“. . . When our grand passion had not yet become familial. . .” (Thom Gunn)

Boston, 1991

Boston, 1991

Somewhere in a box or pile or a file or a stack is a musical creation of mine (or not―it most likely met the same fate as most of my compositions), a small song cycle, a setting of three poems by Thom Gunn from his 1966 collection, Positives. I wrote the cycle in about 1970.

I don’t remember the poems or the music. I wrote the music as part of the work for my MA degree in music composition at what was then California State University at Los Angeles. I chose Gunn’s poetry because I found his book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and it was the first collection I owned by a poet I knew was gay.

Yesterday I wore an old lavender T-shirt, shapeless and faded―like me―from the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 1991. My first Gay Pride Parade was the 20th in Boston—1990. For it I had a T-shirt that proclaimed in black letters nearly covering the front, “Nobody knows I’m gay!” In 1992 I had a T-shirt with the logo of the Boston Aids Hospice as I marched with the other volunteers from the Hospice (it closed in 1997, after I had moved to Dallas).

A member of the AA group I most often attended in 1991 had been present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. I used to own a book about the riots which contained a picture of her (yes, women were involved in the riots). She was uncomfortable with what she saw as the flippant use by the gay community of Stonewall as a rallying point. She remembered that night only with horror and fear. She could not bring herself to march in Pride Parades.

I was married at the time of Stonewall, but I remember watching the coverage on the national TV news and thinking I should have been there. My wife knew I was gay. Those were the days when many of us―my wife and I included―thought that getting married would somehow end my being gay. (Or, more likely, I thought it would provide “cover” for being who I knew I was.)

I wore my “Together in Pride, June 8th, 1991, Lesbian and Gay Pride” T-shirt yesterday to attend the celebration at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a selfie wearing it at the event.

Trying to sort out for myself, much less for anyone else, the complexity of my feelings throughout the day yesterday, and especially at the celebration, is seeming to be impossible.

First observation. I was (as I have become accustomed to being) one of the oldest people in the group of 2,000. My guess is there were fewer than 50 of us 70 or older.

Second observation. I was alone.

Third observation. It all seemed too easy.

Fourth observation. My tears over and over again yesterday were of joy, relief, fulfillment, jealousy, longing, and grief simultaneously and progressively, impossible to sort out.

Of course I am elated, overjoyed, and ecstatic at the Supreme Court decision, relieved that that step on the journey to civil rights is taken (I wonder if the LGBTQ community ready now to tackle racism, poverty, and xenophobia in this country).

The only man I have ever wanted to marry died in 2003 after we had been together 12 years. I sometimes long to be with him, and I grieve that we were never able to have a legally recognized relationship.

I grieve—yes, that’s the correct word—for the relationships I have had, beginning with my marriage to Ann. I grieve also that I am alone, that meeting a man I would want to marry, now that I could, seems improbable, if not impossible.

Hugged by the man I would have married

Hugged by the man I would have married (taken 1993)

Most of the crowd of people younger than I that gathered at the Cathedral of Hope yesterday—this is not sour grapes but a statement of fact—cannot know how much I treasure that 24-year-old lavender T-shirt (many of those wonderful folks were not even born in 1991). Or the pictures of my second partner and me taken in about 1985.

Or the memory of my “coming out” in my university newspaper in 1965—4 years before Stonewall.

I have never done anything “important.” Other than be something of a role model for (sometimes frightened and depressed) gay college students for 30 years. And volunteer at the AIDS Hospice. And march in parades. And write some pieces that have been published over the years. And try to be a good partner. And maintain a career viable enough to take care of myself.

One of the men I love and admire most these days was part of the Lambda Legal team that brought Lawrence v. Texas to the Supreme Court. One of my closest friends was a leader in ACT-Up in Boston in the ‘80s. A friend was the founder of the Gay group that still exists in the American Baptist Convention.

I’ve never done anything publicly important for the cause of LGBTQ rights. I’m not one of those the speakers last night acknowledged they were “standing on the shoulders of.”

Except I’ve persevered. I’ve lived a life of quiet (sometimes) desperation, desperation that may or may not have had anything to do with being a gay man (that’s a topic so complicated seven psychiatrists and three neurologists have never been able to untangle).

