It was 1984 and my first job at age 16 was as a dishwasher at the restaurant where several of the servers were gay. The servers would constantly give me tips and compliments on the job I was doing, even as a dishwasher, and once one invited me to go out later for drinks. I declined on the basis of my Mormonism and that I didn’t drink alcohol. One of the servers, named Gary, later found out my love for motorcycles and wanted me to take him riding and teach him how to ride a real motorcycle. He had a little moped type cycle that he rode to work. I was completely naïve to Gary’s sexual orientation and didn’t give him the brush off, or react negatively, so the cooks in the kitchen took me aside and told me that he was gay and was looking for more than just the usual guy activities. I liked Gary, maybe not the same way he liked me, but he was an overall nice guy and I felt no need to shun him as others had. We never went for those motorcycle rides.
Later I was given the opportunity to work on the restaurant floor as a busboy. I worked hard and was well liked servers; always helping to service the guests well, and getting good tips in return. Some other of the busboys would see one of the gay servers put their hand on my shoulder when asking me to help them out and they would ask why it didn’t make me nervous. Never once did any of the gay guys ever touch me in an inappropriate way. Never once was there ever an overt sexual advance. Other busboys would take pains to avoid being close to any of the gay servers in any way possible, preferring to walk around them via another aisle rather than squeeze by a potentially narrow passage, an activity that they told me they deliberately did because they could stand being close to those “fags”. These same busboys would regale me with stories of how one of the waiters would describe his sexual encounters with his “husband” in such detail that they wanted to vomit. I was never in the room for these conversations, and wondered if they only occurred out of my presence, or if they were fabricated stories. If they were fabricated, then it just shows the lengths some people will go to justify and promulgate their anti-gay feelings, and if the purported stories were true, then I imagine they were told just to rile up those who found such stories offensive. Possibly, I was given special deference because I did not let their sexual orientation negatively affect how I treated them as equal co-workers. If the latter was true, then it only reinforces my belief that if you treat others with respect, they will return the treatment in kind.
I did not work at that restaurant for long and started work at a new place for the next couple years. I did not keep in touch with my former co-workers, but my experiences with them impacted me more than any other work relationship since. It was my first encounter with openly gay people and I had only positive emotions associated with our acquaintance.
A few years later I ran into Gary at another establishment. He seemed genuinely happy to see me, as I him, and we took the time to have a bit of a personal discussion. He told me that he had been taking the missionary discussions with the Mormon missionaries but was getting hung up on the fact that he was gay. He liked the values that the church taught. He thought I was a great guy and wanted to be like that. Obviously, such a comment made me feel very good. At the time I attributed the values I held to the church, but later in life I attribute them more to my good parents than to the religious organization and its teachings. Gary then asked me a question that would stay with me for the rest of my life. He said he had asked the missionaries if the AIDS epidemic was punishment from God for being homosexual. They had told him yes, and he wanted to know my position. Even at a young age I understood the dangerous implications of speaking on behalf of God and told him that I did not think it was an intended punishment from God, but rather a consequence of a particular behavior. Whether God was using AIDS as a punishment or not was beyond my understanding.
Gary was a nice guy, and I considered a friend, even if we weren’t close and didn’t hang out. I had no intention of hurting him, or telling him that God was mad at him. He made no excuses for who he was. Neither did he claim that he was born gay or that it was genetic, but this was the mid nineteen eighties and such arguments had not yet made it onto the stage of public debate.
That particular conversation did not solve anything in the larger debate over gay rights, but it sure had an impact on my perception of who gay people are, and how they think. I was never to see Gary again. I have often wondered about him. Did he have AIDS when he asked me the question, or was he just living in fear that it might be his demise? I wondered if I had had accepted his invitation to go out and have a drink or dinner, or teach him to ride a motorcycle, if he would have made sexual advances. I used to even wonder if he would have “turned me gay” as some people believe is possible. Obviously all of these questions remain unanswered, but my interactions with Gary taught me one important point. Yes, it is possible to be gay and be a genuinely good moral individual, for that is what Gary was. Even if you believe that homosexuality is immoral, there was nothing else in his character worth criticizing any more than you might criticize any other imperfect human being.