Growing Up Gay Years Ago



The following talk was delivered to about 20 people in his workshop “LGBT Youth and Elders: Building Bridges, Honoring Our History” at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Boston Conference English High on Saturday, March 31:

I knew I was gay all the time. Growing up in New York City, first on the Upper East Side and later in Greenwich Village, made things easier for me. I spent a lot of time with Rose and Evelyn, two women who lived upstairs in our apartment house on East 86th Street. They wore trousers all the time and were obviously a couple. I was very drawn to my Uncle Louie, my mother’s youngest brother, a gay Communist activist and writer, especially after he had been deported to the Soviet Union and came back disillusioned after World War II. He taught me that men could love and care for each other, not just have sex. And my grandmother made it very easy for me. One day when I was about 14 she asked, “Is it girls or boys? I love you either way.”

In other ways though, growing up gay in the ’40s and ’50s was hard because you couldn’t tell anyone. People lost jobs, homes, everything if it became known that you were “that way.” There was no Internet, no magazines. Even on the phone, because they were party lines where neighbors could listen in, we had to be careful what we said. We learned to recognize each other by little clues: men wore pinky rings and we’d ask, “Are you in the life?” When I turned 18, though, and had to register for the draft, I wasn’t going to keep the secret. I checked the box that said “Homosexual” and stuck to it through interviews with five psychiatrists. I was admitted to Harvard in 1949, but, funny thing, they couldn’t find a dorm room for me and kept having trouble with my name. Jews and gays weren’t welcome in those days. So I transferred after my sophomore year to Boston University, where I found a welcome and went all the way through my doctorate.

We could only be out in certain bars, and in those days gay men and lesbians socialized together. We had to, because it was illegal to dance with a same-sex partner. The owners would pay the police and the Mafia to look the other way, but sometimes they’d be raided anyway. Usually there was a lookout; when he spotted the cops coming, the owners would turn on a white light in the bar and all the couples would change partners. That’s how I met my lifelong friend Linda, when we danced together one night. After awhile the raids became so frequent that we held parties in each others’ apartments instead. Everyone brought food and booze and sometimes left cash for the host.

After Stonewall in 1969 times changed and became so exciting. We could finally come out and be ourselves. Gays were in literature, music, movies. You young people have all these gay support associations and other support organizations. And now—I never thought I could get married! But here I am, legally married in 2004 to my partner of 10 years.

The writer lives in Jamaica Plain.

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