Rick Balmer, December 6, 2021

Dublin Core

Title

Rick Balmer, December 6, 2021

Description

Rick Balmer recalls his life as a gay man in the Lehigh Valley, and the process of “coming out”, as well as his work with Lehigh Homophile Organization (Le-Hi-Ho) and its legacy on the LGBTQ+ community.

Date

2021-12-06

Format

video

Identifier

LGBT-21

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Mary Foltz

Interviewee

Rick Balmer

Duration

01:27:42

OHMS Object Text

5.4 December 6, 2021 Rick Balmer, December 6, 2021 LGBT-21 LVLGBT Lehigh Valley LGBT Community Archive Collection Muhlenberg College: Trexler Library Oral History Repository Support for the collection of this interview was provided by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Rick Balmer Mary Foltz 1:|18(10)|43(8)|52(14)|64(5)|77(2)|88(10)|100(8)|113(6)|123(11)|136(6)|145(15)|159(5)|168(11)|178(12)|190(5)|200(14)|213(6)|225(2)|236(3)|245(12)|256(5)|269(4)|279(9)|290(1)|303(7)|316(4)|326(10)|336(14)|347(10)|361(9)|375(15)|386(5)|397(14)|411(1)|424(10)|437(6)|449(8)|460(9)|469(9)|480(10)|490(6)|501(9)|513(6)|525(17)|539(10)|551(4)|560(13)|573(11)|582(6)|591(1)|604(1)|614(1)|622(15)|632(15)|642(15)|653(2)|665(10)|678(4)|688(8)|703(2)|715(8)|726(9)|738(5)|749(15)|760(10)|770(16)|783(4)|794(4)|804(1)|817(1)|828(8)|838(9)|851(8)|862(2)|873(11)|884(6)|895(10)|906(7)|917(10)|927(16)|938(7)|947(8)|958(3)|968(6)|979(5)|990(8)|1000(10) 0 https://youtu.be/vMMrat3tMoU YouTube video 0 Interview Introductions MARY FOLTZ: My name is Mary Foltz, and I’m here with Rick Balmer to talk about his life and experiences in LGBTQ organizations in the Lehigh Valley as a part of the Lehigh Valley LGBT Community Oral History Project. Our project has funding this year from ACLS, and Rick and I are meeting on Zoom because there’s a pandemic going on, and Rick is up in Connecticut, so we’re meeting on Zoom on December 6, 2021, for this interview. So, Rick thank you so much for being here today with me. RICK BALMER: Thanks, glad to be here. MF: And to start, will you please state your full name and spell it for me. RB: Yeah, it’s Rick, R-I-C-K, middle initial D as in David, and last name B as in boy, A-L-M-E-R, and I was born November first, 1951. 116 Early Years of Life / Growing Up Gay MF: Great! All right, well let’s get started, and I’ll just begin with this question: Would you tell me a little bit about the early years of your life? RB: Yeah, I was born in Rochester, New York. My parents were there briefly. I grew up in Elmira/Horseheads, New York, which was where both their families had been rooted for a long-- like 150 years. It was a very ordinary and probably very typical life of the ’50s and ’60s as I grew up there, in a tract home. All those homes that were built after World War II. My dad had stayed there because they built the Westinghouse plant and he’d gotten a degree in engineering with the GI Bill after World War II. He was in the Air Force at that time. I was one of four siblings, the eldest, and very academic mostly. I was a book worm. Definitely wasn’t a sports enthusiast. 471 Finding Identity in the Lehigh Valley / Time at Lehigh University RB: Like I said, there was a little bit of literature. I started to find, again through libraries, you know the old, some of the novels of Mary Renault. Little things like that that came along. Once I got to my freshman year in college-- I left Horseheads for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to go to Lehigh University, and that would be starting in the fall of 1969, and one of my first memories, very early memory there was, within a couple months of being there, finding the Bethlehem Public Library and it’s the same one that’s there today. It was brand new at that point. Going there by myself and found a book that I knew about, and I was thrilled to find it. It was Gore Vidal’s The City in the Pillar. A very early landmark gay novel. It actually dated back to 1948 if I recollect correctly, so it had been around a while. I was so thrilled to find it that I-- I didn’t have a library card so I couldn’t take it out, so I just sat in the library and read it in a couple hours that afternoon. 769 Study Abroad in Germany / Burgeoning Gay Art Forms RB: My first semester of my junior year, I went to Germany on a program abroad and spent one semester at the University of Bonn. I decided to pursue German as my major by that time, and the time I spent in that semester away from Lehigh actually was good for my growing up as a gay person. Not that I don’t think Germany was definitely more advanced at that point, but I just I think found other out people a little bit and found a couple of people to talk to for the first time and interacted just a little bit with other gay people. It was just sort of very enlightening. Had my first sort of brief romance. It was very platonic, but it was a brief romance, so. Cut off obviously by my having to leave. So, I came back with just a little more I think self-confidence and reassurance and I was really much more assured as a gay person at that point. Also, around that point, there started to be gay films, and I think that was part of the whole thing. You know, there’s gay literature was important to me, but films also started to become important, and I know I saw specifically while I was in Germany, the Luchino Visconti film of Death in Venice, of Thomas Mann’s novel, very famous novelette, and you know that was quite eye-opening. It was subtle for the times, but it had a great impact for me. 1023 Creating Community at Lehigh University / Connecting with Le-Hi-Ho RB: So, just backing up a tiny bit, when I came back from the semester abroad in Germany, so it was in fall of 1971 just as I was turning 20, I was really ready to you know somehow come out and meet the gay community, and I found at some point that fall, there was an ad in Lehigh’s student newspaper, the Brown and White, for draft counseling for gay students, and the Vietnam War and the draft being a big issue at that point, and whether or not you wanted to say anything about being gay to get out of being in the military, that was a big issue then. In any case, Le-Hi-Ho, the Lehigh Valley Homophile organization, which had as I found out had started in the Lehigh Valley in 1969, so it had been there a couple years, had put the ad in. So, I called. Not that I really wanted the draft counseling, but I called because I just wanted to get in touch with the group, you know, and I didn’t know that much about it. So, I did. Got in touch with the group and very quickly I found myself, I don’t know, within a couple of weeks, invited to a party which was held at Kutztown. 1394 Le-Hi-Ho Outreach / Creating A Safe Space to Socialize RB: I believe I went to their first monthly meeting in December of that year, shortly after the party at Kutztown, and I think I jumped right in and within the next couple of months, maybe January or February, I decided to do their speaking-- they were doing speaking engagements around the community, which ultimately, I thought was just one of the most important things they were doing. And in retrospect, 50 years later, I truly, truly believe that being public and being out in some way to any number of people, as many as you could be, just made a momentous social change which accomplished way more than I thought it would within my lifetime. I never at that point dreamed that society would change as much as it has in these 50 years, and that we would be where we are now with all the things that have changed, and how for granted gay people are taken at this point in time. I know it’s not universal, I know it’s not [laughs] thoroughly spread across and through the United States, even, and probably here in the Northeast we’re in a much better place for the most part than maybe other parts of the country still, but still: society has changed so radically, and I just, it’s one of the things I’m proud of, is that I started doing the speaking engagements and kept them up. 1770 Le-Hi-Ho Library / Anonymity &amp ; Being &quot ; Out&quot ; RB: There was also Le-Hi-Ho was well-known for its library, which was dear to my heart, being the bookworm that I am, so I got very active in that and I was the librarian for a number of years, and I wrote book reviews for their newsletter for a number of years, and years later after that sometimes I wrote the whole newsletter, but in the earliest years I just wrote book reviews, and movie reviews sometimes. I was a great proselytizer for gay literature-- literature and non-fiction because I think those were just two so important things for coming to terms with yourself and educating yourself, and like I said, it was up to you to do it yourself. You couldn’t just go out and soak up the media, you know, of everything sitting around the way it is today. Just much easier to find everything. You really had to search things out. It was much harder to get the information. 2131 Political Work w/ Le-Hi-Ho RB: So, those little things were pretty rare at that time, so that was a really nice memory. It was also around that time that, I mean Le-Hi-Ho had been doing political things since the beginning, some of the members had gone to New York City and Philadelphia with all kinds of initiatives relating to civil rights, which were in a very primitive state at that point, but there were on-going state efforts, and a number of us in the group went to Harrisburg to talk to, lobby so to speak, talk to legislators in Harrisburg, and that also I’m quite sure was in 1975. It was an interesting experience, I mean we all dressed up to the nines to go there, and the reception was very, very touchy. I think the legislat-- I’m not positive it was THE first time, but you know, the legislators were very, very antsy and touchy about all these gay men and women in the state legislature, and you know we had some cordial interviews with legislators, and some that were rather frosty and very stiff [laughs] and uncomfortable. That was just all part of the start of things getting better, ultimately. 2425 Activism in the Workplace RB: Just going back again, another memory: although I was never really a parade person, a number of us from Le-Hi-Ho went I think to the 1975 Christopher Street March in New York City and had a Le-Hi-Ho banner in the parade that year. So, that was important that we did it, and it was a good memory. It was a good memory. Those are I think maybe most of the things I wanted to touch on there. I’ll just add an addendum, a little later in life I became active again in the LGBT movement, but this time it was at work. In short, after I left the Lehigh University libraries in the late ’70s, I went to work for Aetna. It was Aetna Life and Casualty at the time. They were in Allentown, and worked for them all through the ’80s, and then in 1990 moved to Connecticut to take a job transfer with them, and my partner, Ron, had worked for Bethlehem Steel for years, as did so many people in the Lehigh Valley, but they were a fading company at that time. They were in deep trouble, and Ron was ready to exit. He thought the timing was good, so we left the Lehigh Valley and moved to Connecticut, and I worked for the rest of my working career to retirement at Aetna. Their home office was there, although the home office was in Hartford, which is well known, but the home office for the division I was in was in Middletown, Connecticut so that’s where I was located. 