Authors: Jesse Bering
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For you, you pervert, you
Rarely has man been more cruel against man than in the condemnation and punishment of those accused of the so-called sexual perversions. The penalties have included imprisonment, torture, the loss of life or limb, banishment, blackmail, social ostracism, the loss of social prestige, renunciation by friends and families, the loss of position in school or in business, severe penalties meted out for convictions of men serving in the armed forces, public condemnation by emotionally insecure and vindictive judges on the bench, and the torture endured by those who live in perpetual fear that their non-conformant sexual behavior will be exposed to public view. These are the penalties which have been imposed on and against persons who have done no damage to the property or physical bodies of others, but who have failed to adhere to the mandated custom. Such cruelties have not often been matched, except in religious and racial persecutions.
—Alfred Kinsey (1948)
In 1985, when the AIDS epidemic and its concentrated scourge upon gay men were causing an unprecedented level of panic across America, I was an eminently underwhelming, overly sensitive ten-year-old boy living with my family in the leafy suburbs of Washington, D.C. This new disease—the “gay plague,” as people were calling it—was suddenly the talk of our town. At a block cookout one summer evening, I sat near a group of men pontificating about “this AIDS thing.” Looking back now, I don’t think they even realized I was there; I was the sort of child who blended into tree bark and lawn ornaments. The men scratched their heads, threw back a few beers, did some entertaining imitations of outlandish drag queens, and then finally concurred that in all probability, in all seriousness, AIDS was just God’s clever way of getting rid of the queers. (Like most of the men in my neighborhood, these comedians worked for the government, if I’m not mistaken.)
When I turned on the television back at home, I saw belligerent housewives and middle-school football coaches shouting antigay epithets at supporters of Ryan White, a gentle, eloquent adolescent with hemophilia who’d contracted HIV through a blood transfusion years earlier. The news footage showed his single mother wading patiently through an angry mob in her small Indiana town to enroll her son in the public school. The grim death of an emaciated Rock Hudson that same year riveted people’s attention, and with this attention came that terrible onslaught of jokes about fags and AIDS that saturated the talk in school cafeterias and on playgrounds, the residue of which can still be found in the bigoted banter of some chuckling adults to this day.
Now, by all appearances, I was an average boy; as I said, I didn’t stand out in any way, which in this case means I wasn’t your stereotypical “sissy.” I certainly didn’t play with dolls, anyway. Well, that’s not entirely true. I adored my Superman doll. And what I adored about him most of all was stripping him nude and lying together naked under the covers. (Hugely disappointing, yet somehow each time the anticipation of finding more than a slick plastic crotch would build in my mind just the same.) But this AIDS fiasco made my burgeoning desires more salient to me than they probably otherwise would have been. The menacing ethos of those times, in which it was made abundantly clear to me that people like me were not welcome in this world, prematurely pushed a dim awareness of my own sexuality into my consciousness. What I didn’t understand was that gay males were dropping like flies not because they—or rather
—were inherently bad and “disgusting” but because they’d engaged in a form of unprotected sex that made them especially vulnerable to the virus. I wasn’t an epidemiologist. I was a fifth grader. I didn’t even know what sex
To my mind, gays were simply being struck down one by one by a mad God, just as I’d heard those men saying at the cookout. So my days, I figured, must be numbered too. When would
start showing those telltale sores on my face, or perhaps the grayish pallor, the strained breathing, the zombielike gait of the other “positive” ones that I kept seeing on television and in the newspapers? One day I stood before the mirror and lifted up my shirt only to find a loom of prepubescent ribs that served to convince me I had indeed started wasting away from this unholy affliction. In reality, I was just extra scrawny. But my flawed religious interpretation of what was happening is all the more revealing of the caustic moralism of the times given that my family was by no means religious.
I couldn’t share my crippling anxiety with my perfectly reasonable parents. That would mean the unthinkable risk of outing myself as one of these social pariahs that everyone was talking about. My fears intensified when I realized that concerted efforts to suss us out from the “normal” people were already well under way. From scattered threads of gossip and the occasional sound bites, I managed to piece together that the best way to detect our
, to reveal what God alone already knew, was to analyze our blood for evidence of some kind of gay particle. It was only a matter of time before a stern-faced scientist would hold a test tube up to the light and exhibit before a hushed gathering of his peers how my hidden nature danced and mingled in all its monstrous opaqueness against the pure rays of the sun. In the meantime, I stuck my head out the car window and screamed “Faggot!” at my older brother—who was then just as he is now, about as straight as straight gets—while he was playing in the street, just to throw off the undercover witch-hunters in the neighborhood. As we all know perfectly well, a person who shouts homophobic slurs can’t
As my annual doctor’s visit approached ominously on the calendar, my measured apprehension (too strident a protest would only give me away) failed to register to my parents as anything more than run-of-the-mill cowardice. The irony is that by the time I dragged my feet into the pediatrician’s office and the needle was plucked from my arm after a routine blood draw, all those months of stress boiled over into a very nonimaginary illness. On seeing my liquidized evil lapping forebodingly in a vial in the nurse’s white-gloved hands, I became so instantly sick over my now inescapable fate that I grew faint and then threw up all over the phlebotomist’s chair. Imagine my relief when the absentminded doctor—probably, I thought, just distracted by all the commotion—miraculously missed my dark secret and didn’t have to break the unspeakable news to my parents.
