I grew up in the 50s (my first decade) and the 60s (my teen years -- was that good timing or what?!). And though I enjoyed the 60s mightily, what with the drugs and all, neither the 50s nor the 60s were a good time to be gay.
The isolation was the worst of it. It was like there were no gay people anywhere. I never bumped into them, though I was always looking. And certainly no one ever spoke up to say he was gay or she was a lesbian. No one would dare do that then.
There was no internet to make it easy to find others who were gay. All I could do was send away for mysterious magazines, like "One", that came in plain brown wrappers with no return address. Gay people were in hiding.
There certainly were no role models for gay people. How could there be? No one dared come out because the world seemed to universally think of us as scum. It was a difficult and painful time for gay people. And what a sin that is.
When I was 12, I cornered my mother in the bathroom as she was drying her hair, and said (with as much drama as possible): "Your son is a homosexual." ("Gay" didn't exist yet; "homosexual" was the only word I knew, other than "deviate".)
Without batting an eye, she said, "Then I'd rather you were dead." I remember walking out of the house in tears and tramping through my empty neighborhood, feeling like there was no place for me anywhere in the world. I didn't even have a home, really. They hated me there. (My sister was always totally supportive, but she was nine years younger and was only three when this happened.) It was so lonely being gay.
This is why it's easy for me to understand how a young gay (or lesbian or trans) person who is being harassed for his or her orientation could commit suicide. When everyone is telling you that something is wrong with you, it's very hard to like yourself, especially when you're young.
After telling my mother my secret, through my reading I realized the Village might be a place where gay men went. I remember being so nervous that I drank a bit of my parents' Scotch (yuck) before getting on a subway and heading to the Village. (I was already 6'4" at 12, and went anywhere I wanted.)
That night, I saw a man I thought was gay and I followed him. I didn't know why, or what I hoped would happen. I just walked behind him wherever he went. Nothing occurred that night, except I realized I wasn't alone in the world.
I jumped out of the closet with a vengeance that year. After your parents want you dead, what do you have to lose? I told everyone I was gay, whether they wanted to hear it or not. I had a chip on my shoulder. I was going to be respected for who I was, and that was that. Sometimes adversity makes you strong.
In the end, along with a ton of other people, I helped get NYC's gay rights law passed in 1986. This will always be a memory that I treasure. It was wonderful to think that we'd worked so hard for this, and as a result, in the most important city in the United States, gay and lesbian people couldn't be fired for their sexual orientation, couldn't be harassed at work, couldn't be denied apartments or entry into a place of public accommodation. This was huge!
Ever since I left home at 16, I felt I had a home. It was wherever I was. I love being gay. What's to knock? We're some of the coolest people around. You want to have fun? Go hang out with gay people. We have a wonderful community and a culture of our own. I'm so proud of us all.
So if you're young and it seems hard right now being gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender, hang on. It gets better. The weird thing is that you will become a much stronger person by surviving difficult times. Don't give up. Meet other gay (or bi or trans) people and learn how great it is to be who we are. Respect yourself and expect others to respect you as well.
Rejoice in your identity. Find strength in it. Know that it is good and you are too. And hang on because it gets better. The thing that suicidal people never understand is that you will turn a page and find yourself in different circumstances. Suddenly, you will realize the bad days are all behind you. Work toward reaching that time in your life. Hang on!
PS: My mother and I are best friends now, and she has always been kind and welcoming to the boyfriends I brought over. People change -- and we help them do it.