I finished a novel this week that I have been thinking about a lot. If you haven’t read “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai, put it on your list. The stories are set in Chicago between 1985-1990 and Paris in 2015. The Chicago story is about young gay men, beginning of the AIDS crisis, art, activism, and love, and family. The Paris story is about survival, older gay men, AIDS, art, love, and family. It is a poignant novel with wonderful characters.
I came out in 1984. I was 27 and living in New York City. The process felt like a rebirth – one that I experienced as exhilarating and distracting (I was in year one of a PhD program). The Village, lesbian nights at the gay bars, softball, watching for the signals, falling in love. And I was trying to figure out why the transition from thinking of my identity as one thing and experiencing love as one thing seemed to transition to something else so easily.
In May 1985 my friend Aldo Carasco died of AIDS. We knew he was sick, we visited him in the hospital, we went to his funeral. His Cuban family didn’t know (or pretended not to know) that he was gay. His was the first AIDS quilt section I made. It was not the last.
In 27 years of work in college libraries it has been a revelation to watch how, over time, students arrive already transformed, or fervently allied, or actively questioning. Indeed, the questioning, the fluidity is celebrated. Those students, and my great good fortune to work in liberal arts communities with wonderful colleagues, have given me the gift of freedom to continue to question my identity, my opinions, and my biases.
This morning a former student posted a note on Facebook. A smart, lovely, self-confident, 30-something man, was verbally and physically accosted in a bar because a group of men asked him if he was gay and he said “yes.” He was physically uninjured. There have been many posts on his FB page sending love, comfort, and support. I did the same. Then I went back to add, “Oh, and be as sad, disappointed, or totally pissed off as you want. And maybe afraid. It’s OK.”
So today I have been thinking about those early days in the mid-1980s, when life seemed so new to me while it was rearing its ugly head at many young men. In many ways, I feel very lucky to have been in New York City, to have literally come of age when we were feeling visible and powerful, but also vulnerable and often in danger. Like the characters in Makkai’s novel, we demonstrated, organized, agitated, and danced like mad.
And today I have been thinking about the danger, the anger, and the disappointment. We know all too well these days that the laws that gave us the right to vote, learn together, and marry the person we love don’t eliminate ignorance and hate. I know my friend will be OK. I know that things are better. I know that, even at 62, I still have plenty of time to explore my identity, my opinions, and my biases.