “Grey Gardens” that always makes me think of Danville. She might have been talking about Long Island and other circumstances, but it always reminds me of Danville:
Honestly, they can get you…for wearing red shoes on a Thursday – and all that sort of thing…They can get you for almost anything – it’s a mean, nasty, Republican town.”
I was also working there in banking there and believe me, Danville bankers are the most self-important creatures ever to walk the earth. They had very firm ideas of how one was supposed to conduct themselves both at and out of the office. That was another role I couldn’t play…
But getting back to the Gay thing. I don’t think people realize how tough it apparently still is for gay kids and adults in places like Danville and Mississippi. People think all gay people live in San Francisco or New York or Washington or Greensboro or Richmond or Charlottesville. Not in small towns and cities that aren’t as progressive as some of the areas mentioned above.
Most Gay people have to leave places like Danville if they want to survive and be happy. Times haven’t really changed that much. It’s the ones who stay behind- because of family, jobs or lack of money to leave- that still really have it rough.
This is always clear when I go back to Danville. Sure, there is a small educated and accepting class that is open to Gay folks there, but it’s a small group. I still run into people there who feel safe showing their hatred and contempt for Gay people- as well as people of color and of other religions. It’s still safe to hate in places like Danville. It’s still socially acceptable in most of the groups in that town. And in many, many more towns like it.
I like to think times have changed for younger Gay people. I like to think it’s easier to be Gay now. It is for us. But, with the recent rash of young, Gay suicides, I now know that’s not always the case.
I thought the post “Will and Grace” generation had it easier. I guess I forgot the impact of the Religious Right demonizing us for the past 10 years.
Some of us are older and tougher. We’ve already fought- both ourselves and society- for so many years, the haters really don’t faze us that much. We are used to it. We’ve learned to keep going and still carve out a happy, successful life. We have built our networks of Gay and Straight friends and created our own safe little bubbles. We hoped it was easier for those who are coming up- and out- behind us.
When I was coming up and out, it was only about a decade after The Stonewall Riots when Gay people first stood up to the police. It was the 1980’s. The Reagan years.
And the era when AIDS was just emerging. It’s hard to make someone understand, who wasn’t there, the fear that AIDS brought to so many of us. And how so many people freely said: “The fags are getting what they deserve.”
The Gay Culture of that time really was based on sex, but that doesn’t mean people deserved to get sick and die. Many people were just feeling free enough to express themselves sexually, for the first time, when the Plague struck and a new horror was visited upon us. Our friends were getting sick and dying and we were all wondering “Who is next? What causes this? Will it get me?”
It was a challenging world for me.
Sometimes I felt like Doris Day in a whorehouse. I just wasn’t, by nature, the promiscuous type.
I was husband hunting.
And I found a lot of husbands in Danville, Va in the 1980’s. They just happened to belong to someone else. Based on my field research during that era, that little town had to have had the highest per capita percentage of Gay or Bisexual Married Men of any town in the country. God, they were tiresome- trying to have their cake and eat it, too…
I had hoped that was all a thing of the past…I guess it’s not.
We have also learned being Gay is only part of who we are. We are also still bankers, soldiers, construction workers, lawyers, sales clerks and, yes, beauticians and florists.
We pay our taxes and form our own families of choice. We are assimilating. That is progress of a sort- maybe of the most important sort.
I was also lucky that I did not lose a single friend as I came out. At least not a true friend. Sure, some of the older folks I knew turned their backs on me, but my friends stood with me. Most have told me they knew I was Gay before I did. Why the hell didn’t you guys slap some sense into me?
My family learned to accept who I am. I had some battles royal with my Mother- that I’ll talk about later. But the rest of them weren’t really phased by it…
It is getting better with time. If nothing else, the older generation is dying off and the demographic research shows the younger the person, the less prejudice they hold against gay people. Time is on our side…
So we all- young, middle-aged, old, Gay and our Straight allies just have to keep going and trying to make the change real. We have to make our younger Gay kids realize it does get better.
I think the best thing we can do is to come out and live honestly. We need to be visible and not ashamed of who we are. We have to let the Gay kids coming behind us have the role models we did not have…
God knows, we can’t count on the Gay Establishment. The folks at the Human Rights Campaign seem more interested in getting invited to the White House and throwing social events for the “A Gays” than actually doing anything productive to force legislative changes.
Despite years of lobbying and millions of dollars in donations to these groups, we can still be fired from our jobs, not serve openly in the military, be prevented from seeing our partners in the hospital, have legal challenges adopting children and forming families, and be vilified by the haters.
But we can also build wonderful, fulfilling lives out in the open. Legislation did not drive that, visibility did.
It is better. And we can make sure it keeps getting better.
We owe it to ourselves and those who come behind us…
In closing, here is a great video, my friend John sent me, from others testifying…it does get better…