People seem to really dig fall. Summer is supposed to be a time of decompression for kids, but adults seem to enjoy sending their kids back to school so they can get back to their adult lives. Even if we haven’t participated in more than 20 years, we’re all somewhat beholden to the scholastic clock.
To me, summer’s end still feels a lot like Sunday night did while growing up—back to the grind, fraught with unpleasantness. I didn’t like school much, really. Not until I was in college, enjoying the duality of living on my own while not paying my own way.
I’m 45 years old now, and I graduated from high school in 1988. Gays weren’t running around holding hands and kissing in public back then. There was a part of me that wasn’t even sure gay people came out and led happy lives, but I found ways of reassuring myself that things would be all right. It seemed like coming out meant the end of the road with family and friends, which I found confusing: Why was it all fine and well so long as people merely suspected you were gay, but not okay once you owned it?
After my high school girlfriend simultaneously dumped me and introduced me to Brian—someone she worked with at The Gap who she thought might appeal to me—I told my parents I wasn’t straight. This was 1987, and that was about as far as the conversation went. They seemed not to hear me; when the topic came up again, it was as if we’d never discussed it. I figured I’d done my part in saying something. If they were going to be slow on the uptake, I wasn’t willing to shoulder the burden of repeated explanations—it was hard enough doing it once.
College was this oasis of freedom off in the distance. I mean, everyone experiments in college, right? And with all the booze flowing, it seemed like even HIV couldn’t stop the sexual gravy train that going away to school promised.
How I landed at a small, homophobic college in New Hampshire is still a mystery to me. I had such a sweet tooth for the dark side of life that I often wonder if going there saved my life. Let loose in a large metropolitan city at 18, I’m not sure I’d have made it to 25.
The irony still blows my mind. Nobody else I knew in high school came out to their parents, not even a little. What I’d done took balls and determination, and I saw it as an important step in the process of owning my identity. I thought maybe being gay could even be an asset once I got to school. But HIV and AIDS had set us back. It shoved a lot of men back in the closet and gave haters additional leverage to make their anti-homo ideals seem reasonable.
And, on the homestead, it made my admission seem like an ill-advised “choice.”
And yet, despite the fact that people were dying, I felt like I’d missed a really important boat. It seemed to me that gay men had reached a pinnacle of prominence in the mid-late 1970s, only to start dropping like flies some five years later. I was a teenager and lacked perspective. All I could think was the party was over, I’d missed it, and my future looked bleak.
Even still, I held high hopes that going away to school would result in some recreational fun and maybe help point me in the direction of a manageable lifestyle. But my college provided no outlet for any of that. There were two fully out-of-the-closet gay men on our campus. There were also plenty of questionable guys, but the atmosphere was oppressive and it wasn’t cool to just approach people. Notes got passed, coded messages got sent, mixed tapes were distributed—all highly covert operations. I raised the ire of the entire men’s basketball team my second semester by making a pass at one of its star players. The captain of the team came to speak with the RA on my floor; he wanted to know how I could muster the audacity to think “a man of such athletic stature could possibly be gay.” The level of ignorance still astounds me to this day.
To facilitate that rare sexual encounter with another guy, copious amounts of alcohol needed to be consumed. On other liberal arts campuses across the nation, gay men were scrumping like Energizer bunnies, but I had landed at some sort of boozed-up monastery.
Toward the end of summer 1989, between my freshman and sophomore years, I scheduled an annual physical with my parents’ big-boy-doctor rather than continuing with my pediatrician. I was 19, and I guess it made sense, but I remember feeling leery of the whole thing.
I had only ever discussed sex with my pediatrician on a euphemistic level. “Everything working properly?” he’d asked a few times. Sure, the equipment functioned just swell. It was the images running though my head that concerned me, but we never discussed that.
I went to my appointment and decided to try a bold new tactic: When he asked me about my sex life, I’d tell him the truth. After all, this was New York, right? His reaction was similar to that of a school advisor I’d confided in just a few years earlier: grave concern. Crossed eyebrows, massive judgment. ”Sound the alarm, Dottie, we’ve got a live one back here!”
He urged me to take an HIV test. He wanted to know if my parents were aware of my sexual choices, if we all “understood the risks” and had “an ongoing dialogue about my lifestyle.” I kept waiting for a break from his unrelenting doomsday tone, but it never came.
So I took the test. At the end of the office visit, he gave me a folded yellow card with the telephone number for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and a bunch of other related contacts. Health crisis? Was I really having a health crisis? Is that what this was?
I don’t have a clear recollection of how the information about my “false-positive” test result came down the pike. I can’t remember if they called my mom and told her without my consent, or if they told me and I deferred to her to “fix it,” because I honestly didn’t understand what it meant. All I knew was, my HIV test result was something other than negative, much like the way I’d described my sexuality as something other than straight. Was this karma? My family was at a loss for words.
In 1989, HIV was still very much a death sentence with a long scary road of illness building to the execution. I was terrified. And you’ll have to pardon the self-pitying tone, but it felt tragic. I hadn’t been around the block a few times, there were no wild oats sown. I had no way to contextualize the information. And I also knew that HIV didn’t (and still doesn’t) discriminate: None of the perceived unfairness mattered.
I wasn’t old enough to drink legally, but drink I did. Heavily. In the interim, my mom secured an appointment for a more definitive HIV test at a New York City hospital. While we waited for the results, which seemed to take forever, school started again. My sophomore year of college, I went back to school thinking I was probably sick with HIV, a ticking time bomb of autoimmune dysfunction just waiting to explode from one too many rough nights and a bad collegiate diet. My mortality was lurking around every corner, and I drank to make it go away.
I was at a keg party the night I called my mother to get the test results. When she told me I was actually HIV negative, the relief was as intense as the anxiety that preceded it. I hadn’t told anyone at school. Without any gay support system there, I didn’t think anyone would understand. But the good news only perpetuated my drinking. I drank to celebrate my health. I drank because I felt more assured my system could handle the strain. Honestly, I would have found a reason to keep drinking no matter what happened.
HIV didn’t rear its head in my life again until 1992, when the first man I dated in Boston divulged his positive status to me. I drank as a means to deal with that as well, and began doing harder drugs. The relationship waxed and waned for several years, and for a long time afterward I walked around convinced I was dying. It was only after I sobered up that I was able to face the reality of getting an HIV test again. Twelve years passed between them. Once again, I was negative.
The back-to-school season always reminds me of those awful couple of months 26 years ago, and the experience changed me forever. The onus was on my peers and I to learn how to have sex differently in the wake of AIDS, since we were armed with the facts at a young enough age where we might be able to save ourselves, to paraphrase what we were told. It was a lot of pressure. Treat all potential partners like they have the virus, they said. A lot of us drank to quiet all of that noise: Alcohol made it easier to have the kind of sex you wanted without directly equating the activity with death. Over 12 years into sobriety, and this is still sometimes challenging.
All of us have self-critical voices in our heads, but I’ve never hated myself for being gay. I’ve hated a lot of the oppressive bullshit I’ve put up with over the years, and I’ve hated the fear that was instilled in me about having gay sex at such a young age. As a result, I’ve had to earn my sexual freedom, and maybe I’ve hated some of that as well. But it’s now something I can be proud of. I won’t apologize to anyone who is unable to see that for themselves.
Self-loathing may have played a role in my drinking and drug use, however. We’ll explore this concept of gay self-hatred more next time with a look at Alan Downs’ book The Velvet Rage. Meanwhile, got something you want to say directly to the Grumpy Ghey? Or maybe you have an idea for a future column? Hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org.