2573 Official Coming Out / The Process of Coming Out RB: So, I mean in a way that was like another coming out. It’s funny, coming out is you know everybody talks about it and there are so many layers coming out. You know, you come out to yourself, and then you come out to family. And I never touched on that, so I’ll just make a quick retro, and say [laughs] I came out officially, even though I’d been with Ron for a couple years, I didn’t officially talk to my family about it until around 1975 when we were getting into politics and everything, and I just said, “Okay, so we just have to sit down and talk about it.” So, we did. Everything went pretty well with my family. They weren’t a talkative, warm, talk, talk, talk family so we didn’t talk about it much or a lot. Until years had gone by, I would say. Which was okay. That’s just the way things were then. But you know, it was all accepting. So, it was never traumatic for me in the way it is for a lot of LGBT people, which is very, very fortunate you know for me. I never had really horrendous coming out experiences. 2912 Experiences During the AIDS Crisis / Relationship between Gay Men and Lesbians RB: [...] I will go back and intervene perhaps, and touch on what the AIDS crisis did to all of that. In the latter part of, well, in the say about ’83, ’84, ’85 when things started to become up for public discussion, you know without going into the AIDS crisis itself and just talking about the social impact, it was both good and bad. I think there was just hysteria around it. And with that I can go back to one memory, which is unfortunate but amusing in a way. I remember at that time in the department I was working in in Aetna-- this was probably ’85. Yeah, you know, I think it was after the public had become much more aware of AIDS because a couple of celebrities had died, and I’m thinking I think it was maybe after Rock Hudson had died, and the whole issue of AIDS had just come into the public consciousness at that time. But of course, it was-- there was hostility. There was a lot of discomfort. People didn’t want to talk about it. 3203 Reflection on Identity Development RB: [...] In retrospect, I think I’ve been lucky as a happy gay person. I think I’m very lucky I didn’t undergo the trauma of coming out or being guilty or terribly unhappy as I was growing up. I really knew I was gay, I just had to figure out what it was all about. I was ready to be gay and call myself gay as soon as I could. You know, it’s so hard to say this, but I’m really sure that in today’s climate I would probably have been one of those 12 to 13 years old, you know 13 year old person who is coming out as they do today. Maybe not until 14 or 15, who knows. What can I say? It’s hard to project. But those were different times, so it took you a lot longer [laughs] to figure everything out. So, my not coming out say officially until I was 19 to 20 was very typical. In fact, you know, many, many people came out much later than that. In their thirties, in their thirties. It’s sort of a little mind boggling now, and even later. We would sometimes have people getting involved in Le-Hi-Ho, I remember one man who was in his sixties and started getting involved after his wife died, because then he felt he was free. And so that was always a touching memory too. The fact that you hope that isn’t happening today. 3330 Vietnam War Draft &amp ; Gay Men MF: Well, I have some-- thank you so much for all that you’ve shared. I have some questions that just as I was listening to your story, you know some of which are about Le-Hi-Ho. You had said that you had reached out to Le-Hi-Ho because they published something in the Brown and White about the draft. We’ll have some younger listeners who will tune in here, and they won’t understand what was going on with the draft, so could you talk a little bit about Le-Hi-Ho’s sort of outreach around the draft and what that meant for gay men at the time? RB: Yeah. I can a little. I mean, I never got involved in it myself so I was never-- I can’t say that I was expert on what gay men were being told, but it had to do with the fact that of course the draft was in place, I can’t remember since when, in the ’60s, and you know basically because of the Vietnam War, and it still went on through most of my Lehigh career. In fact, [laughs] one of my, I don’t know what the logistics were, one of my indelible memories of being at Lehigh was sitting in the TV room in my dorm, ooh, what year was it? I was probably a sophomore or junior. Around the TV with all the guys in the dorm, I can’t remember what exactly. Finding out something relating about what our lotto draft numbers were, because you were assigned lottery draft numbers in those days. And you know, if you got the lowest draft numbers, it meant they were going to call you up first for the Vietnam War. 3556 Le-Hi-Ho Newsletters MF: -- go join!” That’s wonderful. Well, I had another question about the Le-Hi-Ho newsletters, because as you know I’ve been reading them studiously, and I think they’re just phenomenal productions, and my question is what was your intention as one of the writers, the book reviewer, film reviewer, and also someone who put together entire newsletters? What was your hope for those newsletters? What did you want them to accomplish? What did you want to include? How did they circulate? I’m just really curious about your desire for those publications, and then where they went. RB: Yeah, that’s interesting. Maybe I’ll just touch on first, I mean Le-Hi-Ho had a post office box, which turned out to be the best solution for an address. You didn’t have a physical office space, which we didn’t ever really have. The community, LGBT community centers came later in the ’80s with other entities, like the Lambda Center, and much later entities in Allentown. 3987 Social Atmosphere of Le-Hi-Ho / An Alternative to Bars MF: [...] I’m interested in Le-Hi-Ho as an alternative to the bars, and could you say a little bit more about what it was like to be a member of the group? What the meetings were like, why they were a good alternative to the bars, what they offered that bars weren’t? RB: Yeah, yeah, because I think I was such a big advocate of that, to make those meetings, to make them welcoming for one thing. And so, I think what we always tried to do is the people who went -- there was always a board of directors, you know a running board, which I can’t remember consisted of five or eight people, and there was annual elections, so there was turnover all the time, but there was always a core group, and it was always one of their jobs to be welcoming and network with especially the newest people who would show up at any given monthly meeting because you always had to realize that any meeting could be the first public entrance on the stage for some of the people who were showing up into the gay community, as an alternative to a bar which yeah, people do that too. They make their entrance into the gay community at a bar, and it is what it is. I mean, there’s no official structure [laughs] to welcome you, or make you feel comfortable or happy, and probably some of those experiences are good, and some of them are not. 4460 Connections with LGBT Organizations Outside the Lehigh Valley MF: Did Le-Hi-Ho have relationships with homophile organizations in New York and Philly? You talked about in 1975 going to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in New York City, and you’ve talked about what a life-affirming kind of organization it was in the Lehigh Valley. What was sort of the connection beyond the Lehigh Valley? Was there a connection beyond the Lehigh Valley? RB: Yeah, I would say there was. A lot of it happened actually in the earliest years, you know, from ’69, even before I got active in early ’72. A lot of it really, I think was from that era. My partner Ron, was involved in that. But some of it continued after and you know I knew some of that, but yeah, I would say it was especially New York City, Philadelphia oriented, with extensions out to like I know there was a group I think at State College in Pennsylvania, and outfits like Delaware Valley College Students in whatever city that’s nearest, in Bucks County, [laughs] Pennsylvania. I forget exactly where the college is. Everybody was on everybody’s distribution list. You know, they got our newsletter, and we’d get all their newsletters, so there was networking in that way, and some of it was actual travel. 4766 Relationship with Ron MF: [...] I’m wondering if maybe we could talk a little bit about your relationship with Ron. You talked about meeting Ron in the 1970s at that Kutztown party, or meeting him through Le-Hi-Ho. Do you want to share a little bit about your life with Ron, and that your relationship with your beloved? RB: Yeah, I will a little bit as an overview. I guess I’m a little probably, I’m going to try, to get very personal. I’m not really good at that, but yeah. I’m definitely willing to give it an overview. Yeah, I’d said it was 50-- it’s almost 50 years to the day right now when Ron and I met, but I mean we started seeing each other immediately after that. Could really consider our anniversary-- when I graduated from Lehigh, it was Memorial Day weekend, that’s when I moved in with him. He had already, he had bought a house in Bethlehem, an old house, which was, he was restoring, and needed a lot of restoration. And so that was the start. That was a year and a half later after we met, so that could really be called our official anniversary. We lived in that house during the time that I worked at Lehigh. During the ’70s. We moved in 1980 to a separate, yeah, to a different house that we bought in Bethlehem and that lasted until the 1990 move to Connecticut. 