Readers of Marc Foster's weekly column in Gay Chicago have become well acquainted with the intimate details of his life since he began writing three years ago. Like a dutiful diarist, Foster's chronicled his coming-out story each week in painfully honest installments. Regular followers of the column can tell you how Marc fretted that his appearance alone might give away his homosexuality. Or about the time he introduced his first girlfriend to his new boyfriend. They might recall his trip to get an HIV test. And they know that his mother sobbed over the phone when he told her he was gay.
Foster's column has made him a bit of a celebrity. His name elicits a spark of recognition, a derisive laugh, or a roll of the eyes from nearly every gay man in Chicago. They either love him or they love to hate him.
The 22-year-old writer made his first public appearance this winter at an event advertised as "Meet Marc Foster, Award Winning Columnist for Gay Chicago Magazine." The windows of Bentley's Coffee House on North Halsted were steamed up from a standing-room-only crowd: mostly clean-cut, sweatered gay men in their 20s and 30s. The audience included a Moody Bible Institute graduate who's corresponded with Marc, a guy who'd just come out six months earlier, a few older men, and a handful of young women.
Everyone hushed as the lights were dimmed and Steve Friess, a 1994 graduate of Northwestern University, was introduced as "Marc Foster." Friess has written nearly 170 columns from behind the protective cloak of the pseudonym. Early on he betrayed his discomfort at being identified, allowing only that he was "a 19-year-old student at a major midwestern university ... majoring in journalism." At his side sat his boyfriend, Jim, who even casual perusers of the column know he met at the 1993 gay rights march in Washington, D.C.
"I have to admit I'm terrified," Friess told the crowd, rubbing his hands on his jeans. He said he figured only his friends would bother to show up, so he hadn't prepared any notes for the occasion.
As a teenager growing up on Long Island, Friess says, he felt intimidated by the confident, politicized, and open voices that he found in most gay publications. Even after he got to college, he figured his life would be ruined if anyone found out that he was gay, and his dreams of a journalism career would be dashed. So his connection to the gay world was largely limited to reading about it, a discreet, relatively safe way of relating to other gay people. He recalls, "Every Tuesday or Wednesday I'd walk by stacks of gay publications, and it's kind of funny how you take them and slip them between the Daily Northwestern and pretend that you're looking at the Latvian Club's bulletin or something."
During his sophomore year Friess secretly mailed a resume and writing samples to Ralph Paul Gernhardt, publisher of Gay Chicago. "I thought if nobody else is going to write from inside the closet what it's like, I thought I would," he explains. Gernhardt immediately gave Friess a column. A couple of years earlier Gay Chicago carried another closeted columnist, who had to quit when his guardian grandparents learned he was gay. Gernhardt says he hoped the column would give support to other gay people who felt isolated socially or geographically. "I went through it as a teenager, I fought the same things," says Gernhardt, who founded the magazine in 1976. "I never overcame it until I was married and had children and got divorced in my 30s."
Friess dubbed his column "A Marc on Campus" (and alternately "A Marc Off Campus" during summer breaks and internships). The fictitious last name was borrowed from Northwestern's Foster-Walker dormitory, a labyrinthine complex of single rooms. "Welcome to my life," Friess wrote in his inaugural column, which appeared February 6, 1992. "You've never met me, but if you've ever known a closeted young homosexual man, then you've met me. You probably know all about me because you either are or were in my shoes at some point, and wearing those shoes can often feel sore and tight." He promised to write about his "experiences in the closet, not because I think they are anything extraordinary, but because I think they are quite normal."
Friess says that he led a double life in high school: he was a perfect son, the editor of the school paper, and a straight-A student while he was experimenting sexually and exploring the gay mecca of Greenwich Village. He wrote that he didn't know if he'd ever reconcile the two worlds.
When he began writing the column, Friess says, he was still deep in denial. He felt lonely that winter, "one of the most miserable times of my life." He'd alienated his few gay friends because he wouldn't associate too closely with them for fear of what others would think. He'd also pushed away his straight friends because he was tired of keeping up a facade. "My closet was always socially constructed," Friess says. "A lot of people's closets are morally based or religiously based. They care what God thinks. I was just fearful what the neighbors would think. God was probably OK with it."
