Karine Jean-Pierre
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To All the Gay Men I've Loved Before

Trudy and friend

Before there was Will and Grace, there was Kevin and Trudy.

And then another Kevin and Trudy. And Ernest and Trudy. And Keith and Trudy. And…

I have been fortunate to have a plethora of friendships in my life, some that have come and gone, some that have endured. My friends include straight men and women, lesbians, bisexuals, and both cisgender and transgender people. But gay men are disproportionately represented.

There are those who’ve tried to explain the gay man-straight woman dynamic or, sometimes, pathologize it. But I’m less interested in explanations — I’ve simply met a lot of gay men and liked many of them — than in exploring how they’ve enriched my life. And enrich it they have.

It all starts with Kevin. None of these guys are closeted, but for simplicity I’ll use first names only. We met more than 40 years ago and have remained best friends to this day. And he’s the man who made me what I am today, which he will recognize as one of our private jokes.

Kevin and I are from the same town and went to the same university, but we didn’t meet until a mutual friend suggested I call Kevin if I ever needed a ride home from college for a weekend or vacation. I did call him, and I will always be glad I did.

We soon became close friends, riding around in his convertible on summer nights, going to movies, hitting the bars. Then one night in the late 1970s he came out to me — or, more accurately, was outed by the friend who’d connected us, who was also gay.

My upbringing had been unconventional in some ways, but it had been conventional, for the time, in the sense that I’d been told gay wasn’t OK. But knowing gay people as wonderful as Kevin helped me see that being gay was indeed better than OK.

Our friendship deepened after this. We bonded over a lot of things — movies, literature, Broadway musicals (yes, I do have some stereotypically gay interests) — but especially over our humor. We’ve repeated the same jokes for years and think we’re hilarious even if no one else does. We love puns, malapropisms, and just really silly stuff, like citing the wrong creators for famous shows: “That great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical West Side Story.” When listing the cast of an old movie — say, Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow — we add, “And Jo Van Fleet as the alcoholic mother.” Van Fleet won an Oscar for playing a monstrous mother in East of Eden.

When Kevin got a job teaching music in a town near Chicago, I visited him often, and when I finally moved to Chicago, we had many great times exploring the city. Because of him and the other gay men (and LGBTQ+ people in general) I met, I started speaking out against homophobia wherever I encountered it — in the workplace, in social settings, whatever — and became an activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

One of the gay men I got to know through Kevin was another Kevin, who lived near me in Chicago and was always ready with an offer to go out to dinner or the bars, or to make me dinner. Kevin II, I’ll call him, was a legendary party-giver; one of his neighbors dubbed him the Perle Mesta of their condo building. (Google that reference if you don’t get it.) He also did me many kindnesses, like bringing me home from the hospital on a nasty winter day when I had a leg in a cast and needed help to get to my second-floor walkup apartment.

Sadly, Kevin II, like many gay men of his generation, was an AIDS casualty. When he died in 1994, just 41 years old, I had been involved in the fight against AIDS for several years, knowing it was a threat to people I loved. I volunteered with Chicago House, an organization that provided housing for people with HIV or AIDS who’d been kicked out of their homes, something all too common in the early years of the epidemic. I made many friends among the staff and other volunteers, but one of them stands out: Ernest (pictured).

He was on staff as volunteer coordinator, and we clicked almost immediately. We had a lot of common interests — movies, literature, politics — and he comforted me through a hard time at my job. Mostly, though, he made me laugh. A lot. He had a deeply good heart but a snarky sense of humor; almost every day I think of his comments about “America’s most embarrassing people” or his noting of an egotistical sort, “He wants to be important and he’s not.” He was a renowned party-giver too, with fabulous Christmas and Oscar night celebrations.

We lost Ernest to AIDS as well, in 2004; the new drugs that worked for so many people didn’t work for him. However, many of my wonderful gay men friends are still with us, including the first Kevin, and several I’ve met through my work at The Advocate. My first Advocate friend was Keith. We were both copy editors, and he put me at ease on day one when I started on the job 24 years ago. We indulged in copy editor humor: “Should anal-retentive have a hyphen?” We bonded further over politics and our love of certain musicians: Bruce Springsteen, U2, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne. I do adore show tunes, but I’m also a rock-and-roll girl. And with Keith I got a twofer: Eggy, his husband, is a great friend and one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.

I’ve made friends with so many others who’ve worked at The Advocate or other publications owned by our company, or who I’ve gotten to know through volunteering or other activities. Some have shared my interests (like Christopher, a longtime Advocate colleague who gets all my old movie references), and others have introduced me to new ones (Mystery Science Theater 3000). But mostly, what gay men, and later other LGBTQ+ people, have done for me is to drive home that difference needn’t be a barrier, and that if you think it is, you’re going to miss out on knowing a lot of terrific people. And that platonic love is as important as romantic. That kind of love has enriched my life more than I can say.

 

This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Love issue, which is out on newsstands February 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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