Forty-fied

Commentary: Stonewall Baby

For many adult years, when I imagined hitting my milestone 40th birthday, I pictured a small, chartered boat plying the Aegean Sea, filled with friends, spending our days splashing in secluded coves and our nights toasting each other with ouzo in beachside taverns. But recessions and daydreams don’t always mix.

Hitting 40 at the end of the month, I’ve still got plenty to be grateful for, including a birthday party in Portland, Ore. It may not be the Mediterranean, but I know where I can find a shot of ouzo in the Rose City. More importantly, there will be far more than a boatload’s worth of friends to celebrate, some of them also turning 40.

So there’s no lament, no sour grapes. There is joy and mild surprise at making it this far. There is also some particularly gay perspective. I won’t navigate salty seas to mark the milestone, but rather my own muddy memories of growing up gay.

I have no memory of being born of course, but I know that while my mother was giving birth to me, about 9 a.m. Paris time, June 29, 1969, a late Saturday night in New York City had just crossed into Sunday territory, and the Stonewall Riots were in full swing. Who could know that in coming years, Rock Hudson would visit that same Parisian hospital seeking what little treatment there was in the early 1980s for AIDS.

Hudson also worked with Tony Randall in a couple of delightful Doris Day movies, which ties to one of my first memories as a gay person. In the opening montage of The Odd Couple TV show, with Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar, Oscar needs to dry his wet hands and pulls the front of Felix’s shirt out of his pants to do that. Neither man would set hearts afire, but seeing one man rip the shirt from another’s pants, exposing midriff, is my first memory of titillation. If ever I heard that signature soundtrack alerting me to the start of the show, I’d toddle into a room just to catch that two-seconds of man-on-man action. Seriously.

In the early ’70s, in Springfield, TV influenced my young gay psyche further, stumbling upon The Boys in the Band on WTTG Channel 5 during one of the channel’s routine Sunday-afternoon movie marathons. This was not the sort of fare that would generally interest me at 4, but maybe King Kong had just ended and I’d not yet found my way to a coloring book or Lite-Brite. Regardless, I was fixated on The Boys. I felt some sense of kinship with these characters, though it was beyond my comprehension. I had no idea what any of the dialogue meant. But there it was, and it was somehow familiar.

Around this same time, I had two friends. Jim Winters lived closer, perhaps facilitating our nascent sexual exploration. Or maybe he just stopped by while I was watching The Odd Couple and I couldn’t control myself. Having reconnected very recently, we’re filling in the gaps on what we did, exactly. Not much, but I admit to a sort of satisfaction knowing that he’s gay today. The other buddy, Mike Albo, and I limited our exploration to the sandbox in his backyard and gossiping in our kindergarten class. In 1984, living in Florida, I wrote to him advising that, “I might be bisexual.” It seemed like a safe bet, as I concluded he must surely be gay. He was always better than I at four-square. It was an accurate assessment.

Returning to Springfield for a visit with Mike, I was shocked to learn that he’d blabbed to all his friends about my bisexual confession. I had no idea it would give me teen-scene cachet, though. Back in Florida, however, I was back in the closet — till some friends found some journals (only girls keep diaries) I’d written. I didn’t lose any friends, but I was terrified about what this forced outing might lead to, and went through the motions of propriety. In my social milieu, that meant losing my virginity. In a Days Inn bathroom with a bunch of drunken teens on the other side of the door. I performed miserably. I made up for that poor showing by losing my “passive” virginity with my first boyfriend in 1986. Losing my “active” virginity with another in 1987, I lasted about two seconds. But what a revelation to finally realize, from top to bottom, what this whole sex thing was all about.

That year, 1987, was also when I came out to my family, during the summer between high school and college. There was very little fanfare. I do recall my older sister and role model sending me a card from San Diego in which she wrote, “The watchword is AIDS.” It was a message I took to heart. You couldn’t shake the fear in those days.

The markers in the journey since turning 20, the halfway point to where I am now, are certainly gayer than those that preceded them. There’s just not enough room to offer any detail of the first live-in boyfriend, the first “partner,” entering a domestic partnership, so many jobs in gay press, turning 21 at the Tampa Tracks with a round of “flaming Dr. Peppers,” the ’93 march on Washington and the Millennium March, and on and on and on.

For the time being, I’ve just got to end it with my gratitude at making it to 40 — almost, knock on wood — and for being able to experience four decades from a gay perspective. It may be the only exotic, if but mildly so, trait I possess. Without it, I fear my life to date would have been far less colorful.

Will O’Bryan, Metro Weekly‘s managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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