Forty years ago this month I met my first openly gay man. I was just shy of being 20 years old. He was 18 years old. It probably seems incredulous by today’s openness not to know a gay person, but forty years ago it was an entirely different world. Yes, I knew guys who enjoyed sex with other guys and I had heard of homosexuals, but I never really met one who was “overt” and practicing.
In high school no one would have ever admitted to being queer. Queer was the word used for boys who liked boys, not fag, or faggot, or especially even gay. Those words came later. Queer, pervert, and deviant was the general vernacular of Orange County, Calif., where I spent my youth.
I had been in love with a boy my senior year of high school but not once did I think of myself as queer. I had fooled around with the “boy next door” during my teenage years but neither one of us even remotely considered what we were doing as homosexual. However we knew never to talk about it. We also knew never to acknowledge any affection in our adolescent groping. It’s just stuff guys did with guys because there weren’t girls available. How many times have I heard that line?
My sophomore year in college I had befriended a Mormon who as we became friends confided in me that he was in love with a boy. I also confided in him that I loved a boy. We only shared confidences with each other and no one else. The social stigma of being a sexual deviant was so abhorrent that we could not find a label to appropriately describe our feelings. Forty years ago there was no word for the love found between men; only terms to describe an abnormal physical desire that was termed by professionals as pathological.
But then I met Gary Bassin. Gary was a flamer. What was politely called being musical or theatrical. He embarrassed yet fascinated me. At the college I attended, the Humanities were all housed in a single building comingling Social Science students with philosophers, artists and thespians. Gary was a thespian; I, a Social Science student. In February 1971, my Mormon-artist friend Kent Larson hooked up with kids from the theater department and Gary, being young and vivacious, was the center of attention. Outrageously, he announced to everyone he met that he was gay! With a capital ‘G.’ Now it really was not a secret to anyone. How could it be? Not the way he swished, strutted, fawned and flirted. Normally we would not have been so droll as to mention it, so we were aghast that he did!
I was not in the closet. Not really. I don’t think any of us were back then, for none of us had the self-realization that there was another reality other than the heterosexual one that was indoctrinated into us. Even though Gary was only two years younger than I, he was unshackled by heterosexual conventionality. Somehow he had caught the spirit of Liberation and he was not afraid. His fearlessness scared me. I loved being in any gathering where he dominated. Yet at the same time it frightened me. I was afraid to be like him, effeminate, and yet I desired his being unfettered by moribund gender roles.
Gary eventually became the boyfriend of another theater major, a 26-year-old named Bob Wimberley. They called themselves gay — a word I never heard before in that peculiar context. Bob and Gary, over the course of my awakening to who I was, became my best friends. Bob taught me about Gay Liberation. He taught me that one could live as a homosexual in this world. He chipped away at my turgid, middle-class protestant principles. He taught me that to be gay freed me of pretentious conformity and opened up a world of possibilities where there was no presuppositions to what role we had to play.
In 1971 gay consciousness was just emerging, and so was I. In the fall, I joined a fledgling Gay Student Union at Cal-State Fullerton, was “released” from my dorm contract because I was openly gay and could get no one to room with me, and continued to explore this gay identity. I attended a couple of services of Troy Perry who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, went to a club called Oil Can Harry where a boy asked me to dance. Imagine a boy asking me to dance in public!
Sadly there was no Yellow Brick Road to follow on my journey of self discovery. I don’t think there is one for anybody. Caught up in the carnival of the carnality of unbridled youthful passion, I could not make a connection between my brain, heart and courage. There was a fine line between Liberation and Libertine, and I was too young to discern the difference.
Also in 1971 there was no real support for gay awareness. The institutions had not been established yet, even within the newly awakened gay identity not yet a community. The infrastructure was not there. Being in college and being young is an extremely confusing time for anyone; especially for someone who identified with being gay. What did gay mean in 1971? No one really knew. We were all grasping at an ethereal concept which held that we no longer had to hide and be ashamed of who we were and who we loved.
John Cunningham, the boy I loved but never loved, joined the service at the end of 1971. I never saw him again. Being gay without being in love did not seem to have any meaning for me after that. It was simply too hard balancing two worlds. So I quietly slipped back into my old dead space. This time I was in a closet. At 20 years old I rejected that I was gay. Homosexuality may have been something I did but was not who I was. I spent the next 15 years deluded and soul-weary. Waiting.
Gary and Bob drifted out of my life after I decided to disassociate myself from those who could tempt me from the straight-and-narrow. Bob had once studied to become a minister. When I told him that I needed to find a spiritual path, he gave me his Bible. I still have it today. There was a part of me that kept from disconnecting from my true self no matter how hard I tried. One was that I kept the love of John forever in my heart and the other was a Bible. In a locked secret place of my soul I knew that if I still loved John my gay spirit lived on.