The first published, open meeting of Gay Liberation in Ames took place in the old YWCA building on campus near Carver Hall on a very cold evening in December, 1971.
I had to tromp 5 minutes through the snow and zero degree temperatures to get to that meeting. We gay pioneers suffered a lot back then, there were no personal computers, CDs weren't invented, not even Walkmans, no cellular telephones (thank god), so we had to go to public meetings without our own music or anything that might provide our personal space with its own signature.
This was a time that "homosexuals" and "homosexuality" were only beginning to be discussed across the land, often with overtones of disgust or pity, and of course with the hate and venom that's still sometimes seen today. People generally made fun of gay people and preferred t? pretend we really "didn't exist" because we had been so conveniently hidden for so long in most of this American land. That began to change during the time after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969.
My short walking trip to that first meeting didn't begin five minutes before I arrived, for I didn't just sit in my Halsted House dormitory room and suddenly decide, "I think I'll go to that new group, Gay Liberation, tonight, and see what it's all about!"
It didn't work that way or easily for anybody, of course.
My journey that led directly to my attending the first meeting began in 1971. I was in summer school at Iowa State; I didn't want to go home for the summer, so I was taking zoology and botany and maybe one other course. In July I had a gall bladder attack. Gall bladder attacks are not a common occurrence in young men of age 18, so I wasn't the only person whom it surprised. After my required operation, the "gallstone" the doctors promised me turned out instead to be a rock pile that, had they been pearls, would have paid for a nice life of leisure through my retirement years, but sadly they weren't valuable at all. Instead they were bitter gems that had to come out in Mary Greeley Hospital along with one of my prize organs through a nasty cut in my abdomen.
The truth serum they gave me to take these stones out really affected me. Rather than "truth serum," I should say the drug sodium thiopental, which was the anaesthesia for the de-galling operation, a drug when used in small doses functions as truth serum by breaking down inhibitions. Coming out from under the anaesthesia emotions flooded through me that normally I could have kept under lock and key, things I didn't want to face had made it as far as my chest, and I remember I very nearly told the blond guy putting the catheter in me (since I was too pee shy even under this truth serum to pee on my own in a stupid metal pan) how cute he was. My carefully constructed shields, up ever since that revelation in fifth grade as to how much I was really quite different from everybody else, were lifting up unexpectedly and I didn't know what to do because nothing like that had ever happened to me before this period of convalescence.
I liked feeling in control. I was a Virgo, after all. This flood of emotions was terrifying. What would people think if I had done something like tell that guy something like that? Everybody would hate me, wouldn't they? I'd be an outcast, wouldn't I?
I had to quit summer school because missing so much school from the operation made it impossible to catch up. I went back to New London, or rather West Burlington, Iowa, for the rest of the school term. Right before I left the hospital the Nixon administration in Washington had one of its last marvelous draft lotteries, this one being exclusively for males born in 1952, a group of which I was a member and with which I was terribly qualified to participate whether I liked it or not! My unlucky number came up as #32 in the pool of bodies, meaning my birthday made the first 10% of victims in my age bracket that the government at that time planned to sacrifice to their growing profit machines in their futile police action in Southeast Asia. What this meant, too, was if I ever lost my student deferment, I was raw meat ready for the hungry machines of that Vietnam War. And it additionally meant that in a few years if I graduated and the war continued, as it seemed it would forever, it would again be the same fate for me. (It was nice of them to wait that long when for us when they couldn't get to us right away, wasn't it?)
I was not happy about this war news; I was not good with weapons; they made me uncomfortable, even something as simple as a slingshot. I never had a BB gun. I did better with other things, like pianos for instance. Playing Chopin on a Steinway in the marsh with Viet Cong surrounding me and bombs or napalm spurting all around didn't seem like the proper thing to do in the army, not only because it would have been an affront to Chopin, for he was one of my heroes, but because the acoustics were just not acceptable in such a situation. I could have played basketball in Vietnam if they'd wanted me to, but it wasn't the sport the military preferred. This war thing worried me. I could not envision learning how to ever kill anybody no matter what kind of world dominoes they were supposedly playing. Period.
