Season 1 Episode 8:
Race, Aging and Activism – Interview and stories by Don Bell!


Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Alex: Our next guest Don is no stranger to the I’m From Driftwood family.

Phil: A few years back,  Don talked to us about his prolific life as an out gay man and activist.

Don: My late teen years and I was at university were times that were really life and death-related times for people my age and people from my background. At that time being black could get me killed. You know, not just lynched, but I could disappear between campus and home coming home, just out in the countryside. Being gay could get me killed. Of course we all knew what gay bashing was and there was certain accomplishments to doing that. And one of the responses to finding out someone was gay was to spotlight that person and penalize them, and the penalty could go up to and include death and violent reaction to finding out that someone was gay.

One of the significant experiences of my life as a young gay man happened my second year in college. I became involved in, in a sexual encounter with a good friend who lived across the hall from me. We were pursuing that. And at one point he changed his mind and said we shouldn’t be doing this. And so we stopped. And he left and went to his room.

Short while later, coming back with his roommate who was a good friend to both of us. And the three of us sat down to talk about what had happened. And in a spirit of support, the roommate suggested that probably the best thing to do was to go over to the psych and counseling center and talk to someone about this.

Now that was a good reaction for the time because the consequences of being gay at that time were very, very serious. They were life changing. If a man were rumored to be gay, he would be referred to the Dean of Men’s office. And the campus culture was that if you got called from the Dean of Men’s office, you may as well pack your stuff before you go, because you’re on your way out of university.

I followed the advice and went to the country counseling center and there, the therapist told me that this was just a phase. This happens to lots of young men and not to be that concerned about it and whatever. So he didn’t suggest that it was a major issue. He didn’t threaten to report me to the Dean of Men or anything like that so I felt that I dodged a bullet. I could’ve lost my student deferment, which would have made me eligible to go to war. Tremendous numbers of people my age, of course, were dying in Vietnam at that time. And for black people, that was especially true because black service members disproportionately served in Vietnam. So death was a reality all the way around.

I went to my first March on Washington in 1969 in the moratorium march against the war. And what made that significant was that about 15,000 people from my campus went and we crossed the country in motor coaches and in school buses and we slept on church basements and the whole thing. All of those rugged things that one is supposed to do when protesting.

An important aspect of the fact that we all went to Washington to march against the war was that we sorta went in secret. Nobody fessed up to their parents before they left because you don’t want mom and dad saying “No, you can’t do this.” So, after all, we were young adults. We were out on our… on our own. And so we went.

And when we came back, the guilt was starting to get to us. So we better fess up to mom and dad that we’ve been to the… to the March in Washington. And so a group of us that traveled together, who lived together in my residence hall floor, we got together in one room and we decided to make the calls all together as a group from one telephone. And some parents were pretty cool with it. And some parents, you know, admonished us not to do anything that foolish again.

But one parent’s results or response was really significant to me and I’ll never forget it. And it was one of my best friends talking on the phone and his face went kind of ashen. And when he hung up the phone, we said, “What happened?”

And he said, “My dad just told me that I’m no longer his son.”

When I called, when I made my call. I made my call the last of the… of the calls that were being made. And my dad picked up the phone and I asked if mom were home. And he said yes. And I asked that she get on the extension and she did.

And my dad says, “Yeah, what is it?”

And I said, “Well, I’m just getting back from Washington because I was at the March.”

And my dad says to my mom across the extension, “See there. I told you that was that boy that we saw on television!” And they started to laugh because they anticipated that this was something that I would do. So no admonishment, no rebukes, no lectures. They just accepted it.

Later in life, I was my mother’s sole caregiver for 18 years. Into the process of having all of the conversations, she did not want to go with anything unclear and I did not want to let her go with anything unclear.

I said to her one day, I said, “Mom, now I think I know the answer to this, but I just want to ask you, because I want us to talk about it if I’m wrong in what I’m… what I’m thinking.”

I said, “Now, I know that you are a woman of faith. You’ve always been, he’s always exemplified that, but let me ask you this. Does my sexual orientation compromise your sense of faith?” And she looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

And she said in pointing her finger, “You are my son.” And she was done with it. And of course, what she meant was that, as she had always exemplified, that the stewardship of parenthood was more important to her than any religious dogma whatsoever. And that she felt that that was her number one duty in terms of her children was to always be an accepting parent. And she always was.

