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January-February '98 - Gay Like Me

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Also see Gay & Prominent, Where the Girls Are and For More Information.


Some of us kill ourselves, but others (really most, I think) make it through just fine.

"I was gay from as far back as I can remember," Mitchell Adams '66, M.B.A. '69, told his St. Paul's Church congregation a few years ago. "My way of coping was to attempt to manage a great deception; to pretend that I was just like everyone else; to act like I was having a good time, when I was in fact very uncomfortable; to fake enthusiasm, when in fact there was great fear. I was in pain and I was confused."

At Harvard it grew worse. Mitchell began a course of psychotherapy, once a week with a psychiatrist, once a week in group, without interruption for seven years. Seven hundred sessions all told, give or take. "The single objective of all this therapy was to change my sexual orientation. To make me straight." He even tried electric shock to discourage the wrong kind of fantasies. (If all this sounds amazing, remember that even today there are people who believe he just didn't try hard enough.)

"The stresses at work on me were very, very powerful. These are the forces which have driven some people to despair, depression, alcoholism, to suicide. Some are never relieved of this pain. But by the grace of God I was," says Adams. Gradually, he came to accept himself, then to tell others, and--to his great relief--find that they accepted him, too.
Kevin Smith (left) and Mitchell Adams, at home in Dedham, Massachusetts, with their 1956 Cadillac, used only for Sunday trips to church. Photograph by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

In 1970, a year after graduating from the business school, he roomed with his friend Bill Weld '66, J.D. '70, though he didn't discuss his sexual orientation while they were roommates. Over time, he says, "it just became obvious, by osmosis," not least because Mitchell's partner of the last 18 years, Kevin Smith '76, was until recently chief of staff for Weld, who last year stepped down as governor of Massachusetts. (Smith is now senior vice president of Fidelity Investments.) Adams currently serves as Massachusetts Commissioner of Revenue.

"Initially, the discovery that others would accept me for what I was came very slowly, person by person," says Adams. "To my amazement, great relief, and delight, my friends remained my friends. For Kevin and me, the process of exploring the extent of acceptance by others was concluded in a rather dramatic fashion, you might say a crescendo, when our interview explaining how we had been living happily together for almost 15 years was published on the front page of the metro section of the Boston Globe."

Mitchell and Kevin live in Dedham. Kevin's mother lives with them. His father lived with them also, until he died. Mitchell is the godfather of three. "Our house," he told the congregation at St. Paul's, "is full of kids, infants, and golden retrievers."

Michael Wigglesworth would have been appalled--but that was 1653. "One of the greatest life mysteries for me," Adams says, "is, 'Why me?' Why am I so fortunate, when so many others are so much less fortunate than I? There isn't anything I want out of life that I haven't gotten already, except to become myself a better person, a more Christian person."

For many undergraduates today, being gay or lesbian is not that much different from being heterosexual. Flirtations, romances, broken hearts. In the 1960s, what little of this there was, was almost all hidden. But for many of us who were closeted then, the times have become remarkably more open.

My E-entry neighbor/pal Nat Butler came to Harvard from Exeter with 44 others. Having no role models, he never acted on his desires. "I knew I was gay but resisted it. I was excited by what I imagined was going on in the Lamont johns, but never participated."

(What was going on in the Lamont johns, I was a bit horrified to learn many years later, was going on in many cases with complete anonymity between stalls, under the partitions. Not because young gay men are by nature measurably more disgusting than young straight men, but because they were terrified of being discovered and so couldn't flirt and date and ultimately tryst in a more appealingly romantic way.)

"When I was three years old," Butler says, "I was given a silver martini shaker by my uncle William Shreve, of Shreve, Crump & Low. It was inscribed: Nathaniel Glover Butler, Exeter '64, Harvard '68. Well, I fulfilled all that--Exeter like my father, Harvard like my father (and both my grandfathers and one of my great-grandfathers), and then went into the navy as my father had done, and fought in a war in the South Pacific as my father had done, and got admitted to HBS as my father had done--and still I hadn't gotten his approval. So I just figured: screw it. I'm going to start doing what I want. The week I started the B-School in '73 was the week I started going to Sporters seven nights a week." Of our years at Winthrop House, Nat recalls that (inexplicably, to my mind) he did not pine for either me or my roommates. Instead, he pined for a football player in Leverett House, Ron Kram '68. If only...if only...

