Ron, in his own words: “I’m approaching this chronologically, starting with beginnings and coming out, moving on to challenges/successes, and then the questions about being gay and the gay community in NYC as I have experienced it.
Important background facts: I was born and educated to Ph.D. level in Australia, in a loving but religiously conservative family—Seventh-day Adventists. Since I was born in 1940, my coming to sexual awareness occurred far in advance of the gay movement, at a time when the subject was almost never mentioned. So when puberty struck around age 12-13, and my male friends started focusing their interests on girls, I quickly realized I was different, and feared I had something the matter with me and was the only such in the world. So when, at nearly 14, I was seduced by a counsellor 3 years older than me at a church camp, it was a good experience especially in the sense that he was able to give me much-needed information. I heard the word homosexuality for the first time, and learned what homosexuals did together.
Apart from a couple of brief exploratory experiences with a friend nothing much happened during my high school years, though I did take the opportunity to travel with my Dad to Brisbane, the big city, a few times, where I spent time at the state library while he was at church committee meetings, and read all I could about homosexuality. I found that the information then available was pretty depressing—it seemed to be limited to what psychiatrists like Havelock Ellis had written about patients who had come for help to overcome their sexual perversity. I found the details titillating, but the impact negative. I also took every opportunity to check out stories written on the walls of men’s washrooms—they had more information.
When I moved to Brisbane for University I had more freedom, and exploring, found where gays met for sex. Most of the participants seemed to be married men en route home to their unhappy marriages. I was fascinated but shy—I went there to watch, but being young and attractive, someone always seemed to unzip me. But I found that climax resulted in great guilt, so great that I was too embarrassed to recognize anyone I had been with if I saw him again. The result was that I had no gay friends or mentors, took girls out, but went cruising after leaving them. I found I had no interest in kissing a girl, and tried to avoid that; since I was active at church, the girls understood that I had no wish to go “further” with them. I prayed incessantly to be changed, but without any result, and became so desperate that I went to the counselling office at the university to tell them I wanted to be “normal”, and was given aversion therapy, which I found an excruciating experience that propelled me into a cruising situation after each session, and then further guilt. Realizing there was no solution there, I dropped out after six sessions. I sensed that if I took my “problem” to my parents I would only cause them sadness, for they would have no answer, and also, correctly, that this was not an issue I should talk to a pastor about.
Meanwhile I had become a well-known musician. I became organist at my home church at 13 and founded a successful church choir there at age 15. Between ages 13 and 16 I four times won 1st, 2nd, or 3rd prize for my age-group in competitions for young composers sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Each time a reporter and photographer from the local paper would come to interview me, though my mother always managed to get into the story that I was going to be an Adventist “singing evangelist.” (13 of my “Australian Songs” songs, sung by me, are available on YouTube.) I was delighted when I won scholarships to both the Conservatorium and the University, and greatly frustrated that I had to choose between them. So frustrated, in fact, that while I took the university scholarship, I also studied piano, organ, voice, and clarinet at the Conservatorium during my university years. When I arrived in Brisbane I was immediately asked to form a choir in the 500-member Central Adventist Church (that was a real success—I had good voices available and love working with choirs). I also sang in choirs at the university, including the Madrigal Society, and the director of the university choir invited me to become a paid member of the Anglican Cathedral choir, teaching me that I could earn much-needed money that way. I also became organist at weekday chapel services at the Presbyterian Seminary—more funds. I did Honors in History as an undergraduate, and then set out on a Ph.D. in both sociology and history. I thus became a historical sociologist. When that was done I won a Fullbright grant for post-doctoral study at Columbia University, New York, but chose to spend a year getting here, traveling overland as much as possible from Australia through Southeast Asia, around India, and then hitching a ride from Delhi through Pakistan, Iran, and the length of Turkey to Istanbul, before continuing up through what was then Communist Eastern Europe after a side-trip to Israel. I ran out of time in Scandinavia, and then flew to New York to begin the semester at Columbia U.
I arrived in NYC in September 1971, only two years into the gay movement there. I was still closeted, and in fact dated women after I arrived. I was incredibly lonely, except for the Adventist congregation on the Columbia campus made up mostly of grad students, which I embraced—but they did not initially know the real me, so my sense of loneliness continued.
I was supposed to stay in NYC for only two years, but when a paper I gave in a class caused a stir, a professor offered to pay my salary for two months if I would write a grant proposal to study tenant-landlord conflict through his institute. The result was a grant of $200,000—I would stay in New York, it seemed. The grant made me sought after academically, and I was hired on a tenure-bearing line to teach sociology at Hunter College, the City U of NY.
