I had a fair number of dinners with his gay friends after George told me that he was gay. 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 undertones of fear often came through. They lived in the shadows, in compartments. I heard even fifty-year-olds voicing a concern that their parents would find out about their lives.
George, I was convinced, wanted something more than he was getting out of this gay life. In the straight world, he did not acknowledge all of his life. In his gay compartment, however, it was almost all talk of sex and drugs while he also wished to talk about politics or baseball or TV or movies. That, however, was not his group, and George was compartmentalized, too. In a world where few could openly acknowledge they were gay, he seemed to have no way to meet new gay friends that had wider interests.
When I left the job, I did not see George regularly. Ours was the kind of friendship that needed the shared stimulus of work to continue our closeness. We still did have an occasional dinner, but our conversations now were often about a darker world enveloping George and his friends. 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 several dozen 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. Not surprisingly, a depression hung over George and his friends.
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 with the hospital bedsides he had attended, he was aware how awful the death from AIDS was. Even so, he did not seem to be sorry for himself. He almost seemed grateful for what awaited him. 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.
George accepted that he was gay. He knew that is who he was. He knew it was not something he had chosen, but growing up when he did, he also seemed to accept a certain self-hatred because of who he was. As death approached, he wanted that self-hatred over. Stonewall had happened, but the gay pride movement had barely started, and George was not part of it.
Much has changed in the decades since George told me that he was gay. Some of it has been personal. Other men have come out to me as gay. I have looked back and realized that friends I had were gay. But society has also made changes. As more and more people lived openly as gay or lesbian, more and more of the rest of us realized those we love and respect include non-straight people. Many of us have become more accepting and less fearful of those whose sexualities differ from the majority in the country.
Laws have also changed. Gay sex is no longer a crime. (Those who rail against big government, of course, should applaud this change. What could be more the sign of Big Brother than mandating what you can’t do between consenting adults in private?) Same-sex couples can get married and more often are treated similarly to heterosexual couples. I think back to George’s time when I knew a same-sex couple who had been together for over twenty years, longer than many marriages I knew. One got injured. His partner was not allowed in the hospital room because he was not a “relative.”
Of course, the world has not shed all its prejudices about gays and lesbians. Regular reports reveal attacks on people around the country because of their sexuality. Some “Christian” ministers call for the execution of gays, and more subtle discrimination, from churches to jobs to friendships, still abound. And, of course, many foreign countries have not come even as far as we have.
Even so, I wish that George had lived into a time when he would have seen some of these positive changes. I don’t how, if at all, the possibility of marriage would have affected his long-term relationship that fell apart, but I do know that I would have loved to hear George’s descriptions of his participation in a Gay Pride parade. I would have loved it for George not only to acknowledge his sexuality but to have had the chance to celebrate being gay.