Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives

The title of Howard Brown’s posthumously published 1976 autobiography captures the prevailing experience of LGBTQ people born to a certain era: Familiar Faces., Hidden Lives.

In early 1991, in the early stages of researching the gay past of my hometown of Flint, I met Al Kerr, an 86-year-old local travel agent who had, in the late 1950s, lent his mimeograph machine for the Detroit chapter of the Mattachine Society to print its newsletter.

Mr. Kerr would not let me tape record our conversation.  He told me about a friend in Washington D.C. whose home had been raided at the height of what historian David K. Johnson later dubbed the Lavender Scare.  Police had seized the friend’s address book and he warned Mr. Kerr to be careful.  Mr. Kerr quickly threw out anything that might incriminate him: letters, photos, ONE magazines.  How jarring to realize the everyday terror of being found out, a terror that he felt not just decades earlier but throughout his entire life.

I later found evidence of Mr. Kerr’s numerous connections with the homophile movement that I imagine helped sustain him.  Besides subscribing to ONE, he corresponded with the New York Mattachine Society and attended at least one of their annual conventions.  Letters from Mr. Kerr are among items microfilmed from the International Gay Information Center collection at the New York Public Library.  His name is part of the record of U.S. LGBTQ history.

Not long after I met Mr. Kerr, I went to interview Andrew Jackson Transue.  In a court case I found, Mr. Transue had served as defense counsel for a man arrested in the 1960s on a gross indecency charge.

Mr. Transue was, I knew, the dean of the Genesee County Bar, an esteemed local attorney long active in the Democratic Party.  He had served one term in Congress as Flint’s rep, elected on the coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landslide 1936 re-election.

My step-dad knew Mr. Transue from the Knights of the Roundtable, a group of downtown lawyers and other professionals who met for decades to converse and debate over lunch at the Masonic Temple Dining Room.  I’d witnessed Mr. Transue egging on some of his Republican lunchmates the few times I got to sit in.  When I was a ninth-grader and editor of our student newspaper at Longfellow Junior High, Mr. Transue arranged a ticket for me to see Jimmy Carter at a campaign rally for the 1978 midterm elections.  I remember visiting with Mr. Transue and his wife in their home several blocks from Cook Elementary where I attended grade school.

In arranging the 1991 meeting, I had expected the 87-year-old icon to be sympathetic, or at least open-minded.  I was mistaken.  The visit to his office felt downright hostile, with Mr. Transue at one point saying he did not think the Almighty would have created homosexuals, that he didn’t think it was part of His plan.  “How could the species reproduce?” Mr. Transue asked.

Here’s a portion of what I wrote about the encounter in my journal at the time:

“I would suggest you try and live a normal life,” he said, shaking my hand.  My heart sank.  He did not understand.  He was asking me to do what I could not possibly do.  To him, I was a felon, a pervert, a sinner… like I was defective, irredeemable, a misfit.  Total utter rejection.  Fears and feelings I had not felt to such a degree since high school.  Trauma and hurt.  Eighty-seven years old and totally oblivious to such a prevalent phenomenon in society.

I was appalled that someone so learned could be so ignorant.  The hatred I was feeling from him clashed sharply with the respect I had previously had for him.

The old man claimed to have never known any homosexuals in his life.  In fact, I knew that he had dinner once a week at an area restaurant with Al Kerr.  But, of course, the ethos against outing prevented me from disclosing that Mr. Transue’s bachelor friend was queer.  The whole incident opened my eyes to the extent that older generations (and even my own) could be blind to the many queer lives around them.  And it sensitized me, as well, to the level of hostility that queer folks experienced, in subtle and not so subtle ways, even from people with whom they were close.

Mr. Kerr died in 1993.  Mr. Transue died in 1995.

Tim Retzloff

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