By this time I had been asking God to change my sexual desires for 15 years, with absolutely no change. It suddenly struck me that the prayer may not have been answered because God was perfectly happy with the way he had made me! That is, I had been praying for something that was not God’s will. This came as a transforming revelation—suddenly I was open to getting to know gay people, to love someone perhaps. Tremendous relief. Soon after I fell in love for the first time—both of us were inexperienced, and had no idea how to run a gay relationship, for that had not been part of the curriculum of growing up for either of us. To make matters worse, this was a long-distance relationship, for he was in medical school in Rochester. However, just to experience love was amazing, and somehow from it I understood more about love in general, including the love of God. When I was asked to speak at a service at my church group at Columbia U, I came out to them as part of the sermon. This did not phase that very liberated congregation—they elected me president of the congregation about a year later, a position I have held ever since. (It had the advantage of being an independent congregation. That could not have happened in a regular Adventist congregation.)
The next year I attended the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association for the first time. When I looked over the program, I discovered a session on homosexuality in the very first time-slot. What happened there appalled me: the organizer and chair of the session had set it up as an opportunity for him to attack the credibility of the new, gay-friendly research that had emerged in the wake of the Stone Wall Rebellion that had launched the gay movement. For example, he asked Laud Humphreys, an Episcopal priest, whose dissertation had just been published as The Tearoom Trade, which he had dedicated to his wife, whether he was not in fact gay. I realized immediately that this was unethical, and afterwards found another gay person there; together we put up notices around the hotel announcing that the “Sociologists Gay Caucus” was meeting in my room the next night. When my room overflowed so that we had to find a meeting room, I was elected president, a position I held for four years, during which time I fought to have a session on homosexuality made a regular event each year and worked on a task force examining discrimination against gays and lesbians in the profession. I had unexpectedly become an activist, and was proud of this.
During the Summer of 1976 the man who had hired me resigned as chair of my department at Hunter College, so that we had to elect his replacement in the Fall. I worked for the election of a Black radical to the post. However, after this I discovered that my gay activism was to cost me my job. I wrongly assumed that the new chair would also be supportive of other groups facing discrimination, and so, over a Sunday brunch with him celebrating his election, I told him about my activism. To my surprise, he did not say a word. However, he then made sure that I, still untenured, was not reappointed for the next year. I was later to discover that he was a closeted gay who apparently felt threatened by the presence of a colleague who was open about his sexuality. The issue was not clearly resolved against me until May, by which time it would normally have been very difficult to secure a new academic post for the new year beginning in September. But just at that time a position was advertised at Queens College, another college of the City University, which fitted my skills perfectly, and I was appointed with a promotion to Associate Professor. By 1983 I was a tenured Full Professor there. Remembering my need for a gay mentor while at university, I made a point of saying something when introducing myself to new classes that would allow gay students to realize that I too was gay and easy to approach.
Meanwhile, I had become a gay activist within the Adventist Church. I sorely wanted to meet gay Adventists, and so ran an ad in The Advocate. Dozens from all over the country, but none close to NYC, responded. This was one several ingredients that came together in the late 1970s and resulted in the formation of SDA Kinship International. I played an important role in shaping the organization, and was its Church Liaison for 18 years.
When involved in my Ph.D. program at the University of Queensland I had wanted to do my dissertation on Adventists, for the sociology of religion had been a revelation to me helping me to understand the dynamics of my church. My advisor had responded “do you want to get a job when you finish?”, which dissuaded me, but I vowed I would return to the topic. Once I was a tenured Full Professor there was nothing to stop me, and since the final promotion came just as I was publishing The Tenant Movement in New York, the timing was perfect. So I launched a study of global Adventism. The research took me to 59 countries over several years. As part of the research I took a close look at an Adventist-sponsored “ex-gay ministry” in the US, where the testimonies of changed orientation I had heard had seemed unbelievable. I interviewed 13 long-term participants in the program as well as the director, a former pastor who had been fired when caught in a “gay act” but who now claimed to be “cured” and was married with two young children. I discovered that 12 of the 13 participants had been sexually molested by the program director, and that no one was cured—the testimonies had all been given “in faith” that this was happening! (The lone counselee who had not been abused was much older than the others.) The interviews with the participants were some of the most traumatic I have ever experienced—lots of tears and anger. Though it obviously put my research in danger, I felt obliged to blow the whistle on the director, writing a letter to the church president and, to make sure that he did not stick it in his bottom drawer, sending copies to 29 other prominent Adventists. The director confessed and resigned, and the program was closed.
