When I reached Washington in 1989, just after college, my large Catholic family in Baltimore could not have loved me any more. And they could not have broached one subject with me any less: I was clearly a faulty heterosexual. There are Irish bachelors and unmarried aunts in my family tree; there was a priest and a few nuns. Not one of them was gay or lesbian, just very private; discretion trumped discussion.
Just before I got to high school, my father’s uncle, a boisterous police clerk whose childhood polio redoubled his dedication the church, offered me an inducement: Join the Jesuits, and he’d put $1,800 in my bank account. I was a happy enough presence in the sprawling and tight-knit family, but in crucial ways absent. Without anyone saying so, I must have seemed so confused that I needed some mission, so vulnerable that I needed some haven. The followers of St. Ignatius were studious and rebellious — an order for my chaos.
For my great-uncle, that sum was a generous gesture to help his cherished nephew’s youngest son. To me, there seemed no darker, danker prison sentence. Back then, the church rarely mentioned homosexuality with the intentness of today’s sermons and activism from the diocese. As a news-obsessed kid, I saw the stark conflict in new and loud terms. In Manhattan, men and women were protesting Cardinal O’Connor in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Without having acted on my impulses, I had a decision to make: which side of this divide was I born into—the priests or the protesters?
It sounds dramatic because it was, in a way it isn’t anymore. (Revisit the intensity in the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or any replays of “The Normal Heart.”) There’s an undeniable sentiment toward acceptance. Even when hotly debated in congregations, legislatures and political campaigns, equality now gets respect that was then unfathomable. But there’s still this private understanding in the enduring public battle: if you’re gay, you have to accept some genetic destiny that actually takes you outside your family, that defines you as different from those who have every other nature-and-nurture similarity. It’s the hardest part.
The AIDS plague complicated my coming out, back when diagnosis meant death sentence. And I can’t walk around 17th and P now without seeing the sufferers of then—ghostly men slowing walking in sweaters on hot days, assisted in their daily paces by saintly friends. I was physically healthy, but my own friends were helping me, emotionally, with the smallest of steps; it was as if I had a broken limb that had healed wrong and needed to be reset.
Today is National Coming Out Day and tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of a party my straight friends threw for me in New York. Since college, I’ve been close to a couple, and they wanted to share their gay friends with me, and invite others to do so, to speed up a social life that I had slowed. It was a big night.
Theirs were the first ears I ever bent about being gay. Years before, we all lived in D.C. and they were with me on the night, at the long-gone El Azteca, when I first saw two men dancing, up close, in real life—and maybe in real love. I moved to another side of the room, but kept an eye on them. They looked like they were standing on their own two feet, having fun.
Ned Martel is a reporter on the national desk and an associate editor for The Washington Post. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @nedmartel.