Last edited: January 06, 2005

From Fear to Dignity: 2 Gay Men, 2 Journeys

Seattle Times, June 29, 2003
P. O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111
Fax: 206-382-6760 Email:

By Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times staff reporter

For Hugh Charest, love and sex were things he had to keep private.

For Brian Davis, the unfamiliar “closet mentality” is to be avoided.

Hugh Charest spent most of his life in the shadows of the gay closet. He remembers when men were beaten outside of bars and fired from their jobs. The 64-year-old didn’t come out to his sisters until 10 years ago.

Brian Davis has spent most his life unafraid and unapologetic. He came out by reading a gay love poem in a high-school English class. He’s 29 and wonders this: When will prohibitions against gay marriage be tossed out like the Jim Crow laws that were used to discriminate against his grandfather?

A ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court punctuated a battle for legal rights and social acceptance that, for gays and lesbians, is as significant as the civil-rights movement was for blacks or the feminist movement was for women.

The 6-3 ruling invalidated the sodomy laws of 13 states and declared gay sex legal and private. Gay-rights supporters hailed it as a monumental decision in a movement that started with violent protests outside a New York gay bar 34 years ago.

But opponents decried the ruling as a devastating blow to moral values. Many fear that legalizing gay sex is a dangerous step toward legalizing gay marriage—as Canada is doing.

Charest remembers feeling panicky the first time he saw two men holding hands on Broadway on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

A retired nurse, Charest remembers when sexuality could bring a beating or a night in jail, loss of a job and loss of friends. He remembers the backlash that came with AIDS, when dozens of friends died as anti-gay conservatives argued that the virus was a punishment for homosexuality.

But for Davis, 35 years younger and a professional activist, “To not kiss on the sidewalk is like going back to the closet mentality.”

Washington state tossed out its sodomy laws in 1975. The years since have seen the passage of laws that protect gays on the job, policies that extend domestic-partnership benefits to gay couples and churches that ordain gay ministers.

But the decades-long progress of the gay-rights movement can be tracked in two lives: one lived primarily in the closet, one lived almost entirely out.

Love in the shadows

Charest grew up in Spokane, the son of a laborer. He was 14 when curiosity drew him to the downtown library, where he signed books out of a locked section, taking care that friends didn’t see him. The books painted such a damning portrait of homosexuality that Charest sought refuge in a Roman Catholic seminary high school.

He was 15 when he had his first “date,” with a teacher twice his age. “We went for coffee, we went for lunch, then we went to the hills to play with each other,” he said.

Charest studied nursing at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., where he fell in love with a former football player he met in a local bar. When Charest joined the Army after graduation, his lover followed him to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., taking an off-base apartment. They would drive two hours to St. Louis for dates to avoid being seen.

After serving in Vietnam, Charest was discharged through Fort Lewis in 1965. His lover had died of alcoholism, and Charest was taken by the small but lively gay-bar district in Pioneer Square.

Even so, Charest said he never walked in the area with gay friends. Men would walk alone to the bars and back to their cars, often taunted by police.

His family probably long suspected he was gay, Charest said, but didn’t discuss it directly until 10 years ago, just before his mother died.

“She said, ‘That’s the way you are, and I can’t change it.”

A movement is born

Washington’s sodomy law dates to the state’s birth. But enforcement of that law varied depending on the moral tenor of Seattle’s politicians, said Gary Atkins, author of “Gay Seattle.”

In the mid-’60s, a Seattle ordinance banned cross-dressing, and a prominent minister was convicted of sodomy based on the unreliable testimony of a hustler; the conviction was later overturned.

“Every city, including Seattle, for many years has had a problem with homosexuals,” wrote Seattle Police Chief Frank Ramon in a 1966 memo noted in Atkins’ book. He feared “an influx of homosexuals when the information available is that the community is ‘soft’ or ‘tolerant’ of homosexuals.”

