“Hey, can I ask you something?”
Steve reluctantly turns his head from where he’s lying in Sam’s lap so that he can look up at his boyfriend. Who is staring out of the window, so that was pointless.
“Course,” he says, and his voice comes out in that sleepy, comfortable drawl that he only seems to get around Sam.
“Who was the first person you told you were bi?”
Steve decides this might be the kind of conversation he wants to be upright for. He sits up slowly, and settles down next to Sam on the couch, leaning into him a little.
“Peggy, actually,” he says, wondering why Sam wants to know.
“Seriously? I was kind of expecting you to say Bucky.”
“I guess it depends what you mean when you say told,” Steve says, thinking back to his life in Brooklyn. “Bucky knew, sure, but we never really talked about it. Peggy was the first person I ever actually said it to. The last, as well, until I woke up here.”
Sam is silent for a moment, and Steve really wishes he could tell what he’s thinking.
“What exactly did you say? I mean, I know the term bisexual wasn’t around.”
Steve laughs, and hopes it doesn’t sound too bitter. “It definitely wasn’t. There weren’t really terms in that way, not ones you could be proud of. I thought of myself as queer, I guess, but most times I heard that word out loud it was being yelled at me while I was getting my ribs kicked in.”
“Shit, I shouldn’t have brought this up,” Sam says, sounding apologetic. “You don’t have to talk about it, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” Steve says, realising that it actually is. “It’s - it’s kind of nice, being able to talk to someone. And, well. You probably didn’t have an easy time of it growing up either, I’m guessing?”
This conversation has made Steve fully realise something that he’s known in the back of his head for a while. He knows a fair bit about Sam’s family, of course, and he wavers between being nervous and excited to meet them someday.
But he can’t think of a single time that Sam’s mentioned what his family think about him being queer, or about him coming out to them.
“You don’t have to talk about it either,” Steve adds quickly, mind still following his train of thought, through to some conclusions that he really hopes are wrong.
“No, it’s fine,” Sam says, but Steve can’t help but notice that his voice isn’t quite as steady as usual. “I was thinking about it anyway. That’s why I asked, you know, about the first time you came out.”
“I still think of rich Manhattan cotillion girls every time I hear that phrase.”
“Hey, I’d look excellent in a fancy prom dress.” Sam goes quiet again, and Steve doesn’t say anything this time.
“You’re right,” Sam says finally. “It wasn’t exactly a picnic for me either. When I was a teenager - well, put it this way, it wasn’t a great time to be black, and it was a fucking horrendous time to be queer. I pretty much realised I wasn’t straight at the height of the AIDS crisis.”
Steve has to close his eyes for a moment when he thinks about that.
It had taken him a while to catch up on twentieth-century history that hadn’t been focused on the military aspects. Tony had taken on responsibility for Steve’s media education, which they both have some regrets about now, and Natasha had been a bit too happy to talk about the myriad of ways the United States had screwed up in the seventy years he’d been under.
But Steve had been on his own when he had been researching different types of cancer in a twisted mix of morbid sorrow and fascination - he had been wondering if his ma might have lived for the rest of her natural life if she’d been born today instead of two centuries ago - and had clicked on a link to an article about Kaposi’s sarcoma, expecting a quick overview of yet another variant on the horrible disease that had left him a too-young orphan.
Instead, he had read through with tears forming in his eyes from the first paragraph.
Steve had been a devout Catholic his entire life, and his faith had barely wavered until he’d made it to the front lines of the war.
Catholicism in those days didn’t so much mean God-loving as God-fearing, and once Steve had started realising that the way he watched the men at the docks maybe wasn’t quite as innocent as simple admiration, or the appreciation of an artist, he had stayed awake for more than a few sleepless nights wondering if his sickly body and weak heart was a punishment from God for being an invert.
He hadn’t felt relief when he’d looked at girls and felt a kind of same-yet-different attraction to them as well, because the feelings for the boys were still there, and what could that mean?
