Hi, I’m Jeremy, also known as
On Gay History and Gay Guilt and Gay Spaces and Gay Generations and the Gay Identity
This story originally appeared on Medium. View on Medium »
Over the last few years I've been ruminating on a number of ideas related to my experience with coming out, Gay history, identity and spaces. This story is the culmination of all that rumination. It's a little bit long, and a little bit all over the place, but I hope that it will resonate with you, my beloved reader.
Coming out was easy for me.
Well, that's a lie.
But despite my conservative upbringing, the whole process amounted to a big nothing. Sure, it was hard at the time. Tears were shed. Voices were raised. I felt the weight of many disappointed looks over a period of several years as my coming out process unfolded to varying groups of friends, family, and coworkers.
I wasn't disowned, humiliated, beaten, or killed for my sexual identity. It all started in 2003. I began to come to terms with it myself over the year or two before. It was confusing given the things my church had taught me. Things were scary for young gays coming out then. And things were scary for our friends and family too. It was just a few years after the murder of Matthew Shepard. HIV was still new-ish and difficult to treat. There were still few places where it was safe to be out. There wasn't a lot of talk about any of this if you weren't in the gay community.
In the years since first coming out, it's been a fairly smooth ride for me. Probably the worst things that have ever happened to me because of my sexuality were being called a faggot while walking down the street a few times throughout the years. I'd be remiss to not also mention having to leave my job at a Christian organization after the organization made an anti-LGBT policy shift, but that was hardly targeted at me specifically.
I can't help but feel a little bit guilty for the relative nothingness of my own coming out story.
The first time I watched *Milk *I cried — a lot. While many of the film's scenes were emotional, the ending left the greatest impact on me, watching a reenactment of tens of thousands marched through San Francisco the night of Harvey Milk's assassination.
The Castro by a.poll_o licensed under CC BY-SA
In 2011, I took a trip to San Francisco to visit with a friend and explore the city. I made plans with a gay friend of mine who lived in San Francisco to take me out to the gay bars while I was there.
I remember my first glimpse of the Castro in person. My mind flashed back to the scenes I saw in Milk. I was struck with a sense of awe and an instant emotional connection to a place I had never been before. My breath was taken away. It was surreal.
It was like a pilgrimage to the holy land as I walked the sidewalks where Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones and their contemporaries lived, worked and took to the streets.
Since that trip, I've spent some time exploring the history of the gay community and its fights for equality. I've watched documentaries such as Before Stonewall and *After Stonewall *and read articles and books on the subject, like Cleve Jones' When We Rise. I'm hardly an expert, but digging deeper into LGBTQ history is captivating for me.
But it's hard to hear or read those stories without tears in my eyes. I often feel a lump in my throat. It's hard to even grasp what my gay predecessors went through — the hatred, violence, and discrimination.
When I first came out, over 30 years after the Stonewall riots, it still wasn't safe in most places to hold hands or kiss a man I had been dating in public. While there was (and is still) much ground to be won in the battle for equality, the early activists made headway in creating gay spaces that are a safe haven for the LGBTQ community to gather. In my time of being out, I've always had these gay ghettos in which I could feel safe being myself. Every large city I visit has at least one, and I always make a point to find them. They have always been a magical place for me. I could be myself with whomever I was with, and I didn't have to fear hatred there. I knew I would be safe.
I remember the first time I went to a gay club. It was close to a year after I initially came out to some of my friends at college. I went to 12th Air Command in Philadelphia's Gayborhood. It was underage night — I was still only 20. My eyes lit up as I looked around the club and took in the environment, the lights, the music, and the boys. But I was too shy, and I could only stand along the wall and stare, awestruck, across the room.
Another boy about my age caught me staring. I panicked as he started to come over to me. He asked what I was looking at. I said, "nothing." He replied, "too bad," kissed me briefly, and walked away. I was invigorated and a bit emboldened by the encounter. And I had a hell of a smug grin on my face.
