The Unforgotten Generation
By Leila Elihu
In a tall brown building, overlooking Jamaica Pond, sits Sam Goldfarb sipping his hot Russian tea from an antique China cup. The China teacup is one of the many antiquities he has displayed around his apartment. His walls are covered with artwork, mostly from France, with the exception of a tiny original sketch by Picasso, which he says he bought for a mere $2 from a man in Greenwich Village who thought it was a fake.
Sam, a retired psychologist with white hair and black eyeglasses, can be seen walking around Boston in his fashionable outfits that consist of an orange laptop bag and occasionally, a porkpie hat with a yellow feather. Although he is “Doctor Goldfarb” on paper, he introduces himself to people (of all ages) as Sam. Every Thursday morning, Sam walks from his high-rise in Jamaica Plain to the Huntington Street bus stop and rides all the way to Café Emmanuel on Newbury Street in Back Bay. There he meets with people like him, older LGBT individuals from the greater Boston area.
At a time when the poster child for gays in America is usually a young and muscular man, it seems the older generation has faded into the background. Although this generation may seem to have been forgotten, it is very much alive in Boston, and Sam is the perfect poster child for them.
The elders (50 or so men and sometimes one woman) meet every Thursday afternoon at Emmanuel Church on Newbury St., which transforms into Café Emmanuel, a place where they can socialize and enjoy a nice meal together. Sam gets there early to run a book group with some of the men; right now they’re reading Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star. When the book club finishes, the tables gradually fill up until the whole room is buzzing with friends chatting away. As the men trickle out, Sam stays on, mingling and often joking with them.
“You look nice today. What happened?” he says playfully to one of the regulars. Despite the camaraderie, each individual is has a unique story. One man, Ron, is a retired Opera singer who goes two-stepping and line dancing every month for the organization, Gays for Patsy. Another regular is Angus, a Jewish southerner who was a secretary for Tennessee Williams. Despite the variety in their life experiences, there is one tacit commonality that bonds these individuals on a whole other level. All of them, including Sam, dealt with the obstacles of being gay during a tempestuous time in American history.
“It was awful,” says Sam, “you never could tell anyone.” He recounts the fear of just simply going to a bar and always having to stand near backdoor exits in case the police raided it. This was common in gay bars because serving alcohol to homosexuals was illegal at the time. Once, Sam says, he had just gone in for a beer with a friend. The beer he drank didn’t sit well with him and he became more inebriated than usual (he attributes this to being Jewish since the preferred drink of choice is wine). As soon as the police came, his friend told him to leave but Sam was too drunk to move. He froze. When approached by a police officer, Sam had to think quickly and told him that he was a student writing a paper on gay culture. The officer let him go.
Living in constant fear is a common thread among many gays who attend Café Emmanuel. Many hid their homosexuality from the world. Some had even been married to women, including Sam’s husband, Stephen, who has a daughter from his previous marriage.
“Oh, my mother tried to talk me into a marriage,” says Sam laughing. “But the woman she picked for me was a lesbian!” Being a psychologist, he is very receptive of other’s emotions and senses that some people at the café are still living double lives, which magnifies the importance of places like Café Emmanuel. “It’s a good outlet—it’s a great outlet for people,” Sam says.
Café Emmanuel is one of several meal sites sponsored by Ethos and the LGBT Aging Project. They are both nonprofit organizations devoted to the well-being of elderly members of the LGBT community. Bob Linscott, assistant director of the Aging Project, comes to the café every Thursday and has formed strong bonds with many of the men, especially Sam due to their shared devotion to social work. Linscott says that the ultimate goal is for people to be able to age in their own homes and not have to go to “some God-awful nursing home.” The role of these nonprofit organizations is to make sure that mainstream agencies are also considering the needs of the LGBT community.
“It was not okay to be gay when they were coming of age,” Linscott says of Sam’s generation. He stresses that the familiar fears have morphed into different kinds of anxieties as the group ages. Frank, for example, wonders about what will happen when it’s time to get assistance from home care professionals. Frank, who often dresses in drag, doesn’t worry so much about keeping his identity secret anymore, but he wonders about what might happen as he gets older, becomes more vulnerable, and needs assistance with personal care. He wonders if home care worker would discriminate against him because of his sexual orientation. Ethos, as the first mainstream agency specifically to address the needs of gay and lesbian elders, is a comfort to people like Frank.
Changes in the health care options for the elder generation of gays now will continue as the next generations age. One of the most important parts of places like Café Emmanuel is its creation of an intergenerational, gay community. Young gays, like Boston University student Justin Lievano, volunteer their time at Café Emmanuel in order to give back to the people who paved the way for his success as an openly gay individual.
