I hadn’t a clue in high school and college–gay life wasn’t recognized in polite Charleston, South Carolina society during the 1950s and 60s. Yes, rock n rollers with duck tails and pompadours rumbled against the crew cuts, but they all had girls hanging on their arms. James Dean’s slouch, a cigarette dangling from his pouty lip, was about as “rouee” as it got, though my parents entertained a couple of men who ran an antique shop “South of Broad,” until one of them ran off to New Orleans and got married. No one ever dreamed his partner might be a man, and as far as I knew, it wasn’t.
Slowly, knowledge that there were other ways to enjoy another’s body seeped into my rather staid consciousness. But race and women’s lib took precedence. In my race to escape my parents’ household, then to form a more perfect union, I allowed only the icons of racial liberation to shine outside my marriage vows. Even then, it took me years to catch up with truly informed and practicing believers in racial equality. Feminism, on the other hand, caught me by the scruff of the neck: why was it that white, married. female colleagues were the ones to fear? Now when I parse those ugly shoves and dismissals, I note that we attack those who are closest and more likely to edge us out of the tiny chance we have to move to the top.
Then came AIDS. Occasionally when I teach a class on science and western culture, I invite my ex-husband to visit. As a young physician, he performed an alternative to fighting in Vietnam by joining the U.S. Public Health Service. Information about an odd infection seeped into the United States from Germany in the early 1980s, if I’m remembering right. It seemed to have been brought from Africa by male, airline stewards. They were very very ill, wasting away, and eventually died. The disease was traced to prostitution, and beyond that to the practice among some African tribes of eating what we now call “bush meat.”
I know now that the Stonewall Riots of the late 1960s introduced mainstream Americans to gay life and its repression with a bang, but I wasn’t paying attention. But by the 1980s, I was capable of registering a major new and frightening disease–AIDS. The fact that it attacked gay men, far more frequently than any other group, brought the culture into sharp relief. Two literary works and a movie helped me understand: Paul Monette’s 1992 memoir Becoming a Man: A Half Life, and Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, 1996, and the movie “Philadelphia.”
But I knew before that of the wildness of gay life, the “bath house” sexual switcheroos and art that shook American standards to their foundation. AIDS caught the kaleidoscope of gay life up short, and for those of us outside, reminded us that human beings were suffering and dying at unnaturally young ages and in excrutiating agony.
So much has changed in the last twenty-five years. AIDS is now brought under control for sufferers in the U.S. through a combination of drugs that reduces it to a chronic condition. AIDS in AFrica, however, rages among all ages and kinds of people, infecting female prostitutes at truck stops in Uganda, children in the womb, parents, grandparents, you name it. The AIDS epidemic changed the way gay men in the U.S. lived their lives–many like Monette and Doty nursed partners dying of AIDS. MOnette himself died of it. The scourge dampened free and open sexual practices and sent several generations of gay men into monogamy. Then into marriage, where they could accomplish it.
Now I know who these other men are. I’ve read their memoirs and poetry, agonized with a few friends who have lost lovers to AIDS, and helped others celebrate unions as strong as any heterosexual ones. The revolution in American knowledge and attitudes about gay life during the last thirty years is astonishing. Yet, in Minnesota and other states, we now have a vote pending on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Five steps forward, four steps back. Nothing as monumental as this cultural “coming out” can happen easily. Most of the suffering has fallen on the men who’ve died of AIDS and their healthy counterparts who still cannot live their sexuality without scorn. I have benefited enormously from this change because I now can be open and affirming with gay friends. They have taught me that there are many ways to be a man in American life, and some have nothing to do with football or driving huge cars as fast as possible.