Years ago Pat Conroy told an interviewer that an unhappy childhood is one of the best things that can happen to a writer. The thought depressed me because 1) nothing was more important to me than succeeding as a novelist, 2) my childhood and adolescence had been close to wonderful and 3) I knew he was right. No one who had grown up happy could have ever conjured the dramatic emotional intensity found in The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini or any of this great writer's books. Ditto for most of the other literature I appreciated at the time – it was all written by people with "issues" that made them miserable but gave them the most amazing material for their work.
I ended up overcoming my handicap by forsaking the literary for the commercial – choosing to write stories about good, happy people caught in terrifying situations. It works because I write about things that scare me, which fortunately also scare other people. But it wouldn't work if the good, happy people I write about didn't always come out ahead. In fact I wouldn't even think of writing a book that didn't have a happy ending.
This has a lot to do with the way I'm choosing to write about the next decade (which follows what Time magazine has dubbed the "Worst Decade Ever."). As a happy, healthy and married (more about that in a minute) "man of a certain age," I've been wondering what it's going to take to bring more happiness to more people in the gay community. (I'm convinced that marriage and health have a lot to do with it). Why the gays? First because I am one, and second because 2010 marks a particularly good time to look at happiness, health and marriage and what they mean to many of us in this community, right now.
For news sources I sought out three other men who are official and unofficial experts on each topic. Evan Wolfson is the founder of Freedom to Marry and a 26-year advocate for the effort to legalize same sex marriage. David Toussaint chronicles the fun and follies of our lives through his columns in Edge magazine and his new book, Toussaint! and is also a marriage expert of sorts, thanks to his earlier book Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Ceremony. Jeff McElhaney is the co-founder of Brand-Aid Creative advertising and a pioneer in the effort to promote messages about safe sex and HIV prevention.
In our recent cyber discussion all three offered some insight on the lessons they've learned and their expectations for the decade to come:
THIRSTY: Evan, since I'm determined to be topical and timely, I'll put the first question to you. In mid-December Washington, DC became the first jurisdiction south of the Mason-Dixon line to pass a measure to legalize same sex marriage. While I truly hope this leads thousands of my buds to rush to Amazon.com and order David Toussaint's wedding planner I keep thinking yeah, but . . . Haven't we seen this kind of progress at the state level before, only to have it snatched away?
WOLFSON: First, pause to savor the accomplishment: freedom to marry in our Nation's Capital. The overwhelming vote by the DC City Council in favor of the freedom to marry was a historic victory, capping a decade of immense progress. More than a third of the nation, over 100 million people, now lives in states where same-sex couples have some level of statewide protection and recognition for their families. We still have a long way to go, and any delay is painful and unfair, but by any historical standard, this is fast and big.
THIRSTY: It must be especially gratifying to you because you've been involved in the battle since writing your first paper on the topic in college in 1983. I certainly wasn't thinking about such important topics back then. David, what about you?
TOUSSAINT: 1983 was my first year at UCLA, and I was madly in love with about a thousand men, football players, gymnasts (the '84 Olympic guys practiced on campus), every frat boy. They were as wonderful as freshly mowed grass. Soon I would move to New York, and all those guys would be reborn as Chelsea Boys. I never dreamed or thought that someday I might be able to marry one – that would have been like imagining digital music or instant messages.
THIRSTY: Were you thinking about serious subjects, like marriage and health?
TOUSSAINT: I had – and have – severe OCD. Back then no one thought or talked about it. My particular affliction is "intrusive thoughts" so, unfortunately, much of the time I just wanted to be sane. I was trapped by my own head and wanted to be free. This was before "meds" became a household word. However, every therapist I saw from age 16 to 25 told me I was either repressing being physically abused by my father (absurd) or repressing homosexuality. That's how things worked back then. When I was doing well, I was unbearably happy and unbearably horny. I met my first boyfriend around that time—he was an "older man," extremely handsome, and an "actor" who lived in New York and wore a beret. He said we didn't need to have safe sex because we "knew each other spiritually," while around us men were getting sick left and right and everyone was terrified to kiss another man. He failed to tell me that he'd go to the piers at night, back when they were dangerous and cruisy. He also went to psychics, who told him he was "safe." I got rid of him, and took his cat. He quit acting, joined a cult, and then moved to Boston— he probably teaches psychology at Harvard now.