For a long time Friess believed his attraction to other men was just a passing phase. He wrote about how he'd often make homophobic comments to "divert suspicion" (for example, feigning disgust at the lesbian kiss on L.A. Law). He worried about someone linking him to his column. Friess says he deliberately muddled his biography, claiming to be a student at a downstate university, but apparently word got out. A couple of months after "A Marc on Campus" first appeared, the president of Northwestern's gay and lesbian group confronted Friess at a student dance. "Why are you such a moron?" she asked. Later, he received two letters, supposedly from members of Queer Nation, accusing him of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The letters were addressed to Friess at his dorm room. "It seemed like they were trying to tell me, 'We know who you are and where you are and we can come and get you,'" he says. "I was convinced that I was on the verge of being outed and I was really scared about it. I was terrified." Though Friess says he cowered in his room that night, he later decided to call one of the letter writers and answer the denunciations. The activist relented on the racism count but held to the other allegations. The sexism charge stemmed from Friess's characterization of a campus activist who he feared might out him as a "feminist-lesbian bitch." Friess now admits the comment was offensive and immature.
Friess took a gay history course in the spring of his sophomore year. He told his classmates that he'd only signed up for the course to help him as a budding journalist. One day the professor held up a few gay publications, including Gay Chicago. Friess shifted nervously in his seat, "turning beet red." The professor called attention to "A Marc on Campus" and read the biography at the end of the column. "He looks out at the class and says, 'This person could even be sitting in this classroom,'" Friess recalls. "I went, 'Oh my God.'"
Friess slowly started to loosen up, worrying less about who knew he was gay. "What could have been a trauma back then is nothing but a blip on the coming out radar today," he wrote. He enjoyed sitting with his new gay friends at lunch. "There is something to be said for just being able to exist in a certain way," he says.
The column was truly a work in progress. Most people coming out can keep their confusion to themselves, but Friess put his in print for more than 20,000 people to read. "The weird paradox was that I was telling everyone in public, 'I'm gay, but I don't want you to know,'" Friess reflects. "There was an innate hypocrisy."
In column after column Friess was coming out to various friends and family. Much of it was rather mundane day-to-day stuff, like a "literary version of MTV's The Real World," he says. "I know the camera's running. I should do something interesting." He told people one at a time: a Northwestern friend, a longtime pen pal, an old high school buddy, and eventually a relative. "My coming out was starting out on the fringes and working closer to people who had known me longer and longer until I got to the middle, which was my mother and father and the rest of my family. It's kind of like peeling one layer after another." Friess says it became hard to tell whether his coming-out process propelled the column or whether the column nudged him to tell people. "I would sometimes feel like, gee, my life is kind of boring right now. Let's stir it up. Let's tell somebody else." He says he set out to mine those experiences for material.
Coming out to his father provided at least a couple of columns. Friess, who is Jewish, decided to tell him while they were eating at an Italian restaurant on Christmas Eve. "Just in case" things didn't go well, he put a fresh change of clothes and his address book in his car. Friess wrote: "'Twas the night before Christmas and my hands were shakin', I sat alone with my father, our dinners were baking. My father was looking at me, curious with care, all I could think was 'I have to tell him, but do I dare?'"
His father wasn't entirely surprised at Friess's revelation. They talked for seven hours and Friess told his dad about his column. "Now he doesn't only have to accept that I'm gay," he wrote, "but that I'm notoriously gay." The conversation went pretty well, and they discussed telling his mother and three sisters. "When we adjourned, I closed my bedroom door and smiled," he reported. "I looked different in the mirror--I had never seen that kind of ecstasy on my face. It was the same mirror that I used to contemplate suicide in front of, but now my head was up and I was grinning."
Friess says the column gave him the courage to open up. "What I've learned from my column is how important and useful writing is to understanding your life," he says. "It literally did take me out of the closet and all the way into the light of day."
"Marc Foster" would get dozens of letters from readers each week, sometimes in the form of lengthy testimonials. Most were from guys in their 20s, but he's also heard from a middle-aged former marine, a senior citizen who had just come out, a prisoner at Stateville, and a man who wrote 15-page letters after his lover died of AIDS. They often sought Friess's advice or simply thanked him for affirming their own feelings. Friess says he responds to every letter, though sometimes it takes a few weeks to catch up on his mail.
Since the column debuted, Friess has had 20 or so regular pen pals, many whose lives paralleled the developments in his own. Gernhardt says Marc Foster is by far Gay Chicago's most popular columnist.
Many gays who've grown out of their closets indulge in Friess's soap operatic serial with a perverse pleasure. They often treat it as a humor piece, reveling in the column's melodramatic action or sometimes awkward intellectual stances. Some readers are turned off by his now healthy ego (his biography has ballooned to include various awards). Though Friess is among the better writers at the magazine, his editors seldom save him from his excesses.
