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Evolving Door


My late, maternal grandmother, Gummy, whom I loved very deeply and still miss to this day, was a bit of a conservative. On the one hand, that isn't so odd, since she grew up and lived most of her life in rural Illinois, during a time (she was born in 1928) that was already more traditionalist than the world we live in today. She also believed in life after death, reincarnation and alien visitations, so conversations with her ran the gamut, and that's one of the things I liked about her.
 
I mention Gummy because film aficionado and TCM host Robert Osborne passed away yesterday, aged 84. That may seem like a non sequitur, but the one made me think of the other because the two came from the same generation, and it has come to (public) light that Osborne was gay, and I remember how my grandmother treated the subject of homosexuality on occasion.

Gummy was telling me about a male hairdresser who lived in her town back when she was growing up. "He was so flamboyant," she said with an impish grin. "There would be so many women in his shop, and he'd regale them with stories while doing their hair. They loved it. They loved him." Gummy then got very serious. "But nothing ever happened between them," she said, "because he was gay." Her voice became stern. "Now, everyone knew he was homosexual. All you had to do was look at him. But he never talked about it. He kept it quiet." Gummy would nod her head approvingly after telling the story, a tone of respect in her voice for this man who dared not speak publicly about who he might have loved.
 
I was never out to Gummy while she was alive, and when she talked the way she did about the male hairdresser from her small, rural hometown, it always made my heart sink. There were so many stereotypes and generalizations in what she said, not to mention being okay with a man stifling who he was in order not to make the townsfolk feel icky. Then again, if there's something we as a society are often guilty of, it is judging previous generations by our own standards. Sometimes, the judgment is warranted. But I think it glosses over the nuances and influence that comes from being from a different generation.
 
When the LA Times' obituary for Robert Osborne identified and quoted from David Staller, his "partner of 20 years," I doubt that the relationship just now being confirmed was accidental. For years I'd suspected that Osborne was gay, and yet the fact that he wasn't publicly out of the closet wasn't too surprising. He was, after all, from the same generation as my grandmother. The same generation where husbands and wives would feel the freedom to have the public know they were a couple, yet appreciate it when a gay or lesbian couple would quietly not do the same.
 
Society has an influence on us. There is no obfuscation of that fact. And though society may change, the mark left upon us when we're young is often deep and damning. That is why it is difficult for older people to integrate themselves into a more modern age. Of course there are always the exceptions to the rule. That is how society often progresses. For every closeted hairdresser in rural America, there was an out Quentin Crisp in England. But there's a price to be paid for being out in an unforgiving society. Ask Oscar Wilde, John Gielgud, Matthew Shepard or Alan Turing.
 
So no, it doesn't surprise me that a man who was 84-years-old and hosted a channel with many conservative viewers kept his private life private. But I am glad that it has come to light now. Of course there will be some who will cry out, 'Why does it matter?' and to them I would respond that it matters because of all the closeted lives who came before, who were, in the Land of the Free, denied the freedom of being open about who they were, lest they suffered the consequences.

 

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