Coming Out To Parents in the 1970s Wasn’t Easy But “Time Heals All.”
Every every gay man knows at some point in their childhood, certainly by puberty, that – what their attractions are, but admitting it to oneself pre-Stonewall was a whole other story. When I was at Andover, you would think, “You’re at an all boys prep school. You must’ve had a lot of sex.” Well, actually no. So I had no sex at Andover, but certainly had anxiety attacks. When I got to Yale, they were, you know, not dissipating.
So finally, I got to the point where I just had to tell my parents. I just couldn’t face them. The best thing to do is just write them a letter. So I wrote them a letter. So I got – I got this phone call back.
And my father said, “Your mother’s just been crying for two days.” Like I made my mother cry; you should feel guilty. But then he really laid it on to me.
“You are jeopardizing the family’s security clearance.” My father was a research aeronautical engineer for United Aircraft Research Laboratories, now UTC. Back then, if you had a gay son, the FBI would probably find out and question your security clearance. Because it was all about blackmail.
I told my father, “You can’t have blackmail if I’m out!” It’s like, the blackmail’s if I’m trying to keep it secret, right? Well, he wasn’t buying. It was not a happy situation. Not at all.
So then, they came down. It was, curiously, my birthday, I think, so they had to come down and take me out to dinner. But it wasn’t going to be an easy dinner because there was a topic we had to discuss. And it got heated to the point where before I finished my dinner, I got up and walked out of the restaurant.
With my first boyfriend Jacob, that summer we spent in Hartford. They couldn’t even bear to see his face. They would want to take me out but obviously not with my boyfriend. So they would come to the the curb in the car and send my brother out the ring the doorbell, lest they even see my boyfriend. That’s just how extremely uncomfortable they were with the situation.
There was a point along the way – I was living in San Francisco – where there was an exchange of letters. Because back in those days, you know, long distance was a little expensive, so people were still reading handwritten letters. You know, it was a different era.
So I just put it to them: why can’t you just completely accept me as a gay man? Two letters came in the envelope. One from my father and one from my mother. So my mother’s letter was – and she’s like an ex-Catholic and very stuck in her ways. It’s just against her principles: “I’ll always love you but, you know, I just can’t really accept homosexuality and, you know, that’s just what’s going to be real for me. I’m sorry.” You know, like that.
And my father’s letter was like, “I could actually accept you. Intellectually. I mean, I can get there. I can love you unconditionally and love you as a gay man. However, I am married to this woman and I feel because we’re married,” – at this point, you know, many, many years, decades – “we have to have a joint position on this.” I kept those – both those letters because, you know, I thought my father’s letter was actually quite infuriating. Come on, Dad. Just, like, what? You’re just going to defer your wife’s prejudices? What does that mean? That’s crazy.
But I thought to myself, you know, eventually they’re going to need me more than I need them. And, of course, I was right, because when they were dying in the nursing home, I was the one to come visit. You know, things by then had really come around. They even were accepting of Torrence. Now, Torrence is just so charming and by then, they’d gotten over the idea that I was gonna have black boyfriends. So suddenly, I had a black boyfriend that was charming, that was an Andover grad, that was making, you know, at that point when they finally met him, good money. And there was a reconciliation.
So, then, finally Torrence became part of the family. And things like at their fiftieth wedding anniversary, there we all are: my brother with his, at that point, Asian girlfriend, then wife; Torrence and me; my sister with her Norwegian-American husband, and the two nieces. And there we were: one big family. But that took a good long while. You know, that took from 1970 to, you know, the nineties. It took like twenty, twenty-five years for them to finally get there.
Look, time heals all. And if I got a story to tell, the conclusion of the story, if you’re having trouble with your parents, if you got enough years, chances are time will heal everything. Because it’s what I said when I moved to San Francisco, eventually they’re going to come around. Eventually they’re gonna need you. As they’re getting to a point in life, they’re gonna look to who is my progeny? Who do I – who’s going to take care of me? Who will – who still loves me? Those basic questions will bring them around. And they did. It did bring them around.
1970s: Embracing Interracial Gay Love. “This Is Just A Great Big Family. Let’s Drop All The Prejudice.”
