For the last two months, I have been working on my new book. Using a life histories approach, the book examines the coming out stories across three generations of gay men whom I have come to know as the Stonewall Generation, the AIDS Generation, and the Queer Generation. In the process, Adrian Zongrone, a public health graduate student, and I have spent many hours meeting and talking with amazing gay men of all ages, from various walks of life, of different races and the ethnicities, who have beautifully and gracefully shared stories of coming out and what it means to be a gay man in the United States.
The purpose of this work is to delineate what binds all of us as gay men across generations—from the 62-year-old white, HIV-positive-gay man who grew up in New Jersey, came out in the 1970s, and is a well known and highly regarded drag queen to the 29-year-old, HIV-negative hipster who came out in the first decade of the new millennium, born in Korea, adopted by white parents in Michigan, who is now a social media phenomenon.
These seemingly diverse life experiences across the generations might at first glance appear to be radically different from each other, shaped by the socio-political context of their times, with each generation facing a crisis that defined it. But despite the march in time and the variation in life circumstances, one aspect of being gay remains the same—the sensibility of feeling like “the other.”
The sense of otherness starts early in life for gay men, often in childhood, when we feel that we are different, creating a sense of alienation and feeling alone. This loneliness that we experience is often pervasive for so many of us through much of our lives, even after coming out, albeit less intense as we build circles of friends and social supports that enhance our well-being, but also unfortunately heightened by the rigid demands created by the gay community itself.
Recently and under the administration of President Obama, polices that protect and empower our lives and enhance our health, have functioned to counter some of the negative sequelae, including loneliness, associated with the discrimination and homophobia so many of us experience. But perhaps all of that is about to change for the worse under the leadership of Donald Trump and Mike Pence which may seek to strip us of our rights, degrade our lives, and confine us again to the role of the other for whom society has little concern. Such deliberate and insidious efforts could, if we allow it, could undermine our individual and collective health.
Yet, as gay men, the sense of otherness that has permeated our lives also has functioned to help us develop resilience, grit, and strength, as individuals and as a population. It is in these moments when we are most made to feel like others that we muster our ability and fight for our place in the world. We did that at the height of the AIDS crisis when American society shunned us and ignored our plight.
The policies of Trump and Pence, and the notions of their homophobic supporters which have been given voice in the days since the election, will seek to make us feel like the others, to feel alienated, marginalized, and ostracized and alone—to heighten those negative feelings that are deeply rooted in our childhood memories but which we have collectively and individually managed to control.
We could let that happen.
Or we can emblazon and empower all of our battles with this sensibility of otherness and the power it provides ― from the loud protests and demonstrations to the more quiet battles as described in the story relayed by Calvin, a 51-year-old gay man who was born and raised in Nebraska to a Mormon family and whom we interviewed for the book 3 days after the election. After our interview, Calvin emailed Adrian and me to share the following, about an incident he had with Trump supporter the previous evening:
After I left the interview this morning I remembered what was most poignant about my interaction with the Trump supporter last night. In the past, when aggressively accosted by a stranger, I would have hurried away and owned the humiliation, using it as yet another example of how I, as the other was somehow flawed or wrong. I would have added it to a cauldron of incidents stretching back into childhood that I could later use to find fault with myself. In the moment last night I wasn’t intimidated—just curious. I stopped, turned and took a few steps in his direction. I asked him what he was talking about. His response, “Just keep moving. You’re just a sore loser. Don’t say shit like that,” intended to humiliate me, was funny and kind of pathetic to me, and I laughed at his absurdity, then moved on, wishing him a good night. That’s hard-earned acceptance, confidence, and self-love, wishing to change neither him nor myself. Of course, I moved my car to another block so he wouldn’t slash my tires. That’s just practical.
In our conversations about otherness, Adrian has also been articulate about how our otherness as gay men is something that we should celebrate and which serves as an important source of strength:
In part, the sexuality those gay men explore, that many see as perverse and wrong ― intergenerational relationships, anonymous sex, polyamorous relationships - all of which tend to happen more in queer communities than straight one ― is also a kind of embracing of the otherness. I recognize the power that marriage equality has had for many gay men. But, without that very traditional relationship structure available to us from the very beginning, I think it allowed many gay men to recognize that there is more than one way to love, more than one way to fuck. That spirit lives on, even with legal gay marriage, and I think that’s part of the power of being gay.
As noted in the words of Calvin and Adrian, our otherness as gay men is our power. We must once again embrace our otherness—our difference which so many us now wear as badge with great pride including the way we have sex with each other ― and we must use this emotional response to fight the many battles we will surely face over the next several years.