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Where we come from

Role Models

My generation didn’t start what we now call the Stonewall Revolution. That credit belongs to generations before us. Walt Whitman was certainly on the page, with his carefully worded celebrations; Oscar Wilde pushed the envelope further, and paid dearly for his honesty. But these records were carefully avoided by English teachers; we only found them when we already knew what we were looking for.

There were great gay writers emerging when I was but a boy: James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Edmund White—those who spoke the truth they knew, sometimes cautiously, sometime fearlessly. They weren’t punished—well, they weren’t jailed like Wilde—but they were belittled, and we were shielded from them. Books could be quarantined, theatre out of reach.

So where were our role models? Who would teach us how to be good, happy, productive gay men? They were out there. Even before I was born, Harry Hay had started the Mattachine Society, even founded a magazine, ONE, for gay men to talk about their concerns. He had to fight the postal service to mail it. But we knew none of this. We were taught about vague “commies” and “pinkos,” which appeared to be the same thing.

As for gay men in everyday life—well, did I know any? Probably. Had any of them sensed my confusion and fears about not being like the other boys—well, could they have spoken to me about it? No. It was too risky for them, either to be identified as a gay man or, worse, to be accused (even falsely) as a pedophile. (In the ignorance of the time, they were considered the same thing.) They could lose their jobs, their families; they could see jail time, even murder. This is not drama. It really happened. And they did what was needed to survive.

I don’t want to give the impression that I grew up in a set from “Brokeback Mountain.” I spent my entire youth within a few miles of Greenwich Village. It may not have been as physically isolated, but the working-class Catholic world that enclosed me was just as insular. There, no homosexuality existed. Forget permitted. Except, of course, for the priests. Fortunately, even at age 12 I knew there was something wrong with being approached. I was not easy prey. Nor was I pretty enough to be worth the pursuit.

So where were our role models? Who would teach us how to be good, happy, productive gay men? There were none. The best we had was each other. So we made it up as we went along.

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