At the beginning of the summer of 1970, I did not consider myself a “homosexual.” I was not one of those people, who were derided by decent people. No, I would not let myself entertain the thought. Nonetheless, there I was, 19 years old, and hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with a boy named John Cunningham.
It was July 1970 and I had been longing for intimacy with the object of my affection. The only time I’d ever had an “intimate connection” with John was when I was scrubbing his feet to get rid of the tar balls that had washed ashore from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. But this was 1970, a new decade. I was maturing emotionally as well as sexually, and I knew that something had to change in this romantic friendship I felt for John. The change came after spending a summer night at Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth.
The fireworks over the Matterhorn had ended, and Tinker Bell was safely back in her domicile. John and I were on the Mark Twain Riverboat, back by the paddlewheel, peering out over the shimmering black water. We could hear the soft strains of a banjo nearby. I leaned as close into John as I dared, trying not to gaze at him any more than I had the courage; I knew it exasperated him when I looked so lovelorn. Yes, it was a magical night; one that any romantic couple would treasure. However, I suddenly had a melancholy thought. I had loved John with all my mind, heart and soul for over a year and I had never told him. My mind kept informing me that all of this, this dream of John and I being together forever, was a façade, just like this fake riverboat and this fake Mississippi River in the middle of Orange County. None of it was real.
After we left the park, as was our custom, we went to DK Donuts at the end of the Orange County Plaza near John’s house, where we ate our crumb donuts in silence. Finally, after being irritated by my mood swing for awhile, John demanded what was the matter. I felt leaden inside and simply said, “I can’t tell you. If I tell you, I will lose you.” I meant to say “as a friend,” but I didn’t.
Sometime around midnight in the dimly lit Karmann Ghia, he said, “I think I know anyway.” I told him he could not possibly know what I was feeling.
“Damn it, then tell me,” John insisted.
And so, I softly said, “I love you” while staring out the window into the nothingness of night.
There was no response for what seemed forever, then a small, dull “Oh,” followed by a deadened, “Well, I don’t love you.” My heart was rent from that moment on.
John went on to say that he had heard from guys in gym that I was that “way,” but he never believed them. He said that he had been seeing a girl and that they had made love. Even though I instinctively knew that was not true, the seed of jealousy was another “blow upon the bruise.” In the wee morning hours of July 10, John finally said he thought we ought not to see each other again. It really didn’t matter to me; at that point, my soul seemed to have shattered leaving me hopelessly weary of living.
John and I departed. We never were really together again. I went home, hoping to cease the pain by sleeping, but even though I was in agony, there were no more tears, and no one with whom to share the worse secret of my life. The worse part of being a homosexual in 1970 was the feeling of complete isolation. I had said “I love you” to a boy. As Shirley MacLaine had cried out in anguish in The Children’s Hour, I too felt so damn dirty. Not only had I debased myself, I knew I had also shamed John for telling him that a boy loved him. He had to live with that stigma.
I was contemplating leaving this old world when the telephone rang. It was Ralph Ludder, a college mate, who was desperate for me to come over to help him on a term paper. He pleaded so insistently that I had no choice but to repress my inconsolable hurt and go to him.
I know Providence sends angels when we most need them. Ralph was that angel. Upon seeing me and realizing that I was shattered, he implored to know what was wrong. I passed it off by saying that I had broken up with a “girl.” Ralph gave me such a compassionate look that for some reason I could no longer keep living a lie and continue to live. So I blurted out that it wasn’t a girl. It was a boy, John Cunningham. Then it poured forth, all the bottled up emotions and passions I had felt for John since I fell in love with him that spring day in English class. I sobbed and drained my nose as well as my tear ducts, and when I was through I steeled myself for the rebuke I knew would come.
Instead, Ralph looked at me and said, “Wow! You really do love him!” To the day I die, no kinder words could ever be spoken to me.
Ralph was a hopeless heterosexual, engaged to be married. But he spent the rest of the summer with me on the beaches of Southern California where we two 19-year-olds would build sandcastles. Ralph would put a shell or stick on top and we would stay until the encroaching tide would come and wash pseudo-John and the sandcastle away. I will always remember the sand, the sun, the glistening foam, and my friend Ralph letting me know that he loved me for who I am, not for what the world said I should be.
Gay liberation came to me in 1970 with the smells of the sea and the calls of sea birds. I would spend my lifetime after that summer learning what freedom meant for me.