Jacob and I moved to Philadelphia in 1972 because I was starting the graduate school at Penn in architecture and Jacob was working, turns out, at Philadelphia Life Insurance Company. So we settled into a little apartment in Powelton Village. Unlike New Haven, where most of our set was white, in Philadelphia there’s a fairly large black component, even in the gay circles we were in.
We have this friend Fritz and Fritz was a Penn graduate, stayed another year or two and was in working in the library. And Fritz was the first person I ever met that was completely interested in black guys. You know, we were meeting Fritz’s friends and – very interesting group of people. But Jacob and I were a couple, so we weren’t dating anyone else.
So I won the scholarship to go to Europe for the entire summer. It was, you know, to see architecture. So I did. And I can’t say that I was a saint while I was away. Well, Jacob wasn’t exactly a Penelope, sitting waiting for me, either. When I got back, it turns out that Fritz and he – Fritz had sort of introduced him to this black/white set. And it really was a whole scene in Philadelphia.
Jacob, it turns out, had had an affair with this black kid for the whole summer. This young kid, probably 18, 19, and it was quite clear that Jacob was in love with this kid and things had changed. So, okay, separate bedrooms. Luckily there was another bedroom, so I moved into another bedroom. And, at that point, we were roommates, not lovers.
I’d never had sex with a black man in my entire life add to that – up to that point. I mean, Yale wasn’t particularly black in those days. So I started going to the bars and damned if I didn’t then have my first sex with a black guy. And, I mean, it was exciting. It was something very new. And I can’t quite tell you what it was about it but I went back for more. I started having a distinct preference. That’s where I’d go, to one of those two bars, and I was going home with black guys. I wasn’t taking home white guys. So it was just the one of those things.
So I didn’t really know what to think about it. And I, you know, I tried to guess. Like, why this? And then I finally said, well, why does it matter? You know, I couldn’t figure out why I was gay, but I came out as a gay man. You know, I really couldn’t figure out why I really like black guys, but why was that a problem? It just was what was real.
There was this beginning of this nation wide organization called Black and White Men Together – BWMT. So this isn’t just like a little Philadelphia thing. This becomes this nationwide organization. It was in a way a way to band together against prejudice. You could just search your identity because you had all – your back, they had your back. You know, that sense that it wasn’t just me, by the way, there’s a nationwide group like us. You know, I’m not weird.
Did I experience prejudice? A wee bit. You know, just a touch. But it was there. I remember at least one occasion, maybe a few, where my white peers would say, “Well, what’s wrong with you, Ted? What’s wrong with white guys?” I called people on their racism about why that wasn’t just fine.
Now you could turn that on its head and say my attraction was inherently racist. I mean, that would bother me. And I think sometimes I got that turned on me by black guys that like, “You’re only interested in me because I’m black.” I just didn’t see that in myself. I never saw myself being racist. I never saw it in a negative light. I always thought only in a positive light because that was my attraction. I mean, it’s what I liked so why should I feel negative about it? I wasn’t going to accept other people’s knocking that for whatever their ideas about preconceived notions of racism, my racism, their racism or whatever.
I remember of marching in the Philadelphia gay parade and feeling that, for the first time in my life, I was going to associate with the bigger idea of the gay community by literally marching down Spruce Street in Philadelphia’s first post Stonewall gay event, public event. And it wasn’t a big parade, but it was representing the full spectrum of gay circa 1973. It was a great leveler. And I realized with gay liberation that you could take it further and I think when I came out as a gay man who liked black men, that I simply took that concept further.
This is just a great big family and let’s just drop all the shit, all the prejudice. And I think that without that gay parade in ‘73, and all that followed with that kind of liberation of my mind, I probably couldn’t have gotten there on my own. But it got me to the place where I could just fly out into a different culture and connect with all that Black culture has meant to me in my life and and all the wonderful people I have met who, you know, I might not have fallen in love with or met without this release of prejudice. And ultimately, it ended up in my 30-year relationship with a very lovely, charming, beautiful black man.
1978: Celebrating Thanksgiving With Family Of Choice. “They Wanted To Welcome Me To Their World.”
