Art Smith grew up in New Jersey, just a short distance from the Big Apple, in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I was active in the local Catholic church and was a very good student,” Art said. “I had quite a few friends and got along with pretty much everyone. My family life was pretty normal; I was particularly close to my mother and my paternal grandmother.”
After high school, he migrated south to warmer and sunnier cities, ultimately landing in Florida.
However, throughout his adolescence, Art happened upon some “innocent encounters” with some classmates he described as nothing serious. He never really questioned his sexuality but rather “just let things happen.”
In high school he had his first sexual encounter with another guy which continued for a couple of years until they both went to college.
“Even so, I didn’t recognize it as a sign of homosexuality,” Art said. “I looked at it more as experimentation with a friend who happened to be male. And I still dated girls occasionally.”
The first person he came out to was a good friend from college, to Art’s recollection. He had a crush on him when they were in school together.
“I valued our friendship far too much to risk telling him, but several years after college I told him,” he explained. “To my surprise he was completely accepting and even told me he had a few gay encounters himself.”
And the first family member he came out to was his dad. They rarely spoke, so Art wrote him a letter and told him to process the info before he responded.
A week or so later he called and basically said “it’s all right” but it really wasn’t, Art explained. At first he was relieved but came to learn he meant “It’s alright if we never talk about it and you never mention anyone you are dating and you never bring them home for holidays.”
“… Our relationship has been virtually nonexistent ever since.”
Art has been out for several decades now, and has noticed a shift in the LGBTQ community.
“In my opinion, the sense of community was much stronger then,” he said. “The bars and nightclubs were our safe havens, our community centers. We made friends there, found ‘love’ there, planned rallies and boycotts there, and shared happy and sad times together.
“We fought against the stigma of HIV and the stereotyping of gay men and women,” he continued. “We went there to be able to express our authentic selves which we couldn’t generally do at work or around straight friends. [Gay] bars were the core of our community.”
Today, he doesn’t see the sense of unity and “oneness” he once lived in, noting a divide happening among each letter in LGBTQIA+.
“While we may be more accepted — or at least tolerated — in the mainstream population, internally I see less of a connection,” Art explained. “From my perspective we have gained a lot of freedoms and rights at the expense of our identity, for better or worse.”
But for those who aren’t safe or ready to come out, Art says it simply: You do you.
“It’s not your duty to come out to anyone. If it isn’t safe to do so you can choose not to. However, no matter the decision you make there will be consequences.
“If you stay in the closet, you will miss out on the opportunity to be who you really are and love who you want to love. If you come out you risk the possibility of losing family connections, friends or potentially even employment.
“In the end you just have to do what’s best for you, even if that means moving to a new city or state where it’s safe for you to come out.”