It would be a decade before I dared to come out to them, and by then they’d divorced. I decided to break the news to my mom first. She was a warm person with a good sense of humor that was tempered (sadly, too often) by a tragedian air to her personality. I’d no doubt she’d still love me when all was said and done, but I also knew she could be willfully naive about subjects that frightened her or made her uncomfortable. Sex was a big one. I never heard her utter a hateful word about gay people, but neither can I recall her ever saying anything positive. Homosexuality was just a nonissue in our house. Or so she thought.
In the kitchen one evening, I blurted out that I had something I needed to tell her. I sat at the table fiddling nervously with the edges of the newspaper. “
?” she said just as nervously. “Jesse, what
it?” She went on, prodding me. “I’m gay,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever said it aloud, and I felt my ears ring at the sound of it. “Oh, come on,” she said through a widening grin, figuring I must be playing a joke on her. “
. You’re kidding. Aren’t you?” “No,” I said. “I really am, I mean, I really am gay.”
I’d long prided myself on my deceptive use of language. A strategically placed hesitation, a subtle omission of fact, a carefully inserted sigh, a sibilant hiss that lasts but a second, the intonation of a vowel to fill it with a mirage of meaning, these and more were all in my arsenal of verbal legerdemain. It had kept me safe all this time. Just look: I’d even tricked the woman in whose uterus my brain first began wiring itself in a way that would lead directly, some twenty years later, to this excruciatingly awkward moment. My solitary and bookish ways as a little boy, the fabricated girlfriends, sublimating myself with schoolwork that first year of college, the meticulously kept collection of
magazines piled high in my closet throughout high school (I can’t believe she didn’t catch on with
one), it all clicked for her in that single snap of time.
She had a gay son
. I watched her breathe her last gasp of maternal denial. This was replaced, for a while, by stoic caregiving: she wasn’t happy about my revelation; it was more a grin-and-bear-it type of situation. Years later, she confided in me that she’d had nightmares for the next six months featuring me in women’s clothing and makeup, prancing around with strange men. I could only assure her that cross-dressing was one thing she definitely didn’t need to worry about with me; my fashion sense was so abysmal, I reminded her, that I barely knew how to dress myself as a man, let alone pull off female couture. (Or perhaps that’s exactly what she was worried about, now that I think about it.)
In any event, she got over it. So much so that by the time she succumbed to cancer only five years after this overdue tête-à-tête, I think the fact that her youngest son was gay had become a vague source of pride for her. I’d forcibly peeled it apart like a reluctant flower in the kitchen that day, yet ultimately my confession opened up her mind to a new way of thinking. Her nice but mostly uneventful suburban life was cut too short, but in her remaining years she quite literally fought to the death for me. She left this world on the side of reason, even if that meant exchanging words with her own mother, my cloistered eighty-two-year-old grandma, who was under an even more unshakable impression that gay men were transvestites. Mom, I’m glad to say, ultimately straightened Grandma out on that one.
When I struck up the courage to tell my father, an affable glue salesman with a penchant for quoting bisexual poets, I could only wonder why I hadn’t told him years earlier. Consistent with his it-is-what-it-is philosophy on life, he shrugged, asked how I was doing in school, and told me he was sure I’d meet a nice boy soon enough.
It’s still far from being ideal for gay youth, but there’s genuine reason for them to be optimistic about their future. Much more than I was, anyway. The HIV panic has subsided, and we now know much more about how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent its spread. Although AIDS remains a crisis among certain communities (gay or otherwise), HIV is no longer a death sentence. In the United States and many other countries, gays and lesbians have also found increasing acceptance, with bigots now being vehemently called out as such by influential public figures. The toxic milieu of the mid-1980s that was personified by the heavy-metal singer Sebastian Bach wearing a T-shirt on national TV reading “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” is long gone. And good riddance. Today there are gay youth advocacy initiatives like the “It Gets Better” campaign, which was launched in 2010 by the advice columnist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, in response to an alarming rash of gay teen suicides.