By Amy Phillips Penn

Sometime in the mid-80s, I found myself between apartments. I was leaving on assignment for Palm Beach when a friend phoned.

There’s an apartment open on East 54th Street. You’d better grab it.

“I’m leaving for La Guardia in an hour. I’m sure it can wait.”

“You’re right…if your goal is to live in a teepee.”

Stretching all the way to 55th Street, the building was huge. The available apartment was not. But I barely digested the fact that the kitchen was in the bedroom before agreeing to take it. While shaking hands with the way too enquiring-minds-want-to-know landlady, I figured I should reciprocate her toy dog noises. “Toto too!” I said. And that was that.

When I mentioned my address to people in the coming weeks, I was met with a variety of responses. Almost everyone I knew had either lived there or had a story to tell about the building; others simply laughed.

“Don’t you know about that building? They call it “the four out of five!”

I waited for the punch line, but nothing clicked.

“Why four out of five?”

“Because four out of five men who live there are gay.”

Aha!

I liked living at 405. The apartments were assorted, in true rent-controlled style. Some were lavish with fireplaces, and others were half the price of mine. I suppose the joke was that the residents weren’t nearly as varied—at least in sexual orientation.

It was a time for gays to come out, be out, and watch out for a mysterious disease with a lengthy incubation period (rumor had it a decade could pass before contraction and testing positive).

Men muscled up in deity mode while summering in Fire Island to defeat what was then a death sentence. Many of them would not live out the year.

Magazines fueled misinformation by reporting that gay men were having sex with thousands of lovers. Condoms were stretching into everywhere in colors, monograms and glow-in-the-dark, size-matters varieties. Women bought their own, and guessed the sizes. Bisexuals’ choices narrowed.

I grew up around gay men. Namely, my gay cousin Howard.

“If Howard wasn’t my cousin, I’d marry him,” I told his mother, Aunt Sylvia.

“Howard is a confirmed bachelor,” she replied, leaning on the euphemism of her day.

But for New Yorkers of my generation, gay was a-ok. Roller Arena skated around Studio 54 in Fairytale taffeta, tapping people with her wands. Boys held hands and kissed in public.

I was club hopping around New York with my friend Richard, a makeup artist, when he suggested hitting up a gay bar. There’s only so much steak tartar you can ingest at the Carlyle without roaring, so…off we went.

I was the only woman in the place. It was dark, but I could see the men dancing together and cuddling up at the bar. I had to hit the ladies room. But which one?

Richard stood guard. When I came out, a man was screaming hysterically at him.

“Why’d you have to bring her here?” he yelped, pointing at me. Nothing like a heartfelt welcome, but what had I expected?

“She knows me. She knows my wife.”

It took me a minute, but I realized that I did know this frightened man and his dearly beloved. Before I could speak to him, though, he ran away clutching his black beret. I still wish I’d gotten the chance to tell him that I would never say anything about that oh-so-accidental “outing.”

I lost a number of friends along the way. They all thought they could beat it. They didn’t.

One HIV-positive man I knew named Steve needed a job in public relations. His boss, who was gay, wanted him out of his office. Jimmy Breslin wrote a column about him. We got Steve a job at a low key society PR office, where they knew his situation, and embraced him as he grew thinner and weaker. Steve’s parents, devout Catholics, chose not to see him again. Ever. He died among strangers.

To out, or not to out? That is not a question.

I had a cousin who died of AIDS. He was a married doctor and a father. We were told that he had pricked his finger on a needle brushed with HIV. When he died, we were sad to lose him, but we didn’t analyze the cause. He was gone at a young age. That was sad enough. But someone else close to him decided it did matter…a lot. She outed him in a book, its cover titled with a very prestigious New York address.

The deceased’s son was never the same after that. He dug and queried and read his father’s favorite books to see if there was any truth to the claim. He wrote a novel about his odyssey and named it The Scientists.

Apologies from those of us who felt he didn’t need to suffer through that journey.

We’ve come a long way gayby, but we still have miles to go before we sleep. The good news is that you no longer have to sleep alone. Sleep tight.

 

Featured image courtesy of Huffington Post

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