I’d Like You to Know
Identity and Awareness
Mentoring and Support
Spirituality and Religion
Spokane in Perspective
I always figured that I was fortunate, when I was dealing with [my sexual awareness], that I had [a few people] that invested a lot in me. When I came away from [my first emotional connection to a man]—and fortunately a very wonderful guy who was very supportive and a wonderful mentor—[he] left me with, “Well, now you’ve got a decision to make in your life.” At that point my wife was pregnant, so we had a child coming. He left me with basically the instruction that, “You need to deal with the issues and decide what you’re going to do. You’ve got some responsibilities. You have another glimpse of your own personality at this point.” His parting comment to me when we left Europe and came back to our respective worlds in the U.S. was, “Whatever you do, don’t ever allow anyone to put you down for who you choose to sleep with.”
I think of one [other] instance [in which I was mentored], when I was still working for the publishing company. I was doing a workshop for one of our representatives in New Mexico and I knew the husband-wife team really well. Great people. They had a friend who was gay and coming out, flagrantly. [Laughs.] So the wife and I were having lunch at the office, and we were talking about this Richard. Her comment, was sort of watching the process and going, “Ooh, I don’t know that you need to do that.” [Laughs.] The wife was saying to me, “I have no problem with people who are gay. I just don’t know why he has to make such a big deal of it. Why doesn’t he just be himself and live his life?” That went right into my psyche: be yourself and live your life. You don’t have to make a huge big deal out of it. Just be comfortable with who you are. I think that little phrase was so important to me during the next couple, three years, as I came back into a single and then a partnered life. Just be yourself. For her to know that that was a major mentoring moment—probably [she was] totally unaware.
Probably four years into the teaching career, I went into one of the gay bars and ran into a couple of friends that were sitting there. Walked over to say “Hello” to them. They promptly introduced me to a new young fellow who was “from Portland visiting for the summer,” who was a student of mine that had just graduated in June. [Laughs.] First time I ever ran into a student in a gay setting. The kid of course was panicked, because all of his story of what he was doing in the gay bar in Spokane was just being blown to smithereens as they’re introducing him to his teacher. He didn’t know what I was going to say! I smiled, shook hands, and said, “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Spokane. Hope you’re enjoying your stay.” He relaxed. [Laughs.] We went ahead and visited probably for an hour or so before I headed home.
The other issue for the student was that I knew he was 19 years old, and not 21 [of legal age to be in a bar.] When I got a chance, away from the other people, just quietly, I said, “I understand—I suspect I understand at least—why you’re here. You need to know that you’re really being risky being here at your age. If you need conversation or opportunity to talk, I’m available, so feel free to contact me.” That summer, we probably ran into each other two or three times, and never did talk too much until—I would say it was September or October. [We] had a situation to really be sincere. I finally said to him, “I don’t quite get it. When we’re in a social situation, you’re very verbal, bubbly, and talking. As soon as it’s one-on-one, you don’t have a thing to say.” He told me, “Well, I have to be perfectly honest. I had such a huge crush on you in high school. When we’re together, I’m just tongue-tied. I don’t know what to say.” So that was comfortable for me. I said, “Well, okay, fine. It helps put it in perspective.”
He said, “When I was in high school . . .” He had gotten involved in some of the female impersonators and the drag people, and they were doing drugs. At that time, there was what was called “the Fruit Loop”: it was around the bus depot downtown. A lot of the underage kids were down there. They were watching the drug culture and . . . the real sleaze of the city. That was their view of gay world. He said, “I’d go down and watch the bus loop. I’d come to class the next day and look at you. People kept saying they thought you were gay. I was looking at that life [on the streets with drugs and prostitution], and I knew I didn’t belong in that. I kept saying to myself, ‘There has to be something else.’ I’d come to the classroom and I’d sit and watch you. It kept me going with the hope that there’s a better life out there.” When he told me that, and when I talked to Gene about it, I said, “I don’t know why the hell I’ve been so paranoid about kids knowing that I’m gay. It’s going to be in the gossip lines. Some are going to deal with it and some aren’t, but for those that need to know it, it’s fine.” I thought, “They need that role model.”