The summer before his freshman year, Lievano came to campus a couple weeks early to volunteer through the BU’s First Year Student Outreach Project, also known as FYSOP. “I remember going into it and thinking that there is no way I am going to have anything in common with these guys,” says Lievano. “Yes, they’re gay and I’m gay, but they have different values and are from a different generation.” That view, fortunately, proved to be incorrect, and he continued to volunteer at the Café during his spring semester. Lievano finds that giving his time to help at the Café is a way he can give back to the people that paved the way for him, which he says puts his world into context.
“Had I been born forty or fifty years prior to now, I might not have been able to get a job or own a house or go to school because I’m gay,” he says. To fully understand the period that Lievano is speaking of, it is best to begin with the event that sparked the gay rights movement: the Stonewall Riots. In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was a popular bar that catered to LGBT people in New York’s Greenwich Village, a bar that Sam had been to many times. This was during a time when serving alcohol to homosexuals was deemed illegal by the State Liquor Authority (SLA), a prohibition that the New York Mafia exploited by opening illegal bars and clubs. “We didn’t go to drink so much as to be with other gay people,” says Sam. Stonewall Inn was owned by a Mafioso known as “Fat Tony” who paid off the police, but the club was still subject to raids by the SLA.
The common raid consisted of the police arresting those dressed in drag or without identification. This happened routinely until one Saturday night, June 28th, 1969. That night, the community fought back. As the police officers were arresting some members inside the bar, crowds of people slowly began to gather outside. As a lesbian woman was being taken into a police car, the crowd began to resist the police by throwing objects at the car and eventually, the bar. To protect themselves, the officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn. The nights following the event were just as momentous. Word spread quickly and more people came to riot outside the small, brick-covered bar.
“They were amazing,” says Sam as if reliving the moment. Though he wasn’t present at Stonewall the night of the riot, Sam says he faced his own discrimination, and not only in bars, but at Harvard University. Freshman and sophomores were required to live in on-campus housing, but Sam was the only freshman who lived off campus. Being so open about his sexuality, he says he was denied a place to live and was forced to stay with friends. He often went to his advisor but was turned away, until he decided to live with friends from BU. “We had this beautiful apartment, and I liked it, but going to that school, which was so not me,” he says shaking his head. “It was very elitist and who-your-family-was.” He adds, “And being Jewish wasn’t helpful either. “
When he completed his sophomore year, Sam made the switch to Boston University, which he says was more liberal. He stayed there until he completed his doctorate, in Psychology. The bigotry Sam says he faced at Harvard taught him an important lesson. “The Harvard experience taught me how to fight. It taught me that I’ve got to stand up and be who I am,” he says with conviction. The men of Sam’s generation either had to concede to the discrimination or fight against it, and many chose the latter. Their crusade for equality paved the way for people like Bob and Justin, the younger generation of gays.
“They opened up so many doors for people in my generation who are gay,” Lievano says graciously. Sam and many of the others at the café share the feeling that they are appreciated for the work the older generation did to make changes. However, they also express that many young gays simply don’t know the history. Jerry, an elder at the site, compares it to a scene he saw at the Kennedy Museum in Boston. Many kids in high school and younger were visiting the museum, and it struck him that to them, Kennedy was just a name they had heard their whole lives. Kennedy is an intangible entity for people that didn’t live through that time. “The young kids hear things, but they can’t entirely relate to what happened,” he says. He points out that people don’t have the same sense of urgency about issues when they don’t live through them, personally. “It’s like AIDS now. AIDS is viewed as a controllable disease like diabetes. Younger gays didn’t have to live through the losses of the 80s. It’s something they can’t quite relate to,” he adds. According to Linscott, the struggles are “An aspect of gay life--That’s not in history books.” He says the only way for young gays to fully grasp the experience is by sitting, chatting, and having a meal together.
Regardless of feeling appreciated or not, all the elders believe that the fight for equality is still an ongoing process that must be continued by the young generation. “I’m glad I could pave the way,” says Sam, “but they have to finish it.” Their ultimate goal is to be respected for who they are and be fully apart of society. Sam sums it up by saying, “I don’t care who you sleep with. You shouldn’t care who I sleep with.”
On May 17th, 2004, the day when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, Sam and his partner, Stephen, waited in the line outside Boston City Hall early that morning. They were the 52nd couple to be married in the state, he says. As he looks at the view from his balcony, Sam can see his life’s journey spanned out in front of him. Cambridge is in the distance, Boston University to his left, and Jamaica Plain to his right. He looks out, not exhausted from his past, but excited for the future. “I have always treated people nicely and my life has really turned around. I’m with a wonderful person. It’s our anniversary this month—16 years.”