Nov 24, 2013

Summer 1981: Meeting a Russian at the Gay Rights March

During my senior year at Augustana, I became obsessed with Russia: I signed up for courses in Russian language, Russian History, and Russian Culture and Civilization.  All because of a visit to Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 1981.

It was a very busy summer, with my professor's handcuff party, Brian telling me what the graffiti meant, my brother getting married, and Adam and I bunking together. And in June, Thomas, the Episcopalian priest with three boyfriends, called to invite me to the Iowa Gay Rights March.

I had never heard of such a thing.

"We march to protest police harassment, disCooperstownination in jobs and housing, sodomy laws, that sort of thing.  We've been doing it for a few years, always on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots."

I had never heard of the Stonewall Riots, either.  But count me in.

I drove out to Des Moines on Friday the 27th of June for a strategic meeting.  What to do if we were attacked, where to meet if we had to scatter, what do do if we were arrested


We had a parade permit, so the police should be cooperative, but you never know.

On Saturday the 28th at 2:00, 13 gay men and 4 lesbians gathered at Western Gateway Park with signs saying "Stop Gay Police Harassment," "Gay is Good," "We Are Your Children," and "Gay People are People Too."  Maybe not the catchiest slogans, but idea was to get the word "gay" out there, to let spectators know that there were gay people even in Iowa.

But the newspapers refused to announce the march, and no reporters covered it, so no one knew about it.  As we marched east on Locust Street the 13 blocks to City Hall, the only spectators were people who happened to be passing by, and others who ran into the stores and offices to fetch their friends.


Mostly they gawked and pointed and laughed. Look at the weirdos!  Imagine, there's some of them right here in Iowa!  But no one tried to break our heads, so we judged the march a success.

Today it's a Gay Pride Parade, not a Gay Rights March, with hundreds of marchers and thousands of spectators.  It's promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, and in 2013 the Lieutenant Governor visited.

The Russian connection:  this time when Thomas said "You too, Boomer," I consented, and hit it off with his friend Mickey, short, blond, and tanned, with a smooth, muscular physique.  And erudite: a Russian major at the University of Iowa, later a translator, he spoke Russian, German, Czech, and Polish.  He told me about gay Russians like the composer Tchaikovsky, who scored The Nutcracker and the dancer Nijinsky, who scandalized audiences with his homoerotic interpretation  of "The Afternoon of a Faun."

Iowa City was only about 45 minutes from Rock Island, so Mickey and I stayed in touch, visiting each other several times during my senior year at Augustana.  And when it came time to register for fall classes, I saw "Elementary Russian" and "Russian History," and crammed them into my schedule.

16 years later, I dated a Russian twink named Yuri.