Bill, Caretaker, Cleveland, Ohio

photo by Kevin Truong
photo by Kevin Truong
Bill, in his own words:“It was a typical, mystical day living through Cleveland’s weather in late April: a morning of heavy rain, some of it slanted horizontally, and raging winds followed by the most beautiful afternoon of sun and colorful displays of azalea, pansies and Spring buds on trees of all different varieties. Working with a personal trainer, I walked outside and worked inside on several machines that tested my limits, as well as a half circle of wood which challenged my balance ability as I moved my feet from side to side and front to back. I needed a shoulder to lean on, and it was there. Afterwards, I swam laps in a pool bathed in sunlight and got warm in the hot tub. Then I returned to my apartment, to walk again — this time with my dog Oliver, my constant companion who I believe keeps me alive with his need to be walked several times a day. Of course, the rain later resumed.

I was exhilarated! I’m so happy to finally have achieved regular exercise workouts after several years of placing that goal at or near the top of my to-do list, only to find excuse after excuse for avoiding such discipline. But it only took place because someone else enabled me — a nurse that oversees the health of caretakers for residents of the senior nursing home community where my wife of 53 years, Susan, has been living for two years with combined dementia and mobility limitations brought about by Parkinson’s Disease. I told the nurse of my need and failure to act, and she immediately called the trainer and told him to call me and get started. That worked.

Susan’s Parkinson’s was diagnosed more than a decade ago, and I became her caretaker. We moved from our home community in D.C. for nearly 40 years to Cleveland, first to a home and then an apartment. I now live alone for the first time in my life. The changes that have taken place over these last years was very painful, but gradually a new life in me emerged: I recognized that I was gay. As I began what was for me a crucial quest to find companionship I soon discovered that my only desire for connection was with other men. I had not been a closeted gay man during all those years before. I had a wonderful life growing up in rural Maryland, in the 1940s and 1950s, thoroughly involved in all sorts of school activities with lots of friends. At Syracuse University it was the same story. I met my wife at the student newspaper, we got married, and I had the most happy experience of my life — the one achievement that will matter most on my deathbed — being able to live with the three sons we raised. And they still talk and argue with each other and myself, another prime goal of my life. My career in newspapers for more than 20 years never felt like work; I enjoyed my life fully and I had only one partner, my Susan.

My psychiatrist describes my experience as that of a latent homosexual, terminology first proposed by Sigmund Freud, as an erotic inclination toward members of the same sex that is not consciously experienced or expressed in overt action. Some gay activists today dismiss such a notion as hogwash, believing that there was real conscious knowledge that I just repressed. I can only speak for my true self today, and I know Freud’s idea reflects the reality of my two lives — the very happy life as a man married to a woman and my happy life today as an openly, proud gay man with many male friends in the diverse Cleveland communities. I saw an ad in the latest New York Times Book Review for a new book by Felicia Drury Kliment, “The Subconscious.” The ad reads: “Your subconscious is like a compass, always pointing toward your ideal direction…The trick is knowing how to read it.” For several years now I have been gradually reading the compass points, and I can truly recognize in hindsight the men in my past that were attractive to me, the art I appreciated (male nudity such as Michelangelo’s David in Florence, who I visited for an hour, walking around him and sitting on benches, with Susan in her wheelchair near by), the few opportunities I had for the stunning freedom of nude sunbathing and swimming, the magazines I read. My conscious brain was not able to connect the dots and turn on a lightbulb that showed I was gay.

As a result, even though I lived through the 1960s gay revolution as a citizen of Manhattan, and then lived in the Washington, D.C. area that is now a gay mecca, I was not part of those scenes and never suffered the pain and sorrow of being shamed, hated or beaten. The freedom I enjoy today as a gay man was made possible by the sacrifices of so many who exhibited courage after Stonewall, the AIDS plague and the battle today for equal treatment under law. It’s been so easy for me and believe me, I know that in my soul every day rests the nagging question about why was I exempt from the bullying, the hatred, the exclusion. I purchased and wore an ACT-UP shirt, but why not more?

Coming out for me just emerged as I found companionship, love and support among many men hungry for the same. I never had to explain anything to my sons — my oldest son just told me that he and his brothers knew I was gay and they’ve continued to demonstrate love and support for me with their wives and my five grandchildren. I met the most important men in my life through massage exchanges. I’m not a licensed massage therapist but I’ve learned much from them — the simplicity of gentle touch, kind attention to feelings, thorough pressure on aching muscles, sweet hugs (they all had such training and have been licensed). I also enrolled in a Body Electric introductory massage training program and hope to attend more. Right now, I’m concentrated on the coming summer as a volunteer for the 2014 world Gay Games to be held in Cleveland in August, and after that hiking more than 100 miles in Spain for a month with my closest friend Gary on the historic Camino de Santiago — a pilgrimage trek walked by thousands over many centuries. Now that will be a physical and emotional challenge and I’m anxious to prove to myself that it is a feat I can accomplish (again, with support, leaning on the shoulders of Gary, who I’ve been dating regularly for nearly three years).

Even though Cleveland is hosting the Gay Games it is not a gay mecca. There are not a lot of hot nightclubs and shows that appeal to a gay audience. But there is so much vitality here in the world of art and culture, great music of all kinds, important museums and several perennially losing major league sports franchises (I love baseball, especially, and it is difficult to find other gay men interested in sports). There also are dozens of gay community groups, from book clubs, Yahoo/Facebook/Meetup groups and a fine gay men’s chorus as well as naturists groups, naked swimming parties and gay married men discussion groups. Gay men live all over the city and it would be easy to find an event of interest 365 days of the year. I really love this Rust Belt city with its still-active steel mill right next to downtown, a thriving legitimate and independent theatre scene, a resurgent downtown soon to house a major supermarket, a growing tech community, so many ethnic restaurants and neighborhoods, great beer and beckoning train whistles in the night.

I was born in 1936 when life expectancy for men in the U.S. was in the 60s. I’m now 77, and I’m happy to greet each new day with only one expectation: that something will happen that day that wasn’t expected or planned. Given my life to date, I find it difficult to offer advice today to my younger self of the 1940s and 1950s. That was such a different era. I think I’d focus on dreams and quiet time alone — urging my young self not to to get so involved with everything, to set aside time to meditate and find strength in the beautiful person I am, to not work so hard to be accepted as one of the crowd. When I told one friend how much I liked him, he told me in response that I was looking at myself in a mirror.

Being alone, as I am now, need not be lonely. I’m still trying to achieve that goal. It is very difficult. I couldn’t do it without so many friends and supporters whose love for me lets me know it’s one more goal I can reach as long as I keep focused on the truthful points of that compass.”

One comment

  1. Fernando Fonseca

    Bill, I loved to know a little bit of your story of life. I was married for 23 years and in some aspects our stories are very similar. This is the reason I am writing – to thank you for sharing with us your experiences. Good bless you !!

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