I remember when I first heard Jimmy Somerville's voice in Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy. I knew exactly what that song meant. I was one, a queer boy in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, age 16. There was a college radio station signal, very faint, that I could get if I pushed my radio right into the corner of my bedroom, and I had done that, and the song came on. As I stood there and listened, the cold truth of my life washed over me.
I had spent the summer in Georgetown, down in Washington, D.C., running around to gay clubs with friends from the Georgetown University summer session program for high school juniors. It was eight weeks of heaven--taking college classes by day, and going to clubs with names like Traxx and Poseurs at night. I had left with side part hair, rugby shorts, Sperry Topsiders. I came back with a Kevin Bacon brush cut, a clove cigarette habit, and a load of Commander Salamander shirts. My openly gay roommate had pushed my closet door open the first day--and was soon introducing me to his new boyfriend, also in the program, who sometimes slept over--I'd wake up in the morning and find him asleep on top of the sheets, my roommate under the sheets.
When they broke up, he told me they used to have sex in the room at night, and my mind exploded. What would you have done if I woke up, I asked.
Asked you to join in, he said, with a little smile.
That summer ended with the beginning of my knowledge of the AIDS epidemic. Soon saying you were gay became like saying you were death. Or the next to die.
Back in Maine again, I tried to avoid what I felt, but I couldn't, and that song, when it came and found me, told me about how it was all going to be, a song like a trail of crumbs through the woods, leading me out into the rest of my queer life.
I couldn't turn my back on who I was--that was death too.
SLIDESHOW | M. SHARKEY'S QUEER KIDS
It's that song and that summer I think of when I look at Queer Kids. Sharkey's photographs, no matter their subject, render them with a jewel-like intensity. He is a true artist of the portrait, and his turning his attention to this new generation, with its incredible diversity of desires and identities, brings them to life, wild, wild life, on the page. His talent is in recognizing that moment and gesture both that deliver the truth of someone to the viewer, so that you feel as if you know his subjects, even if it's the first time you've ever seen them--a radical intimacy. The result is that the images here become like memories I never dreamed of having, of people I both recognize but also never knew to imagine.
The air in these photos though is what I recognize most. It is the air of my dreams back then, for the future that I could and couldn't admit I wanted, back when I was that age. What I wanted that night, that hour, that life. It's the air of what followed too--all of the hair dye, all of the dancing on bars, all of the fishnets and corsets and wigs. All of the marches and all of the protests--the International AIDS Day police riot, the blocking of the Golden Gate Bridge, Silence = Death, the ACT UP die-in at George Bush's house up in Kennebunkport. I remember I drove an Oldsmobile station wagon down the streets of Ogunquit full of friends who were headed to protest at George Bush's house, and in the summer traffic, we were slowed to the movement of a parade. Madonna's Vogue came on the radio, and my friend Dave turned it all the way up, got out of the car and vogued on my hood as I drove at 5 mph toward the future where these photos were taken.
It seemed back then like the world was going to change or die, and we wanted it to change. We wanted to live, and live wild and free. When I look at these pictures--whether it is the basketball player, or the genderqueer punk, or the accordion player, the ballerina, I think of how I didn't know how to want them to live but I can see I did.
Hannah Arendt's definition of freedom is the freedom to be open to that which you cannot yet imagine--that, I think, was what was underneath it all, all of the dead we buried, all of the joy we had, all of the fights we fought. The right to see a generation walk up from behind us with their own ideas, their own sense of what queer is and what it will be or could be, what the next fight is. Even if I don't understand them, I love them--I love that they exist.
It's easy to see, looking at them, reading their stories, that we are once again in a world that seems like it will change or die--and that they, and we, must be a part of what's next. I don't know that my struggles made room for them, I can't say that, though I hope it did--I think they can take the credit for the way they are inventing themselves. I would just say to them: know that when I was a kid, the idea of finding you, of being as open as you are now, all of you, all these years later, that was like science fiction to me.
I used to think the future I was fighting to live to see was going to be about jetpacks. I'm so much happier it's about you.
Queer Kidsis on view Oct. 30-Jan. 4 at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Alexander Chee's newest novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in fall of 2015.