And now I am alone.

I’m not asking for anyone’s pity. Only some acknowledgement and understanding that my feelings yesterday were justifiably complex and contradictory. Which means they were (are) like my feelings my whole life long. My passions were my passions when they “had not yet become familial.” Could not become familial in the most basic sense.

“THE HUG,” BY THOM GUNN (1929-2004)
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
―(From Selected Poems by Thom Gunn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.)

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

I simply must say this once

When I was a kid, we had . .

When I was a kid, we had . .

My inamorato and I were out for a little stroll last night down Main Street in Dallas. That should not be, by any stretch of the imagination, anything worth writing about. Two old gay guys out for a stroll.

But this morning when I checked my email and found the pictures I took, my old man brain was boggled.

In 1965 one of my best friends at the University of Redlands was arrested in a city park for lewd conduct or one of those things gay boys used to be arrested for on a regular basis. When the police found out he was a student, in some kind of enlightenment that seems almost impossible in retrospect, they turned him over to the university for counseling rather than prosecuting him.

About twenty years later, in the opening stages of what should have been a brilliant career as a concert organist he died of AIDS after an equally brilliant career as a leather queen.

When he was arrested, I went immediately to the university chaplain for counseling because the police let it be known that if they arrested a student and he was already seeking help for his homosexuality, they would turn him over to the university instead of prosecuting him.

We were (at least publicly) a frightened and scraggly bunch of gay boys in those days. Well, not scraggly—we were as fabulous then as gay boys are now, believe it or not, but in our own let’s-not-draw-too-much-attention-to-ourselves way. Of course, my friends and I were very serious and high-brow music students. Pop culture was way beneath us except the Beatles had invaded by that time, and I was secretly in love with Ringo.

One never discussed being gay in public. When I came out in the school newspaper (obliquely, but “out” just the same) after an insult by a fellow student who didn’t even know he was talking about me, the music chairman called me into his office to tell me to be more discreet (terrified and careful were his real message). This was, I’m always surprised to remember about myself, before Stonewall.

Feeding frenzy in Dallas

Feeding frenzy in Dallas

Eight years later when I was in graduate school, a friend and I took a couple of our fellow students—straight women—to a gay bar. Word of that indiscretion reached my dissertation chairman, and he called me in to strongly suggest that I stop being so flamboyant. Me?

Even for years after Stonewall, one had to be guarded. Gay boys today, except those who have directly experienced gay-bashing, have little idea how things used to be. Oh, come on! I can sound like your grandfather who walked to school in the snow and never owned a cellphone if I want to.

So here we are in the feeding frenzy of talking not about being gay, but about same-sex marriage! Openly, in public, and—at least among straight and gay people I know—favorably.

I don’t have a clue how to say this so it sounds as startling as I feel it to be. And as startling as every other 68-year-old gay man in the country feels it to be. I have nothing special to add to this conversation except—except everything.

When I came out to my university (it’s not clear how many people even noticed), I was taking such a risk that, if I had not been a self-absorbed little twit, I should have shaken in my boots (my organ-playing dance shoes). It really was a risk. The year after I graduated, the university fired our favorite teacher, a tenured professor, because they found out he was gay.

Even ten or twelve years ago I could be out to many members of the church in a Dallas suburb where I was organist, but I could not mention it in, for example, a church council meeting. Everyone knew it, but we didn’t talk about it in any formal way. Six years ago, I stood in terror—literally shaking in my shoes—at the microphone at the church’s synod convention and told the assembled crowd that I was one of the people they were talking about when they were deciding to memorialize the national church to ordain gay men and women. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

We walked to school . . .

We walked to school . . .

I guess all I want to say is that I hope no one is taking all of this open, public, positive conversation about same-sex marriage for granted. I know, I know. You’ve heard this before. But take it from a faggot who in the ‘90s volunteered at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where gay men’s families sometimes refused to come to be with them when they died, this openness comes not because our society is so benevolent but because years ago some of us called ourselves queer in public when it was an almost impossibly dangerous thing to do.