Strangers no more

BY Mitchell Lee Marks

December 05 2005 12:00 AM ET

I came out in the
summer of 1980—right in the thick of the disco era. I
was 25 years old and a doctoral candidate at the University
of Michigan, and I hung out with a group of fellow
grad students and locals who shared a severe case of
Saturday Night Fever. We went dancing nearly every
weekend at the hippest disco in Ann Arbor, a club evenly
split between gays and straights. I had never seen
that many gay men in one location before. Feeling free
on the dance floor was a big step toward accepting my
sexual orientation. It was exhilarating.

So when it came
time to celebrate my 50th birthday this year, I decided
to throw a dance party. It was a huge success. We packed 400
people into the legendary Stud Bar in San Francisco.
Many guests told me it was the most fun they had
dancing in years. They kept asking me, “Do you know
all these people?”

I wish. In
reality, my birthday gift to myself was to invite the many
interesting people I had seen around San Francisco for the
nine years I have lived here but whom I had never met.
It was the first time since elementary school that
I’d walked up to people I didn’t know well and
asked, “Do you want to come to my birthday
party?” The responses were as diverse as the
people I invited.

One group
consisted of the men I’d seen out having a great time
on the dance floor over the years but with whom
I’d never connected. They seemed like
they’d be interesting people to get to know better,
and they did not disappoint—they offered warm
congratulations and were quite conversant about aging,
staying healthy, and living life. A few gave me business
cards that indicated prominent professional positions that
were in stark contrast to the current stereotype that
dance club regulars must be addicted tweakers or
shallow circuit queens.

I also invited
many sexy men I’d seen around town or at the gym for
years. It has never been easy for me to initiate
conversations with people I don’t know
well—especially when they’re quite attractive.
But having an invitation in hand empowered me to walk
right up to these hot guys. Most were quite nice;
several talked about how they hadn’t been out
dancing in years because of the drug use that’s taken
over many gay dance floors. Others could not put a
sentence together when a stranger walked up and
invited them to a party. Once I started pitching the party,
most of these A-list guys became more at ease. The
experience countered one of my own stereotypes: All
these years I assumed these guys were stuck-up. In
fact, as my friend Michael Kretchmar, who helped organize
the party, observed, many of them were just shy or
lacked social skills. Some were foreigners, and
English was not their first language—they lit up when
I took the time to approach them, introduce myself,
and invite them to a party.

We all had a
great time at the Stud Bar that night. The night was about
dancing, connecting with people, having fun, and, oh, yeah,
my 50th birthday. Complete strangers continue to come
up to me and thank me for throwing the party. That was
the real gift to myself: confronting old assumptions
and making new friends at the ripe old age of 50.

The party was so
much fun that the Stud Bar owner wants to make it a
monthly event. I told him I wouldn’t mind turning 50
again!

Tags: Commentary

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