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The Queen of Disco

STORY: June 1978–The cracks in my closet appeared slowly. By 1978, I was out with my family and my college fraternity brothers, but I had no local gay friends. I was intimidated by NYC’s gay scene, ensconced in an intense training program at a conservative bank, and madly infatuated with my best friend and colleague there, a straight, former Princeton football captain and tight end.

One of the first steps out was attending the NYC Gay Pride parade that June. although I did my best to make sure no one I knew from work saw me there. After observing the parade from a sidewalk on 5th Avenue, I followed the marchers into Central Park (in those days, the parade marched uptown, ending with a rally in the park) and wandered among the revelers. I took a few photos, observed the festive crowd, and wished I were more a part of it.

Musical entertainment had been arranged on a stage erected for the occasion in the middle of the park’s Great Lawn. When the music began, I worked my way through the crowd and got near the stage. The featured performer was Grace Jones, who had transitioned from fashion model to musical performer in 1977 and had become a star of NYC’s Studio 54 disco scene. I pushed my way close to the stage and snapped a couple of shots of her in her all-pink outfit (including a motorcycle helmet), as she sang her breakout hit “La Vie en Rose”. I would see her again in the years that followed at places like the short-lived gay club, “Les Mouche”. But, her growling, purring, vamping, and preening performance that first time outdoors in Central Park will be the one I always remember.

It took another year for me to get up the courage to leave the job I hated, start meeting gay male friends in NYC, and learn how to live life the way I wanted. But, that first Gay Pride allowed me to have a sense of what was waiting for me.

—Mike Balaban


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