"Being gay is just like being Swedish. It's a little different, but in no important way."
That's precisely what I thought in 2005, as I was prompted to write my new book after beginning to get a grip on what it is like to be gay in the 21st century.
It's all so very different now.
I have seen a lot of gayness. Eight decades. I was a child in the 1930s, and in high school in the 1940s. The first time I heard the word "fairy" was during football practice, when the coach shouted, "Come on, you guys are running around like a bunch of fairies!" I was standing beside my childhood chum Junior Schultz. We looked at each other, and although neither of us had ever heard the word in that context, we knew what he meant: "girlish men." I don't think either of us thought it was something so terrible.
In my youth no one even knew what homosexuality was. In rural Michigan it was still like the 19th century, and I don't think anyone thought very much about boys fooling around together. There were a couple of promiscuous girls in high school, but other than that, women just weren't available. This was long before the pill.
In college I had a couple of roommates who had been in the service, and one of them said something about someone on our floor "being gay." I had never heard that word before.
Then, when I was in the U.S. Navy (as a very young and inexperienced officer), and at Bikini Atoll for the hydrogen bomb, the enlisted men on our small ship gave parties and danced with each other. I was considered very special when I dropped in and danced with them, too. There was a kind of subtext there that men got it on together, but nobody verbalized it.
I think the 1960s changed all that.
Performers like Mick Jagger (who learned everything he knew from his warm-up act, Tina Turner) were really "girly." It was OK. There were a lot of drugs, and people let go. Words like "queer," "queen," and "faggot" replaced "nancy-boy" and "fairy." But most people thought only those very effeminate young men were "homosexual."
In the 1960s I lived in Manhattan in Sheridan Square, right across the street from the Stonewall Inn. On that famous night, I can remember getting up, closing the drapes and thinking, "Those queens are up to it again." It was in no way as big a deal as has been publicized, but OK, Judy Garland was dead; they had to do something. I can remember being at gay parties in Greenwich Village and the police would raid. We would walk out of the building between a double line of policemen. A friend of mine often said as we exited, "At least they let you leave like a lady."
But the Stonewall fracas changed all that. Gays came out and took a stand. Quite suddenly it was all right to be a doctor, lawyer, or college professor and not be married. Unheard of before. The public realized that not all gay men were hair dressers or airline stewards. Suddenly there weren't just three gay bars in Greenwich Village. There were dozens. Being gay wasn't just a matter of picking men up off the "Meat Rack" (the west side of the fence around Washington Square and, later, Christopher Street). Everybody came out, including your Uncle Harry, and the 20th century style of being gay became all about sex: lots of promiscuous sex, many less closeted gays, "I'm here, I'm queer, get used to it!"
But, should you get married to a woman? Should you tell your parents? These and many other questions about jobs, money, lovers, their clothes and their looks still bothered gay men. Me? Much less. After the Navy, I moved to New York in 1955 and danced with the New York Metropolitan Opera's Ballet Corps (know back then as "The Sex Squad," hence the name of my second novel... but we'll get to the writing part later).
When I turned 28, I left the ballet and joined the "mad" world of Madison Avenue advertising through the 1960s, '70s and '80s. I rose to fame and became the Global Director of Revlon's worldwide advertising. They were very interesting years. As you can imagine, I saw it all, and then some.
I wasn't really in worlds where being gay meant much of anything to anyone. But I was observing my friends and co-workers. The seeds of this book were planted way back then. In the mid-'90s, I decided to begin my fourth career, this time as a writer.
Fast forward to 2005. As we got further into the 21st century, I realized that a lot of gay men were still living, emotionally, in a world that had pretty much disappeared physically.
In my book I say, "There's nothing wrong with being gay, but a lot of people are doing it wrong." I think we owe a lot of this new century's attitude to younger people, who really are not uneasy about gayness, whether they are gay or not.
A lot of this attitude has to do with having enough distance to look back on the 20th century and not want to do things the way they were done there. I wanted to handle this in my new book in a non-lecturish way, so it's full of witty and wicked photos and opinions (but I wanted to make a point). In my lifetime we've gone from knowing little about homosexuality, to homosexuality being something awful that needs to be hidden, to homosexuality being something most people know all about and the younger ones don't find to be a problem at all.
They are much more concerned with getting a job, not destroying the Earth with pollution, and not being killed in wars nobody really wants to fight.
How to Be Gay in the 21st Century is about being in a world where everybody, gay or not, wants to lead a fulfilled life. They no longer think that being rich, being famous, or being competitive in business are the answers to being happy. And even the conventional wisdom that a heterosexual marriage with kids is the answer is being questioned.
I have a blog, "David's Gay Dish," and about half of my hits are from women. And when I do a show, women usually make up half of my audiences. That suggests to me that gay problems and everyone else's problems are getting to be very much the same.
What do you think? Now that we are past the first decade of this new world, and now that we have all had time to absorb what it's really like now, let me know:
What do you think about being gay in the 21st century?
Photographer David Vance took the following photos, each of which corresponds with a chapter in my book:
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