My unexpected month's worth of recuperation provided me with hot August nights in Southeast Iowa to spend time with my high school friends. I had ample time to think a lot about my several situations, time to worry about who I was and who I really wasn't, what I felt and what I certainly didn't, what I'd do and what I wouldn't. The hometown hobby we had was to cruise (i.e. endlessly ride) around the town in a car with a group of friends, all of whom wisely hadn't gone to summer school nor had their gall bladders removed that year.
My home was the town of New London, Iowa, but immediately upon my leaving there for Ames in 1970, my father, who had grown to detest the town in his own typically bitter fashion, moved down US Highway 34 sixteen miles east to the town of West Burlington, the sole engulfed suburb of Burlington, Iowa. It was only a minor inconvenience getting from the new apartment where he lived to the old home where those who were so much more familiar lived and drove. Gas was at most 37 cents a gallon. Automobiles were happy to chuck it down and beg for more. We circled the blocks in town dozens of times, we drove out the "Old Highway" road and back into town. We were on a trek to nowhere, just as we had been throughout our latter high school years. During this journey to the infinite we spent all the time talking, trying to solve the world's problems, or at least our own, viewing the world from our myopic but still fairly enlightened perspectives (considering all that we still didn't know).
I spent a lot of those nights talking to my friend, Rick. Things and thoughts were boiling in me about the subject I dared not face; myself. My sexuality. Truth serum leaves your body slowly, truth even slower when it starts to talk to you. Once feelings surface, getting them to go back down and act properly isn't easy. But I couldn't put my feelings into words because of so much internalized fear. I knew some words I could use, but was terrified of those words, and still couldn't believe my feelings which were defining me could equate to the hideous images those words implied when friends ever spoke them. Rick listened. After a few nights he knew what I was feeling, but it was no easier for him to speak and indeed it was my responsibility and need to come to terms with the fact I was sexually attracted to men.
By my birthday on September 4, I'd returned to school and taken the easiest, the only route to get done what I felt I had to do after these frustrating hours of wasting verbal and real gasoline, and I'd sent a letter to Rick telling him I was a "homosexual" and if he told anybody I would have to kill myself (the drama now makes me smile, but I felt very serious about it at that time). It arrived in his mailbox on my birthday, so that's the day I count as having first "come out." Coming out isn't really a one day event of course, it's an endless process. I view that birthday as the most important moment in my life up until that time, for I'd never ever before said nor written that a "homosexual" was what "I" was or what I felt. A burden had dropped somewhat, though I hadn't been hiding it forever, it felt like it. Forever had actually been about nine years since that day when I was ten (a rainy autumn day), standing in the lunch line, and the term queer was explained graphically enough to me to make me understand that it was I who was thought of as something terrible.
For all those years I didn't really know why my feelings made me something terrible, but I kept them to myself.
I never felt what I naturally felt was wrong. I only knew it was universally detested. I didn't suffer any guilt particularly, only this gnawing fear of being thrown into a world of the despised, that black hole that has no escape for kids who are going through adolescence. I never felt what I naturally felt was wrong nor that anything had "caused" what I felt.
For years people in positions of power looked to find "causes" for gay or any sexuality that didn't personally like or were uncomfortable with, mostly thinking a cause could spawn a cure, but human sexuality in all its forms is something that just is and always has been and always will be; it is not much different at all than being left handed is a natural variation nor more abnormal than having red hair is in a sea of brunettes. Sexuality detectives have often tried to control or oppress because of their own issues with sex or sexuality, and also often because of their own silly religious beliefs (or secular beliefs influenced more than they would admit by silly religious beliefs).
They never came up with the real answer though. All of the heavy seriousness aside, I now am going to put an end to this previously endless speculation about why people "are" gay by giving away a secret which not even all gay people know. If you understand this fully, you will have true enlightenment:
People are gay because they've had gall bladder surgery. (Hey, it worked that way for me!)
