Longform

Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 2 of 27

Red-haired and green-eyed, Patrick was expected to help with chores such as feeding the pigs before school and breaking ice off the water troughs in the winter. By the time he was eight, however, he realized that he didn't like to do what other little boys liked to do. Somewhere between ages eight and sixteen, he realized that while those other boys were always talking about which girl they'd like to get into bed, he was thinking the same thing about some of them.

He wondered if there was something wrong with him. It was driving him crazy, so at seventeen he decided to go have a man-to-man talk with a school counselor. That afternoon, the man, twenty years his senior, became his lover.

It so happened that Gourley was leaving the next morning on a trip to Mississippi, so he had a lot of time to think about what had just occurred. Gourley's was not the sort of reaction he would later hear about from other gays, who were so "freaked out" by their first experiences with other men that they either retreated into the closet or turned the other guy in. He felt liberated as he headed to a state where a fight for equal rights was being waged.

Many of the nuns at his school were involved in the civil-rights movement and Vietnam War protests, and Gourley was influenced in particular by an intense little nun named Sister Alberta Marie. It was 1967, and Alberta Marie thought it was time these middle-class white kids saw the civil-rights movement up close and personal. So now Gourley and four other students were on their way to observe efforts to register blacks to vote in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Mound Bayou was an all-black town set in the middle of cotton fields and surrounded by white towns. Gourley's family didn't have much money, but he was shocked at the poverty he saw. People lived in run-down shacks that seemed hardly fit for livestock, and children stood on dirt streets wearing tattered clothes and no shoes.

The kids were split into different cars with the white civil-rights workers, most of whom were from New York. The whites who lived around Mound Bayou weren't particularly happy with a bunch of Yankees coming to their town to stir up the niggers. They followed the civil-rights workers in trucks with shotguns in the rear-window racks.

The civil-rights workers refused to be intimidated, even though Freedom Riders elsewhere in Mississippi would die at the hands of the Klan. They dealt with their fear and kept on with their work. And Gourley learned a lesson: Nobody was going to give oppressed people their rights -- you had to demand them and be willing to stand up for what you believed.

After he returned home, Gourley and the counselor continued to be lovers on and off for the next two years. He would always consider the relationship a positive experience, which in part helped negate society's messages about being gay -- that it was unnatural, that those who participated would encounter God's wrath. With Sister Alberta Marie's help and his own growing awareness, he learned that the truth about one thing had certain connections to other truths. If society wasn't right about the war in Vietnam, or capitalism, or its treatment of Catholics or blacks or Jews, then maybe it wasn't right about homosexuals, either. Maybe there was nothing wrong with him.

It wasn't as if this all came to him overnight. When he went to the University of Illinois, starting in 1967, he wasn't sure that he wanted to be a homosexual, a queer, a faggot. He joined the National Democratic Socialist Party and became active in the civil-rights and anti-war movements, in part so that he could deflect attention from his sexuality by trying to save the world. He even tried sex with women a couple of times, but as he would later confide to friends, he "just didn't get it." He decided it was time for another chat with a counselor and went to see a university psychologist.

This psychologist was of the mind that homosexuality was a learned behavior, a lifestyle choice, and it could be unlearned. His theory was that by doing manly things in a manly way, Gourley might learn to be a "real man." He began by insisting that Gourley give him a firm handshake.

It was an epiphany, only not the sort the psychologist had hoped for. Gourley realized that no amount of firm handshakes or man-talk or going to bed with women was going to change who he was. He was different, uncomfortable in most heterosexual venues except for one. Only at freewheeling, free-loving and psychedelic Grateful Dead concerts was he likely to see even straight males in skirts dancing with abandon and feel an unquestioning acceptance of who he was: just another Deadhead -- albeit a gay one.

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Steve Jackson