The Anatomy of My Passion

Preface: Most of you have recognized my passion in the form of essays against tobacco and the tobacco industry. My forty years of struggle against them is most certainly an important part of what drives my passion. In fighting tobacco, I have been exposed to the darkest side of greed and corporate malfeasance. They wrote the book! But below is the rest of my personal story.

The Anatomy of My Passion

A very common response to many things I write these days, is when readers point out that they do not exactly agree with everything I say, but admire my passion. In the current political climate, I find that to be neither complimentary nor indicative of critical thinking. As a matter of fact I find it symptomatic of a very disturbing trend toward acceptance of all ideas as equal. The 21st century escape to an imaginary world where everybody gets to be right, even when they’re wrong, even when you personally disagree. “Let us just agree to disagree!” “Everyone has their own opinion.” It’s all just pabulum designed to disarm real intellectual discourse.

I do not appreciate being lumped into a category with “passionate” racists, homophobes, xenophobes, anti-Semites and sexists in order to abandon their responsibility to facts, to enable their irrational fears or their inability to deal with reality. In America, I believe this dysfunction can be traced directly to our addiction to organized religion. In a culture where moral values are on a collision course with everyday life, faith has been perverted into a justification for truly inexcusable, perhaps immoral behavior. And the worst offenders hide behind God, hoping against hope, that their breaking of the eighth commandment, “thou shalt not lie,” will go unnoticed. So we waste time distracted in debate of the subjective concept of morality while our entire world implodes inside a moral vacuum.

I am inspired to provide a brief history of the experiences that have led to my particular passion. It began at Grace Methodist Church in Danville, Illinois in the late 1950s. This was back when I still believed what I had been instructed to believe, that the concept of religion and God were the foundation or representation of the goodness in all human beings. Then, one day I accidentally walked into a special meeting of the church elders, as they discussed how to keep “Negroes” out of the church. At the time I was a student at Collett Elementary School which had a very large African American population. So, motivated by racism, the elders of my church were discussing how to keep my friends (classmates) and their families from joining my church. At a young age when I looked up to such people as the ultimate role models, I found the hypocrisy and prejudice unforgivable! That was the moment I walked away from organized religion forever. That was the moment I learned that spirituality is a totally personal journey of discovery.

Fifty-two years ago, while painting a closet on the second floor in the home of my first husband Larry, I got my second big lesson in how life in the real world works. At that time Larry’s parents lived with him in a home he bought next door to my sister. Larry and I lived together on the second floor. On this particular day Larry’s father was arguing with his mother in their bedroom downstairs. His father was cheating with the wife of his best friend. Larry’s mother had just confronted him with that fact. He responded by forcefully pouring straight whiskey down her throat, an act I personally witnessed. I have always had a propensity to side with women in these kinds of disputes. But Larry’s mother, probably embarrassed, kept assuring me everything was OK. Larry’s father assured me that his wife was an alcoholic, something I knew to be untrue about her, but certain about him.

The alcohol he forced upon his wife was added to a medication she had taken for epilepsy. As the day wore on, I heard a pitiful kind of crying from the bedroom. It became obvious to me that Larry’s mother was in a serious life threatening situation. But even then, my repeated inquiries were met with dismissal from both Larry’s father and mother. When Larry arrived home from work, I was unable to hold back tears as I pleaded with him to take his mother to the hospital. After conferring with his father, he told me she was drunk and they would only laugh at him if he tried to admit her to the hospital. Coming from a family where drinking was not common, I was able to witness codependent, enabling behavior at its best. At the time I just didn’t know the words to fit the definitions.

Larry’s mom died in the middle of that night. The family, the county coroner and the doctor all conspired to hide the truth, each to cover their own asses. I was left alone with this knowledge that festered inside me. I struggled with the realization that the values I had embraced from my so called teachers and role models were not the values they themselves lived by. At the age of 19, my love and friendship with Larry’s mother turned into a burning desire to defend the truth at all costs.

In August of 1972, my friend Richard and I were arrested in the parking lot of a Gay Bar in Sansome Park, Texas, just outside Fort Worth where my sister lives. I was physically beaten, we were both verbally abused with homophobic epithets Texas style, and we spent the night in jail. On this night I was infused with a rage that would eventually grow to the point where I would come out of the closet two years later, to begin my life as an open advocate of Gay rights and equality. But this particular incident was much bigger than just a Gay issue. It was another crack in the illusion I had mistakenly embraced, that people in positions of power have integrity and deserve respect and trust. I was coming to the realization that perhaps they never had it in the first place, or that they may have obtained their position of power through their lack of integrity.