Well, I came out in 1970 in New Haven in the year after Stonewall. And the way you’d relate socially in New Haven was either through the pub bar or the Yale Gay Alliance at Yale. Or, you know, you know a few townies in town. Irish and Catholic, Irish and Italian or whatever. But you didn’t really know cliques of people. You knew friendships.
When I got to Philadelphia for grad school and I stayed a little while working, what I saw from ‘72 to ‘78 certainly large cliques of people. I would socialize, see the same people all the same parties. You know, there were definite groups of people.
So I got to San Francisco at age 28. We’re talking 1978. And I had, up to then, I’d been going to Thanksgiving at my parents house. I’d get on the train in Philadelphia and show up in Connecticut. So I was in San Francisco and I didn’t really have a place to go for Thanksgiving. There was this guy there named Bud. Now Bud was an older gay guy. And he was a designer – a very talented designer. And Bud was a sweet, avuncular guy and he sort of took me under his wing. He’s at this point 50. He’s like 20 years older something like that.
So Bud was an architect working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, making good money, doing skyscrapers. Bud and I became kind of friends. We’d eat lunch together now and then. And he knew I didn’t have a gig for Thanksgiving.
He said, “Well, you know I know these guys. Why don’t you come up and join us for Thanksgiving?” And it was way the hell up north of the city. Turns out that Bud and a bunch of his pals in the old Haight-Ashbury days – they were all gay – they socialized together and they became, really, a close-knit group. And they decided they would all pool their resources and buy – I guess it was – I’m guessing 20 acres of land. So they subdivided it into lots and Bud did a custom house for every one of them. And they all built their gorgeous little high-style tiny vacation homes. This clique of people had become this family of gay men with their own little village in this paradise in northern California. Twenty acres, each with a custom house.
So it turns out that the annual Thanksgiving was in the biggest, logically, the biggest of these houses, complete with a hot tub. Naturally everyone’s nude and they were – I was 20 years younger than everyone else in this party, so I was a point of interest. There is also plenty of marijuana and really fine wines. It’s like, whoa. You know, then I realized these are gay men, they know cooking and they know wine. And it was gourmet Thanksgiving. You know, I’ve never had a Thanks- my mother just didn’t know how to cook like this at all, so the Thanksgiving was truly a feast.
And it was – it was so sweet. First of all that I was invited to this paradise for Thanksgiving. But what was even sweeter is just seeing this whole group of guys that had made their life together as a gay family. And when I went to this Thanksgiving dinner, I felt these guys, who were all older than me – sure, there was sort of sexual curiosity, but no one was, you know, like, over me – and it was more like they wanted to welcome me to their world, to San Francisco and all the wonderful life they had shared together.
This was totally a sweet group of guys that just loved each other. There was no catfighting. There was, you know, ribbing – maybe some teasing, but no the catfights, you know. It was the sweetness of it all got to me, and I realized that gays didn’t have to be back-scratching, bitchy. You know, they could just be loving, gentle and embracing.
Receiving A False-Positive HIV Test In The Mid-1980s: “I Thought This Could Be It.”
Eric and I got to San Francisco in 1978. It wasn’t a good place to bring a boyfriend because sex was rampant. Now, bear in in mind that people going to San Francisco in 1978 were part of a a sex revolution. We honestly felt that we were in a new Jerusalem, we were a city on the hill, we’re making new social moors and it was okay to just have sex with everybody. You know, you’d have sex with people once or twice and they became your friends. And that’s how I ended up having hundreds of friends in San Francisco – I was tricking all the time.
So, you know, very sexual place. Castro is just popping. So people are racking up some serious numbers in terms of social engagements. Well, then AIDS hit. The horror, of course, of this is that AIDS took such a long incubation period that suddenly just about everyone you knew was infected. The other thing is there was no test at first so you just didn’t know. Everyone’s freaking out.
You know, I started reading in the Bay Area Reporter – the B.A.R. – which was the gay newspaper and thank God, I thought for years, that’s what saved my life. Because I read in the Bay Area Reporter, “We don’t know what this thing is. It could be like they say, you know, too much partying hard, but it could be contagious. It would be really smart to wear rubbers until people figure out what’s going on.” So I started wearing rubbers.
