Growing Up Gay in Placerville in the 80's - "a dark and silent time"
I graduated from El Dorado High School in Placerville, CA in 1986. Gay history before 1969 and the beginning of the gay liberation movement was a dark and silent time. During the 1970s the growing visibility of gay people may have been evident in the big cities, but everywhere else gay people were invisible. Right at a time when a little more progress was starting to be made in the gay rights movement that dreaded disease, AIDS, showed up and spawned an insufferable decade of confusion for everyone surrounding health, sexuality, and civil rights. President Reagan and our government were particularly horrible about handling the epidemic: information about the disease was unavailable or inconsistent and slathered in prejudice based on myths and misinformation. Under these conditions I entered high school as a teenager who was rather sure he was homosexual by the age of 13. A thin hope that it might be a phase got me to the age of 16 when I realized the condition wasn’t really going away. From my point of view in small town Placerville, I was isolated by my “problem.” I knew absolutely no one who was also gay, though I was smart enough to realize that I wasn’t the only one in the world and most likely not the only one in my high school, but there seemed to be no safe way of connecting with other gay teens to at least discuss our shared isolation.
Now as an adult who had a reasonably easy coming out during college some 20 years ago and lives in an era and community where being gay is not only accepted, but an asset, I wonder how I would have lived through the 1980s if I could only have known everything I know now. And from there, my next wonder is how my experience of being a gay teen in Placerville in the 1980s compared with other gay teens...so I tracked down a few and asked them. My subjects all graduated between 1984 and 1989. I would say that overall our hopes, fears and eventual periods of becoming openly gay were similar, even though there is a variety of stark differences in our individual stories. We all also recognize that although we are seeing gay teens coming out in high school now and generally having an easier time of it, there are still many who suffer greatly due to an unsympathetic family, church or community. For all the good stories, there are still too many tales of gay teens experiencing horrific bullying and suicides. Happily, my subjects survived the teen years without trying to kill themselves over it. Maybe the silence caused by the AIDS epidemic or just small town life in general, actually helped us get through those years without too much trouble, all things considered. We all got out of Placerville and into college and found our way into accepting ourselves and becoming happy people.
I’ll introduce the group by starting with the age each realized that he must be gay: James came to the conclusion when he was 16. Scott was clear about his orientation when he was 12. Albert looks back and pinpoints the age of 10, though he describes it in fuzzier terms of a growing awareness up through high school and didn’t really accept himself as a gay person until he was 25 years old. Brian was sure about himself by the time he was 14. Arron was in college as the only man in his women’s studies class when it dawned on him that he was gay, though everyone in his family said they always knew. Arron now half jokes that he wished someone would have told him the news a lot sooner. So, all but Arron walked into freshman year of high school with a specific sense of difference between themselves and other students. It’s an interesting feeling to deal with and causes you to view the world with a different lens: there is the accepted and expected way that everyone grows up and starts dating, going to dances and anticipating an assumed path in life and then there are the gay kids going through all this and analyzing how it applies to them.
Keep in mind that “gay” was not in the popular culture very much in the 1980s and so the role models for how to conduct yourself as a gay person or to visualize what your adult life would be like nearly didn’t exist. I do remember a very few clues that made an impression on me. There was a movie called Making Love with Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin that showed Michael Ontkean realizing he was gay after getting married. Even though Ontkean’s character comes out and apparently finds a happy life and relationship as a gay man, the end of the film was melancholy. Although the film taught me that there were handsome gay doctors who found healthy relationships in the end, they had to go through a lot of drama to get there and I was not encouraged by this. I found more of a positive feeling about the prospect of a gay life with the musical La Cage Aux Folles, which depicted a gay couple of 20 years who had raised a son. The song at the end of Act I., “I Am What I Am,” had the lead character demanding to be accepted for who he was. I used that song when I was auditioning for college theatre programs. It allowed me to voice something about who I was without actually coming out.
A few members of our group mentioned the TV sitcom Three’s Company as a small window into gay life. Jack Tripper, played by John Ritter, was allowed to live in the apartment with two girls because he was pretending to be gay. He wasn’t actually gay, but both landlords, Mr. Roper and Mr. Furley, accepted him as being gay. In the 1970s and 1980s Jack Tripper wasn’t getting barred from housing the way real gay people sometimes were––his assumed sexuality was preferred. Outside of the occasional gay episode of Phil Donahue, which usually showed how awful gay people were treated by society in general thanks to ignorant comments from the studio audience and callers, there were few examples of the gay experience to guide us.