Unbeknownst to Nat until many years later, Ron was also gay--and had a crush on his roommate.

"It troubled me," Ron told me when I tracked him down, "so I went to the Harvard psychologist. He concluded that I should exercise more--if I exercised more, I would feel better. So I just kind of put it on hold. I had a serious relationship with a girl senior year. We even lived together at the tail end of law school, but I knew it wasn't quite right. I had to go through the steps to find out."

In 1979, Ron found himself in Oklahoma City on business. He had slept only with football players until then ("They're all married now--we were close emotionally, but it wasn't hard-core sex, just experimentation when everybody was really drunk"), and he ventured out to a disco, a desanctified church called the Free Spirit. Having no idea how these things worked, he got there at nine. No one gets to a gay bar at nine, even in Oklahoma City: Ron was the first one there. But he had a few drinks, said hello to a fellow named John Long (like Ron, a lawyer), and they have been together ever since--18 years. In 1993, when their first child was on the way via a birth mother (they've purposely not done a blood test to determine whose sperm swam faster), Ron came out to his family in a 50-page letter that somehow found its way to Oprah Winfrey. The following Monday, Ron and John were on the show. "I hesitated about doing the show," Ron says, "but John felt strongly about it."

For more recent graduates, the road to openness has led to remarkable places, but from a different starting point entirely. David Gillis '89 had similar misgivings about ABC's request to televise his wedding to Ed Finley. These two young San Francisco lawyers had been a couple for three years before Ed proposed. Their engagement lasted another year and a half. And how did they come to be on TV? "Basically, we tried to put a wedding announcement in a newspaper and were rejected," David explains. ABC heard about this through the journalists' grapevine and called, asking if they'd be willing to let the cameras roll. "The decision was difficult for both of us," says David. "It involved not only our feelings, but those of our church, our families, and our employers." ABC followed them around for two months filming everything they did, filming their families, their priests--everybody. The show, "For Better or For Worse: Same-Sex Marriage," aired on ABC's Turning Point on November 7, 1996.

"The reaction to the wedding was wonderful," says Gillis. "Ed's large, extended Sicilian family was supportive from the moment they heard about the engagement. My parents received only warm and supportive reactions. Our church got lots of positive feedback. We received literally hundreds of letters and e-mails, including one from Taiwan. The show had been aired on state television with Chinese subtitles."

David, who coxed the freshman crew and led tours for Crimson Key, credits Harvard with making his life easier. "I had a terrible time freshman year. But Master [William] Bossert of Lowell House and his wife, Mary Lee, made it explicit that Lowell House was to be a tolerant place where gay people could feel safe. They even had a special high-table dinner for people who wanted to discuss gay and lesbian issues. I was too afraid to attend, and I just watched from across the dining hall--I feel stupid about that now--but it gave me comfort anyway."

Not to mention that one of his Lowell House government advisers was Andrew Sullivan, M.P.A. '86, Ph.D. '90, who was coming out at the same time. "Andrew was quite a role model for me. His cover story in the New Republic--'Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage'--opened up possibilities for me in the way I view myself that eventually translated into the married life I lead today."

He did have a homophobic roommate for a time, but then again he also had a college boyfriend for about two years, until graduation. "Unfortunately for our relationship, my boyfriend was Navy ROTC at Harvard, via the program at MIT, and we had to be careful so that he didn't get thrown out of the program and lose his scholarship."

Had they held off until July 1 of this year, David and Ed could have had their commitment ceremony performed in Memorial Church.

Compared to when I was a freshman, when I was the only one in the whole class--the whole world--like me, things have gotten so much better for young gay and lesbian students at Harvard. "When I was a freshman," recalls John Finley IV, "there was a room in Mass Hall that became Xanadu most weekends. There, men and women, gays, bisexuals, and straights all lolled about with each other dancing, munching cookies, talking, holding each other, and falling asleep. In the spring, love interests drove the group apart, but for a time we were all happy and comfortable together. A nice memory."