There are times we may wish our nonstandard sexuality were a non issue and we might leave this coming out process behind and devote energy to more interesting things, but the way it's structured in this world, we can't. Coming Out, like a diamond, is forever.
The thought I had been a "homosexual" had crossed my friend Rick's mind too, even before I had my gall bladder removed, and no doubt many other folks in the old home town had wondered or pondered the sexuality of many kids, including me, at different times. Rick said at some point earlier he figured I was homosexual, then decided I was not. My letter to him on my birthday made it pretty clear that's the way it was.
I think I phoned him once from the dorm after he got the letter and before I'd gone back home. I wondered if he would even still speak to me. He did. Then I wondered what I would do next. I can't remember if he wrote me back, too. Maybe he did. I never thought these memories would fade with time. But everything does and now it was so long ago.
I went back home for a weekend several weeks into the quarter (these were the days before Iowa State was on the semester system). We talked again, driving around the town some more. I wasn't thrown into the street and spat on; the town didn't have a mock parade in my honor when I got home, a fantasy I'd let get out of control. The world kept turning and my fears were fortunately imaginative paranoia. Rick was as lost about the subject of gayness as I was, although lost coming from a different perspective. This was not a subject either of us knew a thing about except for the disdain expressed in uncomfortable jokes of adolescents. I was deeply terrified, but I was not 100% hidden any longer and that was something I really needed at the time. The burden wasn't lifted but boy it was lighter.
I guess neither Rick nor I had any idea there might be other "homosexuals" right there our the home town. But of course there were. Hell there were some at one point living on the block where I grew up.
My perspective was still very clouded for another month or so by this socially imposed isolation; I figured if there had ever been any other "homosexuals" in Iowa, they'd have left. Why would they stay where they were so all alone, too?
An incident that happened to me when I was in high school was during my junior year; our Science Club went to Chicago to look at museums and the Shedd Aquarium. I still remember quite vividly standing in the train station with my friends when a guy in fur smelling of strange "after shave" swished by us taking very dramatic and impressive steps to make sure he was the monarch of the space he was marching through. I'd noticed him quickly, I'd actually noticed him a lot, then I turned my head away and felt some shame, or probably fear, and simply thought to myself, "He must be a homosexual" (Well duh, Dennis). I didn't look up again for a while. It might be catching, after all. It might be luring, a trap.
My freshman year in college at Iowa State Frank Kameny came to campus and talked about "homosexuality" and government job discrimination against gay people. This was stiff heavy stuff for 1971 Ames, and not a form of discrimination most of mainstream or even fringe America was considering much yet, but this man had been actively working against it since the late 1950s when he was fired from his job in the Federal Government (as an astronomer, no less!) for being gay. Adding to the strangeness of this speech taking place on our conservative campus, a fairly large contingent of my colleagues from my dormitory floor in Helser Hall wanted to go and listen to the man, and so they and I did, and not one of us was probably comfortable watching him give his speech. I don't think any mention was made of it after we returned to the dorm, probably because none of us really knew what to make of what we'd seen and heard. It was totally alien. People didn't joke about him as they normally would if a homosexual subject had came up. I dwelled for days on why so many guys had wanted to go to this (what could that mean?) and feared why I had gone; even now, years later, I still don't completely understand why this group decided and went together to hear the speech.
Spring 1971 had passed, summer school and my unexpected free time after the operation ended, and soon it was the autumn of 1971. It was my turn to become me, and the curtain of silence I'd constructed had cracked and fallen down a bit and the floodgates were about to open and new emotions I never expressed were demanding to pour out.
Once the initial burden was lifted and I'd told somebody I was gay and exposed my vulnerability to the world a bit, and since I'd survived the initial shock of doing it, I almost immediately felt the need to be honest with more people who mattered to me in the same way.
The next person I felt I needed to tell was my best friend in the dorm at school. This was more problematic. He was a brand of Christian, some group I didn't even know the name of that had some sort of issue with water being used to baptize people. Probably it was his mother who had the real issue with water, but I feared she'd distilled it so much into his blood I didn't know what to expect.
