On August 21, 1983, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The idea that The Police were monitoring Every Breath You Take had a very different meaning than it might today. The virus that causes AIDS was just identified, and the average life expectancy post-diagnosis was 18 months.
My friends and I were generally operating on top of fear, even terror. I was 35 and single for just over one year. Men could not marry each other, and they could not readily adopt. The lack of social supports for our partnerships, combined with approbation, made lasting commitments challenging. Only recently had I learned back then that a priest I knew had adopted his lover of the same age while they were both adults so that they could avoid inheritance taxes and gain access to one another should one of them become ill or die.
In 1982, nearly 1,000 men had died of AIDS in the U.S. Reagan, his press secretary, and many reporters from various news agencies still casually joked about the epidemic. They teased one another about having the disease when anyone asked about the president’s silence and apparent disinterest in the emerging health crisis. After all, it was only really affecting people like us. I felt confused and angry that designers like Galanos, Blass, de le Renta, and Adolpho were adding glitter to Nancy Reagan while our brothers were dying, and her husband was ignoring us.
By the time I walked to the beach on Lake Michigan that afternoon in August, I had been out as a gay person for more than half my life. In 1964, five years before the Stonewall uprising, I came out as a homosexual teen to my advisor, my parents, and my siblings. Over the next 19 years, I continued to develop and disclose my sexual identity to friends, co-workers, pastors, professors, neighbors, students’ parents, and a handful of students.
By 1983, even without the emerging AIDS crisis, anti-gay discrimination had cost me a lot. It had prevented jobs, promotions, and aspirations. It had an impact on friendships, colleagues, and housing options. Even my capacity to dream, already attenuated by being raised how I was, became further limited by homophobia. Gay and lesbian people were being blamed for the sexual revolution that was actually fueled by heterosexuals’ access to reliable, discrete birth control and better treatments for sexually transmitted infections. Our outsider status was exemplified in the names of our clubs (Castaways) and the warehouse districts where we socialized late at night.
But today, it feels like what homophobia cost me more than anything else was hope. The little boy who knew at age four that he wanted nothing more than to be married to a man and have a family had become resigned that this would never happen. Even if AIDS didn’t kill me, the insurmountable challenges to finding a spouse and maintaining a relationship would be death to that dream.
However, at approximately 5:00 PM, on August 21, 1983, Paul Mandracchia introduced himself and asked for my phone number. I didn’t know it then – really, I didn’t know it for several more years – but hope had been restored.
Right there. On a beach on Lake Michigan. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hope.