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Years later, in 1970, after I came out as gay to my parents, I asked my mother why she and my father had sent me to “the toy doctor,” as they had once called the psychiatrist. She looked at me urgently and with deep affection said:
“You wouldn’t have understood at the time, but we sent you because we felt you were too effeminate, and we thought you would grow up to be a homosexual. Your effeminacy,” she continued, “was the reason why the other children couldn’t accept you and why they hurt you. We sent you because their taunts hurt us too, and we couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
That wasn’t, however, the whole story; she also confided another reason for sending me. She said that my father suffered the pain of being different when he was young. He and his two sisters were the only Jews in their schools in the 1920s to 1930s in Los Angeles. Because of the anti-Semitism at the time, the other boys beat him up nearly every day.
While in elementary school, he hid in a small crawlway beneath one of the buildings during recess period to avoid attack by his peers. My mother told me that she and my father attempted to help me conform to my gender expectations to fit in so I wouldn’t have to go through what my father experienced.
My parents sent me to the psychiatrist, at least in part, in an attempt to direct my eventual gender expression and sexual identity (at the time, they equated my gender non-conformity to my possible homosexuality). My school reinforced this on my classmates and on me every day.
Even in kindergarten, children were channeled into gender-specific activities: boys were encouraged to participate in sports, girls to hone housekeeping skills such as cooking and cleaning. This less-than-subtle encouragement seemed to grow more rigid with every year of school.
Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and was accepted along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the chorus was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure.
I and the other four boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class despised and picked on us, and viciously labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls in the school.
When I was 12-years-old, the bullying, the shame, and the pressure from my father to conform merged to bring me to take a large bottle of aspirin from our bathroom medicine cabinet, and toss a large quantity into my mouth, since I wanted to end the pain I was feeling. Somewhere I learned that doing this would cause massive internal bleeding, which could lead to death.
A part of me, though, still wanted to live, and I quickly spit out the pills into the sink with the bitter taste lingering literally in my mouth and figuratively in my spirit.
During high school in the early 1960s, I had very few friends and I rarely dated. It was not that I did not wish to date, but I wanted to date some of the other boys. I could not even talk about this at the time since the concept of high school gay-straight alliances was still many years in the future. In high school, the topic of homosexuality and gender-nonconformity rarely surfaced officially in the classroom, and then only in a negative context.
I graduated high school in 1965 with the hope that college life would somehow be better for me. I hoped that people would be more open-minded, less conforming, more accepting of difference.
To a great extent, things were better. At San José State College (later University), I demonstrated my opposition to the war in Vietnam with others. I worked to reduce racism on campus, and I helped plan environmental ecology teach-ins. Nevertheless, there was still something missing for me. I knew that I did not and could not conform to societal gender expectations and that I was gay, but I had no outlet of support through which I could express my feelings.
As far as I knew, there were no openly gay people, no support groups, no organizations, and no classes or library materials that did anything more than tell me that homosexuality was “abnormal” and that I needed to change.
In 1967, I finally decided to see a therapist in the campus counseling center, and I began what for me was a very difficult coming out process. And then during my first year of graduate school in 1970, I experienced a turning point in my life.
In my campus newspaper, The Spartan Daily at San José State College, I saw the headline in big bold letters: “GAY LIBERATION FRONT DENIED CAMPUS RECOGNITION.” The article stated that the chancellor of the California State University system, Glenn Dumke, under then Governor Ronald Reagan’s direction, had denied recognition to the campus chapter of the Gay Liberation Front.
In the ruling, Dumke stated that “The effect of recognition…of the Gay Liberation Front could conceivably be to endorse or to promote homosexual behavior, to attract homosexuals to the campus, and to expose minors to homosexual advocacy and practices” and “…belief that the proposed Front created too great a risk for students – a risk which might lead students to engage in illegal homosexual behavior.”
Consensual same-sex sexuality remained illegal until 1975 in California, almost five years after I left the state.
This was the first I had heard of such a group, and the first time I had heard about other gay people on my campus. I called the coordinator of the group, and she invited me to the next meeting. Since the chancellor did not permit group members to hold meetings on our campus, they met at a little diner on a small side street a few blocks off campus. Unfortunately, this only confirmed my fears of the underground nature of LGBT life. As I approached the door to enter the meeting, I felt as if I were a member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation.
Upon entering, I saw around 15 people. I recognized one young man from my chemistry class, but the others were strangers. I saw a near even mix of men and women, which made me feel a bit easier. In my mind, I had envisioned 50 men waiting to pounce on me as I entered, but I soon discovered that they were all good people who were concerned about me. They invited me to their homes, and before too long, I relaxed in their presence.