Coming of Age in the Plague Years


It was 1985 and I was too young to realize that the lead singer of Queen was gay. I guess at some level, I knew his energy was different than other lead singers I had crushed on, but the possibility that a gay man would front a loud and bawdy rock n’ roll band had not entered my realm of reality yet, and as time would tell, neither had it entered the minds of many in mainstream America.

I was not naíve when it came to the gay scene, especially as it related to music. I had several friends who I attended concerts and gay clubs with frequently, but the gay performers we saw did not have the boldness and masculinity of Freddie. The likes of Morrissey, Erasure, and Simply Red shaped my reality of what gay musicians should act like and this misperception followed me longer than I’d care to admit.

The video Bohemian Rhapsody was playing on MTV (yes, it was a hit before the movie Wayne’s World) and I was watching it with one of my first boyfriends one winter afternoon. Following the video, an image of Tipper Gore appeared. Kurt Loder, the MTV news reporter told us that she, along with the U.S. government, was promoting the adoption of a mandatory system for all record labels, similar to a movie ratings system, to be used for song lyrics. My boyfriend, who was a few years older and much more conservative than I was even at the tender age of 16, took her side on this topic much to my surprise at the time. My mother, who was also in the room, sided with Tipper Gore as well.

I had not yet mastered the art of debate or anything close to it, so my argument for First Amendment rights was translated through my Valley-Girl-from-Ohio-dialect into something resembling “I hate her. She’s soooo stupid. Like what does she know about good song lyrics? She probably listens to Barry Manilow.” My mother and boyfriend shamed me for not understanding the benefit that a ratings system would bring to the youth of the 80s while I grew hotter and more frustrated. Years later, as I look back at this incident, I wonder how and why I formed my opinions and how happy I am that I held onto them despite the opinions of those closest to me while growing up.

At the time of this argument, I was falling in love with techno and rock music and anything else that alleviated my boredom with a vanilla-flavored upbringing in small town Ohio. Not only did the music and dancing at gay clubs draw me in, but so did the boys. I reveled in the fact that I could hang out boys who liked big hair and makeup as much as I did. Not having any brothers growing up, I knew nothing about boys and this was the safest way I learned what they think about, what they talk about and what they were like, without having the confusing dynamics of teenage sex drives overshadowing me.

A few short years prior to my introduction to the club scene, I had received the soundtrack to the Muppet Movie and the Rolling Stone’s Tattoo You from my parents for my birthday. Upon opening my locker door for my parents during my high schools parents’ open house evening, a hooved foot in a high heel shoe proudly revealed itself to my mother, who couldn’t hide her shock in front of my Biology teacher. It was a clear indicator that my musical tastes had grown up, leaving the world of Muppets far behind. The look on my mother’s face was forever impressed in my memory as I was just beginning to find my grounding in the coveted art of teenage rebellion.

Rolling Stones Tattoo You

One day, while combing through my much anticipated monthly issue of Rolling Stone, I came across David Black’s The Plague Years. Although we never spoke about it, I’m quite certain that not only me, but my friends as well, read that article many times over in the quiet solitude of our innocent teenager bedrooms, not sure what to make of it. The darkened shrouded human figure with its buttocks scrawled on (shown below) is still burned into my memory as a symbol for the “gay plague” as it was dubbed by the media at the time.


Misconceptions and rumors ran rampant during this time and my friends and I even believed that sipping from the same glass as someone with AIDS would result in catching the disease. We were very careful to hold on to our drinks at the clubs and not accidentally pick up someone else’s.

I was prompted to write this post, a deviation from my typical environmentally related theme by recently watching the movie The Dallas Buyers Club. The character portrayed contracted AIDS in 1985, the year Tipper Gore was pushing lyric censorship through government control. A year when men and women were contracting a death-sentencing disease because the FDA refused to allow drug distribution to them. A year when many Americans, including our leaders, were more concerned about keeping children safe from hearing vulgar language and topics than they were about the deaths of many, mostly because AIDS was still considered to be a “gay disease”. A year when Freddie Mercury, couldn’t publicize his homosexuality for fear of being ostracized by his mainstream fans.

Although my fondness for the 80s will always be a part of me, this is one part that I’d like to rewind and get a “do-over” for. I wish I had the knowledge I have today and perhaps, instead of arguing about a censorship campaign against vulgar lyrics in songs (which I have to admit seems petty and inconsequential as Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” song gets overplayed on the radio), I would have chosen to argue instead about why we didn’t know Freddie Mercury was gay until he was dead. A much stronger argument for self-expression, indeed.

Rolling Stones Tattoo You


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