Reading about AIDS, about how it had destroyed a generation, how the government’s response had been to turn away until it was almost too late, how the stigma of it still affected people, gay and bisexual men especially…
God, he hadn’t been able to stop crying.
How many of the people affected by the crisis had wondered, deep in some secret part of them that they were too afraid to give voice to, whether it was somehow deserved, a punishment from a higher power that had recognised them as inferior in some way?
He can’t think of a way to convey just how angry and upset he feels whenever he thinks about it, especially not to someone who had actually lived through it.
“I’m so sorry, Sam,” he tries. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you - I don’t have words.”
“It was hell,” Sam says, in a blank voice that Steve immediately hates.
Sam has a tendency to downplay a lot of the bad things that have happened to him. Steve knows he’s guilty of that as well, but with him it’s more like he just wants to ignore certain aspects of his life. Sam doesn’t ignore the bad things, or pretend they never happened. He just treats them with a lightness that makes them seem less horrific unless you make the effort to look past the jokes to the actual facts that lie underneath.
It might be some kind of coping mechanism; Steve isn’t sure. He knows that Sam doesn’t do it at the VA, either when leading groups or participating in them as a regular member, which means it has to be at least partly a conscious choice.
It means that when Sam says it was hell, in that horrible, emotionless voice, it must have been close to unbearable for him at the time.
Steve takes one of Sam’s hands gently between both of his, holding it loosely enough that Sam could pull away with no effort if he wanted to.
“Did you come out to anyone, back then?”
Steve isn’t sure if he wants the answer to be yes or no.
“My mom,” Sam says, and his tone makes Steve wish it had been a no.
“She’s fine with it now,” Sam adds. “She wants to meet you and everything.” Which had really not been the main priority on Steve’s mind. “But yeah, back then - well, the black community was so badly affected by AIDS, I can’t even tell you. I don’t think there was a higher percentage of HIV cases than for other races, but you wouldn’t have known that from the way people talked. And, God, some of the things they said about black people causing AIDS - I still can’t think about it without wanting to punch something.”
Steve holds onto Sam’s hand a little tighter.
“Hey, you don’t owe me a history lesson if you don’t want to talk about this,” Steve says, wishing desperately that he could find the right words to comfort Sam.
A second later, he wonders if maybe there are none.
Sam is still looking away, but Steve thinks he’s blinking faster than normal.
“I fucking wish it was history,” he says, then sighs. “No, that’s not fair. Things are so much better now. I walked through Harlem the other week and saw pride flags hanging out of windows. But, yeah. Short version is that my mom was shit-scared that I’d end up dead, so she tried very hard to persuade both herself and me that I was straight for the next decade or so.”
“I’m so sorry,” Steve repeats helplessly. The realisation that all this had happened while he was frozen and useless, buried in the ocean somewhere, is terrifying.
Sam shrugs, and finally, finally, looks at Steve.
“Yeah. Me too,” he says quietly. “At least kids these days won’t have to deal with that kind of hate.”
Steve notices that Sam hadn’t said any kind of hate.
“I don’t think there’s really a bright side to this,” Steve says quietly.
“Not really. But it makes me feel better, so.”
“Anything else that would help with that?” Steve waits a moment to see if Sam’s going to reply, then adds: “I can go, if you want to be on your own?”
“No. No, you can stay,” Sam says. “I don’t know, distract me with something? You never finished your story about Peggy. How did that even come up?”
Steve isn’t the best at social cues, but it’s fairly obvious that Sam doesn’t want to talk anymore about their previous topic. So he casts his mind back to the war, wondering if his memories are fading or sharpening with time.
“I sort of asked her out,” he says. “In a horribly clumsy way, of course.”
“Naturally,” Sam interrupts. “Part of your charm.”
“Hey, I must be doing something right. I ended up with you, didn’t I? Anyway, she turned me down, which was fine. I still thought of myself as lucky if a girl didn’t spit at me, so I didn’t mind at all.”