Telling him didn't turn out so badly either, which was really reassuring and by no means a given. I guess I had pretty sensitive friends even when I was a dumb kid. I was lucky.
In fact it was he, David, a friend who lived a floor above me in the same dorm, who pushed me, albeit gently, into doing something about my newfound yet flailing identity, for I was clueless as to how I should proceed, or whether I would just live out my life this way, coming out to people one by one, telling them I was "homosexual," just to find out if that was OK with them so I could tell another until the big fear was finally all purged.
By the time I finished telling each and every person in the world, I'd find out I was actually one of only three "homosexuals" on the whole planet: myself, a man dressed in fur in Chicago, and some ex-bureaucrat in Washington who was making speeches about job discrimination on the college circuit.
Check that. Somehow I knew there were at least four of us. I had heard about a guy named Jack Baker, the student body President at the University of Minnesota. who was openly gay, and had won the presidency with a cool poster of himself in jeans & high heels which made me oddly cringe when I'd seen it first, because it was so goddam avant garde for 1971, but then it made me smile a bit, and finally it won me over. This was the only instance I knew of a gay person with a real name who was somewhat accessible within a reasonable distance of where I felt stuck in Ames, Iowa.
With David agreeing it was a good idea, I wrote to Jack Baker and told him that I was a "homosexual" and didn't know much of what that meant and didn't know anybody else in the whole world who was a "homosexual." I'm sure my letter sounded pretty funny in a sadly tragic way, but it did have the desired effect (despite not having a real address for him), because in a fairly short time he answered me! Receiving that letter was one of the most important and defining events of my life, and it changed everything, because suddenly I had made contact with someone who had survived when he had told the entire world he felt as I did. I reveled in that letter unlike any other mail I've received my whole life, and read it over and over and then got it out and read it yet again.
Close Encounters of the First Kind - sightings of "homosexuals" in the media, at school, and in Chicago
Close Encounters of the Second Kind - Writing to "homosexuals" and having them send back messages…
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Learning the Secret Handshake…!
OK, there may really not be a secret handshake, but it makes for a good joke. But there really are gall bladder operations with unexpected results.
Jack Baker's letter told me Minneapolis had a Gay Community Center called Gay House which was at 171(?) Ridgewood Avenue, and he said I should make arrangements to come there and talk to people in a non exploitative setting. He told me I sounded as if I were suffering from the common form of oppression gay people suffered; a lack of any interaction with other gay people and isolation in a non exploitative setting and that was a part of our oppression. I'd never heard anybody say anything like "isolation is a part of our oppression." It sounded kind of like the antiwar people, yet oddly satisfying, now "I" was being included in his word "our." I sensed what he meant though. I understood isolation. I felt isolation, probably as much as anybody else I've ever met. The word "oppression" being applied to me somehow sounded almost lofty and noble, and like none of my fear was my own fault.
It was October, 1971 when I went to Minneapolis after classes ended on a Friday night. I had a Genetics (course) test last class of the day, 4-5 PM. I detested the subject and had no respect for the teacher; she had a European accent and made the boring drawings of DNA even worse than it need be with her droll, academic manner. On that Friday afternoon I could have cared less about the class or her silly test, because I was obsessing about getting out my old blue 1962 Buick LeSabre ("Blue Turd" was its name) I used to drive to school and back home, and on that Friday, instead of heading south for my father's house, I was going to head north to Minneapolis. Either trip - Minneapolis or Burlington - was about a four hour drive from Ames, yet they were more than seventeen worlds apart for me that evening.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, version 2 - Meeting "homosexuals" in a "homosexual" setting… (?)
