In a groundbreaking national survey of 1,000 gay men, Logo TV in 2015 found that 65 percent of gay men in their 20s and 30s say, “today the big struggle is figuring out what kind of gay man I want to be.” According to the survey, gay men are searching for a stronger sense of community, regret the disappearance of gay-focused places, and wish there were "more gay role models and mentors they could look up to."
Figuring out “what kind of gay man to be” is not a new or unique challenge for today’s young gay men. In fact, every gay man who has ever lived has had to figure it out for himself. The only real difference today is that there are more, better options.
Before the 1969 Stonewall riots, and the insistence on “coming out” that followed, most gay men lived closeted lives. If they didn’t arouse suspicion by being overtly femme, it was relatively easy to hide their sexual orientation by cloaking themselves in protective social norms, such as marriage to a woman.
In the great coming-out party and sexual “liberation” of the 1970s, there were mass migrations of gay men to the safety and anonymity of the gay ghettos in such cities as New York and San Francisco. There, being gay was defined in terms of sex: The more you had, the more self-accepting and "gay-positive" you were believed to be.
If a gay man rejected promiscuity, he could expect other gay men to condemn him as self-hating. “Internalized homophobia” was the only reason men who bought the party line could imagine anyone wouldn’t want to join the party.
Then AIDS hit.
Michael Callen, a musician who would become one of the best-known and longest-surviving people with AIDS in the country in the epidemic’s early years, recalled in his 1990 book Surviving AIDS, “At first, I had been promiscuous because the only information I had about gay men was that we were are all promiscuous by nature.” After discovering gay liberation, he “proudly and defiantly” celebrated the promiscuity that mainstream society so disapproved of.
“During the seventies,” said Callen, “I considered myself a lowly private doing battle on the front lines of the sexual revolution. I joked that I was a fast-food sex junkie. For me, being gay meant having lots of sex.”
But even before AIDS struck, beginning in 1981, gay men who had participated enthusiastically in the life of the ghetto had already begun to question why membership in the gay community had come to require that one be alienated from his family, take multiple drugs, and have multiple sex partners, dance all night at the “right” clubs, and spend summer weekends at the “right” part of Fire Island. Sexual liberation had unexpectedly brought its own enslavements.
In his 1978 novel Faggots, Larry Kramer asked whether the price of membership in what passed for a gay community hadn’t become too high—or whether membership was even desirable.
On the eve of his fortieth birthday, Kramer’s protagonist, Fred Lemish, makes the argument that his creator would continue to make for years: “Why do faggots have to fuck so fucking much?!…it’s as if we don’t have anything else to do…all we do is live in our Ghetto and dance and drug and fuck.” Lemish warns his philandering boyfriend, Dinky, to slow down, “before you fuck yourself to death.”
With the appearance of AIDS three years after its publication, Faggots would continue to ignite passionate arguments among some in the gay community who believed that Kramer was gloating that AIDS seemed to deliver into his hands a kind of medical “I told you so.” But Kramer insisted that his main concern had been gay men and their quality of life.
AIDS gave gay men new words to use in defining “gay” that better suit a people who were tested by the fire of terrible illness, death, and stigma—and survived. Four words that come to mind: Heroic, brave, courageous, and proud.
Larry Kramer made it clear in his landmark 1985 play "The Normal Heart" that the AIDS epidemic gave gay men a new, powerful identity to claim for ourselves. Kramer’s alter-ego Ned Weeks says, simply, “That’s how I want to be defined: As one of the men who fought the war.”
Kramer put it a little differently in our 1995 interview for my book Victory Deferred. We talked in the living room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, the setting for some of gay America’s most historic moments, including the world’s first AIDS fundraiser in 1981 and, in 1982, the formation of GMHC, the world’s first AIDS service organization. Reflecting in particular on the AIDS protest group ACT UP he was instrumental in forming, Kramer said, “Singlehandedly, we changed the image of gay people from limp-wristed fairies to guerrilla warriors.”
In figuring out what kind of gay man to be, gay men of every age today are heirs of a heroic legacy. There are role models in our community's heroes, and there is power in claiming our people's history for ourselves. Will we be the heroes of our own stories? As always, the choice is each of ours to make.