Like many gay folks, I knew I was gay before I understood the concept or knew the name for it. I didn’t necessarily know I was gay, but I knew I was “different”.
I remember the moment when I realized how and why I was different, and said very clearly in my own head, “Oh I see. I’m gay. I like guys.”
It was 1983 and I was 13 years old. Like most horny teenage boys, I was rifling through my father’s bedroom looking for pornographic magazines. (Yes, this is pre-interwebz, folks.) I found a great stash… of GAY porn magazines! :-O
(Not to mention a stash of cockrings, dildos and poppers. But I digress.)
So in fact I had two simultaneous moments of realization.
“Oh I see. I’m gay. I like guys.”
“Oh I see. My dad is gay. He likes guys.”
All the pieces suddenly clicked into place. So that’s why my parents divorced when I was 5 years old. So that’s what all those slightly veiled comments mean when my dad and other family members joke around. So that’s why my dad has so many male friends around who also seem “different”.
Ten seconds later I was back to the task at hand: rifling through a great stash of porn! I eventually found boxes and boxes of magazines like Mandate, I.T. – In Touch for Men, Numbers, Torso, Blueboy, Inches, Playguy, and the slightly edgier Honcho (I can still picture the big burly hairy men now). There were also lots of FirstHand, a collection of fictional stories and letters from readers telling stories of their sexual encounters. It was all heaven for a horny teenager!!
(Not to mention that I’m sure I was the only 14-year-old boy in the small town of Moncton who knew EXACTLY what Cyndi Lauper was singing about when she mentioned Blueboy magazine in ‘She Bop’. I felt so worldly and sophisticated! But I digress.)
Beyond their obvious immediate function, these magazines also provided me with a decent rudimentary education on gay life and gay community. In addition to lots of juicy images, there were articles. Yes, that’s right. I read the articles. I looked at the ads. I consumed every little bit of information and every image these magazines provided, and I pieced together what it meant to be a gay guy.
This is where I learned about camp sensibility, and how gay men read popular culture against the grain. I learned about the handful of gay-themed mainstream movies that existed at the time, and many more independent films, books, and plays. I learned of the existence of Fire Island, Key West, the Castro in San Francisco, and the Villages in Toronto and Montreal. I learned about the existence of gay bars, bookstore backrooms, saunas, parks, and bathroom cruising. I learned about some of the struggles to get our rights recognized, about some gay organizations in various cities, about The Body Politic, and about bigoted opponents.
It’s also where I first learned about AIDS. FirstHand had a whole center section focussed on health issues of relevance to the gay community. I think it might have been called the “Survival Guide” or something. It’s where I read the first articles about a new “gay cancer”, then called GRID, and eventually AIDS.
All of this was fascinating, titillating, terrifying, and reassuring all at the same time. Although I knew I was gay, knew my dad was gay, knew his friends were gay, I was still in the closet. I did not feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. And I lived in a small town. I felt isolated. I felt like I was the only boy my age experiencing this. But knowing there were places like the Castro helped.
I remember one ad in particular very clearly. It was for A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco. When I came across this ad, I recall thinking, “Wow! There’s a place where there are so many gay people that they have a whole bookstore?! There are enough books for gay people to fill a bookstore?!” It gave me a sense of the scope of community that must have existed together in one place. It made me wonder if one day I could live in a place where I would be among lots of other people like me. It gave hope to at least one isolated, closeted teenage boy.
The first time I visited San Francisco in 2006, I visited the Castro. I found A Different Light. As I walked down Castro Street and into the bookstore I was filled with awe that I was actually there. It felt like I had travelled to Oz, a mythical place over the rainbow. While browsing the bookshelves, my eyes kept welling up. I managed to mutter something to the clerk about what this place meant to me, the hope it provided me when I was a teenager in a small town. But he probably just thought I was slightly off kilter.
I went back to San Francisco last month. I went down to the Castro again, this time with a friend. We went into a store and I asked if A Different Light was still just down the block on the other side of the street. The clerk informed me that unfortunately, the bookstore closed a few years ago. It shouldn’t have come as a shock. This has been the fate of many bookstores, especially independent bookstores, and especially-especially gay bookstores.
But I became seriously verklempt. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes, for fear of crying. I was a bit surprised at how strong of a reaction I have having.
Obviously it was more than just the bookstore. It was the symbol. The idea the bookstore embodied of a whole community somewhere out there; an idea that gave hope to those of us who were isolated and felt alone at one point. Of course today young gay folks have much simpler ways of knowing there are whole communities out there. No need to rely on an ad in a magazine in your gay dad’s porn collection! You can check your smart phone app to see just how many guys are within 250 meters from you.
But this was MY symbol of hope and community at a time when I felt alone and isolated. And it was gone. Like so many other gay bookstores. Like my dad. Like so many friends and colleagues.
That’s when I realized why I was feeling so emotional. Grief and nostalgia work in some similar ways sometimes. Memories of people and things you’ve lost. A bit of lingering pain at the thought of a loved one. Returning to an old familiar place and finding it’s changed or gone. But also the comfort that comes with feeling that slight tug at your heart. That tug is uncomfortable but comforting. It means that you haven’t forgotten. And that no matter what, those people and places will always be a part of you.