I had called Gay House several days in advance of my trip as I had been instructed to do in Jack Baker's letter; I wanted to make sure he or they knew I was coming. I assumed reservations were important and wanted to be sure somebody would be there to talk to me if I went to all the trouble of going there. What if it the house were closed or something? There were several other names in the letter as contact people, but neither of these guys were in the house when I called, still I figured they'd know I was coming at least, because Jack had written me I should come, and letting them know is what people did rather than dropping in unannounced. Whoever answered when I phoned them just said something like, "Come on up and someone will be here." "Someone will be here" seemed pretty vague and casual, and I thought I should make an effort to talk with the people whose names I'd been given because they probably had been told I would call and were expecting my call, but they weren't there. I went ahead and made preparations anyway.
The count was rising. Already using my powers of observation and applying the science of addition I figured there were at least seven "homosexuals" in the world. Added to Jack Baker were the names of two people he sent me and then the other person who had answered the phone at Gay House.
I got to Minneapolis about 9 PM on that Friday after doing a fairly poor job on my silly Genetics test that didn't have one iota of relevance to my future life. By the time I reached Mason City, Iowa, I was tuned into Minneapolis AM radio, and most of the rest of the trip up to the Twin Cities it was insistent on playing the songs of Three Dog Night, a group being pushed so hard, as they were in concert in Minneapolis that weekend. Eli wasn't the only one coming though. There was also Dennis.
Although the drive was uneventful, I could have been certified as being officially Beyond Nervous Wreck by the American Psychiatric Association, as I arrived in Minneapolis.
I found the Gay House; the directions were easy. I parked my car several blocks away so nobody would know I was associated with my car and this house or that my car was associated with me and that house, or whatever it was I was that I was being paranoid about which was really just about being alive and in the vicinity of known "homosexuals." It sounds so silly now, but it was exactly what I felt at my young isolated age of 19. I tried to walk away from the car nonchalantly as possible; I walked down the street and sat down on a street bench then roamed over and stood across the street from this Gay House. It was a chilly evening, quite dark already. The leaves had fallen all around, for there were a lot of trees on the street and this was Minnesota, where winter might happen at any moment beginning as early as late August. The neighborhood around the Gay House was delightful and residential. And to my amazement people were walking in and out of this community center and nobody was paying any attention to the visitors at all. Happily no one seemed to notice me standing across the street staring at the house either. I think I really expected throngs of angry people to be outside the place harassing anyone who went in, and my paranoia was so bad I figured they'd particularly be on the lookout for me. Instead it was a serene, peaceful, very benign setting. I found this amazing and I knew I'd left the real world and been transported into Wonderland. How could Minnesota be so different from Iowa? Many many people were walking in and out of this house as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do on that Friday night.
But I couldn't walk in.
I could not even cross the street to Gay House. I was so close but I might as well have been in Iowa. I was frozen in place standing my ground across the way and the street between me and the house became more than a street; it was a moat and to cross or wade through because the draw bridge to this new land wasn't down and I couldn't wade into the water because there were monsters in there and the monsters there were in me too and I couldn't let them out.
I can't remember ever having been more afraid in my life of doing something; yet it was not fear for my person. It was just an unspecific fear of this unknown, a fear society had put into my bone marrow. Years of denial of who I was did its work quite nicely. At times I guess we all buy into whatever is convenient, but it made me really angry when I finally came to grips with the reasons behind my fears.
I watched and I soon walked a block away because I felt so conspicuous staring at the house, and I sat on bus stop bench and I stood when I got nervous and walked back and stared at the house some more and the people entering it and nobody still seemed to notice me which was the way I wanted it to be, because there were so many monsters I was trying to face that I just couldn't face people at the same time.
After some more time, the length of which I couldn't assess any more, I went to a public phone about a block away and called my friend David back in the dorm at Iowa State. "I can't go in there! I'm going to come home." I was despondent. I was a failure after all the build up and worry and getting this far in the trip. All seemed for naught.
"They're expecting you; you have to!" he told me. We were both pretty na�ve but at least we had good manners. Indeed, if I'd never showed up, no one would have known, but he made me think I should feel guilty for being a rude guest and I fortunately believed that at the time. "You at least need to call them and tell them if you don't go in," he said.
