Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Storymaking - Part 1

An Afternoon with Michael Adams

Michael Adams is a quiet editor with a fierce streak. The first time I walked into his office at I noticed he had a poster that said “Fuck Bush.” Every week he volunteers at Housing Works Bookstore and it’s hard to imagine him anywhere besides Greenwich Village. His apartment is filled with books and an oversized fireplace. It is an inviting kind of sanctuary. As gay people we learn to tell stories. He told us some good ones over the course of an afternoon.

Hopefully, this is the first of several interviews.

Interviewer: I want to start with a little background about what Detroit was like when you were growing up.

Michael Adams: We lived in Royal Oak, a suburb for the auto industry. My father was not in the auto industry, but many people were. We moved there when I think I was 12, in 1959; midway between the Eisenhower and the Kennedy period, a period of transition for the country.

My father was in sales and he was transferred to that territory from East Grand Rapids. Detroit was the first big city I had ever really lived near. To my eyes, it was a lovely, civilized place to live. But Detroit was very segregated. Royal Oak had no black families that I know of, so I didn't know any African-Americans. You could probably spend a lot of time there without seeing any black people. That was important because it was an unreal view of the world.

Detroit had a small, manageable downtown and that's the only place I would go. My parents saw no problem with me going downtown by myself to go into Hudson's Department Store, to go record shopping, to go to the Fisher Theater, which was the big place for out-of-town musicals in those days.

Interviewer: Were there black people downtown?

Michael Adams: There must have been, but they were very much "the other" and you didn't socialize with them; you didn't go into their neighborhoods and they didn't come into yours unless they were cleaning your house.

Interviewer: Did you have a housekeeper?

Michael Adams: No. My mother was not one to have a housekeeper. That was all very distant from us. I didn't really know much about Martin Luther King. My parents didn't talk about it. My father was king of the racist jokes. I knew every synonym and pejorative for a black person. But that’s not what you asked about.

Interviewer: I was asking about the context.

Michael Adams: Many people say it was an innocent time, but it was a terrible time in that way.

Interviewer: I assume then you didn't know any gay people?

Michael Adams: None.

Interviewer: Or even a concept of what gay meant?

Michael Adams: I guess I learned that just by reading as much as I did and melding it with my own awareness of my own sexual preference. But from what I read I couldn't even tell you what alerted me to the fact that there were such things as homosexuals.

Interviewer: So when did you first begin to realize that you might be another form of the other?

Michael Adams: There was a definite transition because I remember being aroused and interested in female breasts from a very early age. That was sort of the heyday of Playboy and to go to the drugstore and open a centerfold was thrilling. I guess maybe you're all just a whole bundle of sexual nerves in that period. And I remember those were the days of actresses like Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors and these big-breasted women fascinated me.

Somehow along the way that transferred, but I don't remember if it was a day or a week or what it was that suddenly made me conscious. But I do remember when I was between eighth and ninth grade thinking, "Oh, high school's going to be great because I'll be able to see a lot of guys with hair coming out of their t-shirts." That is a vivid memory, but, when does something like that become conscious in your mind? I don't know. It doesn't happen, it's just gradual. And then you realize who is the object of your interest; that's what you look at.

Interviewer: When you went downtown what were you shopping for? Is that linked to your growing awareness of being gay?

Michael Adams: I would go to record stores all the time because I collected records. There was a Fabian record and he was in swim trunks. And I kept returning to that record. I'd go to show tune albums and look at the covers in the Judy Garland section, but then I'd keep coming back surreptitiously to that Fabian album, not fantasizing, but just fixated on it. And then it was like, "Well duh! This must mean something." And then I just fell into the awareness that that was my sexual preference, even though I didn't even know the mechanics of sex.

Interviewer: Did you know what to name it?

Michael Adams: Not really. I knew what it was because the phrase ‘latent homosexual’ came into my consciousness. I had read it somewhere, only I thought the word latent meant "seriously." I didn't think, "I've got to get out of this." I still had crushes on popular girls. There were a lot of popular girls who I had crushes on. The ones who were unavailable and maybe I was trying to force myself unconsciously to be a part of that.

So there's a split going on; my lust was going one way, but another way, at least my social awareness was, "I'd like to date some of these really cool girls." And none of them were interested in me, but I befriended them because I was kind of popular in high school. Not popular for sports, but popular because I was president of the Thespians and vice president of the French club and National Honor Society and all of that.

