When did I know?

originally posted January 12, 2022
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“When did you know you were gay?” You might think that question would lead to an easily conveyed, straightforward answer; and maybe it would and does these days. But, growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I find my response is a bit of a long story, centered more on “inklings” than on knowledge—which was hard to come by until I was mostly grown!

Looking back, I can think of a few signs, signals that emerged nearly as early as I can recall: For instance, between the fall of 1962 and 1968, I could be caught occasionally watching syndicated reruns of the original Mickey Mouse Club—but I wasn’t watching for Annette Funicello (here’s looking at you, Bobby, Cubby, and Lonnie), as most of my friends were! Around the same time (initial runs are dated 1958 to 1963, though I probably caught early reruns), I grew fond of The Rifleman, or rather the son, Mark McCain, who was played by Johnny Crawford. Other clues of that decade included 1968’s Academy-award winning musical film Oliver!, which starred two lookers and singers, Mark Lester as Oliver and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger; and, decades before Disney’s 1992 animated Aladdin bared his cartoon chest, I was drawn to Jonny Quest’s sidekick, Hadji Singh (The Adventures of Jonny Quest originally aired in 1964 and 1965, then entered reruns in 1967). In my defense, I was roughly their ages at the time.

In the 1970s, as I began my teen years, a steady progression of singers Leif Garrett, Michael Jackson (when he was part of the Jackson Five), and Peter Frampton entered the picture, along with actors Robby Benson and Christopher Atkins, who starred in The Blue Lagoon (1980)—wearing nothing but an amazing loincloth, as pictured here, throughout most of the show—and that one season (1983–1984, the only episodes I watched) of Dallas (CBS, 1978–1991), managed to catch my attention, providing what should have been additional clues.

However, the concept of “gayness” didn’t exist in my world at that time! Being gay wasn’t a topic of discussion; no books, movies, or television shows addressed the idea; no one else admitted to having such thoughts or feelings; and the subject certainly didn’t come up in our sex-education classes—which were, still, one-hour-long sessions (with a narrated filmstrip) in the auditorium (boys at one time, girls at another), as they had been for several years: no questions or “lifestyle alternatives” were entertained. In short, I suspected that I would never have a girlfriend, get married, or have a family, but I didn’t know why or why not, or if such a life was even possible.

Then came college. I can’t say when, exactly, I was exposed to gayness, but it happened some time during my freshman year. Without warning, I suddenly found myself the object of advances from an older male classmate, and, just as unknowingly, I became friends with another young man who at least let me know he had feelings similar to some I was having. That was it; and it was quite a year!

During my sophomore year, 1977–1978, that young man and I somehow entered a relationship—I don’t recall any progression or details, only that it happened—though we kept everything quiet, in the closet. Eventually several female friends came to “understand” what was going on. To my surprise, however, it didn’t matter to them—again, a sign of the times: none of us ever talked openly about the two of us being boyfriends or dating or whatever. That exposure wouldn’t progress for another couple of years, long after we were no longer together. To my knowledge, none of my male roommates ever knew.

So, “When did I know?” After some other college experiences, and after graduating in 1980, I started work in Dayton, moved out into my own apartment, and began choosing my adult friends. I also used an article published in the late ’70s by one of the Dayton newspapers to find my way around. The full half-page exposé (with photos, as I recall: exterior shots) located and described several gay bars around the city; counter to its intended purpose, I saved that article for many years, then, once I was comfortable, it became my city directory of LGBTQ+ establishments.

Over the remainder of that decade, I guess I slowly came to know, and accept, who I was, to the point I became comfortable and “naturally out”—primarily, though, I was just myself. Few people, coworkers or family, talked about my home or leisure life, and even fewer ever asked me directly about what I did after work.

That was simply the way things were . . .

When did you know? Write up some notes and send them to me so we can begin your personal history. And, if you like this recollection, one in a continuing series I’ve been encouraged to compose, and feel encouraged to share your stories with family, friends, or others, contact the-history-editor or the-freelance-ghostwriter—because those moments and personal histories are important.

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image information: Featured image appears on the website of Learning for Justice, formerly Teaching Tolerance, a group that has evolved in the last thirty years—from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice—and chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution. Learning for Justice has partnered with Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, the first book designed for high school and university teachers who want to integrate LGBTQ+ history into their standard curriculum, and others to create a series of podcasts that share stories of LGBTQ+ life (complete with additional resources, reading lists, and a transcript).

The image of Oliver! (1968) stars Jack Wild (left) and Mark Lester (right) is used via The Daily Telegraph, serving Sydney and New South Wales, Australia; posted September 26, 2018. Other images link to their original sources.


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