Back when Great Uncle William was castrated for being gay

Back when Great Uncle William was castrated for being gay

During my 67 years on this planet, I have witnessed many transformative changes in attitudes, behaviors, and laws related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex, and queer sexuality and gender expressions in the United States — from the late 1940s growing up as a non-gender conforming gay youth, through the socially conservative 1950s, the dynamic and often volatile 1960s, to the present day.

As I travel across the United States and abroad delivering presentations on queer history, participants often ask me to provide a perspective on where we have come and where we still need to go.

I sometimes begin by discussing a family incident that has forever changed me, which my parents talked about at dinner one evening in 1962 when I was a 15-year-old high school student. It began during the day as I reflected on my great-uncle William, a brother of my paternal grandmother, Dorothy. I always enjoyed William visiting our home. He was one of the most intelligent, kind, and caring people I had ever known.

When I was very young, he read me stories, and he always brought a little gift each time he visited. I was always amazed by how much he knew. I hoped to know as much when I was older.

Not seeing William for a few months, I asked my parents over the dinner table where he had been. “Oh,” said my father, “He hasn’t been feeling very well lately, but we hope he will feel better soon.”

“I will call him to see how he is feeling,” I said. “It’s too bad,” I continued with deep concern, “that he never married, and he may not have anyone to take care of him. By the way, why didn’t Great Uncle William ever marry?”

“You haven’t heard the story?,” my father quipped with a curious expression on his face. When I asked “What story?” he revealed a not-so-hidden family “secret.”

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