The Day the Gay Athletes Invaded NYC

It was 1994. I was deeply homophobic, particularly towards myself. I was trying to go straight for Jesus and everyone else–not an easy thing in NYC even on a normal boring day. I lived in NYC with constant temptation to break my resolve to avoid anything gay. Then they descended for the Gay Games. Thousands of gay athletes in skimpy clothing.

Hearing Sarah Fishko speak about this moment in NY history during her recent broadcast on WNYC Radio, I was transported back to that weird time and space. For Fishko Files she did a short piece about the groundbreaking play, Angels in America. She recaptured that time period–the HIV/AIDS struggle 10 years on and the art that tried to make sense of it all.

Hearing that report got me remembering.

I remember how the city filled with gay men for the Gay Games. I trembled–not with excitement but with fear. I had been living in NYC for 10 years and the whole time I felt desperate about being gay and sought a “cure” through conversion therapy.

As the HIV/AIDS Crisis began and grew, there was an underground scene of gay men trying to go straight for Jesus. LIFE Ministries, an ex-gay, gay conversion therapy group a began in NYC in the early 1980s. It soon became part of a larger network of Exodus “ex-gay ministries.”I was 19 when I first attended in 1984, a Christian studying at nearby Nyack College. I plunged headlong into a world of support groups that tried to pray and counsel the gay away.

While gay men partied, organized, and suffered, another group of us hopped onto a Noah’s Ark of sorts. From prayer therapy to exorcisms, I was desperate for a way out of being gay. Why? My Christian faith played a role, as did the fear of AIDS. The rise of Conservatism and Ronald Reagan made me feel small as a queer working class Italian Roman Catholic in a very white Protestant butch heterosexual rich world.

Then the gay athletes came to town and I hopped off the subway at midtown to hang out at the hotel where many of them stayed around 34th street. I walked and gawked and longed for connection, community, anything, knowing that once I had it, I would slink back to church to repent of it.

That was a long time ago. Shortly afterwards I stood on the subway platform feeling hopeless and ready to give up. I went through even more intensive conversion therapy at a residential facility in Memphis. Then in 1999 I came to my senses and came out gay. Since then I have been using art and therapy and community to make sense of my experiences.

Those were desperate times. And the times we are in today feel similar in parts of the world. For some queer folks in the USA, it is dangerous. These are times when people may harm others and harm themselves in the midst of political madness. I have hope though this time that most gay (and bi, trans, lesbian, genderqueer) kids will not fall for the bait like I did, and instead stand up, act up, and live life fully.


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