It’s been almost twenty years since my first visit to San Francisco, a city that has always felt like a second home to me. I was in my early 30’s and eager to start exploring and traveling, something I had seldom done. I had just moved out on my own, got a promotion and started a new relationship… everything was fresh and the air was filled with possibility. Not only was San Francisco an amazing city because of the wonderful energy and history of the place, I discovered very quickly a welcoming community which today, is slowly and literally dying out… old school gay men.
So what are old school gay men? It’s basically a tight knit community who’s members witnessed and experienced the trials of the gay community, back when being gay was considered some kind of mental disorder by many. It’s the men that marched in parades and risked being beaten by police waiting at the end of the route, clubs already in hand. They are the men that attended attended funerals almost on a daily basis, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. They have seen so much progress and are deservedly very proud of it… because they made it happen.
Old school gay men are quick to engage in conversation, a skill they learned when just finding other men that were gay was in of itself a challenge. Decades ago they didn’t have the luxury of being picky, and as such, learned what people were like on the inside… sitting down, listening, and learning your story was something they did on a regular basis. There weren’t any mobile phones with apps to swipe left, or ways to alter your image with digitized abdominals, Humanity was the most attractive attribute a person could have… just being you. They understood that sticking together, and being kind to one another, is very important if you’re going to effect positive change on a global scale.
I’ll never forget walking into a barber shop in San Francisco, and being warmly welcomed by everyone there, absent of the awkwardness I typically experienced when entering an unfamiliar place. I was instantly a family member just because I was gay and it was San Francisco. Waiting was a relaxing and safe experience, feeling like I was surrounded and respected by others just like me. My actual haircut also took significantly longer than it ever did in Miami, because my barber was totally engaged in conversation, telling me all about his current life circumstances. Turns out that’s what you do when you live in a true community, that’s what you do when you care… you share and you listen.
It’s 2021 now and the gay community is changing faster than ever, fueled by a more accepting and open-minded public. Gay marriage is legal, Glee was a thing, and we are even in everyday tv commercials… yet while the country is starting to open its arms, we are turning our backs on each other. There’s a new generation of “it’s okay to be gay” young adults, and they really never knew a world where their friends were disappearing on a weekly or even daily basis. While I’m thankful that our community is now living with HIV instead of dying from it, it’s hurtful to see how the legacy of community is fading away. Division among ourselves is now quickly becoming the norm, since we no longer have a common threat or even an enemy to keep us aligned.
When I look back at all the experiences I had almost two decades ago, I feel grateful that I was able to at least sample the leftovers of what used to be a cohesive family with incredibly strong bonds. Thankfully, you can still find bits and pieces of it here and there… gay chorus events are a wonderful venue for that vestigial sense of community, and there are some battles yet to be won. Still, the numbers are dwindling and what I experienced not so long ago will one day just be a memory. As sexual preference becomes less of an issue for Americans, so will our desire to spend time with those of our kind, and share the memories of how we got there.