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98.6% The Same

The gay underworld that Jerry Falwell doesn't want you to know about.

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(((Marie Jacobs and Pat Bates))))

I was pretty sure I had the address right, but homosexuals don't live in trailer parks. Do they?

It was an immaculate park, quiet and pretty. It was an immaculate trailer. And the huge fifth wheel parked next to it looked like it had just come out of a car wash. But! ... gays with a fifth wheel? Nah, I had to be in the wrong place.

Turns out, Pat Bates and Marie Jacobs haul that beast to Arizona every fall and back to Boise every spring. I suspect this would come as a shock to the conventional snowbird community, but there's an RV park down there of nearly 500 units that accommodates nothing but lesbian couples.

And what twisted things do they do in that Arizona sun, those lesbians? You guessed it ... shuffleboard, ping-pong, and potluck dinners.

Marie laughs. "Just because all these women are lesbians does not mean we all get along. You meet people ... it's like, 'God, I can't stand that woman,' ... not because she's a lesbian, but it's just that I don't like her."

Pat's 73 and Marie is 60. They're both nurses, though Pat's retired. Before they left Southern California 12 years ago, she was a "big director of an operating room," as Marie puts it.

Pat worked hard. Had to. When that husband of hers took to the hills, he left her with four kids to raise. She went 26 years without a companion, woman or man. Sixteen years ago, when she told her oldest son she was moving in with Marie--and in doing so "outed" herself--he cried. "He was so happy I finally had someone."

Marie spoke up. "Her son in Australia ... now he's a born-again Christian, see ... and he was a little funny about it. He didn't want me coming over there when Pat visited. But I always say, 'to know me is to love me.' When he finally came to the states and got to meet me, we hit it off just like that. (finger-snap) I just adore her children."

When she's in town, Marie's a surgical technician at St. Luke's. She still works mostly to keep up on the insurance, and as someone who survived a bout with ovarian cancer two decades ago, you can imagine what her insurance rates might be.

Marie also taught nursing at Boise State for eight years and never tried to hide what she is. "There was always a picture of Pat and the dogs on my desk. Pat always came to visit me, we had lunch together, she baked a cake once a month for the students ... she was always involved."

Were you to pass them on the street, you'd never guess Pat is lesbian. Far too many of those grandmum vibes. But with Marie, you might wonder about the buzz-cut. "Since the cancer, I've kept my hair short. I work seven ... eight hours in the operating room. It's just simpler."

They share the doublewide with Amber, Asten and Mamie--earnest yellow labs. Inside, finches were chattering back and forth. And all over the place were these framed needlepoint works. Pat's one of those people who can't just sit in front of the TV with her fingers doing nothing. My mom was like that. Crocheted half an afghan every time she watched Murder, She Wrote. Only with Pat, it's needlepoint. Until I walked into that trailer, I thought the only thing needlepointers did were those sampler doohickeys that said "God Bless This House."

Nope. Pat's needlepoint looks more like art nouveau portraits. Graceful and intricate and textured. She takes the ribbon at the state fair with them, and then sends them to her kids.

Pat always knew she was gay. "But back in 1948 ... 49, things were a lot different than they are now. I trained in the Los Angeles county hospital and we had a big uproar where about 50 student nurses got kicked out. I didn't want to be one of them ... I've always wanted to be a nurse. So I straightened up." Hence ... the husband.

Marie's known all along she was gay, too, but she never made the attempt to "straighten up." She left her folks in Louisiana when she was in her early 20s. "I thought, 'Well, I either have to get married or I have to leave Lewz-iana.' My parents were very Southern ... my father was even in the Ku Klux Klan. I came from a small town and I didn't want to embarrass them."

These days, they are less concerned about embarrassing anyone than they are about retirement issues. Pat: "I have a tidy retirement and when I pass away, that's all down the drain. If they would just pass laws so we could have domestic partnerships, so Marie's insurance could cover me, or vice versa ... (she ends with a sigh).