Interviewer: All that overachieving, over compensating.

Michael Adams: Exactly. I was kind of a character. I was in the school plays and I sought to be well known, well-liked is the better phrase.

Michael Adams at the Senior Potluck. 1965

Interviewer: Was there any guilt associated with those seriously homosexual feelings?

Michael Adams: Totally, total, total, total. Guilt in the sense that I knew this was a secret I had that I could not tell anyone in my family.

Interviewer: Could you tell anyone?

Michael Adams: No, I had no one. There was no one. You didn't go to the school counselor. At the same time I had the realization, I realized that this was something I would have to live with forever. I mean in those days I used to have nightmares that I would be walking down the aisle, because in those days it was like college, military, marriage. That was the thing you were on and there was no wavering from this. So I just assumed that I would have to endure those things, even though I had this very, very, very deep dark secret.

Interviewer: There weren't any girlfriends in those early years?

Michael Adams: No. In fact, a few of the best friends I had in high school I told just last year. I mean they knew I was gay, but they didn't know then, or at least they didn't know they knew. It was like, "Oh, in retrospect you probably were." But these are not girls I dated. These were girls I hung out with.

Interviewer: Was it a prosperous time for white middle class people in Detroit because of the car industry?

Michael Adams: Yeah. We were very solidly middle class and my father did well, we had a car, but our house was small. Eventually we had two cars. We didn't take vacations. We might go to somebody's house on the lake for a couple of weeks, but we were not wealthy. It was late '50s, early '60s. There was a self-satisfaction; a contentment about America's place in the world. We certainly didn't know any poor people; not poor-poor. And the guilt came from being raised Catholic. That was big time as my mother was devout.

Interviewer: When did you stop going to church?

Michael Adams: When I went off to college. For several months into college she would ask, "Are you going to Mass?" And I'd say, "No." And then finally she said, "Look, you're an adult; do what you want as far as that's concerned."

Interviewer: But all through high school?

Michael Adams: Mass, Mass, Mass, every Sunday.

Interviewer: And Catechism and all that?

Michael Adams: Yeah. Because I went to a public school I had to take religious instruction, as it was called. I hated all of it. You can say you don't believe it, but when you're a Catholic, there's still something that embeds in you that you can't quite escape - ever.

Interviewer: It follows you.

Michael Adams: I think I have escaped it now, but you still think in terms of mortal sins and venial sins and heaven and hell. Sometimes when I was young I would go to sleep thinking of what eternity was like; forever and ever and ever and ever and trying in my mind thinking what that must be if you went to hell.

Interviewer: As you're emerging as a sexual human being?

Michael Adams: Horrible, horrible. But I never tried to pray my way out of it because somehow I knew that there was no prayer that was going to "cure" this. It was a matter of fact. If somebody had said, "Oh by the way, you're going to wake up tomorrow and you're going to have no arms," or whatever, you'd say, "Okay, I'll just deal with it." I mean you'd be terrified, but it was a fact. It was something like, "Oh hell, if I pray I'll grow two more arms." No. I knew that this is what I was.

Interviewer: There was no changing that?

Michael Adams: No. There wasn't this mechanism that was going to change it.

Interviewer: Tell us what you can about the troubles in high school.

Michael Adams: My best friend was a guy named Ron and basically he brought me out. We met in gym class because we both hated gym and we started going to the movies. You spend a lot of time together; stuff comes up. And, again, it was even hard to talk about with a peer because the culture made it very clear and my family made it very clear that effeminacy was wrong and bad because of what it represented usually, which was this unnamed sexual deviancy.

Interviewer: So it wasn't even named.

Michael Adams: No, not in my family, no. No one ever said, "Be very wary of the strange man who comes and offers you candy." I never had any of that. It just was that even as a little kid I was chided if I did anything the least bit effeminate. It was very clear that effeminacy was bad and to be cured for want of a better word. The only cultural references we had were all bad.

On television [the comic] Ernie Kovacs had a character called Percy Dovetonsils, who was a very effete poet. He had a little mustache. He had little pursed lips and was, to my parents, hilarious. But the subtext was he's hilarious because he's a freak. He wasn't called a homosexual, but it was alluded to, and to anybody who knew, that was what he was doing. He was an object of ridicule. He was funny because of that.

Interviewer: You get these signals.

Michael Adams: Very early on those signals were clear; this is not something that's good.

Interviewer: So the story begins with Ron?