Shortly after that first visit to the Gayborhood, a friend and I decided to do some more exploration. Not yet 21, our options were limited. Through our searching, we came across Millennium Coffee.
Cafe Twelve in 2012, located where Millennium Coffee once was
I had always loved the coffee shop atmosphere. In high school I frequently went to a local coffee shop open mic night, and in my freshman year of college I was always trying to drag my friends to a new coffee shop that had opened just off of Drexel's campus.
When I first set foot inside Millennium Coffee, it was everything I could have wanted. Millennium was a buzzing hotspot of 20-something homosexuality. It was all I wanted at the time— coffee, WiFi internet access (a rarity at the time), and boys. It was home.
For months, I would lug my 10 pound laptop from across town to the Gayborhood to sit at a table at Millennium several times a week. In the warm months, patrons would sit at the tables outside, facing the street and eyeing anyone who walked by, a practice which some called "the reviewing stand." One didn't simply walk in to Millennium Coffee — no, you knew you were on display and had to dress and walk to make your entrance with style.
Once inside, I would waste countless hours on the internet and check out the cute guys seated around the room, hoping to make a connection. Everyone did it. In the days before smartphones, GPS, and Grindr, we would all log in to our Manhunt accounts, try to match profile pictures to faces in the coffee shop, confer with our friends, and maybe send a flirtatious, yet skittish "hey" to someone we recognized — our own form of a location-based dating app.
Growing up in the Gayborhood
Soon, I was a freshly-minted 21 year old, and for my birthday I wanted to go to Bump Lounge, a gay cocktail bar serving martinis in a rainbow of candy colors. My friend Patrick took me. It was everything I had hoped for, as I looked at the boys and sipped on my Gorgeous Geisha martini in a tiny glass.
With access to all of the 21+ Gayborhood haunts now, I explored the options. My love affair with the Gayborhood that started at Millennium continued to blossom. I really loved it. Finally I had access to a whole neighborhood full of establishments where I could go and be myself, comfortable, safe, and with others like me.
My friend group shifted as my college career wrapped up, and I moved back from my city apartment to my parents house in the suburbs. But I continued to make regular visits to the Gayborhood in the evening and on weekends. Often I'd spend Friday or Saturday night at the then-divey Tavern on Camac, tipsy and singing show tunes to the piano with everyone else. I remember a particular late night at Tavern on Camac as the bar was closing and the bartender, who was always very flirty with me, came out from behind the bar and asked if I wanted to dance.
After college, as I met new friends, I began spending more and more time in the Gayborhood. Often I'd come home from work and immediately head into the city, sometimes multiple times per week. The exact place was always shifting, but the destination was always the Gayborhood.
At one point several years later, frustration set in. After some particularly devastating personal drama with some friends and love interests, the Gayborhood started to get to me. I gave up on it. I stopped going to the gay bars, and instead I stayed home or went other places in the suburbs with other friends. For a time, I associated the Gayborhood with the rejection I felt. It was a huge loss.
But it wasn't long before I missed the sense of home that I felt in the Gayborhood. I caved and eased my way back into being a regular at the bars once again. It wasn't long before I was again driving into the city several nights a week after work to spend time in my beloved Gayborhood.
Finally I saved up enough money to move out on my own again, and I rented an apartment just a few blocks away from all of the action. It was a dream come true for me to be just a few minutes away from the places I loved.
Over the years, a lot has changed in the Gayborhood.
Philadelphia Gayborhood crosswalk by waffleboy licensed under CC BY
Millennium has long since closed. A number of coffee shops have opened and closed in the same location, but none will ever replace Millennium. After my move back to the city in 2011, I found myself making near-daily pilgrimages to the new coffee shop in its place, Cafe 12. It wasn't the same, but it was still a special place for me.
12th Air Command became iCandy and has now become Tabu. New bars have opened. Others have closed. There's always something changing to mix things up.
At times, I've taken the availability of these spaces for granted, but I always come back to them in the end, grateful they exist and for the effort that went into making them available to me. I've always considered those spaces up as something sacred for me and for the gay community. For me they have always been places to gather, meet and feel a sense of pride and ownership.
