I’ve never thought of writing a memoir. It’s ridiculous, since I’m not that old and I’m not that famous. But there was a pivotal period in my early 20s that derailed the “expected” path and changed the course of my entire life. When I’ve shared bits and pieces of the story, people have encouraged me to write about it, which I’ve attempted in a series of false starts over the years. With some time on my hands during the lockdown days of the pandemic, I gave it a more earnest crack.
The working title is “Once In A Blue Moon,” which is also the title of a beautiful song written by Jerome Kern and Anne Caldwell, and sung so beautifully by the great Mabel Mercer. The lyrics go like this:
Once in a blue moon
You will find the right one
Once in a blue moon
Find your dear delight one
And with a thrill
You’ll know that love is true
Once in a lifetime
When the moon is blue
And here is a rough draft of part one…
Derailment of an Expected Life
If I had followed the script and taken the expected path, I would have dutifully finished college and likely returned home to Cleveland. I’d have perhaps started a career in banking, finance, real estate, insurance or some subscription to the well-established idea of a steady and secure corporate job. While still at school or back home, I might have met a pretty girl who looked good in photos and on paper – someone to show off – and married her. We’d have kids and raise them in a nice house on a nice street with nice neighbors in a nice suburb.
And unbeknownst to anyone, when no one was looking, I’d explore a secret life on the side – a secret life with secret sexual encounters with men. This secret life would probably have just started with my own private fantasies, but eventually manifested itself in physical form in gay bars, bathhouses or some other dark venue with very low, shame-based lighting.
I’d tell myself that that part of me wasn’t real, that it didn’t really exist. If I were still drinking at the time (and I probably would be), I’d characterize these clandestine excursions as something that just happened to me when I was wasted or high. Though I may have generally summoned the nerve to do this while under the influence, I’d conveniently ignore the fact that these isolated incidents were something I continued to revisit repeatedly.
This is how it would be. Because where I grew up, in the time I grew up and against the backdrop of the social/religious values celebrated in that place and time of my formative years, to be a fag or even merely perceived as one was the worst thing that could ever happen.
Fortunately for me and everyone else, especially the nice, unsuspecting woman I’d be lying to, things didn’t go that way.
But I describe that secret life from experience. That was my modus operandi all they way into my junior year in college, where I majored in communication and minored in compartmentalization. Through high school and the first half of college, I had girlfriends. They were hot and popular and served to burnish the lady killer image I wanted to project. By the time I hit my junior year, I’d had exactly four sexual experiences with men, and certainly fantasized about more of them privately. Publicly, I was one of the dudes, drinking, partying and trying to bang girls.
I was a classic Catholic closet case, tightly wrapped in fear, guilt and shame. If anything or anyone came close to exposing me and my proclivity, I’d do what many do: run and shun. Maybe even consider killing myself, as others do, also. As I said, being gay or the mere hint of being perceived as such was a horrifying idea where I come from. Growing up, I had no role models other than Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Riley or Blake Carrington’s son Steven on Dynasty. And in real life among real people, I didn’t identify. When I was about 11 or 12, I saw the first obviously gay man I can remember. He was a waiter in a restaurant where I went with my parents. He had mannerisms, speech and style that you could clock from a long distance. I remember thinking to myself “If that’s what gay is, then I can’t be gay because I’m not that.” It was an impression that sticks with me today as I grapple with my own internalized homophobia, still hardwired from the value system of my upbringing.
But when I was 21, my journey along the expected, well-paved path into a likely destiny for a young, ostensibly straight American man was derailed. By then, I had escaped from Cleveland to Boston for school, where the ground for experimentation felt more fertile and the obligation to fit a certain mold started to dissipate.
At Boston College, I was an actor in the theater and fancied myself a budding badass like Jack Nicholson or Richard Burton. Apparently, I had exhibited some talent as a sophomore playing a 60 year old man in a George Bernard Shaw play called Arms and the Man, which was directed by an irreverent and brilliant Jesuit priest named Denis Moran. The next season, which was the fall of 1991, Fr. Moran implored me to audition for the next play he was directing, called The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. I auditioned for the play and was cast in the lead role of Ned Weeks, based on Kramer himself.