Michael Adams: He basically brought me out because we started talking about it and it got to the point of like, "Well if you had a football team and had to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?" And we talked about taking pictures of them naked, but that was only if we were queer this is what we would do kind of stuff.

Interviewer: So hypothetically if, if, if.

Michael Adams: We were playing this game with each other and he was the one who finally gave in and said, "By the way, you know I am homosexual." Again, the terminology is a little fuzzy to me because I don't know when "gay" became the word. But actually it was around that time that we probably started using it, but we might have said homosexual. I don't know if we ever said queer. Anyway, he finally admitted to me. He said, "You know I have to tell you I am," and --

Interviewer: How old are you?

Michael Adams: I was 15 or 16.

Interviewer: And he was the same age?

Michael Adams: Yes. And that's when reality hit home. I remember leaving that conversation, whatever we were doing, going home; lying down on my bed, turning hot, turning cold. Just like okay, now it's all been back here in my head, but now it's real. Now somebody has actually said that. You didn't have the courage to say to him, "Me, too," but that will come in time. He went on to try to seduce me and succeeded in New York City the week we saw the original production of Funny Girl.

Interviewer: And by then it's still the same period of time approximately?

Michael Adams: It's the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. It was the week before my 17th birthday.

Interviewer: So then what happens? How do you name yourself?

Michael Adams: There were still vestiges of not totally owning up to it, primarily because there was the Catholic guilt going on and because I wasn't totally in love with him. Whether or not that was because he was gay and he loved me or it was because under any circumstances that wouldn’t have been my choice I don’t know. But he was the only outlet I knew. In those days there wasn't a gay/lesbian alliance at high school where you could attend a meeting.

As far as I knew he was the only one in the world that I knew. He was much more sophisticated than I was. By the age of 17 he was out and going to the bars in Detroit. He was going down to Toledo where you could, at the age of 18, legally drink what they called near beer. He was definitely adventurous in ways that I never could be.

Interviewer: That was bold for those days.

Michael Adams: I still wasn't ready to come out, but he prompted me. He introduced me to gay guys that he knew from Detroit.

Interviewer: Young also?

Michael Adams: Yes. We would be driving around Detroit and some guy would beep at him in a car and he'd say, "Oh yeah, there's Ralph. He's a famous rim-queen." And that's when I said, "What's that?" And then he told me and it was like, "No, no, nobody can do it." I was very naïve about a lot of that stuff.

Interviewer: So where does that lead in terms of the troubles that happened?

Michael Adams: So he was trying to convince me that there had to be homosexuals in the school.

Interviewer: Besides the two of you.

Michael Adams: Exactly. He was like, "It's common sense that we're not the only two." So then he pointed out this really attractive guy who was on the football team and said, "I have a feeling he is." I mean he would say this to me in a department store when a guy was helping me try on a sweater and said something and then we left and Ron said, "I think he's one of us, and that sort of thing. And I would like, "Huh? Really? What? Why?"

So he was pushing me towards… he was like, "Okay, if I can't have you," -- because he was ostensibly in love with me and wanted me to be his boyfriend, but basically he said, "Well if I can't have you, I'll at least get you out in the world and let you leave the nest," sort of thing. So then he pointed to this guy and he said, "You know we're going to have to be very cagy. Let's start sending him letters." So we sent him gay love letters.

Interviewer: Together?

Michael Adams: Together. I wrote them because I was on the school newspaper.

Interviewer: A career foretold.

Michael Adams: We would leave him signals and ask him to leave signals that he was getting our letters and understanding what we meant and kind of complying.

Interviewer: But you didn't identify who you were?

Michael Adams: Not until the very last. Finally we thought we've got to bring this to a head, no pun intended. We needed to make contact with him.

Interviewer: Did he respond?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: Did he respond to your letters by doing what you asked him to do?

Michael Adams: Well I think there were a couple things like, "If you're interested, wear such-and-such on Thursday," and he did.

Interviewer: And he did?

Michael Adams: Yes, yes. But he was also delivering the letters to his football coach who was taking them to the principal.

Interviewer: Of course.

Michael Adams: So we were ultimately caught.

Interviewer: Entrapment.

Michael Adams: Is it entrapment when we start the whole ball rolling? I don't think so.

Interviewer: Now do you think he was following the cues out of some plan to try to trap you?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yes, not in response to the attention?

Michael Adams: Oh no, no, no, no, no. We're probably lucky that he didn't meet us and beat the shit out of us.

