A Gay Man Among Men
“I am sorry to tell you that Bruce passed away two months ago in April.”
My fear’s were realized when Bruce’s sister spoke those words. She had phoned to tell me she received the note I had sent her brother asking if he was okay. Now I knew. He wasn’t.
I had called Bruce’s apartment about a week earlier, after not hearing from him for a while, and got a recording stating, “this number is no longer in service.” It seemed very odd that his phone was disconnected. I immediately mailed my note to him inquiring about his whereabouts. He did like to travel a lot, so maybe he was wandering about Cairo, but that wasn’t the case. Bruce’s sister informed me he had a stroke and fell to the floor—and probably didn’t suffer at all. Bruce was eighty-three and had been coping with his share of system breakdowns. So, it wasn’t a shock to hear this, but it was a sad and lonely note of finality, one that has echoed for weeks, months, and years later. Bruce had been my therapist on and off for about 25 years. He was always there when I needed him. He was my confidant, my teacher, and my trusted counselor. Such people are not easy to come by in this world.
I started seeing Bruce for counseling during the late 1970’s. I had been living in New York City for close to two years and struggling with trying to have some kind of career and with coming to terms with my sexual orientation. My therapists at college had been trying to guide me into the straight life, convinced I would be happier once I had a relationship with a woman. However, I was now 24, living in a city that was erupting into full-blown gay liberation, and wanted nothing to do with the passionless option of heterosexuality. I wanted to follow my deepest yearnings, and that was very possible in Gay Gotham. Clubs, baths, bars, multiple gay publications in the newsstands; it was a world I never thought possible, a cornucopia of gay delights, and I wanted to throw caution to the wind and indulge myself.
However, as much as I wanted to partake in the feast that waited outside my upper Westside apartment door, I was inhibited, and conflicted about my feelings. I was still semi-closeted, unsure of myself, and fearful of what giving myself over to gayness might mean; after all we had been taught that it was a certain road to hell and a prescription for potential madness. My entire gay generation was in the process of coming out at that time, and many of us were tiptoeing out of our common closet. We weren’t sure if the waters were safe. We were on an untraveled road; few had gone before us, so there were no directions, no advice, and no assurance of where we might end up. We could have used some guides. I was lucky to find one.
I saw an ad in the Village Voice for an organization called Gay Counseling. The organization was a group of therapists and counselors who wanted to help gay folk like me deal with all of the psychological difficulties we face growing up feeling alienated, abnormal, rejected, and even despised. I made an appointment, and after my intake interview, I was referred to Bruce who became my counselor. He was a volunteer and clients’ fees were based on income. My income was so low at the time, that I paid a very nominal fee of $10 a week to see him. It is almost a miracle that something like Gay Counseling was ever created. Who would have dreamed when I was a budding gay adolescent that there would be, ever in a thousand years, an organization created to help people like me? Its establishment was certainly an act of great charity and compassion, and Bruce was a saint for volunteering his services to the organization, and to our LGBT community. We had been oppressed for so very, very long, and the time was right to say to the world, and to ourselves “no more.” Gay Counseling and Bruce were there to help us find that voice and strengthen it.
For two years, I met weekly with Bruce in a small plain room in a church in Gramercy Park. It was very simply furnished with two folding chairs and a desk with a phone on it, an obvious shoestring operation. Bruce was a gentle presence but not a shrinking one. He was tall, thin, graying and graceful, and a generation or more older than I. He was compassionate but didn’t offer pity or tolerate self-pity. He was direct and honest. We talked about everything and, of course, explored my difficult childhood and the resulting “unfinished business” I had accumulated over the years. Bruce told me over and over again that my major issue was that I was too self-critical. I had internalized the criticism I received from society as being “different” from other boys, and from my own father who was so critical of me that he didn’t speak to me for two years. Bruce became my non-critical father. He had had a similar experience growing up, and felt he had an affinity for my particular problems and issues. He took an interest in me, supported me, and accepted me for who I was, faults and all. During our time together, I began to feel my burden ease; my heart open up, and my self-criticism abate. I was learning to accept myself as a gay man and enjoy it. I was eventually able to enter a relationship and it still continues 34 years later.
I continued to see Bruce on and off through the years, privately at his apartment whenever I needed his help. He was there to help me through several crises. Over the years, I became involved in Eastern Philosophy including both Yoga and Buddhism. Bruce was well versed in those subjects, and was able to help me understand them more deeply and apply the teachings to my daily struggles. Bruce embodied one of the main tenets of Yoga and Buddhism– selfless service, and a dedication to helping others find enlightenment and liberation. He offered his skills and experience as a counselor to a new generation of gay men that didn’t want to live a life of lies and repression. He understood that by working to uplift his community, he in turn uplifted himself. He is an unsung hero, that rare individual who walks the walk, and reaches for the highest good.
Many young gay people today have elders to look to who have gone through the coming out experience and can offer advice on a myriad of topics from safer sex to wedding arrangements. We had much less of a support network, with perhaps a smattering of gay elders who could help us learn how to navigate in a world of secrets and duplicity. Bruce was somehow ahead of his time in learning to come out of the closet and accept himself. I don’t really know what prompted his progressive nature. Perhaps it was those years he lived in Europe as a young man, and sat at cafés and talked philosophy on the left bank of Paris. Perhaps it was the time he spent in therapy himself. He went through a long stint of psychotherapy earlier in his life, which he claimed had a tremendously positive impact upon him; so much so that he thought it essential to pass on his lessons learned to others in need. I recall seeing him walking down the street one Spring day in New York City when the sun had finally come out after a long grey and cold spell, and everyone had come out of their dark, small apartments to soak up the warmth and light. He was walking down Seventh Avenue, his posture tall and erect, and his arms swinging freely as he glided down the street; only gravity seemed to be keeping him from floating above the sidewalk. His face displayed a blissful expression of joy and freedom in the moment. I watched him from afar, inspired by his confident stride and obvious delight in the day. I thought to myself —I hope I can feel that free and comfortable and proud some day. Thanks to Bruce I was eventually able to have my own moments of gravity free happiness.
How many people can say they helped transform someone’s life into a more rewarding and joyful experience? Bruce did this for me out of the goodness of his heart, and because he came to care about me, and wanted to see me have a fulfilling life. He was a very intelligent, sensitive, caring man with a great sense of humor. We would often laugh together over gay jokes or memories of embarrassing sexual experiences. To think that during an earlier time of his life, all of his extraordinary qualities might have been dismissed because of one factor – sexual orientation. He would have been deemed damaged goods, possibly institutionalized; undoubtedly cast off to the fringes of society. It took the Mattachine Society and the Stonewall rebellion to begin to alter society’s views on homosexuality, to help people see that sexual orientation is not a defining quality of one’s personhood. I could see that in Bruce, and he taught me to see it in myself. Regardless of our sexuality, we realized we were talented, bright, caring, fun-loving, hard-working, socially concerned individuals deserving of love, respect and equality. We were gay, yes, but so much more.
Bruce comforted me, educated me, and helped me to experience moments of freedom and total acceptance. Along with all those brave souls who began the gay liberation movement, he led me out of my dark oppressive world of secrets and repression, and into the streets and the world at large to claim my freedom and worthiness. He was a man among men, a gay one, and an exceptional one. I salute him and send him unfathomable gratitude for lifting up my life.
Garrison Botts is retired from a career in film, television and theater, and now writing memoirs. The bulk of his career was a broadcast programmer at WNET/13, NYC’s public television station, where he oversaw LGBT programming for the station. He lives in Rhinebeck, NY with his husband of 34 years.