Marie: "People keep asking if we're ever going to get married. Well, we know a couple who've been married probably five times in five different places, so ... you know. (They both laugh.) The only reason we would get married is if it made a (legal) difference.

"We had the house in north Boise. Wonderful, big house. We sold it and made a big profit. We got to thinking, if something happens to me, or if something happens to Pat, we'd have to give up that anyway, just to maintain ourselves. So consequently, now that we have this place, which we absolutely love, we have the best of everything."

((((ALAN VIRTA)))

Alan Virta was disappointed our interview didn't lasted longer. Trouble is, we were done well before the sun went down. "Now I have no excuse for not mowing my lawn."

Sorry, buddy. Heck, I could have talked all night. It's not often you get to sit down with a man so taken with America's history that he arranges his life around it.

Even as a teenager, Alan loved history--reading it, studying it, touching it. Maybe it was growing up in Maryland, just a good silver dollar toss outside the epicenter of our nation's past. After completing his bachelor's, he had to decide how best to stay connected to ol' lady Clio without having to become Mister Virta, the history teech.

Aha! A master's in library science! ... which is how Mister Virta (the archivist) came to work in the Library of Congress for 12 years. In 1988, he landed in the Boise State library as "Head of Special Collections" over all those moldering documents--which, thanks to Alan's supervision, aren't amouldering. Among other things, he protects the on-paper souls of Frank Church, Cecil Andrus, William Borah, Nell Shipman, Robert Limbert and Vardis Fisher. And he's as serious as a library security guard about keeping that stuff around as long as possible. "The file folders are acid-free. We have our own heating and cooling system. Our manuscripts are in a room we keep at 68 degrees, 45 percent humidity, which is about the best atmosphere for paper."

At 53, Alan considers himself a late bloomer, though he explains it's a difficult thing to pin down. "You come out to different people at different times. But officially 'out,' where you don't care if the next person coming down the street knows, for me is only about seven or eight years."

"There are media stereotypes you grow up with as to what a gay person is, and you look at yourself and think, 'That's not me.' Therefore, there is a long denial period before you realize that gay is more than the wildest elements in the San Francisco parade, for instance. Gay is more than lurking around in the back corners."

Alan is obviously far from "wild," and it's hard to picture him "lurking." In 1998, his passion for history intersected with his homosexuality after attending a conference on homosexual heritage in the Pacific Northwest. "It was the first gay history conference I'd ever been to ... gay history without any reference to gays being exotic or different, and I got to thinking I could put together something on Idaho."

He did. Alan has presented a slide show all over the state on gays in Idaho going back to the 1890s. He has also written a history column for Boise's LGBT print outlet, Diversity--not at all something you would expect from a republican.

Yup, a republican. Though he's not so politically active at present, at 26 he was Maryland's "Young Republican of the Year"--even served as a delegate to the 1976 GOP national convention. When asked if he could foresee a time when his chosen party has treated gays so roughly that he's had enough, he defended them. "That's always a question. But very few organizations are absolutely monolithic. I mean, there are a lot of strong gay rights people in the Republican Party ... Giuliani, George Pataki, William Weld.

"I tend to feel more in sync with republican foreign policy views ... I'm more of a fiscal conservative ... and when I was young, there was still a strong moderate wing to the party. I identify with that Gerald Ford ... Nelson Rockefeller strain, and I think it's important to the Republican Party that the moderates speak up.

"What my goal would be is to somehow make our sexuality no more prominent or important in the wider scope of things than a heterosexual's sexuality. When a heterosexual runs for office, applies for a job, wants to move into an apartment, joins a church, the sexuality is really not a part of it. Ironically, here we have a group whose sense of community is formed around their sexuality, but what they'd like to do is make that sexuality less prominent, threatening and dividing to the general public.

"I don't say people have to come out. But there are people out there who are teetering on the edge. Do they want to come out or do they want to continue living a repressed life? I'm sure there are people who on their dying day will whisper, 'Thank God I made it. Thank God I passed.' That would kill me."

