Being Gay in the AIDS Generation

Contending with discrimination and AIDS panic as part of the first generation of “out” gay people.
  • Transcript


Question: What’s a situation in which your ideas about sexual preference have been challenged or changed?

John Cameron Mitchell:  Well, maybe, you know, I grew up in a military, very conservative Catholic background and certain things are considered received wisdom and not to be questioned, and of course that, you know, can be very comforting for some, but it sort of scared me.  And I knew I was different, in terms of my sexuality quite young, and having sort of an understanding that I probably deal with that later, at some point, it was an understanding, that I wasn’t really ready to do that until the end of college... which was, was a strange time to come out because AIDS had just hit, you know, and it was a complicated time and life and death was involved.

But also I was very excited about entering the world as an adult and a sexual being and someone who could actually be loved or love someone. Because I wasn’t really into girls, so I didn’t really have that outlet or opportunity to feel those things.  So I was like the first generation of people who came out, understanding that safe sex was important.  And people just a couple years older than me were dying, so, you know, even a year older, and it was very strange.  And I was an actor and at that time in the early ‘80’s, you just didn’t really come out, you know, and still it’s very uncommon for actors to talk about their sexuality lest they be discriminated against and people think, oh, well, you’re gay so you can’t play straight, though if you’re straight and you play gay, that’s generally a requirement for a major award.

So I thought, it was a strange, you know, intensity about it, it seemed stupid to be scared and in the closest, you know, thinking about being in the closet when people were dying and Reagan was doing so little and it was a, again, it was people who weren’t exactly my peers who were dying. So it was a very strange, but exciting time to be hitting your adolescence at, you know, at that very serious time.

And when you, you know, when you’re young, you think you know stuff and you don’t. And about relationships, certainly there’s a, you know, you can read about how things are, how things go, and that’s our first way of, you know, or now in a more, perhaps more visual, cinematic way.  You do your research on what you’re supposed to, you know, what you’re supposed to learn about love, about life, about everything.  And you have these pre-formed opinions, and especially now, in this information age, there’s a kind of false, false wisdom or predigested kind of, "Well, what do you think?"  You know, and it’s like your comment on the, you know, post a comment on... “Will North Korea attack? You vote!”  You know, and it’s like this sort of false, kind of like, knowledge that people foist on you and you’re supposed to have it, you know, you’re on Facebook and you’re supposed to know your sexual orientation at 13.  It’s like, I, nobody really knows what’s going on at that time and people seem to, you know, seem to know stuff or they have to act like they do, and they make decisions before they really need to and it’s a strange, a strange thing.

So I did that a bit, too, and then, you know, the older you get, you realize the less you know and you know some things.  And I guess the key thing is to... don’t make a decision based on some fear of the unknown.  And I make decisions based on fear of the known all the time, I mean, that’s what the voting booth is hopefully for.  But if it’s something based on fear of the unknown, it’s probably a bad decision, that’s the only thing I know.

Recorded on May 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen