Sunday, November 20, 2011

Farewell to Victor, "The Halfback" and "My Gay Fiance"

    I have just learned that three of the dearest people in my life, all of whom I have profiled in this blog, have died. Victor, the fiery black activist in "Model Intentions," passed away last week. Rhonda, the glowing and aching star of "The Halfback's High Heels," and Joseph, the big, manly gay architect who asked me to marry him, apparently died several years ago in dire circumstances.

     Victor's obituary appeared in the newspaper recently ( As I recounted in "Model Intentions," he and I got off to a rocky start in the 1960s civil-rights era. He ensnared me in a despicable ploy that damaged -- and perhaps devastated -- some wonderful teenagers. 
    He came to realize that he had been misguided, and he expressed deep remorse. We eventually became very good friends. He was brilliant and magical to me. His mind was plugged into spheres and dimensions that I was never able to understand. I just sat in awe and listened.
    He never did take care of himself. He led a chaotic, overextended life. He forgot to eat, didn't bother to sleep, and didn't have anything remotely resembling a stable living situation. Over time, he grew more and more frail and was hospitalized a number of times. He walked with a cane, hunched over, but he had a great big silvery Afro, and those all-knowing eyes, and he was still a beautiful sight to me. As always, he laughed at everything -- but it was the laugh of someone who would otherwise be crying. He suffered for humanity. I loved him very much.

     I had been trying for years to find Rhonda and Joseph online and was surprised that there was no trace of either of them. Finally, I sent inquiries to their national professional organizations and was informed that they were deceased. There was no other information, except that neither apparently had held a job in years. Rhonda didn't even have an address. There were no obituaries.
    As I wrote last spring, ( I had always feared that Rhonda -- who had been living as a pre-operative transsexual for six months when I met her -- would come to a tragic end. I half expected that she would wind up living out of her car. Her urgent, excruciating need to become a "real" woman and to find romance with a man had become an obsession that I felt was going to spiral out of control. Her loneliness and sense of incompleteness were eating her alive.
    She was already on notice at the University that her effectiveness as a teacher had deteriorated. Her apartment was a chaotic mess, and when we were together she usually wound up crying as she told me about the indignities and alienation she had suffered since childhood. She was increasingly distracted, confused and agitated. Her mood swings became extreme.
    Instead of becoming more "womanly" over time, she was looking like the football player she once was -- tall, huge hands and feet, strong jawline -- with a Michael Jackson voice. Her wig wasn't on straight. She wore way too much makeup, clumsily applied. 
    We stopped having our "fashion parties," at which she would model clothes she had recently bought or made for herself (she was a skilled seamstress who sent outfits to her two daughters and ex-wife, along with the child-support check). I had been applauding and cheering her wardrobe selections as enthusiastically as ever, but I think we both knew that her "transformation" had reached a plateau. 
    She continued to observe and mimic my "feminine" demeanor, such as it was, but I believe she eventually realized that she was becoming a caricature.
    Rhonda was profoundly broken when I met her. She had attempted for more than 30 years to conform to her assigned gender, knowing in her heart that it was a lie. Her academic and athletic accolades and her amiable married life did nothing to quell her deep torment. I had the feeling that she had been sobbing inside since adolescence. 
    So when she headed west, and I headed back to New York, I didn't really believe that she would "stay in touch." I had begged her to see a therapist, but she reassured me that once she had the surgery, which would change her physical gender, everything would fall into place, and she would soon find herself in the arms of a gallant, protective man. I hoped for the best, of course, but what I saw was someone who was hurtling helplessly downward.
     I didn't expect that my architect friend Joseph's life would fall apart, much as Rhonda's had, but I should have seen it coming.  ( Like Rhonda, he was tormented by his sexuality. As a strong, charismatic man with a sexy, Barry White voice, he had a constant parade of beautiful young men leaping into his bed, but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted a wife and children. He wanted dignity and stability and mainstream domesticity. 
    I believe he wanted these things primarily because the culture at that time, and during his growing-up years, had made him ashamed of who he was. If he hadn't suffered from a deep self-loathing, I believe he would have found a male partner and settled down. 
    Instead, he led a crash-pad life, as if he were waiting for something to change, something that would give his life a new orientation and perspective. Although this gifted and well-established architect lived in the elegant One Fifth Avenue apartments, his "luxury unit" was a mess. He slept on a mattress on the floor. The only other furniture in the whole vast place was a dining room set. 
    He began turning down very exciting architectural projects, some of them for lavish homes in the "bedroom communities" just outside New York City; others were urban planning projects for The City of New York. He stayed home all day, barefoot and pacing.
    "I need some time to get myself together," he said. "I can't take this any longer." He'd had enough of the boys, the bars, the "poppers," the whole scene.  He had hoped that we could marry, but I was unable to give him the marriage he needed, in spite of my love for him.
    The last time we spoke, about 10 years after I left New York, he sounded despondent. He couldn't concentrate, he said. He was living off of a small inheritance at that time. He was dying from loneliness, he added, even though his "retinue of boys" was still hanging around.
    They called him Big Daddy.
    I had heard that he left the city, but I didn't know where he had gone, or under what circumstances.
    The details surrounding Rhonda and Joseph's deaths remain unknown, but the fact that they died relatively young isn't mysterious to me. They were slowly dying of grief, guilt and loneliness even in their prime of their lives.
    I believe that if they had been born a couple of decades later, their lives would have been much different. They were victims of an ignorance and prejudice that I think -- I hope -- is largely behind us.