THIRSTY: Contrast to now, a time when it's easy to learn your HIV status, and expect others to do the same –
TOUSSAINT: That guy lived in the old world of gay men, a world that was, literally, dying. My first gym in New York was the Chelsea Gym, and every month you'd suddenly realize you hadn't seen whomever in a month. Then you'd see his skeleton walking down the street or you'd see the death notice posted on the bulletin board. I feel now as if the Village and Chelsea are built on a burial ground. Those guys were living the dream; free sex, anonymous sex. I think those men struggled more with self-loathing than gay men do in 2010. But I can't say they weren't happy, because the few men who've survived (and it is few) have wonderful memories, and resent movies like "The Boys in the Band" that depict them all as self-loathing. I think the literature from that era is self-loathing, in part because almost every gay writer was an Ivy League grad who hated his family. The common gay man didn't really have a voice back then. We weren't on TV or in the movies unless we were a stereotype. And the successful gay men were elitist snobs; worse than writers, if you can believe it. Maybe because they coveted what little power in the world they had, I don't know.
THIRSTY: Jeff, you started creating public service advertising aimed at convincing men to practice safe sex back in the 1980s. You noted in a recent Ad Age essay that you did this on the down-low, as the saying goes, meaning after business hours and with no connection to the agency that employed you. What prompted this decision?
McELHANEY: I was disillusioned about a lot of things, including my very early career. I had gone to a top ad school and had gotten what I thought was going to be a great job in a huge firm in Baltimore. But I was stuck writing copy for insurance companies, banks, equity management companies and so forth. It was the most uncreative work . . . complete dullardsville. This also happened at the same time I was coming of age sexually, and right as AIDS appeared. I had had sex with a man for the first time on a Friday night in 1982 . . . and on Monday I was grocery shopping and on the cover of Time or Newsweek was a screaming headline ‘The New Gay Cancer.’ I thought, “Oh great, what a weekend to go gay.” It was unreal; it felt like the message was meant just for me. I was Catholic and had a big Italian upbringing . . . it was like a sign; from God’s lips to my eyes.
THIRSTY: Like you walked by the church and the bells suddenly stopped ringing . . .
McELHANEY: Yeah, exactly, it was like I was hearing “you screwed up and now you’re going to pay.” I was grappling with being a gay man . . . I was in a relationship . . . and the thought of this microbe arriving on the scene telling everyone we can’t have sex with guys anymore was just too much. I felt paralyzed with fear and panic and confusion but I also thought in the back of my mind “how can we outwit this or find a loophole and still do it?” There was this little organization in Baltimore I had heard about called HERO. They had produced their first ad and I saw it in my neighborhood. It was kind of ridiculous but it was well produced. It was a scene with a bunch of men in a gay bar . . . standing around in leather jackets . . . and in the middle was this man – a human being – wearing a full body-length condom with a face cut in the top of it and a headline that said “USE ME” I thought it was charming and had a derring-do that I found refreshing . . . I knew I could do better but I applauded their moxie in telling me, their target audience, to be smart and use condoms.
So I approached them and told them I wanted to do ads pro bono . . . they were very receptive. This was before computers . . . so we had to draw out concepts . . . I greeked in the copy but added some realism by using the Xerox machine at work to photocopy a real unraveled condom to be used in one of the ads. Problem was, I forgot about it and left it on the machine . . . to be found by a secretary the next morning . . . my office was adjacent to the machine so I was the one who heard her lift the top and exclaim OH MY GOD . . .
Ad Design - Jeff McElhaney
THIRSTY: Did you go out and ‘fess up?
McELHANEY: Are you kidding? Not a chance . . .
THIRSTY: You obviously had a passion for the work – you kept at it for another 20 years, mostly on your own time, mostly pro bono. What pushed you?
McELHANEY: I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but it was about encouraging gay men to save their own lives. It had to be done, and when I first got started it was just barely being done. The first organizations that got involved were facing a gargantuan problem with miniscule budgets. They needed all the help they could get. We -- gay men -- needed all the help we could get.
THIRSTY: But then things changed. AIDS public service advertising went mainstream –
McELHANEY: Yes, the America Responds to AIDS campaign was huge, and it was funded by the CDC, and then suddenly safe sex advertising was everywhere and it was okay. The problem is – it’s not big anymore. There are lots of small campaigns aimed at this demographic group or that, but no one’s pooling resources to create one big major campaign keeping this in front of the general public for a sustained period of time. It’s really unfortunate, because even in this time of wide knowledge about how the disease is transmitted, people are still having unsafe sex and getting HIV. For people like us – who have lost so many great friends – it’s heartbreaking.