For those who don’t know the play or have not seen the HBO film version with Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, The Normal Heart is about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. In fact, the term AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) had not even been coined yet in the story. These were the days when it was called “gay cancer,” “gay plague” or GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). A bit didactic at times, the play chronicles Larry Kramer’s real life fight to get recognition for the disease and the help that was so desperately needed. It’s also an affirmation of his sexuality and the sexuality of all gay men, where he demands the respect for and acknowledgment of him, his peers and those who came before. In my favorite speech in the script, my character Ned Weeks (Kramer) says:
I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld… These are not invisible men.
Just reading those words again today still makes me cry a little.
When I was cast and rehearsals began, I was still that closeted Catholic boy wrecked with guilt and shame. By the end of the run in December of 1991, I had experienced a catharsis. To this day, thirty years later, I remember it as one of the most transformative, liberating and empowering experiences I have ever had. The message in Larry Kramer’s script… the incredible cast of young men and one amazing young woman… the fearless vision of a director and mentor who knew this might ruffle feathers with a largely Catholic audience accustomed to safer theatrical fare… It all came together and truly transformed me. I can distinctly remember the feeling of all the pent-up tension, fear, guilt and shame leaving my body. It was exhilarating.
Family and close friends have asked me what I think my father would have thought of all this. (He had died two years prior.) It probably would have been harder to get honest and come to terms with my sexuality if he were alive. He was a somewhat conservative guy, and I always sought his pride and approval. But if the Catholic construct of heaven does exist, then he is in an enlightened and loving state of grace with everything. In life, I think he may have had a tough time with it in the beginning like my mother, who was tricky at first and initially somewhat heartbroken by the unlikely prospect of grandchildren from me. But she came around rather quickly, as I think dad would have, too.
The show itself triggered a controversy on campus, even during performances. At one performance during a scene where I kissed the totally straight, totally professional and totally fabulous Michael Towers, a few people walked out in an audible huff. Another night, someone taped a sign on the theater door that said: “Tonight, Christ has left Boston College.” After the very positive review came out in The Heights, B.C.’s school paper, there were letters to the editor about the show or the subject of homosexuality, often negative. After a few weeks of this, I decided to write a letter to the editor myself, venting my frustrations about the toxic homophobic air that permeated the school, effectively coming out to a reading audience of over 10,000 students, the faculty and the administration.
Between the play and the letter, I had officially become the gay in the undergraduate body at Boston College.
I never had any real concerns about my safety, but I can say that, in the wake of the play and the letter in the paper, heads would literally turn when I walked through the student union building. “That’s him… that’s the one” was the vibe. And I was still a junior, with a whole year and a half left as the gay. My friends were incredibly supportive, and my roommates in particular were the best group of guys I could have asked to live with. Joe, Brendan, Dave, Tom… they were beyond amazing, fully embracing and even a little protective. No one fucked with George when we went out. I owe them a lot.
In the following weeks during late winter/early spring in 1992, there were more letters to the editor about the play or about me, some very positive, some very much not, with one explicitly recommending my expulsion from the university. One very affirmative letter that stood out was written by an alumnus named David Mills, who graduated from Boston College in 1964 and Boston College Law School in 1967. A very successful lawyer at the time who’d been before the Supreme Court several times and won, David championed the school and the paper for publishing my letter, generously commending me on my courage, finishing with “George Hahn, you are a witness to me.”
The paper’s editor told me that David wanted to meet me and gave me his phone number. I called David one night, and we began a dialog, striking up a nice friendship. Through the remainder of that school year and over the summer, we had many conversations and a few dinners about life at Boston College in 1992 versus life there in the mid-1960s. Aside from his remarkable intelligence, obvious accomplishment and kid-like curiosity about people, what impressed me most about David was how he had led an outwardly heterosexual life all through school and well into his career as a big deal attorney. Then he came out of the closet, risking a great deal for a guy in his position at the time. But he did it. I would listen to this guy who complimented my courage, thinking “Are you kidding me? You are the brave one.” To this day, men of a certain age and generation who eventually take the leap, own who they are and live honestly are so impressive to me because I’ve never forgotten where I came from, how hard it was and what it was like.