I had a student in one of my English classes that I knew was having some problems. I said to him one time, “I want you to know that I’m aware of what I’m seeing happening in the classroom, and I don’t like it. But,” I said, “I also know that if I say something I might make it worse. I’m going to leave it to you. If you want me to say something, I’m happy to do it. If you’re okay with where you’re at, just know that I don’t like what I see.” He said, “No, I’m fine.”
At that time there was nothing for an underage kid. You know, Odyssey [Youth Center] hadn’t come around yet. There was no youth programs. There was no resources. So, I was willing to run the risk—and there really was a risk—in being okay with them knowing about it, and talking about it. [As a teacher,] I couldn’t do anything legally. You couldn’t counsel. I could answer their questions, but you couldn’t do anything intervention-wise. We had a [school] counselor that was good. I could refer [students] to her. Toward the latter part of my teaching career, Odyssey had come on the scene. I was aware of that, because Gene was on the board. So I was able to refer that way.
I had several kids that identified or understood they were gay when they were in my classroom. Since then have come across several of them and always had good follow-up from it. One student—probably five or six years ago—this is 15 years, 20 years since he was in high school in my classroom. He said, “I don’t think I ever told you how important you were.” We were just at a social situation. I laughed. I said, “Don’t tell me how important I was.” He said, “No, I’m serious. You were just you. We knew you were gay, and it was okay. You were just you. You were just there. You were helping us, and you were doing the things that needed to be done. I’ve always just loved the fact that you were a solid, you know, something in my high school.” Once in a while you get those feedback situations.
I have tried a lot to invest in other people: people who are struggling with coming out, or whatever the issues are. I don’t consider myself a qualified counselor, but I do have at least an understanding of the process. It’s not that I have any answers for them. It’s that you need to listen, let them reflect, make a suggestion once in a while, encourage them to do what feels right, you know. Be yourself.[Gene and I] try to be [good mentors]. We’ve had a good life and continue to enjoy a good life. I think that’s an important thing for people to know—whether you’re looking at the gay world, straight world, doesn’t matter. You really do make a lot of your own life. You can knuckle under to some of the criticisms and pressures that are there, or you can accept and deal with them and rise above it and keep going. That’s just a personal philosophy. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with sexuality. [Laughs.]
After I left the classroom, I found out that there had been at least one incident of a parent being very concerned that their son was in the classroom with a gay teacher. They had complained bitterly to a board member who sat them down and said, you know, “This person has an impeccable reputation, is very well-qualified, and has done nothing wrong. So what do you want me to do? As soon as he makes a move that’s out of line, that is inappropriate, you let me know about it, and we’ll deal with it, but until then—go home.” The son was a very good student, very popular student. In fact, since I had a photography program, I made it a habit of making extra lab time available because a lot of kids needed more time. He came in a lot after school hours, did lab work and that sort of thing. I’m sure that’s what concerned the parents.
I didn’t hear that story until years later. I was out of that school district entirely. We were involved in some political action for gay rights issues through the groups here in Spokane. The board member was [an ally,] participating in these events and supporting. We sat after one of these events in conversation and were talking about the progress that had been made. This would’ve been probably into the ‘90s at that point. He told me. He said, “Did you know that we’d had a complaint about you?” And I said, “No. Never heard a word about it.” He told me the background. He had shared it with my principal, but my principal was very supportive of me and the work I was doing, so I was never aware of it, until years later.[In 2001, Gene and I were interviewed by the Spokesman Review]. At that point I was in the administration in District 81. I was a ten-month employee, so I wasn’t in the office when it actually published. By the end of the month, I was back in the office. An assistant superintendent just walked by my cubicle, noted that I was back, walked by and said, “Well, good morning! You’re back.” And went on her way. Then about three minutes later, she reappeared at the cubicle and said, “Do you have a minute?” And I said, “Sure!” She sat down and she said, “I want you to know how much I appreciated the article in the newspaper. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. For years I have been advocating for these issues. You never know who you’re speaking for. It was so gratifying to see that article, to know you, know your role in the district, and go ‘There’s a face. That’s who I’m speaking for.’”
“Gays Who Believe,” Spokesman Review, 5 August 2001.
Sources: Interview with Susan Williams on 3 December 2006, held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 30 November 2012 and on 27 February 2014.