Coming of Age in the 80s

by Jeff Fuller

Recently, I re-watched, Stand By Me, one of my favorite movies from the 1980s. The movie, based on a Stephen King novella, is set in the 1950s and tells the story of four boys who set out into the woods to find a body of a missing boy.  This touching, quotable movie played an important role for Generation X boys like me growing up in the mid-1980s.  Watching the movie in the late 2010s, I realized I was watching a story written by someone in his 30s or 40s, telling a story set in the time period of his own youth while reflecting on my own youth decades later.

80s nostalgia is everywhere now, much like 50s and 60s nostalgia was when I was growing up. Now it’s my generation’s turn to create nostalgia trips, producing works like Stranger Things, Ready Player One, The Americans, and the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror. There is a renewed interest in 80s music.  80s nights at The Basement in East Atlanta are filled with people with no living memory of those times. Now that the 80s is a generation in the past, it is now seen as a fascinating, exotic time.

My experience of the 80s was both happy and heartbreaking. I grew up in Avon Lake, Ohio, a lakefront suburb of Cleveland that could have been the setting of any John Hughes movie.  In the early 80s, I was a precocious, exuberant kid. While many gay kids idolized Madonna, my diva was Olivia Newton-John. I remember buying all her albums (on 8 track) and listening to them in the basement, where I would roller skate to “Xanadu,” “Heart Attack,” and “Physical.”

The 80s news media described a frightening outside world: the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, child abduction and cyanide in Tylenol. I was thankfully too young to experience the worst of the plague years of HIV/AIDS firsthand, but I was old enough to witness the horrors of it unfolding in the news and the uninformed hysteria about how the disease was spread.  Unfortunately for me, and many others who grew up when I did, HIV/AIDS was the first context for hearing any discussion of “homosexuality” or “being gay” outside of playground taunts.

I had a close friend in my early years of elementary school.  He was a goofy, class clown, Ferris Bueller type, always causing trouble and always getting away with it. We used to write computer programs in BASIC and build forts in the woods. But because we spent too much time together some of our classmates called us “fags.” Desperate to fit in, I stopped hanging out with him altogether.

The late 80s, my junior high years, were difficult.  Bullies sprayed fart spray on me at a junior high school dance, shoved me into my locker and called me “faggot” all the time. I escaped into my own world of books, music, television and my own imagination. During these years, I loved watching The Golden Girls at home. I also spent a lot of time listening to music, especially New Wave music like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and INXS, rather than the heavy metal hair bands that all the bullies did. I remember being intrigued by George Michael, less in his Wham days, but when he traded in his pastels for a leather jacket. The “Faith” album was the only music purchase that I ever had any controversy with my parents over.

By the early 90s, hair bands gave way to alternative and grunge music.  John Hughes movies gave way to dark comedies like Heathers. Flannel-wearing, artsy people in coffee shops and marching bands accepted me and I began developing self-esteem.  However, I completely hid my sexuality in the hopes of fitting in. Even though the Basket Case and the Nerd were in vogue, the Princess and the Jock world still ruled the world. It would take me several more years and more cultural change until I would feel brave enough to accept my sexuality and take steps out of the closet.

In Stand By Me, the sensitive, writer Wil Wheaton character asks the River Phoenix character, “Do you think I’m weird?” The River Phoenix character responds: “Definitely . . . but so what? Everybody’s weird.” Maybe the 80s would have been an easier time to grow up in if there were more people in my life to reassure me that everything would turn out okay.

Apart from being a Gay Generation-Xer, Jeff Fuller is an attorney, writer, travel blogger, historian, and military spouse. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jeff went to college, graduate school and law school in the Southeast.  He has called Atlanta home for the last decade, interrupted by a few periods of extended travel abroad to places like Brazil and Berlin. He occasionally blogs at journeyingjeff.com.