Donald Unger remembers how most of the gay men in the high school class of 1980 came out: they died.
I’ve known Marc since 1968, since just before we started first grade.
And what I said to him a couple of years back, on the Cape, when we met for dinner after a pause of twenty years or so—said it awkwardly, with an apology as an intro, but felt I needed to say—was, “I’m glad you’re alive.”
An odd beginning to an evening, perhaps, but, of course, he knew what I meant.
School was out for summer in June of 1969, when the Stonewall riots blew up. I was six years old; I don’t remember hearing about them. Can’t remember when I first learned about them, really; it must have been the late 70s.
There’s something about Stonewall, though, that puts a lump in my throat any time I think of the word: The drag queens fought the cops!
It wasn’t the Minutemen on the green at Concord and Lexington, the D-Day invasion, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. It was a more poignant battle, however, for pitting Americans against each other, like the children in the streets of Birmingham standing up to dogs and fire hoses.
Marc and I spent part of high school wandering the West Village together—Zito’s Bakery on Bleecker Street, the Waverly Theater on West 4th, Washington Square Park. We graduated in 1980. If Stonewall was the beginning of elementary school for us, the advent of AIDS just about coincided with the beginning of college.
It’s difficult to explain what the mid 70s to the mid 80s were like in New York if you were in high school or college, whether you were gay like Marc—although he wasn’t out then—or, as I was, straight but reasonably accepting of people as they came out.
There was a more and more open gay scene in the city, something of a spectacle—crowds of leather boys spilling out of bars and into the streets near the Hudson at the western edge of the Village; a growing contingent of drag queens patrolling 10th Avenue late at night; a bath house scene that you heard about but didn’t see if you were straight. But that’s not how most of the kids we went to high school with came out.
In the years after graduation, one of two things confirmed that the guy in your geometry class—who you had kind of thought might be gay but you couldn’t be sure—really was: you heard that he’d “tested positive” or you heard that he had died.
Ultimately, that’s how most of the gay men in the high school class of 1980 came out: they died.
It was a horrifying spectacle: a flowering, a holocaust.
There is both a kind of “Presentism” and a certain imprecision in the now ubiquitous use of the word “homophobia.” It’s a deft flip, in some ways: in 1968, homosexuality was, by the definition of the American Psychiatric Association, deviant; today, we effectively diagnose the rejection of homosexuality as a form of deviance.
We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to ourselves and, most particularly, when it comes to our pasts. Moreover, what is normal, what is radical, what is conservative, is always a matter of time and place. I’ll say that I don’t remember ever bullying anyone for being gay—or for seeming gay; I don’t remember using any of the classic epithets.
But my memory is queasy.
Because I didn’t get a chance to say to Jared that his flamboyance, his style, those things that. . . kind of made him seem gay, they were fine with me, really, whatever the truth of his identity. If I had judged him a little, well, we’d all grown past that.
I didn’t get to say that because Jared died.
And when Egan was hospitalized in the early 80s—another friend I knew going back to first grade—when we went to visit him, in a room where he was treated as a biohazard, when he was released, and told us that he had been diagnosed as “vitamin deficient,” we let that pass unchallenged.
Then we drifted apart: he had dropped out of high school and hit the bars and the bath houses; the rest of our group of friends finished college and got graduate degrees. There were reasons beyond sexual identity; we had less and less in common.
I wasn’t there when Egan died either.
The gay men of my age, the survivors, often have a somewhat bittersweet mien: liberated by expanding freedom and acceptance, out and proud—Marc would be more insulted by my changing his name in what I have written here than by my revealing it—but seared by a fire they escaped, veterans of a war that their younger peers never knew, hazy history now, not quite comprehensible if you didn’t live through it.
We, their straight classmates and friends, we remain haunted, too, by the people we’ve lost, by the words we did or did not say. And whether there should or should not be, whether it serves any useful purpose or not, there’s guilt there as well, lingering.