I have a young acquaintance. He’s 21 and in college. He’s gay. You might even say he’s flamboyant. He is dating a man and posts pictures on social networking sites kissing him. He lives with a gay roommate and goes to events like “Gay Camp” to explore the fine art of drag. He interacts with other young people at events like the ones The Gay Hot Spot promotes. His parents adore him and have supported his gay orientation and gender identity, from what I can gather, for all his life. From my perspective, he doesn’t seem to be an anomaly, except perhaps for his parents unconditional love.
Another friend observed that of all the places he has lived, Utah appears to have a higher than usual percentage of young gay people. That should surprise no one who lives here, due to the demography that shows Utah has the youngest population in the nation. However, I have a concern that it’s becoming a people without a history, without an identity.
When this young man was born in 1990 there were no anti-discrimination laws to protect him. Sodomy was illegal and a criminal offense punishable with three years in prison. There was no gay community center. No social networking systems. In fact, the LGBT construct didn’t exist then; just gay and lesbian. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy, so recently discarded, was years in the future of even being implemented. There was no talk of civil unions. Non-legal holy unions were the best one could hope for. Gay marriage was not even a dream.
In 1990 it was a bit easier to be gay in large metropolitan areas that could support gay ghettos such as Manhattan or San Francisco, but they were also being decimated by AIDS. The disease was forcefully driving gay out of the media’s closet into the public realm of political discourse. However, what most people were reading and hearing about being gay was associated with disease and an early death.
As hard as it was to be gay in 1990 when this young man was born, in 1970, when his mother was born, it was nearly impossible to be homosexual in America. This is the time in which I spent my youth. In 1970 I was 19. I was also, by medical definition, insane. Not just me, but all homosexuals. We were still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association as having a “pathology.” Gay ceased being a mental illness in 1974.
The possibility of me openly dating a man and finding any type of support for it was nonexistent. I lived most of my true life in the shadows and in secret. It was a life of fear and shame. It was a life of disconnectedness. When I first told a young man I loved him, the most awful part of it was that I felt like I was making him dirty by declaring my love to him. While we had been best friends in high school and college, that acknowledgement made him distance himself from this queer lest someone might see me adoring him and question his sexuality.
In the fall of 1971 I attended a small meeting of homosexuals at Cal-State Fullerton where I attended school. It was nearly clandestine and had been rejected as an official college club. The Gay Student Union was my first step toward trying to make sense of being gay in a hostile world. I thought perhaps I could even find someone to love there. Feeling gay and proud, I told my dorm mates I was gay. I was immediately shunned, vilified and released from my college housing contract. There was no recourse, no support. When I went home, I cried in my mother’s arms. She kept asking what was wrong as I sobbed with a broken heart. She held me but I couldn’t tell her that her only boy was a sissy, a queer, because I couldn’t risk losing the one person I felt loved me.
Most of my 20s I consider as dead years. My lost years. I joined the Mormon Church to obliterate my old identity and was sealed in a loveless marriage to a woman. That is not to say we did not love each other. We were best friends. However, there was no romance. No passion. None of the thrill that this young 21-year-old student takes for granted today. The closet was killing me.
Five years before this young man was born I broke free of the closet. I was a man in my mid-30s who saw most of his young life wasted and lived in fear. It had to end. I was living in Salt Lake City, inactive in the Mormon Church and existing in a sexless marriage when I heard a program on KRCL. It was a short, local feature called, Concerning Gays and Lesbians. It changed my life and, I believe, the lives of many others in the gay community.
In 1986 the social life of gay people centered around six bars – Radio City, the Sun, Backstreet, the Deerhunter, the Inbetween and Puss N Boots. I had never been a bar person, having been a Mormon until recently. It was an alien place for me. The only networking social groups or clubs were the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, the Gay Rodeo Association, the Wasatch Leathermen Club, the Lesbian and Gay Student Union at the university and Salt Lake Affirmation. Also, there was the Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church. None seemed a good fit for someone struggling to find a place to belong.
My first steps out of the closet found me still submerged in a Mormon identity. Therefore, I was attracted to groups that spoke “Mormonese.” Within the first few months of coming out I helped found the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ and Affirmation. I started a support group called Married and Divorced Gays and Lesbians. The following year I was a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Council of Utah, created an AIDS Memorial Quilt Project and established Unconditional Support for Gays and Lesbians.
In the late 1980s, the homosexuals of Salt Lake City began to truly become a community. During this time I lived in a basement apartment in the Juel Apartments on 600 East, between 400 and 300 South. It no longer exists. But during my stay there I often remarked that almost every person who was in a leadership position or was making a difference in the gay community had sat their ass on my couch. My home was a place of ideas and dreams for the future.
I see the fulfillment of our dreams from a generation ago in the ease in which this 21-year-old seems to glide. We did well.