I don’t remember telling any, but I would not be surprised if I had. Surely I heard gay jokes, although back then they might have been homo, or possibly fag or pansy jokes. I do remember being with a group yelling what I am sure many thought were witty remarks at an effeminate boy in our high school. I was mute. If they would have been anti-Semitic or racial comments, I might have objected, but I did not try to stop the not-completely-understood homophobic remarks.
Mostly, however, in my childhood and beyond, as far as I knew, gays did not exist. George radically changed this.
George was my office mate when I was twenty-nine years old. We got friendly by talking across our desks about cases, defendants, prosecutors, judges, and our colleagues. Comfortable with each other, we became friends outside the office. For several Thanksgivings we went to his mother’s house. There was a lot of scotch and new traditions. George was Lebanese-American. We did have turkey, but only after many Middle-Eastern dishes. The most memorable was beautiful raw lamb drizzled with olive oil. This took me back to my childhood. We had no idea what steak tartare was, but a regular treat growing up was what we un-euphemistically called raw hamburger. I loved it on rye bread, topped with raw onion and much black pepper. And I found that I loved raw, ground lamb, too.
After a couple years of friendship, George told me that he was gay. Back then, this was a huge deal. George, who was nearing forty, said that I was the first straight person that he had come out to, and he was the first person I knew who acknowledged being gay other than some clients whose sexuality sometimes mattered in their cases.
We joined George again at his mother’s for Thanksgiving a few weeks later. He picked that time to tell his mother and brother about his sexuality. The tension was incredible that holiday. His mother eventually came to some sort of acceptance, but not his brother. I am not sure that he eve talked to George again.
Through George, I got a glimpse into a certain gay culture. I hung out with him at various Greenwich Village gay spots, which early in the evening were like any neighborhood restaurant or bars. Later at night, however, sexual images that made me uncomfortable and drugs were prevalent. (Once or twice, the spouse went to these spots, too. She found the slide shows of good looking men sucking each other’s dicks of much more interest than I did.)
I had a fair number of dinners with his gay friends. They were perfectly nice, but It was all somewhat sad. George was not part of a chic or sophisticated gay life. The talk was basically about drugs and who was hot (which required being young), but still a fear came through. Even the fifty-year-olds were scared that their parents might find out about their lives.
George, I was convinced, wanted something more. He also wished to talk about politics or baseball or TV or movies or anything other than always sex and drugs. But that was not his group, and he was trapped in it. He had no way of finding new gay friends in a world where few could openly acknowledge that they were gay.
When I left the job, I did not see George regularly. He was the kind of friend that needed the shared stimulus of work for the friendship to continue. When I did see him then, I entered a darker world. The AIDS epidemic had hit. As we walked down the Village streets, he would see someone and say, “His lover died last month.” “His lover died six months ago.” George had been to about 30 funerals in the last year. He told me about the AIDS death of former colleagues of ours, people whose sexuality I had never thought about.
And then George got the disease. We had dinners a few times after that. He was quite accepting even though he knew he was dying and knew from the bedsides he had attended how awful the death from AIDS was. He almost seemed grateful for what awaited him. He accepted that he was gay, but growing up when he did, he also seemed to accept a certain self-hatred because he was gay. But he wanted that self-hatred over. As death approached, George’s one true concern was that he had had unprotected sex with someone, and he kept trying to convince himself that it had happened before he had been diagnosed.
I hope that today, George’s story would not happen, but, while the world has become more understanding, I do believe that it still has a long way to go. I just wish that George had had the chance to experience the better parts of today’s world.