I decided that was a good idea and agreed so I got my nerve up after talking to him and did just that. A man answered the phone and I said, "I'm over here and I called earlier last week and now I can't come in, I just can't." I imagine my voice was cracking. "I just can't."
The man on the phone asked where I was and asked if he could come over and talk to me, and I said yes, because I felt so desperate. He told me to go back to the bus stop bench and sit down, which I did. Within five minutes he personally came over and sat down by me and just started talking to me. I felt really stupid for being so afraid but was desperate enough I was willing to spill my guts to him. I was at a point and in a place in my life where I felt I had nothing to lose. I have no idea what I said or what he said now. None of the specifics really matters.
I'm sure I must have sensed there would be no coming back from this pivotal evening in Minnesota. Nothing that had been familiar or secure would ever be quite the same again, nor would I look on it with the comfort or trust I might have felt before, and all of this was terrifying and exciting all at once. I was growing up in the space of a fifteen minute discussion, fulfilling the American dream of doing everything in short spurts of time and getting it over with; I was becoming who I really was for the first time in my young life and I didn't know what was going to happen to me but I thought I could handle anything for a moment, because it seemed I was handling my worst monsters a little bit and they were shrinking and even shirking and maybe they weren't really so imposing after all.
And there was somebody there who felt as I and was supporting me.
I can still distinctly see the face of this mentor who talked me through the fear that night. He was probably in his 30s, which seemed ancient to me then. It was a kind face, and he was understanding and told me everyone who is gay goes through things very much like I was, and he told me I wasn't alone, and that it was generally harder for people who came from rural areas. I couldn't believe how reassuring it was to hear what I was hearing, and I wanted to believe it so badly. I was not the sole miserable creature of my ilk I'd feared I was. We walked around in circles over several blocks of Minneapolis making what may have been endless circuits, or maybe only one, I can't remember, talking as we walked, he was continually so reassuring, saying words I knew in sentences I'd never expected to hear but needed to hear, and I, trying to grasp the sense that who I was was really OK. It was hard to pay complete attention and absorb everything, because the experience was too overwhelming to my senses, and I didn't know how to sort it out just as I listened, not really needing to right then. It was all right not to be in total control.
I really can't remember my newfound mentor's name now; time is harsh on my memory and it's indeed a shame. Maybe it was Ray but I'm not sure; (I met and befriended a Ray some years later in Minneapolis so I'm maybe confusing names here). In later years of the 1970s I did run into this man, my counselor on the bench, the man who walked me around the blocks and made me relax, and I thanked him profusely for being who he was when he was there for me. He smiled and remembered helping me and we chatted for a time. If I were capable of offering sainthood to my fellow humans, he would be one of them to whom I would grant it, but it would doubtlessly surprise him.
After what may have been a half hour I managed to calm down. By nature I can be high strung; I was more so that way when I was 19. Finally I relaxed enough that he and I went across that street which was no longer a moat under a bridge and we went right into the house which was no longer a castle taunting me with the unknown monsters that lay within me, not it. I probably still gulped as I entered and know I felt a lump in my stomach, but I did it. I went into that house I had traveled to Minneapolis to visit.
Gay House wasn't an unusual building on the outside; nothing would have made it seem out of the ordinary except perhaps there was a lot of foot traffic going in and out of the place and the other nearby houses didn't have this. The residential neighborhood it was in seemed very pleasant (it was a gay neighborhood, but I had no knowledge of that or even that there might be such a concept). The house was just a two story 40 or 50 year old structure like the others on the block; it could just have been a relative's house if I'd had relatives in Minneapolis. There was a stairway straight ahead when you went in the front door and to the left a living room filled with people. Rather I should now say the living room was filled with gay people. They accepted me as just another gay man. I was no longer a sole "homosexual" drifting along alone. It was no big deal I'd come into the house and very soon I felt I belonged somewhere. Within minutes a sense of calm came over me I didn't really expect to feel the rest of my life.