At the same time, police were coercing payoffs from gay-bar owners. When The Seattle Times reported the scandal in 1967, it emboldened a fledgling gay-rights movement.

Two years later, the Stonewall riots in New York—provoked by a similar “gayola” scandal—launched the national gay-rights movement.

Progress for the movement wasn’t always forward. In 1972, Tacoma teacher James Gaylord was fired for joining The Dorian Group, a pioneering gay-rights club.

The Washington Supreme Court upheld the firing five years later—even though the state had since tossed out its sodomy law—because membership in a gay organization made Gaylord an “overt” homosexual who had no protection from civil-service laws, wrote Justice Charles Horowitz.

In that atmosphere, Charest took care to keep his private life private.

“You couldn’t take anything for granted,” said Charest. “You couldn’t be guaranteed you have a job, a home, a life. You could be fired tomorrow for being gay.”

‘Superman’ and ‘The Front Runner’

As the gay-rights movement gained momentum across the country, Brian Davis was growing up in Omaha, Neb., the son of a former Black Panther.

After seeing “Superman—The Movie” as a 5-year-old, Davis asked his mother if he could one day marry a man like Superman. He played football and had his first sexual experience at a high-school speech tournament, stealing a few moments away from chaperones with a student from Iowa.

Like Charest, Davis turned to books to understand his sexual feelings. But unlike Charest, Davis didn’t have to look hard: “The Front Runner”—the story of a closeted track coach’s love for his openly gay runner—was a guide to gay relationships.

By 17, Davis was tired of keeping a journal to chart his lies to friends about girls he was interested in. After coming out to classmates, he went home, packed a bag in anticipation of being kicked out and told his parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But neither his parents nor his friends rejected him. “I never had a sense I was bad, only that other people thought it was wrong,” he said. “I never internalized it. I knew it was the other person’s problem.”

Davis attended the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s camp near San Francisco and returned home to Omaha to fight homophobia.

But when Nebraska voters passed a constitutional amendment banning gay civil unions, Davis grew weary of what he saw as an uphill battle.

Two years ago, he moved to Seattle, where he works as a community organizer at Gay City Health Project.

“I wanted to live in a place where I could see victories, not just defeats,” said Davis.

AIDS—A forgotten lesson?

Davis was a boy when a mysterious disease began appearing in Seattle hospitals where Charest worked in the late 1970s.

Charest was spared the fate of many gay men of his generation. In 1976—before HIV/AIDS erupted—he became involved with an attorney. By the time they parted 14 years later, the bathhouses had closed and safe sex was the watchword.

But the deaths of dozens of friends launched him on a spiritual journey that led to his ordination as a minister with the nondenominational Metropolitan Community Church in 1988. As AIDS continued to take its toll, he presided over so many memorial services that the smell of flowers would make him sick. Much as he celebrates the legalization of gay sex, he is alarmed that HIV infection rates are again on the rise, spiking 40 percent in King County this year. It worries him that young gay men haven’t heeded the lessons of the past.

“People have forgotten what it was like,” he said. “We’re going to see an AIDS epidemic come back that will knock our socks off.”

But Davis doesn’t want to go back to the days when sex was equated with fear. “For so long, the message was to protect yourself and wear a condom,” he said. “Today, it’s protect yourself and feel good about yourself. Emotional health has to be tended like physical health.”

Benchmark celebration

Hugh Charest will be on the sidewalk today watching as gays and lesbians, relatives and friends march down Broadway in the annual Gay Pride parade.

Brian Davis will be in the parade, marching for Gay City.

Similar parades will be held across the United States—an annual way to mark progress, or decry setbacks, in the gay-rights movement.

In Seattle, the parade will include a celebration of last week’s Supreme Court ruling.

For Charest, who spent much of his life closeted, the ruling removes a lifelong threat of being arrested for acting on his sexuality.

For Davis, born into different times, it affirms a life he has never apologized for.

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