5136 Theater Trips / Closing Remarks RB: Yeah. Trivial memory. Ha. Le-Hi-Ho also sponsored occasional theater trips to New York City to see gay plays. In the ’70s. And there weren’t too many of them around, but that was fun. We did that. I just thought of that, that was a great experience. We always wondered what the bus drivers thought when we hired buses to cart 50 people, so to speak, to New York City, but it all went well. It all went well. So, I guess I’ll end with that rather trivial memory [laughs]. MF: It’s one of my true joys reading the newsletter when I see that you all have, you’re talking about going to a show, and then like not enough people signed up, but reading it now, you get to see like, “Oh, that was playing in New York in the ’70s!” And it’s almost like a chart of gay cultural, you know just a little bit of the gay theatrical happening in New York, and especially with the book reviews, you really get the sense of what books mattered to our community in the Lehigh Valley, and you know, to the [reviewers like you. I just love those parts of the newsletter. It gives just a snapshot of some of the culture. Rick Balmer recalls his life as a gay man in the Lehigh Valley, and the process of “coming out”, as well as his work with Lehigh Homophile Organization (Le-Hi-Ho) and its legacy on the LGBTQ+ community. INTERVIEW WITH RICK BALMER DECEMBER 6, 2021 MARY FOLTZ: My name is Mary Foltz, and I&#039 ; m here with Rick Balmer to talk about his life and experiences in LGBTQ organizations in the Lehigh Valley as a part of the Lehigh Valley LGBT Community Oral History Project. Our project has funding this year from ACLS, and Rick and I are meeting on Zoom because there&#039 ; s a pandemic going on, and Rick is up in Connecticut, so we&#039 ; re meeting on Zoom on December 6, 2021, for this interview. So, Rick thank you so much for being here today with me. RICK BALMER: Thanks, glad to be here. MF: And to start, will you please state your full name and spell it for me. RB: Yeah, it&#039 ; s Rick, R-I-C-K, middle initial D as in David, and last name B as in boy, A-L-M-E-R, and I was born November first, 1951. MF: Thank you. And I want to just go over, just brief questions about consent. I know you previously signed a consent form, but I just want to check back in. Do you consent to this interview today? RB: Yes. MF: Do you consent to have this interview transcribed, digitized, and made available online in searchable formats? RB: Yes. MF: Do you consent to the LGBT Archive using your interview for educational purposes in other formats including articles, films, websites, presentations, or any other formats that the future might bring us? RB: Yes. MF: And do you understand that you will have 30 days after the electronic delivery of a transcript of this interview to review it, identify any parts that you&#039 ; d like to delete, or you could withdraw the whole interview from the project if you so wished? RB: Yes, I understand. MF: Great! All right, well let&#039 ; s get started, and I&#039 ; ll just begin with this question: Would you tell me a little bit about the early years of your life? RB: Yeah, I was born in Rochester, New York. My parents were there briefly. I grew up in Elmira/Horseheads, New York, which was where both their families had been rooted for a long-- like 150 years. It was a very ordinary and probably very typical life of the &#039 ; 50s and &#039 ; 60s as I grew up there, in a tract home. All those homes that were built after World War II. My dad had stayed there because they built the Westinghouse plant and he&#039 ; d gotten a degree in engineering with the GI Bill after World War II. He was in the Air Force at that time. I was one of four siblings, the eldest, and very academic mostly. I was a book worm. Definitely wasn&#039 ; t a sports enthusiast. I think overall I had a very happy childhood, very typical of the &#039 ; 50s and &#039 ; 60s. I think they were very innocent times in a lot of ways. I don&#039 ; t have an awful lot probably to say about it, except if I come back in retrospect. I don&#039 ; t think there was terribly much that was really, really interesting in my earliest years. You know, as far as growing up gay? Again, it was the Age of Innocence. It&#039 ; s such a contrast to today, where I think young people know so much and learn so much about the context of being LGBT today, but at that point there really was absolutely nothing, and you were on your own. I think I started exploring that aspect of myself as soon as I was cognizant of it, which was fairly early. Probably maybe 12 and 13. Libraries were your greatest friend at that point-- even though you wouldn&#039 ; t think so, but amazingly there were some LGB-- not called that, of course, but you know LGBT resources in libraries at that time. Very primitive and very unfortunate, some of them you know, but I found some things that were there, I remember going not to the little public library that was in our branch in Horseheads where I great up, the village outside Elmira, but to the main county library in Elmira, New York: The Steele Memorial Library, and finding some early resources there like I just remember a title or two. I remember Judd Marmor&#039 ; s Sexual Inversion. You know, unfortunate title, but for the times it was probably [laughs] pretty progressive. Trying to hunt through the card catalogue and not finding much, but just scrutinizing every little scrap of detail I could find. Although I didn&#039 ; t know it at the time, just what my intuition and gaydar tells me now was, you know I had a very helpful lesbian librarian, although she never-- we never discussed the things I was looking for at that time. I all did that independently, but she was very nice to me, and I just always remember her. So, that&#039 ; s an early remembrance of my exploring what I could find out about myself. Because as I said, you know there really was so little in the media or anything, and what came along tended to be of course just incredibly negative. I mean, much later on there were things like I remember the great Time Magazine article in 1968, forget the title of it, Gays in America or something like that. I think it was on the cover, and of course it was sort of momentous, but you know very, very negative in terms of how we view things today. You know, I think I only heard the word &quot ; homosexual&quot ; said out loud by somebody maybe once in high school. I mean, that&#039 ; s how innocent things were. I think everybody was innocent, not just LGBT people growing up, but the general population. All the other kids you know. I mean, it just wasn&#039 ; t talked about. Which, you know in retrospect, probably was a good thing for the most part? I mean, not being talked about, of course, is one of the reasons were in the terrible situation we were in, but on the other hand I think it sort of sheltered you to a certain extent from abuse. And of course, that would depend on your environment, obviously. I know the experience varies for different people, but I guess my growing up was innocent and sheltered, and you know my parents never talked about it. No one I knew talked about it. It probably was a good thing ; it gave me this bubble to find myself without horrendous abuse or oppression. Yeah, I&#039 ; m certainly aware of that a little later on in life, after I left home and went to college, that started becoming perhaps a little more apparent, but maybe that innocence I think was really sort of a good thing, just considering the times. There was no context. You had to figure it all out yourself. Like I said, there was a little bit of literature. I started to find, again through libraries, you know the old, some of the novels of Mary Renault. Little things like that that came along. Once I got to my freshman year in college-- I left Horseheads for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to go to Lehigh University, and that would be starting in the fall of 1969, and one of my first memories, very early memory there was, within a couple months of being there, finding the Bethlehem Public Library and it&#039 ; s the same one that&#039 ; s there today. It was brand new at that point. Going there by myself and found a book that I knew about, and I was thrilled to find it. It was Gore Vidal&#039 ; s The City in the Pillar. A very early landmark gay novel. It actually dated back to 1948 if I recollect correctly, so it had been around a while. I was so thrilled to find it that I-- I didn&#039 ; t have a library card so I couldn&#039 ; t take it out, so I just sat in the library and read it in a couple hours that afternoon. That was the first gay novel I ever read, and that was just sort of a thrill. Being a book worm and having written things being such important to me, that was just a big, big memory. In retrospect you know, I guess I can&#039 ; t say too much more about growing up. I really, in retrospect, do not remember knowing anybody who was gay in growing up, although I did find out as you often do later, that one of my be-- I had very few friends. I was an introvert and didn&#039 ; t have many close friends. Found out later one of my closest friends was gay. Years later I found that out. I think I was aware when I went to some conference that they did, it was run by the American Legion for high school juniors, I think, during some summer. That probably would have been &#039 ; 67, perhaps. And you know, running across maybe the first other boy I thought was gay, but was very tentative and there was nothing [laughs], nothing, there really wasn&#039 ; t any communication, but that&#039 ; s an early memory. But other than that, pretty innocent. Pretty sheltered. Not a lot of progress in finding myself. I think things really changed when I went to school when I went to college. In retrospect I&#039 ; ll also say this: at that time Lehigh was all male. Had nothing to do with my choosing the school, and in retrospect I could almost say, eh, you know, maybe I wouldn&#039 ; t recommend that [laughs] for somebody. I really think that atmosphere, I think that breeds homophobia and homoeroticism amongst young men of that age. I really do. And it was very complex and tricky to negotiate, and confusing, especially if you had no context and you didn&#039 ; t know, you know you were still finding yourself and you didn&#039 ; t know where all these other guys were coming from. I mean, it was just a very, very odd dichotomy the way young men act. You know, young men in groups. That&#039 ; s where, I&#039 ; ve always said that: a lot of homophobia is rooted in young men in groups. It just aggravates [laughs] the whole thing. But it was interesting, because I was there for the last two years when Lehigh was all male, and my third and fourth year, the first women came in. Of course, they were in such small quantity that I can&#039 ; t remember how many. It was probably less than 100 for the first class, I think. It wasn&#039 ; t enough to see major changes. I think I saw the inkling of changes in the whole atmosphere. I&#039 ; m sure it took years at Lehigh to completely, not completely, but to you know, improve the environment in that sense. But I think I saw just the beginning of it. I got involved with other gay students at Lehigh, not until about my junior year, what was sort of a dividing point. My first semester of my junior year, I went to Germany on a program abroad and spent one semester at the University of Bonn. I decided to pursue German as my major by that time, and the time I spent in that semester away from Lehigh actually was good for my growing up as a gay person. Not that I don&#039 ; t think Germany was definitely more advanced at that point, but I just I think found other out people a little bit and found a couple of people to talk to for the first time and interacted just a little bit with other gay people. It was just sort of very enlightening. Had my first sort of brief romance. It was very platonic, but it was a brief romance, so. Cut off obviously by my having to leave. So, I came back with just a little more I think self-confidence and reassurance and I was really much more assured as a gay person at that point. Also, around that point, there started to be gay films, and I think that was part of the whole thing. You know, there&#039 ; s gay literature was important to me, but films also started to become important, and I know I saw specifically while I was in Germany, the Luchino Visconti film of Death in Venice, of Thomas Mann&#039 ; s novel, very famous novelette, and you know that was quite eye-opening. It was subtle for the times, but it had a great impact for me. And in that period, right around &#039 ; 71 and &#039 ; 72, a couple of other films started to come out that I think really made impact. There was, specifically I can remember John Schlesinger&#039 ; s Sunday Bloody Sunday, the English film. Although I believe that was probably maybe spring of &#039 ; 72 that I ended up seeing that in the old College Theater, which was just a block from Lehigh. It&#039 ; s no longer there ; torn down. It was very impactful but also you know-- and it had full audience, but it was very shocking to the audience, because there was a kiss between two men, and that was just such an impact then. Collective gasps from the audience. Absolutely shocked. And so, that&#039 ; s you know [laughs] something I remember from that. Also, right around that same period they made the film of Mart Crowley&#039 ; s the Boys in the Band which had been a well-known Broadway play. I wasn&#039 ; t really thrilled with that. It wasn&#039 ; t a wholly positive thing. In fact, a memory, a little bit later after-- I&#039 ; m cutting ahead of my story, but I remember being in a speaking engagement later with the staff of a psychiatric clinic in Allentown, I believe. I don&#039 ; t remember the name of it. And they wanted to know, and I was with others from Le-Hi-Ho, the Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization, which I&#039 ; ll talk more about, but they wanted to know our opinion of The Boys in the Band film. They thought, &quot ; Whoa, wasn&#039 ; t this spectacular? Oh, this was great!&quot ; And they were really surprised because both I and practically everyone else said &quot ; Well, no. We didn&#039 ; t think it was that-- yeah, it was a good film, but its portrayal of gay people we thought was really innate unhappiness seemed to be the mode, and we weren&#039 ; t that thrilled with it,&quot ; and they were really surprised by that, I think. So. And I still have always had mixed-- I saw the film a couple times later since then and I you know, I can view it more objectively now, but still, you know have mixed feelings about it. So, just backing up a tiny bit, when I came back from the semester abroad in Germany, so it was in fall of 1971 just as I was turning 20, I was really ready to you know somehow come out and meet the gay community, and I found at some point that fall, there was an ad in Lehigh&#039 ; s student newspaper, the Brown and White, for draft counseling for gay students, and the Vietnam War and the draft being a big issue at that point, and whether or not you wanted to say anything about being gay to get out of being in the military, that was a big issue then. In any case, Le-Hi-Ho, the Lehigh Valley Homophile organization, which had as I found out had started in the Lehigh Valley in 1969, so it had been there a couple years, had put the ad in. So, I called. Not that I really wanted the draft counseling, but I called because I just wanted to get in touch with the group, you know, and I didn&#039 ; t know that much about it. So, I did. Got in touch with the group and very quickly I found myself, I don&#039 ; t know, within a couple of weeks, invited to a party which was held at Kutztown. Then Kutztown College, now it&#039 ; s University, there was sort of a very informal student gay group there, and they had invited via Le-Hi-Ho, which had sort of informally coordinated some area college students, so they&#039 ; d invited some Lehigh students, and you know people from other places to this party in Kutztown so, got myself invited [laughs] to that, and it was a great occasion because I met one of the gay students from Lehigh who I grew to know for the rest of my time at Lehigh, and I also met [laughs] at that party my future-to-be partner, Ron Seeds. Coincidentally two days ago on December the fourth happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of that party. The party at which I met my long-time partner, Ron, and sort of consider it my coming out. Now I&#039 ; m 70. At that time, I was 20, so great, great memory. You know, so I was in touch with those students obviously after going back to campus, and there sort of developed a very informal student group, a gay student group at Lehigh. I don&#039 ; t think it ever really got off the ground in a really strict organizational way. It was more an informal collection of people and we tried to meet. We tried to organize a little bit. Our biggest ally at that point was Hugh Flesher who was the chaplain of Lehigh at the time. He was a great ally and tried to help us. I wouldn&#039 ; t say there was any other support from the administration at that point beyond the first-- I think her title was Dean of Women Students. That&#039 ; s an approximate title, but it was Ruth Hurley, and she had been hired really essentially to go along with the admittance of women to Lehigh, and she was an ally as well. My one specific memory, other than just meeting and socializing with other Lehigh students, which was you know, very, very important for all of us, was we got permission probably through the chaplain&#039 ; s office to make up a flyer and distribute it to all students at Lehigh. So, this was probably in early &#039 ; 72, and so we did up this flyer, and I don&#039 ; t remember the whole context of it other than saying you know, just trying to start a student group. Something like that, but we had to stuff the mailboxes at Lehigh so in the University Center we got permission to go [laughs] into the old post office and go behind the post office and stuff all the mailboxes. You know we had to do it ourselves, which was probably a good thing, but at the same time we were stuffing the mailboxes, various students were opening their mailboxes on the other side, and we can hear them. And some of them would open the flyer and look at it, and would just, you know small uproars of, people were aghast, and almost, not screaming and yelling I don&#039 ; t think, but just you know we heard raised voices, definitely. It was a great shock to [laughs] a lot of the students. So, that was a little momentous, I would say. But you know, we got a trickle of students, and we were able to network with some gay faculty and staff members. It was very, very unofficial, I mean none of them ever really officially got involved with the group, and the group really didn&#039 ; t get that far or do too many official things. There really wasn&#039 ; t support from the administration for anything like that at that point in time. As long as it was sort of low key and behind the scenes, I&#039 ; d say it was tolerated. My outlet also really sort of transferred not just from Lehigh to Le-Hi-Ho, the Lehigh Valley organization which I started immediately to get very active in, because I thought it was great. I believe I went to their first monthly meeting in December of that year, shortly after the party at Kutztown, and I think I jumped right in and within the next couple of months, maybe January or February, I decided to do their speaking-- they were doing speaking engagements around the community, which ultimately, I thought was just one of the most important things they were doing. And in retrospect, 50 years later, I truly, truly believe that being public and being out in some way to any number of people, as many as you could be, just made a momentous social change which accomplished way more than I thought it would within my lifetime. I never at that point dreamed that society would change as much as it has in these 50 years, and that we would be where we are now with all the things that have changed, and how for granted gay people are taken at this point in time. I know it&#039 ; s not universal, I know it&#039 ; s not [laughs] thoroughly spread across and through the United States, even, and probably here in the Northeast we&#039 ; re in a much better place for the most part than maybe other parts of the country still, but still: society has changed so radically, and I just, it&#039 ; s one of the things I&#039 ; m proud of, is that I started doing the speaking engagements and kept them up. In any case, the very first one was to I believe some sort of youth group at the Unitarian Church in Bethlehem on Lechauweki Avenue, and it was very casual and low key, and I think these were mostly high school students, and they were very cool, which I was quite floored with, but being a Unitarian church, I think probably made all the difference in that time, even [laughs]. And the speaking engagements I started getting involved with tended to be-- and I probably did that for the best part of the next decade, and we went many places. Probably most typically college classes. Repeatedly we went back to a sociology class at Lehigh. Robert Williamson, the head of the sociology department, thought that was really important and so he made sure that we were always invited to a certain-- it was a human sexuality class that ran for years. So, we always went to that. And it was whoever could make the speaking engagement. Sometimes there were two or three or four of us, generally. We would sometimes do unusual situations, like I think we went to speak to student nurses at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown once. I don&#039 ; t know how we got invited to that. And there was something at Muhlenberg College. A couple times we went to conferences, and I&#039 ; m not really sure how we got invited to those either, except it was by networking. You know, it&#039 ; s amazing. Audiences were basically polite, civilized, and I don&#039 ; t think we underwent any horrendous experiences with those speaking engagements. Oh, certainly there were individuals who just were a bit hostile and would sometimes ask not civilized questions. Sometimes slightly hostile questions. I can remember at one conference a couple of clergymen being quite rude and hostile [laughs], but we did end up going to a number of churches over the years. We networked a bit with some Lafayette students. So, overall, I think it was one of the best things the group did were the speaking engagements. Other than that, it wasn&#039 ; t aimed at just outreach. One of its primary goals was socializing and providing a welcoming space for the LGBT community. Not called those initials-- I use those initials just because it&#039 ; s the easiest streamlined thing to say, and of course they weren&#039 ; t really used at that point. But the monthly meetings were the only thing that a lot of gay people could go to. There were bars of course ; bars weren&#039 ; t for everybody. Once I was old enough, I popped into a couple, but they just really weren&#039 ; t for me. I wasn&#039 ; t a bar person. So, it was a great alternative. They were nice-- you know, we had potluck dinners, we had refreshments, we had speakers. And we tried to get a variety of speakers. As many as possible relating to the LGBT community, addressing topics of interest. There might be something on alcoholism in the community. We did transgender programs quite a few times in the &#039 ; 70s. It was much more, obviously, I&#039 ; ll just say primitive [laughs] compared to where things are today, but it was there. It was interesting. And we did have an ally. There was a doctor in Allentown. It was Dr. Charles Reninger, and he I believe he himself was involved in treating, had many, many transgender patients and got involved in the surgical component of it, and he was a great ally for our group too, and came and spoke. He invited us to a couple of speaking engagements, so that was a really good thing back then. There was also Le-Hi-Ho was well-known for its library, which was dear to my heart, being the bookworm that I am, so I got very active in that and I was the librarian for a number of years, and I wrote book reviews for their newsletter for a number of years, and years later after that sometimes I wrote the whole newsletter, but in the earliest years I just wrote book reviews, and movie reviews sometimes. I was a great proselytizer for gay literature-- literature and non-fiction because I think those were just two so important things for coming to terms with yourself and educating yourself, and like I said, it was up to you to do it yourself. You couldn&#039 ; t just go out and soak up the media, you know, of everything sitting around the way it is today. Just much easier to find everything. You really had to search things out. It was much harder to get the information. But we slowly and carefully collected books. Some were donations, and some we purchased, and you know we&#039 ; d go to some of the famous bookstores in New York City or Philadelphia or had to order them. It was a lot of work to get them, but it was treasured, and they lived in cardboard boxes and got dragged to the meetings at the Unitarian Church because they didn&#039 ; t really have a physical home. A lot of the things were kept, well I&#039 ; ll just say this: my partner Ron, Ron Seeds, was one of the earliest people, one of the founders along with Joe Burns, of Le-Hi-Ho in &#039 ; 69, and so a lot of the... What should I say? Accessories? of the group resided in our house, which be the books in cardboard boxes, and some of the mimeograph machines where the newsletter was actually run off sometimes, and where the newsletter was actually folded and stamped and all that, and various members would come to our house and put it together. So, those are some good memories too. It&#039 ; s funny because obviously you can imagine in those days there were a lot of people who were reluctant to you know be on our mailing list, and it was a really, really tricky thing, the anonymity that a lot of people still required, and you know very understandably, you know. Some people went by pseudonyms for mailing lists, and even when they came to a meeting. It wasn&#039 ; t really common, but it was something you had to be really, really careful about is other people&#039 ; s privacy. And even as far as using your own name in the public media, it was an issue for a lot of people. I would say it wasn&#039 ; t until maybe later in the &#039 ; 70s that a lot of the members started being much more open about having their names in the media. I remember I could say another of my, other than-- you could almost say my first official public coming out was going to the speaking engagements because you would never know who would be at the speaking engagement, so it was public. Whether it was a group of students or people at a conference or whatever. But I first wrote a letter to the editor to the Allentown Morning Call with my name to it. There was one other fellow and I wrote a letter together and signed our names, relating to something-- it was 1975, and it was relating I think to on-going efforts for-- I really am not sure what the topic-- it probably was, we were talking about, there were all kinds of political things going [laughs] on in the &#039 ; 70s, but in any case, that was my public, public coming out you would say, having your name in the newspaper, and so I was waiting for the impact. At the time I was working-- I worked for a few years after I graduated trying to figure out what I was going to do, and doing a little bit of graduate work, I worked at the libraries at Lehigh, and so I was wondering what the impact would be, and it was basically dead silence. No one I worked with or that I knew ever said anything to me, except one fellow at the library. A much older gentleman from the maintenance department and you know, he was married, grandfather, he&#039 ; s the last person I thought would say anything, he was the only person who came up to me and said, &quot ; I saw your letter and I just want to commend you. That was a very brave thing to do.&quot ; And I&#039 ; m so appreciative of that, you know? It was the only thing. Absolutely dead silence from everybody else. Which, you know, that was the way it was then. People still just [laughs] didn&#039 ; t talk about it. MF: Rick, you broke up just a little bit there. Can you just tell that story in the lib-- the person who responded to your letter one more time? Our cameras fine now, but just at the beginning it kind of bleeped out a bit. RB: Yeah, after the letter came out in the Allentown Morning Call I was waiting to see if anybody I worked with in the Lehigh University libraries, or anybody I knew, would say anything and it was basically dead silence. No one said anything except one gentleman, older gentleman. You know, married, grandfather, he was in the maintenance department: the last person I would have expected. And he came up to me, and he said he saw my letter, and he commended me. He thought I was brave to do it. He said that was a good thing. So, you know, that made me feel really good. So, those little things were pretty rare at that time, so that was a really nice memory. It was also around that time that, I mean Le-Hi-Ho had been doing political things since the beginning, some of the members had gone to New York City and Philadelphia with all kinds of initiatives relating to civil rights, which were in a very primitive state at that point, but there were on-going state efforts, and a number of us in the group went to Harrisburg to talk to, lobby so to speak, talk to legislators in Harrisburg, and that also I&#039 ; m quite sure was in 1975. It was an interesting experience, I mean we all dressed up to the nines to go there, and the reception was very, very touchy. I think the legislat-- I&#039 ; m not positive it was THE first time, but you know, the legislators were very, very antsy and touchy about all these gay men and women in the state legislature, and you know we had some cordial interviews with legislators, and some that were rather frosty and very stiff [laughs] and uncomfortable. That was just all part of the start of things getting better, ultimately. There were also I think lots of sessions of people going to Allentown City Council when they were trying to enact anti-discrimination laws. I mean, that was one of the biggest initiatives of the &#039 ; 70s, was working on anti-discrimination. So, there were a lot of things on-going there as well. So, those are some of my really good, good and interesting and impactful memories from that period. I would say both I and my partner Ron sort of burned out around the end of the &#039 ; 70s. I mean, it had been pretty intense, and we sort of went into a much lower key from then on [laughs] through the &#039 ; 80s. And we were still active. Le-Hi-Ho started to fade around that time too, and transition into other organiz-- the Lambda Center and other organizations in the Lehigh Valley, and I won&#039 ; t go into them much, not being as much of an expert on all the affairs of the &#039 ; 80s, although I will hit upon one that I remember, and I believe it was about as late as maybe, oh, 1985? 1986, &#039 ; 87? There was a Massachusetts state legislator, Gerry Studds, who had been out for a number of years. He was the only congress representative U.S. who had been out for a long time. I think he was it. And some of the organizations in the Lehigh Valley had arranged, I don&#039 ; t know what you would call it, a reception for him at the Hotel Bethlehem in Bethlehem. It was a really great affair. I remember some very supportive Lehigh faculty came to it and [inaudible] but also notable for a protest. There were various churches in the Lehigh Valley. I can&#039 ; t remember their names. Probably mostly would be termed fundamentalist churches, had very raucous protestors all around the hotels, so as we went in, we had to walk through those protestors, so that was sort of a unique-- you know, the only time I ever experienced something exactly like that. It wasn&#039 ; t really horrendous, but it obviously it was a little disconcerting, so, what can I say? Just going back again, another memory: although I was never really a parade person, a number of us from Le-Hi-Ho went I think to the 1975 Christopher Street March in New York City and had a Le-Hi-Ho banner in the parade that year. So, that was important that we did it, and it was a good memory. It was a good memory. Those are I think maybe most of the things I wanted to touch on there. I&#039 ; ll just add an addendum, a little later in life I became active again in the LGBT movement, but this time it was at work. In short, after I left the Lehigh University libraries in the late &#039 ; 70s, I went to work for Aetna. It was Aetna Life and Casualty at the time. They were in Allentown, and worked for them all through the &#039 ; 80s, and then in 1990 moved to Connecticut to take a job transfer with them, and my partner, Ron, had worked for Bethlehem Steel for years, as did so many people in the Lehigh Valley, but they were a fading company at that time. They were in deep trouble, and Ron was ready to exit. He thought the timing was good, so we left the Lehigh Valley and moved to Connecticut, and I worked for the rest of my working career to retirement at Aetna. Their home office was there, although the home office was in Hartford, which is well known, but the home office for the division I was in was in Middletown, Connecticut so that&#039 ; s where I was located. But in any case, about 1992, a number of LGBT employees started assembling and congregating and deciding what maybe we could do in the corporation, and one was just to build a professional support network, which happened. That was a great goal. It ended up being called ANGLE-- the Aetna Network of Gay and Lesbian Employees. We networked with some organizations that were started at other corporations in the greater Hartford area, but our primary initiative to pursue for the &#039 ; 90s was to work on getting the company to offer domestic partner benefits, which obviously prior to gay marriage was a big, big issue, and it ended up being successful. It took us five years, we worked on it from 1993 until 1998, and we got it implemented. And you know, I have nice photos of those of us in the group who worked with us standing with the CEO of Aetna having our picture taken, and so we were out in company media. So, I mean in a way that was like another coming out. It&#039 ; s funny, coming out is you know everybody talks about it and there are so many layers coming out. You know, you come out to yourself, and then you come out to family. And I never touched on that, so I&#039 ; ll just make a quick retro, and say [laughs] I came out officially, even though I&#039 ; d been with Ron for a couple years, I didn&#039 ; t officially talk to my family about it until around 1975 when we were getting into politics and everything, and I just said, &quot ; Okay, so we just have to sit down and talk about it.