I came out in the early 1970s, never
really feeling the kind of bias that’s
the stuff of literary legend, even in
ultra-conservative Cincinnati. It
existed, but it wouldn’t come for me
until later, as an adult, after I moved
South to teach. Surprisingly enough, even my high school was “enlightened”—if you understand that to mean that one of my friends had another friend who was openly gay, and by my senior year had made it clear that “if I was like Jack,” it was ok with her. I didn’t corroborate her perceptive glance, but she, at least, in her midwestern way, confirmed her good will abounding.
The times were primed for sexual subterfuge, and I didn’t live the life some tolerant people today seem to want for young gay, lesbian, and transgender people. I wasn’t in mourning because I’d never be normal, whatever that means. I was thrilled not to be. I wasn’t ashamed, and at least in my public life, I didn’t hide my feelings or moderate my eccentricities. I didn’t believe heterosexuals were a superior class of people and delighted, really, in puncturing their sometimes over-inflated image of themselves. I could be plenty tragic about love—I lamented that the silken-skinned, blue-eyed David Cage would only ever be my Platonic friend—but I wasn’t tragic about being queer, ever.
Being gay (as I was before we had the term queer) was a welcome displacement from the ordinary that, I hope, at least some young queer people feel today. It was a force field against social conformity, a platform to shout the shocking, and a space in which to absorb the new. Being gay was the most important spur to my self-knowledge. I was educated in a very fine college preparatory school in Cincinnati, and it provided me important opportunities for self-scrutiny and tools for careful social analysis. But learning to be gay was the key that opened the wider world for me. My sexuality is primary; it is one of my native languages.
A defining moment of my gay youth came when I met a jolly band of resisting drag queens and gay men. Lauren, Christy, Bobby, and Jake were a small part of Cincinnati’s homegrown “Gay Liberation Front.” I walked up the dark stairwell to their apartment, in one of those Cincinnati buildings that have two entrance doors on the left, one to the downstairs apartment and another opening directly onto the stairs leading up. “Find Hope All Who Enter Here,” a sign on that door said. My first impression was vivid: Lauren DeMichaels twirling with a fez-like hive of hair, a dervish in a yellow duster. She was seeking advice from Christy, Cincinnati’s drag mistress of the “duster number.” How could she make her cape spiral flat at the top so that her exquisitely made-up face and stacked hair would seem to float on her golden angels’ wings? Christy was an inspiring goddess and her advice on drag couture was highly esteemed. On gay matters, her word was absolute. She lived with Bobby, a striking man whose size made him literally statuesque in drag, and Jake. (More about him later.)
Christy and Bobby had recently been arrested for soliciting on West Fourth Street. Before it became a fashionable haunt of the emerging yuppie class, the street was a cruising ground for men who had not found a trick at the nearby disco, Badlands.
Always unflappable, Christy matter-of-factly described her arrest. Settling between the legs of a mustachioed clone in his hotel room, she glanced up to see him holding his police badge like a defensive shield, at crotch level.
“You’re under arrest.”
“Oh,” she replied, “I guess I’d better put my heels back on then.”
The girls were brave.
They challenged their arrests in court when Ohio was revising its criminal code and repealing its laws on sodomy and solicitation. They shantayed away free women.
All four helped ease me out of the closet. In those days, in Cincinnati at least, we called it “bringing someone out,” as if it was a formal educational service for the young and benighted, which of course it was. Lauren DeMichaels ushered me out into the queer arena. Not because I found her especially attractive in or out of drag. But I had decided that at seventeen it was time to stop making such a big deal of “coming out.” So, I vowed to do it with the next man who asked. And Tommy (Lauren undressed) asked. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon at a gay picnic organized by the fledgling University of Cincinnati gay group. Tommy invited me, with one eyebrow raised, for a walk through Mt. Storm Park. Conveniently, we discovered a wall of bushes on a hillside, bent over an enclosed space—a natural bower of bliss into which my gay Acrasia tempted me. With his tight cutoffs, tan legs, and slim hips, Tommy was right enough for the moment.
