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July 12th, 2020

What Bigotry And Hate Did To So Many Hearts

This man’s story came across my Facebook page last month, and I’ve been meaning to write something here about it since but as you can tell by the dates on the posts here I’ve been a little absent. I blame the lockdown…it’s really screwing with my head…

Anyway…here’s a more recent Washington Post version…

Why this 90-year-old man decided to come out as gay during the pandemic

Kenneth Felts spent his entire life in the closet. But at 90 years old, he felt ready to come out.

Since the age of 12, when he first knew he was gay, Felts said, he had been living a double life, battling between dueling identities. There was Ken, his outward-facing straight self, and then there was his alter ego, whom he referred to internally as Larry, a gay man he spent nearly eight decades stifling.

It’s a common story among the before Stonewall generation. Myself, I straddle the divide. When Stonewall happened I was 14…too young to really appreciate it or even know much about it. At that age, had I looked at myself more carefully I’d have seen all the signs. But in 1969 gay people were a dirty secret not talking about in family newspapers or magazines or on TV. And you certainly didn’t tell 14 year old boys anything about homosexuals except that they were dangerous and to keep away. It wasn’t until I was 17, and crushing madly on a classmate, that I finally came out to myself.

But amid the pandemic and the isolation that ensued, Felts started writing about his life to pass the time.

While penning his memoir, Felts said, he “awakened many soul-searing memories of my early life.” Mostly, he wrote about his one true love, Phillip.

Here’s the part of his story that got to me. And it speaks to the pre/post Stonewall divide I have lived with all my life. I came out to myself at the same time I fell in love. But it was 1971 and you couldn’t just declare it to a guy you were crushing on, even if he was gay too. The gay rights movement was suddenly on full blast, but it would be decades before it reached down to the school kids having that first magical crush. In the meantime gay people were being more visible, and that meant gay kids living in unsafe parts of the country, or in homes too risky to even drop a single hairpin in, had to keep their closet doors even more tightly closed.

Despite only recently coming out as gay, Felts said, he’s been searching for Phillip since his divorce 40 years ago.

This was me, but I had no divorce. Love came to me as a revelation. I was like Jack in Titanic, I’d have told him he was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was twitterpated. It was wonderful. I never doubted afterward that there was nothing wrong with me, nothing wrong with being gay. Even so, it wasn’t so simple to just walk up and ask him for a date, let alone to the Prom. And before I could find a way to tell him, get us to some quiet private place were we could at least talk about it, my first crush suddenly moved away. I spent 35 years searching for him before I finally found him.

It was wonderful for about five years. And then it wasn’t. I won’t go into detail about why here, except to say as it turned out, we really weren’t all that compatible to start with. What anti-gay hatred and bigotry took away from my generation…and Felt’s before mine…wasn’t just the ability to have that first magical romance, but more critically the ability to date. That’s how you find out who is good for you, and who is not. Two people can both be good, decent, wonderful persons and still not quite right for specifically each other. Dating is how you find out. 

I found out 40 years later and it was devastating after all that time, all that searching, all that remembering, all those what-ifs. I wanted to reach out to Felt and scream Don’t Do It… But that wouldn’t be fair. Sometimes it probably works out for the best. Sometimes, maybe, you get the happy Disney ever after. But the risks are huge. I did it to myself not once, but twice.

Felt finally found out what happened to his first love…

One of the loving and wonderful people who has been reading my messages on my coming out and search for Phillip undertook to locate him for me. She spent many hours and finally had a report for me. I have summarized that report below.

Phillip Allen Jones was the love of my life. I have a very sad and lonely heart today. My first and greatest love has passed away. He lived a full and happy life I am told by his niece. His partner of many years passed just a few years ago and Phillip remained alone for the rest of his life. I feel I shared with him the best years of his youth and he certainly made mine memorable and I will always remember and appreciate that. I loved him in my heart so much over the years and now he is gone.

It is so terribly frustrating to be so close to and yet not reach my lost love and horribly painful to not be able to say good-by. But the whole world now knows what a loving man he was with me and to me while we were together. My heart has turned to stone and I need my tears to wash away my sorrow. Rest in Peace Phillip.

I feel for him. It’s almost not worth looking for that first love, or any of the other might have beens from back in the day. But I can see why gay people of my generation and before do it despite the risks. Something was taken from us when we were young, some deep and essential part of our humanity was cut out of our lives. So offhandedly. So thoughtlessly. So very righteously. So other people could make their stepping stones to heaven out of the broken pieces of our hearts. It is only natural that we try to reclaim it. All the vocalizing about politics and discrimination in jobs and security in the workplace and in our homes and on the streets and even the right to marry, flows like a bottomless sorrow from the one central fact of our struggle: we were not allowed to love.

Not even to imagine it. Others got the happily ever after. We got the gutter. Other kids got Prom Night, school dances, boy meets girl stories, love songs on the radio, in books and magazines. We got every filthy lie that could be imagined hurled at us, at our deepest most tender feelings of love and desire and hope, and taught to believe them. The part of our lives that makes everything worthwhile was reduced to dirty jokes and sneering obscenities, so they could point at us and call us broken. 

It’s only natural now, so many years after Stonewall, now that we can marry, now that we can be people, that we try to reclaim the parts of our lives we lost to that mindless hate. Even if it means getting cut even more deeply. I don’t think any of us can stop ourselves. We’ve won so many of the battles we never thought we’d live to see won. There is hope. But beneath it, for so many of our generation there is a bottomless sadness that never goes away. Never.

 

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