Integration and general acceptance have always been the goal of the Gay Rights Movement. We've always wanted to be ourselves wherever we are and enjoy the same access, safety, and comfort as our heterosexual counterparts. While we're far from reaching that point everywhere, a lot of progress has been made, especially in the large metropolitan areas to which LGBTQ young adults often flock, like Philadelphia.
But I've seen a shift. In the 16 years or so since I came out, I've seen the general public's acceptance of the gay community grow tremendously. And with that acceptance, it seems that gays, especially those who are under 30, have a much more casual relationship with the Gayborhood and other gay spaces.
In part, I think this shift can be attributed to the disappearance of Gayborhood events for those who are under 21. Both Woody's and 12th Air Command hosted popular weekly under 21 nights, which introduced LGBTQ youth as young as 17 to the Gayborhood. With both bars ending their underage nights several years back, gay college students simply find other things to do until they turn 21. And by the time they're 21, they likely don't have a strong desire to start going to the Gayborhood.
The gay clubs have also become popular establishments for straight women to go for outings and, in particular, bachelorette parties. And as that popularity increased, the number of straight men that come with them has increased as well. The once-hallowed gay spaces are increasingly not-so-gay. The safe feeling of knowing you weren't inadvertently flirting with a straight guy isn't nearly as certain as it used to be.
But I think this shift away from the gay ghettos is also a sign of the times. Whereas in the past, dates and friend meetups would almost exclusively take place in the Gayborhood, that's not always the case now. Often we'll go somewhere more mainstream. Maybe it's the case that our beloved gay spaces are on the brink of no longer being needed.
As I look back and reflect on those times in the not-very-distant past when being gay wasn't as easy and being out wasn't an option, I often feel like my own experience isn't very meaningful. Having had to fight for nothing to live my life openly, I can't help but feel guilty — like I owe something to those who came before me. I often feel like I haven't earned the freedom I've been fortunate enough to have since my coming out.
As I face the changing dynamics of society and the gay community and the gay enclaves and gay spaces, I feel conflicted.
I feel like I should be celebrating our progress, but instead it makes me feel uneasy thinking about the gay generations that follow me and their often even easier experiences of coming out than my own. And yet again I feel unsettled when I see younger gays spending less time in our gay spaces.
On one hand, I feel great joy that, at least in some places, we are able to assimilate. Isn't it great that in some places I can hold a man's hand proudly, comfortably and without fear ?
It's something we've always wanted. But to me it feels like something is missing, or lost, or about to go extinct.
It took some time to sift through all these thoughts, that seem connected, yet also disconnected, and honestly I'm still working through all of this. But I think much of my rumination about this subject comes to to my identity and its ties to the gay community and gay spaces.
In the early 2000s when I came out, being out was a major statement about your identity. It impacted everything. You associated yourself with other gays because there was strength in numbers, a tradition that was passed down from the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Often the coming out process would result in losing friends or family and finding new ones. Back then, acceptance, or even tolerance, wasn't a guarantee, and so you would cling tightly to the gay community as a group that wouldn't turn its back on you.
Today, many young people have the luxury of coming out at younger ages and with less friction than ever before. While their orientation is clearly a part of their identity, it feels a little different to me. It seems that it's just an attribute of their personhood, and the cornerstone it was for me and many others. It's becoming just a label, not a membership to a community like it was for many of us who came out before.
With the shifting tides of culture, I think I'm a little scared. So many things are moving in a positive direction for LGBTQ people. But it feels like the gay identity I once knew is being erased. I'm scared that with these changes, and with greater assimilation, the sense of community will dwindle and the gay spaces I love will someday go away, taking with them a part of me. It's a scary thought. It's been a central part of me for so long, and if it were to go away, I'm not sure what would fill its space.
Get in Touch With Jeremy
The majority of my time is spent working for Happy Cog, however I do take on occasional consulting and speaking gigs.
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