A ‘slow learner’ comes to cry tears of joy at Pride
By Patricia Fieldsteel
At the last Gay Pride Day parade before I left New York for good to live in Nyons, France, I cried. Before I moved to the Village in 1969, I knew nothing about gays or gay life and, I admit, I was slow to learn. In the town where I grew up, there were no lesbians or homosexuals. Never had been. Never would be, if most people had their way. That was how people thought and what they strongly believed.
My parents, the ultimate homophobes (we won’t get into THAT one!) knew “they” existed, but definitely not in safe suburbia. My mother found them “sordid”; my father admitted they could at times be talented and was outraged when a friend admitted to beating up “queers” when he was younger. One of the textile designers working for him in the early 1970s was Jonathan N. Katz. He asked my father for a year off with his job held so he could write a play. My father agreed and to his shock ending up helping to make possible “Coming Out!” the first successful openly gay political play to be performed in the United States. Jonathan went on to become a prominent historian of gay life, as well as my neighbor on Jane St.
Because I grew up in a gay(joy)less environment, I came to the Village with an open mind, no judgment (as long as I didn’t have to be “one”) and a fair degree of curiosity. My first apartment building on Horatio and Washington Sts. was filled with men wearing dresses. They used to admire my clothes in the laundry room. Two were nurses at Gracie Square mental hospital. Another, Beauregard Houston-Montgomery (the artist/photographer and author of books about dolls), visited his parents on the Army base down South (where his dad was of an elevated rank) dressed as Tinker Bell the Fairy, complete with tutu, pink ballet slippers and glitter wand.
I thought these men were fascinating, colorful, perhaps a bit odd, sometimes annoying. They talked endlessly about “Andy” and were always hanging out at his “factory.” They were my introduction to what a closeted friend called “the happy people.” If there was anything about them I envied, it was their seeming unending capacity for fun. Later on, what I came to associate more with homosexual and lesbian life was ordinary people trying to hide their sexuality while still trying to be and accept who they were in a society that was not ready to allow that. Many led double lives. During the day or when they visited their families, they were doctors, plumbers, artists, cops, sales clerks, lawyers, teachers, you name it; but when they came home to the Village they could be gay as well.
I was dimly aware of sexual activity at night on Horatio (Fellatio) St. and in the Meat Market, but my naïveté was extreme. There was a parking lot for oversized trucks and all night I would hear agonized, bloodcurdling screams coming from inside the trailers. I’d phone the Sixth Precinct to report a man being murdered or tortured and beg them to come, sometimes saying I could see a guy who couldn’t walk being dragged away by two “ominous-looking” men in black leather. I would always feel outrage that they never came, not knowing back then about more esoteric forms of pleasure.
Early one Sunday morning, a neighbor rang my bell, trembling with fear. He’d been out cruising (I wasn’t really sure what that entailed) and some gay bashers had repeatedly stabbed a young man. He’d been the only eyewitness. The 17-year-old boy, closeted to his family, was not expected to live. (He did, but with an ostomy bag for the rest of his life.) This was my first awareness of how life threatening it could be to be gay.
My neighbor began attending G.A.A. (Gay Activists Alliance) meetings Thursday nights at a “Firehouse” on Wooster St. He spoke excitedly about other gays and lesbians “coming out” who met there for “consciousness raising” and planning nonviolent political confrontations, called “zaps.” And of course, he too, was a friend of Andy’s (the first person to whom he came out). I didn’t fully grasp what was happening other than to realize it was important.
Around 1980, he told me about a fatal gay disease, maybe caused by poppers, those gray canisters that littered Village streets, especially on weekends. Then it was something called GRID, Gay-Related Immunodeficiency. There were whispered rumors of a deadly pneumonia, then a cancer that killed only gay men. Neighbors mysteriously vanished; apartments went vacant, left as if their former occupants had merely gone out for a walk. Local restaurants and shops closed “due to illness,” to “death in the family,” shortly after forever.
On Jane St., neighbors helped neighbors, did what felt pitifully small and inadequate: cooked meals, shopped, cared for pets, lent support in whatever form it might take. Some people ran, shunned former neighbors and friends. The sight of emaciated young men with bizarre black facial lesions being pushed in wheelchairs for a while outnumbered toddlers and babies in strollers.
If anything served to galvanize me to action, it was anger. I was having lunch with a close friend in a neighborhood cafe. We ordered Coca-Cola; she requested regular; I asked for Diet. As soon as we’d each taken a sip, we realized the waiter had switched our orders. I removed my straw and shoved my glass over to her. She looked at me horrified, stammering and stuttering she couldn’t exchange drinks with me because I had homosexual friends and she was afraid of getting AIDS from my Coke.
At the time, such a reaction was not uncommon. One friend who had AIDS was not allowed to eat at the table with the rest of his family; when he did eat, he was forced to use paper plates and plastic cutlery that could immediately be thrown out.
I underwent training and certification as an H.I.V. counselor and worked for four years as part of an outreach project testing and counseling female and transgendered street prostitutes. At the same time, friends were testing positive, becoming ill and dying. I moved in with one of my closest friends so he could come home and die in his own bed. Other “positive” friends 25 years later are still living full lives without symptoms.
What caused me to cry at that last Pride Parade, with Gloria Gaynor pounding out “I Will Survive” and “I Am What I Am” in the background? It wasn’t because of AIDS, or those who’d been murdered, shamed or abused because of their sexuality. I was moved to tears by the freedom, the joyous celebration of triumph and survival.
To The Editor: