Back in the golden age of disco, the gay place to be in Buffalo was a bar on Main Street with a huge dance floor called City Lights. One of the songs I remember most from that time was by Sister Sledge and its opening lyrics: “We are family, I got all my sisters with me….Get up everybody sing.”
There was a rush to the dance floor when it played, as if everyone decided they had to be with the group. As we danced, it truly felt like one big family. Often alienated from our blood families and scorned by an outside world, for just that moment we were gathered together as brother and sisters in a special gay solidarity.
I came out late in life by today’s standards – mid-twenties – and my first experience in being in a room of gay people was driving an hour from my hometown to a warehouse on Niagara Street which loomed darkly strange and foreboding. I parked on the side of the building. I waited. I sweated. Finally I said I am going in, and I when I opened the red metal door I entered, literally, a different world of soft lights, flocked wallpapers and Victorian carpets. There was music from a real piano, and the faces of many handsome men of all ages in the glow of a warm pink light.
I was overwhelmed by a feeling of being at home, and a feeling of family. It was actually was a meeting of the group called Gay Professionals, who opened the door for many through small social gatherings advertised discreetly in the back of the Buffalo News.
Discovering that family led me to another family, the Mattachine Society, a group less for socializing than for advocacy but with plenty of both. It was here my true gay family, what today is called a “family of choice,” took root for me. Here I met Jim and Don, who though not much older than me became my gay mentors, and I met my first lesbians: Madeline, Bobbi, and Liz.
I also met a boy named Geoff. He was a student at Buff State coming to grips with being gay. We met in Mattachine’s Gay Hotline training, paired together at random in an introductory exercise. Geoff was tall, thin and handsome. I was not. I would never have dared talk to him, he was totally out of my league But something magic happened, not really romance but more brotherhood, and Geoff became part of my family.
Now It’s some forty years later, and even though he moved to San Francisco shortly after his graduation, we are still family. In the early years after his move, I was more than delighted to make frequent visits to San Francisco. Walking through the Castro at the height of gay liberation, seeing men holding hands and being themselves, I once again felt this overwhelming feeling of being part of a larger family.
Geoff and I still get together once a year, and I still have a family relationship with some of the other people of Mattachine. Some have died, some we have lost track of, but there is still a core group that gathers every Christmas Eve, like a family, to catch up and to remember.
My blood family is now gone. Mom and Dad died awhile ago, and my sister three years ago. The aunts and uncles are gone, and the cousins, save for the gay one, were never people I really knew. My gay family remains, more important to me than ever, and it has grown larger over the years with other gay people with whom I have formed a family bond.
As a senior, I wonder if those gay families are still being formed, or even if the special feeling of being part of a larger family still exists. With gay marriage, we are free to form families, have children and create a second generation. Our gay neighborhoods and communities are expanded by the internet, but shrunken by geography and physical contact. Do we want so much to be accepted as “normal” that we are willing to give up that special sense of family that comes on the dance floor, in a neighborhood, or by taking up a cause?
I know that there are other gay people, my age and older, who feel isolated and alone. Who lost their real family, their gay family, and their partner, or who hid so deep in the closet no family of choice could ever form.
It’s important for all of us to reach out to those people. To help them make new friends, to help them when they need it, to assist them in being around others who share the common bond of the gay experience. It’s just something we have to do. After all, we are family.
Rod Hensel is based in Buffalo, NY where he was a gay activist and Mattachine Society chapter president in the ’70’s and ’80’s. He later co-founded Stonewall Democrats of Western New York. He is currently helping to organize the SIlver Pride Project of the Pride Center of Western New York to address issues of concern to LGBT seniors, and writes on LGBT senior issues for Buffalo’s Loop Magazine. You can find him at facebook.com/rodney.hensel.