I was living with 5 gay friends in a condo, way back in 1979. I was 18 and out on my own for the first time. Going to the Parliament House, the big gay bar in our city, was The Priority in our lives… above eating and, of course, paying our rent.
So when rent was due and we only had $500 between the 5 of us, 3 of us decided to take our winnings, er… rent money… and head to New York City. Living in Orlando, that was quite ambitious thinking, but we were all young and stupid and believed anything was possible.
We stopped by my dad’s house so I could grab the Oldsmobile Delta 88, an enormous light blue wonder that had one back window that wouldn’t go down, another that wouldn’t go up, a trunk that would not open and a hood tied with metal wire to keep it down. I had to dig around for the keys and license plate, but found those and we were off, in my dad’s now-stolen car.
We packed that car with all of our belongings: clothes, shoes, books… and for some reason, several jars of peanut butter and jars of grape jam. (Jars were glass back then, no plastic ruining the environment in the olden days.)
I remember Bobby taking the first shift in the back seat, laying sideways on all the stuff, his shoulder hitting the roof resting on the huge pile. We tried to open the trunk 100 times, to no avail, so finally resigned ourselves that sleeping like the Princess in the Pea was a part of this adventure.
Bobby, a bright-red redhead, curly hair down around his shoulders, ached to be a drag queen, dancing and miming songs at every chance. Even up on his back seat perch, I laughed hysterically, seeing him in the rear view mirror, holding a hairbrush and lip synching to “I Will Survive” on the radio.
Bobby was a liar, telling us, with complete conviction, that the Oscar Meyer little boy was his brother. At first we were awed, then the lies built onto each other and when it took a teasel to figure one truth from another, we just shrugged and laughed no matter what he said.
The other roommate who came with us was Scott, a gay guy I had known since junior high. Scott was so smart and clever, but more of a book nerd than either Bobby or I; he was a good balance for us. Scott found his way into laughing for the sake of laughing on this trip, which makes me so happy since he died of AIDS not 3 years hence. I was very glad to witness his joy. Bobby also died of AIDS a couple of years after Scott.
During our trip of 1979, AIDS was an unknown. Sex was with utter abandon. The worst sexually transmitted disease one could get was herpes and that seemed like a social death sentence. Little did we know then, herpes would be almost benign.
The first person I knew of who died of the Gay Cancer was Fat Matt. I was fat, too, and Fat Matt and I talked a lot about dieting and trying to lose weight. Being fat as a gay man was not good… being fit and being gorgeous were (and are) a gay thing. So when Matt began losing weight, he was ecstatic. He had no idea what he was doing to lose so fast, but he was thrilled. His sex life picked up, his self-esteem soared… and then he passed through thin, from healthy to gaunt in a few weeks. Matt was gone 6 months after he began losing weight. None of us knew what happened. He was such a dear, fun friend, the bar seemed odd without his flouncing around, showing us his hippo dance from Fantasia.
Then there were others, not fat men, who began losing weight, then their lives. I remember standing in the drag bar, being told two dear club friends had died during the week and reeling with complete confusion about what was happening. It would still be 6 months before the words “Gay Cancer” would be said on the evening news.
Being gay in the late 70’s and early 80’s was still taboo. No “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” no gays in the military, no gay marriage. Homosexuals (and I, the fag hag) clung to each other when our parents changed the locks after throwing our belongings in the front yard. So when our gay friends were dying, we were never invited to the funerals, but held our own memorials at the bar. We would drink to our friends, huddle together, giving each other love and comfort. When there were so many of these bar memorials we’d become numb, we realized we had all run out of tears at the exact same time.