I thought the world was going to end on Election Day. Not immediately: I gave it a year; two at best. The newspaper headlines were unbearable. Even the headlines were ice on my spine.
By the time I voted I'd already witnessed despair, first when I passed the bicycling student who'd campaigned diligently for the other side; his face beaten, his look one of stoic helplessness. Then, inversely, at the polling place, where Republican women sat in their furs and brittle hair and gave me disapproving looks when they saw my button.
These women were our future; our ruling class. Never mind that policy no longer mattered and intelligence had been discarded and the suffering would seep up with the sewage and the world was going to blow up. As long as they had their perfumed drugs of opulence Ronald Reagan could do no wrong.
That was 1984 in a Beverly Hills voting place. I was a UCLA student, and by the time I voted they'd already announced that Reagan had won a landslide victory. Going into the booth didn't feel patriotic; it felt like stepping into darkness. I was 20 years old and the world was over.
I was reminded of that day after Donald Trump's election, when a 17-year-old gay man told me he thought the GOP win meant life on earth had reached an expiration date. He's entering college, when you're supposed to feel hopeful, inspired, ready to make a better world. Now he's entering under the spell of fascism and an oblivious democracy and a world ready to snuff out freedoms.
Memo to that man and to gay youth everywhere: The world's still here, I'm still alive, and Ronald Reagan is a memory. I can't apologize enough for this country's despicable act, but I can offer a taste of optimism.
There have been times in my life when I've felt despair so great that even hope seemed unreachable. The upside of aging is that you realize, even under the worst of circumstances, things can get better. And your generation has advantages that gay men over 50 only dreamed about.
When Reagan won his second term, there were no gay support groups on campus, let alone gay marriage or gay role models or gay mainstream visibility. Gays didn't serve in the military or get mentioned in State of the Union Addresses or have leverage in everything from what department stores to patronize to which pop stars to purchase.
The most talked about gay man was Rock Hudson, the closeted movie star who was dying of AIDS, the still-new death sentence that was hurling us into oblivion. We had a dynamic Olympic diver named Greg Louganis, who gay men idolized and fantasized about and knew was gay, only because he refused to deny it, and who missed out on almost all endorsements and the cover of the Wheaties Box because of deviant "lifestyle" suspicions.
The men above us, our role models, our artists and dancers and actors and writers, were evaporating, and our love for other men was reduced to a "lifestyle."
Another huge difference between 1984 and 2016 is that, unlike now, everyone seemed to love Ronald Reagan, from your formerly liberal neighbors to your favorite rock groups. Demonstrations were almost nil and university intellectualism felt like an oxymoron. Happy college kids talked Frat Parties and Sorority Sisterhood and watched Dynasty and The Cosby Show while blindly brushing past the No Nukes booths or the drama instructor with the cancer-spotted face. Faux News sites weren't the norm, but nightly soap operas and saccharine-family TV shows served as lovely distractions.
No one seems happy about Donald Trump's win, even the people who voted for him, and that's a reason to be hopeful. The outpouring of anger has spread across the country and can be channeled into fighting for the inalienable rights of man and woman.
If that sounds impossible, take a cue from the dead. When I moved to New York City in 1987, liberal, gay-centric Chelsea, to be exact, I watched friends and lovers and familiar faces die on a weekly basis. It was the new normal long before I'd ever heard that expression. At the all-male gym where I had a membership, before you hit the galaxy of beauties getting pumped for the night ahead, you passed by the bulletin board that posted the memorial services of members now departed.
Between wondering who was next, the cute Latin guy who winked at you when you said hi, the militant ACT-UP man with his chiseled-perfect looks and equally hot posse, or that guy from the steam room who'd stroked you while making sure no semen touched skin, everyone was ripe for dismissal. Especially you. The pretty ones scared you the most. Sex and sexiness were both a curse.
Reagan ignored us, religious leaders hated us, families deserted us, strangers spit on us, and yet we prevailed. The rage was channeled into activism, activism turned into a voice, and that voice helped bring about mainstream visibility, gay rights, marriage, "undetectable," a place in the sun. Every AIDS casualty gave a drop of their blood to our newfound freedoms.
I lived through all of that, somehow, as well as the daily gay-bashings reported on the news, and warnings not to walk the streets of gay-haven Greenwich Village at night. One early morning I stood frozen as a man about 100 feet in front of me was hit repeatedly with a baseball bat after leaving the Roxy. If I'd just left three minutes earlier...
Gay bashing isn't gone and gay men are fearful, for good reason, that there will be a continued spike in beatings and bullying. We did just gave hate a mandate.
But gay men have grown up since I first voted in 1984. We're fathers now, husbands, politicians, TV and movie characters, actors, pop stars, athletes, corporation heads, sex symbols, anchormen, your next-door neighbors, and bloggers. The backlash of fear was probably inevitable, but this time around we're not going to be wiped off the face of the earth.
If you're young and afraid, remember where you've come from and revel in what's been achieved. While you're at it, grab a box of Wheaties. More than 30 years after the fact, they finally put openly gay, openly HIV-positive, openly married, four-time Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis on the cover. Time, I've learned, has a way of sorting out past mistakes.