Finally, the test comes out. The test took like two weeks to get the results back. Something like that. It was a whole health – San Francisco Health Service thing. You know, no one had money to go to private clinics. You just went in these public clinics. And then they brought you into the room for counseling and they would either say, you know, “Mr. Chapin, you’re clean” or “Mr. Chapin, we need to talk.” So luckily, I got the good news the first time it took it. And oh my God, that was a powerfully good bit of news. So I would just take the test every six months because I was freaking out. I was having sex but I was having safe sex. At least, I thought it was safe.
It was sometime in the mid 80s I guess when I went in for the test. The test had been around a while so maybe it was ‘86, something like that. So I remember walking in, sitting down. She looked me in the eye and was very calm but she said, “You came – “ and it was a hushed voice – “that you have a positive result.” After she gave me my results, she reassured me that there are plenty of false positives, don’t freak out, we’ll do another test. It was tough for the next weeks, you know, I talked to friends.
I was still going to work, still had to show up in my job. I thought this is this could be it. So I walked in those two weeks later and she opens – looks at the chart, she smiles and says, “You’re okay.” I think I cried. Right on the spot.
Years later, I think it was 2003 or 4, it’s the winter. I’m in Chicago. I saw in their – the local gay the newspaper or whatever it’s called, I forget – this little ad. In the ad, it said that they had started these DNA sequencings. They found a correlation – just a statistical correlation – between people that had a certain gene and the absence – the statistical oddity – of people not getting AIDS, so hence the correlation. So they must have had a big sample and I don’t know how they got there, but they claim there was this correlation. And they said for $100 – because it costs a lot of money to do these tests – you could apply to do these cotton swabs. So, you know, this is way before 23 and Me. It was pretty primitive, but you know, you did the thing, you did the swabbing, sent it off. And they have the DNA and they did the test.
So the test came back then I was in this correlation. And they were very clear that there were no promises. It was like this is a correlation – doesn’t mean anything – but you’re in that group that, rather oddly, has has an absence of AIDS.
I said, “Well, gee, maybe it was just genes, not my hygiene.” So there you go. It turns out even later on information, as all this DNA stuff gets evolving, they found out that 1.5 percent of the population roughly is – has this gene. That kind of explains, I guess, how 90 percent of the people I knew, hundreds of people, died of AIDS and I was spared. I just had a very good luck in genes.
And I found out even more subsequently – this is rather recent news – with 23 and Me – I just went ahead and did it – and it turns out that I have 4 percent Neanderthal blood. Yes, you heard that right. I guess it turns out the Neanderthals had some disease like AIDS that somehow made them immune so that when modern day AIDS came along, people that had a large degree of Neanderthal had this immunity.
Those were really the twin miracles of my life. One is that I met my life partner 30 years ago and he was just that rare and just that special that I had to think of it as a statistical miracle. Certainly even perhaps statistically more miraculous than being in the 1.5 percent of people that suddenly, you know, that weren’t mowed down in – I was in the middle of the Holocaust and I survived it just because I had just the right genes. So that was the other miracle of my life.
1988: “God, If You’re There, Please…I Need To Fall In Love With Someone Who’s Not Going To Die.”
Well, it was April, 1988. I was living in San Francisco. There I was, age 37 – nearly 38. I’d lived through – what’s that – 4 or 5 years of the AIDS crisis at that point. And I was right smack in the middle of the Holocaust, just watching my friends die left and right. And I was, well, falling in love – falling in love with people that I knew would die. And it was so depressing.
It was Easter Sunday. Actually, it’s Saturday before Easter Sunday so the mass is at, like, at 10:00 at night. Bishop Swing was officiating. I’d never been to midnight mass at the cathedral, but my friends from San Jose – Rick and Joseph – they said, “Oh, come on with us, Ted,” because they…
So I said, “Sure.” So, it was a very moving service. Darkened cathedral. Very formal. Very, very spiritual, really. I’m not a particularly religious guy. I never necessarily believed the Nicene Creed right down to the virgin birth, you know what I mean? But the Episcopal church meant something to me. And I hadn’t taken prayer terribly seriously but this was my moment. I looked up into the darkened rafters and I thought this is it, you know?
God, if you’re there, please just hear me out. I have to be freed of this AIDS horror and I need to fall in love with someone that is not going to die.
