by Murray Edelman
I've been wrestling with the question: just what is my role as a gay elder?
In traditional cultures, elders are held in a place of honor for what they have contributed to the community and for the history and tradition they carry. In our culture, where history is recorded in books and film, traditions are constantly changing. So it is fair to ask: just what do gay elders have to offer today?
I've found part of the answer to be in the stories that I tell:
In 1965 I literally discovered my sexuality at the age of 21 while living in Washington D.C. A couple of weeks after locating a gay bar and having sex for the first time with a man, I was invited to an "after the bar party."
The party was mostly homosexuals. I saw two men dancing together for the first timne in my life, and their affection touched me very deeply. When I danced with women, I never felt anything special. But just seeing tenderness between men was incredibly exciting.
The suddenly the police appeared everywhere. We were all arrested. I was confused and very scared. I thought of claiming that I was the date of a woman standing near me, but I was too scared to ask her to front for me. All the feelings of guilt and fear about being a homosexual were now compounded by this arrest, possible exposure, and what it would mean for my career, given that the Federal government had required me to sign an oath that I wasn't a homosexual.
We were marched into a cluster of paddy wagons. I made my first contact with a gay man that wasn't laden with sexual overtones. As I relaxed, I intuitively felt the connection with being gay and the civil rights movement. I started chanting, very softly "We shall overcome, we shall overcome some day." Others in the paddy wagon joined me as we were driven to the police station for booking and possible public exposure. What a way to discover your sexuality! This was only four years before Stonewall.
Fortunately the police kept it to themselves; they booked us for disorderly conduct and we paid them a fine. That was quite a bit for one night, but it was noteworthy in another way. After we were booked, I went home with one of the men in the paddy wagon; the events of that night had brought us close and I had my first experience of touching and being held by another man. Earlier that night I witnessed gay affection for the first time; later I received grace.
The spirit that spoke to me in the paddy wagon stayed with me. Once I fully acknowledged my sexual desires, I felt betrayed by society for keeping it such a big secret. Many others chose to blame themselves. They spent years in psychoanalysis to become straight or even worse, shock treatment. Others tried to deny their sexuality by joining a seminary or staying in an unhappy marriage. I did go into therapy, but I made it clear from the beginning that I was doing it to adjust and not to change.
In the late 1960's adjustment meant having a lover, a pet, and many kitchen appliances. It also meant keeping our sexuality to ourselves and our circle of gay friends. The cost of exposure in the workplace was too high. And even with friends we totally trusted, we might let them figure it out, but we certainly didn't want to make them uncomfortable or "rub their face in it."
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I wanted to study homosexuality, but I was afraid others would make connections and I would be stigmatized in my career. Yet, while I was cautious in my actions, that conenction with the larger picture stayed with me.
In December, 1969, after the Stonewall riots, Henry Wiemhoff (one of the many lost to AIDS) and I called a small group of gay men and women together near the university to talk about Stonewall and what it all meant. Some of the attendees talked of walking around the block 10 times before coming in. Was it paranoia or precaution? A couple of years earlier the Chicago Tribune had published the names of men arrested in a bathhouse raid. The article destroyed their careers.
Most, like my lover of three years, were totally immobilized by the fear. He was furious with me that I would consider participating in the group's first action -- to be interviewed on the campus radion station. We would not give our names; we just wanted people to know we existed. He was so furious that he threatened to leave me if I was on the program. Why? Someone could recognize my voice or someone could see me at the station and then we would be at risk. (He didn't leave, but the relationship didn't last very long after that.)
In those early meetings, we considered telling others we were gay. It was a pretty overwhelming thought for me. Would it mean isolation from peers and professors and the stigma of being homosexual following me for my entire career? And what about my family?
But we also had a vision of change. Women and blacks had led the way for change. Also, I knew the problem with being gay was not inside me but outside. The closets were in our heads; at least we hoped so.
But it was a step into the unknown. Why risk my career and possibly my life?
Thankfully, many others have made this kind of tortured decision, but at least they had seen others come out and survive and they had a movement behind them. We didn't have any of that. And once the decision to come out was made and acted on, it couldn't be undone.
At a personal level it required a lot of sorting out. I was a happy, well-adjusted homosexual at the time. Why take big risks? Yet I felt so much more alive when I talked about gay politics and feminism. While I spent time reading about social change in school, I was at a popint where I could make real social change happen in my own community. For the first time I could feel my power as a leader and I liked it. (I was always the outcast in right field.) The vision powered me in ways I had never felt before. Yet, would this group, would this "movement" stay together? Am I really like them? Why not let others take the risks.
At one level it was about taking calculated risks; at another level it was about stepping into a vision of the future and being so alive, so clear and so powerful. So I started revealing my "secret" to friends, to my academic advisor...steps that could not be undone. Others came to our meetings and followed in our footsteps. We were no longer a gay discussion group at the university, but the center of the Gay Liberation movement of Chicago.
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Murray Edelman, who in addition to being an elder is a longtime innovator in the gay community, is beginning a very interesting political experiment called "Circle Voting." Check it out at www.CircleVoting.com