The poster was maybe two feet wide, three feet tall. It depicted three outlandishly beautiful young gay men standing side-by-side, framed by an expansive blue sky, squinting off toward something in the distance. Their faces were solemn, and above their heads was a solemn slogan. I won’t say just what it said, but I’ll share the gist: The poster wanted us to know that these three young men were not going to become drug addicts. They were not going to contract HIV. They were not going to fall into the cycletraps of loneliness, depression, medication, craziness and so on — cycletraps into which we gays are far more likely to stumble than our straight friends, though we try not to talk about that. The poster was an advertisement for safer sex and responsible partying, and it hung for several months in the youthier gay bars around downtown Fort Lauderdale. The not-quite-subliminal message was: Stay sane. Stay healthy. If you do, you might end up with guys who look like this.
That was 10 years ago, and the three young men on the poster were my friends. When the poster was hung, they comprised a 17-year-old honor student, an 18-year-old college student, and a 19-year-old activist. Now, one of them is combating a debilitating meth addiction, as well as two of the nastier chronic viral ailments that afflict gay men. Another is a recovering drug addict and violent felon. The third is doing comparably well, though he drinks and smokes too much.
Even he, it is safe to say, is not living quite the life he’d hoped for. Something stopped him, and a similar something stopped the others. It’s a thing I don’t quite know the name of, though I saw it two weeks ago when Salty Eggs flew me from my home in Brooklyn to Fort Lauderdale to emcee an event. I asked Salty Eggs to give me a week in Florida, so I could meet up with old friends. Salty Eggs obliged.
I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, and came of age as a gay man in Wilton Manors. Running an LGBT youth group at the old community center on Andrews Avenue, manning booths at festivals, co-writing a play for LGBT teenagers, co-managing an open mic at the old Pride Factory. The life of the Engaged Gay was one of two lives I lived as an adult in South Florida, and I lived it from the time I was 20 ’til I was 23. Then I became a theater critic with Village Voice Media, and began living the life of the Engaged Journalist. I’m very certain that many of the best friends I’ll ever make are the ones I made at Village Voice Media, and if they were still around I’d have used my time in Florida to reconnect with them. But most of them are gone — to Texas, to Chicago, to Seattle, and Montana, building lives and careers. The few who remain are busy. So instead of revisiting SoFla’s old journo haunts — Maguires Hill 16, the happy hour at the Mai Kai, Trina’s — I returned to the old gay places on Wilton Drive. I still have good friends there, and I was pleased to see them.
It was difficult to be entirely pleased at the appearance of R., who was never quite a friend. R. eased into our circle’s collective social life eight or nine years ago as a gorgeous young Latino from I-can’t-recall-where, whose ghastly backstory of familial violence and scorn he never felt comfortable enough to share in detail. He mustn’t have liked whoever he used to be, because he turned himself entirely into a creature of the bars and dance floors and backseats of gay Fort Lauderdale. He mastered the trick of conversing in loud clubs, and of making it known that he was available for whatever, whenever, with whomever. He knew nothing else. He looked a little tired when I last saw him four years ago, after a two-year stab at being a professional porn star left him far less rich and happy than he’d hoped. When I saw him last month, nodding against a bar on the northern reaches of the Drive, I didn’t even recognize him. He looked frightened and puffy and exhausted, and his once-fluent barroom banter was forced and labored, and not just with me. He finished the night crashing on a charitable person’s bed. (The charitable person took the couch.)
And it was difficult to be happy at all about the orange-haired apparition on the bus bench near Five Points, who I’m pretty sure was once A.: a spiky-headed blond Mormon boy whose parents kicked him out of the house in Idaho or some similarly distant state eight years ago, and whose greatest heartbreak was that his parents would no longer let him speak to his younger brother. I think I remember that he had some kind of talent — he sang or sewed — and he lived, for a while, with a meth-head in a trailer park, trading sex for shelter. (I learned this when I offered him a ride in 2007, after I saw him walking on a sidewalk on a viciously hot day.) If that was him, he didn’t seem to have shelter anymore. He was filthy, sunburnt, and terribly thin, and looked like he was losing hair in clumps.
Maybe that wasn’t A. (Though is it any better if it was someone else?) R. was indisputably R., though, even if he’s got a different face. Looking at him, hearing him slur, I panicked. I thought: Why are people still buying him drinks? And: Why is everyone having a good time? How, I wondered, was it possible for these people to enjoy themselves while bearing witness to a protracted suicide? Or to a bar full of them?
I stood outside the gay bar on the sidewalk and lit a cigarette, trying to put some distance between myself and the grim party inside. The grim party followed me out, and formed a series of interlocking human circles on the sidewalk. Beside me, a bartender introduced a lovely young man (newly 21 — welcome to the scene!) to some voluble old queen. “This is Lawrence,” said the bartender. The queen leered. “Long? Did you say his name is Long?” “It’s Lawrence,” said the bartender. And some other queen said to the first, “But you weren’t wrong,” gesturing at the bulge in Lawrence’s crotch. The little circle on the sidewalk laughed. They were all very drunk. It occurred to me that the queen was just saying his lines. It was 1 a.m., and it was time for a penis joke, and for a catty half-hit on a boy too young and pretty to be obtainable, but who, in his young gay naiveté, could be impressed by this rote show of worldliness, this half-assed demonstration of shade-throwing. How many dick jokes had this queen told outside of how many gay bars? Had he ever thought they were funny? Wasn’t he just pretending — that the jokes were funny, that the parties were fun, that there was ever something novel or worthwhile in his nightly or bi-nightly ritual of getting wrecked with people he either couldn’t sleep with or didn’t want to? And wasn’t the point to keep going, to keep laughing, because if he didn’t then he might have to wonder how long he’d been phoning in his own life, and ultimately fess up to the waste of some unforgivable sum of years?
The first time I went to a gay bar was with my friends from the poster. The gay bar was on Las Olas Boulevard, and I was 20 years old. (That this particular gay bar occasionally admitted teens and 20 year olds is what led to its closure three years later.) The poster was there, in between a piano and the men’s room. “You’re famous,” I said to my friends, snapping their picture in front of themselves. I still have the picture — I found it 10 days ago, after I returned to Brooklyn. In it, my friends stand in front of their likenesses, one smiling, another laughing and rolling his eyes, another puffing out his cheeks. Their paper twins, behind them, are slightly younger, staring eternally ahead at some very serious and faraway thing. It was a pose — they were, in truth, staring at nothing — but I like that watchful look. I took the picture from a mouldering yellow folder where it had lain for a decade, and moved it into a little jewel box on the windowsill near the top of my bed, so that they will be vigilant while I sleep.