Over that summer in 1992, I stayed in Boston, working as a DJ across the Charles River at Man Ray in Central Square/Cambridge and as a doorman at the storied nightclubs on Lansdowne Street, right next to Fenway Park. The glamour of it all was unyielding, as was my mounting credit card debt.
As Labor Day approached, David invited me to come with him to Provincetown for the long weekend. Having no set plans, I accepted. After playing my last record at Man Ray on Friday night, I drove up to David’s house, situated right on the water in Gloucester. He was already asleep when I got there, and I crashed in one of the guest rooms, as he directed me to. Early the next morning, we were going to Provincetown on David’s boat, complete with a generous cabin below deck, where we would be sleeping (separately) over the holiday weekend. This was my first trip ever to Provincetown.
Stepping onto the dock on a summer holiday weekend in Provincetown for a newly out 21 year old was like walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Never in my life had I personally witnessed so many men freely walking around, holding hands, embracing, kissing, without fear or shame. If New York and San Francisco were the Emerald Cities, Provincetown and Fire Island were their summer resorts. With my limited experience in all of this, I was amazed. This was the early ‘90s, soundtracked and styled by Deee-Lite and the Blond Ambition tour, with many of these men adopting the white t-shirt/cut-off jeans/Doc Martens look of Madonna’s backup dancers (ok, myself included). The freedom was invigorating.
Beyond the initial shock from all this freedom on a scale I’d never before witnessed, I was also bewitched by Provincetown’s quintessential seaside charm. As David showed me around, I felt like I was walking in a Norman Rockwell painting. I had been to Cape Cod before, but there is no place on Cape Cod like this, especially for a gay man. It was on this weekend that I realized a life in New England was probably in my future.
The next day was Sunday, September 6th, 1992. I mark this day for a very specific reason I’ll get to later. For now, let’s just know that it was Sunday, day two of my first trip ever to Provincetown. And it was a beautiful, sunny day.
After brunch that Sunday morning, David said he was going to visit a friend on the edge of town and asked if I would like to join him. His friend was an artist and divorced with two young sons who lived with their mother. He had AIDS. David also told me that his friend’s ex-wife had just spoken two weeks prior at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. She was a wealthy, politically connected woman who had contracted HIV from her ex-husband and boldly and bravely addressed the convention to spread awareness of the virus and how it was affecting everyone, regardless of politics or privilege.
Did I, a self-absorbed and horny 21 year old gay man in Provincetown for the first time on a holiday weekend, want to go visit a 42 year old stranger who’s life was ending as mine was just beginning? No. Not at all, actually, in spite of my magical experience with Larry Kramer’s play. But David was affording me this nice weekend, and mother raised a gentleman. So, of course, I graciously agreed to tag along.
David and I walked the length of Commercial Street until we reached an enchanting cluster of cedar-sided cottages called Delft Haven, located near the southern tip of residential Provincetown. His friend lived in cottage No. 12. When we got to house, the outer screen door was closed, but the inner door was open. The sun was beaming directly above us, making it hard to see inside. David knocked, but there was no answer. I was so relieved. He knocked again. There was a voice from inside.
Shit. We were staying.
When he came to the door and opened it, he and David embraced as friends happy to see each other. Then David turned to introduce me. That’s when I first saw him. All six feet of him. Up to that moment and for every moment since then, I can honestly say that he was the most beautiful man I had ever met. We shook hands, and I was smitten.
The beautiful man whisked David and me inside and situated us in the humble but handsome living room right inside the door. David and I sat next to each other, while our host served iced tea and sat across from us. For the next hour, I sat, listened, laughed and contributed when appropriate while the grownups did most of the talking. But the beautiful man was very inclusive and asked all about me, where I was from, school… the usuals.