&quot ; So, we did. Everything went pretty well with my family. They weren&#039 ; t a talkative, warm, talk, talk, talk family so we didn&#039 ; t talk about it much or a lot. Until years had gone by, I would say. Which was okay. That&#039 ; s just the way things were then. But you know, it was all accepting. So, it was never traumatic for me in the way it is for a lot of LGBT people, which is very, very fortunate you know for me. I never had really horrendous coming out experiences. Anyway, just going back to those levels, so you come out to yourself, and then maybe I come out in the newspaper in Allentown in 1975, but you know not everybody reads the newspaper. Not everybody reads the letters to the editor, so you still aren&#039 ; t out completely, because not everybody knows that, so you never know how fully you&#039 ; re out, so you really have to keep doing it over and over and over again, and then if you move, you move to Connecticut you know you&#039 ; re starting all over again because of course there was no great network of social media or anything like that then, so you really, really were starting over again. So, coming out officially at Aetna was something over again. So, I remember again not being a parade person, but I said &quot ; Okay, I&#039 ; ll do it once.&quot ; So, I marched with, there were Pride parades basically coinciding with Christopher Street at that time, in Hartford and so when the Aetna group decided to participate, I went. You can vaguely recognize me in the pictures in the newspaper one year, but some of my fellow employees then said, &quot ; Oh, great! Saw you in the newspaper!&quot ; So, times had changed. [laughs] But again, that was coming out in a way because you know, well obviously I worked in a huge corporation, and you don&#039 ; t know everybody that well, so there&#039 ; s no way to be personally out to everybody. But as the years go by, you learn how to just be more casually out in casual conversations with people. One of the big ways of being out of course is being in a relationship with somebody. You know, if you&#039 ; re totally single, it&#039 ; s easier to be more invisible as an LGBT person, but as soon as you enter a relationship you sort of have to renegotiate all your communications with other people, and you know it went from being very, very awkward in the earliest times. You didn&#039 ; t know what to call your significant other. The word partner wasn&#039 ; t even used then. It sometimes was your significant other, or my other half, or the friend I live with. Things just were so different. So, the terminology became very important later on as many of us know, at least eventually evolving into the word partner, and eventually being able to use the word spouses etcetera. That&#039 ; s all part of coming out too. I think that&#039 ; s where things have just gradually gotten easier. You can sense it in conversations. When I was in a corporate meeting waiting for a meeting to start in a large room with maybe 20 other people, and so they&#039 ; re waiting for the meeting to start, and they start going around and talking about something relating to their spouses or something like that, you know. So, whether or not you choose to chime in and say something about your other half, or spouse, is part of this whole part of still coming out and just helping to make the world a better place, and I always tried to do that as much as I could, and I think again with the perspective of 50 years, I think it&#039 ; s just one of the most successful things I&#039 ; m proud of. It&#039 ; s not just helping myself as a gay person within the gay community, but just being a small piece of what it took to change society. It&#039 ; s an ongoing process, we&#039 ; re still doing it, but it was a nucleus of, it was a start, all those little things we did years ago, and it made people very uncomfortable in the beginning for a long time. It was very tentative, and like I said you never knew what receptions you were going to get, but it just gradually changed over the years. I will go back and intervene perhaps, and touch on what the AIDS crisis did to all of that. In the latter part of, well, in the say about &#039 ; 83, &#039 ; 84, &#039 ; 85 when things started to become up for public discussion, you know without going into the AIDS crisis itself and just talking about the social impact, it was both good and bad. I think there was just hysteria around it. And with that I can go back to one memory, which is unfortunate but amusing in a way. I remember at that time in the department I was working in in Aetna-- this was probably &#039 ; 85. Yeah, you know, I think it was after the public had become much more aware of AIDS because a couple of celebrities had died, and I&#039 ; m thinking I think it was maybe after Rock Hudson had died, and the whole issue of AIDS had just come into the public consciousness at that time. But of course, it was-- there was hostility. There was a lot of discomfort. People didn&#039 ; t want to talk about it. But I remember in the department I worked in at that time, I was in customer service at Aetna, as we sometimes did, brought in refreshments. I baked-- I was pretty good at baking muffins in those years, and I baked some special muffin, specialty of mine, and brought them in for everybody. I was known, you know, I was sort of out gay then, but everybody knew that I lived with Ron, and I wasn&#039 ; t officially talking about being gay to everybody, but I knew that everybody knew that I was gay at that point. But you know what? No one would eat my muffins that day. And they had previously. And I knew it was AIDS. And there was this paranoia at this time about, &quot ; Oh my God. Don&#039 ; t touch gay people. Don&#039 ; t touch food that they had touched.&quot ; It&#039 ; s sort of a very sad thing. It was transitory. It was, but it represented some of the things that were happening at that time. But again, I&#039 ; m just touching on social impact. The good things that it did were forcing some people to come out, and be out, and many, many more gay men and lesbians were out, and it was well-known as the era when I think lesbians became great allies to gay men in the movement, and just gay men in general. And certainly prior to that, I haven&#039 ; t really touched on it, there definitely was always well, sometimes strained relationships and friction between lesbians and gay men in the movement, definitely. There was a lot of separatism. We always tried to do a lot of integrated things as much as we could in Le-Hi-Ho, but the number of women active in the group was definitely smaller. I think lesbians were very much involved in overall women&#039 ; s movement issues in those years too. But what did change I think is that they became great allies in the later &#039 ; 80s. And you know, as that transitioned into the &#039 ; 90s, I think it just you know, again because AIDS forced so many more people to come out to their families and to talk, and to go to charitable benefits and things like that, it had to do with changing society as well. Amidst the tragedy of it came some social good, I would say. So, I&#039 ; m thinking maybe I&#039 ; m running out of coherent pieces of what I was going to try to put together of my life. In retrospect, I think I&#039 ; ve been lucky as a happy gay person. I think I&#039 ; m very lucky I didn&#039 ; t undergo the trauma of coming out or being guilty or terribly unhappy as I was growing up. I really knew I was gay, I just had to figure out what it was all about. I was ready to be gay and call myself gay as soon as I could. You know, it&#039 ; s so hard to say this, but I&#039 ; m really sure that in today&#039 ; s climate I would probably have been one of those 12 to 13 years old, you know 13 year old person who is coming out as they do today. Maybe not until 14 or 15, who knows. What can I say? It&#039 ; s hard to project. But those were different times, so it took you a lot longer [laughs] to figure everything out. So, my not coming out say officially until I was 19 to 20 was very typical. In fact, you know, many, many people came out much later than that. In their thirties, in their thirties. It&#039 ; s sort of a little mind boggling now, and even later. We would sometimes have people getting involved in Le-Hi-Ho, I remember one man who was in his sixties and started getting involved after his wife died, because then he felt he was free. And so that was always a touching memory too. The fact that you hope that isn&#039 ; t happening today. MF: Well, I have some-- thank you so much for all that you&#039 ; ve shared. I have some questions that just as I was listening to your story, you know some of which are about Le-Hi-Ho. You had said that you had reached out to Le-Hi-Ho because they published something in the Brown and White about the draft. We&#039 ; ll have some younger listeners who will tune in here, and they won&#039 ; t understand what was going on with the draft, so could you talk a little bit about Le-Hi-Ho&#039 ; s sort of outreach around the draft and what that meant for gay men at the time? RB: Yeah. I can a little. I mean, I never got involved in it myself so I was never-- I can&#039 ; t say that I was expert on what gay men were being told, but it had to do with the fact that of course the draft was in place, I can&#039 ; t remember since when, in the &#039 ; 60s, and you know basically because of the Vietnam War, and it still went on through most of my Lehigh career. In fact, [laughs] one of my, I don&#039 ; t know what the logistics were, one of my indelible memories of being at Lehigh was sitting in the TV room in my dorm, ooh, what year was it? I was probably a sophomore or junior. Around the TV with all the guys in the dorm, I can&#039 ; t remember what exactly. Finding out something relating about what our lotto draft numbers were, because you were assigned lottery draft numbers in those days. And you know, if you got the lowest draft numbers, it meant they were going to call you up first for the Vietnam War. Of course, what happened was by the time I graduated in &#039 ; 73, things had sort of gone away as far as that goes, so my timing was good in the sense of not having to even have it be an issue for me, although I ended up with a fairly high draft number as I remember. But the point was that technically homosexuals weren&#039 ; t supposed to be in the military, okay? And you were supposed to reveal it if you were, whatever they called it, you know, in your induction interviews. In-take interviews. And if it came up later, if you were already in, you were supposed to be thrown out of the military. So, gay men who were drafted or gay men who wanted to join the military had this tricky thing to negotiate about basically to lie. Shall I lie about being homosexual? I forget the exact questions. &quot ; Have you ever had sexual relations with a man?