How Steve Jobs and the Invention of the Mac Saved My Life

11.21.2011

By Tom Rielly

Tom Rielly, founder of PlanetOut and the non-profit Digital Queers, explains how Steve Jobs inadvertently changed his life with the invention of the Mac.

I was attending my senior year of high school in 1982, a time when it wasn't quite as easy to come out as it is for some—and I emphasize some—folks today. Raised religious Catholic, I would endure the priest's annual sodomy speech—essentially saying that if you're gay and you act on it, you’re going to hell. Or at least that’s the way I interpreted it.

I was aware of my sexuality from my early teens, but I really started wrestling with it that last year of high school. Because I literally believed that I was going to hell, I became severely depressed. Back then, I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone or ask for help. It got so bad that, during second semester, I actually tried to take my own life multiple times. Thankfully, I did not succeed.

Fortunately, during my freshman year at Georgetown University, I found something to distract me (and eventually release me, though I didn’t known it then) from my torment. In 1983, Steve Jobs appeared in an article in Newsweek magazine, talking about this computer called the Lisa, which cost $10,000 and had a graphical user interface—the antecedent to the Macintosh. I remember being struck immediately by the way this guy talked and by his picture. He was handsome and kind of seductive, with intense eyes that invited you into his world of magic. Even though I was an English major, and didn’t know anything about technology, I remember thinking Wow, that guy is amazing, and the Lisa is totally cool. I wish I could afford one.

By my second semester in January 1984, Jobs introduced the Macintosh. Because he made it, and because it was like Lisa’s little brother, I knew I had to learn everything about it. I read all I could about him and the new computer. Four times, I devoured every word of the first issue of Macworld magazine with Steve on the cover, looking forward with his arms spread open across three Macintoshes, saying, “Join me in Wonderland.”

Finally, the day came that changed my life forever. I went to a computer store in downtown Washington, D.C., to see my first Mac in person. At first the shop appeared deserted, until I rounded a corner and there were about 30 people in a cluster, of course huddled around the only Mac on the floor. I waited patiently for my turn. When I sat down, I drew a tree in Mac Paint and printed it out on a companion Apple ImageWriter printer. This was the first time that what you drew on the screen would actually print out and look exactly the same. This was big. All of a sudden, I just knew this was important. This was going to change the world. I wanted to meet all the people whose signatures were molded in plastic on the inside of the Macintosh: the actual creators, including Steve. At that point, I became obsessed.

A professor at Georgetown had been encouraging me to do something more challenging academically, and I applied to transfer to Yale. However, at least half the reason I switched is that Yale was a member of the Apple University Consortium, a genius marketing program Apple set up at some of the fancier schools, where you could get up to 60% off a new Mac which otherwise retailed for $2,495 ($5,177 in today's dollars). In hindsight, that program affected me and so many other LGBT folks who would end up in Silicon Valley, giving us affordable access to this machine that would open up our worlds. Indeed, the program’s slogan was “Wheels for the Mind.” I was so smitten, I even drove to school a couple days early to get in the August-vs.-September Mac allocation.

Since I was a transfer student at Yale, many students had already found their friends as freshmen. The school workers were on strike and teachers wouldn’t cross the picket lines. It was an inauspicious time to arrive. Unlike Georgetown, I had a hard time breaking into the social scene. I was lonely and very much still closeted. In true made-for-TV-movie fashion, I remember I would stand and hide outside in the bushes and look in through the window at the gay students’ meeting, but I was unable to bring myself to open the door and go in. But my brand new Mac (finally!) gave me this purpose and it gave me something to do with all this energy and passion. I really believe that sublimating my libidinal energies into the Mac is why I have the privilege to do what I do today. If I were out dating at Yale in 1984, the year before Rock Hudson was on the cover of Newsweek and mass hysteria broke loose, I wouldn’t have known any better. And, at least now, hurting myself was the farthest thing from my mind.

I befriended Philip Rubin, who founded the Yale Mac Users Group (YMUG), and became one of the five most active members, writing and publishing their newsletter, still laying it out using scissors and rubber cement. It’s hard to imagine how exciting it was to be involved in the beginning of something new, where new breakthrough software and accessories were coming out: Pagemaker! The Apple Laserwriter! Excel! Back then it was possible to know about every single thing in the Mac universe, and we did.

I got so into the Mac and YMUG that I barely did any schoolwork and ended up dropping out. But before I did, Philip encouraged me to try out a new toy: a 300-bits-per-second modem, thousands of times slower than today’s Internet. With that, I was able to go online using CompuServe, an early text-only online service. To my great excitement, I discovered a gay and lesbian section with postings and information and people talking to each other: a real gay community to belong to from inside my closet. I sent a message to the gay system operator that said, “I’m gay, and I’m struggling.” He replied with information to read, books to buy, basically telling me, “You’ll be OK.” This was the first gay person to whom I affirmed “I’m gay,” and the first person to reassure me. This was huge. On a side note, I remember thinking, I wish you could have a Mac user interface to access online services, which is exactly what the web came to be, yet another staggering consequence of the Mac.

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