The Price of Progress

By Michael Lowenthal

Originally published on Advocate.com April 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

My friend Martin, who died in January, gave me what too few gay people have: a bridge to our past. An impish octogenarian, Martin embraced the 21st century -- he traded JPEGs with twinks via SilverDaddies.com -- but was equally comfortable with the 19th-century ways his father bequeathed him.

Martin's M.O. was "charm and disarm": He used his sweet-tea Tallahassee accent to soft-pedal the scandal of his stories. Oh, his stories! He bragged of being a teenager on a World War II troopship, where freedom's fight began with furtive sex. (Greatest generation, indeed.) He told of his med-school days in early-1950s Baltimore: bucking a trifecta of race, class, and gender norms by dating a black hospital orderly named Ben. Then there were the stories of his patients, like the "straight" cook who, during the Vietnam War, greeted him in the exam room naked, with an erection -- hoping to win a medical draft deferment. Reader, it worked.

I once confessed to Martin that, as glad as I was to have grown up in a much more open era, I actually found all this openness well, boring. How I envied his adventures in the hush-hush homo past!

Martin responded, as ever, with a story -- typed, as if he knew I'd save it. He wrote about living in New Orleans in 1962, when his lover Bobby was a member of the Krewe of Yuga, the first gay Mardi Gras social club. Bobby went to the ball dressed as Bananas Foster, but Martin, busy doctoring, had to skip the festivities. "When I got home," he wrote, "there was a message from Bobby to come bail him out at the Jefferson Parish slammer. When I arrived, the sheriff had all the guys lined up on the steps and was maligning them with his bullhorn. The only wrong anybody had done was to be gay! "

The names of Bobby and 95 other men were printed in The Times-Picayune under "arrested on morals charges." Martin was terrified Bobby would be fired from his job as a furniture appraiser, but Bobby seemed unscathed and kept working.

Then one day, Martin came home to a sign on the front door: don't light any cigarettes.

"I knew instantly what had happened and raced upstairs to our bathroom," Martin wrote. "Bobby had stuffed all the cracks with towels and had turned on the gas from the heater . It turned out that he had indeed lost his job but had pretended to go to work as usual because he didn't want to upset me."

Bobby survived -- barely -- but the experience seared Martin. "I've been an activist," he told me, "ever since."

I thought of Martin and his story recently, when a friend and I watched the protests after Proposition 8's passage. Seeing young gay people mobilizing -- many for the first time -- in defense of their rights, my friend said, "Good! They needed a setback to spur them. They've had things too easy."

I look back fondly on my own late-'80s activism as the crucible in which my gay identity was formed. ACT UP, Queer Nation: Standing up for ourselves was a vitalizing test. So, yes, it seemed good that this new generation would face its trial by fire.

Then I stopped. I remembered Martin. And Bobby.

Sure, Martin enjoyed some escapades -- as did we, back in the day -- but those good times were in spite of discrimination, not because of it; he'd have traded them all for the luxury of complacency. ("There, dearest boy," he'd written of Bobby's asphyxiation, "is a fine example from those times you called 'glamorous and exciting.'È‚f;")

How could human rights come "too easy"?

Bobby and Martin were together 21 years, until 1982, when Bobby attempted suicide again, and succeeded -- depressed, Martin hinted, from a lifetime of society's sexual shaming. Bobby was cremated, and Martin spread his ashes in a cold, clear salmon stream near their home in Alaska, which is where Martin's own ashes, at his request, will soon be spread.