I don't recall exactly how we ended up back in the history nook, but as we parted, Alan was telling me about a book he's been reading that chronicles George Washington's progressing attitudes towards slavery. "The intellectuals tend to like Thomas Jefferson better ... but with me, it's Washington."

Then, I assume, he went home and mowed his lawn.

(((KATH'REN BAY))))

Kath'ren Bay wore a summery outfit, white as a Clorox commercial and fit for nursing a cocktail next to a country club pool. Confident, attractive woman, she is. "Alexis isn't comfortable with make up. I am. I like being feminine."

"Alexis" (who was not interviewed) is Dr. Alexis Higdon, Kath'ren's partner of 11 years, both in love and business. Together, they opened a veterinarian hospital--from scratch, if you will--and now, "We have 22 employees ... five doctors, and we started with nothing."

In her 57 years, Kath'ren has gone from having much to having little, and then back. At one time, she even knew a thing or two about that country club living I referred to. "I lost everything. I even lost my family for a while. So I became real self-righteous. 'By God, if I can come out, why can't you?' I spent a couple years beating that drum. But I began to realize, I really have no right to judge another person. When people need to or when they want to, they will, and I have to just let it go. The only thing I can do is live my life the way I have to."

But learning what her life would be only came a 22-year marriage and two kids later. "Let me put it this way. I grew up in a very protected environment. Boise, Idaho. Very religious. Old German, second generation. I didn't even hear the term 'lesbian' until I was 30 years old. Very naive, very protected. Lutheran, and very active ... very intent on my religion. As an adult, I got involved in the charismatic movement. Helped with the Billy Graham Crusades. Did some inspirational speaking. I started women's interdenominational Bible studies. I had that speaking in tongues experience. I was born again and baptized in the Holy Spirit. And gays ... (she rolls her eyes) you know, 'We love the sinner but we hate the sin!' I was very much involved in all of that for many years. Then, when I was 41, I had a connection with someone that took me quite by surprise. Needless to say, it was a huge adjustment. For several years there, it was very difficult."

One can sense how strongly Kath'ren might have felt about her faith at one time, judging from how strongly she feels about her place in the world now. "We grow up thinking gays are bad. So if I'm gay, I'm bad. It's one of the things I dealt with right off the bat when I realized my situation. I said no to that. I knew I was the same person I've always been."

After her divorce, she worked for the Idaho Lung Association. "I was the public relations person. The board decided to stand behind me. And sure enough, the very first TV spot I did, a live spot, this woman comes up to the newscaster and says, 'Are you aware that woman is gay?' She thought it was wrong to have an 'out' homosexual do this job. I'm just trying to give you an example of why people do hide who they are."

She still smarts from a foul insult thrown her way from a passing pick-up truck during a recent gay rights parade. "There are good reasons to be in the closet."

For the last seven years, Kath'ren's energies have gone into the animal "hospital" (she was adamant that I not call it a "clinic") and the work has been rewarded. Among other honorifics, she and Dr. Higdon have received the BBB's Integrity Counts award and the 2002 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.

"When Governor Kempthorne handed me and Alexis an award in front of a thousand people, I stood there and thought, 'If he only knew.' When Mayor Coles handed us an award, I thought 'If he only knew.'" She smiles to think about it.

(Personal note: Turns out, Kath'ren and I shared a football stadium together once. Regional marching band competitions, 1965. She was Boise High, I was Meridian. They kicked our ass.)

(((BOB AND BILL)))

Bill does the gardening. When our interview was over, Bob didn't want me to leave without seeing the flowers out back of the pretty west Boise home they have shared for 12 years. My eye settled on a blooming clematis woven into a solid mat of ivy on the fence, but Bill had a better one to show me. It hadn't opened yet, but it was healthy like a Viking and dripping with buds. "I cut it way back last fall and it's really taken off, hasn't it?"

Bob grinned, proud for me to see what Bill has done.