My teenage view on what gay people in the outer world were like were mostly dark images of predatory men picking up others in seedy bars in a bad part of San Francisco or New York. There was also that image of the effeminate dandy stereotype, which I discarded as a caricature. James saw gay people as “...hairdressers and decorators, but that wasn't a bad thing. I always thought that gay guys were just in the business of making things pretty.”
Informed by his religion, Albert had a very negative view of gay people as “Hell bound.” “I imagined San Francisco as some kind of Hyronimous Bosch-esque Sodom and Gomorah. It repulsed me! I moved to Europe in 1986, and met actual, nice homosexuals (friends of friends) to whom I could look for a friendly, deeper, and less stigmatized reference. And although homosexuality was still fairly taboo in my circles, there was an understanding that it existed in all parts of society. It could be joked about (usually those who actually had gay friends), but not demonized.”
The news in the mid ‘80s was filled with reports about the AIDS crisis and this was particularly unnerving. First of all there was no treatment and you died from it in what looked to be the most horrible way. Suddenly on TV, there was Rock Hudson giving a press conference that he had AIDS and he looked old, shriveled and nothing like himself at all. And there was Doris Day standing beside her friend to help him through this very public and humiliating experience, but somehow it was comforting to see her standing by his side and his going public helped to change the general attitude about the disease. Still, none of this news was good and it made being gay all the more frightening.
James felt that AIDS was always a lurking death sentence, but the pull of wanting someone to be with over-road the fear. Scott remembers a cover of Time Magazine all about the AIDS virus being entrenched in the gay community and knew he was “one of those people.” However, the threat inspired him to be proactive about promoting AIDS education when he went to college. Albert feels that the fear of the disease kept his sexual activity to a minimum: “It probably got me through the high-testosterone years with a certain degree of my innocence intact: otherwise stated, it prevented me from becoming a ‘pig’... I was extremely careful nearly always.”
Brian, who moved away from home at age 17, started his first gay relationship with an older man who was HIV positive. They were safe, but Brian was fairly uneducated about the disease at that time. Arron became angry about the disease and funneled his energy into finding ways to do something about it: “I joined a local AIDS alliance as a peer counselor. I was matched with end-stage patients for day to day conversations. One of my matches, ‘Doug,’ wanted to go to the March on Washington to see the AIDS quilt and to see his partner’s panel. I was humbled and envious all at the same time.”
My main goal in high school was to protect myself from possible harassment. I knew that if I told any of my friends that I was gay––even if they swore secrecy––that my secret would not remain a secret for long and being treated badly or possibly being humiliated in public was my greatest fear. I encountered evidence of this fact when a friend told me about how someone she knew looked at a private file in the doctor’s office where she worked part time and discovered a classmate was gay. This person then started telling people and to keep the news a secret. Well, it wasn’t so secret if I was being told the story. Clearly, the only way to be safe was to keep silent.
Most of the group said their greatest fear about being gay was not being accepted by family and friends, being marginalized or treated unfairly. Brian didn’t cary this worry and even came out to a friend who shared the same news in return. Scott also told a best friend who was supportive, but the rest of the group maintained their silence until college or even later. For James and Arron, the issue was not part of their focus and didn’t weigh on them. I would say that for the most part, the issue of my sexual orientation was just put on the back burner and I didn’t allow it to overwhelm me. James describes a similar attitude to mine that he had plenty of projects and activities keeping him occupied and perhaps this helped to keep worrying at bay. I was very active in theatre and this kept me both supplied with loyal friends and time consuming rehearsals for large chunks of a year. From the spring of my junior year through the end of my summer after graduation I was in rehearsal or performance more than not and had very little time to dwell on the problem of being gay.
Scott was the only one of the group who interacted with his parents about the subject: “I went to a Christian counselor at the request of my parents. I was young. They wanted to make sure I really was gay and not just experimenting. At the time, I was angry, but I now know they just wanted me to be happy with who I was no matter what.”
One of my fears was that my parents might insist that I go to a doctor if they found out I was gay. I just didn’t want to endure some sort of treatment or attempts to try to “cure” me, which is strange because I always kept this little hope through high school that the homosexuality would wear off if I simply didn’t act on it. Part of me just thought that college was going to be a safer place to deal with it and quietly waiting was the key.
Like any teenager, the group harbored crushes on certain boys at school as well as celebrity crushes like Ricky Schroder, Jason Bateman and Michael J. Fox. Actual sexual experiences among the group regarding other boys ranged from zero to being fairly active with both anonymous and acknowledged partners. For Albert, any kind of sexual encounter was simply not an option though he did have a small outlet for talking about his crushes from a safe distance: “With the other ‘gay-to-be’ in my class, I sometimes gossiped wishfully about handsome football players who had allegedly dabbled in mutual masturbation when they were drunk. We were both more attracted to the objects of our gossip than to one another, so nothing was ever possible.” This gossiping with a friend did not necessarily indicate to Albert that he was gay for his general upbringing had taught him that being gay was out of the question.