Well, the connection between my experience coming back from protesting the war and my experience of doing an assessment of what my relationship had been with my mother and my parents throughout my life was simply this: I benefited from the support that they offered me. Neither politics, like the war, nor religion, like the faith issues came between us. We had a relationship and that relationship, that parent-child and later parent-adult child relationship was never compromised by things that affect the lives of a lot of other people and really make a difference in the emotional lives of LGBTQ people.

Phil: Don! Welcome back to I’m From Driftwood.

Don: Well, thank you very much. It’s good to see you again.

Alex: So good to see you. And it’s actually been a little over three years since we last spoke to you, so we would love an update about how you’re doing since then

Don: Well, I got three years older job, number one. I live in a place called Townhall and it’s in Chicago. It’s right in the center of Boystown, where Boystown and Wrigleyville come together. It’s named after the fact that when the Louisiana purchase was made, this was Lakeview township and the city of Chicago is made up of Lakeview township and Hyde Park township, so this is where the old town hall stood.

After it became a part of the city of Chicago, there was a police station built here and the town hall police station was the site of much LGBT oppression because as the bars gravitated to the Halsted Street area, that’s where the police regularly raided and extorted, confined men. The next day, they would find them selves listed in the city newspapers, so lives and professions and all were broken because people were attending gay bars.

As time went on and this station was being retired, the Center on Halsted, which is Chicago’s LGBT community center, was built north of it. Someone had the inspiration of saving the building because it’s a very fine building and converting it. And so it became the base of this residential tower that I live in. Now, the Town Hall apartments, and this complex is the fourth complex built in the United States that’s designed to be LGBT-senior friendly. So I have the luxury that many older LGBT people don’t have of being able to live my authentic life in this stage of life, without having to worry about going back into the closet.

Phil: That’s so important. Do you think it’s very important for LGBTQ plus elders to have a place specifically for them?

Don: Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s exclusively LGBT. Right now we are about 30% straight and 70% LGBT. And the significance of that is that my own case. You know, I was part of a movement that began downstate in Illinois nearly 50 years ago to guarantee non-discrimination against LGBT people, and that included housing and housing discrimination. So we have these acts – we’re one of the few states in the union that have full LGBT rights. And amongst that is freedom from housing discrimination, so we couldn’t be hypocritical and have an institution that’s all LGBT people if in fact, we wanted to guarantee that LGBT people could live wherever they want it to live.

Alex: So I’m already loving all of this history and context that you’re giving us. Don, I have to tell you that –

Don: Well, you get an old man, you get history!

Alex: Well, I have to tell you I didn’t know about the history of Boystown because when I always hear about it, it’s from my younger queer friends who like to go out and about the bars and clubs, which leads me to my next question for you is, does your, where you live, do they offer any programs where younger community members interact with the residents?

Don: Absolutely. We have several programs that we promote here at town hall and at the Center on Addison, which is the senior division of the Center on Halsted that encourage intergenerational participation.

I’m currently involved with several of my neighbors in an intergenerational project with students from the School of the Art Institute. And we’ve been working for about a year or so and ultimately we want to produce some kind of digital record that – on a webpage or on something – that will log in our conversations about intergenerational issues over the years.

And that’s been very important to us because for those of us who are older, we certainly don’t want to lose contact with younger people. And to us, LGBT youth at any age, they’re our legacy. There are successors. It’s the same principle in our community that exists in a straight community or in a non-marginalized community or in a biological community. Elders have things to pass on to people who are younger, and people who are younger keep those who are older involved and active and enhance our lives too. So, it’s a symbiotic thing that we try to maintain within our community here.

Phil: In one of your stories, you talk about going to your college counselor to talk about homosexuality. Do you think he knew it was natural and just didn’t?

Don: Well, I think that the counselors, people who actually worked in student affairs and attended to student’s real life issues, knew that the issues of homosexuality and sexuality of all kinds is fluid in people or that stage of life. You know, these are the people who helped us deal with the issue so that we could come to recognition of our authentic selves and go from there. You know, luckily they were not encumbered by the social standards of the time and they saw it as a… as a human development issue more than anything else. So, yeah, I did dodge a bullet. I was… I was lucky to be connected to that side of campus services rather than to the disciplinary side because as I mentioned in my story, if one were referred to the Dean of Men’s office, then you would automatically be expelled from the university. And that was before the due process protections that we have now that require notice and hearing and appeal and that sort of thing before a decision like that is made.

Phil: You know, you talk about being black and gay in the 1960s. And you speak about the possibility of being killed for being both. It kind of reminds me of the current climate that we’re living in right now. What ways do you think things have changed? And in what ways do you think we need more growth?

