I figured "it" out in 1978, during the summer after my high school graduation, and immediately started looking for gay people in Rock Island.
Not for sex or dating, necessarily, just to find someone to talk to. I had made a major discovery, uncovered the Big Lie, and I couldn't tell anyone about it.
There was no one to discuss the hints and signals that helped us finally realize that "it is not raining upstairs."
No one to share complaints about the incessant "what girl do you like?" interrogations of our family and friends.
No one who I could nudge on the street and say "Isn't that guy hot!"
But how to find gay people in a world with no dating apps, no internet chatrooms, no gay organizations, and everyone pretending that they had no idea that same-sex desire existed.
There was a gay bar in town, but you had to be 21 to get in. I was 17, and looked around 15.
Asking knowledgeable straight people was a problem. They would answer with a suspicious "Why do you want to know? Are you a fag?"
So I made my inquiries as homophobic as possible. "No, of course not! I just want to know if it's safe to walk down the street in this town!"
That research yielded mostly dead ends, hints and rumors, no last names, no details.
I tried to look for clues: guys who were especially feminine, or who made eye contact a little too long, or who touched your hand by "accident."
That was fruitless, too: I spent weeks hanging out with Jack Kerouac, aka Jurgen, only to discover that he was straight, living with a girl!
As far as I could tell, there were no gay people at Augustana, in Rock Island, in the state of Illinois, in the world.
Then, around Christmastime in 1978, I went to the post office in downtown Rock Island to buy some stamps, and behind the counter was a grinning Little Person.
Or maybe just a short guy. The Little People Association of America defines dwarfism as anyone 4'10" and under. He may have been an inch or two taller than that, maybe 5'0", the height of Aron Eisenberg, who played the Ferengi boy Nog on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
(Don't worry, he was over 25 years old when he bulged for this photo.)
My Little Person -- his name tag said Andy -- was in his 20s, very handsome, with a round face, cleanshaven, shaggy brown hair, and a slim, tightly muscled physique.
For a moment I couldn't think of what to say: I just stared. Then, catching myself: "I'd like a book of stamps."
"Got a lot of Christmas cards to send?"
"Yep. A lot of guys on my list."
The word guys hung in the air. Andy smiled even more broadly. "Well, how about our new Carl Sandburg stamps? He's the one that called Chicago 'the city of big shoulders,' you know."
What straight guy would think of big shoulders? Andy was gay! But how to make contact at the front of a long line of grumpy Christmas shoppers? "I know. I'm an English major at Augie [Augustana College]."
"I went there. Majored in Postal Science." He laughed at his own joke, and touched my hand as he passed over the book of stamps. When I didn't flinch, he said "Maybe I should drop by my alma mater some time, see how things are going over there."
"I'm at the Student Union most afternoons." I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I left.
The next day I hung out at the Student Union all afternoon, but no Little Person.
I scrambled to find a gift to send to my Aunt Nora in Indiana, box it up, and take it to the post office at the same time the next day. Andy was there!
He noticed that I let a couple of other people go ahead of me so I could go to his window, and grinned broadly.
"I wanted to thank you for the Sandburg stamps," I said. "They'll be a big hit with my friends. Too bad they didn't show the stormy, husky, brawling Youth, half-naked and proud."
"That's our Tom of Finland collection, out next month." I had never heard of Tom of Finland, the gay erotic artist, so I didn't get the joke. He paused. "Busy day today. I can't wait until I get off at 6:00 pm."
At 6:00 pm I was waiting outside the back entrance to the post office, watching the day shift leave. Andy glanced at me, but didn't speak.
"Hi, Andy! I thought we could..."
WTF? He walked past quickly without looking at me, then slowed and looked back. Mystified, I followed.
I followed him for three blocks, past the Circa 21 Dinner Theater, past the Public Library where I spent many afternoons in high school, past the United Methodist Church. Every now and then he looked back to make sure I was still there.
I stood outside, wondering what to do. A few moments later, Andy stuck his head out the door, looked at me, and disappeared again.
I followed him inside and up the stairs to a small studio apartment. A daybed, a small coffee table covered with books and papers, two stalk lamps, a bookcase.
Andy carefully closed and locked the door.
"So, where do you want to go for dinner?"
Then he was on me, kissing and fondling everything he could get his hands on. We tore off our coats and shirts and collapsed onto the daybed. His mouth was everywhere, biting, licking, sucking. He tried to turn me over and push inside, but I whispered "No, the front."
He went down on me vigorously -- my first experience at receiving oral sex.
Then he lay on his back, moaning as I moved from his firm, hairy chest to his belly. When I got to his penis -- average sized, uncut -- he trembled and moaned and jerked his hips, and finished with a shudder.
I had only been in 1 1/2 sexual situations before, and never anything this exuberant. It was overwhelming.
When it was over, we lay on the daybed, kissing and fondling, and I was finally able to ask Andy some questions.
No, he didn't know any other gay people in town. Some familiar faces at JR's, some guys he knew by first names or nicknames, but no one real.
It was too dangerous. If anyone discovered that he was gay, he would be kicked out of his apartment, fired from his job, arrested, committed to a mental institution.
"Could we...you know, get together again? Maybe have dinner?"
"Not until you're old enough to go to JR's," Andy said with a sad smile. "It's the only safe place." He stood and handed me my underwear. "Make sure no one sees you on your way out."
I left feeling even more alone.
Actually, Illinois revoked its sodomy law in 1962, and the American Psychiatric Association removed being gay from its list of psychoses in 1973.
But Andy didn't know that. No one in small town Illinois in 1978 knew that.
I never saw Andy again. Years later, I asked around at JRs, and found out that he moved to Iowa City to be close to a lover.
A month later, I would meet my second gay guy in Rock Island, Peter the Male Witch.