Thursday, July 20, 2017

When the news stirs up bad memories

Stories in the news can sometimes have indirect but important personal connections to us. When there’s a positive new devlopment in an old story, it can drag up those connections once again. Time moves on, circumstances, feelings, and attidtudes can all change, but memories? They have a habit of sticking around. Today I was reminded of a time that put my own life on pause.

Today (Wednesday US time), Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart announced that they had positively identified a previously un-named victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Jimmie Haakenson was 16 on August 6, 1976, the last time his family ever heard from him. It’s believed that Gacy murdered him that day or soon after.

Gacy, of course, is notorious for having murdered 33 young men, most of whom he buried in the crawlspace under his house. The state of Illinois executed him by lethal injection in 1994, which was far too kind to him.

The case was huge news in December 1978 when Gacy was arrested and charged and the bodies were found. But it was especially huge news in Illinois, where Gacy was from, where he hunted his victims, and where they all died. It was all—well, shocking is far too mild a word.

In December 1978, I was 19, a month short of turning 20—right in the age range of Gacy’s victims. I was also still closeted, though by that time I’d had a couple casual, short-term boyfriends. But this case, probably partly because it was so sensational, had a profound affect on me, and further delayed my coming out.

It wasn’t that I thought I could have been one of Gacy’s victims (that was pretty much impossible), but how could I know whether there were more killers like Gacy? And, if I didn’t know HOW to be gay, how could I protect myself from being a victim? I felt the only safe option was to supress everything, to just not think about being gay, about how to find a potential boyfriend or permanent partner, how I might build an authentic life. No, I thought it was best to just pretend none of it existed, to be asexual.

There was something else that had already led me to think there could be a real menacing danger lurking out there.

In March 1975, about six weeks after I turned 16, Joseph “Joey” Didier, a 15 year old paperboy in Rockford, Illinois, was abducted, raped, and murdered. The papers were filled with pretty lurid stories about the murder, and I was affected by them. His murderer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted, and died in prison in February of this year.

That sensational murder case was seared into my young brain, and so was the victim’s name, and I’ve remembered it all for 42 years. So, when the Gacy case hit the news some 2 years and 9 months later, it did so with the earlier case as a backdrop, especially because in 1975 I was also in the age range of Gacy’s victims.

What all this meant was that the message I got when I was a teenager and young man was the idea that it was dangerous—possibly even fatal—to be young and gay. I took that message because, even though most—or, for all I know, all—of the victims weren’t gay, they were preyed upon by men who got sexual gratification from victimising and murdering young men, guys who were the ages I was in those same years.

I have no way of knowing if I would have moved past that fear on my own, though I think I would have. Had I taken the same first steps toward being true to myself that I ultimately did in 1981, I would have found my through. But the catalyst for me to do so was the death of both of my parents when I was 20 and 21. After that, I felt life was too short to wait to be happy.

One could say that I was just lucky when I finally came out—I met good and caring people, and it kept me safe. But Southern Illinois wasn’t exactly a gay-friendly place in the late 1970s. In fact, even as late as 1988, only around six years after I left, 23 year old Michael Miley was murdered and his body decapitated, apparently by a man who made a sport out of harassing gay men in town.

By that time I was living in Chicago, and two years later, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for his heinous crimes. A friend of mine was particularly shaken by that case because he thought Dahmer was the sort of man he’d have gone home with, and, as far as we know, all those who did were murdered.

Things were very different for me by the late 1980s/early 1990s. By that time I’d spent several years as a grassroots activist working on gay rights. I’d had serious relationships, and I’d learned to be “streetwise”, to the extent anyone ever actually does. I heard about the Miley murder a year or two afterward, and in the context of my activism. It was impossible to miss the Dahmer story, but by then I was 32 and established in life.

Those sensational crimes in the 1970s definitely held me back out of fear that I could become a victim just like those other young men my age had been. But the other side of that is that there were no positive role models for young gay men when I was one. After all, Harvey Milk had been assassinated a few weeks before Gacy was arrested, and there were no famous openly gay people in pop culture, politics, or anywhere else to take positive messages from.

In the late 1970s, church and state alike wanted there to be hostility toward gay people in society, and society responded. At that time, it was difficult not to see the world as a hostile and possibly dangerous place for gay people.

So much has changed since those days. There are positive role models everywhere, and while violence and danger still exists, it’s something that most young gay men in our Western societies don’t need to worry about. If I was 16-19 now, things would be unimaginably different.

And yet, despite it all, I made it through those years, as did millions of others. Some of them would die in the plague years, but millions of us survived those years, too. The human spirit is often far stronger than people can imagine, and we transcend the challenges we face. Hopefully.

But even decades later, all the feelings and fears and memories can be dredged back up through the release of what is undeniably good news out of Cook County. How it feels now is different—time and distance matter—but the vivid memories still come to fore, because memories have a habit of sticking around. This time, they also allowed me to reflect on how I took my life out of pause, and how good things became because of that. There’s value in that—and in remembering.

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