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Wayne Besen: Between the Wild Party and the Wedding Party

Rainbow FlagWhen I first came out in 1988, if two young gay people met, the reaction often was, "You too! I thought I was alone." As my twenty-year high school reunion approaches, I witnessed an identical response in a seminal New York Times Magazine cover story. At a coffee shop in Boston, two gay men, Aaron and George, met for the first time.

"I thought I was the only one." "Me too!" they exclaimed.   

What differed was that these two young men were relieved to meet because they were legally divorced and had not met peers who had experienced similar situations. While we have a long journey towards full equality ahead of us, it is a dramatically different world than the one I came out in.

In fact, more than 700 gay men 29 or younger have married in Massachusetts through last June, the latest date for which statistics are available. While Massachusetts is still the only state that allows same-sex marriages, gay men who are my age, 37, never dreamt these unions would occur in our lifetime.

Indeed, much of our social culture was built around men cheating on their wives. The rest stops, parks and bathhouses were all geared toward the "quickie." If a gay man did not get home in time for dinner with his family, he'd find that his goose was cooked. The double lives and hypocrisy forced on gay men by a repressive society took an awesome psychological toll.

The gay bars in the 1970s-90's were geared for men in their 30's-50's who were often living a belated adolescence. Anyone who has seen a half-naked 50-year-old man at a circuit dance party twirling a glow stick with a pacifier in his mouth knows what I am talking about.

I sometimes hardly recognize the gay community's social scene. When I first came out, many gay bars had a back room, which was a dark crevice where men furtively had sex. Today, a dark room likely means a gay couples' row house den with mood lighting. Contemporary gay bars have largely gone from seedy to chic and - for better or worse - often attracting many straight people.

An older friend of mine who visited Boston half-jokingly complained, "There's something morally wrong with a city where it's easier to marry a boyfriend than find a gay bar."

His observation was spot on. Boston Globe writer Robert David Sullivan told National Public Radio this week that he noticed the number of gay bars in Boston had been cut in half in recent years.

Massachusetts is not the only place the gay social scene has been transformed. Fortune Magazine named gay bars as one of the 10 businesses it thinks is facing extinction. It joined a list of has-beens that includes record stores and crop dusting. Additionally, overt street cruising is out of fashion and demure glances have largely replaced outright ogling.

The decline in the public sex culture and gay bars can be attributed, in part, to the rise of the Internet. However, a larger trend, captured by the Times magazine article, is at work. A good portion of men in their mid 20's have been out of the closet for more than a decade. (They were barely in) Having had a normal adolescence, they are already burnt out on gay bars and ready to start families.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Washington and met up with the friends I used to party with in the mid to late 90's. Today, they are all in long-term relationships and in bed by the time they used to wake up from their disco naps.

The changes in the gay social scene have happened so fast that they are sometimes difficult to comprehend. It's as if someone slipped a roofie into the GLBT community's mimosa and while we slept Rudy Giuliani swooped down in drag and cleaned up our Times Square.

Sometimes, I fondly reminisce about the good old days. Then, I recall that that the endless party was a product of our oppression. The storied "days" were actually really late nights - and as I get older, I want to be up on Sunday morning in time to watch "Meet the Press."

Caught between the wild party and wedding party generations, the rapid pace of change can seem unsettling, yet reassuring.

"Am I the only one who feels this way?"

"You, too! Thank, God."

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