This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, six days of protests and violent clashes in Greenwich Village that galvanized the gay rights movement and ultimately shaped my life in countless ways, especially since—much as it may pain me to consider it—I was born only months after the events.
The celebrations here in New York City, where I live, promise to be epic. There are whispers of Madonna appearances. GRACE JONES will perform. LGBTQIA+ people from around the globe will converge here in record numbers because NYC is also hosting this year’s WorldPride. In my circles it’s pretty much all we’re talking about.
But behind all the chatter there’s another thread that keeps running through my mind: As I reflect on what has been, for me, an entire adult life—since my teens—lived well outside the closet, I am stunned by the good fortune I’ve had to come through it intact and unscathed.
I came of age during the fiercely conservative Reagan presidency, at the height of ignorant-irrational AIDS panic, in a small Ohio town that had only just begun to feel the ripples of Stonewall. Tens of thousands of people died every year as America turned a blind eye or chalked it up to sinners getting their just deserts from a wrathful god. The thought, as a young man, that you might be gay was nothing short of terrifying.
And yet somehow I came out in high school—and thrived. I had plenty of friends and even won a popularity vote to speak at graduation. I know this is commonplace now. My nieces and nephew are always telling me about gay, queer, or transgender kids in their schools. But it was exceedingly uncommon then. In my high school of 700 students, no one else identified publicly as gay.
Through the years many people have expressed awe at this, lauded me for my “courage” and “clarity,” congratulated me on “expressing my truth” at such a young age, during such a difficult time.
It’s true, I did speak out. And somehow, in that tiny town, in that dark time, no one ever said a cruel word to me or challenged me in any way. (Except once. We’ll come to that in a moment.) By and large, I was treated like an honored son. Not a quarterback or a letterman, mind you, but someone still the town could be proud of, a kid with promise.
How did I have this charmed experience in such an unlikely time? The answer, I have come to see, is that I had angels and allies. And that it was no courage of mine, but rather courage of theirs that shaped me and guided me and permitted me to be … me.
It began one day early in my sophomore year when a senior sitting behind me in French class leaned forward and stage-whispered: “Hey. You’re gay. You should come dancing with us at O’Hooley’s!” This was a local pub that drew a largely gay and New Wave crowd on Saturday nights. It was the pinnacle of cool.
For a heartbeat, I was mortified. But I also felt a kind of reverberating joy, deep in my gut, that someone had seen me so clearly for who I was and invited me not only to acknowledge it but to embrace it. Keya was my first angel. She would become a lifelong ally. In short order I acquired a fake ID and followed her advice.
Athens, Ohio was—and still is—home to a university nestled in the heart of Appalachia. It was a pleasant enough place to grow up, brimming with opportunities for bright kids who wanted to take advantage of all the university had to offer. But simmering beneath the surface were the traditional town vs. gown tensions you might expect.
A favorite pastime of bored Athens youth, both town and gown, who were not yet old enough to enter bars was to “cruise” Court Street, the town’s main drag. We would pile into cars or pickup trucks and drive for hours around the short downtown loop, often drinking covertly as we went.
Soon after I came out I began experimenting with self-expression through androgynous fashion choices. I got no trouble from kids at school about this. But one night, decked out in a waist-length headscarf and strutting down Court Street with my two best girlfriends, I was attacked by a group of “townie” boys who jumped out of the back of a pickup and clobbered me over the head. I will never forget the fiery vision that greeted me as I emerged from the fog of the blow: My glorious friend Andrea, clad in punk leather and chains, chasing the boys down the street and howling a blood-curdling war cry of “You motherf**kers just hit my f**king boyfriend! Come back here and I’ll beat the sh*t out of you.” Another angel. And an ally to this day.
And then there was Kevin, easily my best male friend. A straight, cisgender basketball star (he prefers “player” to star), Kevin dropped his athletic career cold when he fell in love with the theater and began workshopping monologues and one-act plays with me. We attended drama competitions around the state together, saw experimental shows on the university campus, talked shop endlessly late into the night.
For two years I watched Kevin endure taunts and jeers for his defection from sports. Someone shouted “faggot” at him once as we walked down the hall, even though no one had ever used that epithet with me. I knew it was hard for him, but I thought that’s all it was. He laughed it off.
I learned Kevin’s full story only recently. He was held to the ground and beaten in the lunch line one day when he challenged someone’s disparaging remarks about me. For more than 30 years, Kevin and a small angelic conspiracy of friends hid this attack—and Kevin’s wounds—from me so that I could continue to feel safe in that town. It was an extraordinary feat of insight and empathy for a gaggle of 16-year-olds.
There were others, so many others. There was the lesbian couple down the street who lived openly and proudly and even raised two children together. Among other angelic acts, they were the first to introduce me to the original cast recording of "Hair," to tell me about Harvey Milk, and to fire my imagination about a future where gay marriage and gay parenting would be not only possible but legal and protected. There was the drama teacher who endured and even encouraged my freakish experimental performances and thinly veiled cries of rage, expressed through ham-handed “lyric” personal poem-monologues. Of miraculously encouraging teachers, in fact, there were too many to count. And behind it all of course there was my mother, a woman whose fierce endorsement of anything her children wanted to be or to pursue flattened all resistance and brought supporters out in droves. She raised us on "Free to Be, You and Me" and a reverence for her highest value — critical thinking. I believe we did not disappoint.
As we head into this summer’s momentous anniversary and my own 50th birthday, I am painfully aware of our current political climate and its echoes of the Reagan years, of the dangers we face for backsliding as a society, and of the strange duality of the American psyche. In this frightening national moment I hope we can remember that courage often comes to us from others, from unexpected corners, from small kindnesses, and yes, from angels. Let us all step up and help one another be who we truly are.