As A Gay Man, The '80s Crippled My Identity

How I learned to release the past and embrace who I am.
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There’s nothing physically pleasant about climbing Mount Everest. As you get to the top, your body is depleted of oxygen. You become nauseous, dizzy, irritable, and lose your appetite. Quite simply, you can die from exhaustion… and many have.

As a questioning teen in the 80’s, coming out seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. The Mount Everest of my life. There it was, standing before me. Yet, I didn’t even have even a clue as how to get there. I didn’t know who had climbed it before me or how they made it to the top. I didn’t even know what was on the other side. For all I knew, it was a dark abyss of sadness and hate. All I knew was that is was going to be a very unpleasant experience because that’s what I was told. I was surrounded by a culture… movies, media, education, and social norms, that told me I was to fit into a convenient label that made others comfortable.

Being gay in the 80s meant being isolated from an identity. There was no discussion of homosexuality in school… not even in our year long “Health and Sexuality” class, even though we were in the middle of the AIDS crisis. In U.S. history, there was no mention of the fight for basic human rights that the LGBT community endured over 20 years before. There was no discussion of Harvey Milk or the Stonewall riots. There was no acknowledgement that Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, were among the many positive gay historical role models. On TV each night, there were no gay characters except for the occasional flamboyant game show regular on Hollywood Squares. TV sitcoms were even worse, with the “we’re straight guys playing gay” characters sashaying across the screen. I remember watching Jack Tripper on “Three’s Company” pretend to effeminately swish when his landlord inexplicably barged into the apartment he was… gasp… sharing with two women.

What I observed was that no men ever hugged, or held hands, or kissed on TV. The censor’s would never have allowed that. Even if they had, the individual stations and their viewers would have revolted. That would have amounted to instant cancellation of the show, boycotts and lot’s of lost advertising revenue! Yet, as long as the gay was treated as a stereotypical joke, no one cared. It was okay to make fun and laugh at their expense.

Worse yet, in the 80’s no one talked about actually being gay. Of course, there were rumors about others ― whispers here and there about a few of my classmates. One was picked on relentlessly for his “gay-sounding” voice, lack of sports abilities, and unwillingness to stand up to his bullies. Another was a Greek God of virility that used his powers of beauty and muscle to enchant both the guys and the girls… safely leveraging the convenient truth that most of his peers wouldn’t be able to associate masculinity with homosexuality.

Preferring art, music and writing my entire life, I placed myself into the witty class clown with a heart category. My goal: to always throw out a one-liner faster than the people around me and make them laugh. I guess I took on the Jack Tripper role that people seemed to enjoy. It seemed that I was endlessly striving to make a few moments of connection with others.

Each and every day, my mind worked frantically to try to fit in and act straight. It was exhausting.

“I internalized the teachings of the 80s… the stereotypes of who is gay and what that meant."”

No teenager wants to be separated from their comfort zone. Those times are already so baffling. Love, school, college―life in general―are so confusing that adding gay to the mix seems unimaginable. To see high school sweethearts walking the hallway hand-in-hand and know that their normal will never be applicable to you is disheartening. That they would never know the fear of public displays of affection that they so nonchalantly took for granted. Most teenagers can simply like someone and hope they like them back. Being gay in the 80s meant futilely searching for well hidden clues that say “we’re on the same team,” as well. Just searching for a sign… a smile… a wink… even one of those head nods that the cool guys did as we passed in the hallway.

Before coming out, you try to make meaning out of everything. Every comment. Every movement. Every look someone throws your way. I was so focused on it that I started to create a list in my head of the positive and negative issues of coming out. As I got older, the negative list seemed to grow longer and longer. The longer it grew, the further I stepped back from that mountain.

I internalized the teachings of the 80s… the stereotypes of who is gay and what that meant… and it pushed me into that safe closet that numbs you and protects you. It also robs you of living a fulfilled life. It took almost two decades for me to come out of that mind trap. By that time, I had two marriages and four beautiful children trapped in that closet with me. I realized that I needed to take a look at the list again. It took 20 years to realize that it wasn’t the length of the negative side that mattered anymore. All that mattered was the one thing the positive side would give me… happiness.

I stood at the bottom of the mountain, realizing that I needed to throw out everything that the 80’s taught me about being gay. I needed to let go of the fear of being stereotyped like Jack Tripper on a bad TV show. I needed to re-learn history and re-write it for others. I needed to allow myself to fight for my right to walk down the hallway holding the hand of the man that I love. Unafraid and unfazed by those that used the influence of media as a convenient tool to define what was right or wrong.

In the end, I realized that I was already on that mountain and my goal was to keep climbing. It didn’t matter if I never got to the top. A good life is one that allows you to keep climbing. To keep learning the trails. To keep aspiring and to inspire others to climb with you.

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