As the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising approaches and we celebrate Pride Month, Swell takes a look at what it was like for an LGBTQ person in America decades before we had marriage equality, gay people in the military, and employment discrimination protections. Seth is 59 years old and identifies as a gay man.
On Growing Up
I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a steel valley in northwestern ohio. I was very feminine all through pre-adolescence. I moved and talked and dressed and related in a very feminine way.
I didn’t start to think about sexually identifying as a gay man, until probably late puberty. When I was around 15 I remember really pinning down the sexual aspect of it and thinking I was in trouble. I’d been in trouble before just by the nature of my femininity. I got a lot of grief about it. I got called a lot of names, I was beaten up a lot at school. So, I remember initially saying to myself, “I really have to keep a lid on this or it’s going to be trouble for me.”
I then dealt with attractions all through high school, but I didn’t act on them at all. I was a virgin, I think, until I was probably 18 or 19.
On Coming Out
I was dancing in Florida with a ballet company and all of sudden I got a call from my father and he said “I’m going to come to Florida. I want to see you,” which was so bizarre. I knew something was up. That was just not my dad.
Apparently one of my great aunts had said something to my mother, which had upset her and set her off about my sexuality. So my dad came to Florida to find out.
I remember he asked me if I was a gay. I think I was 19 at that point. I said I didn’t like to categorize myself. He said, “Well, do you have sex with men?” I said “Yes.” He said “Do you plan on having sex with men in the future?” I said “Yes.” He said “I want you to know we love you regardless” or something to that effect.
At that moment, I have to say he was very good. There were problems later, but at that moment he handled it amazingly well. It was 1981 and that would’ve been very difficult for a man of his experience. There weren’t a lot of positive examples out there.
My mother was upset by it and I remember my father saying that he said to her, “Well, what did you think?”
On Life in New York
I moved to New York three days after I graduated from high school in 1979. I wasn’t hanging around. I had been waiting to get out of there and I got out as fast as I could.
I remember for some reason when I was thinking of moving to New York, I had my mind on Sheridan Square in the West Village. I don’t know where I got that from, there was no information coming my way, but it turned out that the West Village was sort of a vortex of gay life in New York City at the time.
There was shame. Tons. Tons and tons and tons of shame.
I wound up living in the village anyway because the first summer I was at NYU in the dance department, but I’ve always gravitated there. Later, I moved to the Upper West Side because the ballet school that I wound up being in for two years was on the Upper West Side, which is where I live now.
I was already in New York the first time I acted on my attractions. Strangely enough, I was picked up in The Bagel And, which was located on the site of the Stonewall Inn. He drew me on a napkin, gave me a line, and I went home with him.
The first murmuring of the AIDS crisis were already in the air. He said something to me about it. I remember that very clearly.
I started drinking a lot and going to gay bars. That was my social life. When I was drinking I could be much freer as a sexual person. I got very free. I had a lot of partners, in spite of the AIDS crisis, which was sort of raging at the time. I had a huge amount of anxiety around it every day, but yet I was very sexually active and I think that was fueled very much by my drinking.
There was shame. Tons. Tons and tons and tons of shame. I was not liberated in that way at all. I did it in spite of anxiety, and in spite of the shame. It was very hard. That’s why when people would said that being gay was a choice or lifestyle, which was very popular in those days, I thought that was just so insane. I couldn’t buy that at all. For me it was too difficult, I would have never chosen that. I chose pretty much the path of least resistance throughout my life and that was not the path of least resistance.
It changed over time. It was hard for me. I think the shame really lifted a lot when I quit drinking 17 years ago. It had a lot to do with dealing with those issues. My shame as a gay man definitely lightened. My shame over my behavior as a gay man, that was still problematic for me. The number of partners I had, my inability to form super-important relationships with other gay men. I mean romantic ones—I had very good gay friends.
On His First Pride Parade
My first gay pride parade was an eye-opener. I didn’t even know it was happening. I didn’t even know what it was. I basically walked out my front door on Waverly Street [in the West Village], probably around 1981 and just followed the parade down the avenue and it spit us out on the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park and it was a big gathering. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the feeling of amazing exhilaration.
If someone said something snarky to me because I was holding my boyfriend’s hand, I could think to myself, “It’s legal to marry this man so you just stick it.”
When I was young I went to pride parades because I needed that affirmation and sense of community, but I also went because there were a lot of hot guys there and it was a big party.
I became more political later. The first thing I politically got involved with was the march when Matthew Shepard was murdered.
On What It’s Like Now
I got married a year ago. That’s been very politically fraught for me. My husband is from Ecuador. I never thought I would get married and I love being married to him but the whole immigration situation in the country has me very anxious. Tonight I’m anxious because he’s an immigrant who’s at work and there’s a curfew here in New York. He’s a brown person who’s going to be coming home from work at 11 tonight. I’m just as afraid now as I was when I was afraid they were going to snatch him off the street before we got married, even though he was [documented] then. The fact that he’s a man and I’m a man adds to my anxiety because I grew up at a time when gay marriage was not a possibility.
When gay marriage became legal in this country, that was a huge change for me and my thinking. Up to then I didn’t think it was meaningful, I didn’t think it was important to me, and I didn’t think it was possible. In the world that I grew up in that was not even a remote possibility in my mind.
After it became legal, I walked down the street with my boyfriend with a whole different feeling. Like, if someone said something snarky to me because I was holding my boyfriend’s hand, which happens, or worse than snarky, even if I didn’t say anything I could think to myself, “It’s legal to marry this man so you just stick it.” It gave me a lot of personal power when that happened. It changed things for me.
Obviously, I was pretty thrilled to wake up to some unexpected good news [of the recent Supreme Court decision ensuring LGBTQ folks can’t be discriminated against in the workplace for their identity], for a change. I’ve felt so much agita over the Supreme Court appointees. I’ve seen the pendulum swing a couple of times regarding gay and transgender rights in this country, but still, apparently, it’s possible to be hopeful. It can be difficult for me, as a product of my generation with all of its internalized homophobia, to realize that we are in fact entitled to these rights and protections. I’m just grateful that people who have more foresight, energy, and nerve than I do have invested so much of themselves in defining and preserving my human rights. (The DACA Supreme Court news is also encouraging.)
What I hope is that things continue to change in the way that it looked like they were changing. I’m afraid for this country and the world in general that things will swing back against our community. I’m hopeful, though, because they talk a lot about entitlement of the younger generation. My generation supposedly didn’t have this level of entitlement, I don’t know if that’s true, but I think entitlement is a tool. If they feel that they are entitled to equal rights then they’re going to fight for them. I’m looking forward to seeing that.
I don’t think things can return to the way they were when I was growing up. I hope not. I’ve seen a lot of negative things happen in other countries and here, which frightens me, but I have a lot of hope because I don’t feel like this younger generation of LGBTQ people are going to stand for that. I just took it for granted that that’s the way it was and I don’t think they’re going to put up with it.