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Off to My Freshman Year in College, 1954 — One of Several Queer Epiphanies
At age 5 I told anyone who asked, and lots who didn’t, “I want to be a doctor in the daytime and a preacher at night.”
Likely that was connected to the two people outside my family whom I most admired, our doctor who lived in the big house on the corner of our block, and our preacher who lived in the big house on the corner of the next block over. The preacher and my dad were classmates at college and in the vacant lots behind our house and in front of his they planted a Victory Garden together — popular in WW2. (Pearl Harbor upstaged my 5th birthday by 2 days.)
Our local Baptist Church was one of 52 in the county, and one of only 2 or 3 that had a pipe organ and played Bach preludes at the Sunday morning service. Revivals and their hymns were limited to Sunday night for the “Youth Service.” No one clapped or shouted at either.
In August 1954 I took the bus from Alabama to Waco, Texas, where I was classified as a “ministerial student” at Baylor, vouched for by my “license to preach,” issued as a preliminary to ordination. My license has never been revoked, and in some states still makes me eligible to perform weddings. Maybe I should hang out a shingle the next time I am in Texas or back home for a visit in Alabama.
I minored in Religion and in Greek. Greek was the only class where I encountered cheating. It was a requirement of ministerial students, and I had to cover my exams with my head and my elbows to prevent observation. “Jesus told us to share, dammit!” one spurned peeker protested.
One day in Greek I had an epiphany by which I realized that I had been programmed by my family to be “called to preach,” that I could hardly have chosen Christianity, or the Baptist Church, or my profession as a fully free choice (we Baptists made much about “free will”), that at age 8 when I was baptized I could not have known anything at all about most of the choices open to me.
It felt like a great weight had been lifted. I did not have to be a colleague to these cheaters. I was not bound forever to my “call” to give my life to “full-time Christian service.”
I felt I needed to do something big to mark the revelation, so I decided to break three major taboos. I bought a six-pack of beer and a long black cigar. I took them to the apartment that two friends shared with me in a “temporary building” (from old barracks that had survived WW1 and WW2), opened the beer, lit the cigar, and shouted to the top of my lungs words that I had never used, “Damn, shit, fuck, hell; damn, shit, fuck, hell; damn, shit, fuck, hell; damn, shit, fuck, hell; damn, shit, fuck, hell….”
My house mates, both older, rushed from their rooms to see what on earth was going on and found me gagging on the beer, choking on the cigar, and in a fit of crying. I became even more shocked when they asked if I minded if they finished the cigar and the beer.
Fortunately I was already an English major, a much safer place to be an atheist to the Baptist god that I was fleeing.
I finished my bachelors and masters and then taught English and Bible in prep schools for six years. I did not complete my adolescence until finally I was able to accept my sexuality. Initially I took that to require embracing myself as the criminal the church and society told me that I was. I fled to teach in slums of London so that I be a sexual human being. There if I were arrested, my family would be less likely to know or be scandalized.
Sexual encounters abounded and were safest because anonymous. The Wolfendon Report to decriminalize prostitution and homosexuality had already passed for straight prostitutes, and awaited one more year to be enacted for homosexuals — the year that I was in London, and cops were not arresting folks, just clearing the “cottages” saying “move along, girls, move along…..” Like the then Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey), I joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society (known also as “The Albany Trust” if you did not want to use the “H” word on your checks), and I joined the Rockingham Club, a pis-elegant private gay club in the theatre district just off Shaftsbury. I remember the taxidermy of pheasants in several glass cases.
I was not yet whole, nor had I any awareness of that possibility, nor my lack thereof. My sexuality was divorced from spirit and intellect.
I returned to the US and entered the doctoral program and taught at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
While in Tuscaloosa, I fell in love with a female. She knew I was gay before either of us knew I could have a heterosexual response. When we told our gay friends we were to be married, they held a wake for me, but sent the two of us a box of Valentine’s candy to wish us well. She and I were married for 5 years. The marriage did not fall apart because of sexuality. But it fell completely apart. We separated in January or February 1973 and The divorce was official by June 1973. I never thought of myself as heterosexual, only as a person who loved her.
On Labor Day weekend in 1973. I was in Atlanta for a ‘sex weekend’ at the Lucky Street YMCA. At about 1 or 2 in the morning, it was love at first sight when yet another man got off the elevator on the 6th floor. “Come to my room, 647, in 10 minutes, to give me time to tidy up,” he said. I knew he must be a vice-squad cop, but I went anyway. One of the songs he played the next morning as we woke up was Aretha’s “If ever I should leave you, it wouldn’t be winter …. summer …. spring …. or fall.” We have never left each other, and it‘s been 42 years since then.
We courted for 5 months and then used the Book of Common Prayer (1928 version, since there was no newer one then) to make the fearsome pledges. Only three were present, Ernest, myself, and the Holy Spirit.
My father said six months or so into our marriage, “I have always loved you. Since you will not be a parent, you cannot understand fatherhood. I remember seeing you in the hospital with your foot outside the blanket the way my foot is outside always, the way my father’s foot and his father’s foot….. I remember first hearing your mother’s laugh in your laugh, first seeing my walk in your walk.
“You have to forgive me. I cannot understand flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood relating to a black man as to an equal. I am a product of my generation. But before you met this man, something about you was always tentative, always incomplete. That’s not true now. I am still not ready to meet him, but tell him for me that I have to love him, because he gave my son back to me whole.”
I have already reported in Like the Dew how my father later accepted Ernest as his son.
I’m still a Baptist. The Episcopal Church is one of the few spaces safe for a gay Christian to be Baptist. I am still strong on individual choice. Looking back over 78 years, I rejoice that at age 8 I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I now understand Jesus to be the savior of absolutely everybody. My parents did indeed program me to have my understandings, just as God loved me even while I was in Mother’s womb. I remain an atheist to a God that would reject creation.
While I enjoyed my 44 years as a teacher, I now see that all of that too was the “full-time Christian service” to which I was called, as has been the work with Integrity (the organization of lbgtq Episcopalians that we founded), with General Convention (the legislature of the Episcopal Church), and with the Diocese of Newark.
I am enormously blessed.
When we are graduated from any level of education, the “commencement” is supposed to be a beginning, not an end. For high school graduates headed to college or directly to your careers, the best is yet to be. Hold great expectations. May you not be disappointed.