”I never had to sit down to my parents and say, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m gay,”’ Nowicki continues. ”It was just one of those things, ‘Oh, he must be.’ My parents embraced all my friends.”
Those friends included the couple Dick Cogan and Paul Criss, as well as Joe Henry, a popular drag queen with the Academy who performed under the name Marlo Thomas. Henry was among the first people Nowicki knew to die from complications related to AIDS. It was 1981. ”She started to lose all this weight, and she started to get these, like, splotches,” he remembers. ”And people didn’t know what anything was. We were just told, ‘Oh, it’s liver spots. It was a liver condition.”’
After relating memories of how devastating the AIDS crisis was as it hit three decades ago, Nowicki expresses concern about the younger gay generation. He can’t recommend enough David Weissman and Bill Weber’s powerful 2011 documentary We Were Here as a means to help them appreciate the impact that AIDS has had on the community. Nowicki is also afraid the younger set doesn’t understand that it’s not just a disease to be thought of in the past tense. ”Because of the drugs we have today, [they think] you take your pill or pills a day [and you’re fine],” he says. But ”the side effects of these drugs, and the psychological effects of being positive” are strong reasons negative guys should still practice safer sex and strive to avoid seroconverting, he argues.
AIDS, of course, also helped propel the gay community to become stronger and more visible. ”It was a double-edged sword,” admits Nowicki. He goes on to express amazement at how much progress the gay community has made in the 20 years since he was the reigning Mr. MAL.
”Now we have seven out LGBT members of Congress, and of course our first out U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin,” he beams. ”That’s an amazing thing. The Victory Fund has been amazing, not just in the support, but the grooming of LGBT individuals that want to run for public office.”
But it wasn’t the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund alone that achieved that progress. Increased visibility in general has been critical, with more LGBT people standing up and giving back. ”When you give back, things come back tenfold,” Nowicki reasons. ”Everybody has a gift to give back. You just have to look for what it is – whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s doing stuff up onstage like I do.”
Nowicki says we can expect to see him up onstage for another 20 years, and probably more. ”As anybody who’s seen me up onstage knows, I have a good time up there,” he says, adding, ”I’ll always be a part of the community, on all levels.”