Trouble is, none of it's true. That is, except for the parts about Bill doing the gardening, Bob's pride and the clematis. Everything else, I made up. Bill and Bob aren't their real names, they don't live where I told you they live and they've been together much longer than I said. It was the deal I made, see ... to not expose them. The others--Marie and Pat, Alan and Kath'ren--all exposed themselves, either long ago or not so long ago. I have found it's part of being gay in America, to individually reach the point Alan Virta spoke of, where you don't care what the next person you meet on the street thinks.

Bill and Bob aren't there yet. Almost, but not quite. Bob has gone after elk with the same seven or eight guys for over 20 years running, and he doesn't want them to know. "I think a couple of them suspect, but I'm not sure."

Bill is 62 and Bob is a year older. They're both retired--Bob from being a county employee and Bill from an accountant job with Simplot. Bob knew from the time he was a little boy he was attracted to males, but being LDS and being homosexual seems to be a particularly uncomfortable blend. "It's like growing up Jewish ... a heritage as well as a religion. I grew up Mormon. My ancestors came over with Brigham Young. Went on my mission (to Malaysia) ... the whole thing. And it's a bit hurtful. When you grew up with something so much in your life, and then when you need the help of your religion and they do just the opposite. You have to come out to your family, but you also have to come out to your church, and your church is going to be less accepting than the family."

Bill, seeing an old wound is being re-opened, helps out: "My cut at it is that (the LDS organization) is all lay membership, and because it's made up of all these lay people who don't know a heck of a lot, they just throw out guilt after guilt."

Once a month, unsuspecting LDS lay workers--something called "home teachers"--come to visit Bob. Bill always stays in the bedroom until they're gone.

He didn't know he was gay for a long time, Bill didn't, and coming from a north Idaho timber town was no help. "I was very naive. I thought I was asexual. I didn't start suspecting things until I was probably 30. I was close to suicide. It was the pressures in life. The loneliness. I was very frustrated. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. The bar hangout, that was so old and so ho-hum. I didn't want to do it, but because of my desperation, I went anyway. Then I was referred to a local guy who counsels gays ... had a couple talks with him and I was square. I was comfortable."

Bill never married, but Bob did. "I really love my (ex)-wife, but there's a difference between love and passion. I'd never really experienced that passion until I met Bill. And I think my wife and I, we were both waiting for an excuse. Neither one of us wanted to be the one to pull the plug."

"I still feel guilty. Of course it was harder on my kids than either one of us. But she married again and she seems really happy and that makes me happy."

Are they still on good terms? "Oh, yeah. She really likes Bill. In fact, she's taking us to the airport tomorrow."

Bill and Bob are on their way to Europe. Won't be back until after this piece is in your hands, neighbors. "What we did is, for Christmas, we gave my three kids gifts of anyplace they wanted to go in the world. I mean, I've saved my money all my life. It's about time I started spending some of it. So Lindy has decided she wants to go to France. My son and daughter-in-law are going on a Caribbean cruise, and of course, we have to go along with them. We got off pretty easy with my oldest daughter. We just went across Puget Sound."

When we spoke, Bill had recently finished performing with a barbershop quartet for Boise Music Week. Bob stays busy directing an international support group for those with the same chronic affliction that forced him to retire early. They travel a great deal, largely in connection with Bob's involvement with the support group.

I would tell you the name of the newsletter Bob puts out for the support group, but I can't. That would be coming too close to the truth.

Remember? Virtually everything I just told you about Bill and Bob is just a tad off-center of who they are and what they do. Everything they told me is true--the chronic disease, the Music Week performance, the north Idaho timber town, all of it--and then I converted it to a lie to protect them. To keep their friends and neighbors from piecing together clues and learning they are gay. Maybe it was a mistake to agree to profile people who want to keep their identities anonymous. But my purpose here is to emphasize that gays are more like you than not--overwhelmingly so--and fear is a vital part of anyone's life, right? Yours, mine or theirs.

Only ... with them, what a damn crying shame it is that so much of their fear comes from friends and neighbors. From you and I, neighbor.

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