My writing career began with a question. It was the spring of 1987, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and George Stambolian, editor of the Men on Men series of books, was in town to give a talk on the state of American gay fiction. During the Q & A period I lamented how seldom rural experience was represented in gay literature, and asked Stambolian why he thought this was so. I don’t remember his answer, but that April evening represented a significant beginning for me.
I grew up milking cows and baling hay on the family farm near Evansville, Wisconsin. By the time I was born, in 1957, the farm had been home to four generations of my dad’s family. I developed a strong sense of connection and continuity in that place. Then I went off to college, figured out that I was gay, was soon venturing into my first relationship, and my life became decidedly more urban. Though my years in cities have been variously fulfilling, it was sometimes a struggle to integrate the values of my rural heritage and those of my urban, gay identity. In 1992, inspired by a conversation with my friend Karl Wolter, I began the research that led to the publication in 1996 of my first book, Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest.
Intrigued by a pattern of interests and inclinations that I had noticed among the men I interviewed for Farm Boys, I launched into my second book project. Published in 2004, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture examines the enduring gay male penchant for historic preservation.
Through the years in which I created Farm Boys and A Passion to Preserve, I earned a living by working as a nutritionist. (After stints at several universities in the Midwest, I completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition at Cornell University.) I never seriously considered trying to make a living from my writing. It seemed unlikely that the topics I was inclined to write about would generate adequate income, and I was not interested in a starving-artist lifestyle. Though I was frustrated sometimes by the extent to which my paycheck work slowed my writing work, I think my books benefited from the prolonged gestation periods that were enforced by being a part-time writer.
My creative collaborations began in earnest in 2000 when Dean Gray wrote to me from his home in New York City: ‘I would like to talk to you about adapting Farm Boys for the legitimate stage.’ The play Dean Gray and Amy Fox created, Farm Boys, had successful productions in New York, Saint Paul, and San Francisco. My role was to give feedback as the script was developed, to help to raise funds, and to be an authorial presence at opening nights.
Culminating my dad’s years of research on the early railroad history of our home region, he wrote and published The Cut-Off and Fellows Station: A Local Rail History of Rock County, Wisconsin. I admired his achievement in creating a book that, in addition to railroad history, offers a richly detailed portrait of rural and small-town life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was a privilege to assist him as editor and indexer.
Dean Gray and I were soon talking about a new project, a play based on an obscure little book from 1957, Gay Bar, which I had recently discovered. Helen P. Branson, who operated a gay bar in Hollywood in the 1950s, decided she would write a book to let the world know about her ‘boys’ – all the wonderful, respectable homosexual men she had come to know as friends and customers through her years in Los Angeles. Dean and I agreed that he and his theater colleagues would develop the dramatization. I would try to find out more about Helen Branson, her bar, and her book.
The more I discovered, the more I believed that Branson’s story deserved not only to be adapted for the stage but also to be revived as a book. In creating a new edition, I complemented Branson’s voice with other voices of the 1950s addressing various aspects of ‘the homosexual problem.’ Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s was published in 2010. The play is still in development.
Hollywood resident Rick Dallago, one of the readers of the new edition of Gay Bar, was enthusiastic about Branson’s story. He secured the film rights from University of Wisconsin Press and, with his colleague Dana Sano, is in search of a studio to take it on.
In 2006, Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of same-sex unions. In response, photographer Jeff Pearcy asked me to help him create an exhibit that would offer a window into the lives of same-sex couples in committed relationships. I recruited and interviewed thirty couples, Jeff photographed them and selected the images to be used in the exhibit, and I crafted text pieces to accompany the photos. Shall Not Be Recognized: Portraits of Same-Sex Couples had its first gallery display in Milwaukee in 2007 and has been exhibited in many venues since then. We also created a Shall Not Be Recognized video, web site, and book.
Catherine Tuerk pioneered in offering parents practical guidance in understanding and supporting their gender-nonconforming children, many of whom are gay and lesbian. After learning of her work in 2004, I knew that I wanted to help extend the reach of her groundbreaking message. I helped to bring Catherine and her colleague, Edgardo Menvielle, to Wisconsin as conference speakers in 2005. Six years later Catherine enlisted my help in publishing a volume of her selected essays, Mom Knows: Reflections on Love, Gay Pride, and Taking Action. Published in 2012, the book is a candid, plainspoken document of an extraordinary mother’s journey from ignorance and fear to understanding and affirmation.
Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer, an Illinois couple who had recently toured the Pendarvis historic site in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, contacted me in 2010. During their tour they had learned of Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum, the men who did the architectural restoration work beginning in the 1930s, and since then they had read my account of the men’s lives in A Passion to Preserve. Intrigued by their decades-long relationship in a small town, Rick and Martha were eager to dramatize the couple’s story. I was delighted by the prospect, loaning them my Pendarvis research files and engaging in numerous conversations along the way. Their screenplay-in-development, The Bachelors, had enhanced staged readings in Chicago, Evanston, and Mineral Point in 2013, performed by Chicago’s Pride Films and Plays company.
Though I like working on my own projects, I find that I’m increasingly drawn to joint creative enterprise. My decades-long relationship with my life partner, Bronze Quinton, is my most enduring creative collaboration. In 2006, our thirteenth year together, we added a new dimension to our life as a couple by opening Bronze Optical, a small eyewear dispensary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that has attracted a fabulously enthusiastic and loyal clientele.