Don: First of all, I don’t think that things have necessarily changed and I don’t see the two eras in time as distinct. From my perspective, it’s a continuation. What’s going on today is the second wave of the youth revolution that I was a part of when I was young. And the issues are the same, and so people are picking up finally and carrying on those issues. And I’m very excited about that.

One of the changes, though, is that there appears to be a multicultural approach, you know, when… when I look at demonstrations that would have only included black students when I was young, and I see many different kinds of students today or people today, you know, I’m encouraged by that. But I’m also waiting to see where this is going to come to because when I think about the times when we were demonstrating for civil rights and against the war and against racism and poverty and that sort of thing, and young people, young white students and all were part of that movement. And those same people who were in tie-dye tee shirts and torn off jeans with me at that time, you know, some of them went on to Brooks Brothers suits and places on Wall Street and that sort of thing. So I am hoping that the commitment that people are making in their youth today will last throughout their maturity and it won’t change.

Alex: What you’re saying resonates so strongly and with me, because I think I share that hope as well. And I loved your framing of it as… as waves and not these two distinct periods of time. And something else that really resonated with me about your story was when you were talking about your relationship with your mom, and when you talked to her about your identity, just how your relationship wasn’t compromised politically I think is what you said, or by attitudes of the time, why did you want to tell that story about your relationship with your mom?

Don: Well, I wanted to tell that story for several reasons. One is of course,  in my political history, in the intersections I live of race and sexual orientation and gender identity and class, the one area, a major area, where I experienced the power was in the area of gender because I was a man. But I have also been committed for the last 50 years to pro feminism, and that’s based on that fact that I recognize and I honor what an incredible person my mother was, and what incredible beings black women in particular are. And the fact that she was strong enough to make a commitment to the divine stewardship of parenthood over religious dogma was very important to me. And it spared me a great deal of the consternation that… that many LGBT people have when they are thrown out of their families and out of their community.

Phil: It’s very true, Don. And you know, you, you definitely won the jackpot. Your mom sounds like an incredible woman and the amount of support that she lent to you, it sounds like it made a world of difference to you. What else did you learn from your mom that was really important?

Don: I learned from my mom dignity. You never had to compromise your dignity. And your worth was not related to ephemeral things like race or class or any of those things. You could be in what is considered the lowest of positions, but you can still carry yourself with dignity.

If I may though, I want to say this, because he doesn’t get much of a conversation. I want to state what I learned from my dad. And what I learned from my dad is actually what really made pro-feminism appeal to me. I love and respect and admire women. And I learned that from my dad. And he taught me how to value women by the way he respected and loved my mother. That was very important messaging.

Alex: I love hearing about both of your parents. And you attended your first March on Washington over 50 years ago in 1969. And as we see this new generation coming up and taking to the streets, you talked a little bit about this, but what do you make of them? Does seeing this renewed energy and fight, does that bring you any joy?

Don: Oh, it brings me incredible joy. And I will tell you even here in Chicago, as we’ve had… we’ve had gazillion marches over the last several weeks as we have everywhere around the world, several of those marches have come up Halsted street, our main drag here, past my window. And having to observe the Covid public health protocols, I’m inside and I’m wanting to be there. I’m wanting to be on the street because I’m so energized and so elated over what’s happening. It’s wonderful. They try to keep me tied down, but my spirit is there in the streets, even though my body isn’t.

Alex: Indeed.

Phil: You know, there’s a lot of people feeling energized right now and activated and ready to get into the movement. And there are people who are coming to this for the first time. What advice would you give those people?

Don: Well, I would give the same advice, I guess, for everybody. Just take your time and be open to rethinking what you have been taught. Now is the time to engage in active but accurate assessment of history. Not to work to clean up the past, but to recognize the past as what it is and how we came to where we are and how we’re going to move from this point on. And that’s what I invite young people to look at.

Phil: As a community, we’ve also made quite a few strides, you know, over the last several years. What is the most significant advancement we’ve made in your lifetime as a community?

Don: Okay, in terms of the LGBT community, the most significant strides that we’ve made in my estimation of course, are our strides towards civil rights. You know, and that cannot be underscored and people who are growing into our community today, who are new just because they’re young have to understand that it wasn’t always like this. And not only was it not always like this, but it was only a minute ago it wasn’t like this.

Understand that again, at 70 he’s old, I embody the entire age of the LGBT civil rights movement. You know, if we use as a… Stonewall, as a beginning, as it’s commonly used, I was 20 years old. And so I’ve gone through it. I had lived in the time when homosexuality was illegal The state of Illinois was the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1960, before that it was against the law all across the country. And in some states it still is.

