Friday, September 18, 2015

Secret Message

On July 7, 1984, in Bangor, Maine, Charlie Howard, a gay man, was killed by three teenage boys who threw him off a bridge. They pled guilty to manslaughter and served approximately two years in prison. (Subsequently, one of them spent some time speaking to young people about why homophobia is bad.)

In 1984 my family was living elsewhere in Maine. We heard about the killing that summer. Later on we moved to Bangor. The murder of Charlie Howard is only a prelude to my story about the Bangor Public Library. Consider it a reminder of what I, as a queer person, had to look forward to.

It was a nice little library. I haven't seen it since Stephen King donated huge amounts of money towards its renovation. I'm sure it's still nice. When I first started going there, I hung out in the young adult section. Then at some point I discovered the adult fiction room, which was downstairs.

One day I was browsing the shelves and I found a gay novel. Or possibly a lesbian novel. I don't remember exactly which book it was. But I quickly realized that someone had chosen to purchase this book for the library and put it on the shelf. This book and others like it. My recollection is that I had been exploring the adult fiction section for some time - as much as a year - before I found this book. Either I hadn't noticed it before, or conceivably someone had suddenly made the decision to start providing these books. Someone put them there for us to find.

 I don't know who that person (or persons) was. I could hardly ask. I don't recall that I even spent that much time looking at the librarians and wondering "Was it her? Was it him?" It was a dangerous thought. On the other hand, I never felt any anxiety about checking out these books or taking them home. I realize now that some people would not have been able to do that. They must have read them in the library, perhaps in the bathroom, which was also downstairs. They would have been careful to put the book back on the shelf, not to leave it laying around. Because you never know who might see it and be outraged.

Back in 1982, someone at a White House press conference brought up the topic of AIDS. The conversation went like this:
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
As for me, in the 80s I barely knew what AIDS was. I didn't know about that press conference at the time. I knew some adults who were gay. Or rather, I knew some who were out in some contexts, and some about whom I could only speculate. I didn't know anyone my own age who was queer. Coming out in high school was not something that most people did back then. Well, in 1980 Aaron Fricke brought a male date to his prom, but I never heard about that either.

The books that I found in the library were not especially cheerful or uplifting. The one I remember best was called Bird-Eyes, about a young woman in a mental hospital. (It was published in 1988.) I also remember a collection of stories by a gay man. The author photo on the back showed him backed up against an alley wall. In his dark glasses and leather jacket, he looked tough and he also looked scared. The photo spoke to me of things I did not then understand. It puzzled me - partly because the author photos to which I was accustomed generally made their subject look more or less like a normal person. This was obviously something different.

Those books embodied a secret message, passed from hand to hand in the dark by people who never looked each other in the eye. The message was: you are not alone.

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