But John, grandson of the late John H. Finley, former Master of Eliot House, came to Harvard a quarter century later than I did, and told his freshman adviser, John Marquand, straight off the bat that one of his goals at Harvard was to begin dating other gay men. "John [Marquand] was senior tutor of Dudley House, secretary to the Faculty, and general bureaucratic/social powerhouse, who himself was only just coming to terms with his own sexuality," says Finley. Soon, John and John became close friends. "John had a profound effect on my Harvard career, counseling me through various shoals and disasters. Since he died, his voice remains in my head, cautioning, cajoling, helping me to grow. Anyway, to an outsider, I think it's important to know that I had gay adults looking out for me. No, not having sex with me!"
Robert Mack, president and co-chair of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus. Photograph by Marnie Crawford Samuelson

The fear and shame are lifting relatively fast. Robert W. Mack '71, J.D. '74, reports that membership in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, of which he is president and co-chair, is up to 1,900 University alumni and alumnae, faculty, and staff members. Todd Jennings reports that only 2 percent of his classmates identified themselves as gay in their twentieth-reunion survey, but the number had jumped to 7 percent by the twenty-fifth.

Which raises this question: Why does everyone have to keep shouting about this stuff? It's private. Live and let live. Just don't shove it in my face.

The problems are threefold.

First, until you do shout about it for a decade or two, nothing changes. In order for these things to become ho-hum, who-cares, they have to be talked about ad nauseam. One of my favorite cartoons is of a little kid, who's apparently just made a show-stopping announcement, looking up at his father. "Your mother and I are gay, too," the father is saying. "Now go do your homework."

Second, if no one talks about it, and you never see it on TV, who is today's repressed, suicidal gay teenager supposed to model his life after? How is he supposed to see a future for himself?

Third, what am I supposed to do when someone on an airplane asks me if I'm married? Lie? Harvard men don't lie. I can just say, "No," which is technically true. But then what do I say if they ask about my ring, or if, not noticing it, ask whether I'd like to meet their daughter? If invited for dinner, must I come solo?

Happily, the world has changed so much it's rarely a problem. I tell the truth, I live my life, most people don't care.

Even if only 7 percent of Todd Jennings's class of '71 is gay or lesbian--and one has to assume there were still some folks unwilling to check that box--a much higher percentage has a stake in these issues. "I guess it is time for me to 'out' myself as a parent of a gay son!" one of Todd's classmates wrote him, relieved to have found a sympathetic ear. "David is a very wonderful child. I'm still shocked he is gay. He is almost 18 and told us only two years ago. There's no way I would have known if he hadn't told us. We went through some pretty tough times. I was very homophobic about the whole thing despite my liberal attitude in general. I went through, and am still going through, sorting out a lot of my feelings and stereotypes....It has been simply unbelievable. Funny, tragic, wonderful, and totally unexpected.

"We brought him up not to brook injustice. As much as his initial public exposure initially shocked and embarrassed me (I am pretty prominent here), I have always been so proud of his leadership and his assertiveness on this issue. I have learned that I am a great parent (and my wife as well) and that he is a wonderful citizen with much to contribute. I want him to go to Harvard, but it looks like MIT has him in their sway...for now."
The Reverend Peter Gomes at Sparks House, his residence in Cambridge. Photograph by Jim Harrison

If he does go to Harvard, he may encounter the estimable Reverend Peter Gomes, who spoke recently about Wigglesworth's torment--and how it contrasted with his own fears as a young boy: "Fortunately for me, the source of the anxiety was also the source of its greatest relief. It was my religion that ultimately helped me cope with all of this. My religion, whose primary statement is that we are created in God's image, God does not make mistakes, we are children of God. I therefore figured it out: 'OK, if God made me this way and I am in the image of God, this is who I am and there's nothing to be done about it and I better make the best of it as best I can.' And that was the beginning, I think, of the liberation for me, at least. No one else did it for me. No one else even discussed it with me because I didn't discuss it with anybody else. Whereas Wigglesworth was tormented by his religious consciousness in conflict with his sexuality, for me it was my religious consciousness which ultimately redeemed the sexuality issues and has provided, I think, the stability with which I live and work today."