He talked about how he was adjusting to living in Provincetown, how much he liked the community of artists (he was a painter) and the welcome change of pace from Boston, where he went to school, New York, where he’d lived for 14 years, and Boca Raton, where he lived when he was married. The subject of his ex-wife’s speech at the Republican Convention came up, of course. He seemed quite proud of her, as one would be. Throughout our visit, he also very politely shared his Merit cigarettes with me, which was a huge relief.
The entire time, I could not stop looking at him. At the time, his brown hair was very short, like a buzz cut growing in. Over time, I’ve concluded that the best way to describe what he looked like is to describe him as a third Fonda, as if Henry Fonda had another son who combined the best features of Jane and Peter, with a more chiseled jawline. He was gorgeous, with a real movie star smile. And he didn’t look sick at all.
The beautiful man was looking at me, too. Or, rather, he was looking into me, with truly magnetic eyes of golden hazel. Throughout the hour long visit, we kept catching one another’s glance with some kind of knowing. Knowing what? I couldn’t identify it at the time, but it was as if we were communicating something. Sure, there was an element of flirtation in our visual tango, but it wasn’t that crude or predatory. There were other layers to it. A familiarity, even. He captivated me completely.
The time for David and me to leave eventually arrived. (And by that time, I didn’t want to leave.) We got up, hugged and kissed each other’s cheek goodbye. I told him how wonderful it was to meet him, and I meant it totally. As David and I started to walk toward Commercial Street, I looked back. The beautiful man was behind his screen door, watching. Before turning the corner, I smiled at him and waved. I saw him wave back, and I’m pretty sure he was smiling, too.
On the walk to the marina along Commercial Street, I remember feeling kind of high, like I was enjoying a nice, delicate buzz. Being near the beautiful man felt really good. I was extremely glad I went and genuinely grateful to David for bringing me.
That was Sunday, September 6th, 1992. That day marks a distinct pivot in my life’s direction. I didn’t know it yet, but it was the day when I met a man who would forever alter the chemistry of my heart. It was the day I met a man who showed me a possibility that I never considered possible. It was the day when I met a man I didn’t want to meet.
His name was Brian Campbell.
The next day, Labor Day, David and I boated back to Gloucester. As I watched the iconic Pilgrim Monument get smaller in the distance, I felt full from such a wonderful introduction to Provincetown. It truly is a magical place. And, of course, what stuck to me most was that visit with the beautiful man, Brian Campbell. I didn’t think I’d see him again. How or why would I? And why would he want to see me? He surely had more important things on his mind. At the end of the day, I just filed it away as a lovely experience that I could treasure for a while. How nice.
I had no idea at the time that Brian would come into my life again the following January. How could I? I had no idea at the time that I would end up spending nearly every weekend with him for the next five months after that. How could I? And I had no idea at the time that I would ever allow myself to open up, to be vulnerable and to let my heart take such a risky ride with a man who’s life was likely ending sooner rather than later. How could I? How could any rational person? But it would happen.
If I didn’t learn it then, I’ve certainly learned it since. The lesson? Be open. To all of it. Be open in mind, in spirit and in heart. Being open leaves one vulnerable to disappointment, failure, embarrassment and heartbreak. Being open also invites the opportunity for joy, discovery, wonder, love indescribable and a whole spectrum of experiences that make life truly worth living.
Watching the monument disappear on the horizon, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was that my last year of college started the next day. By the end of that semester, after the holidays, David would call me again with another invitation to join him in Provincetown. This time, he was helping to prepare a dinner at the AIDS Support Group and wanted to know if I’d come with him and help. Like that time he asked me to come with him to visit his friend on Labor Day Weekend, my reflexive selfish impulse was to decline. But then David sweetened the deal:
“Do you remember my friend Brian Campbell, the one we visited in Provincetown?”
“Well, he asks about you all the time. He’ll be there.”
With that, the pilot light in my heart lit up, and I told David I’d be happy to come with him and help. And so began the most unforgettable ride of my life.
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