NEW HAVEN, Conn. – People’s World readers may recall my essay a few weeks back which remarked on how surprisingly liberal members of my Yale University Class of 1966 had become in the half-century (!) since our graduation. As much of a rebel and iconoclast as I had been all those years ago, it seems as though the rest of my peers have now caught up with me!
Well, the 50th class reunion in New Haven has come and gone now, and my estimation of our progress is in no way diminished.
We started trickling into town Thursday morning, June 2nd. The first official event was a well-appointed brunch for the classmates and their guests at a beautiful old mansion in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. When I say “well” appointed, I mean to say that the bar was overflowing with libations. I concentrated on the mimosas, as it was still before noon and I needed my O.J.
So we were all fairly “well” primed for our opening session at 2 pm at Sprague Hall at the center of the campus, an open-mic session called “How I Met My Spouse/Partner/Significant Other.” We were encouraged to relate stories – “the quirkier the better” – and to offer our “hilariously candid” recollection of meeting our life companions. The moderator displayed the prize for best story: The coveted last remaining magnum of a Chimney Rock Napa Valley 1987 cabernet sauvignon from a vintage specially prepared for our 25th class reunion back in 1991.
One guy started out saying, “I’ve been married for 31 years…but fortunately none of those women are here today to corroborate my stories.” The humor and the vulnerability of our lives, at this advanced season when none of us were judging each other any more, were in full blossom. Other men reported they were soon approaching their 50th wedding anniversary.
I have nothing against heterosexuals, really I don’t. But the afternoon was waxing tedious with pasty remembrances of the dating scene from those bright college years of a long bygone era. I raised my hand, was called to the front of the room and, with mic in tremulous grasp, launched into a very different kind of narrative. “This story,” I said, “goes a little beyond quirky. Maybe kinky is the more appropriate word.”
I set the scene in the dark shadows of AIDS in the mid-1980s in New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic, where gay men were dying right and left. It was a scary time, a dangerous time. Some of my tale of meeting Rick in October 1986 I related a year ago here for LGBTQ Pride Month. We met at the Locker Room, one of the seedy underground safe-sex clubs for gay men in the old meatpacking district. Casual sex was part of the scene, and we struggled to keep it as virus-free as possible. Every week someone we knew received a fatal diagnosis. But a lot of guys recoiled from taking the new HIV test because if you knew you had it you could be denied insurance, employment, or a professional license. Rick and I immediately became an item after meeting that night, inseparable, slammed together like two sacks of flour.
When we decided we should determine our HIV status that December, Rick unfortunately tested positive. He was sure I’d leave him. But I loved him – handsome, creative, bright, funny, sexy (and ten years younger) – and he loved me. We stayed together. By the spring of 1990 he was still asymptomatic and he so much wanted to leave New York, the winters, and the daily holocaust consuming so many of the people around us. We moved cross-country to L.A. to start up a new life, with no jobs in sight, just trusting in blind faith that we had each other and we’d settle in somehow. I gave up a rent-controlled apartment at under $400 a month: If I was the kind of person who prized an apartment in New York over the love of my life, I just wouldn’t want to be that person. In his last year, 1992-93, HIV finally caught up with him. We wound up having six and a half years together, not the one or two that an initial HIV diagnosis conventionally predicted. That last year was rough. He died in February 1993, and I stayed in California. He was my great lover and best friend and I miss him every day.
All that in five minutes.
My heart pounded
I remember feeling fairly composed in the telling. It’s when I sat down, after the obligatory applause that each storyteller received, that my heart started pounding, and I knew it wasn’t from the mimosas. Did I reveal way too much? Breach a sacred code of honor I should have signed on to as a Yale man? Did I transgress my audience’s personal space? Did I embarrass myself and bring shame upon my head? Did I expose to my classmates and their spouses a world they really did not care to see?
And yet, afterward, and over the course of the next couple of days, people who were present for my account of love and loss approached me with appreciation. They spoke of my honesty, integrity, courage. I sensed that I had made contact with a place in their hearts that needed to be reached. They told me of friends and coworkers, of cousins and sons, and in a few cases, their own partners and losses. Some were medical personnel in those years and they witnessed it themselves, saw colleagues who would not even touch their patients.
In that massive volume of class members’ updates that I referred to in my pre-reunion article, I was quite upfront about my present-day activities, writing for People’s World, being active in the Communist Party, feelin’ the Bern, and enjoying my current romantic relationship with a blind guy. I can’t guess whether the judges had ever read my entry – one of hundreds in a big fat book – and I wonder if before they made their decision they checked it out to see who was this guy. Or maybe not. They may have not given a hoot and were simply considering the story and the telling on their merits.
Someone had heard me
At our final class dinner on Saturday night, the moderator approached my table and whispered to me, “Something important is coming up soon. Don’t go away.” And then he announced the winner of Thursday’s When Harry Met Sally afternoon and I approached the stage. More than half the assembly had arrived in New Haven late and had missed my story. As I stood with the magnum clutched in my hands, fearful I might be so nervous I’d drop it, there was a call for me to retell it, but I summoned my wisdom and said, “You had to have been there.”
But, I added, “This afternoon we heard President Salovey talk about Yale’s commitment to expand the sense of inclusion for every member of the Yale community. Well, 20 or 25 years ago – I forget whether before or after Rick died – our class secretary sent out a questionnaire to update the class book with our current contact information, news about ourselves, our careers and children, and our ‘spouses.’ I wrote him a letter to the effect that it was now rather late in the day to ask just about ‘spouses.’ Do you realize how many of our classmates you are alienating, keeping at arm’s length, annoying and disheartening with your exclusive hetero matrimonial bias? Do you actually want your fellow classmates to conclude that Yale never was and likely never will be for them? Can’t you expand your question to include partners and significant others?
“I never got an answer to that letter,” I concluded, “but the next time a questionnaire went out, it was obvious someone had heard me.”
The guy with the Y66 jacket in the picture is Howard Alpert, whom I actually knew in high school. He reminded me of a story I had long forgotten. Our principal took it into his head one day to require that all the boys wear a tie to school. The next morning, Howie said, I showed up with a polka dot bowtie, a striped shirt, jacket with a bold checkered pattern, and madras pants. The principal sent me home.
I guess I was forever a nonconformist, a maverick, an oddball. I always wanted to live in a better world.
Photo: The author, center, at the 50th reunion of the Yale Class of 1966. | Eric Gordon/PW