In 1974, I came out to the whole world as a proud Gay man. This act put a strain on my nine year relationship with Larry. I found a sympathetic ear from a new neighbor, Tucker, who had recently arrived from Washington, D.C. Unknown to me, Tucker had escaped from a religious cult, bringing with him their techniques for brainwashing. Tucker had deliberately collected the stories I confided in him, to create a wedge between Larry and myself. He soon moved into our apartment, into Larry’s bedroom, then began a systematic program of humiliation and aggressive assault on my sense of self. Over a period of a few months he was able to wear me down to a point where I had lost all faith in humanity. He had used my naive trust in other to completely destroy my ability to trust anyone! During the day, with masking tape, he would tape all my belongings to tables, tape drawers shut and tape hangers to the closet pole, instructing me that all these things now belonged to him and I was not to move them or touch them. He said everything that was mine would eventually be his, including Larry. When I attempted to inform Larry about what was being done to me, he was already primed by Tucker, to believe I was lying in order to break up their relationship. I was unable to emotionally absorb the concept of my imagined life partner, the man I had been intimate with for nine years, betraying my trust and believing the lies of a stranger!

At the age of 25, I learned that there are actually people out there in the world who consciously choose to be bad instead of good! People who will do anything to get what they want, even if it means hurting or killing others. But in this particular situation I learned without a doubt that I was not one of those people! Backed into a corner, stripped of all my dignity and self-esteem, I had the chance to inflict serious physical harm on Tucker. But instead of violence, at that crossroads where I was given a choice, I was overcome with a sense of humanity. I had the guts to walk away. The ultimate act of courage! Looking back now, I realize this was the moment I developed a strong sense of who I really am. After surviving this trial, I came out with a clear sense of what always lies on the other side of serious difficult struggles. Growth and wisdom!

Truly on my own for the first time in my life and armed with a new sense of self-determination, I made my way to Washington, D.C. I arrived with only ten dollars in my pocket, but an understanding that failure was not an option. In D.C. I embraced life’s challenges with open arms. I had come to learn about the bigger world I always knew existed beyond the cocoon I had recently shed. I was a newly morphed caterpillar, spreading my colorful wings, celebrating what I knew had been inevitable all along. Thank God I was young, a little bit naive and feeling invincible, as twenty-somethings do.

By the time I arrived in the Capital of Western Civilization I had been impregnated by the trials of my short but eventful life. I lived with a liberating sense of having nothing left to lose. The neoclassical and gothic architecture would have intimidated the boy from Central Illinois, who had recently died when the caterpillar sprouted wings. But now I was energized by the magnitude of life in a world class city. Intuitively, I understood that being there was no accident. I had been lured there by the guardian angels who watch over those who are able to pick themselves up in the dark pit of despair, making peace with life. Like my guardians, I had wings! I too could fly! To some my actions seemed courageous, to others foolhardy. But in my own heart I knew I was simply acting out a lust to live, drawn from a desire to waste no more time.

It wasn’t long before the city infected me with its fusion of diverse cultures. The sights, resonance, fragrance, flavor and touch of disparate lands aroused my senses in ways infeasible in the heartland of America. This gift of new life came wrapped with dangers I was never required to consider in my protective cocoon. So I unwrapped it carefully, paying attention like a bride who wants to save the paper and ribbon for another day.

I had chosen DC as much as it had chosen me. My fascination with law and politics had not ended with my decision to stop pursuing a career in either. I understood that both were essential components of everyone’s everyday lives. The little I had learned in a prelaw curriculum had prepared me for my layman’s journey of discovery at ground zero. With the trust and excitement of an innocent child on summer vacation, I closed my eyes, held my nose and jumped into the water.

I had the great fortune to spend the first winter in the basement apartment of Frank Kameny, a Gay activist known as the father of the Washington, DC Gay movement. I got a job at Kramer Books on Connecticut Avenue in the heart of Dupont Circle, in a neighborhood known as Embassy Row. From that vantage point, the entire world was at my fingertips.

Washington provided all the education I desired, plus more. The last traces of the naive boy from Central Illinois would eventually be replaced with a street wise city dweller. Presidential motorcades would become commonplace. Just weeks after my arrival in the city, Orlando Letelier was assassinated with a car bomb just a few blocks from Dupont Circle. In the spring of the following year I had to negotiate a way for my friend Woody Lee to get out of his hotel, behind police lines surrounding the Washington chapter of B'nai B'rith, which was under hostage siege by a group of Hanafi Muslims. A few years later, from the window of my condo, I would witness the shooting death of a man on 17th Street near Massachusetts Avenue. His body would disappear with no public record of his death or the shooting. The odd thing was, I was never afraid. Just curious and always hungry for more information and understanding. I had even resorted to chasing muggers in my neighborhood. Probably not a good idea. But I received a commendation from the Justice Department for one successful apprehension.