This brings me to the subject of when the group accepted themselves and began to come out to others, thereby owning their gayness. Brian and Scott both jumped into gay life without reserve right out of high school. Being 25 years old before he came out to himself, Albert then spent another five years to ease into a comfort zone in which he could finally come out to his parents by age 30. The other members of the group all came out at some point in college with most starting by telling a friend and then moving on to a sibling or parent. Arron’s biggest fear was telling his mom, but her reaction went better than he imagined: “I told her at lunch at the Magic Dragon next to the Cinema Plaza on Placerville Drive. Her reaction was priceless. She looked at me, nodded, and then said, ‘Are you telling me this in person so I don’t make a scene?’ Oy. Luckily, all was well. My marching orders were to not tell grandma.”
A few things needed to fall into place for me to feel comfortable about coming out. First I knew that I had to also be prepared to tell my parents as soon as I decided to lift the silence––I didn’t want them to find out from anyone else but me. I first told my college roommate, who I knew would be supportive and this was also necessary because I had a new boyfriend that I wanted to bring home. I would have come out to absolutely everyone cold turkey, but the boyfriend was still living with his parents and particularly afraid of a volatile reaction from his father, so he wanted to keep our relationship hush-hush in the beginning. I insisted that I was going to at least tell my family and started with my brother Mark. Mark wanted me to wait to tell our parents when he could be there to be supportive. So, just after New Years in 1990 when we were both home from college we all had the big talk. My parents had to go through their own adjustment period, but the experience was good. In fact, most members of the group reported that they wished they would have had the confidence to come out to their parents sooner. Hind sight is twenty-twenty of course.
The idea of hind sight leads me to the question of how I would have handled being gay if I only knew all that I know now. I’m not sure that I could have handled myself any better without a greater sense of support around me. That is to say the assurance of TV shows like Will and Grace, Ellen or Glee, the general discourse being more positive, correct information about the AIDS epidemic and perhaps a gay teen support group either at school or a community center to help give me the confidence to be open about myself. None of this was in place in the 1980s. Just ten years after my graduation there was an El Dorado High School boy taking another boy to his senior prom. He was unique in his day, but it shows definite progress. Maybe I would have come out in high school too if it were 1996 instead of 1986.
“I was telling a friend how lucky kids are now,” says James, “The internet has opened up their world...they can find things that interest them...and all of a sudden they can know they are not the only one who thinks/acts/feels/does something. I look back and know if someone had told me they were gay I would have have felt less alone...if someone had shown interest I would have blossomed sooner...but I arrived at the place I needed to be at my own slow cautious pace.”
Scott doesn’t think teen life would have been much different had he been armed with his life experience: “Being in a house with both parents as ministers, you always have some baggage, and not just about being gay––just your self image in general is lacking because you have this huge GOD standard around you all the time.”
Albert thinks having his adult knowledge about being gay would have allowed him to handle his teen years much differently. For one thing, he would know that being gay wasn’t evil: “I know that gay has a place in society––previously derided for the most part, but now frequently revered. At the end of the day, things have worked out all right, and I am glad to be the person I am today.”
I asked the group what advice they would give if they could have a heart to heart with their teenaged selves:
JAMES: “I would tell him to embrace love...enjoy his body...and to be an even brighter version of himself...he really was a shy scared naive kid.”
SCOTT: “It's all fine. Who you are is who you were meant to be."
ALBERT: “I’m not sure the ‘me’ of the early ‘80s would be ready for most of the advice I would have now. He would probably ignore me, denounce me, or––depending on hormone levels––try to seduce me!”
BRIAN: “I would tell anybody, looking back, the sooner you accept who you are inside, the happier you will be!!!!!!!”
ARRON: “I would say it’s a journey. Love your life. Trust yourself.”
I would like to have been told to trust that people would love me regardless and that anyone who didn’t want to be my friend simply because I was gay wasn’t worth the energy to worry about.
If you search “My Coming Out Story” on Youtube you will find numerous teenage boys giving weekly reports on their coming out process today. The world has indeed changed a lot since the 1980s, though these confident boys still have some of the similar fears and worries that we all had as teens. They may be coming out earlier, but they still face the dilemma of not knowing what the reaction of their friends and families will be. Fear of the worst always weighs upon them. A main difference is that they are voicing their feelings very publicly. They are not experiencing the same isolating silence we faced in the 1980s. For just a moment, I wanted to go back in time and give a few gay teens from the ‘80s a chance to have a voice. Even this far removed from those days, it is nice to know that we weren’t really alone.