In the early-1980s, baby boomers were looking good. At 35, we were running, pumping iron, and discovering organic. We were taking over in so many ways. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when we were crowding into overflow barracks in beyond-capacity schools, in our 30’s we were getting into supervisory roles and management positions that surpassed our parents’ wildest dreams for us. We were living in the first decades of the sexual revolution, a topsy-turvy change of attitudes and behaviors prompted by The Pill and by penicillin for treatment of sexually transmitted infections. Abortion was finally legal. Nasty, stinging tips of penises could be taken care of in a week or two. Fueled by a lot of alcohol and a lot of pot, club culture hadn’t left us wondering if we were going to have sex with someone so much as when.
Note that I am not commenting here about gay or bisexual men. I am writing about baby boomers. I recall in my thirties coming into work on a Monday thinking I would tread lightly on my escapades of the weekend, only to be snapped back into reality by the women with whom I worked. They were way more interesting than vanilla me. I remember seeing women coming into Victor’s on Fridays after work checking their overnight bags at the door.
For those who were unaware of gay life in Milwaukee at that time, it would be hard to believe the structures and relationships that were in place. From May until September, it was the north end of Bradford Beach to meet each other. Sexual “outlaws” would cruise the parks, Juneau, Lake, and Estabrook. Johns patrolled the blocks between Brady and Juneau. The Factory, C‘est la Vie, The Ball Game, and Club 219 packed in late-night weekend crowds, while a handful of other bars brought in guys after work downtown. There were consciousness raising groups, choruses, line-dancing, and support groups. A couple of my buddies back then ran with me every single day of the year. We were not in training for a race. We just ran for running. We had lesbian and gay AA and NA groups.(Though still in draft form, a good general outline of Milwaukee’s LGBT history is recorded in the History Project.)
It would not be unusual back in the 1970s for guys to get dropped off early on a Saturday or Sunday morning to retrieve their cars from where they left them the night before. Many would go to work then in service jobs, or go home to sleep before they took a night shift in hospitality or restaurant work. The rest of us — the teachers, pastors, plumbers, paper hangers, realtors, gallery docents, church organists, and bankers — did weekend cleaning or joined friends for brunch or at the beach.
In hindsight, what was so remarkable about this time for me, however, was not its sexuality or politics or vibe. What stands out most is its invisibility. It was as if no one noticed us. I was a classroom teacher at the time, soon to become a school psychologist. I was out to my colleagues and my supervisors. A few of my students’ parents even knew I was gay, because they asked and I told them. However, it would be incorrect to assume that just because we were largely unnoticed, that we were valued. To the contrary, we were still generally viewed with wide-spread distrust, as though we were in fact outlaws and pedophiles.
A few times in the past five years, I have been reminded of the relative invisibility of gay and lesbian people in the 1980s. A few years ago, I was driving to work one winter morning and saw a teen only partially clothed hopping from one foot to the other between two houses separated only by the narrow walkway upon which she stood, attempting to change from her boy clothes to her girl clothes, probably for school. A couple of days later, I saw her again. Then, likely because I was looking for her, I noticed not only her, but also other teens ducking out of alley ways early in the morning, some apparently having spent the previous night attempting to sleep in unheated garages. Thirty-five years after the halcyon days of the late ’70s, young queer people were still being tossed away and pushed to the far margins of society.
Once I was aware of this parallel universe in the city where I have lived my entire life, a veil was lifted. I then noticed that a mile west of the spot where I was seeing these teens early in the morning, there were other teens and young adults walking a circuit, insufficiently dressed for the weather, and periodically leaning into cars that were circling them. Likely known to police and possibly to local residents, these invisible lives were not likely going to make it like I did in the ’80s. I recall thinking, “There was no point in my childhood when I would have predicted that I would know this or see this or understand this.”
But, I do understand this invisibility and forced marginalization. It is what it was like being gay just before AIDS.
The gay liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s left us with a few medical providers in the ’80s who were less judgmental than in our youth. After Stonewall, we opened our own STD clinics and organized vans that would help guys whose lives had run amuck before the bars had closed. From San Francisco to Madison and Chicago to New York, we organized our own services to take care of each other. But in our 30’s, many of us guys were seeing the few urologists or internal medicine or infectious disease doctors who just didn’t seem too nosey about our lives. While some were gay themselves, more were just doctors doing their best to be understanding.
When a virus was reported to be affecting a handful of gay men in New York and San Francisco in 1981 and 1982, we were unprepared. We lived our lives invisibly in full view. And mostly we were hated.
In One Whole Life today, my friend Tom writes, “…what our society seems to forget is that, first and foremost, AIDS is a virus.” Back in 1981, that was not the news we heard. For us GRID (Gay-Related Infectious Disease) was as mysterious as virgin birth. Were guys getting poisoned? Were there terrorists or were these guys doing something too kinky for words? To read what else Tom has been thinking about HIV this week, read his blog posts at One Whole Life.