I guess being in the big city with a young country bumpkin, who's obviously fresh off the farm school in town, gained me a bit more attention than I wanted, for I really do often love to sit and observe in silence sometimes, but it was hard to be a bystander in the group in the house that evening, as people kept talking to me and asking me questions which I had no idea how to answer, so I just spoke as truthfully as I could, and I noticed that nothing I did say seemed to surprise anybody. I felt a high level of acceptance and a general feeling of warmth from the people sitting around who had gone through their own hells in their own times and places. These people were now sympathetic to me.
One thing I can remember was someone asked me how many gay friends I had in Iowa, and he asked this question just as if it were given such folk existed and I must know them, and I imagine some of the people in the center that evening probably raised their eyebrows when I said I knew none, anywhere, until those very moments we were all experiencing. Still I found the question to be most encouraging because these city people thought or seemed to know there were others like me where I came from, and if that were really true, well, of course it might change things a lot. So maybe not all the other "homosexuals" in Iowa had moved away from the state after all, even though I was sure I'd never met any "homosexuals" in Iowa in my whole life.
There may really be only a few specific days in anyone's life that really shape the future of who a person will be; normally our days blur into a wad of cosmic insignificance of the greater whole that is a life, the individual days solder our fabric together in a rather bland concoction, which is convenient as life progresses. As time passes, tomorrow is soon not distinguishable from yesterday in most of our memories, and slowly and uneventfully we turn into the beings we have become with nothing special or dramatic having happened to make us our present day creatures.
Then there are those days like that October evening was in Minneapolis in 1971 for me.
I can not imagine my life today would be anything like it became without this one night in 1971 after my poor showing in Genetics class, this night when I finally went walking into this one specific Gay House on Ridgewood in this Minneapolis gay neighborhood, when I went in and sat down in this one particular living room and talked through 3 or 4 hours of moderately disorienting conversation with these people who felt what I felt, who were of my own tribe, who befriended me when I most desperately needed it, the men at Gay House who asked me may other questions about Iowa as if it were an exotic place.
In the course of the conversation the people in the house also talked about bars in downtown (Minneapolis). These were gay bars. I think I'd heard the term before, somehow, but I'd never thought much about such an institution. I never drank in high school nor still in 1971, so that didn't sound at all like something I would have been interested in. The men also talked of politics. In 1971 the country's atmosphere was charged with politics, but I had not been exposed to the radical side of them too much, for Ames and Iowa State were fairly insular and protective of their youth. and the dorm where I resided had very conservative leanings by and large. The antiwar activities in Ames that happened during the 1960s seemed to have already waned by the time I arrived.
The fact this group of gay people were getting together and they weren't in any special house except it was a house of their own, and they weren't any different than anybody else, except they were different from everybody else including each other, and I had more in common in my being with them than I did with my day to day associates even though I was from a small town and had more in common with people I had nothing in common with didn't seem so hard to grasp for a few hours. But it did hit me sometime during the course of our conversation that I really was suffering sensory overload.
I left Gay House about midnight or one in the morning and went to some motel where I'd rented a room. I can't remember what I thought. I can't remember if I thought at all; I don't know if I slept.
I went back to Gay House the next day and again there was a living room full of people wandering through, sitting and talking and discussing events and often politics and generally enjoying themselves. I walked in this second day all on my own without anyone helping me. Some of the residents that morning had been there the night before and so they introduced me to people again and the discussion seemed to focus too much in my direction once again, though maybe a bit less than the previous evening. I was much less uncomfortable than I had been just 12 hours previous. Everyone was very nice. There was hope and it was a sunny, beautiful autumn day.
While I was there, someone gave me the name of a man named Dean Blake to write to in Iowa City. He was active in "Gay Liberation" in Iowa City. Well, that was dandy, but I was in Ames. Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, was known for its radical antiwar stance and liberal arts school, and of course IT would be the place to house the other gay people in Iowa, I figured. Oddly enough I think I secretly picked Iowa State to get further away from home and break ties so someday I might free myself from what once was. Maybe I knew I would need the distance, though 200 miles proved to be no match for an irate father whose son, he felt, had been turned queer by cow college university life. But for a moment that day in Minneapolis I wondered if I'd have been better off going closer to home in Iowa City. I'm glad I chose what I chose.