I must confess as an older member of the community, sometimes I get a little distressed with the image that has given us pride as one purely of frivolity as if our whole identity and history is connected to floats and balloons and glitter. You know, now that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be fun, but understand it’s about a liberation movement. It is literally about our lives and we have to understand that. And I hope that younger members, newer members to the community, understand that our position right now is very fragile and it could be overturned in a day. You know, when we have a sitting president who comes into office and attempts by executive order to totally disenfranchise us, we have to be on our guard. We have to be.

Alex: I just… I am completely with you on all of those points. And one thing it made me think about is just how I feel like human memory can be so short sometimes. You know, it’s been just five years since SCOTUS made marriage equality the law of the land. So what do you think is the biggest lesson we still need to learn as LGBTQ+ people?

Don: Well, I think we still have to fight the social dynamics that encourage us to engage on our own internalized oppression. I think that we have to come to value ourselves, and not to get used to ourselves or to adapt ourselves, but to truly accept ourselves as legitimate human beings. There is a reason why LGBT people exists and there’s an anthropological reason. It’s there. We would not be here if in fact we did not fit.

It’s hard to work on that but one of the things that I do, that I may have mentioned on one of the tapes, is I used my two major areas of oppression and marginalization to advise each other. And I know as a black man that I’m constantly told that I am worthless, that I am less than, that I’m a burden, that I’m this and that.

And those are the same things that I’m told as a gay man. And I have to be strong enough in myself to recognize my value and the value of people like me to reject that notion because that notion is very strong. People are still killing themselves over failing to be able to stand up against those notions. So we still have to do it.

We’ve got to stop putting one another down. We’ve got to start lifting each other up. And within the LGBT community, we have to bridge the gaps between the departments of our community. So that means in the LGBT community, which is a heterogeneous – not a homogeneous – community, we have to deal with the issues of racism and sexism and classism and on and on and on. If we can successfully do that in the LGBT community, then we can be the prototype that leads the rest of the world toward the right answer. We can show them! But we have to do it because it’s… it’s serious within our own community.

We stand on the shoulders of something incredible people. We really do. There’s a lot to be proud of and there’s a lot of space where we, as individuals can make contributions based on our own individual interests and abilities. And we can’t believe in those if we haven’t seen other examples.

Social change is not fast. And in fact, what I’ve learned in my 70 years is what I’m sure people have learned for generations and I’m afraid that it’ll still be around as you younger people age too, is that the resolution of social issues may not necessarily happen within the space of one lifetime.

So sometimes sitting around 70, I sorta shake my head and say, Darn it, it was the same way when I started with 13. And of course it’s not exactly the same, but Martin Luther King’s statement about the arc of justice being long is absolutely true. Things change slowly, but they do change.

Phil: Don, what is next for you?

Don: Well, what’s next is what’s now. I am going to live in the moment. I intend to live as long and as passionately as I possibly can. You know, whether I fall dead 15 minutes after we complete this broadcast, or if I last for another 120 years, I want it to be the same. I want to be actively engaged in my life. And as long as wonderful young people like you will put up with me, I intend to continue our relationship because I think that that’s important.

You know, I would just like to remind a lot of youngsters that, hey, we’re still here. I can’t tell you how many of my contemporary members of the LGBT community, both men and women, feel that their lives are over or they do not belong where they were when they were in their twenties and thirties. Well, that’s ridiculous. We got stuff to do even today. I’m committed to that. That’s what I’m going to do from now on.

Alex: Well, Don, I think that is such a good note to wrap up this conversation. I am so grateful for your stories, for your continued engagement, and for taking the time to chat with us today.

Don: My pleasure. Thank you. I am honored by the invitation and let’s all continue on together.

Phil: Yeah. Thank you so much, Don. You’re an absolute pleasure.

Don: Thank you.

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corinne

Alex: And Alex Berg and is produced by Andy Egan Thorpe.

Phil: The cast is recorded as part of I’m from driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit, LGBTQIA+ story archive, and is funded in part from TD bank and Heritage of Pride New York

Alex: I’m From Driftwood was created by Nathan Manske to help queer and trans people learn more about their community, help straight people learn more about their neighbors. And help everyone learn more about themselves, all through the power of storytelling. The IFD Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt. The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more…

Phil:  At Please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And our score is provided by Elevate Audio. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Alex: Thanks y’all for listening.

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