It’s happened quite a few times over the years. I post something in honor of Pride Month, or guest at a LGBTQA+ convention like Gaylaxicon or OutlantaCon, and one or more someones will ask me some variation of the “What’s a nice/old/heterosexual/married girl like you doing...” question. It happened again recently. As luck would have it, I’d just run across the following piece I wrote for Kage Allen’s “The Face of Gay” online column back in 2012 or 2013. I think it answers the question pretty well.
For me, being an ally isn’t just about what’s right, although that’s a big part of it. It’s also about the people – co-workers, colleagues, friends, and family-of-the-heart – who’ve made activism for gay rights personal. There have been many, but when Kage asked me to contribute a piece here, my thoughts immediately went back more than forty-five years, to the two men who began my journey as an ally.
David and Jeff were, literally, the All-American boys next door. They grew up on neighboring farms and were best friends from the first day of grade school. Good-looking, athletic, popular, solid grade point averages, dated the prettiest girls, on the football and basketball teams...you get the picture. And, as they told me later, they spent most of their lives trying to hide being gay from each other. They managed to sort things out during the summer before they started college and, by the time I met them in 1967, they’d been together as partners for a year.
I was a freshman that year, away from a very sheltered home life for the first time. To say I was naive is an industrial-strength understatement. My survival that first year of college can be laid squarely on the two of them, who took me under their collective wing and kept me from getting into the kind of trouble that it would have been so very easy to get into. They were the older brothers I never had and, as corny as it may sound, we were “family”.
Being included in their lives was a constant learning experience. They were my first exposure to two people of my generation in love and, apart from my grandparents, the only such relationship of any generation I’d seen. They were the first to suggest that my mother’s evaluation of my value as a human being was wrong, and the start of my journey toward healthy self-esteem. And, I suspect, David and Jeff are at least partially responsible for the fact I genuinely like men.
They exposed me to facets of society I didn’t even know existed. That, in that time, in that place, at least to my admittedly-inexperienced eyes, being a gay man was tough. There was no support, no networking as we think of it now, no inroads by a gay rights movement that was rising elsewhere, little in the way of “community” beyond the gay bars. For many it meant a life of lies – to themselves, their parents and siblings, the women they married, their children, to the lovers and casual partners they hooked up with on the sly. That the raids and harassment of patrons by police that, in the near future, would fuel the Stonewall Riots were common, as were the gangs of local thugs who hunted the alleys and parking lots near the bars around closing time. That, even in the face of all that, two men who loved each other as much as they did, could form what, in all respects save legality, was a marriage.
But they were a product of their time and, except in the safety of their apartment, intent on keeping their “secret”. It bothered them, but not enough to risk hurting the families they both loved or jeopardizing their future. When their parents showed increasing concern that neither talked about the girls they were dating and brought “someone special” home to meet them, they enlisted my aid. David, being an only child, was feeling more pressure from his folks than Jeff was from his, which is how I became, at least as far as the families were concerned, “David’s girl”.
The Viet Nam War was in full and bloody swing, and every eighteen-year-old man I knew sweated blood every time he went to the mailbox. With the coming of his nineteenth birthday, the pressure was supposed to be off. Why David suddenly got an induction notice no one ever figured out, just as no one ever found out why his student deferment was canceled or his lottery number went from high 3 digits to “you’re up, kid.”
There was only one other way out of it...David telling the draft board he was gay. Jeff was more than willing to back him up and testify to the fact from first-hand knowledge as his lover. As someone who practically lived with them, I was willing to testify, too. In the end, however, it was the effects on the families that made up David’s mind.
You know where this is going. Just before Christmas 1968, David’s parents were informed that he’d been killed on patrol. Jeff didn’t come back to school after the semester break and, after a few short letters from various places around the country, I never heard from him again. But I’ve thought about him, and about David, many times over the course of the last forty-five years, and about how different things might have been for them if the changes happening now had happened then.
Being an ally isn’t just about what’s right. It’s about the people in our lives who make it personal, the people we love. And I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.