The Hurricane Season: August-November 1979
This is the third year that I have been blogging on National Coming Out Day, and I provide another installment of my recollections here.
I moved to the Chicago area in late June of 1979 to begin pursuing my doctorate from the Department of Biochemistry at Northwestern. As I have previously mentioned, part of my decision to come to Chicago involved the fact that I needed to come out here. I had struggled with life in the closet enough to know that it wasn’t a winning proposition. By the time I arrived in town, I was completely committed to starting the process.
But what to do? I didn’t know how to come out. It wasn’t something that there was a how-to manual for, especially that long ago. I did spend part of that summer in the HO section of the university library, being generally unimpressed with what I was reading. I was pretty sure that I wasn't interested in being a flamboyant party boy. That decision undoubtedly served me well- although nobody had yet heard of AIDS, 1979 would later prove to be a very dangerous time. I remember wondering a lot where I fit in. It was pretty clear that I felt outcast in the straight world. Was there room for me anywhere in the gay life?
In August of that summer, I was reading the classified ads in The Reader, Chicago’s local alternative paper. There was an ad by an organization called the Mattachine Society advertising a discussion group for gay men the following Tuesday. Mattachine, I would later learn, was a very early gay rights organization that dates back to the early 1950s.
I went. I still remember the evening vividly, down to what I wore (my green alligator shirt). The discussion was warm, sometimes goofy, and only a little bit political. The men ranged widely in age and in personality. There were overtly queeeny types (still quite scary to me that early in my own process) and guys who I felt that I might have met even in my old home town. I remember the frisson of first seeing unrelated men kissing socially. I also remember seeing my reflection in the window of the El car on my way home and wondering if I was somehow different now.
I would return to the discussion groups faithfully each week for several years. Those guys did so much to calm me down about the whole process. Many were important examples to me of how one could be out and proud and lead a rich and productive life. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The summer of 1979 was one of great change for me. I felt very alone for much of that summer. I was far from home and the people I knew and loved. I was living in a large city for the first time. It was the summer that I would gradually grow accustomed to being on my own. Perhaps because I missed the ocean, I remember thinking at one point that it’s when hurricanes make landfall and come into contact with people that they dissipate. I spent that summer by myself, feeling far out at sea like a hurricane-- gathering strength.