Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all our years away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
It has always been the case for me that I was an outsider, introspective, and introverted. Even as a young child I didn’t fit into any expected sort of friendships with other boys. My close friendships were with girls, and a few cousins, but my interactions with the boys in the neighborhood were traumatic. I was bullied, ambushed and beaten, ridiculed. I was different- a queer. This term was heard by me, and I’m pretty sure meant by them in its denotation, something odd or strange. While it was said with malice I am fairly certain that the sexual meaning was not present, at least not consciously. I am certain of that because the issue of sexual preference simply wasn’t spoken of during the the early 50’s in suburban Rhode Island, or perhaps anywhere except some very sophisticated urban centers. I was certainly aware that I was “different” but my differentness was attributed to my interest in Art. I would read rather than play ball. I wasn’t wanted by the boys, was afraid of them, and they certainly made every effort to exclude me. I went off to art lessons and took long solitary bike rides
There was much to be afraid of in those days. In addition to the bullies there were larger threats. The Providence Journal often published maps showing where we should go in case of nuclear attack, evacuation routes, maps with rings radiating out from Providence showing what kind of destruction would occur in each zone if an “A” bomb was dropped on the city. We had drills in grammar school, were taught how to get under our desks quickly. When they were building Interstate 95 through the city they built bomb shelters into the abutments, we were given assignments for which one to go to. There were training sessions on how to build a makeshift shelter if one heard the siren go off, lists of canned foods to stock up on.
In junior high I had a “girlfriend.” There were actually two, and in both cases the friend part was much more prominent that the girl part, and they both moved on to situations where the girl part had a higher priority.
During High School, in the mid 60’s one started to see, in the national press, articles that mentioned sexual preference. The Kinsey reports had precipitated comment and every once in a while Time Magazine, or Life magazine would make some reference. Prior to that time any sense I might have had about my own sexual interests left me feeling more than queer, they led to feelings of total isolation. Such tendencies were, to my knowledge, unique to myself. I wasn’t becoming something, there was no “thing” to become. I was weird, strange beyond strange. In my senior year I made a very inept attempt to “end it all.” I jumped out of a tree into a brook; from a rather low branch, into a shallow brook that I was quite accustom to wade across, so there wasn’t any danger. The point was made, however, and I was sent off to see Dr. Gunnar Nirk.
It is with great gratitude that I relate what Dr. Nirk had to say. He told me that some boys like boys, some boys liked girls. It is no big deal. It’s normal. Try one each, he said, see what you like best and just stick with that, it’s perfectly fine!
I entered R.I.S.D. in the fall of 1967, and it was there that I finally acted on Dr.Nirk’s advice- at least the boy part, which was so fine I never conducted the second half of the experiment.
At that time bars, “Gay Bars,” and certain public parks were the only places gay people could meet and socialize. In downtown Providence there was the “Fife’n Drum.” One could dance there, except when the police came in- one would be arrested for dancing with another man. The bartender in the first room had a switch that would kill the music in the third room. When the music went off everyone stood around innocently, when the police left the music resumed, the dancing resumed, until the next visit. At closing time police cruisers would follow people to their cars, harass them, and stop them for petty violations. In the early 70’s, after college, I met a man with whom I wanted to live, so we started looking for an apartment. There was a local law that made it illegal for a landlord to lease an apartment to two unrelated men. We ended up in New York for a year or so, and when we returned rented in the next town over.
Things were manageable in the 70’s. I have been partnered for most of my life, and even in the seventies and eighties found living as an out, partnered gay man to be reasonably easy. I am what someone once referred to as a “serial monogamist.” Looking back there has been quite a series, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about this week is that in an environment where marriage was not an option, there are certain difficulties in testing a partner’s intentions and willingness to make commitments.
The seventies were a fun and creative time, but as we moved into the eighties strange rumors started. Gay men were dying. Was it a conspiracy, a new cancer? At first we heard this reported in the gay press, but then, here in Boston, shortly after I moved here, people started dying in conspicuous numbers. A new retrovirus was discovered, was it real or was it bogus? Did this virus really cause the disease or was it a red herring. I was member of The Metropolitan Heath Club at that time, and people were falling in such numbers that we actually developed phone trees to check on people if they didn’t come to the gym at their usual time. I know one man who was a member of a “Social” club that had 50 members, he was the only one still living. It is hard to convey the fear and grief of that time. One controversy was whether one should get tested once the test was developed, what did that record leave one vulnerable to? Even looking at the statistics doesn’t convey the sense of devastation. When the numbers are averaged over the state, or the country the impact is watered down, but the reality is that the deaths were focused on urban neighborhoods like the South End, and in the neighborhoods the impact was dramatic.
I have the idea that it was during this time that the process that led to Friday’s Supreme Court Ruling was started. During this period the members of the gay community became visible to their families and straight friends. They were outed by their sickness. Rock Hudson is the most well know, but in many families, many companies, many societies gayness could no longer be viewed as “other” as relatives, friends and coworkers starting dying of this plague. It was suddenly clear that we were everywhere and in every family. The other aspect of this is that the gay community as a community dealt with this problem on the most serious level. “The boys in band” quickly gave way to health workers, gay doctors and researchers, social activists, hospice workers and fundraisers. They all got into high gear and worked hard. Suddenly society was taking us seriously and dealing with our presence amongst them. There was considerable respect and sympathy earned by the way the community responded to the crisis.
The AIDS epidemic is not only a story about medical hardship, but also a story about personal, political, and financial hardship. It was common during those times for committed partners to be barred from hospitals where their lovers were dying; to be excluded from decision making, even from funerals and memorial services. Even in cases where a will was in place surviving spouses were deprived of inheritance. Cohabiting spouses had no protection. I know of survivors who were put out of homes owned jointly when their spouse died and an aggressive and disapproving family inherited the partner’s share. This was especially egregious when the survivor was also sick and unable to defend himself.
We see much talk of love and romance in the recent discussion of marriage, but the real substance is in these problems of protection and the attitudes about relationships between same sex couples. I had for many years a relationship with a man, we lived together, shared an office, I had, or thought I had, a close and loving relationship with his mother, and certainly took care of her when she had need. One time there was a discussion of wills, and his mother was shocked that I would expect any interest in his property what ever. She could see no basis for such an interest. We were not married (we didn’t have that option at that time.) When Aramis died, his mother received his ashes. She followed his wish and scattered them on the ocean, but she did it without including me. In itself that was not the most significant, nor the worst thing I had to deal with just then, but it does show her attitude toward our relationship.
I bring these things up because beyond the love, and the romance, being married is different from being unmarried, both in the eyes of the law and in terms of the dignity and seriousness with which family and society view a relationship.
So, once again on the outside, I watch, and truly rejoice in all the celebrations that are taking place this weekend. This place outside has become familiar to me. One of the relationships I mentioned earlier ended in 1992. We had been together for some time, during the worst of the epidemic. During that time I had experienced the crisis from a seemingly safe place in a committed relationship. But during Pride, 1992, I was single, and looked at things from a far more more vulnerable perspective. That year the post parade party was on the Common and as I entered I was struck with the stark realization that almost every one there was either 10 years older, or 10 years younger than I. The vast majority of my cohort, people who were my friends, were missing. And we were the postwar baby boom, men born between 1945 and 1955.
I am still here to tell the tale. My life as a sexually aware and active man spans the time from before Stonewall, through the AIDS Crisis, to the national acceptance of same sex marriage. It has been a long and flowing stream of time, and as joyful as this weekend is for me it is weighted by the memory of all the people who perished waiting for it to come.
I have truly lived in interesting times.