If I had to name the one person responsible for opening Pandora’s box, it would be my bookstore coworker Carlo. Carlo is the one responsible for deliberately stoking my intrinsic propensity of asking absolutely forbidden questions, of always crossing every line drawn in the sand. At the end of this dangerous road, the answers leave you stunned, transformed and never able to go back! Especially for a boy from Central Illinois, or anyone else who had bought into the illusion of the American Dream, only to watch it destroyed by irrefutable facts.

In my final years in Washington, I found myself surrounded by many members of the Democratic National Committee, during the Carter Administration. I was sometimes privy to breakfast conversations of White House Lawyers about current international events. I had learned to eat, drink and breathe politics. But I also understood the emotional toll of too much information. I sometimes craved the simple days inside the protective barrier of my cocoon.

When I moved to San Francisco with my partner Rob in 1982, it was partially an attempt to get as far away as possible from politics and especially Ronald Reagan. But awareness is not something you can stuff back into a box, putting it out of sight in the attic to ignore. My connections with DC friends, my history with the city still kept me connected to the bigger world. Then the AIDS epidemic put me squarely in the middle of the awareness of our tragic inhumane American health care system. I found myself fighting for the lives of people I loved, in a battle against the clearly defined enemies of greed, profit and religious inspired intolerance.

But on the bigger stage, the Iran Contra scandal was the defining moment that exposed the dangerous collision course we were all on. My friends from the Carter days in the White House were very explicit in their chronicle of the darkness that had descended upon the Capital. That was the biggest example of “the powerful” blatantly disregarding rule of law and the constitution. Watching the Reagan administration dismantle regulations designed to protect the public from the abusive power of greedy corporate interests was absolutely horrifying for those of us who had seen the alternative from the inside.

In 1990, three things happened to forever seal my fate as a truth teller. First, I was the victim of physical violence, perpetrated by someone I thought was my friend. Once again vulnerable, my wings were broken. Stripped of my sense of self, I was entrapped, abused and arrested by a homophobic East Bay police officer who told me that Faggots needed to stay on the other side of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Then the sister of one of my dearest and best friends was the victim of a car bombing in Oakland.

The bombing and subsequent “false arrest” of Judi Bari was the last straw. Already betrayed by an officer of the law myself, just a few weeks before, I was back in that pit of despair. When Judi’s sister Martha arrived, I became paranoid that my phone conversations were being taped by the FBI. The fact that an innocent friend was being held under house arrest in her hospital bed only added to my paranoia. What I witnessed was the unveiling of the web of conspiracy that connects politics, commerce and justice. The veil had been completely lifted. Each morning I knelt before the toilet until I had heaved up the last bits of illusions and denial. Then I left the country for a good part of the next five years, continuing to travel for the next ten.

I witnessed the reunification of Germany. I listened to oral histories of widows who survived Hitler’s reign of power. I made friends with Eastern Europeans, taking in their stories of living entire lives under oppressive Soviet rule. I experienced first hand, the repressive regime of Kenya’s dictator Daniel arap Moi. I lived under the same roof with an international smuggler. In spite of what I learned about corruption and the dark side of human nature in the rest of the world, I was always touched by the sense of hope that was built upon the positive perceptions others had of my home, America.

So after a decade of George W Bush, and now more than three years of Trump, watching the country and culture of my birth descend into periods of unbridled greed and arrogant unregulated corporatism, this is what I know. The spirit that used to be a beacon for the rest of the world is not dead, it’s in a coma! As a nation we have been brainwashed by the bad guys! Our sense of self has collectively been destroyed, replaced by a false sense of helplessness. We have lost our faith in humanity and our trust in each other, because we falsely accept their illusion of victory. The driving force behind it all is the cult of materialism and consumerism!

At this point, I am convinced that we as individuals are totally responsible for our present plight! As multitudes of life forms suffocated in the Gulf of Mexico, as some species perhaps disappear forever, we disconnect the link to the car keys in our pockets. It is all happening because of our inaction, our inability or unwillingness to sacrifice, our stubborn reluctance to change. The masters of coercive persuasion have taken everything that has been precious to us, convincing us that those things now belong to them exclusively. They have rewritten history, redefined common words in the dictionary and imprisoned God, now pretending he speaks for them. The real sin is not that others have poisoned the air, the water, the food, the soil, the oceans, the forests and the wildlife. The real sin is that we have let them do it. The real sin is that each and every one of us pulls an excuse out of our pocket and says, “well, it won’t hurt if I just hang on to this one destructive habit a little longer!” As everything crumbles around us, we all wear insincere smiles that reflect the indifference of a thousand Moonies at a mass wedding, hoping the absurdity of our circumstances will just melt away in our cultish denial!