So I went back to the hotel room that Joseph and Rick had rented. He was like, “Oh, Ted, let’s go out to The Stud.” I’m feeling fine, you know, like the service is great. I’m going to go home to bed.
“Oh, no, Ted. We came all the way from San Jose. Let’s go to the Stud.” You know, The Stud was a, you know, fashionable hip bar at that point on Folsom Street. And we arrive, walk right in and damned if I were, you know, within just moments of being there, Joseph said, “Hey, look at that guy.”
I looked up and there was this guy in the other corner of the bar sort of all by himself. And wow, he was just my type. He was black. He was clearly young. Gorgeous man. And he was dressed kinda preppy.
So I walk over to him and said, “Hi.” You know, like that. “You’re a student, right?” And he said yes.
And I said, “Where do you go to school?”
He said, “I go to Stanford. You know, a freshman at Stanford.” My mind immediately went a freshman at Stanford – that’s young but it’s probably legal!
I’m thinking, “Did you go to prep school?” Because most black kids going to Stanford I would have guessed, you know, probably had some prep school background.
He said, “Yes.”
And I asked him, “Well, where you go?”
And he said, “Well, I went to Andover.”
And I said, “Well, so did I!” It turns out I had gone to Andover 19 years before him and some of the teachers who were young when I was there were nearing retirement when he was there. So we started talking about old teachers and, you know, we really bonded. I knew this kid was really smart and, you know, and he was gorgeous and well, you know, we ended up in bed that night.
We had such a great time together that we were both smitten that first night. So we were going to have a date the next weekend. And he had to go to a David Sylvian concert in Berkeley first. So I’m looking at the clock and it’s going on like 2 in the morning. Then it’s like my heart was, like, broken. Oh, I’ve been stood up again. I had set such expectations.
Turns out, he was in an auto accident. He was in Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room and he had to get stitches across the back of his neck. And so of course, I went right down there when he called at 2:30 in the morning. He was okay. He didn’t have to – wasn’t in-patient, so he went home. Went home with me obviously. Where else was he going to go?
And so that’s the weekend we really fell in love because, you know, we were kind of living together that weekend. He didn’t want to drive down – you know, I was taking care of him. It was very, very sweet. So that’s how we fell in love.
One can be terribly despairing of everything that’s happened and then everything can just change. And certainly for gay people of my era to be lifted out of the horror that was AIDS in San Francisco in those days, to fall in love with a man who was just then coming out, whose only interest was to not have to go on to the merry-go-round, and here I was wanting so much to get off the merry-go-round. And we met at the perfect spot. That evening was 30 years ago and we are married. We have been together 30 years and we’re very much in love. We are very much in love.
1990s: Following Societal Progress Gay Man Has To Learn “How To Be A Spouse Of A Gay Executive.”
We were living in San Francisco. It was in 1993 that we had to move to Boston because Torrence was entering a Harvard Business School as the beginning of the two-year program at the business school. I didn’t want to stay in San Francisco while he was on the other side of the country, so I left my job and we showed up and there we were in business school. I, thank God, got a job in an architectural firm there.
Harvard Business School trains the future elite business people of the world and it’s a strange and interesting place or it certainly was then. They force you to do study groups, so you’re already studying together, you’re working together. But the other thing is you’re socializing together. So here you have these type-A people who – largely straight, of course.
Well, by the time Torrence got there there was a track record of a few gays having come through and – being out gays. I’m not talking about closeted gays. There’re always closet gays. Torrence was the very first class where there were spouses – gay spouses. Turned out there were two lesbian couples and then us. So we were the first gay couple at Harvard Business School.
It’s always a challenge for a future captain of industry to understand how do you relate to your peer’s spouse. Because this is part of jumping the hurdle on social life. They were very interested in meeting me because I was different and I was a gay spouse. So we got along wonderfully. I was – I was so embraced by all these type-A, you know, Harvard Business School straight people, and the other spouses. So I think it was mutually educating. For them, it was a education to see a gay couple. People knew how to relate to gay singles, of course, but what’s a gay couple? So we were new to them.