But when, a week later, I ended up alone in his apartment after my best friend abandoned me, I couldn’t resist finding myself where I really didn’t want to be—in his arms again, this time on a bed.
Today, some might see Tommy as a predatory. The homosexual as vampire-like seducer still turns up, even in gay popular works—the filmed version of Gerrard Conley’s Boy Erased (directed by Joel Edgerton) or in Fred Hersch’s memoir Good Things Happen Slowly. In both, the predator takes advantage of our young hero, revealing his depraved and threatening homosexual self over and against the hero’s more noble one. But Tommy was, as we all always are, feeling his way into his then-present queerness. He said, earnestly, he was doing me a favor, teaching me to give as well as receive. I’m laughing at his utter seriousness as I write, just as I did, afterward, back then. If the lesson was slightly distasteful, perhaps too advanced for my skill level, it wasn’t entirely Tommy’s fault. He was an unimaginative romantic who thought of me as a catch worth reeling in. But he was also, after all, the means to my end. I was getting the coming-out thing out of the way; I got Tommy out of the way shortly thereafter.
Christy made a play, and because she was a charming hostess, I felt I should not say no. And then Bobby did, too. But having been acquainted already with both Lauren’s and Christy’s prickly, freshly-shaved, naked chests, I declined politely. So, when sweet, hairy-chested Jake, an older man of twenty-one, intimated that I might share his bed, I took him up on the offer. As seventeen-year-olds do, I developed a little crush. He was so kind. So unassuming. And when I decided I could make my own way in the world, he helped ease that transition too.
My poor mother didn’t know I was gay and, being a single parent, she worried. She knew I had gay friends, and she usually pitied them for what she saw as the inevitable family dysfunction that produced them.
“That poor David Cage,” she said one day after he had hung our phone receiver upside-down in the kitchen (his resistance to the normal). “Do you think he’s gay because his mother ran off and left him?”
“It’s a theory,” I replied.
I used my friendship with David as an excuse for getting out of the house and into Jake’s bed. And my mother—hilariously—would deflect her worries about my homosexuality onto the perils of drinking and driving.
“Did David drink,” she asked?
“No!” I didn’t lie, for instead he “smoked.”
“Did he drink and drive?”
Certainly not. I didn’t lie.
“Well, homosexuals have problems with alcohol,” she pronounced, “and I don’t want you to be out in cars with drunken homosexuals.”
Such expressions of practical wisdom made her a favorite with my friends. And for years I issued stern warnings to my gay companions who held the car keys at parties. But I was honest in assuring my mother that I would not be “out in cars with drunken homosexuals.” What I didn’t say is that I’d be in bed with one, drunken or otherwise.
I worried. Was I becoming a slut? Christy, Bobby, Jake, and Lauren all beamed at me with pride. They felt that under their tutelage I had become a “well-adjusted homosexual.” Never had they met someone my age who came out with so little trauma. They were right, and they helped me immeasurably. My other friends, however, wondered along with me if I were not perhaps “easy easy.” Being easy was one thing, but easy easy? . . . enough said in Catholic Cincinnati.
So, I decided to cool it for a while. I’d learned my lessons about coming out, and there was no need for additional training. In the late fall of my senior year, 1972, I decided (virtuously) that I would not have sex again until I met someone with whom I could be “serious.” And for better or worse, in August after graduation, I met another older man, a twenty-two-year-old.
Reader, I fell in love with him, and for the next six years he taught me everything he knew.
But I was already the wiser.
Nicholas Radel is a professor of English at Furman University where he teaches courses on Shakespeare, English Renaissance and modern American literature, sexuality studies, and queer theory. He is writing a biography of Edmund White.
Photo by Peter Hujar: Jackie Curtis, Lance Loud and Paul Ambrose , 1975