Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Growing old gay

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I started living openly gay in 1987. I lived in a house in Laketown and I moved my lover in with me and my sons. Many in the gay community seemed unimpressed by my story. I don’t understand that. Maybe it’s because they were accustomed to such things, and I was in my late 30s and used to a straight life. Maybe they thought, “Well, what did she expect?” To me it was a shock. The following things happened: My children suffered taunting and teasing. It seemed the neighbors waged a war against us by constant harassment. Someone reported us to the city for trumped-up violations like sticks in our yard, overturned trash not picked up quickly enough and so on. I got letters from the city. Nighttime phone calls started. I know there were other, quieter, gays in Laketown who appeared unbothered. I eventually sold the house at a big loss and left. Whatever the neighbors did to us, there was no law against wanting a queer out of your neighborhood. People who didn’t even know me hated me. I realized with a new clarity that we were alone.

Then my ex-husband got a lawyer and tried to take my sons away from me. We finally split the boys up, one lived with him and the other with me. That was a horrible mistake. Even if he had taken both, it would have been better. First, they no longer had two parents and then, they no longer had each other. They suffered for it.

Eventually the relationship that cost me so much ended. It was a lonely, painful time, much worse than ending my marriage. First, all my friends were the same as her friends and they backed away because they didn’t want to take sides. Second, I couldn’t talk about my troubles at work because, at that time, they didn’t know I was gay. Third, when I tried to make new friends with other lesbians, there was confusion about the type of friend I was looking for. For example, I asked a woman to go to the movies or to lunch with me and she often thought it was a date. Too shy to undo the mistake, I backed away. In my old life as a straight woman this sort of thing never happened. So because of my old friends abandoning me, no one to talk to at work and awkward problems making new friends, there was no one to listen to the pain and loneliness I felt. I learned that lesbian breakups were worse than any other kind.

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Martha Miller, left, and her wife, Ann Steiner, dancing at Clique, a bar at411 E. Washington in Springfield, where Smokey’s Den had been located.

From those early days, there were two deaths that stand out in my mind. One was in April 1987. A man named Greg Young, a drag queen known as Natalie Nichols, who performed all over central Illinois, especially in Springfield, was killed. When the State Journal-Register wrote the article about the homicide, it reported the women’s clothes in his closet, and included his two poodles and his job at Bettie’s Wig Shop. We wondered if they were necessary details? He’d been strangled and small fires were set in his apartment. One night in Smokey’s Den, a popular gay bar, to the tune of Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends are For,” we lined up and put what money we could in a basket. It was to help his family with expenses. The image of people snaking in and out of the tables and the meaning of the song sticks in my mind even today.

In July 1988, more than a year later, Michael Alexander was arrested. He immediately claimed that he and Young began fighting after Young made sexual advances toward him – still a standard excuse for killing a queer. Alexander, who judge Simon Friedman determined was also homosexual, eventually received a 25-year sentence for murder and arson.

The other death was a homicide in October 1975. Ray Hubert, a man who lived on West Madison, had a get-together. After the other guests left, the last one got out a hunting knife. Hubert was alone in the house except for his roommate, who was in his bedroom. The killer chased his screaming victim around the place, stabbing him over and over until he was dead. An autopsy measured 57 gashes. When “Smokey” – Mary Lou Schneider, owner of Smokey’s Den – told the story, she started with, “There was blood everywhere.” The dead man’s roommate heard all of this. He called the police as soon as he felt safe enough to leave his room.

Martin Gutschenritter, the Sangamon County sheriff, arrested Richard Sims. A picture appeared in the State Journal-Register, with Gutschenritter standing next to the suspect, Sims, who had a blanket wrapped around himself. Evidently, he’d left the house without his bloody pants. His wallet with his driver’s license and his keys were found at the scene. His car was parked out front. Finally, in July 1976, Sims was on trial. After the testimony of a pathologist, Hubert’s roommate, and others who’d seen Hubert and Sims together, and after several items of convincing physical evidence including a hunting knife, the assistant state’s attorney rested his case. Many of us wondered where the money came from for Sims to hire an expert defense attorney, who quickly made a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal since all the evidence was circumstantial and the presence of the defendant and his opportunity were not enough. Most people thought it was just another crazy motion and the trial would go on. It didn’t. The next day Judge Simon Friedman directed the jury to find Sims not guilty, and he walked out of the courtroom a free man. Sims harassed and threatened the roommate until he was forced to leave Illinois. The community, especially Smokey, collected money to help him.

