Tom Brokaw forever enshrined the World War II-era generation as the “Greatest” of them all. They sacrificed much during a worldwide outbreak of violence and the uncertainty caused by the Great Depression.
But, like Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, our LGBT community has its own. For the first time in history, our community is seeing a full generation of proudly out men and women aging gracefully into their older years and retirement. Our own “Greatest Gayest Generation” witnessed the uprising at Stonewall and countless other similar “firsts” in the mid-20th century and they made history in early liberationist organizing of the 1970s, while shepherding the community through its darkest challenges during the 1980s AIDS Crisis.
Three leaders shared their journeys, memories and thoughts with us — about what it was like as gay people in the 1970s and beyond. One, 81-year-old Ed DePasquale, remembers life as a closeted, heterosexually-married gay man in the 1950s.
Together, their reflections provide a peek into our history — one they say should not be forgotten today or in generations to come.
‘It wasn’t easy’
Ed DePasquale, 81
At 81, Ed DePasquale has spent the past 57 years living in Charlotte. At 37, he separated from his wife, with the divorce final when he was 41 in 1973. Afterwards, DePasquale would become involved in several leadership roles in the local LGBT community — most notably as a board member of Metrolina AIDS Project and a co-founder of Carolina Celebration, a former fundraiser which provided support directly to gay clients served by the AIDS service organization.
Today, DePasquale is as active as ever — meeting friends from church for occasional lunches and meeting once a month with Prime Timers, an organization which welcomes men of all ages.
“When you get old, you have to draw straws and see people,” he remarks.
He’s in great health, too. One could be forgiven for thinking DePasquale’s in his 70s.
“I wish,” he’ll reply jokingly.
In the 1950s, DePasquale served as a staff sergeant and military police officer in the U.S. Air Force. It was during the Korean Conflict, though he stayed assigned here at home at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La. He married young. DePasquale had known his wife since he was 15 and married shortly after joining the service and says he realized he was gay when he was 23. Nonetheless, he remained married. With their oldest daughter, he and his wife moved from their native Albany, N.Y., to Charlotte, where their youngest daughter was born.
As he navigated a married life as a closeted man, DePasquale says he would occasionally meet other men — always quietly, always secretly.
“It wasn’t easy, buddy,” he says.
The rise in acceptance of LGBT people is among the community’s greatest achievements, DePasquale says, remembering the fear and isolation that plagued his gay male peers, in particular.
“The things we did years ago just to meet another person was ridiculous, but we did it,” he recounts. “Some of us got busted. Some of us went to jail. It was just one of those things where you had to be careful when you went out messing around, because you never knew who was a cop. By the grace of God, I got away with it all those years. I never got busted.”
Those who did get busted faced serious personal and professional repercussions — criminal charges and the loss of family and their jobs. When men were arrested, they tried desperately to keep it under wraps.
“They called their best friend they could find that they knew would back them up and help them get out of jail and did everything they could to cover up the situation,” DePasquale says. “In some cases, they weren’t able to and they had to fess up to their families and their bosses what they really were, that they were gay.”
He adds, “Gay Pride wasn’t even something we heard of back in those days. No one was proud they were gay. They were scared to death somebody’s going to find out, that they’d lose their jobs and families.”
In the decades since, DePasquale says he’s grateful society has grown in its affirmation of gay people.
“In the past, people wouldn’t even talk to someone if they knew you were gay,” he says. “That’s the best thing about today — the ability for younger people to socialize and get together with other people. It’s not a case of ‘What street corner am I going to work this week?’ Back in the old days, people used to pick up tricks on the streets, off of 36th St. and The Plaza. Today, it is more about private groups of people getting together just as friends and sex doesn’t have to be involved. You just accept each other as gay men and go on with it.”
But, even with growing acceptance, DePasquale remains passionate on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. In the 1980s, he felt a calling to get involved in battling the disease at the height of the AIDS Crisis. Medicines and other treatments, increased awareness and prevention have made strides in reducing the once fatal disease to a manageable, chronic condition, but DePasquale says more should be done.
“It’s a major problem we refuse to accept,” he says. “There’s still a situation today where young men today are taking the attitude, ‘Oh to heck with it. If I get AIDS, I can take a pill,’ which is dead-ass wrong. Instead of AIDS being on the downstroke, it’s on the upstroke now.”
In addition to his work with Metrolina AIDS Project and Carolina Celebration, DePasquale also volunteered as a leader of Acceptance, a more inclusive outgrowth of an earlier 1977 chapter of Dignity, a gay Catholic organization.
