- Robert Shaffer aka Pinky Penmark
- Coming OUT Gay
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I came of age and came out of the closet during the “Decade of Decadence”. Yes, the 1980s: cocaine, credit cards, bathhouses, designer jeans, Reagan, the gay cancer, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Act Up, fear, persecution, death and more death followed by more death, some more fear and countless funerals that added up so quickly that most of the gay men I knew felt guilty to be alive. By 1988, we were so paralyzed by fear and guilt and numbed by cocaine and alcohol that it took us some years to realize that our communities, our country, our government, our President and in many cases even our families had abandoned us because they assumed we would be dead soon anyway. By the end of the decade more of the gay men I knew were counting Christmases than were not.
“Counting Christmases” was a phrase my friends and I would use to differentiate between the people we knew that had the gay cancer and those of us that were merely waiting to get it. You see, from what we observed, from the time in between when someone became sick from HIV to the time they died you could count two Christmases. It was very late in the decade when I got the news that I had two Christmases left. I was in the middle of graduating from college, trying to make decisions about what I wanted to do with my life and trying to first find and then explore every back alley gay club I heard about when i had to break the news to my family that i was “counting Christmases” too. I thought to myself, “I don’t have time for this!” Just locating the gay clubs was a full time job because none of them had signs in front of them. Randomly figuring out which unmarked, dusty, back alley, inner city door had a fabulous Gay Emerald City behind it was no easy task and now I only had two years left to find every one of them in the world.
So my coming out story never really truly happened. I am sure there was a huge amount of screaming clues and screaming queens around me that my parents had to suspect I was gay anyway, so I skipped talking with them at the time about my sexuality and merely announced during a family dinner one Friday night that I was counting Christmases. My Mother’s first reaction is going to seem cold to you, maybe even crass and self-centered but don’t dwell on it. Her response was fairly typical for near the end of the 1980s, when admit it out loud or not, most of us were more focused directly on ourselves and how and if we would survive until the cavalry (the 1990s) arrived than we were on anything else. So, she turned to my father and said rather indignantly and with more than a little disgust, “I told you this was going to happen.”
And that was it. That was the extent of the discussion mostly. We went back to acting like we were a family that was above having any kinds of problems and pretended that it wasn’t happening.
The 1990s arrived with many a year’s long haze and the family churned on. The people I knew were continuing to die and i was just waiting to, but before I knew it, 1997 rolled around and something in my body that no one could explain had kept me alive until breakthrough medicines were discovered and dispensed that offered those of us with HIV/AIDS a new beginning and many more Christmases.
Those of us who navigated this 15 years in history the best we knew how at the time were extremely lucky, but there was a cost to us, a loss, what feels like a great amount of wasted time. Every generation will indeed have its plight, but i encourage the young people of today to find a way to embrace the fact that they are living in the best time in history to be exactly who they are openly and as early as they become comfortable in their skin. I encourage you to take full advantage of this, stand up, be exactly who you are and who you want to be, come out to the world because even though the current world is not without its problems, I promise you that there will be what feels like a huge coming out party awaiting you and that you will feel exponentially more alive when you live your authentic life out of the darkness and in the light where the world can see exactly how beautiful you are.