THIRSTY: I feel the same way – and sometimes wonder if we stopped seeing safe sex ads because HIV became a disease that’s treatable, so people became less focused on avoiding it. Even though people are armed with the information they need to avoid it they’re still getting it. I feel like we need another big advertising and social marketing campaign to change those behaviors. Like the campaigns to get people to wear seat belts . . .
McELHANEY: Absolutely. Condoms have become the “seat belt message” for gay men . . . it’s the thing that you know you have to do . . . it’s always in the back of your head when you pull off your undies . . . and you make that life-and-death decision – the personal transaction between you and the other guy – are we going to protect ourselves or are we going to assume that because the other guy has ripped abs and we see him in the gym five days a week that he’s automatically okay?
THIRSTY: David, you’ve been a keen observer of gay culture for a number of years. If you’re like me you’re completely confounded by the fact that even though young men do know better now, they’re still getting infected.
TOUSSAINT: It’s easier to have sex with a 25-year-old without a condom than a 45-year-old. I’ve had young guys literally try and pull me into locker room showers for anal sex. Young men don’t look at AIDS the same way, and it’s shocking. I live on the Upper East Side, and here, the gym sex, or park sex, or whatever sex, is more urgent because a lot of the men are married. It’s built up, and that leads to extremely risky behavior; they don’t really have time to talk, and they’re ashamed. If you’re straight, you just go to Vegas and grab some hookers and brag to your friends. If you’re gay, and closeted, you run into a gym and try to have sex before security throws you out. You’re not going to ask for a phone number or meet up at a restaurant.
THIRSTY: Jeff, you’ve also expressed your disappointment with young people who have the benefit of knowing exactly how HIV is transmitted but still engage in unsafe sex. Why do you think that is?
McELHANEY: In my experience I’ve seen a lot of gay men who are still suffering from their experiences growing up. We feel wounded, and that woundedness is something we still carry around, and still endure. It leads us to take measures to try and make the hurt stop. This means doing drugs, spending excessive amounts of money on cars, vacations and clothes, and pursuing whatever diversions make us feel better the fastest. Marketers love gays because they don’t watch their pocketbooks as much as most people do . . . we don’t have the financial responsibilities to the same degree . . . but of course with this parenthood trend, that’s changing.
I also think we gays have been repressed for such a long period during our youth that there’s some “catching up” we feel we need to do. That’s why you see such juvenile behavior among men my age . . . I think they feel like they missed out on a lot of social enjoyment and fun and camaraderie by being in the closet earlier on and they’re making up for lost time. Unfortunately this often leads them to engage in risky behaviors. The idea that you’re defying danger and risk can be -- dare I say it out loud -- sexy. . . and that’s one of the most overlooked aspects of this disease. Too often we are subconsciously thinking, “Can I get this thrill without paying the consequences?”
THIRSTY: So imagine you’re able to get into the head of a 25-year-old who has just met his dream man. What would you do or say to keep him – in the heat of the moment – from engaging in unsafe sex?
McELHANEY: Marketers can’t do that. We can’t make someone buy something they don’t want. All we do is arm them with enough information to make an informed decision about whether to buy something or do something -- or NOT do something. It’s up to the character of that person and the other person . . . it’s an equation . . . but it’s also influenced by what’s going on at that moment. Is this person feeling dreadfully insecure right now and needing affirmation? How is his psyche . . . is he depressed, or drunk, or has he been drugging? There are so many factors that play into that. . . to say nothing of the sense of daring, that’s human nature . . . I can’t combat that, the person has to do that in his own head.
THIRSTY: Evan, we all know the line in the traditional marriage vow about staying together “in sickness and in health.” How do you think the fight to protect gays from AIDS has impacted your efforts to legalize same sex marriage?
WOLFSON: The first wave of marriage cases came before the AIDS epidemic, which Frank Rich referred to in a brilliant New York Times piece as something that, “in retrospect, made same-sex marriage inevitable. Americans watched as gay men were turned away at their partners’ hospital rooms and denied basic rights granted to heterosexual couple coping with a spouse’s terminal illness and death. By 1990, Americans had begun to see gay people as fellow human beings, connected to others, and hearts and minds began to open.