This did not seem to interfere with my research. Indeed, I was often told by interviewees that they were telling me things that were not told to church leaders because I could not come back and destroy their careers. However, in November 2013 I was, for the first time, invited to take part in a conference of people researching Adventism in various ways that was held at church headquarters so that leaders could choose to attend. I prepared a paper that I thought would be really helpful for them. The conference was due to begin on a Monday morning, but on the preceding Friday morning I received an email from the conference organizer disinviting me. It turned out that the president of the church had looked over the program the day before, and seeing my name, had demanded that I be removed from it. His reason was that as purportedly Adventism’s “best-known gay activist” I stood against the position of the church and so could not be allowed to speak at church headquarters without “creating the impression that the church was going soft on homosexuality.” The one act that had made me prominent as a gay activist was blowing the whistle on that abuser of young gays.
After a couple of less significant relationships, I met Scott, the love of my life, in 1988. I was 48, he 24. He was a fine musician—like me a pianist and organist, and a talented composer. He worked as an organist in churches, which gave him time to practice and write music. We had over 24 years together, and I loved him enormously. He came to church with me, where he played the organ. However, he developed psychological problems, which increased over time—he was bi-polar. His depression led him to take overdoses several times, but each time he changed his mind, told me, and we rushed to a hospital emergency room. However, in July 2012 he took a huge overdose at 3.00 a.m. and did not wake me, so that we found him dead next morning. This was the most shocking, saddest day of my life. I have since found Tyler, who has been an enormous comfort and source of joy. He is making me feel rejuvenated, young again. It is a shock to find myself with a man who was born when I was 50—the cultural differences between us are inevitably enormous, but we also share important things, and love one another. We are still in the early phases of our relationship. It seems that I am not one to be alone.
My parents had found themselves with both their children in North America, and eventually, in retirement, moved to Toronto to be near their grandchildren and also to me. When I took Scott there for the first time at the beginning of 1989, he made a strong positive impression on them. One morning after breakfast, Dad shepherded us all into the living room, and then made a little speech telling Scott how much they liked him, and welcoming him as a member of the family. He had obviously planned this with my Mother. That was one of the most heart-warming, emotional moments of my life. Coming from a pair of devout Seventh-day Adventists, this was truly remarkable. Love triumphed over dogma.
Having been very driven in traveling to do interviews for my book and articles, the writing became a larger task (too much data) and I had left less time for it. I have published a ton of papers, but the book needs writing. So in 2009 I retired in order to write, and that is what I am doing. I was appointed Professor Emeritus. I loved teaching, and miss it, but it is very satisfying to help a broader group of people to understand the world better through writing to a larger audience.
What does it mean to me to be gay? It means that I look at guys, not women, when I walk down the street; that my dreams and fantasies are about guys, and that I have looked among guys for my special companion. Many of my closest friends are women—indeed, because they know I am gay, this removes a barrier—we can be more relaxed with one another. Many gay men share an artistic spirit, which fits my deep love for classical music, my wish to perform. But there is also enormous diversity among gay males. Just as heterosexuals are very diverse, the same is true among us. Indeed, we enjoy expressing our individuality. Not every gay man loves classical music, or seeks a monogamous relationship, or is religious (though statistics show that gay men are on the average more religious than straight men in spite of the oppression that many of us have received at the hands of our churches and religious bodies. Somehow the spiritual side remains, the link to God, and that to me seems related to the fact that we are often artistic, or musicians, or actors.)
Because gays are so diverse, it is inevitable that the gay community in a huge city like NYC is also diverse. I do not feel the need to live in a gay ghetto like Chelsea, and I never go to bars or clubs. I have a friendship network, and have always chosen to spend most of my time with my partner. I am strongly committed to pursuing full civil rights and equality for all LGBTQ people. I have a strong sense of identity as a gay person, and a wish to help gay people. I have a 5-bedroom house in Queens, with a grand piano and an organ in the living room, and over the years Scott and I gathered other needy gay musicians to be part of our “family” here, where the rent charged fits their ability to pay. This is one important way in which I express my gay identity and help to create community.
What advice would I give to my younger self? To think of churches as human organizations, products of their social environments in some past time, slow to change and most certainly not right about everything. Also that society, Congress, the Supreme Court, lag similarly. When I was young churches really ignored the gay topic—my sense of my sexual orientation being a problem was created by a silent society and church—a silence that led me to put 2 + 2 together in a particular way. I needed to be told that it was natural and good to be gay, to be encouraged to bring gay friends to church, to be openly gay in my choirs and classes, to see examples of how to be a gay couple, to be much more accepting of the way God made me from the beginning.”