Frankly, up to that point in our social lives, we hadn’t had a lot of experience socializing with straight people, so it was great cross – cross-fertilization, because mostly up to that point I think those of our gay – most of our friends were gay.
And they gave me something, too. They gave me a sense of acceptance in a business situation, because as Torrence’s career has moved onward and upward, I’ve been in ever more rarefied situations where I am the “gay spouse” and it’s just keeps getting – it’s getting always stranger, because his relationships are always getting even more exotic.
Like just, like last year, we’re in Munich for one of his big meetings and its Oktoberfest, which was the reason that they were having the meeting there. So, you know, they went Oktoberfest together. But then night two was – they knew I was there in Munich, so they invited me along. So there I am with, you know, about ten Google executives, all high powered Google executives in Munich, Germany, and I’m, like, the only spouse at the table and I’m a gay spouse.
I remember a retreat in Napa Valley, where Torrence – it was a three-day retreat. The spouses were doing their entertainment all alone. So there was, like, maybe eight spouses and there are a few kids, and thank god there was Joel. So at least Joel and I related as the gay spouses in this otherwise extremely odd business situation – a retreat in Napa at a high-end, you know, resort with all the bells and whistles and social events.
But you know it was good training for me, so I sort of went to Harvard Business School as a spouse to learn how to be a spouse of a gay executive.
2000s: A Civil Union In Vermont And A Marriage In Massachusetts. “We Celebrate The Day We Met.”
Well, Torrence and I moved to Boston in 1993. We were part of that South End gay set, because back then, it was – the South End was the gay place. We found out, as everyone did, that Vermont passed this civil union thing. And it was a radical moment in gay history that you could actually go to a state and get a document that legally recognized you as a couple. And Vermont was an easy drive from Massachusetts. So a lot of the South End boys would be getting in their cars and going up to Vermont to get civil unions. And we thought, well, we could do that. We’d been together then at that point, you know, quite a while. Seven years maybe, something like that. Eight years.
It turns out there was a little cottage industry up there in Montpelier, Vermont, which is, you know, a town this big, but it’s a state capital. There were gay guesthouses up there, so we booked a gay guesthouse. We found out you could actually show up in the City Hall of Montpelier on a Saturday morning and get your civil union.
So we show up and it’s a lovely experience, you know. Vermont, at that time of the year, I think it was the fall – in fact I know, I think it was October. Leaves are changing. We’re up on the hill in the morning, looking down at the little gold dome of the state capital. The town is so cute and there was a farmer’s market. You were totally into this Vermont thing.
And then we realized it was getting on time to get to our appointment at town hall. We get there and the door’s locked and along comes this guy and he unlocks the door. And it becomes obvious to us that – look, the town’s offices are not open on a regular basis on Saturday morning. This guy and the clerk – the two people showed up specially to unlock town hall and take us down to this room where we got our civil union.
When we were given the document, there was, you know, a lovely handshake and a sense of goodwill. These people, you know, work, I assume, regular 40-hour week – Monday through Friday. They were taking their time on a Saturday to go down and do this public service on behalf of people like us, coming from largely Boston to get our civil unions from out-of-state. Because, you know, they knew we could do it on a Saturday.
You know, to celebrate, we did get rings. This ring. We splurged. We went to Newbury Street, you know, the fancy street, shopping street, in Boston to Cartier. And we got these 1960s love rings. This ring was designed in the sixties. It’s classic. It’s white gold. And you see those little screws? You can upgrade and have diamonds put in the screws, but we’ve never done that. We just like it the way it is.
Years later, when Massachusetts made it legal to get married, we thought of it as just kind of a political act, because the initial act of the civil union was too close to the Marriage Act just a few years later. So we thought it was really just an upgrade. Just literally an upgrade from a civil union in Vermont to a marriage in Massachusetts. So we, we just, we did go to a justice of the peace in Provincetown, so it was just the three of us by a pond. And damned if I didn’t cry during the – during the vows. So I thought to myself, thank god we didn’t have a big wedding because I was just bawling.
You might ask, well, do you celebrate your civil union or your wedding? And the answer is we celebrate the day we met. Because, you know, that to us was day one. It was the starting point and the others were just upgrades. So why celebrate one of the upgrades? We celebrate day one.