There are much worse hands to be dealt than having to come out of the closet as a twentysomething white male in New York City. After all, you’re fortunate to be at the center of the gay universe — one of them, at least. On the other hand, there’s often an ever-growing pile of debt under your feet, higher-than-normal social pressures, the never-ending fear that you’re going to get HIV, and high walls around a community that is pretty resistant to outsiders.
The Awl co-founder and former Gawker editor Choire Sicha’s first book Very Recent History isn’t necessarily a gay handbook, but more of a mirror for privileged gay men. Its view on gayness is very millennial at heart — we are sexually active, unabashedly queer, and happy. For gays like me, it feels nicer to read than any “It Gets Better” video with false promises and wistful inspiration. (Disclosure: I was a summer reporter for The Awl in 2011.)
Sicha told Salon last month, “Well, it’s funny, you wouldn’t know that it was about gay people, because the word ‘gay’ isn’t on it or in it. I don’t think the word ‘gay’ is used even once in the whole book, which is hilarious and weird.”
Beyond being “hilarious and weird,” it’s also a completely normalizing experience for gay readers. Paul Constant at The Stranger says that Sicha’s writing screws a “new pair of eyes into your sockets.” But for young gay readers, like me, it’s like reading with the glasses that you wear every day.
The book goes beyond having queer characters. It puts you in a queer mind-set, where spring is welcomed with the proclamation, “Chest hair! Again!” The hookup app Grindr is given a brief shout-out, but it is treated with weightiness rather than a mocking tone. Sicha says, “Mostly there was too much total information awareness to it.” That damn app is important, after all. The characters recount their Halloween adventures in exhausting detail at one point, weighing in on how “pervo” it’s appropriate to be when being cruised by a guy wearing Boy Scout uniform.
Protagonist John takes a trip to Fire Island and goes to an underwear party where he realizes that if everyone’s in their skivvies, “the bodies were a kind of currency, which heightened tension between people.” Sicha’s description of the party adds a kind of gross beauty to the place. John receives a blow job from a guy named Taylor before asking his name. He later has unprotected sex with Taylor and has a brooding sense of panic. The thing that’s so perfect here is that John should know better, but he doesn’t, and he isn’t punished for it. No slut-shaming allowed in 2009.
Sicha tackles writing about AIDS with a glimpse of modernity and reflection. In one of the most tender moments of the book, John and Edward go to the health clinic to get tested after putting it off. John gets his negative result 45 minutes before Edward gets his, but the part of the experience that Sicha zooms in on isn’t the fear, it’s what happens hours after the test. The lovers press fingertips as John declares them “blood brothers,” while Edward can’t even remember which finger he gave blood from. Earlier in the book, without mentioning AIDS by name, Sicha quietly acknowledges the impact the crisis had on the city: ”These were people who [today] would have been coworkers, mentors, bosses, owners, millionaires, subway workers, neighbors, guys to pick up at bars…. But they weren’t there.”
The moment that perfectly captures my millennial gay experience and stopped me in my tracks was one of the book’s most ordinary scenes. Edward returns a 4:30 a.m. phone call from John and the two-page-long, one-sided conversation reads like a word-for-word transcript of every rambling pre-Sunday-brunch phone conversation I’ve had in the last six months:
“Then we went to the porn shop to get lube…No! that’s why I was laughing…So we were at Eastern Cock, then we went to Boiler Room, where we ran into Bryan and Sam and Steve or whatever his name is. He’s a total bitch. Ugh, such a bitch. Then we went to the Cock, L. O. L. Mmm-hmm. It was kind of insane.”
Yes, this is gossipy and probably vapid, not to mention it’s kind of gross to loudly gab about lube in the morning on your cell phone outside of a coffee shop, but it’s real. Denying this part of the gay experience would be a crime. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a total bitchy queen sometimes — it’s all part of the fun, really. This is what it’s like for a very specific group of people in a very specific time frame, and Sicha has managed to capture that, sex and all.
It’s necessary for books like this to exist — we need more accurate portrayals of how fun, sad, and complicated it is to be a gay man that don’t reduce the experience down to overwrought metaphors. It’s also good having something about the modern gay experience that doesn’t make you cry as much as, say, Weekend does. It’s a changed world out there now, so more sex, friendship, and partying — no crying allowed.