In the mid-1980’s, I found myself on a journey that I had not anticipated. In one way I had started the journey in my late teens when I recall quite consciously deciding I was going to be a Renaissance Man, someone who could live by his wits and be good at many different things. I know now that I had only a vague understanding of the Renaissance as a period in history, but like many other young gay men, I was attracted to the notion of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Newton, Jefferson, and Franklin (these latter men lived after the Renaissance period). I could almost envision myself being adept in science, philosophy, the arts, and some theology. Fifteen years after I had made that earlier decision, I found I had accomplished quite a bit but there were major oases in my development.
By 30 I had a Master’s Degree, knew Latin chant and Anglican choral music, and was acquainted with the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the High Museum, the de Young Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt. I had some command of statistics, reproductive health, organizational structures, teamwork, classroom management, community organizing, liberation theology, American and British literature, Latin, and Spanish. While I had no desire for celebrity, I know that I wanted to be appreciated. But within years, after a painful break-up caused by my own headstrong behaviors, I had limited notions of how to be in my own skin. In a 12 year period I had been in three serious relationships, all quite good, but still missing something — namely me.
Recent conversations with a young friend have required me to examine my early-20’s. I noticed in listening to him that I had feelings of urgency and doom, as in a get-your-shit-together-or-you-will-die scenario. Luckily I didn’t smear these feelings on my young pal, but noticed them with a silent promise to become open to an examination of that time in my life and to tell him the truth about it. To do this, I would have to be vulnerable in reviewing the story I had constructed from the disparate facts of my life and I would need to be direct in telling the truth.
In 1964, I was at an age when my family expected me to become independent within two years. My siblings and I were expected to be autonomous by age 18. For my parents, this made sense. My mother was an orphan by 15 and my father was the eldest of 13. Neither of them earned enough money to exit the working class; their mobility required that we each needed to be spun off when we could support ourselves even modestly. I had started to work outside the home at age 12 and was working nights by the time I was 17. My family knew I identified as gay when I was 16 and seemed to tolerate that fact. Five years before the Stonewall riots, tolerance seemed like more than enough for me, so I didn’t examine their behaviors closely enough to see that they were more a mixture of rejection, avoidance, and tolerance. I had no idea how to be gay; none of us did. So, I saw two alternatives in the lurid news reports. I could be a sex deviant or I could be exceptional — sort of a nicer, better dressed Mother Theresa. When I was not allowed to major in psychology because I was gay, I decided to become a teacher, a really good one, in part so that there would be absolutely no grounds for my dismissal besides my sexual identity. When I was 22, the age now of my young friend, I was in my second year of teaching high school English to 150 students. I was in my first committed relationship and lived in a nice apartment.
Expecting my young friend to do now what I did then might be true to myself, but it would not be true in the sense of being congruent with reality. The truth is that the expectations placed on me and my peers to be proficient adult decision-makers were ludicrous. I don’t mean it would be absurd in today’s society. I mean it was absurd then. Poverty, the class system, anti-gay discrimination, the Vietnam war, increased segregation induced by limited educational access and racist housing policies, Catholicism, assimilationist policies — these all drove us to perform at levels for which we were not prepared, to comply with systems we did not understand, and to make decisions with no semblance of sufficient information to do so.
I publicly confess to having had the thought a couple of times in the past few years that sounded vaguely like, “These kids today…” But I promptly squash it. I have so much to learn now that I rushed past while learning to be gay, to be adult, and to be a survivor. I still strive to be that Renaissance Man, but I now seek to do it while being in my own skin.