When I wrote the book Tales from the Levee, a creative nonfiction look at gay life in Springfield from 1965 to 1975, published in October 2005, I put it together from interviews with bar owners, drag queens and anyone who had a story about those days. One of the themes of that book was the way the community held together. No matter what, they helped each other. However, as gay life became more acceptable, laws were passed – laws that we fought hard for – so we didn’t need each other and didn’t help each other as much.

The woman I am married to today and I bought a house together in 1994. The neighbors tolerated us and eventually we became friends. We lived near the fairgrounds, and in the summer, during the State Fair the neighbors parked cars in their yards. Standing out there in the summer heat, we got to know them and they us. It’s hard to explain to young people today what simply getting the right to keep our jobs and buy a house was like. Over the years, I saw people lose their jobs for being openly gay, and, of course, I’d already lost my house and children by then.

My introduction to AIDS came from People Magazine. One week in 1988 I found an article about a man who’d been in the hospital in New York City, and when they’d done all they could for him, they released him with a prescription for painkillers; he had no insurance and no money. The piece of paper was useless. He had been living on the streets because of his inability to work anymore. No homeless shelter would take him in. His partner had died long ago. He walked to the steps of their old apartment and sat there, screaming in pain all night until he died. All I could do that day was cry.

During this time, in the 1990s, friends and the people we loved were dying. AIDS brought us together. It took a long time and tremendous effort to get anything done. Gays were blamed for this disease that was killing indiscriminately. Locally, the SARA Center (which is still in existence and has expanded) became a support system for people living with AIDS. I put together a memoir-writing class and the SARA Center provided a meeting place for several weeks. What was in my heart was that so much, so many stories, were lost with all the deaths. I thought recording some of the people’s lives would help them as well as us. In 2004, after a long battle with the opposition, the first public monument in Springfield was funded. The labyrinth, completed in 2019, is at Lincoln Park here in Springfield. It has victims’ names as well as contributors on bricks that surround an artistic symbol. I bought one for the man who screamed all night.

In 2003, several of us went to a City Council meeting called by the mayor. They met to vote on expanding human rights, including housing and jobs, for gays in Springfield. This was during Karen Hasara’s final days as mayor. A few years before, in a meeting arranged by the leaders of the Springfield gay community, when she was asked about equal human rights for gays, she said, “I don’t imagine that you are the people who voted for me.”

That night, in 2003, at the City Council meeting, I sat there and listened to people who’d come to speak about why the council should vote no. One group that surprised me were some local Black ministers. It did something to me inside to listen to all those people. The City Council voted yes. We got our rights. But it was hard to hear people, who seemed nice in every other way, say the things they did. Today those rights seem like rights everyone should have (and back then everyone did have – except us).

At first gay marriage sounded strange to me. I didn’t really want to get married. I’d been married and didn’t care much for it. I couldn’t see the advantages. (Today I know there are many.) But the community came together and started working on it. Channel 20 was looking for a gay couple to interview at their house. No one would volunteer. My partner didn’t want to, but I thought it would help our cause and I convinced her – I think there were some tears involved. I hated the way Channel 20 did the intro to the segment. Others in the community have told me they still remember the embarrassing lead, “They say they’re in love and want to get married.” I thought they made it seem funny that we should want such a basic right. At the time Hawaii had gained marriage equality. One of the interviewers asked my partner if we would go to Hawaii to get married, and she said, “I would rather marry her here.” They didn’t use that line in the segment, but suddenly I wanted to marry her. The next day at work, my coworkers having seen the interview, no one spoke to me. At my partner’s state job, they practically threw her a party. Then in June 2013, I came home from work, and my partner ran to me and proposed. Gay marriage had finally passed in Illinois. We went to Niagara Falls for our honeymoon.

click to enlarge Growing old gay

Ann and Martha on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls in 2013.

Following that, came this change. I was teaching Freshman English and young people, my students, didn’t really think much about gays, and didn’t see a reason to protect them. The gay students in my classes, except for a few, were quiet about their sexual orientation. But there were gay organizations on some campuses. There were “safe rooms” at University of Illinois Springfield and other universities. Bigotry still existed, but it was subtler. The truth is, most people didn’t think about us anymore. Like we’d been saying all along, gays were just like others. Gradually things seemed to settle down.

Then in June 2016 a man walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people, wounding 53 more. Gays in the Springfield community came together with a demonstration at the Phoenix Center. I think the older of us understood. A group of writers put together an anthology called Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from the Gay Bars. I contributed a story that was a little like those from Tales from the Levee, only modernized. The purpose of the book was to explain how important gay bars had been to our community and needed to be again. A fence was put up around Pulse and security was increased for a while around Pride parades, other bars, and LGBT events.

