Being gay: the VHS days

This is the latest in a series of posts begun in June 2016 in which I reflect on the early days of being a homosexual.

For the newly out young gay adult in the late nineties, AOL was a godsend. I wouldn’t have to visit a bar and wait to be picked up or do the picking up – I could listen to Tricky in my room while dropping stats in a chat room! Clinton-era tech booms served their purposes. During that recuperative summer, I spent almost six weeks experimenting with identities on AOL. I studied how people dropped stats about themselves. What Tommy Lee Jones in JFK called badinage with strangers lost its danger the more comfortable I got dropping references to the albums I liked and the books I read. Lost most of its danger, that is, for if you were young, gay, male, and still living at home, then your first try at internet sex required negotiating between need and schedules.

By August, ready to meet dudes in person, I spoke to a couple on the phone. In the pre-Grindr days, this was a way – a modest way – to get an idea about the kind of guy you wanted to meet. After hundreds of these encounters in the last eighteen years, I can think of only one occasion when a man misrepresented himself. If there’s one question I get asked most about my cyber habits from straight men and women, it’s this one. Guys who claim dark blond hair instead of blond? Guys comfortable with my taking control of the conversation after boasting about loving to meet new people? Venal sins. Even the lone offender’s worst violation was overstating how much he knew about music; he turned out to be an inexperienced kid failing to impress strangers, i.e. me two years earlier.

During this libidinous period, however, let me stress that I’d never hook up with a dude blind: I’d insist on a preparatory drink. If the sparks turned out to be a dead match, I’d salvage the evening: Let’s get this over with; I’ve got laundry, I’d think. The memory of my sex-starved adolescence as accessible as a bottle of water, I had a hard time saying no to any man who went out of his way to meet me and expected more than a handshake.

Several promising chats led to expectations as solid as mist. In September I met a man whom I’ll call Juan, an international relations major at my university (I was a third-year lit grad student). Our similarities charmed me: Cuban decent, lived at home, only a year into his realized gayness and one boyfriend. Other details struck me as way too original to overlook. Not only was he a committed Christian who had had no trouble recoiling his faith and sodomy, but he preferred his local Pizza Hut to bars. I never took him up on the offer to meet at the latter, but I did drive to his mom’s duplex in the City of Miami. To say hello to his monolingual mom watching Telemundo in the living room when Juan couldn’t reciprocate with mine bothered me. So did greeting a mom before expecting to have my way with her attractive son three rooms away. Then again, I’d listened to friends share stories about girlfriends spending the night and their parents cooking breakfast for them – was this encounter going to end on that familiar normalizing note?

My parents would not have been cool with a woman spending the night either.

A jowly fellow with spiked hair and long tapered fingers, Juan greeted me with the polite impersonality of a restaurant host. In his bedroom I sat on the floor while facedown on his bed he told a convoluted and uninteresting story about a friend, also recently out, experiencing tension with a third friend because, Juan suspected, each was in love with the other but couldn’t say it aloud.

“Bet we all didn’t expect this gay thing to be this tedious,” I said.

He ignored me. Pizza Hut came up again – a pizza summit the previous Wednesday. An unusual way to do business, I thought (I kept this comment to myself). THen he turned to me, in the manner of a maitre d’ asking how was my soup. On the phone he’d said he hadn’t wanted to go out and would I mind staying home? We could watch a movie, I’d suggested. Looking around the immaculate bedroom with the huge tiles for something to say, I spotted the VHS copy of Manhattan Murder Mystery I’d put on top of his TV. Too early for the crutch. For parity’s sake I shared my own story about the complications of falling for a friend; he looked surprised that I’d sorted out my mess. Loosening up, we exchanged names about friends in common, all of whom were straight and inhabitants of the IR major troposhere. He had kind eyes that drooped when he listened to me. I learned about the youth group he led, toward which he showed the night’s real enthusiasm.

“Wanna watch this movie? It’s good.”

He hadn’t seen a Woody Allen movie. Few positions are less tolerable than laughing at movie jokes you’ve heard a dozen times while your mate looks on in stony, tolerant silence. To explain to straights the make-the-first-move dynamic of the freshly out still understates the anxiety. A month earlier at my first hookup I heard T.S. Eliot’s affected St Louis-inflected English accent whispering “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Before the funny stuff started, I know I held him for a few minutes; he mumbled, “This feels good.”

We’d hook up one more time after a viewing of Three Kings and catching a peep of David Bowie performing “Thursday’s Child” on Saturday Night Live. After great pain, a formal feeling comes, another poet wrote. Thanks to him, my confidence increased to geometric levels. I was learning about expendability, an essential component of the cruising life. I was finally gay.

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