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Strangers no more

Strangers no more


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!

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Mitchell Lee Marks