In his recent bestseller, The Good Book, Gomes wrote, "[The Bible's authors] never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the Gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals...."

Gomes's views notwithstanding, Harvard opinion remains divided on the gay issue. In a letter to this magazine, Don Harting '78 wrote, "I was sickened, saddened and disgusted upon reading the poem ["Villanelle for a Lesbian Mom"] in your July-August [1996] issue. If you continue printing material that presents homosexuality in a favorable light, I will withdraw my support from your publication."

The day Colin Powell was at Harvard to give the Commencement address, in June of 1993, medical historian Walter Lear '43 was up on the dais celebrating his fiftieth reunion. In his hand: a pink balloon, a symbol of protest against the armed services' ban on homosexuals. "I didn't know the classmates to my left and right," he recalls, "but I do remember that one of them was very annoyed, while the other one was amused and supportive." After lunch, for the afternoon address, Lear was in the front row, with his balloon. When General Powell rose to speak, Lear rose and turned his back.

That afternoon, on the dais myself for my twenty-fifth reunion, I had no balloon and did not stand. Partly, this was out of respect for the general, but mostly because I am a chicken. One of my classmates from Radcliffe--and from elementary school!--a happily married mother of three, did rise, and stood in silent protest throughout the speech. I know, of course, that loads of fine people support what for lack of a better term is called gay rights; everyone from the president and the first lady on down. But there was something special in seeing this woman a few rows over, whom I had known all my life, quietly standing up for what she felt was right.

Where did she get the courage? And if I didn't have the guts to protest, how did Walter Lear, 25 years my senior, manage it? Was he nervous?

"I've been a political activist so long," he says, "doing it just seemed to be the right thing for me to do. It did test my commitment to stand up at the very front and make a scene. I didn't see any other pink balloons until way back with the younger classes."

And the other obvious question, while we have his ear: "What was gay life at Harvard like in 1943?"

"I didn't have any gay life," he says. "I don't remember my being gay as having been particularly difficult. What I do remember as difficult was trying to pass my courses." One of his few memories of the social scene at Dunster House was how impressed he was that classmate Norman Mailer '43 would have his girlfriend come and stay overnight for the weekend. Lear married at 23 and had children, because that's what everyone did, but soon concluded it simply couldn't work. He divorced at 30, and has been living with his partner, James Payne, for the past 44 years. Of his fiftieth, concludes this plucky old Harvard man: "The whole thing was a really good experience. I had never been to a class reunion before."

Still later that Commencement day--after a long day--having already shaken what must have been a thousand hands, President Neil L. Rudenstine was the featured speaker at the annual dinner of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus, held at the Faculty Club. It would have been enough merely to show up and say a few words, but he came for the full dinner, shook another couple of hundred hands, and spoke for half an hour. One cannot see Nathan Pusey in the same role. It was a different time.

A year earlier, in 1992, then dean of the Business School--the Business School--John MacArthur chose not only to fund the Harvard Business School Gay and Lesbian Audiotext Hotline, but to single out Jonathan Rotenberg, M.B.A. '92, its creator, in his commencement address.

I went back to speak at the business school a couple of years ago, at the joint invitation of the finance club and the HBS Gay and Lesbian Student Association. Feeling that one's sexual orientation shouldn't be an in-your-face sort of thing, I did 20 minutes on my abortive career as vice president of a once high-flying public company, comfortable in the knowledge that the questions would be about "that." All the questions were, and once asked, I had a good time telling. "What a good reception," I told one of the gay sponsors afterward. "I'm amazed that so many gay HBSers would feel comfortable enough to come to a thing like that." (The room was full.) "Most of the audience was straight," he told me. Even better! As reported by Business Week, Harvard ranked most gay-friendly in a 1995 Stanford-funded study of the nation's 22 leading business schools.

The nation--and Harvard--have come an almost unimaginably long way in the less than three decades since I skipped my own college graduation. The politically correct reason to skip it was that the shah of Iran was our Commencement speaker. I skipped it because I felt painfully out of place. How was I ever going to fit into a Kodak world?

Andrew Tobias '68, M.B.A. '72, is the author of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need and the recently published My Vast Fortune.
Also see Gay & Prominent, Where the Girls Are and For More Information.

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