THIRSTY: So if you had to guess, how long do you think it will take before the battle to legalize same sex marriage will be won?”
WOLFSON: We will have the freedom to marry within reach nationwide within 10 to 15 years or so, sooner if we work harder and get lucky.
THIRSTY: David, I expect you’ll agree that societal attitudes about gays have evolved tremendously during the past 25 years, but you can be pretty incisive in your columns when you talk about the crazy things some of us do. We know you love your life and that your body of work as a whole celebrates gay life, but do you ever get pessimistic about the future?
TOUSSAINT: I celebrate life, gay or straight. I don’t ever want to be put on the ‘gay’ bookshelf; I’m far more interested in the ‘well-written’ shelf. I think that’s equal rights. What’s evolved is that the crazy stuff we do is now being chronicled everywhere. I have an openly gay college-age friend who complained to me awhile back that his boyfriend couldn’t spend the night – he lives at home. I wrote back, “when I was your age we weren’t allowed to have boyfriends.”
A lot of young gay men now don’t spend their days at the gym. They’re skinny and undefined, which was unheard of among guys who wanted to be attractive and accepted when I was in my 20s. A twink wouldn’t have made it past the bouncer in the 90s, let alone the front desk guy at the gym. Now we’re heading companies and we’re entrepreneurs and musicians and Broadway stars
TOUSSAINT! - by David Toussaint
THIRSTY: How optimistic are you about Evan’s lifelong quest to win our right to marry?
TOUSSAINT: Completely. It’s only a matter of time. I don’t know how long, but I have no doubt that someday all gay people will be able to be legally married in the United States.
THIRSTY: How optimistic are you about Jeff’s quest to change the attitudes that are leading so many gay men to continue engaging in unsafe sex?
TOUSSAINT: Not nearly as much. What most people are afraid of is that it will take another plague to make men aware. We forget so quickly. And sexual urges make us blind half the time—that’s not a gay thing, that’s a human thing. Look at every adultery “scandal” played out in the media. The question is always, “What was he thinking?” It’s hard to think when you’re hard. It’s like trying to walk a straight line when you’re drunk. If we could stop kidding ourselves, we could have a much better dialog about the whole thing. When you don’t talk, you act out. And if you’re afraid that your partner isn’t attracted to you, there’s a smaller chance you’ll say “Put a condom on.” Insecurities breed fear. There’s nothing new in that story—it’s one for the ages—but it now involves death. Gay men have a lot in common with women; domestic abuse, etc. They’re getting stronger, so are we. After I wrote about Greg Louganis and his sexual abuse (another “perfect” man from the 80s era), men came out of the woodwork telling me stories of sexual and physical abuse, including rape, from lots of ex-boyfriends. We have so far to go.
THIRSTY: Okay so what about the pursuit of happiness? You often write about people who don’t seem happy – people who, like Jeff noted, do crazy, reckless things quite possibly because of the challenges they faced in childhood. People who might always behave in a way that puts them out of mainstream America (whatever that is).
TOUSSAINT: We can be complete assholes or saints. Just like straight people. Many people on the planet are not happy – it doesn’t really matter who you boink. I think you can only laugh at your foibles. I love to make fun of myself – humor is the world in a funhouse mirror. I love to make fun of my narcissistic tendencies and my shallow desire to be the most beautiful man in the world – something I’m still working on. Sometimes I can even laugh at Republicans. Ultimately, you can whine and moan about what a wicked world we live in, or you can celebrate how fantastic the time is, right now. Gay rights is the most exciting thing to happen in the 21st century so far, and we’re living history. We’re on TV, in movies, in books, in this article, in offices, across the street, on iTunes, and yes, picking up guys at bars and doing X all night. So if you feel knocked down because a state didn’t pass same-sex marriage or because of something that nimrod Maggie Gallagher said, turn it around and realize how amazing this all is. What makes me cry is when I think of those gay men, who’d be older than our first black President, who didn’t live to see this day. All those guys who died of AIDS are the victims of our war, many un-celebrated, abandoned by their families and shunned by their country.
THIRSTY: Jeff, the other day I told you about my teenaged nieces who have good guy friends who are already acknowledging that they’re gay, and who have a lot of straight friends – in high school – who accept them and still like them. It wasn’t really like this when we were that age, but things are clearly changing. How do you think this growing acceptance will impact the risk taking behavior you described?