“Oh good, more backstory on the low self-esteem thing.”
“Shush,” Steve says. “My story. So, yeah, she said no, but I remember thinking the way she’d refused was a bit odd. Said the answer was probably no but she’d have to ask someone first.”
“Commanding officer?” Sam suggests. “Were there policies on stuff like that?”
“Probably,” Steve admits. “But I couldn’t really see Peggy asking Colonel Phillips for permission to go on a date. It sounded more personal than that.”
“Ooh,” Sam says, actually sounding interested. “Secret lover?”
“Do you actually want me to finish this or not?”
“Sorry, Captain,” Sam says in a very mocking tone. “Shutting up now.”
“So, I didn’t think much about it for a few days,” Steve continues. “Then one day I was headed to Peggy’s office, pretty late at night.”
Sam gives a short whistle, so Steve pinches him.
“Because the Commandos had just got back from a mission and I needed to make my report,” Steve says, laughing a little at the idea of him going to Peggy’s office with a plan to seduce her. “Time-sensitive intel. But when I knocked, I could hear voices, and they sounded kind of panicked.”
“Definitely a secret lover.”
“Well, yeah, okay. Even I thought that, when I heard what sounded like two people getting dressed very fast. I kind of wanted to just leave, but I thought it might be worse if Peggy never knew it was me. I wouldn’t have told anyone, you know, but there were a lot of folks in the army that would have loved to get her kicked out.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Sam says. “Best CO I ever had was a woman, and you should have heard some of the comments the guys would make about her.”
“Good to know some things never change,” Steve says in the most sarcastic voice he can summon. “So Peggy finally opened the door, and when she saw it was me I think she just sort of gave up or something, because she invited me in.”
He pauses, being deliberately dramatic, and winces when Sam elbows him in the stomach.
“Okay, okay. Anyway, sat on the desk, trying to buckle up her shoes, was one of the actresses I used to meet sometimes in my USO days, Angie.”
Sam whistles again. “I actually wasn’t expecting that. Wow.”
“Yeah, well, imagine my face when I realised,” Steve says ruefully.
“You do have a very sweet deer-in-headlights look when you walk in on anyone making out.”
“Alright, shush again. Anyway, it probably took me about a minute to be coherent, but I finally told them I would never say anything, obviously, and they seemed to believe me. Then Angie left, and she looked fine with it all. She even kissed Peggy goodbye in front of me.”
“I assume you went a fetching shade of crimson,” Sam says, which is definitely true so Steve ignores it.
“So it was just me and Peggy, and she still seemed pretty worried. Which I can understand. I mean, losing her job wouldn’t have even been the worst thing to happen to her if I’d told anyone.”
“So you, what, came out to her in an attempt to make her feel better?”
“Sort of. More like so we were even, I guess.”
“Ah, the healthy days of repression and leverage,” Sam says. “Fun times.”
Steve isn’t about to make a snarky comment back about Sam’s own experiences with repression, not with the echoes of their previous conversation still lingering, leaving an aching feeling in his chest.
“It was terrifying,” he says instead. “I’d never imagined I would say the words out loud. I didn’t, at first. I just said, um, that I understood. It took her a second to catch on.”
He thinks back to the way Peggy’s eyes had widened, in a rare show of genuine surprise. “You’re - you’re queer?” Those had been her exact words. He could still remember the feeling of leaping dread mixed with excitement that had filled him as he gave one simple nod.
Then he had summoned up his courage and replied out loud.
“I’m queer,” he says now to Sam, and the two simple words carry with them all the weight of his history, the old fear and the new hope, the steady longing to find someone who could finally understand.
“I’m queer,” Sam replies, and from him it sounds defiant, a challenge to a world that tried to deny who he was and is, tried to beat him down until he would never want to get back up again.
They failed, Steve thinks with a fierce pride rising up inside him. They failed, and they can beat us down, again and again, in every century, but there will always, always be people who get back up.
People who are willing to fight.