Coming out in New York at age 24 in 1977 was surely the most exhilarating moment in my life, even now looking back at that time some 35 years later. In a matter of days I had shed the uncomfortable self-loathing skin I had inhabited all through high school, college, and grad school and was finally free to be myself. No more lying to friends, suffering through uncomfortable "dates," and generally pretending to be someone I wasn't.
For me, the shift was abrupt. No experimentation: One week I was straight, and then the next I was gay, and my whole world changed. The first night I was in a gay bar, I ran into one of my coworkers from the office. I was terrified, but of course he had already sized me up the first day I walked in the door. He and his partner took it upon themselves to teach me the fine art of being a gay man in New York City, and I was a frequent guest at their weekly dinner parties.
Most other nights of the week I was out at some of the city's many gay bars making up for all the lost time spent in the closet. My coworker was a regular at the bar I had chosen for my debut, a place called Company on Third Avenue, and after work (no one worked much past 5 p.m. in those days, because that's when the phone switchboard operators left and the last mail pickup of the day had gone out) we'd head over each afternoon to two-for-one happy hour. Company was our Cheers, the place where everyone knew your name. And that was just the beginning of the evening. Later, after the gym and a change of clothes, I'd often venture out again, usually to one of the chosen bars where we went to "cruise," the quaint way we'd look for partners -- either for quick sex or living together happily after -- through a complicated routine of posing, staring, and occasionally smiling.
In her series for Slate magazine last year on the past, present, and future of gay bars, June Thomas went back through old copies of the Gay Yellow Pages and found listings for 118 gay bars in San Francisco in 1973; now there are 33. Manhattan's peak by her count came in 1978 with 86; the current tally is 44.
Admittedly, there are many practical reasons for that, including the economics of running any business in the high-rent districts that used to be pretty much abandoned after dark. And technology has dealt a huge blow, as well: Why bother going out to see if any of your friend's friends catch your fancy when you can do that from home? And for quick sex, there are a lot of efficient ways to accomplish that with your iPhone in the palm of your hand -- or perhaps without.
But the true death knell for our cozy gay bar probably lies with the increasing acceptance and integration of the gay community. People often used to say that if everyone just came out of the closet, that would mean the end of most homophobia, as people would realize that there were gay men and women among their family, coworkers, and neighbors. Now the love that once dared not speak its name is plastered throughout The New York Times (which, incidentally refused to even use the word "gay," other than to signify happiness, until 1987).
Now that we have openly gay business executives, politicians, and policemen, young people have positive gay role models clearly visible in their communities and the media. When I was a lonely teenager trying to come to grips with my self-identity in the 1960s, the only mention of homosexuals in the news was when they were caught having sex in public bathrooms. The photos of homosexuals in the newspapers and on TV were generally corpses or bloodied, scared souls in the backs of police wagons. Not much to look forward to.
Today the president of the United States has openly stated his support for same-sex marriage, and society looks upon the homophobes as the outliers, the ones who are maladjusted and in need of treatment.
As a result, more and more gay people come out of the closet earlier than ever: The average age for coming out in 1991 was 25; these days it has dropped to 16, and some studies put it even lower. Many gay young people are never "in"; they self-identify as a part of the LGBT community from the start. They don't go through the wrenching transition I had, where suddenly I wasn't the straight son, coworker, or friend that everyone thought I was (at least the ones I had managed to fool). They've been socializing and going out with groups of gay and straight friends for years, many since they were teenagers, and continue those same patterns as adults. Today you'll see in any bar, gay or straight, young people of every sexual persuasion being themselves with friends who may or may not share their orientation. They don't need to go to a gay bar, because in most places any bar that made an issue of not letting them in would be breaking the law or, at the very least, invite a lot of unfavorable attention.
Still, I can't help but wonder if we've lost something, as well, namely the warmth and joy of walking into a gay bar as the member of an exclusive club. I accept that I'm probably romanticizing the past to some extent, and that this might be skewed heavily by my experience of living in New York City, but I did travel around the country quite extensively in those days, working as a producer of TV news segments. After work each night I would seek out the local gay watering hole (checking the same Gay Yellow Pages that Ms. Thomas researched), and once I walked in the door, I felt like I was at home. There was always someone ready to strike up a conversation, tell me about a hot new club or restaurant, and sometimes, with a little luck, a romantic night or two. And I'm not just talking about L.A., San Francisco, or Chicago. My job took me to a lot of less popular spots; off the top of my head I remember Charleston, S.C.; Lakeland, Fla.; and even a great little place in Mobile, Ala.
In each of those places, and many more, I can still remember many of the people I met, and some are still friends today. They were the ones who upgraded my hotel rooms and got me tickets to sold-out shows. And there were more lasting benefits, too. One is an important business contact, a top executive at a Fortune 500 company, who has been a great supporter over the years.
Yes, it's wonderful to be accepted, and I'm glad, especially for the young people, many of whom will fortunately never know the discrimination and hostility faced by earlier generations. But as with most great accomplishments, a little something is lost along the way.