For as long as I can remember, transgender men and women have quietly been part of our community. As states make new laws about their rights, they’ve come to the forefront. It seems these days, bigots and trolls are everywhere. I thought we’d already fought the battle with misguided church and faith groups. But bigotry seems to rule thinking today. Books are banned and women’s biological rights have been taken away. And while transgendered people are more visible – they’ve always been there if one looked – they are more hated than ever.

In a recent incident involving two transgendered females in the women’s dressing room at the YMCA, a girl reported her encounter with them and made up some accusations that resulted in a lot of publicity.

 On July 13, across the street from the Kerasotes branch of the Y on Springfield’s west side, where the alleged event occurred, an outdoor news conference hosted by the Freedom Caucus (seven conservative Republican members of the Democrat-controlled Illinois House) to show support of the lying girl, a busload of 300 raucous people showed up shouting down members of the media as they tried to ask questions of the speakers who did not want their inflammatory stories disputed. Among other slurs were “pedophile” and “demons.” The amount of hate and the number of haters for the few transgendered people and their supporters who were there was terrifying.

Here I am in my 70s and I wonder if it will ever end.

Throughout the years there have been organizations like SALO (Springfield Area Lesbian Outreach), GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Association of Decatur), both now gone, and currently Brothers and Sisters (a weekly social dinner gathering), CORAL (Coalition of Rainbow Alliances, currently a huge group) and the Fifth Street Renaissance, all led by responsible men and women who have the courage to step forward. As far back as 2006 the first CORAL float was in the State Fair Parade and some people on the streets didn’t know what to think. It won the Governor’s Prize that year and for several years thereafter. It was fun and festive and parade-watchers soon forgot about bigotry. All it took was some members of the community to be visible, to stand up to the ignorance. These days the Phoenix Center has programs for gays and meetings for LGBT and transgendered young people and adults. These programs are educational and supportive as well as social. They are well attended. Phoenix provides something that is needed to help us to connect.

I believe if I started naming names of leaders in the Springfield area, there’d be nowhere to stop. But from 1996 to 2008, a local activist, Buff Carmichael and his husband put out a monthly paper called The Prairie Flame. These were the days before the internet and this paper became a way to communicate, among other things, current fights for social justice. Buff helped me with space for a funny column “Martha [Lesbian] Living” that I’m pretty sure helped me sell books. I met a writer at a conference in Michigan who told me she used to read my column when she was a student at Illinois State University.

Buff Carmichael came to Springfield in the early 90s and over the years became a pillar of our community and a powerful force. Until his death in 2021, he did everything that was needed to be done, and he was always involved in social activism and politics. My wife and I, and probably others, never voted until we found out which candidate Carmichael supported. Never afraid of being openly gay, at first Carmichael went to Springfield leaders to fight for policy changes, and later they were coming to him.

Living a life in an unpredictable, sometimes hostile, environment is different from most people, who can just make assumptions about the way others see them. I’m always glad to find a friend, and disappointed (sometimes afraid) to find enemies. Truth is, these days most people don’t care about me one way or the other. And in all this mess, I’ve made some good friends and had some wonderful times. Over the years there have been parties, dinners and dances. Nobody celebrates Halloween like gays. One thing I treasure is holding my wife close to me and dancing at the annual Ritz celebration. We’ve been together for 30 years. At some point I realized I had a wife and friend that I could grow old with, and I have. After all these years, life seems easier; I think I know what to expect if it doesn’t involve busloads of haters.

At the end of Tales from the Levee I write about the roommate of the murdered man, Ray Hubert, who tells a story about a farmer in Macoupin County. Many years ago, when the prices for his regular crop dropped, he planted sunflowers. At sunrise, when Casey (a central character in the book) is driving home from St. Louis after putting the roommate – who was afraid to stay in Illinois because Richard Sims stalked him – on a plane, she watches “the sky turning gray and the black earth and fields swollen with crops on the misty prairie, and she tries to imagine 80 acres of sunflowers right in the middle of it all.”

I love my home. When I leave, I am always happy to return to these flatlands, to the beautiful sunsets and the smell of the black earth. I don’t think of gays as sunflowers; it’s an analogy. But here we are, different, living right in the middle of all the “normal” crops.

Martha Miller was born in St. John’s Hospital and has lived in Springfield most of her life. When she was in her 30s she started publishing reviews and short stories. For years she wrote a column for the Prairie Flame called “Martha [Lesbian] Living,” a funny take on that other Martha, the domestic goddess who topped her by ending up in prison. In 1989, she started collecting stories for her book, Tales from the Levee. It was published in 1995 by Harrington Press. The book is only available in ebook all these years later. Her ninth book is coming out June 1. A retired English instructor, she lives in Springfield with her wife, two unruly dogs and two cats.

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