Actually, there were several killers.
My most vivid memory from freshman year of high school is standing at the front of a drugstore reading the Chicago Sun-Times. It was the winter of 1978, and I was 14 years old. Day after day after day, pictures of boys shared the front page with a mug shot of a heavyset middle-aged man with a bad haircut. The boys looked like classmates I had crushes on. They were all dead.
My parents subscribed to the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, and both papers were spread out across our kitchen table every morning. I could have read them there, but I couldn't risk seeming too interested in this "gay" serial killer who buried his victims in the crawl space under his suburban home. I couldn't risk looking like I cared. I didn't want my parents or siblings to think I was gay, too. So I left early for school every morning and read the papers at the drugstore.
John Wayne Gacy murdered at least 33 young men and boys. He picked them up at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Chicago, or in a notorious park on the other side of the Chicago River called Bughouse Square, or on the street outside what the papers called "certain bars." I had come to grips with being gay right before Gacy's boiled potato face first appeared on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times. Over the next two summers, as the excavations gave way to the trial, I would ride my bike through Bughouse Square, not far from my Catholic high school. Sometimes I would stop and watch as men walked out of certain bars with much younger guys.
When I was 17 years old, I found my way to a support group for gay and lesbian kids. I'd read about the group after working up the nerve to steal a gay paper from a newsstand. After memorizing the time and place of the meeting, I threw the paper in the trash, miles away from home. I went to one meeting, where I met some boys I had nothing in common with but gayness. Back then, that was enough.
My new friends and I spent a lot of time talking about Gacy. Not just about the Gacy sitting in prison waiting to die, but the odds that there were other Gacys out there. My new friends weren't concerned. "I wouldn't have gone home with him," they would say. And if they did somehow find themselves alone with a Gacy, they said, they would fight him.
But the boys Gacy killed didn't go home with him by choice. Some were teenage boys Gacy hired to work for his construction company; he would get these boys alone, overpower them, and then murder them. They fought him, but they lost. Other boys were runaways living on the streets of Chicago, turning tricks to survive; Gacy would get them alone in his car, chloroform them, and then take them to his home and murder them. They couldn't fight.
And the boys turning tricks on the streets were homeless because their families found out they were gay and threw them out. Weren't we all at risk of the same thing? What would happen to us if our parents found out where their sons had been going? What their sons had been doing? Who their sons were?
"I wouldn't have gone home with him."
My friends muttered it like it was some sort of spell, an incantation, magic words that kept us safe. Gacys were old and gross, and we were young and hot and not living on the streets—so not desperate enough, at least not now, to go home with a Gacy.
We snuck into gay bars—well, snuck is the wrong word. We walked into gay bars. Contrary to the stereotype, most of the men in the bars were looking for other men, not teenage boys, but there were guys who were interested in us. Oddly, we weren't interested in each other. My friends wanted older guys to validate them, to initiate them. It was what I wanted, too. But every time some wizened old goat in his 30s or 40s tried to buy me a drink, the terrified voice of a kid reading the Sun-Times at the newspaper rack in the drugstore would whisper, "He could be Gacy."
I still went home with people, but the bar was high. Because I didn't want to die. So if something seemed off, if someone seemed odd, I would get on my bike and ride home as fast as I could. A good-looking blond guy in his early 30s picked me up in a bar when I was 18. We were making out on his couch when the door opened and another man, older and bearded, came inside. He said hello, looked me up and down, and then went upstairs. Something passed between the guy I'd gone home with and the guy who'd just showed up—they exchanged a look that meant something, but I couldn't tell what—and then the guy on the couch told me to get undressed and go upstairs. I got up and ran out the door. They could be Gacy.
Another vivid memory: It's the summer of 1991, and I'm 26 years old. I'm living in Madison, Wisconsin. I'm standing in an airport staring at the cover of yet another newspaper. A friend, Tony Hughes, had gone missing months before. His family got in touch with some of his friends, but no one knew where Tony had gone.
A rumor went around that he had moved to Florida because he was sick of Wisconsin winters or sick of his friends or sick of his job or all of the above. Tony's picture was on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal. His skull was found in Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment, along with the bones, hearts, and internal organs of other victims. Dahmer killed 17 men and boys.
Shortly after learning from the front page of a newspaper that Tony hadn't moved to Florida, I was standing in a gay bar with some new friends. Friends of Tony's. I'd long ago lost touch with the friends I made from youth group in Chicago. But I knew that some of them were dead, too. They'd been taken out not by Gacy, and not by Dahmer, but by an even more ambitious killer who was already stalking us in the bars in the summer of 1980. While I was running from hot blond guys with creepy roommates, the virus was moving among and through us, undetected and, at that time, before the test, undetectable.
All of Tony's friends were devastated by the news of his murder. We were at the bar where most of us had met Tony, where we'd become friends with him: Rod's, a bar in Madison that would burn down a few years later. More and more horrifying details were coming out about Dahmer—how he murdered some of his victims by drilling holes in their heads and pouring acid into their brains in a demented attempt to make them into his zombie slaves.
"I would've gone home with him," someone said. "That's the scariest part."
Dahmer was no Gacy. He was tall, blond, and attractive. Tony went home with him. We all would have. But as scary as Dahmer was, he didn't scare us the way Gacy did. Not even Gacy could scare us the way he once did. Not now, in 1991. The horrors perpetrated in Gacy's house in the Chicago suburbs or Dahmer's apartment in inner-city Milwaukee couldn't compete with the horrors being inflicted on us by the virus.
We'd all gone home with it, some of us had contracted it, hundreds of thousands of us were dead, and millions more would die. We couldn't run from the virus. So we fought.
I was on my way to an ACT UP meeting in New York City when I saw Tony's face on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I didn't have the change I needed to buy the paper. I knelt in front of the box, read what I could through the cloudy plastic window, and cried.
• This piece appears in the 2018 Queer Issue as "That One Serial Killer." See also: “That One Drag Queen” by Jinkx Monsoon, "That One DJ" by Charles Mudede, “That One Writer” by Sophia Stephens, “That One Coworker" by Trisha Ready, “That One Parent” by Jing Jing Wang, "That One Roommate" by Christopher Frizzelle, “That One Teacher” by Katie Herzog, “That One Radical Faerie” by Marc Castillo, “That One Filmmaker” by Chase Burns, “That One Songwriter" by Eli Sanders, and “That One Spouse” by Natalie Wood.