South Florida is a treasury of queer memory. Many who live here can recall the secret codes of cruising in the 50s and 60s, the post-Stonewall eruptions and euphoria of the 70s and the grim arrival of AIDS in the 80s.
But what of those among us who are much younger and whose queer lives are contained only in the short term? The 33-year-old Chris Finlay is that kind of queer, and he is busy completing the text of an exhibit about the gay 1990s for the Stonewall Library and Archives because that is the extent of his own queer memory. He has much to say about that decade.
Chris Finlay is a Canadian who received a fellowship to attend the University of Pennsylvania for a PhD. Conveniently, his partner also went to Philadelphia for an MA, and eventually took a job in Fort Lauderdale. Chris followed him here and is now writing his doctoral dissertation entitled: "The Olympics as a Form of Public Diplomacy and International Communication". Needing a regular mind-clearing break from that subject, he began volunteering at Stonewall where he realized he had a young perspective that might be worth expressing. The library, always eager to attract younger members, supported his idea for an exhibit about the gay 1990s.
"In this overview of the decade, I'm incorporating the perspective of young people and how they came out in mainstream culture. It was an unprecedented environment to come out in. For me, this was the decade when I was 13-23, so the show will be somewhat autobiographical."
What are the recollections of someone who was 13 years old in 1990?
"I came out in 1997 when I was 20. That was the year of the "Ellen episode" on TV. For me it was a fairly boring process. My parents were sort of waiting around for me to get there. I announced 'I'm bringing someone home and it's a guy.' No drama. For me, the 90s were all about AIDS. My father was the director of The Federal Center for AIDS in Canada, so he was already very involved. I was in a condom commercial when I was a kid. Coming out, I was petrified of sex and kept tying homosexuality to AIDS. The people I knew who were dying were family friends and mentors.
"Looking back at 1990, the beginning of the decade, you see half of all AIDS deaths happening in that year alone. By 1996-97, the meds had people shrugging it off. For me, condoms were never optional. I am part of the first post-AIDS generation. Now, even on World AIDS Day, you don't hear so much. By the end of the 90s, the highest rate of new infections was in men under 25. Because of complacency? Response to the meds? Not having seen the ravages of AIDS close up? The invisibility of the disease? These are all probable reasons."
Chris Finlay frames his gay experience in terms of television. In November of 1989, Thirty Something aired the controversial episode in which two men are in bed together after having sex. The producers would not allow the men to touch each other in that scene, and five of the show's sponsors bowed out. Chris notes that women comedians led the charge as queer television struggled tenaciously through Rosie, Roseanne and Ellen. It was a time when regular series such as Designing Women began to have "special gay episodes". Suddenly there were gay-themed movies-of-the-week. By the end of the decade, television had come of age with the introduction of Will and Grace in September of 1998. Although we now take it for granted, that was the decade in which television news programs began open coverage of LGBT issues.
"One of the themes I take up is that the kids of the 90s are between Gen X and the Echo Boomers and Millennials of Gen-Y. For them, the internet was the center of their life. For me, the chat rooms were 'Wow'. The funny thing is that now, 15 years later, I check into some of those rooms and find the same guys there, but they're all 15 years older!"
Chris has charted the extraordinary evolution of the decade. "First, it was all about AIDS. Then came "Queer Nation" who wanted to manipulate media on their own terms and totally the opposite of the compliant 50s approach. In 1990, you have people like Randy Shilts raging 'We're going to do this on our own terms.' The most dramatic change was that by the end of the decade we were all about assimilation. Politicians were saying 'We don't understand these radical types.' and the nature of Pride Parades went from anger to open celebration. In the 1990s, visibility was key. 'Gay' became the center of the culture wars. This is still controversial with writers like Ed White labeling our visibility as a problem. What I try to do in this exhibit is look at the movement from the outside through the eyes of a young gay spectator. I divide everything I saw into three categories: politics, pop culture and peers."
Chris, who is here on a student visa, was advised not to get married because that might make it difficult for him to gain entry into the USA. He and his partner like living here. "Gay Fort Lauderdale has a young side to it. We'd like to see young professionals come to this exhibit. So much of what we do at Stonewall is geared to coming out in the 60s and 70s. This is entirely different."
Chris, with Charles Ross who is designing the visual art of the exhibition, is still open to receiving memorabilia and ephemera of the gay 90s for inclusion in the exhibit which runs from January 5 - February 26, 2011.
For more information, www.stonewall-library.org
[This report also appears in the current issue of South Florida Gay News]