&quot ; I do forget the exact verbiage that was used in those days. But it was something that you had to negotiate and decide what to do. So, that&#039 ; s basically what the counseling was about to try to help you know what your options were and what the implications were, and would there be any negative feedback if you were honest. You know, would that be a bad thing? So, it was sort of a big deal. Especially for college-age men at that point. So, again, I&#039 ; m not the best person to speak to more detail than that. MF: But it&#039 ; s interesting how Le-Hi-Ho, that kind of advertisement in the Brown and White, that they were really keyed into the issues that younger gay men might be facing at that time. And interesting that that advertisement could be used not just for that counseling, but like &quot ; Oh, hey! There&#039 ; s a group [laughs] that I could-- RB: Yeah. MF: -- go join!&quot ; That&#039 ; s wonderful. Well, I had another question about the Le-Hi-Ho newsletters, because as you know I&#039 ; ve been reading them studiously, and I think they&#039 ; re just phenomenal productions, and my question is what was your intention as one of the writers, the book reviewer, film reviewer, and also someone who put together entire newsletters? What was your hope for those newsletters? What did you want them to accomplish? What did you want to include? How did they circulate? I&#039 ; m just really curious about your desire for those publications, and then where they went. RB: Yeah, that&#039 ; s interesting. Maybe I&#039 ; ll just touch on first, I mean Le-Hi-Ho had a post office box, which turned out to be the best solution for an address. You didn&#039 ; t have a physical office space, which we didn&#039 ; t ever really have. The community, LGBT community centers came later in the &#039 ; 80s with other entities, like the Lambda Center, and much later entities in Allentown. So, Le-Hi-Ho had a PO Box at what was called Moravian Station on New Street. Where the old post office was in Bethlehem. So, and that&#039 ; s an old memory of mine. Just you know, all the mail we would get. Not just relating to the newsletter, but just from anybody contacting the group. Ranging from harassment to just people who wanted to find out, and other newsletters on distribution of publications from other groups. So, either Ron or I or other people had to go frequently, a couple times a week, to collect that stuff from the post office box in Bethlehem. And it also, you know, it was an anonymity thing too. I mean, using someone&#039 ; s home address wouldn&#039 ; t have been a really, really good idea in those days. People didn&#039 ; t want their mail carrier deliverers to know anything like that. So, the mailings of Le-Hi-Ho were pretty anonymous, and I touched on using pseudonyms and things like that, but also, I&#039 ; m quite sure that just the return address was the PO Box, you know, and it didn&#039 ; t say Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization, because there were people who just would not have been comfortable with getting anything in their mailbox with something like that on it. So, we sort of had to do that. So, our goal with the newsletter was to circumvent that and get it out to as many people as we could, and so we really just sort of proselytized to try to get people on the mailing list. So, that was a very, a tricky thing too because you had to promise security, and that it wasn&#039 ; t going to be used for any other kind of distribution purposes. It had to be a very secure mailing list, and it was. It had to be guarded. And as I said, you knew that some of the names on the mailing list were pseudonyms, actually. Well, and even some of the people on the mailing list had PO boxes themselves. I think that was a big deal in those days. People, a lot of LGBT people, would take out PO boxes to get their gay mail, anything they subscribed to, rather than have them come to home addresses. But the newsletter itself, yeah, it changed and evolved depending on who was willing to be involved in it. So, there were always some people who were heavily into politics, and some people who liked films or books like me, and sort of whatever you chose to write about, we just welcomed everything, and we just wanted to get the maximum amount of information into these we could to try to make them interesting to a variety of people and get them out to as many people as we could, and as part of their education too, really. I mean, I always saw it in those days as an educational thing because so many LGBT people didn&#039 ; t have access to a lot of this information. It took effort again to find out all this stuff. There was no easy way to get all the information. I think it accomplished its goal very well. It had its ups and downs. If you look at the old issues, sometimes they were very short. I think in later years when the group was sort of fading a bit and there weren&#039 ; t as many active members, it got shorter, which is just sort of a natural [laughs], natural occurrence with a lot of organizations, I think. But I think that&#039 ; s... It was really important, you know. One of the major things the group should be remembered for is the outreach, the political outreach, the social outreach with monthly meetings, and the speaking engagement educational and social outreach, and just the newsletter to generally all around educate anybody it possibly could. MF: Thank you so much for sharing that about the newsletters. I love that you talked about trying to interest different people so the arts and culture, the politics, and one of the just truly important things about them is that it was, that you were charting legislation that was occurring just in Texas or in other states, so it was almost like you were capturing national political legislative battles and informing a public in a way that bars can&#039 ; t do. Not that you couldn&#039 ; t have a political conversation at the bar, but that&#039 ; s just not their purpose. But you also had like that busybody column, which may have been written by a drag queen, or maybe someone just putting on the persona of a [laughs] drag queen. You had jokes in the newsletters, which I&#039 ; ve been telling at staff meetings. [Nerk?] from 1969 that I found in your newsletter, which I loved. So, they were fun and political, and about representation both in academic books, non-fiction books, and then of course vibrant artists. Just, they&#039 ; re incredible pieces of work. I&#039 ; m interested in Le-Hi-Ho as an alternative to the bars, and could you say a little bit more about what it was like to be a member of the group? What the meetings were like, why they were a good alternative to the bars, what they offered that bars weren&#039 ; t? RB: Yeah, yeah, because I think I was such a big advocate of that, to make those meetings, to make them welcoming for one thing. And so, I think what we always tried to do is the people who went -- there was always a board of directors, you know a running board, which I can&#039 ; t remember consisted of five or eight people, and there was annual elections, so there was turnover all the time, but there was always a core group, and it was always one of their jobs to be welcoming and network with especially the newest people who would show up at any given monthly meeting because you always had to realize that any meeting could be the first public entrance on the stage for some of the people who were showing up into the gay community, as an alternative to a bar which yeah, people do that too. They make their entrance into the gay community at a bar, and it is what it is. I mean, there&#039 ; s no official structure [laughs] to welcome you, or make you feel comfortable or happy, and probably some of those experiences are good, and some of them are not. It wasn&#039 ; t my experience, so I can&#039 ; t comment personally on that, but I mean generally-- and I&#039 ; m not trying to be negative about bars because they of course fill the vacuum and served a great function, you know, served a great purpose, but they often just weren&#039 ; t the best environment for being friendly social and networking with people. Having honest, serious discussions. I mean, you just wouldn&#039 ; t expect that to happen in a noisy, smokey bar late at night. So, not the right environment. But, on a Sunday afternoon in a very casual Unitarian Church setting, it was very comfortable and so we always made that point of greeting anybody. We knew who the regulars were, and who the brand-new people were, and you just had to try to make them welcome and feel comfortable. Really comfortable. Knowing that some of them were probably very, very uncomfortable showing up at the meeting. I&#039 ; m sorry, just sometimes snippets of memories come to you. This was just such a touching one: we had phone calls in advance. Le-Hi-Ho did at the time have-- I didn&#039 ; t even touch on that-- we had a phone line that really, but just took voice, it was answering machine messages in later years. It never really was staffed, but and sometimes, well our, Ron and my phone number just got out there and so sometimes we just got a lot of [laughs] a lot of the calls, as did other board members. But in any case, we had a fifteen-year-old boy come once. And normally that was something-- in those days, interaction with young gay people, it was a real big issue, and it was just something you didn&#039 ; t get involved with because you&#039 ; d get in trouble. But in this case, his mother permitted it, and she called us in advance, and it turned out he was terminally ill with cancer, and he knew he was gay, and he wanted to meet other gay people. So, she called us up and asked if he could come to a meeting. And so, she drove him. She didn&#039 ; t come in, but she drove him and picked him up. I&#039 ; m sorry, I can get a little teary at this. So, I think his name was Scott, and he came to the meeting, and I think he came to a few meetings. And I think it was Leukemia he had, and he did die within a year or two after that, so, that was just so touching but it also reveals the vacuum of how it just almost wasn&#039 ; t possible to do much for young gay people then. I mean, we really had to use, you know, the eighteen-year-old cut off thing. It was a tough thing. It&#039 ; s more than I can discuss here, but not to say that we didn&#039 ; t get contacted now and then by younger people, we did, but it was something you just had to really, really be very, very careful with. But in any case, I loved the meetings because I loved to get to know people, and you know socialize with them repeatedly, and see a lot of times these were people who would never have been comfortable inviting you to their home, or coming to other gay people&#039 ; s homes, because that in and of itself was a revealing, out thing. Just having the Le-Hi-Ho board meeting at your house, which we did. We rotated. We didn&#039 ; t have those at the church, we had them in our houses. But you had to be willing to have, you know it wasn&#039 ; t like throwing a party, but you had to be willing to have maybe six or eight or ten gay people showing up at your house, and you know what neighbors might see and say and deduce, and that was just one of those things you navigated in those years, and so many people weren&#039 ; t comfortable in having [laughs] other LBGT people in their homes except under certain circumstances. So, again, these meetings were just such a neutral setting, you know. You&#039 ; re going to a church on a Sunday afternoon. It&#039 ; s a really easy thing to slip away to, and we knew that. We knew some people were slipping away from really restricted