Growing up in Ohio in the '70s and '80s, I was a late bloomer. I didn't come out until after I had moved to California after college, and so spent my high school and college years in frustration and self-loathing and fear, the way so many of us have and do. It's hard to believe what a different time it was, from the vantage point of just a few short decades later. There were some gay guys at my high school, of course, none out but some we suspected, and of course there were a few out men and women at Kenyon. But a remarkable few, it seems now, and inevitably they were the folks who didn't fit in as well to begin with and in a sense lost little by being out - or maybe they chose to be out and thus lost little by not fitting in in other ways.
And so I was threatened and so resolved not to be like them in ways I now regret. What can you do? It was a different time. All you can do is try to forgive yourself.
But I knew I was gay, deep down, and sometimes I even allowed myself to be aware of it. After I learned to drive - I think maybe while I was still in high school, but in any case certainly during the vacations when I was in college - I would drive myself to the main library in downtown Columbus. I would go there to do homework, to work on research papers, or just to have a refuge from my world and my life. Inevitably I would roam the periodicals; I would read the Cleveland Plain Dealer for the greater detail about the Indians and Browns, or read about roller coasters in a magazine about amusement parks, and just browse and see what else existed that they weren't telling us about at the boys' academy.
One day I found the magazine called Christopher Street. I can't say why I picked it up; surely some of it had to do with the title including my name. Maybe I looked at the cover and saw it was about gay stuff. In any case, that's what kept my interest. I'm pretty sure it was the only periodical about gay stuff in the entire library system. There were some books, but they were iffy; a lot of them were of either the "how not to be gay" genre or the "the gays are taking over" genre. Christopher Street was up to the minute (or the month, anyway), and it was catholic in the topics it covered, and it was unashamed.
So I would pick it up and read it, maybe in the stacks, maybe in a corner somewhere, glancing up every so often to make sure I wasn't being spied, by someone I knew, or by a disapproving librarian. I don't particularly remember what the articles I read were about. A lot of them were about AIDS. Some were probably about politics that I didn't especially understand. There was some artistic photography, I think - not nearly enough. And the ads were as interesting as the articles, of course. I remember at times getting aroused, and having to deal with that while I was trying to sneak it back to the shelves without being spied. It wasn't so much the content that made me hard, I think; it was just the idea of homosexuality being on display - and unashamed.
Does it seem sad, me hunched in a corner of the library poring over the pages of Christopher Street? It was; it added to my frustration. But it wasn't, too. It was the rare opportunity to feel hope and imagine liberation.
Eventually, the summer after I graduated from college, I visited New York. I stayed for a couple days with my college classmate Steve in his tiny apartment in Cobble Hill, around the corner from where I'm living now. During the day he would go off to work and I would go exploring; we would meet up for lunch maybe - I distinctly remember carrying out the ludicrous corned beef sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli and eating half of them by a fountain, and him carrying two half sandwiches home - two more lunches, which mattered on his publishing industry salary. I don't really know what else I saw during those few days; some of Central Park, maybe. The urban liveliness of the Upper West Side was something I had never seen until then, and I was naive enough not to care about its yuppiness. I think I went to MOMA.
And of course, one afternoon, I made my way to the West Village and found Christopher Street. It wonderfully did not disappoint. I fell in love with the whole Village, which was then and still is, even in its gentrified form today, more human-scaled and inviting than any neighborhood I've been to. And I walked up and down the street, mostly just being there, and feeling the glorious anonymity that New York can confer upon you, especially glorious if you're 22 and gay and not yet out and face-to-face for the first time in your life with the possibility of not living in permanent and unrelieved shame. Have I used that word too many times? Then it was the feeling of the liberation I had imagined suddenly, for a few hours, becoming real.
I went to a newstand where they sold, alongside Time and Newsweek, and probably Christopher Street, a dizzying array of gay porn. I bought some, without thinking much about the question of where I was going to put it when I got back home. I'm not sure why that matters, other than completeness. Maybe it was the closest to expressing my sudden liberation that I could manage.
Anyway: sooner or later I went back to the rest of the world. New York never stopped calling me after that; Christopher Street never stopped calling me after that, even now that I'm here. On the way home from Jersey City, more often than not, I hop off the PATH train one stop early, walk up the stairs, and emerge into the light of the late afternoon. To my right, down the hill, is the pier; to my left the couple of bars and sex shops that are left among the salons and shirt boutiques. It's still a reasonably raffish mix - less than it used to be, of course, but you can still spot the carefree child underneath the grown-up demeanor the world keeps forcing on her.
And there are the kids, of course. The other day, I walked out of the wind tunnel of the PATH station's stairway, and there were four or five beautiful young people standing there, studying, or at any rate holding, a "wanted" flyer handed out by the police. All of them black and gay or queer or trans*, standing, in the way William Whyte described, at the busiest spot in the block. A guy in the same sort of business-casual crap that I was wearing brushed past them with a snarl as he headed in to catch his train. I couldn't hear what he muttered exactly, and that kept me in my place, but I wanted to chase after him, yell at him "Leave those kids alone! Don't you know where you are? Don't you know this is sacred space?"
It is that. Not for me, exactly; every time I walk up the street or linger, less often, on the pier, I feel like an interloper, a tourist, maybe an anthropologist, maybe a middle-aged man seeing the old crush who because of time and chance never quite became his lover. But for those kids: so unlike any version of me that ever was, and yet such kin, occupying that same place that isn't school, isn't home, where the possibility of becoming the fullest possible expressions of themselves exists. It's a relief and a joy, every time, to know that that Christopher Street still exists.