Delayed, gay adolescence has received much attention of late, and when it comes to the high school experience, musings on a belated, happy “teen” life. With actual school being a four-year “Survivor: Puberty Edition” for so many of us, including me, it’s almost inebriating to reflect on a time when I got to experience the rightful joys of youth.
My gay high school started around the age of 27 and by “Senior Year” I was one of the most popular boys in school. I practically had my own pep squad.
I lived in Chelsea then, which wasn’t just the hub of gay New York, it was also the main campus. The year was 1991, and a remarkable transformation had changed the dynamics of queer culture. Instead of dressing like oddballs and misfits who outwardly embraced femininity, we wanted to resemble the mainstream look of the grid itself. The slant had always belonged to the physically disconnected Greenwich Village streets.
The term “Chelsea Boy” was coined to mirror our muscled, butch appearance, and Madonna was our mascot. While her lack of suffering or vocal aches made her an understandable target of our predecessors, for us she represented strength and determination and sex as a commercial weapon. AIDS was in but tragedy was no longer self-inflicted.
If we all looked the same—“clones” was the catch-phrase criticism of the day—it’s because we were trying to become the very same men who shunned us in real high school; the jocks we glimpsed naked in the locker room, the athletes who titillated us in workout wear and who held hands with the prettiest girls in class. We wanted to look like the men of our dreams.
And we finally got to date them.
Back then, each gym was like a different school and whichever one you chose became stamped on your identity. The biggies were the all-male Chelsea Gym, where I belonged until American Fitness (Miss America Fitness) opened next door. There was also David Barton (Dolly Bartons), and Better Bodies (Bitter Bottoms). Girlie nicknames were our sporting taunts. The YMCA on 23rd street was kind of like Juvenile Hall, or maybe Detention.
When, sniff-sniff, two sweethearts broke up, it inevitably led to one half of the couple switching gyms and looking for a new cheerleading team. Fire Island shares changed, exes saw each other and walked on the other side of the street, and rumors swept through the study hall steam room of who slept with whom.
There wasn’t an actual prom, but good luck getting into the Roxy without the right look or body or connected friends. If Carrie had transitioned he’d have burned the place to the ground. Twinks didn’t exist on our radar because men who forego bulking up were the equivalent of the Chess Club or Debate Team. I mean, what ever!
One of the differences between then and now is how insulated our world was. We didn’t have hook-up apps, and the student body was concentrated in an extremely small space—14th Street to 23rd, with Eighth Avenue as the main hub. Bars like Splash and G and even The Lure were nearby. For study breaks we had the bad service and overpriced coffee of Big Cup. Food/Bar was our drive-in.
If there were rivals it was the ever-popular ACT-UP members (The Swim Team), cool, smart, political hotties who generally chose to live and hang out off-campus in the East Village. They wore Doc Martins and motorcycle jackets and hung out at Crowbar or The Bar. You watering hold didn’t need a name to be cool. They read “The Village Voice” and protested and stuck together like white on whites. Diversity was about as commonplace as a Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston duet.
I didn’t say it was perfect, but it sure was fun.
Unlike the upper echelons of Chelsea High School, I wasn’t nearly pretty enough to make the Varsity team—invested enough to carefully choose an outfit to hit the grocery store half a block away, yes, but not bulked up enough to get a Pines invitation on looks alone. One potential roommate refused me for not having “muscles on your muscles.” Steroids were secretly passed around the gym the way joints were secretly passed around at back-home football games.
Luckily, I had something else to keep the Mean Girls from disliking me—acting—and the theater surroundings were thriving with naked men doing everything, sometimes while singing. I was cast in a cabaret show playing a queen (we could say that back in those days) who falls for the hunky jock who, yes, takes his clothes off.
The spin was that, in real life, we were boyfriends, and I had to hide my worked-out body under an ugly tux. We met and “fell in teen crush” during the show, him just coming out of the closet made him seen even more like the jocks from home. He was a gay virgin and I was new to a boyfriend who brought me flowers daily and called me every night and brought me seashells from the beach. He never came over without some sort of love token. Even if it was just a blueberry muffin it felt like an early Christmas gift.
After the show we’d greet the audiences together, and his fan base, who often asked him to sign their underwear, would gasp at us holding hands and leaving together. The show had a large female cast and they were like our Pink Ladies, inviting us to hang out on the rare night I didn’t invite them over after the show. Friday and Saturdays were practically slumber parties, with the girls trying to get the scoop on how far the King and King of the prom had actually gone. We were Sandy and Danny, or vice versa depending on the night.
And like real high school it all came crashing down after Senior Year. My boyfriend broke up with me over the phone, and I left the play and acting altogether. I abused alcohol to get over both endings. He soon had a new boyfriend, the one that lasted for years; the one he moved in with and created a home. He became Brenda with somebody else’s Eddie. I turned 31 and couldn’t afford my rent anymore and moved to midtown. It felt like heading to community college.
If I run into my ex-boyfriend now, I’m baffled that there was ever a time when we thought we might spend forever together. I have absolutely nothing in common with him, probably never did. Except the loveliness that was everything.
There were no guidance counselors to help men navigate life after gay high school, and many guys hung onto their old stomping ground until the class of Logan’s Run kicked them out for good. Florida was sanctuary. A lot of my gym buddies up and died, and hid as best they could from Eighth Avenue while their bodies withered away. Gyms aren’t as appealing when people exit through the trap doors.
I’ve often said that my gay New York youth was like “HX” or “Next,” the two weekly magazines everyone read. You start trying to look like, and date, the perfect cover model, then you hit the clubs and bars advertised in the front of the book, and, finally, you end up needing alcohol or drug treatment, or HIV counseling, or a lonely-Band-Aid Happy Ending, all found in the final pages of the rags.
Permanence or planning didn’t exist in my gay 1990’s. We didn’t even have Home-Ec. There were no expected marriages or families or reunions at bars that closed and gyms where your membership expired at death. But there was something liberating in the simple wonder of it all. It was as beautiful, as necessary, and as simple as an open-air kiss with your sweetheart from Chelsea High.
David Toussaint writes about subjects affecting older gay men. If you’ve got a “Daddy Issue,” let him know. --DRT