In 1938, eighty years ago, two men from my hometown cruised the same downtown park, hoping for some kind of homosexual connection. It’s unknown if they ever met. Their lives took drastically different paths.
Desire or loneliness or curiosity or happenstance drew Jack Pierson and Homer F___ to the footpaths of Willson Park in Flint back in the late 1930s, then planted with bounteous bushes and trees and lined with park benches along its perimeters.
Public parks, tracts of real estate kept natural or purposely landscaped with trees and foliage to provide the feel of nature, have long served as clandestine, and not so clandestine gathering places for men we now label as gay and bisexual.
From the pioneering 1919 German silent film Anders als die Andern (known in English as Different from the Others), we know that homosexually oriented men cruised the parks of Berlin just after World War I. From the diary of Carter Bealer, published in altered form as Jeb and Dash, we know that Lafayette Park across from the White House served as a hot cruising ground around the same time and for years after.
George Chauncey’s Gay New York documents how Bryant Park was a noted “meeting place for young ‘fairies’” during the Roaring Twenties and the Ramble section of Central Park became known as “the Fruited Plain.” From John Howard’s Radical History Review article “The Library, the Park, and the Pervert,” we know of similar goings on in Atlanta’s downtown park in the 1950s.
The very first oral history interview I ever conducted was with Jack Pierson, on March 10, 1990. I barely knew what I was doing, so fortunately he was a raconteur, a Leftist, chain-smoking, deliciously quirky 76-year-old raconteur. A photo of him in the collection of the Flint Institute of Arts so captures him that I can almost hear his gravelly voice bellowing from the image.
Between The Lines published an condensed version of the interview in September 1995.
Willson Park after dark loomed large in Jack’s sex life in his early 20s, though he ached for more than sex. “I just didn’t want to be a cock, I wanted to be a whole person,” he said.
One night, when he was 25, he met 19-year-old Robert Purcell on a park bench. “And Robert was sitting there and I sat down beside him. He was, to me, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my whole life, you know,” Jack explained.
Jack and Robert subsequently shared their life, moving to Manhattan following World War II and later relocating to Long Island, until Roberts’s death in 1976. They were together thirty-eight years.
Homer F___ began to pick up men in downtown movie houses and on the streets of Flint for anonymous sex when he was around 24. Evidence of this comes from his own admission, documented in a police report from when Homer was arrested, in July 1938 at age 29, for soliciting a young man in the Strand Theater.
According to the report, he regularly met willing partners and had taken another man he met to Willson Park for sex just two weeks prior. “He denied any knowledge as to these various men[‘]s identities.”
Homer pled guilty to gross indecency before Judge H.D. Black, whose questioning was recorded in the formal transcript of the proceeding in Homer’s case file:
Q. Have you ever had that experience before?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. With other boys?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. How many times?
Q. Are you willing to be sterilized?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. That seems to be your trouble?
A. Yes, sir.
In the end, Homer escaped sterilization thanks to the intervention of a minister from the Salvation Army. He was sentenced to three years’ probation by Judge Stephen J. Roth. (Roth later achieved national renown as a federal district judge who ruled that suburban districts had to integrate with students in the Detroit schools to remedy segregation, a decision later famously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley.)
“I understand by Dr. Brain, psychiatrist, that if there is any hope for you it is through religion,” Roth told Homer.
In the years that followed, Homer served in World War II, got married, moved to Washington State, fathered five children, and became a minister with the Salvation Army.
It is unknown whether he acted on homosexual desires ever again.
Because of this, I have chosen to withhold Homer’s full name so that it will not be snagged by Internet search engines.
Turning points in the lives of Jack Pierson and Homer F___ from eighty years ago ripple on as stories worth knowing and remembering.