DePasquale and his peers put in decades of work — through groups like Dignity, Acceptance and Metrolina AIDS Project — to build the growing affirmation LGBT people experience today. Of all the progress — on marriage, on anti-discrimination laws — DePasquale is adamant that social acceptance is the community’s single-largest achievement.
“We have more acceptance now than we’ve ever had,” he says. “The difference now compared to years ago is just unbelievable.” : :
A place for friends
Linda Lawyer, 66
A native of Pittsburgh, Linda Lawyer, 66, made her way to Charlotte in 1982, where she worked in information technology for Duke Energy until her retirement last year.
In Pittsburgh, Lawyer had been involved in a local counseling and support group, PERSAD, or Personal Sexuality Adjustments.
“It was started by two men who were therapists,” she explains. “They did it to help people — back in the early ’70s — help them deal with sexuality and come out. It was kind of like a counseling center and pseudo-community center.”
It was there where Lawyer got involved in “PERSAD Friends,” an informal social networking group for women. She and other leaders of the group would meet up with lesbians just coming out, take them to the local women’s bar and introduce them to others in the community.
When she moved to Charlotte, Lawyer looked for similar ways to get involved. She found the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard and immediately jumped in, along with involvement in Queen City Quordinators. At the switchboard, she helped take calls and direct people to resources.
“It was huge. There was no place to go to get information,” she says. “You had the switchboard and you’d have the Damron guides and other gay guides, but those things were sometimes so far out of date. There was also [leader Don King’s] Friends of Dorothy Bookstore, but the switchboard was huge.”
For a while, the switchboard operated at Park Road Baptist Church, where volunteers had access to couch, a phone and a filing cabinet, Lawyer says. At the time, the resource book was all typewritten. Lawyer says she helped modernize it, for the period anyway.
“It was hard to keep updated because it was all type-written,” she recounts, noting that a single correction would require retyping an entire page. “I took that book to Duke Power and converted it to VesiCalc, a forerunner of Excel. I took the whole book, typed it in the various fields and printed out one page at a time. It made it easier to update it.”
It was at the switchboard where Lawyer got the inkling to begin doing more outreach for women in particular.
“As I got more involved, more women were calling the switchboard,” she recounts, saying women wanted places to meet other women outside of the bars. “I had a friend and I starting bouncing ideas off of her.”
Lawyer turned to her old Pittsburgh involvements for inspiration, too. In 1986, Queen City Friends (QCF) was established. Less than a dozen attended their first dinner meeting, held twice each month. Eventually the biweekly group grew to 30-40 regular attendees and settled in at Godfather’s Pizza at Park Road Shopping Center.
“They asked us what we were. [I told the restaurant managers] we’re a professional women’s group,” she says. “This was 1986 or 1987. We couldn’t very well say what we were.”
To spread the word, Lawyer and other QCF organizers distributed information through the switchboard and in qnotes.
“This was before internet and email,” she says with a laugh.
In 1987, Lawyer joined the board of the newly-established Metrolina Community Service Project, founded by longtime leader John Quillin. The project took the switchboard under its wings, protecting volunteers and staffers.
“A volunteer on the switchboard was talking to a guy coming out who happened to be married,” Lawyer says. “His wife found out about it and called and threatened to sue the volunteer for alienation of affection. John got scared and said, ‘You know, any of us could get sued and we could lose everything.”
The project was formed to protect them, and QCF, too, was brought under its umbrella.
“He had good foresight, because it probably kept us out of a lot of trouble,” Lawyer says.
Despite her multiple community involvements — later singing with One Voice Chorus — Lawyer remained closeted at work. She says she lived a “double life.”
“It was hard,” she says. “You couldn’t tell people anything you did on the weekend. You couldn’t talk about any of your friends.”
Co-workers, she says, might have gotten “one-dimensional” views of their closeted gay colleagues.
“Oh boy, this person is not very interesting,” Lawyer mimes what some might have thought. “She doesn’t do very much. She doesn’t have much of a life.”
But, Lawyer adds, “That wasn’t the case at all. We were just hiding.”
Only the last 14 years of her 31 years with Duke Energy were spent living honestly and openly.
“They were extremely conservative,” she says. “Because they were a public utility, they tended to be more conservative than, say, a bank.”
Her involvement in One Voice Chorus — where many members had long listed only their first names or initials in concert programs — gave Lawyer the impetus to come out. Working on marketing efforts for a memorial and remembrance concert in 1997, she interviewed with The Charlotte Observer. A few days later, her name appeared in print, alongside the word “lesbian.”
“One Voice Chorus gave me the courage to come out,” Lawyer says. “I knew when I joined in 1992 that One Voice would be what would cause me to come out publicly.”