Interviewer: Were both of you signing the letters?

Michael Adams: No, no, no. It was ostensibly under one person doing it because we thought two people doing it would have been too weird. Like this wasn’t, weird enough. Yeah, we thought that it would make more sense, but the fact that both of us were involved was a saving grace because then my parents were able to say to themselves, "Well it was just like this little prank that two kids do." It wasn't like one kid going crazy with lust for another. Do you know what I mean?

Interviewer: So how explicit were the letters?

Michael Adams: You know it's funny because in doing this, I really think I blocked them out of my mind, out of real shame that I did such a thing.

The letters were more purple than they were anything else. A friend says we should put me under hypnosis to see if I can recall the letters. But I remember one line that was something like, "If the Greeks had a god of something or other, masculinity or something, you would be it," or some ridiculous piece of crap. But it was that sort of adolescent prose from one who read too many books.

Interviewer: So what happens? What is the final thing that gets you caught?

Michael Adams: We had to decide whose name and number were going to be on the letter and in my greedy little way I decided I had to get the reward because I was doing all the work by writing the letters. Talk about hoist on your own petard. So we put my first name and my phone number.

Interviewer: So your home phone number?

Michael Adams: Yep. We were actually also communicating with him by telephone.

Interviewer: Already?

Michael Adams: Yeah, well along the way. So, again, all of that is really fuzzy. Did this last six weeks? Did it last a week? I don't know. But there were some communications. I think we would actually call his home and ask for him and talk to him.

Interviewer: So then what happens? The principal then calls you? Or you get called in?

Michael Adams: I got called out of history class around 11:00 o'clock in the morning. I remember that vividly. I think it was a Friday. The principal tells me nothing. He asked me questions like, "Do you go to church?" And it was a very short drive from the high school to my home, but we drove in his car and it was like I knew what this was all about, but I thought, "No, no, it can't be." And the cinematic moment that was absolutely true is that he turned the corner, and he was carrying a manila folder, and as we turned the corner the manila folder spills out all the letters that I had written. They were in the folder.

Interviewer: Onto the seat?

Michael Adams: Right between us. They were in between us. That’s when my imagination went into overdrive and I thought like Lucy Ricardo, "How do I get out of this one?" My mother was home. He took me in and they sent me to the other room. He showed her the letters and my father was called home from work and he basically said, "If it turns out you're gay, you will no longer be allowed in this school." I don't think he used the word gay. I'm not sure, but "If this turns out to be true..."

And that's when I said, "I know what this looks like, but I did this" -- and again, I'm not sure when I brought Ron in to kind of bolster my case, but I said, "I was seeking revenge on somebody who humiliated me in front of a girl I liked." Fast thinking, right?

Interviewer: Incredible. You thought this up on the spot?

Michael Adams: I did. I remember sitting in front of the TV while we were waiting for my dad to come home watching some game show or something, staring at the TV and thinking, "Alright, well it's got to involve a girl." And I had like five minutes to concoct this story. And it bought me time. Because I knew that any admission of guilt would get me thrown out of the school. In the fall of my senior year when I have all these irons in the fire in school; where I was in my own little way a big boy on campus. They would have sent me to the Shrine of the Little Flower High School, a Catholic high school.

Interviewer: Shrine of the Little Flower?

Michael Adams: Exactly, exactly. Where I could have had an affair with a priest. The priest is just sitting there waiting for the guys they send over from the public schools because they're queer boys. I knew that was not possible for me in my life. I could not imagine how I would explain that to my friends. I had to get out of it. I had to lie my way out of it, but there was never a moment when I thought I'll just say, "Yes, I'm having those feelings. Help me." Impossible, impossible.

Interviewer: So you cook up this story in the few minutes it takes your dad to come home?

Michael Adams: Yeah.

Interviewer: They must have known that you were lying.

Michael Adams: No.

Interviewer: They believed you?

Michael Adams: Yeah, because they wanted to. And the principal said, "Well that's all well and good, but you're not going to be allowed back in school until a psychiatrist gives you his seal of approval."

So I was kept out of school for several days and the principal said, "We'll tell the school that you're out looking at colleges," which people did occasionally. They would take tours of prospective colleges. "And then you'll be allowed back in when the psychiatrist gives his okay."

Interviewer: So then did you call your friend Ron and say, "This is the deal."?

