A love letter to the ones that came before me

Rainbow Heart held by Man shirtless from Adobe Stock

Imagine having to tell your children that you are gay, wondering if they would still love you, or having to marry a woman to have the possibility of living a normal life and having to witness the death of many of your peers from a debilitating disease. This was the truth that three men from the Pride Center of New Jersey had to suffer.

Louis Natale, 63, James C. Jasion, 70, and David Rogoff, 76, experienced life as gay men in a time and culture where being homosexual was looked down upon. “I knew from an early age I was different. That it was taboo,” said Louis, who considers himself bisexual because he dated both men and women. “Being with a guy wasn’t acceptable in society at that time, and I covered half of my life up,” said Louis. As a result, Louis married a woman and had two children. Louis divorced his wife in 2007.

“I came out to my wife. She asked me two or three times, ‘are you gay?’ I kept denying it even after I moved into my own home. My lawyer told me not to come out until the divorce was final. So, I didn’t come out until maybe six months after the divorce was final. And I sent her a link to Billy Joel’s song ‘The Stranger’ and I said ‘what you were thinking is true. I’m gay’ and she accepted it.”

Louis was going to the Pride Center while he was still married; half of the men attending were also married. They supported each other, and helped each other come out to their relatives when the time was right.

Louis was inspired to come out by his friend Johnathan. Johnathan was having difficulty with a divorce but decided to come out to his children and everyone in his life. “I decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer. My wife kept saying, ‘put it off until they get through college. Don’t mess them up.’ I didn’t see how I was going to mess them up.

“Once I got divorced, I didn’t want to lie about anything,” said Louis. “I was terrified. I didn’t know if they were going to accept me. I kind of thought they would. I didn’t raise them to be hatemongers. I prepared a speech, and I sat down in front of the coffee table, and they sat on the couch. I went through it; my hands were shaking, and they thought I was going to die or something, and they got up and just gave me a hug and said it’s cool.”

A lonely public library, and a 14-year-old boy struggling with his sexuality went digging in the psychological books section. He found passages telling how homosexuality was a mental disorder and how it could be cured (often with inhumane treatments). He felt scared and confused and knew he had to hide.

This was the reality of James C. Jasion’s childhood. “I went to the library, and I slid to the back of the library to the psychological books section and found that the most positive, most merciful passages and articles were being written by a fellow named Irving Bieber. ‘Oh yes it can be cured’ [it would say]. Chemical aversion therapy, hormonal insulin aversion therapy, they’d show you pornographic pictures of men and make you throw up. Or better yet, they’d do electroshock therapy. That’s the kids who were ‘lucky’ whose parents had money, whose parents didn’t throw them out of the house onto the streets.”

Lots of street kids in the 1960s in New York were gay kids from down south who got thrown out. “Parents did that and it was perfectly fine to do that,” James painfully recalled. In September 1975, James was gay-bashed at the age of 24, two years after he finished attending Rutgers University. He went to a dance that an LGBTQ organization had, and it turned out to be one of the most painful nights of his life. “I went to a dance and someone asked me ‘do you wanna dance? The next minute there were green stars in front of my eyes and blood coming out of my chin. I needed four stitches. I had to go to Saint Peter’s hospital emergency room, and I was really afraid that Home News would see fit to print about that,” said James.

Two men kissing from Adobe Stock

James was so scared that he wanted to turn himself heterosexual. In late September 1975, James started dating his wife, Joan. There were times when he would sneak out to be with men. His wife caught him with a man. She asked, “Do you still love me?” James wanted to love her in a way that she wanted, but he couldn’t no matter how hard he tried.

“I wanted grandkids, I wanted kids, and I have two beautiful, brilliant daughters,” said James. James was married to his wife for 20-years. “I was starting to meet guys on AOL. She [and a friend of hers] came up and figured out my password,” said James. Joan kicked him out of the house and to this day they have a strained relationship.

“When I was in school and the boys got together in little hiding places to look at Playboy centerfolds, it had no interest for me at all,” recalled David with a laugh. In high school, he had a friend named Bob who was effeminate. They both shared a love for Broadway musicals. “Occasionally he would come after school. I would invite him to come over for a little while to my house. He lived not too far from there and we listened to Broadway musicals on my parents’ stereo,” said David. When it was time for Bob to go home, his father walked in the door. “They shook hands and Bob shook hands with a limp wrist and it was clearly kind of effeminate. So he left, and my father came into the house and looked at me and said, ‘you shouldn’t be friends with him.’ I said, ‘why?’ because I knew what my father was referring to. He said, ‘because people will think you’re like him.’ I choke up just thinking about that,” recalled David.

David said that his friend Bob would later die of AIDS. David said that he created a closet for himself, using his masculinity to fit in and date women for a short period of time.

“Then came the AIDS epidemic, closeted spaces became breeding grounds for a fatal virus.” David worked in a hospice. “We began seeing people coming in with this strange syndrome/symptom and then dying within hours or days of being admitted.”

At that time AIDS was referred to as a gay disease. Working in hospice, David found the strength to come out because of a young man whose name was Jack. Jack’s parents and his partner were in the hospital when David got a call about someone who was admitted. “I knew the name because a couple of years before that I had worked in the counseling part of the hospital. I counseled a young man who was this guy’s partner…so I go and there is this very sweet Jewish couple, he’s a doctor, and they’re sitting there with their arm around a young man who was the person I had counseled.” David offered his and the hospital’s support, asking them if there was anything they could do? “They put their arm around Barry, and they said, ‘Barry is a member of our family and whatever support you offer us, we want you to offer to him as well.”

“So here is this Jewish couple embracing the partner of their son, who is now in the intensive care unit. It was all I could do to not explode right there, seeing what’s possible between parents and child.” Jack was in a coma for some time, but the support he received from people overwhelmed David. Many people, professionals, nursing staff, a large majority of them gay, came to support Jack and his family.

Once Jack came out of the coma David went down to visit him and the conversation that transpired changed David forever. “I said to the parents, ‘Why don’t you get a cup of coffee or something? Take a break and I will sit with Jack for a while.’ They leave, Jack looked at me and said, ‘So David, what’s it like for you being gay?’ and I said, ‘Jack, why would you ask?’ He said, ‘Because I always wondered?’

“I remember exactly what I said to him. I said, ‘But Jack, it’s like nothing because I don’t do anything with it.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘How can you live that way?’ I said, ‘I have to think about that, Jack, but thank you for asking.’” David questioned himself, “Why? Why would you continue to live this way?”

He then made up his mind that he would come out and he gradually did. “I had already started coming out to people and everyone was going to this march in Washington around 1991. So, up until then, I was living as a single, interesting man. Professional career, and all that. I went to the march on Washington. It had a million people. People came all over the country. My mother asked my sister, ‘Why was David in Washington this weekend?’ and she told them. My mother’s response, ‘We would rather have gone to our grave not knowing.’” David’s father refused to speak to him. “Within a couple of years my father was producing a list of famous gay Jewish people,” said David with a smile.