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Thursday, December 31, 2009

How Far We've Come

There's still a lot of work to be done, a lot more changes that need to be made. But OMG fellas, just look at this chart Sullivan posted:

I just wonder if any of you guys under 40 can really understand the enormous difference between 1973 and now. Back then, nobody was out - not anywhere in Texas or across the Deep South. You never saw any other gay people - not on TV, very rarely in the movies (and they were always villains, or came to a bad end), and most certainly not in daily life at school, at work, anywhere.

Once in a great while you might see someone you thought was a little "swishy," but never anyone who admitted being gay.

A very short true story from May of 1974: I was 18, en route back to Texas where my nanaw was dying. Had a layover in the Birmingham airport for a couple hours. Went in the men's room to use the john. There in one of the stalls, somebody had written a typical vulgarity (why is there rarely any grafitti in restrooms nowadays? the walls used to be covered with it, everyplace) - probably "I want to suck your dick," or something like that.

And there beneath it, very untypically, somebody else had written: I wish I knew you, or someone like you.

Man, that hit me like a shot. Somebody else is gay, somebody else feels as lonely as I do, I thought.

In a way, that was a kind of comfort or reassurance at least, knowing I wasn't the only guy in the world who felt these things. But in 1974, how could you ever hope to meet another gay man? Especially if, like your Head Trucker, you had no gaydar and no idea of "cruising." There was just no way to ever meet anyone else; you were just stuck, all alone in your gay soul.

Yes, by that point in time I knew there were gay people in places like New York and SF; but that was all so far away and so alien to anything I could imagine, they might as well have been living on the moon.

And yes, I knew there were gay bars somewhere; in fact, there was reputed to be one in the city where I lived. But at 18, I would have been terrified to death of walking into a place like that all alone. And besides, that particular place had been raided by the cops a year or so before this story took place; it made the front page of the local paper, several guys were arrested for "lewd and lascivious conduct." So who in his right mind wanted to take a chance on getting arrested and being identified in the paper like that? Just unthinkable.

I wish I knew you. Those words scrawled on a restroom wall have haunted me all these years. If you were gay back then, you were invisible to the rest of the world - and even worse, invisible to each other. No hope, it seemed then, of ever knowing anyone else like yourself, ever.

And look at the chart again: all you ever heard about gays, if they were mentioned at all, which was rarely, was that they were sick, perverted, wicked, and horribly unhappy. There was a huge bestseller came out about 1972 that everybody read and talked about, written by a medical doctor: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask.

Somewhere I got hold of a copy and of course the first thing I turned to was the chapter about homosexuals. The doctor had nothing but witty good things to say about all kinds of hetero sex; but when it came to the homos, it was nothing but bad news. They're miserable, lonely, often alcoholics and drug addicts, most are depressed, and they often kill themselves, he wrote. And nothing will change that, he added, not even "gay lib" and pretending they are normal.

Well of course, after reading that kind of supposedly expert advice, all you really wanted to do was go kill yourself for sure, then. No hope of happiness: a lifetime of loneliness and misery was all the world offered you, isolated and afraid and hating yourself.

I wish I knew you. So many times over the years, I've thought of that plaintive wish in the depths of Alabama, from the depths of someone's heart. I hope he did live to come out, make friends, have lovers, be happy and gay and free. I did too, eventually - but it was a long road ahead from that point in time, and I have to tell ya guys, it took some guts and grit to reach a better place.

And yes, it still takes some gumption and a truckload of bravado to be out in a little Texas town, even in 2009. My husband and I were effectively out where we lived, though we didn't talk about it; but the simple fact of two men living together and going and doing everything together - even the church potluck dinners - was a pretty loud advertisement. And so we pretty well "integrated" that town.

Where I am now, though, quite alone and - irony of fate - pretty well isolated again, I keep a low profile. I suppose my closest work associates have it figured out, me living alone and never any talk of a lady friend. But all that big-city activist talk aside, there's no good reason for me to "come out" here; there is simply no point making yourself a victim, when it would not serve any useful purpose.

Still, my little doings aside, the world has changed profoundly in its attitudes towards gays in these last forty years; a wonderful change. But that's just our corner of the world; our brothers and sisters in Africa, for example, are still going through what we experienced all those years ago, and worse.

So as we look forward now to a new decade and more progress on winning our full civil rights, it's good to recall how far we've come already, in less than one lifetime - and be glad, very glad. I hope before too many more years pass, that red line will be way above the black one.

And about damn time, too.


Mareczku said...

Hi Russ, I think that book came out in 1970. My mom had it hidden in a drawer where she kept her clothes. I would read it when my parents were gone. I learned most of the facts of life from that book. So I didn't know where babies came from until I was a junior in high school. Can you believe that? I don't remember anything about gay people in the book. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

Stan said...

Thank goodness I lived close enough to NYC to go over there and fool and play around. But the first time I went over to the big City I was scared shit and took a lot of nerve. Luckily I found and met some nice friendly guys some of whom were from Jersey too looking to hook up. But over here in NJ I stayed closeted for my own safety.
But I know what you mean about that hunger to find and meet people like yourself.
Attitudes towards gay people is rapidly changing I think wth this next generation coming up. It seems less of a big deal to them if your gay.

Russ Manley said...

Mark - yeah it was a very popular book, and good info, but the homo chapter was horrible.

Stan - yup, even out here on the prairie, a lot of young people are amazingly cool with the gay thing. Blows my mind; I wonder how that happened. Very different from when you and I were young.

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