It was a strange feeling, because there was no feeling that I could attach to it, since it wasn’t there.
That, in a nutshell, was what it was like if you were gay and born in the mid-50’s. Because if anybody was talking about sexuality, if never trickled down to my ears. Yes, Kinsey was out there publishing his famous books, but that was considered a rare bit of scholarly pornography. I now realize—any discussion of sexuality was confined to men, usually drunk. Women and children? Shielded at all costs.
So there was little Marc—age 5, blue-eyed, tow-headed, and trying to figure out how I was going to get married and have children, because something quite deeply within me told me I was different. But what was the “different?”
Maybe it’s time to admit—even very young children have sexual feelings. Did I know anything about sex? Of course not—but it didn’t stop me from thinking about men in a way that I knew other boys were not.
But was that even possible? When did I know what? When did the notion that there were gay people come into my awareness? Was it when I was thirteen, since that was the date of Dr. David Rueben’s book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but were afraid to ask? I remember reading the book, and hiding it from my mother, which was how taboo the whole thing was. So then I found out that there were “homosexuals,” and that they / we were doomed to live out bitchy, shallow, and extremely short-lived relationships, since we / they were screwed up, in one way or another.
Or was it before? Weren’t there kids talking about “queers” and “fags,” even in elementary school? Yes—but did I know what that was? And did I know it applied to me?
There is a shadow world—the things you know but do not acknowledge, and often that shattenwelt (only the German can really express it) accompanies transitions. You are questioning the faith you were raised in, the good Pentecostal fundamentalism that would sink you into hell for your unbelief? How can you possibly question? Equally, how can you believe?
It was that state that I was in, except that two things were happening at the same time. The first was that nothing needed to be done, since nothing could be done, given my age and sexual immaturity. And the second thing was that the persecution of homosexuality permeated the air, just as the smell of burning flesh assailed the death camps.
It was as cynical as it was diabolical. Because here’s how it worked: there was no place where gay people could meet in the 1950’s. True, in the large cities, there were gay bars, but they got raided frequently, and the arrests were printed on the front page—often—of the newspaper. So even being in a large city meant that you were exposing yourself, your family, your reputation, your home (if you were renting) and your job. The wonder is that anyone did it: it’s quite a price to pay for a beer.
So there was nowhere, but the sex drive in men? It tends to be quite strong, so we took to the parks and the public toilets. That, of course, further intensified the disgust many people felt for us, because what kind of sicko goes to have sex in a john? Answer—the guy with nowhere else to go.
So in my case, it meant that homosexuals were “lurking”—somehow that was always the word—in the bushes and skulking—another word, often needlessly paired with “furtively”—around the trees of the Capitol Square. This I learned years after I needed the information.
The other thing that was happening?
The federal government, spurred on by J. Edgar Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, was on an all-out campaign to eliminate gay people from the government. And no, it wasn’t gay people in sensitive positions who might be blackmailed by the Communists—it was people like Charles Barker, who was a clerk / typist at the US Bureau of Standards. This undoubtedly worthy agency I know nothing about and still know nothing, though I went onto their website. But that’s hardly the point; more relevant is that Barker was fired for being gay in 1971.
In 1971, I was fifteen. I looked—and often felt like—an improbable survivor from torture by the rack, since I was 6’3” and had a 28-inch waist. And though the riots at Stonewall had taken place in 1969, both Washington DC and Madison, Wisconsin, were not particularly hospitable times to be gay. Nor was the rest of the country.
So much progress has been made so fast that we have lost some things that we might remember now, had they not happened so quickly. We went from being sick, disgusting and criminal to having the wildest, most unrestrained sex. Then followed a plague of horrific proportions. We were dying left and right, and the government was doing nothing, and that “nothing” was quite deliberate, since hadn’t we brought it on ourselves? And however much we had changed our minds, embraced our sexuality, came out of the closet, well…the men who controlled the public health system hadn’t. So that meant that we had to stage die-ins and throw ashes of our dead brothers on the White House lawn.
Then, just as suddenly, it was over. Of course it wasn’t and isn’t, but the new antivirals had made AIDS not a death verdict but a chronic disease. So yes, people with AIDS are still dying…but of heart attacks, strokes, cancer.
Then came the first decade of the21st century, during which half of the country was getting their head around the fact that their sons, daughters, coworkers or even just Billy’s parents were LGBT and neither had their heterosexual marriage collapsed nor had the fabric of American society been horribly torn. The rest of the country, who hadn’t met any gay people yet, were busy passing defense of marriage acts, and making political capital out of them.
That all fell like a house of cards, and in the space of the next decade five of the nine people in the country could get themselves to say what in the future will be as obvious as the fact that black people are not chattel. So now I am married here in Puerto Rico, as I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2008, and as I have been, in fact, since 1987. That’s when Raf and I moved to Chicago and started living together.
You know all this, I know all this, but there’s something I now begin to believe is true, at least for me. Yes, I did the work of coming out, which can be external—you tell everybody you’re gay, you march when needed—or internal. And the internal is usually the most difficult: two or three years ago, on a Delta flight to New York, the pilot announced herself as Sue somebody. “Somebody” because I was so busy with the thought, “they’re letting a woman fly this plane?” that of course I didn’t catch the last name. Right, so I weeded that thought out—of course women can fly planes Marc—and went sighing away. Then, just to make the point clearer, the male captain of the Delta return flight home gave me the very glad eye as I was getting off the plane. And what did I think? Of course, “they let a gay man….”
It may be that you’re never done with it. It also may be that it has changed you and formed you, and that may not be a good thing. The Depression never left my parents; their Dutch friends who had starved during and after World War II could not throw food—however spoiled or inedible—away.
And I? What did it do to me, to have lived my first two decades knowing—I thought—that I was sick, that I was disgusting? Can any amount of consciousness-raising scrub that away? I look at the life I have lead, and the lives of others who—presumably—didn’t shoulder the burden I did for the first 20 years of my life. I am as accomplished as my brothers, though in different ways. Both of them, however, accept their success as a birthright; I am incapable of promoting myself.
I struggled for years as a musician, and choked four or five auditions for a chair in a professional orchestra. I now remember the peculiar feeling of the choke: how, during the audition, you are caught endlessly in that moment that the speeding car is about to hurl itself onto you. Your mind is racing, blaring instructions to muscles that have been completely severed from the brain. You have never played the instrument before, it seems, since you cannot even play the simplest passage.
The physical symptoms are minor—the racing heart, the dry mouth, the sweaty hands. What is terrible is the sinking feeling of shame, disgust, self-loathing. Horribly, you will have to tell everyone that you failed—all those people who kept assuring you that you would be just fine. That would be bad: worse would be when they all went to work the next day, and you would be alone in the apartment. What did I feel, on those horrendous mornings-after?
What I would have felt, if I had been a decade older, and had to grow sexually of age as a “sexual deviate” in the 50’s. And for decades I told myself that I was spared that, and that I was lucky, born just when I was, when the times were changing. I never had to live through that, I thought, the revulsion and shame and horror.
But hadn’t I?
The accepted truth is that I am lucky, that being gay has given me an outsider’s view, has broadened my insights into people and societies, that being different challenged me and strengthened me. Perhaps. But I have done my work, now: no one, I think, could accuse me of playing the victim. So now I can ask the question: how would my life have been, had I been straight?