I "figured it out" during the summer of 1978, but my real "coming out" was on September 25th, 1982, a Saturday night during my first year in grad school at Indiana University.
As an undergraduate at Augustana College, I had worked hard, very hard, to find gay people, and I found a few -- my ex boyfriend Fred; the priest in Des Moines with three boyfriends; Professor Burton, who held handcuff parties for campus hunks. You had to go through word of mouth, through a friend of a friend of a friend.
Now I was at a vast university with 40,000 students, and as far as I could tell from conversations and signals and interests, every single one of them was heterosexual (I had not yet met the 5 Gay Men of Eigenmann Hall).
My friends, classmates, and coworkers all, without exception, maintained the "what girl do you like?" whine of my childhood. I had to leave Playboy magazines on my desk and think of logical reasons why I didn't have a girl on my arm every second.
My classes were as empty of gay references as they had been at Augustana. Every writer who had ever lived was heterosexual. Every poem ever written was written from man to women. The Eternal Feminine infused all our lives.
And, as far as I knew, this was the way life was everywhere and for everyone. A vast emptiness, hiding, pretending, unyielding silence.
I had no interest in getting laid. At least, not as Jon understood it. But I walked with him across the vast, silent campus, past empty buildings, past towers of Indiana limestone erected by heterosexuals long ago, to the Memorial Union, where a party for heterosexual grad students was in session.
Then I said goodbye and went to the campus library. There were uncountable millions of books in the vast stacks, rooms as long as a football field, but only two listed under "homosexuality" in the card catalog: the memoirs of Tennessee Williams, and Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess, about Shakespeare's romance with the Dark Lady of the sonnets.
I walked alone down Kirkwood Avenue, past student bars and little Asian restaurants and hamburger stands. Just before the Baskin Robbins closed at 10:00, I stopped in and bought an ice cream cone. Two scoops, strawberry on the bottom and Rocky Road on the top. 30 years later, I still remember that ice cream cone.
There were gay bars in Omaha, and even in Rock Island, dark closet bars with nondescript names and no windows, where you entered through the back so no one could see you. But surely Bloomington was too small for such a place.
I stopped into a weird eclectic bookstore called the White Rabbit. No gay books -- it was illegal to display them openly, as Fred told me when I found his secret bookshelf two years ago. So I bought a novelization of the 1980 Popeye musical starring Robin Williams, set in the port town of Sweethaven:
Sweet Sweethaven! God must love us.
Why else would He have stranded us here?
A church tower had a cross that lit up white at night, and I looked up it and prayed "Why did you strand me here?"
I wandered for a long time through quiet residential streets, houses where heterosexual husbands and wives were asleep, their children in the next room surrounded by "what girl do you like?" brainwashing toys and games. I walked past a public park, but was afraid to go in. After dark, monsters roamed through the dark swaying trees.
Somehow I found myself at a small, nondescript building on College Avenue. The sign on the marquee advertised "Adult Books."
I knew about gay pornography, magazines featuring naked men - Lars told me about it during my brief modeling career, and I saw some in Omaha. But surely regular adult bookstores wouldn't stock any.
Still...it wouldn't hurt to check. The most they could do is call me a "fag."
Screwing up my courage, I walked through the glass door, past a sign advising me that the materials could be sold only to police officers, physicians, lawyers, and scholars with a legitimate professional interest. Ok, so I was a grad student working on a research project.
The room was brightly-lit, glaring with hundreds of images of naked women, their private parts on full display. There was a blow-up sex doll hanging from the ceiling. There was an aisle of lubricants, shelves of erotic candies, sex games, bondage costumes...and an obese man in a t-shirt behind a little counter, eating french fries and drinking a fast food soda.
I found it incongruous, almost bizarre, that he was watching Love Boat on a small portable tv set.
He didn't look up as I approached. I cleared my throat and asked in a stilted, halting voice, "Do you...um, like...do you have anything...like, gay?"
That was the first time I ever said the word "gay" to a stranger.
Without looking up, he jerked his thumb toward a rack in the back, by the bathroom, near the sign for "movie booths."
I expected some clandestine porn or, at best, some mimeographed newsletters. But I found big, bold, glossy magazines: In Touch, The Advocate, and Christopher Street.
News articles! Movie reviews! Advice columns! Cartoons! Celebrity interviews! Travel guides!
Donelan, Tom of Finland, Ethan Mordden, Quentin Crisp, Querelle, Making Love, the Stonewall Riots, Noel Coward, pink triangles, Howard Cruise, Felice Picano, Gay American History, Harvey Milk, Castro clones, Allen Ginsberg, homophobia in the military, Harry Chess, Jerry Mills, gay pride marches, pro-gay Senators, Christopher Street, Peter Berlin, bar etiquette...
Gay havens like West Hollywood, the East Village, the Castro, Dupont Circle, and Fire Island.
Maybe Bloomington was dark and closeted. Maybe Rock Island. Maybe even Omaha. But somewhere, over the rainbow, gay life was bigger, louder, and more open than anything I had ever imagined.
See also: Prince Charles is Gay