lives of, yeah, some of them were married, or some of them lived with families even though they were old. [laughs] They weren&#039 ; t really young. But they could slip away for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, and so it was an outlet for them, and it worked. So, it was really important to a lot of people. In that sense too, I could almost get a little teary about it, and we grew close to a lot of people that way. Of course, some of them, some of it was probably some people came in frozen with fear, might have lasted one meeting and left and were never seen again, because they, you know, didn&#039 ; t cope well with it. Not to say that didn&#039 ; t happen, because it did. But a lot of people did come back. That was the good thing. MF: Did Le-Hi-Ho have relationships with homophile organizations in New York and Philly? You talked about in 1975 going to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in New York City, and you&#039 ; ve talked about what a life-affirming kind of organization it was in the Lehigh Valley. What was sort of the connection beyond the Lehigh Valley? Was there a connection beyond the Lehigh Valley? RB: Yeah, I would say there was. A lot of it happened actually in the earliest years, you know, from &#039 ; 69, even before I got active in early &#039 ; 72. A lot of it really, I think was from that era. My partner Ron, was involved in that. But some of it continued after and you know I knew some of that, but yeah, I would say it was especially New York City, Philadelphia oriented, with extensions out to like I know there was a group I think at State College in Pennsylvania, and outfits like Delaware Valley College Students in whatever city that&#039 ; s nearest, in Bucks County, [laughs] Pennsylvania. I forget exactly where the college is. Everybody was on everybody&#039 ; s distribution list. You know, they got our newsletter, and we&#039 ; d get all their newsletters, so there was networking in that way, and some of it was actual travel. I know Ron and some other members went into New York City to the Mattachine Society, you know the oldest society in New York City at that time and were even there at the beginning of the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, and a lot of the very, very early stuff that started up in New York City. I forget. I&#039 ; m just having a mental lapse on what the one in Philadelphia was called, but I know I went down there to visit them at their, they had a center I think on South Street in Philadelphia and talked to them. And a lot of it was used to networking to get some of the speakers we got, and we got like Frank Kameny from Washington, DC and Barbara Gittings from Philadelphia, and I always remember those two because, I&#039 ; m pretty sure my memories good on this, they were sort of early icons of the LGBT movement. Famous I think if you go back to the photograph of the LBGT protestors marching in front of the White House in roughly 1965? Very, very early, about job discrimination. Frank Kameny was of course notoriously fired by the US government from his high, you know, very high-level job. But I believe Frank and Barbara were in that photo. They were of course all dressed up impeccably in suits and ties, and you know very, very conservative clothing carrying their placards very formally. But that&#039 ; s a very good memory. Dick Leitsch came from New York City, and oh gosh, some of the names... Mark [Segal] from Philadelphia, and I&#039 ; m sorry, his surname is escaping me. You can probably research it. And those were important because I think you know, we fed off each other&#039 ; s energy to a certain extent. So, there was a good amount of networking that went on, and some of it I probably wasn&#039 ; t even involved in, so. It was hard to get involved in everything because there were [laughs] really quite a few things going on, so sometimes you just chose your little threads that you got involved in. I know once, I think the first time Barbara Gittings actually came to the Lehigh Valley though, was not to Le-Hi-Ho, but she spoke at Muhlenberg College, so I remember Ron and I going there to, he knew her already previously and I remember we went to hear her speak and talk to her afterwards, so yeah. So, those are some good early memories. MF: We&#039 ; ve spent a lot of time talking about Le-Hi-Ho. We talked a little bit about your work at Aetna. We&#039 ; ve talked about the social aspects of Le-Hi-Ho and how life-affirming it was. Social organizations tend to get sort of disparaged, but the way that you describe the monthly meetings with Le-Hi-Ho is how important that kind of social space was for members. I&#039 ; m wondering if maybe we could talk a little bit about your relationship with Ron. You talked about meeting Ron in the 1970s at that Kutztown party, or meeting him through Le-Hi-Ho. Do you want to share a little bit about your life with Ron, and that your relationship with your beloved? RB: Yeah, I will a little bit as an overview. I guess I&#039 ; m a little probably, I&#039 ; m going to try, to get very personal. I&#039 ; m not really good at that, but yeah. I&#039 ; m definitely willing to give it an overview. Yeah, I&#039 ; d said it was 50-- it&#039 ; s almost 50 years to the day right now when Ron and I met, but I mean we started seeing each other immediately after that. Could really consider our anniversary-- when I graduated from Lehigh, it was Memorial Day weekend, that&#039 ; s when I moved in with him. He had already, he had bought a house in Bethlehem, an old house, which was, he was restoring, and needed a lot of restoration. And so that was the start. That was a year and a half later after we met, so that could really be called our official anniversary. We lived in that house during the time that I worked at Lehigh. During the &#039 ; 70s. We moved in 1980 to a separate, yeah, to a different house that we bought in Bethlehem and that lasted until the 1990 move to Connecticut. What can I say? He was rooted in Bethlehem. His whole family was there. Very, very rooted you know for a long time in that surrounding area. I had no immediate connections to the area, but I grew very, very fond of it after being there for so long, of course. And you know it&#039 ; s funny, I mean again, the degree to people were out in those days, but in the &#039 ; 70s you know his parents were quite friendly to me, and just accepted me. His father told me I could be his, another son to him, which I thought was very nice. But again, no one talked about it, you know. But we, it&#039 ; s funny. I think we weren&#039 ; t as fully integrated as a couple into society as we would be today, or are still today, just because of the way things were. Just because people were so, so uncomfortable. And so, I think you often did a lot of things separately, you know, and led slight-- not different lives, but there were more threads of your life where you might just do them separately. Interact with certain relatives separately. What can I say? I met a great deal of his relatives, and some we were very close to, and we would go to visit his grandmother every Friday night and watch [laughs] television with her in the &#039 ; 70s. Eventually, you know maybe not immediately, but we started going to some of the holidays with my parents. Thanksgiving, Christmas kind of holidays with my parents and family, who would congregate back with my family in Elmira/Horseheads, New York, you know and those went fine. Things evolved, and certainly there were like I said, things you had to negotiate as a gay couple in those days about interacting with society at large. Like I said, it just wasn&#039 ; t the same thing, and it&#039 ; s gradually, gradually gotten so that now everything is just so casual, you know. What can I say? You know, Ron and I have been together 50 years, less a year and a half, call it, formally [laughs]. We haven&#039 ; t married for complex reasons. I won&#039 ; t discuss that here. We&#039 ; re still together, although I&#039 ; ll just say unfortunately Ron&#039 ; s health isn&#039 ; t good, and he&#039 ; s currently in an assisted living facility, so I&#039 ; ve actually been physically apart from him for a year and a half, which is first time, you know, I&#039 ; ve lived on my own since then, and it&#039 ; s difficult but I spend oh, about three hours with him every day, seven days a week, and frequent phone calls and grossly, and completely engrossed with his life in so many ways. It&#039 ; s not like we&#039 ; re separated at all, but it&#039 ; s not quite the same thing. You know, and we&#039 ; ve had you know, a lot of good times, and a lot of friends, and I guess that&#039 ; s the overview I&#039 ; m going to give. MF: Thank you so much for sharing. We are at the end of our 90 minutes, but before we close, I just want to give you the opportunity, is there anything that we didn&#039 ; t talk about that you really wanted to share? Did we miss something? Anything that you want to share at the end here? RB: Yeah. Trivial memory. Ha. Le-Hi-Ho also sponsored occasional theater trips to New York City to see gay plays. In the &#039 ; 70s. And there weren&#039 ; t too many of them around, but that was fun. We did that. I just thought of that, that was a great experience. We always wondered what the bus drivers thought when we hired buses to cart 50 people, so to speak, to New York City, but it all went well. It all went well. So, I guess I&#039 ; ll end with that rather trivial memory [laughs]. MF: It&#039 ; s one of my true joys reading the newsletter when I see that you all have, you&#039 ; re talking about going to a show, and then like not enough people signed up, but reading it now, you get to see like, &quot ; Oh, that was playing in New York in the &#039 ; 70s!&quot ; And it&#039 ; s almost like a chart of gay cultural, you know just a little bit of the gay theatrical happening in New York, and especially with the book reviews, you really get the sense of what books mattered to our community in the Lehigh Valley, and you know, to the [reviewers like you. I just love those parts of the newsletter. It gives just a snapshot of some of the culture. RB: Yeah. MF: And I wish I could have been on that bus to New York City. I don&#039 ; t know why we don&#039 ; t do that now. I mean, I would pay to go to New York City on a bus, so I don&#039 ; t have to drive-- RB: Yeah. MF: --and go see theater. What a wonderful program. Well, I&#039 ; ll just end our interview by saying thank you so much, Rick, for taking the time to talk with me today. It has really been a pleasure, a real honor to speak with you about your life story. RB: Thanks so much for doing this. It&#039 ; s been great for me too. Copyright for this oral history recording is held by the interview subject. video This oral history is made available with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0). The public can access and share the interview for educational, research, and other noncommercial purposes as long as they identify the original source. 0

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“Rick Balmer, December 6, 2021,” Lehigh Valley LGBT Community Archive Oral History Repository, accessed April 19, 2024, https://trexlerworks.muhlenberg.edu/lgbt_oralhistory/items/show/50.