The terrific It Gets Better video spots combating gay teen suicide make it clear: We are out of the Dark Ages, but the Age of Enlightenment has yet to come. Most of these videos make me cry (though I eventually smile through my tears). The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles singing "True Colors" had me sobbing. There is unbearable beauty in connecting to the pain of our tribe, to the pain of all outsiders, the pain of humankind.
This is a pain I don’t usually visit. My life as a gay adult has been easy. I almost forget that at 18, I too thought of suicide — I had almost passed as "normal" in school, but the effort was wearing me out. The first person to call me a fag was my mother. I knew that I had to toe the line in my family of overachieving Jewish jocks. Part of the problem was that I didn’t even consciously realize I was gay. There were no gay role models. I had hoped that leaving home and going to college would fix my sense of disconnectedness. Initially, the atmosphere was even more conservative than at my high school. My first lifeline, my freshman year, was meeting other "freaks" at a weekend retreat for inner-city volunteers. I began to feel part of a community of outsiders. By the time I fully understood I was gay, a couple of years later, I was ready to see it as a creative opportunity: I’m not going to be living the life I was brought up to live, so I'm going to make the whole thing up. An early moment of truth and freedom.
I graduated and joined the world of theater and avant-garde arts. No one really cared about my sexuality. All were accepted, differences were celebrated, and I flourished. My family, in the long run, came through: My happiness was what they wanted. It was my job to find it, not theirs.
AIDS brought the true challenges. First there was terror: Will it be me? Then it was activism: I’ll save myself by being at the front lines. Then it was me: Live for now. And then I outlived myself. I doubted, however, that I would ever have a partner again, that I would ever feel sexy again, that I would ever believe that a future was possible. And then it did get better: the life I am living today — gay, HIV-positive, and at the top of my game as I reach 60.
Some of my sadness at seeing these It Gets Better spots is that they are still needed.
Activism has been successful in part. I am proud to have presented the first production of the play that introduced the brilliant James Lecesne’s Trevor to the world. Now the Trevor Project, the telephone helpline for LGBT teens, is saving lives. What I am perhaps proudest of is that I may have provided a safer context for my gay nephew’s childhood and coming of age. By living my life as an out gay man, I laid the groundwork so that he, the Lambda Literary Award–winning author of Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan, would never have to worry whether his family would accept him. He once told me that when he was 9 years old, he looked around the apartment I shared with my then-partner, Mark, and thought, Two men, one bed. I get it.
Thankfully, we now have hundreds of out role models. A quantum leap from the Dark Ages, a.k.a. my childhood.
The New 60 is about it getting better as we age. Again, I was lucky; my father at 60 was vital and active. He and my uncles were role models for aging with vitality into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Not everyone gets that.
So, young (and not so young) men and women, LGBT, straight, whatever: It does get better, as we get to know who we are and as we move beyond the limits of prejudice and internalized prejudice. Whether we realize it or not, we are all role models: Speak up and take action. Come out if you can. Don’t lie about your age. Be proud of your ethnicity, your sexuality, your gender, your body type, your unique qualities. The consistent theme of It Gets Better is that the very traits that make you an outsider when young bring you joy later in life! Survive. Thrive. Celebrate.