Ad Design - Jeff McElhaney
McELHANEY: I think it’s an absolutely hopeful sign. When people don’t feel ostracized – don’t feel like they’re living their teenaged years on the outside looking in – they won’t feel like they have to be someone they’re not just to please someone else. Just being yourself can be so liberating. It gives you such a sense of well-being. You don’t have to do things that jeopardize your health . . . you’re not looking for “the fix.”
THIRSTY: Do you feel like the AIDS crisis has been helpful or hurtful to Evan’s quest to legalize same sex marriage?
McELHANEY: I’d have to say it’s helped – it’s helped mobilize gays to fight for their rights and for a common cause: each other. It’s a natural extension from helping our community survive this awful pandemic to deciding that we’re deserving of every right that every other American enjoys and legitimizing our relationships so we’re don’t have to feel the need to be constantly on the hunt for the next thrill . . . the next hook up . . .
I think maybe before, people thought they had no choice – that was all there was – but now we have this new prize, I mean, marriage - I can barely wrap my head around it myself. I went to the DC Council party celebrating the marriage measure in December and I looked down at the ring on my finger and I thought “Wow, I’ve had this for eight years’ . . . it’s always meant something to me, but now somebody else is going to declare, in writing – that it’s legal and carries with it over 1200 rights – it just became so much more valuable.”
THIRSTY: Evan, I’ve also had a ring on my finger for a long time – 20 years in fact. I always refer to myself as “married” even if it’s only in my mind, and although my partner and I have the same trusting, monogamous relationship my parents had in their 50-year marriage, we’ve never felt the urge to exchange vows. If you wanted to convince us to make it official, what would you say?
WOLFSON: First and foremost, the decision whether or not to marry is a personal one, and it’s really up to you and your partner to decide what’s right for you. My organization is called “Freedom to Marry,” not “mandatory marriage.” And, of course, that’s precisely what we’re fighting for – your right to make the decision for yourself, not have anti-gay opponents or the government preempt your equal choice. Gay people have the same mix of reasons as non-gay people for wanting the freedom to marry – reasons that are emotional as well as economic, practical as well as personal, social as well as spiritual, and reasons that resonate in law as they do in life. Many gay people who began the decade thinking they didn’t care about marriage or that it didn’t matter to them found themselves profoundly moved by the experience of getting married, celebrating the marriages of friends and loved ones, and seeing the impact the attainment of marriage had on the non-gay people in their lives. And, of course, many have found themselves vulnerable in times of crisis when the denial of marriage deprived them of the safety-net and protections that accompany marriage. Having made the commitment in life, you and your beloved deserve the equal commitment under the law with all the tangible and intangible security, clarity, consequences, and meanings marriage brings. You’ve made the commitment; the choice should be yours.
THIRSTY: What about you David – is marriage a choice you expect to make one day?
TOUSSAINT: The answer is yes, not necessarily because marriage is a top priority for me, but because it would mean I was madly, hopelessly in love, and that’s the best gift ever. I’m aware of the legal reasons why legal marriage is so important, but like every dream, it’s something you only do for love.
THIRSTY: Of the four of us, you’re the one who spends the most time thinking and writing about gay culture. What’s the best thing you can say about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go?
TOUSSAINT: After I wrote my gay wedding book, I got an email from a distant relative, who is in his 80s. He came out to me. I was shocked. I’ve known him all my life, he was married, had served in WW II, no one knew. And he couldn’t believe that I, me, us, could be open and write books about being gay. And go out and dance and date men, and kiss in public and love other men. He spent his entire life in the closet. Now he’s come out to a few people, he’s online, and he has a boyfriend—I’m not kidding. Think of his world, then think of ours. Then make the next one.
Evan Wolfson is founder and Executive Director of Freedom to Marry. Recognizing his longtime civil rights leadership in the movement for marriage equality, in 2004 Time magazine named Evan one of the "100 most influential people in the world." Evan was co-counsel in the historic Hawaii marriage case, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, and is the author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People's Right to Marry.
Jeff McElhaney is a copywriter, creative director and founding partner at Brand-Aid Creative in Washington, DC. He has developed ad campaigns for everything from condoms to hamburgers to American Indians to Catholic nuns. While he has written thousands of paid-for and pro bono ads for such diverse clients as XM Radio, Discovery Channel, The Sisters of Mercy, Gannett and Partnership for a Drug-Free America.