In the past other gay papers damned him for what they considered his homophobic and self-hating posture. For years many railed against him for hiding his identity and offering a closeted, uncertain role model for those coming out. Gag, a precursor to the nightlife rag Babble, partially outed him in a mean-spirited parody column called "A Steve On Campus." A celebrated piece in the 1993 gay pride issue of the Windy City Times ridiculed Friess's column by reprinting excerpts under humorous headings. "It seems a little far-fetched that a column preaching the virtues of self-hatred and insulting 'out' (or intelligent) lesbigays could actually be doing a service to the community," wrote Credence Fogo and Bill Behrens. In introducing their article--titled "Missing the 'Marc': Gay Chicago's Closeted Columnist Thinks He's Hot Hot Hot, But He Leaves Us in a Deep Freeze"--they wrote, "Remember, we are not making this up." Living by the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity, Friess says he thought the article was a riot. "I made copies and faxed some of them to my friends."
Ironically that same week Friess added his mug shot to the column for the first time. He says it was his contribution to the gay pride celebration. Though he's worried about being booed or hit with beer bottles, Friess has marched with the Gay Chicago contingent in the pride parade for the past two years. "I'm out and I survived the process," he wrote. "I feared I would be rejected by my family, alienated by my friends, ostracized by my peers. This had not occurred at all, not even a little bit."
Yet a defensive tone sometimes crept into his column. "Critics will continue to hate me, thank god, and will probably argue that I am still a wimp because I continue to write as 'Marc Foster.'" He offered his first name and university affiliation in subsequent columns, but he says he continues to use the pseudonym because it's how he's known.
Late in the summer of 1993 Friess had a tiff with "Mother Superior" (a lesbian activist named Mary McCauley), the Windy City Times's former gossip columnist. Calling him "Barfola," McCauley lambasted his "self-hating drivel." She even mailed a copy of her column to Friess in Kansas, where he was doing a newspaper internship. "Kiss, Kiss," she scrawled across the top of the page. He responded in his column by calling her "a futile old dyke who watches too much bad TV and writes absurd, offensive, and always malicious drivel in another Chicago magazine."
Friess says he's still bitter about other people telling him how to deal with his homosexuality. "They'd be like, 'Get over it.' That was hard to hear. I understand where that feeling came from, but at the time I didn't. All I could think of was, 'What an insensitive group of people. They don't know what I'm going through.'"
Friess says the column was never meant for the people who criticized him so fiercely. Many of his detractors couldn't or didn't want to remember what it was like for them coming out, he says. "Once you get out of the closet you forget so quickly what it was like....Being taken back to it is tedious." One gay newspaper, Outlines, came to his defense with a somewhat sympathetic note. "That Foster is trying to define himself in the public eye is no reason to jeer at the contradictions or self-indulgence that he puts forth," wrote columnist Greg Anderson. "Contradictions and self-indulgence are par for the coming-out course. Give the guy a break."
But was his column homophobic? "Of course it was," Friess says without hesitation. "That was the whole point. When you're in the closet you're homophobic. At the time I thought I was being honest. I thought I was saying things that other people were just too afraid to say." Now Friess admits he might have disagreed with some of the things he wrote as a "wiseass flip 19-year-old kid."
In the fall of 1994 Friess was managing editor of the Daily Northwestern, writing about such issues as pass-fail options, gun violence, and the antics of the school's basketball coach. For National Coming Out Day he revealed his homosexuality in the paper and he says he received a warm response. As his attention turned to job hunting, he put his membership in the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association on his resume. Since graduation he's been working nights as a reporter covering the police beat for the Rockford Register Star. He brings his boyfriend to office functions.
With his coming-out story nearly exhausted, Friess considered leaving the Marc Foster column behind, but perhaps he's become addicted. People at Bentley's wondered what was next. "I'm 22 years old. I'm paying my bills. I'm living in the real world," Friess said. Over the last year he's written about relationship problems, weighed the ethics of outing someone in a crime story he was covering, and related how he managed to offend some locals in Rockford with his big-city pride.
He's still dealing with an aunt's refusal to let him be open with his adolescent cousin. The crowd at Bentley's was eager for an update to this cliff-hanger. Did he hide away his boyfriend while his cousin visited? If his cousin asked if he was gay would he tell the truth?
Other questions dealt with a myriad of topics. Has his family read his columns? How can gay people gain mainstream acceptance? When are you going to write your book?
Though things have been quiet for a while now, Friess was still worried about a hostile element in the audience. But clearly this was his crowd. Naturally, a few weeks later he wrote about it:
"With my lover in the corner of my eye and two of my closest girlfriends right in front, I told you all how utterly terrified I was. I looked around the room as I said that and saw sympathetic looks on your faces. They said, 'Aw, c'mon--you'll be okay. You're among friends here!'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.