Growing Up Gay In Danville, Illinois

I grew up in Danville, Illinois as a gay child and young man. I left forty-seven years ago at the age of twenty-four. I have traveled around the world several times and have lived in many different cultures. When I have returned to Danville to visit family, I’ve always had the impression it’s one of the last places in the world to move forward in regards to tolerance toward gay men and lesbians as well as many other things.

Growing up in the midwest was difficult for me as a gay boy. Seeing the rest of the world with it’s rich religious and cultural diversity was an awakening. I have no desire to debate scripture. I want to talk about the bashing of people because of gender identity. If we Americans really were who we have been taught to believe we are, we would not still have inequality based on prejudices.

My world travels began in 1986 when I went to Germany to find my cultural roots. That was my first example of real culture shock. The gay movement in Germany began at the end of the 19th century and was put on hold during Hitler’s 12 years of Nazi rule. To be in a country where homosexuality and sexuality in general had been openly dealt with more than 100 years before, was an awesome, eye opening experience for me. In all my travels I would never experience the kind of homophobia I experienced in America. I would learn that it was rooted in a very special American version of toxic masculinity. When I was in the company of German gays they were always asking me why I was so nervous. Their casual acceptance of their identity always had me looking over my shoulder to see if I was going to be arrested by a policeman or beaten by someone who hates gays. It was really hard for me to admit that my country was so backwards. Like most Americans I had been taught that America was the best place to live in the world. Reality really hit home when I met a black ex-American soldier in Munich, who told me he would never return to America because life for a black man in Munich was so much easier and better.

In the winter of 1991, I was invited to live with a diplomat from Argentina who was living in Nairobi, Kenya. I was working on a book and his offer was just too good to pass up. The big surprise for me in Africa was the healing that took place within my relationship with my father. I would see grown African men sitting under trees with their teenaged sons sitting in front of them. The fathers would be stroking their son’s hair or some other incredible act of intimacy. In that moment I realized that homophobia was something that affected all men in America, not just gays. My American gut reaction was that someone might come up to these men to accuse them of being gay. Perhaps someone might even attack them physically. I began to cry uncontrollably. I realized that I had consciously pulled away from my own father because of this stupid American stereotype about human sexuality. I wanted so badly to have experienced the unconditional love that young African boy was receiving from his father! I felt American men needed some kind of organization to deprogram them from the harm that had been inflicted by toxic masculinity. When I came out of the closet in 1974, my mother took it much harder than my Dad. I was living in Florida at the time and my father sent me a letter. It was the only letter I ever received from my father and I still have it. He told me he had always known that I was gay. He said the only regret he had was about all of the abuse I would face from intolerant people. When my father was dying I came back to Danville to take care of him in the last month of his life. That was when the real healing took place. Truth is, I had known for years that I would do this. Each night before my father went to sleep I sat on the bed beside him holding him as we both cried. I was now that young boy in Africa. For that I am eternally grateful! I met my husband and soulmate Rob in Washington, D.C. in 1980. In 1991 we taught yoga classes in a small village in the Greek islands, inside a 13th century castle ruins. The village was very religious Greek Orthodox. We were apprehensive at first about being there as an openly gay couple. I guess in hindsight I would have to say it was my personal lesson in understanding that prejudice is taught. The village was curious, nothing more. They waited to get to know us before forming any opinions about gay people. In the end we became a part of the family of this village. The Greek Orthodox priest treated us as equals, as spiritual men. Some in the village began to read books about yoga. When I called from London to tell them Rob had died, I was told the entire village wept. His ashes are in the castle there on the spot were he meditated. One of the girls in the village told me she was glad we had been examples for her when she was 8 years old. The burden I carry from my experiences traveling is to know that prejudice doesn’t have to rule people’s lives the way it ruled mine growing up gay in Danville. But so often when I return “home” to Danville, it seems prejudice still rules. There are so many good memories of my childhood in Danville that get blocked out by all the bad experiences.

Most gay people will tell you they thought they were the only ones in the beginning. Once I met my first gay friend in Danville, a whole secret world was revealed. It was like living a schizophrenic life by choice, for survival. Every word one spoke had to be chosen carefully so you wouldn’t reveal anything accidentally. Walking into a room was an exercise in dividing the ones who know from the ones who don’t know. Over the years I came to know politicians, doctors, lawyers, many upstanding pillars of the community, some single, some married, all gay. They were all good actors out of necessity.

When I was in Danville High School I had chosen to grow a small lock of hair just above my forehead, to copy a boy I admired. Before morning classes when we all walked through the halls, I walked in fear, trying to make myself invisible. Every so often the principal would pull me into his office for a taunting session. “Did your mommy put that little curl on your forehead?” “Are you a sissy?” “It better be gone tomorrow!” Then the final blow. My Physical Ed teacher made me do push-ups for 45 minutes while he stood above me screaming as all the other students looked on. It was punishment for my curl. Inside I knew that to cut off that curl was the same as cutting out my identity. This abuse sent me to the hospital with one dislocated shoulder and the other sprained. For weeks I was in a cast and a sling. My Physical Ed instructor flunked me. Up to that point I was an honor student. After that I hated High School. My grades suffered and I contemplated suicide. When I was in Moments Musical, I can remember a knot in my stomach during the rehearsals. When I had to sing a duet with a girl while looking into her eyes, I kept breaking out in laughter during the serious moments. I just wanted to die!

