Having grown up in suburban Philadelphia, I realize in retrospect how lucky I was to have access to a gay scene. A lot of my friends never came out until their 20s because they lived in the middle of nowhere and never met another gay man.
Which is not to say that I just walked by and went in. A lot of suburbanites (in Philly or NY or Boston or other big cities) never go into the city. Especially in the 70s and early 80s, cities were considered dangerous, foreign places (eg., Death Wish series).
At 15,with considerable stealth, I got the number for the Philadelphia Gay Hotline and called from a pay phone at the local mall.
With a deep, faux-mature voice, I said “Hi…um… I’m new in town and was wondering where the gay bars were”.
The guy on the phone seemed pleasantly surprised. Being 1984, I guess a lot of people were calling in a panic about AIDS, so my call was relatively benign.
With a friendly, comforting voice (probably sensing my newbie status) he said,
“Well, were you thinking of going out tonight or…”
“Yeah” I responded too quickly, my heart and mind racing in panic.
“Well, on Tuesday, Equus is pretty busy” he said.
“OK” I said. “What’s the address?”
“Hang on……um.. its 254 south 12th street”
“Great, thanks a lot. Goodbye” and hung up, feeling like I had just escaped a serial killer but elated and sexually charged.
As I didn’t get my drivers license for another month, I couldn’t take advantage of this valuable piece of information right away. The next month was interminable.
Finally in April 1984, on a Friday night at 6PM, I got an opportunity to make the trip to Philly in my Chevette. After cruising around the block a few times, I finally parked. With determination to look older and more confident than I was (being only 16), I braced myself and went in.
How disappointing. I had assumed that there would be men having sex or, at least, falling all over each other to get someone to have sex. I thought I could just walk in, have sex and leave. Wrong! It was my first realization that being gay wasn’t the perpetual orgy that I had imagined.
There were maybe 6 people in the bar, all of whom turned and stared at me as I walked in. Still determined to act cool, calm and collected, I walked to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender looked me up and down and asked for my ID. Though I was tall, I was innocent looking and looked 17 or 18 at most. Of course, being a good Catholic high school student, I had a fake ID. He served me the beer.
As people continued to stare at me, I realized that this kind of sucked. As a shy person, social interaction of any kind was difficult. Add to that my terror of being in a gay bar and I was a mess.
But I played it cool, drank my beer and eventually started to check out the crowd. It wasn’t pretty. But as a horny 16 year old, I was crawling out of my skin - thrilled that these were men who would want to have sex with another man. It was the first time I had ever met a gay man (if you exclude the pervy priest from 6th grade) .
After about 10 minutes, I noticed men were going to the bathroom down the side hallway. I thought “That’s it! That’s where they’re having sex”. I got up and walked to the bathroom. When I opened the door, the 2 men turned and looked at me as they peed at the 2 urinals.
Again, disappointment. Why did this have to be so complicated?
After waiting for one of the men to step away from the urinals, I stepped forward. The guy next to me was maybe 30-35, a little gut and bleached blond hair wearing one of those Esprit brightly colored sweaters. In retrospect, not someone who I would have ever found attractive. But I was 16 and horny and the fact that this guy had a dick was all that mattered.
I was pretty aggressive (again thinking that all gay men just wanted to get their rocks off).
“You wanna go somewhere” he said.
“Uhh…yeah” I said.
“Follow me. I’m meeting a friend here in a little while, but I know of this place around the corner where we can go”
We walked to a bookshop 2 blocks away. Though I don’t remember the conversation, he tried to make small talk. I’m sure I seemed as nervous as I was, but nothing was going to stop me from having gay sex.
We went into a booth. He gave me a blow job and I came in about 30 seconds. In his mouth.
And I knew I was gay. It felt awesome.
We zipped up and walked outside.
The next thing he did I will remember forever. He started spitting - repeatedly and emphatically. As if his life depended on it. Which, in 1984, was a logical conclusion. People were just becoming aware of AIDS, but no one knew exactly how it was spread. So he spat and spat and spat some more.
We said goodbye hurriedly and I went back to my car.
And I was calm. Because I knew - REALLY knew - after years of conjecture, denial and confusion, that I was definitely, absolutely, certifiably gay.