Coming out was harder in the 1970s

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday May 16, 2012
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Author Jeffrey Sharlach
Author Jeffrey Sharlach

Jeffrey Sharlach recalls a time when coming out wasn't nearly as easy as it is today.

The author of the new novel Running in Bed (Two Harbors Press) told the Bay Area Reporter just how difficult it could be to step out of the closet three and four decades ago. He discussed his book in preparation for his May 22 appearance at Magnet, the gay men's health center in the Castro. The book was released nationwide Tuesday, May 15.

"Kids today come out in a different environment," he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York. "Coming out was so dramatic back then, it was a shocking transformation that kids today don't go through. I dated women, and pretended to not be who I really was. I dropped straight friends because I was embarrassed."

In Running In Bed, Sharlach, 58, shares the story of Josh Silver, a young man in 1970s New York City who gingerly steps out of the closet after trying to be "cured" of his sexual identity. The book follows Josh as a slightly older co-worker introduces him to the world of gay bars, where so many went in search of love.

Sharlach is the founder of a Manhattan-based communications firm and an adjunct professor of management communication at New York University. He described the book as one-quarter autobiographical in a New York Times article earlier this year.

He admitted that he could shed a tear for the old fashioned gay bar.

"There was good that came out of that exclusivity," he said. "We took care of each other. I had a lot of mentors – older gay men – in the business world."

Sharlach said that he went to see a therapist shortly before his own coming out. "I was very lucky. The therapist asked me why I wanted to change, why not just be yourself?"

Running in Bed also looks at the AIDS epidemic. Josh's story continues into the 1980s, when AIDS first reared its ugly head. In the early days, it was primarily gay men who were afflicted, and there was, at that time, no way to slow the virus down. With his intensely vivid prose, Sharlach harkens back to a time when death was all around the gay community.

He clearly remembers seeing the shocking story, "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," which appeared in the New York Times on July 3, 1981.

"I was trying to capture that terrifying, helpless period," Sharlach said. "I tried to make the book historically accurate. AIDS brought us together as a community. AIDS forced a lot of people out – it's tragic that we were forced out that way, but it was a turning point. A lot of the gains we have today came about from that because it made us more visible."

For older gay readers, Running in Bed is a profoundly moving look back at a time that those who survived will never forget. It's a pre-Grindr era: a first step into a gay bar, followed by a first one-night stand, complete with those awkward morning-after exchanges of phone numbers. First loves. The chills men felt and the tears they shed as they watched their friends die, one by one.

For younger readers, the book is a history lesson. Reading Josh's story may give younger people a little insight into how the world we now live in came about. While there is still much to accomplish in terms of equal rights, in the 1970s and 1980s the mere notion of a sitting president endorsing same-sex marriage was unimaginable. With heart and flair, Running in Bed sheds a light on how we got from there to here.

 

In partnership with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Magnet will host a discussion and reception with author Jeffrey Sharlach from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22 at 4122 18th Street in San Francisco. The next week, on Tuesday, May 29, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., Magnet's book club will have a discussion of Running in Bed. Both events are free. For more information, visit www.magnetsf.org and http://www.runninginbed.com/