Today, Lawyer remains involved in the community, serving on the board of advisors for the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Fund. She says it’s important for people to know community history and where we’ve come from, but she’s proud of all the progress the community has made.
But young people, she thinks, haven’t had the same struggles.
“One thing they don’t have is the fight that we had,” she says. “It pulled us together as a community. We became closer because of what we faced. It was kinda like us versus them. I don’t know if younger people have that as much or if they have the same sense of community.”
Perhaps they dynamic for younger generations is simply different, Lawyer muses, with increased opportunities and support with groups like Time Out Youth and PRISM, along with public events like Pride.
“I think it’s so much easier to be gay now,” she says. “There’s a lot more organizations out there.” : :
A chronicler’s legacy
Jim Baxter, 60
In 1971, Jim Baxter was a college freshman in Washington, D.C. Two years after Stonewall, Baxter witnessed some of the first organizing of early post-Stonewall liberationist activist groups, even attending meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance.
“It was mostly their social events,” Baxter, now 60, recounts. “I was 18 and not necessarily political at the point. My eyes were wide open and I was just soaking everything up.”
Luckily for North Carolina, Baxter found college life in D.C. “miserable,” he says. He transferred to Guilford College in Greensboro for his sophomore year of college.
“That meant going back into the closet, I was pretty sure,” he says. “The after-effects of Stonewall had not exactly hit North Carolina in 1972 or 1973.”
As a student in Greensboro, Baxter saw the state’s first gay newspaper, the Charlotte Free Press, come alive. They worked hard, he says, but the state hadn’t really yet had an explosion of community organizing.
“I’d come home to D.C. and meet people and go to Lambda Rising,” he says of the now-closed, iconic D.C. bookstore. “I’d get all excited about being out of the closet, with gay Pride and then go back to North Carolina and shove it all in the closet, literally and figuratively.”
By his senior year at Guilford, Baxter was fed up and ready to come out. Instead of having one-on-one conversations over and over again, Baxter planned to come out loud and proud. He contacted the local alternative underground newspaper, the Greensboro Sun and pitched them a column as a gay writer on gay issues.
“In August of 1974 I wrote my first column,” he says. “The issue came out just as school was starting up at Guilford. I took a big stack of newspapers and shoved them under the door of everyone I knew. I was done. No drama. No tears. Just done.”
With his column and newly-public status as an out gay man — having started one of the area’s earliest gay activists groups, the Guilford Gay Alliance — Baxter would later take on the reins of what would become a lifelong career of journalism serving North Carolina’s LGBT community.
By 1977, Baxter had taken a job at an advertising firm based in Raleigh. In 1979, he and the owner, after conversations about the direction of the state’s community and the folding of Charlotte Free Press, teamed up to create The Front Page, the state’s longest-running newspaper until its merger with qnotes in 2006. The problem with LGBT organizing in North Carolina, the two mused, was the state’s lack of a central, powerful metro area. Other states — New York, Georgia, Illinois — each had large metro areas serving as central bases for organizing. A statewide gay newspaper could bridge North Carolina’s disparate and growing metro cities.
The agency’s owner loaned Baxter a couple thousand dollars to get the fledgling community newspaper company off the ground and gave him access to the agency’s typesetting and production equipment.
“We’re talking about the dark ages here,” he recounts. “To do photos and typesetting, you needed a machine that cost $75,000, which was completely out of the reach of what I was going to be doing and the money the paper could bring in.”
Baxter says there still wasn’t a lot of LGBT community organizing in the state, even after the Free Press’ four-year run. The Front Page, he thought, could help bridge the gaps, provide information and be a catalyst for change.
But, it wasn’t until 1981 that Baxter began to see a major turning point for the state. That year, some gay and lesbian folks planned a Pride march in Durham. It was never intended to be a statewide event, but that’s exactly what it became — and still is today.
“The big surprise was that people came from all over the state,” Baxter says. “No one planned that. Suddenly, there was people from Asheville, from Charlotte, from Greensboro, from everywhere. It became a much bigger event.”
The state turned the corner at that point, Baxter says, with organizing picking up steam. In Charlotte, community members began the non-profit Queen City Quordinators. It’s newsletter — “Q-Notes” — was founded in 1983 and would later morph into the newspaper published today since 1986.
Baxter remained publisher of The Front Page until its merger with qnotes in 2006. Afterward, Baxter returned to school, where he received a master’s degree from Syracuse University. Today, he’s wrapping up his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. Still devoted to journalism and media, his dissertation will focus on media in transition, using the early days of television and its status as a disruptive technology as a case study. : :
more: Read a special online-only feature exploring local LGBT aging issues and solutions at qnotescarolinas.com.