I decided to go back to Ames on Saturday. More had happened than I could process all at once. Originally I planned on staying in Minnesota until Sunday, but I changed my plans.
I was recruited to give a guy who had been staying at the house a ride to Iowa. He was from Portland, Oregon, and his name was George Nicola. He was about 24 years old, I think (certainly old and wise compared to my na�ve 19), a very pleasant and once again understanding person who answered question after question I needed to know as I turned him into my professor during the 200 mile journey back home. George had been traveling across America visiting gay groups to gain information to take back to his group in Portland, and he planned now to hitchhike back on Interstate 80 since the opportunity had presented itself and it was a better road for thumbing rides than Interstate 90 would have been further north in Minnesota.
Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind - Taking Gay Men to Interstate 80.
It was an odd sequence of events; after just a few hours in Minneapolis my new world was not my old world of the day before, and I left the place of my new birth and was transporting a known "homosexual" back to Iowa in my car, something I wouldn't have thought possible on Thursday when I had been living on the old, previous planet. But it was now Saturday and I wasn't uncomfortable doing it.
We got to Ames and he stayed that Saturday in my room in the dorm. He slept in my roommate, Kyle's, bed. Kyle, from my home town, was home in New London for the weekend, probably being fussed over by his parents. Later on in the school year when I came out to Kyle the thing that seemed to bother him, an avowed Baptist, most of all, was that some Oregon "homosexual" had slept in his bed one night many months before and he'd never known about it. I guess there must have been little observable damage to the sanctuary, and somehow Kyle lived through this infringement on his rights and managed to confess my predicament to at least four or five other friends of his or ours in the dormitory.
On Sunday morning I gave George a ride down to the Intersection of Interstates 35 & 80 and he took off for Portland. We exchanged mail for a few years, then lost touch. (During my 20s I was pretty flaky about keeping in touch with everybody. I regret this now.)
I can't remember now for sure if I had the phone number or the address for Dean Blake in Iowa City, but a few days after I was back I contacted him, I think maybe by phone, and he told me that somebody was starting a gay organization in Ames and that he had their name and number. I was dumbfounded. How could this be that the entire world was spinning and only good things seemed to be thrown my way?
Dean gave me the name of the person, Joe Franko, and with my newfound self-assuredness, I gave him a call. We agreed to meet for dinner at his place. Then everything got confusing.
Joey lived in ISU married student housing in Pammel Court. He was from New York City, he was a graduate student in English, and he had a 3 year old son running around the house. He didn't dry dishes after washing them, but let them air dry on the dish drainer. He was divorced or rather separated from a wife.
Complexities of people's relationships were not something I understood at all in autumn 1971. I first found it odd I was visiting this man in Pammel Court… Then, what about this kid, anyway? Where'd he come from? And my father always insisted on drying dishes with a dish towel. That was just the way it was.
I thought at first that Joe must be straight, but from the conversation it was clear he wasn't.
Joey knew enough gay people that he was planning on starting a gay liberation group; at least four (a large number?) of us met once at his house to discuss it, this would have been most probably in November, 1971. I still felt like I was really an oddball, and I was, because everybody else had been around a bit more than I and seemed to be a lot more self assured than I was.
So to be technically correct, a bit wryly ironic, Iowa State University Gay Liberation meetings first took place in married student housing.
In December, 1971, the University put on the play "Boys in the Band." Joe wrote a letter to the Iowa State Daily protesting the play, signing it, "The Gay Liberation Front," and suddenly we became a visible group even if we weren't yet particularly a groundswell or horde of disenfranchised gay people. I guess I still knew maybe five or six gay people total in the world, but I kept hearing rumors about others. And I still lived in the dorm, and knew I would be killed if word spread, but I wanted to change my living situation desperately so I could eliminate that block to my own liberation.