When I first started going to gay bars in Britain in the late 70’s we drove (with those lucky enough to own cars) twenty miles to Margate, a larger town near my home in Whitstable.
Margate is famous for being the birth place of conceptual artist Tracy Emin.
Margate was a derelict, regency ex-holiday resort. Butlins had closed, Pontins was on the way out. British people wanted to go to Spain where sunshine could always be assured.
The sweeping, majestic Palladian mansions were being torn down or turned into multi occupancy dwellings for the unemployed.
The crowd at the gay bar, run by morbidly obese Shirley was divided in two groups. Two distinct crowds: older, local men who had stayed local and younger men and boys who were using bars like this to spring-board into a metropolitan gay world.
The older men were routinely described as ‘bitter old queens’ by the younger men and there was indeed something bitter and suspicious about these older men that intrigued my teenage self.
Always the contrarian I hung out with them rather my teen peers and learned about these older men, their lives and their failed ambitions.
Older provincial gays who had been mocked, beaten and subjugated.
In Britain Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1965.
To me those old queens seemed incredibly brave for staying loyal to their home town communities.
To my younger ‘friends’ these men were simply stuck or foolhardy for not moving to the big city where their gay dreams could come true, their gay lives could be lived fully, openly and without fear.
My interest in them proved fruitless. They may have been older but they were not very wise, stripped of ambition by soul rotting low self-esteem.
They wanted to be like everyone else.
I wanted to be different.
They mocked me as they had been mocked, they chastised me as they had been chastised, they still do.
Those older gay men waiting for younger gay boys to emerge from the shadows. Supping gin and tonics. Bacardi and coke.
Hanging around the local ‘cottages’ (public restrooms) waiting for straight boys to unload. Playing an endless game of cat and mouse with law enforcement.
“So and so was sent to prison for cottaging.” So and so would emerge a year or so later, jaundiced, older looking.
It seemed to me that these men had every right to be bitter. They had every right to harbor resentments against a cruel society that deemed them criminals even after they weren’t.
The swinging 60’s, the sexual revolution, the progressive explosion, the post war boom really only affected my generation who grasped hold of the bucking bronco and held on for dear life until, of course, AIDS came along in the 80’s and we were all thrown far, far away.
The AIDS pandemic. Fear in men’s eyes. Disco dancing queens learning to dance to a different tune.
If I had taken pictures of those old gay men in the late 70’s they would have looked defiant, like those pictures of native Americans by Edward Curtis. They were fat and badly dressed, their teeth were rotten, they were working class, they were left behind.
So, it amuses me now when I am described thus: A Bitter Old Queen.
The advent of gay marriage, the normalcy of children for gay men (if they can afford it), the regular inclusion of gay men in prime time TV shows. All of these changes have heralded a new acceptance, a new normal, a new peace of mind for young gay men.
Or has it? A new generation with a new set of fears and anxieties. “Will I ever earn enough to buy a surrogate child?” “Am I pretty/handsome enough?” “Should I be totally hairless?” “Is my penis big enough?” “Am I ‘straight acting’? Will I get married?
A generation of gay men comparing and despairing.
What of us? My generation? Those of us who survived the great epidemic. It seems that many gay men still feel left behind.
Last week I met a 55-year-old man who told me he was recently diagnosed with HIV even though he had, he assured me, never indulged in risky behavior.
He told me that older gay men were being revealed to be HIV positive because of a latent strain of HIV that only makes itself apparent after the age of 50.
A strain that has been there all the time, undetected.
I was shocked. Perhaps I hadn’t dodged the bullet after all.
The man way lying. I researched the claim. There was nothing. I asked my friends on Facebook if they had heard of this anomoly. They had not. They scoffed at the idea.
No, I reasoned, this man is a well-respected gay advocate. As it turns out you can be a well-respected, well liked gay advocate and not be at peace with your HIV status.
Being gay for many men remains a hard task.
If I ever think of my ex boyfriend I still wonder what is was that kept him in the closet for so long. Even now, after the revolution. Why he created and maintained such an illusion? Risking his girlfriends health? Lying to his family?
Then I wonder if we are all illusionist?
How easy is it in 2012 to tell the truth about being gay?
There seem to me like there are so many dirty little secrets that we hold onto. That we continue to live shame based lives… even the youngsters, even when there is no reason to hide?
I wondered what we were striving for? To join the military, to get married…
I got to thinking about David Petraeus resigning because he had an extra marital affair. Adultery is illegal in the military but would those rules apply to serving gay men? Would we, once married, be held to those same strict hetero rules? Is this what we want?
Today I posted something about Israel. Like most Europeans I find myself erring toward the support of the Palestinians. I find the Israeli treatment of these falsely imprisoned people abhorrent and ironic.
What is the difference I ask myself between The Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza?
My American gay friends react with comments like: all muslims are terrorists.
Just like I was told when I was a child that all homosexuals are pedophiles.
Those older, less educated, less principled, men were from a different time. Embittered by circumstance, godless, hopeless. Drowning their sorrows in great vats of beer, their greasy faced pushed against the window of life without ever joining in.
“No kissing at the bar, dear.” Shirley would tell her clientele. “No kissing at the bar.”