09/07/2013 12:46 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

My First Bass Weejuns: How Trying to Fit Into a Champagne Culture Can Undermine the Health of Gay Men With Beer Budgets


The train carried me 28 miles south from Beverly Farms, Mass., to Boston. I'd made the trip before, and would again, while I was an undergraduate at Gordon College.

From the tony North Shore, with its big houses and old money, I was headed for Harvard Square, center of the universe where gobs of that old money are spent to make sure that the traditions and trappings of privilege endure from one generation to the next.

I was going to buy myself a present -- a pair of cordovan Bass Weejuns, like my friend Jim wore -- to mark my 20th birthday. I was even going to spend $40 on these staples of preppy attire, more than I'd ever spent on a pair of shoes before that day in October 1978.

As I emerged from Crimson Ltd. wearing my new Weejuns, that $40 was already paying dividends, because I felt like $1 million.

For a young man whose childhood was spent living in a low-income housing project in Groton, Conn., I was far from home in every sense. You could say my new Weejuns were a metaphor for the effort I was making to kick the dust of poverty off my heels. Ditto for my education. Like so many Americans, I believed education would be my ticket out of the poverty and dead ends of my hometown.

When I finally accepted that I am gay, a year after graduating from college, the clothes pony I'd always been became a full-grown horse. Well, horses are expensive to feed.

I thought I needed at least a smart new shirt for each party I was invited to. Then there was cologne and skin creams, sweaters and more shoes. Fancy department stores my family never shopped in, that intimidated me at first, became regular stops. I didn't get a credit card offer I could refuse. I would soon realize that credit cards were tailor-made for people who grow up poor and want to "fit in" with the not-poor and those, like me, pretending not to be.

Soon enough, I started falling behind on the credit card payments, since I earned just a measly income from my clerical job and, later, waitering jobs after I decided to pursue a graduate degree and a writing career.

They don't teach you in college -- or in a family where conversation constantly revolves around not being able to afford this or that -- the value of who you are and what you offer the world. So when you have a young gay man, eager to fit into the sophisticated gay world of a big city, lacking a high-paying job or family funds to support an upscale lifestyle, the result can often be credit problems -- and even more insidious problems.

There's the voice in your head saying things like, "You're a fraud," and, "No one is going to want you if they find out you're only scraping by." It doesn't help when a new boyfriend, such as I had while I was doing my master's degree at Northwestern University in 1985, says, "It will never work between us because we're from different classes." Instead of building up your self-confidence, such messages tear you down.

Chances are good that these messages echo those of people in your life who condemned you for being gay. I had friends back then who actually told me that even though they liked me, I was going to hell anyway simply for being gay.

With these messages filling our young gay heads, it's a wonder that any of us can think straight.

In fact, not all of us can. And the cost of wanting to fit into an urban gay world of fashionistas, poseurs and other pretenders can be far higher than a late payment fee.

Ron Stall, Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for LGBT Health Research, has extensively researched the reasons that high numbers of gay men are burdened with more psychosocial problems than our straight counterparts. Stall found that gay men, particularly those of us from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse, depression, partner violence, drug abuse and high-risk sex. He calls these "syndemics," interconnected epidemics of psychosocial problems, each of which makes the others worse.

Add to these the harassment, insults, rejection, and legalized homophobia we experience for simply being "different," not conforming to the supposed masculine standard. Now put us into an urban gay ghetto, with high costs of living, all the sex and drugs we could ever want, and many men who are even more messed up than we are. The results include drug abuse -- meth use alone among gay men is 10 times that of non-gay people -- and the highest rate of HIV infection of any population in America.

So what's the solution? How can we defuse the explosive combination of fragile self-esteem caused by poverty, psychosocial syndemics, and the desire and pressure to fit into an upscale gay community?

By claiming our own resilience. Those of us who grow up poor tend to have very well-developed survival skills. We know how to do without things not essential to survival. We can take in stride things that devastate others who were raised to believe that their lives would always be easy.

We have to recognize and own our resilience as the powerful force it is and summon the strength it gives us to assert a sense of self-worth that doesn't depend on money, "things" or others' approval.

Three and a half decades later I still have a nice, shiny pair of Bass Weejuns. Nowadays, though, my favorite footwear -- at least in the warm months -- is my 10-year-old pair of Teva sandals. They are casual, comfortable and still evoke happy memories of the trip to Florida where I bought them.

As for the boyfriend who said we'd never work because of our different class backgrounds? Somehow we became each other's great love. And I visited him at the hospital every day in 1994, when he was dying from AIDS. Loyalty, you see, is one of the values I learned from my working-poor family.

I only wish it hadn't taken so much struggle, and my own HIV diagnosis, to teach me to value my loyalty as a friend and my own resilience. I finally understand that they are much more important than fitting in, and far more valuable than anything I can buy in a store -- even in Harvard Square.