Michael Adams: No, strangely enough. He called me. Our phone was in the family room where everybody could hear and I pick up the phone and it's Ron and he says, "I'm ready. I have rope, I have poison, I have whatever." He was ready to do a dual suicide. Now was he just being dramatic or was he serious? Probably a little of both, but he really thought the jig was up and we'd have to kill ourselves. Maybe he thought that was, again, totally romantic. I don't know.

Interviewer: It’s unreal.

Michael Adams: Here I was on the phone with both my parents in the room going, "I think I've got this covered, just don't do anything. I think we're going to be okay with this one." I don't know how I didn't crack under the pressure.

My parents hated Ron anyway. That's when I said to them, "Look, I didn't do this alone, but I don't want to bring Ron into it. I don't think it's fair." And they were okay with that. But as I said, it allowed them to think, "Well two kids kind of being prankish and mischievous or revengeful is better than having one freakish son."

Interviewer: Right.

Michael Adams: So that helped them.

Interviewer: Talk about the psychiatrist. Do you remember that? What happened?

Michael Adams: I couldn't tell you what he looked like. So much is just a blank. Did my father take me? Did he wait outside? I don't remember any of that. But I do remember, again, thinking, "Alright, I've read enough about homosexuality to know it's all about loving your mother and hating your father." So I just kind of flipped them and said how much I admired my father and how much time we spent together. I didn't condemn my mother, but it was like she was not so present. I just created this whole thing.

Recently I've had a revelation about that though. I'll never know because I've gone through my life thinking this was the dumbest shrink in all history in that he took my word for it, because he reported back to school, "No, he's not gay. He's not a homosexual." I think he said, "He has the capacity for self-punishment," or something like that. But I got a clean bill of health. Somehow just in talking it out I’ve thought, "Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe I didn't fool him for a minute." But he knew the consequences. Maybe he was gay himself. Or at least he was compassionate enough not to humiliate me. Now he's a hero.

Interviewer: So you get this sort of clearance, so to speak. And you go back to school. What happens with the football player? Does he just ignore you then and does everything just kind of go on?

Michael Adams: Yes. He deserves a lot of credit because according to the principal, if Steve, which was his name, spread the story, I'd still be out. All Steve would have had to say is, "Hey, you know that guy over there?" However, I think Steve would not have wanted to tell anyone that he was the object of some young boy's lust.

Interviewer: Right. It would indict him.

Michael Adams: Exactly. That's my five-cent psychological guess as to why he didn’t say anything. When you're that age in that era you know nothing about homosexuality. And he probably wondered, "Why me? Did they see something in me?"

Interviewer: Do they know something?

Michael Adams: Yeah. Because it seems like nobody went to him and said, "Well the story is that you humiliated him in front of a girl and that's what this is all about." So nobody was like weighing evidence.

Interviewer: So in buying yourself time, then that gave everybody kind of what they wanted; which was for it to all go away?

Michael Adams: Yes. Strangely Steve, the football player, started dating a woman that I was really close to.

She and I were talking and he came to pick her up or something and then just walked away. And she said something like, "Steve doesn't like you. I don't get it. Everybody likes you, but he doesn't seem to like you." But again, if he had opened his mouth I would have been in deep shit. And to his credit he didn’t say anything. I think it was shameful for him, too.

Interviewer: So what did your parents say to you as all of this is going on?

Michael Adams: We were not a communicative family. Like a good trial lawyer, you don't ask your child questions you don’t want the answer to.

So they said nothing. I mean they didn't say, "Have you ever had these thoughts?" Because I hung out with so many girls they were able to convince themselves that I was straight. I didn't have a steady, but not everybody did. I went to the prom with a girl. There are none so blind as those who will not see and that was written all over their faces. You don't want your kid to be queer, so you accept any scrap of evidence to prove that he isn't. So it was just like this chill in the air for a long, long time.

What's important to say, it was the time. Families did not have gay children. Gay people were the scum of the earth. They were in dark corners. They were waiting to jump at you perhaps, although, again nobody ever warned me that that was the case. Then, it was all best left unsaid.

Michael Adams Senior photo, 1965


  1. I didn't want this interview to stop. I was imagining the whole thing in my head as a movie, which by the way it would be a good one.

  2. Amazing interview. I also graduated from high school in 1965 - a very straight-arrow class (in my case) that immediately fell into the back half of the 1960s. The distance from 1964 (Goldwater vs. LBJ) to 1968, say (Chicago, Paris) felt long to me, but it probably repeated at a bigger scale what the Beats did 10 years or so before.