I’m reading a wonderful memoir called, Body Counts by Sean Strub. He and I are close in age and many of the places in New York that he went to in the 1970s, I went as well: a gay bar in the West Village called the Ninth Circle; Studio 54; the St. Marks Bath. I downloaded Body Counts by chance, not knowing much about Strub or his story. It just looked interesting. I am surprised by how well the book is written, with wonderful color and detail. Strub tells the story of AIDS from a deeply personal perspective while putting into context what was happening in the world at the time.
In describing one of his boyfriends, Strub writes, “Like so many men of his generations, he was fighting a sense of unbridgeable difference.” I love the phrase, unbridgeable difference. As a man coming of age in the 1970s, I too felt a sense of unbridgeable difference. I felt different from such a young age that by the time I reached college, feeling different was just a part of who I was. At the time I did not make the connection between my attraction to men and the sense of unbridgeable difference that pervaded my every waking moment. I grew up in a world where men who did not fit male mold were outcasts. As a young child, I never knew the word gay existed. I just knew that I was different than the other boys and didn’t fit into boy culture as it existed in the 1960s and 1970s.
From 3rd grade through 6th grade I went to an all-boys Episcopal school and then was moved by my parents to the Quaker school that my sister attended from 7th grade until I graduated high school. While the two schools were quite different, I was always an outsider. I think because of my height and size-I was always taller than the other kids and until I was 14, slightly overweight, no one ever picked on me that I can remember. But they never invited me to be part of their group either.
It wasn’t just that I didn’t like sports or know anything about sports, it was bigger than that. I simply did not fit into the way boys behaved or acted or talked. I could not make boy small talk. I did not rough house with other boys. I liked art, not sports. Football was greek to me. I existed outside of the prevailing boy culture of the period.
Unlike the world of today, where young men and their parents have access to all kinds of information to help LGBTQ children on their journey, I had nothing in 1972 at 14 years old and discovering my sexuality. What I learned at 14, from the one book I could find that mentioned homosexuality, was that I had a sickness, being gay, that could be helped by years of therapy, and that my life as a gay man would likely be tragic and sad, riddled with drugs, alcohol and anonymous sex. In those early years, the idea of having a loving gay relationship with a man never entered my consciousness. By my 20’s I had bought into the early learnings: I simply did not believe men could have healthy, stable, loving relationships.
Fast forward to today I’ve grown and changed in so many ways since those early days. Staying in the closet let me get to a level of self-acceptance, respect and self-confidence that I did not have growing up. But I also missed out on all the trials and challenges, particularly AIDS, that men of my generation went through. I do not feel different anymore as I did when I was 14 years old, but some of those old feelings still linger. While I know that two men can have a loving committed relationship intellectually, sometimes I feel my heart has grown cold. How do I warm up my heart after so many years of hiding and buying into many awful gay stereotypes?
I have done a lot of work these past five years to reinvent myself and do battle with my internalized homophobia, but where do those old thoughts still linger? The unbridgeable difference I once felt has been largely bridged. Not completely, but largely.