On a Wednesday night exactly 25 years ago this month, I went to my first meeting of the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth. Going there marked the first time I ever acknowledged to myself (or to anyone else) I was gay. How did I learn of BAGLY? You children of the Internet era, let me tell you a story.
You see, back in the late Cretaceous period also known as the Reagan era, there was no BAGLY Web site, no BAGLY Facebook page, no BAGLY Twitter feed. The only gay people I knew were the ones I saw on TV -- on weekly episodes of Dynasty (until they wrote off Steven Carrington's character) and on the evening news after that year's gay pride parade.
More tragically, gay people started showing up in the news as the victims of a cureless, terrifying disease. Even so, I never connected those people to myself. Like most teenagers who think they're going to live forever, I thought of AIDS as the sort of thing that happened to other people, like wars and famines and earthquakes. And, back then, that's how I thought about being gay -- as a problem that happened only to strangers on TV.
I think it was for a school paper on AIDS that I went to the Boston Public Library one afternoon to do "research" on gay culture. There, I came across a book called Coming Out Right: A Handbook for the Gay Male, by Wes Muchmore and William Hanson. Forgetting my homework, I holed myself up with the book in a carrel by a window overlooking Exeter Street. For the rest of the day, I read the book's no-nonsense advice on how to cruise a guy, how to act at a gay bar, and what to expect when you go home with someone. I still didn't think I was one of "them" -- not yet -- but I walked out of the library feeling oddly reassured.
Many months later, I walked into the library again, found the book again, and holed myself up in a carrel to re-read it. I wasn't there for school -- not this time. After all those months I still hadn't talked to anyone about my sexuality, and I wanted the same reassurance I'd gotten the last time I'd read that book. Then a slip of paper, not much larger than a sheet of paper you'd write a shopping list on, fell out of the book's pages. On it was typewritten a simple, unsigned message from BAGLY.
The message itself, if I remember correctly, offered no particular words of support or encouragement. Instead, I recall a straightforward, unsigned message that stated what BAGLY was, what BAGLY did, and when BAGLY met. That was encouragement enough.
I can't remember how long it took me to act on that message -- probably two weeks, maybe three. But what I do remember is this:
In the late morning or early afternoon on March 9, 1988, I took public transit from Saugus, Mass., where I lived with my parents, to Boston University, where I was going to school, even though I had no classes that day. I used a pay phone (a pay phone!) to call my Dad to tell him I wouldn't be home for supper.
I hung around school until sundown.
Then, at dusk, not a minute sooner than I had to, I walked the two miles from Kenmore Square to St. John the Evangelist Church on Bowdoin Street near Government Center, where BAGLY met. As I walked, one side of my brain seemed to know where my legs were taking me, while the other side of my brain couldn't quite believe where I was headed. I walked down Beacon Street, past the Public Garden and Boston Common, and took a left at the State House onto Bowdoin Street. I timed it so I'd get there a few minutes after the meeting started at six o'clock.
By the time I got to the church, darkness had fallen. I don't think I would have gone if the group had met in the day. The church's basement glowed with yellow light. Two or three guys were standing near the entrance. Recognizing that I was new, they asked me how I found out about BAGLY. When I told them about the note in the library book, they were delighted. The plan worked! It really worked!
I wish I still had that slip of paper. I can't believe I'd been so careless, so short-sighted, to cast such a life-altering document -- my own Magna Carta or Bill of Rights -- into the wastepaper basket. I must have been afraid a family member would come across the paper in my room. I didn't realize then, as I certainly realize now, that I had nothing to worry about from them.
Ah, how times have changed. Technology has now made it ever easier for us to reach the sort of scared, confused young man I was 25 years ago. A few days ago, I got an email from the It Gets Better Project to donate money to place an It Gets Better book on the shelf at my local library. A few mouse clicks later, I sent the money. Such convenience! But the donation left me unfulfilled.
I'm now more than double the age I was when I first stepped into that church basement. It appears BAGLY has moved on, too. They now meet on Wednesday nights not at St. John the Evangelist, but at the Community Church on Boylston Street near Copley Square -- as it happens, a two-minute walk from the Boston Public Library. I'm guessing they don't need to slip secret notes into library books anymore. But I hope they still do. When I read their message back in 1988, I felt as if they'd written it for me and me alone. Twenty-five years later, I'm still feeling the effects of that note.