Growing Up Gay at the Height of the AIDS Crisis

Posted on December 12, 2019

And now for something COMPLETELY different – almost scarily so.

After he posted a tweet thread on World AIDS Day last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer asked Tom to expand on his thoughts for an editorial and even kindly sent a (very good) photographer over to our place to provide Tom with his DaddyBear.com profile picture.

Joking (and first-person plural conceit) aside, this was an interesting exercise for me because after writing about pop culture & fashion for 13 years, I didn’t know if I had it in me to write something personal and revealing about myself. I’ll leave it to others to decide if I accomplished that with any skill, but I’m so thrilled that the portrait my dad painted of me when I was 10 made it into the picture. Dad died a month ago, and he might not have understood my AIDS journey, but he would’ve been so damn proud of this moment.

As for the piece itself, it was spurred on mostly by the writing of our book and then more recently, the recording of our audiobook. Writing about the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s turned out to be an incredibly painful thing for me – even worse when I had to compose myself and read those sections of the book out loud, something that took more takes and retakes than any other part of the recording because my voice would well with so much emotion that I couldn’t get through the passage. In talking it out with our director, I said the phrase that inspired this whole thought process: “I can’t claim AIDS.”

It turns out, after a lot of thought on the matter and an examination of my own personal history, I could not have been more wrong about that.

AIDS exploded into the public consciousness, promoting paranoia, fear, and suspicion of gay folks in the mid-1980s, at exactly the moment my teenage self realized he liked boys. Like so many queer people, my initial response to the realization of my gayness was one of despair and self-loathing, but because it happened concurrently with the explosion of AIDS cases, I also saw it — in my mind, quite indisputably — as a death sentence.

To be 13 years old at any time, for any person, is to live through a period of hormonal rushes and exciting but confusing new desires and developments. When I was 13, I became burdened with the dual thoughts that the thing I wanted most in the world would not only kill me but sentence my immortal soul to an eternity of torment.

It would be super-fabulous if you would go and read the whole thing, darlings. I do want to reiterate that I AM FINE. MORE than fine. I’m happy, and adjusted, and the recounting of painful parts of my past was cathartic and therapeutic, but trust: I got over all of this a long time ago. I’m just so thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to share my story.

And yes, the fact that the photographer took the best damn picture of me anyone has ever taken is making it just a skosh easier to share this widely.

[Photo Credit: Michael Bryant for the Philadelphia Inquirer]

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