Sometimes I wonder if a 15 year old gay teen who lives in Danville today would really have a very different life than I did in 1964. That’s the time of life when most are leaving their childhood behind and feeling their bodies awaken for the first time. I was the outsider watching all my peers necking at the back of the bus, openly displaying their interest in each other. That was them, not me. Definitely not me. Even today I think most gay teens are robbed of the experience of coming of age in a supportive environment. How many parents sit their children down to tell them they will fall in love with another person some day, and whoever that person may be the parents will support them? The expectations are for one man and one woman together. I can say without a doubt that if you are gay, a commitment to the opposite sex would most likely be to commit to a lifetime of lies.

When I was about 15 years old I met a gay man who was about the age I am now. I affectionately referred to him as my gay grandfather. As I remember him now, I would say he was probably one of the most important people in my life back then. He prepared me for the life that lay ahead of me. He warned me of the prejudice and violence I would face for being proud of who I am. He taught me how to be street wise, how to defend myself against haters and the police. He treated me like a son or a grandson. But as we sat together having our innocent, informative conversations, we were both aware of what might happen if some ignorant person would make an unfounded accusation against him, accusing him of recruiting me or corrupting me. The truth is, he was a stand-in for what my family and my community should have been doing all along. It’s amazing that so many people would have vilified him when in actuality he saved my life!

In April, 1976, three years after I left Danville, the Commercial-News took a huge step when it published a series of six articles on homosexuality. The series was well researched, written by Staff Writer, Elaine Symanski. I was one of the people interviewed anonymously. What I was not prepared for was the outpouring of hostility and hatred toward gays that appeared on the opinion pages during that time. Some of the unpublished letters were so horrible it prompted the editor to publish a statement that for the first time in his career he actually threw a reader’s letter into the wastebasket. But he seemed more disgusted by an accusation that staff of the newspaper might be gay, than by the vicious hatred of gays expressed by readers. For decades the image that I carried of “my hometown” was the image that was painted by those opinion pieces and my personal experiences with physical violence and discrimination at every turn. Even my attempts to heal the emotional wounds were hampered by the fact that I had scars of physical violence that would never totally heal. Each morning as I got out of bed with pain, each time I had to refuse physical challenges because the ability to meet them was stolen from me by the physical manifestation of someone else’s hatred, each time I was taken back to the memory of those letters to the editor. From that experience I learned that words sometimes have more power than we assume. It’s like the case portrayed in the movie, “The Accused” with Jodie Foster. If you witness a rape and you cheer on the rapist you are participating in the rape. Willful ignorance and wearing prejudice as a badge of honor are signs of mental illness. That’s how I’ve always felt about my hometown and sometimes my country. I’ve always felt like a silent majority of Americans were quietly cheering the Fag bashers on. There was nothing in many of their public statements to dissuade me from the idea that they would prefer me dead to alive. It hasn’t been easy living in this country with the idea that I was not welcome in the place where I was born. I came back to Danville twice to tell the stories of my work in the LGBT movement. Each time after I left, the editorial pages would once again be filled with letters to the editor calling for me to burn in hell. What I found more disturbing than the letters, was the fact that the newspaper thought it was okay to publish them with my name as the recipient of their bigotry. And today some of the children and grandchildren of those self-righteous hateful people continue their attacks. And a huge number of the citizens of Danville remain silent, as they always have. The same as they do with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In 2003, I was invited by family and friends to participate in a debate about gay marriage on the hometown newspaper website. I did it with a lot of anxiety. There were many ghosts of my past that I had to face through that interaction. But this time I was stronger and wiser. What I learned was they could no longer touch me or hurt me. Now when they read my words here, if they do, some will probably respond in the same prejudiced context their family and friends did forty-four years ago when they were horrified that an article about a gay man would appear on the family page. They will tell me I should go somewhere else because they didn’t ask me for my opinion. They will exemplify the heterosexual privilege that has oppressed the LGBT community for two thousand years. They will quote their carefully chosen passages of scripture as they ignore one of the basic tenants of Christianity, to love your neighbor.

I was born in Danville, Illinois on January 20, 1949, on Harry Truman’s inauguration day. I have decades of experiences in my hometown, good and bad. I spent one third of my life in Danville. My hometown is under my skin and in my blood. In a very unique way I am still proud of my hometown in spite of the harassment I have endured. So proud that I am still invested in doing what I can to make it a better place.

I would hope Danville residents who want to hang onto the not so nice remnants of the past would wake up to the movement afoot. All of the Americans who have been seated at a separate table are coming to sit at the main table now. We no longer need permission. We are done letting others project upon us who they think we are because of their personal hatreds and fears. We will no longer allow them to relegate us to second class citizenship.

This is 2020. Please, Danville, come join the rest of the world. It’s the twenty-first century now.