Jasmyn Morris (JM): It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR, and this season, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City… we’re highlighting the stories of LGBTQ people across America. Those who lived before Stonewall, and those whose lives have been shaped by it…
I’m your host, Jasmyn Morris.
In a typical StoryCorps interview, two people sit down together to have a meaningful, uninterrupted conversation about the things that matter most. These interviews are then archived at the Library of Congress, so future generations can hear these stories told by the people who lived them…
…and for many, no matter where you grew up, it wasn’t easy to be out in the 50s and 60s…
Back then, being gay was still classified as a mental illness… and this wouldn’t change until 1973.
Take this PSA from 1961… called Boys Beware. It was produced with the cooperation of a police department and school district in Los Angeles…
ARCHIVAL TAPE: “…Ralph was sick…a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual – a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex…”
JM: With propaganda like this being played in schools across the country, it’s no surprise that LGBTQ kids were incredibly isolated. And many still are…
But in this episode, we’ll hear about the role models who made all the difference for two kids coming of age in the 1950s…
Our first story comes from Alexei Romanoff, a Ukrainian immigrant who grew up in New York City. And as he told his husband, David, at StoryCorps, he was an only child… raised by a single mom…
Alexei Romanoff (AR): I was a child that got bored easy. I always needed something to stimulate me. And my mom used to say, “You probably are more trouble than you’re worth, but you’re really worth it.”
I already knew that I was gay at 14. And there was a group of us, so we would hang out together. We couldn’t get into the bars but there was a park called Bryant Park. It was kind of like a gay hangout. And there was an older man that used to come at least once a day. He was about 86 years old and to this day, I don’t know his real name. All I know him by is what we called him, Mother Bryant.
He would sit and tell us what it was like to be gay in 1890 when he was 20. He would tell us about the police and the town he came from. They would beat him every day. They didn’t want to put him in jail; they just wanted him to go anywhere else. And he moved to New York City, where he’d be anonymous. Here was a man that openly spoke out about being gay and I was needing that kind of tutoring to feel good about myself. I was never ashamed of being gay but, I gotta admit, I hid it.
Later on, I met somebody and we wanted to move in together. But in those days, two men couldn’t rent an apartment together if they weren’t related. So we used to lie and say we’re brothers, but we had different fathers – that’s why our last names are different, and things like that.
So I went to this apartment with my partner at the time. And we looked at it. We liked it. We said, “We’ll take it.” And then the landlord asked us some questions. “What’s the relationship between the two of you?”
And the thing that stuck in my mind was Mother Bryant. He said, “When you’re ready to leave this Earth, as I am, if you haven’t left your community in a better place than you found it, then you haven’t lived.” And I wanted to live.
So I said, “He’s my partner and my lover.” And then I look at my partner and his face was as white as a ghost. His mouth was hanging open and there was this look of, What the hell have you just done? And the landlord looks at me, says, “Well, can you afford this place?” And I says, “We both work part-time, and he says, “Okay, here’s the key.” I got goosebumps and I looked up and I said, “Thank you, Mother Bryant. I will never lie about being gay again.” And I haven’t to this day.
AR: You know, after all these years, I think to myself, I hope I’m a lot like Mother Bryant… he was responsible for making me proud of who I am.
JM: That’s Alexei Romanoff… he sat down with his partner of 21 years, David Farah, at StoryCorps in Los Angeles back in 2015.
Just a few years after meeting Mother Bryant, Alexei moved to LA and started organizing protests against discriminatory laws and police raids – which were common at the time – including the one at the Black Cat Tavern in 1967. This was two years before Stonewall, making it one of the earliest known demonstrations in support of LGBTQ rights.
Next, we’ll hear from a transgender woman who grew up in Texas – feeling isolated and misunderstood – until she found support in an unlikely place…
Stay with us.
JM: Welcome back…
Our next story comes from El Paso, Texas. That’s where Dee Westenhauser grew up in the 1950s. And, like Alexei, she was an only child. So Dee spent a lot of time alone… and had very few friends. It didn’t help that she says she was different from the other kids…
Dee Westenhauser (DW): I was thrown in a trash can when I was seven years old because I was odd. I always overheard the conversations and it was always in Spanish. I would ask one of my other friends, so what does this mean? And, oh that means that you’re a sissy. I’m like, Oh wow, ok. I got it.
JM: And as Dee told her friend Martha Gonzalez at StoryCorps, for most of her childhood, Dee felt misunderstood by everyone around her… except for one person…
DW: If you were to see Aunt Yaya back in the day the way I saw her, she was tall. She had a beautiful angular face with high cheekbones and she had brown eyes. They almost looked like owl eyes scanning everything. And the way she walked around a room would tell you she held herself in high regard.
One weekend, my mom and my dad, they decided that I was going to go to Aunt Yaya’s house. I was nine years old. And once the door closed, she says, “How would you like to change into something that’s really comfortable for you?” And what was there were a blouse and a wig. I knew I was a girl and so, that weekend, I got to be me. We went shopping in my outfits. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Yaya and she would introduce me as her niece.
Martha Gonzalez (MG): Would you go home and mention anything like that?
DW: No… She said, “When you go home, you have to be what they want. Because if you don’t and they find you out, you will be hurt.” She was the one who taught me early on that I have to play the game.
Yaya, she had a lifelong friend. And it wasn’t until years later that I finally figured out that her friend was her lover and her partner. And you never spoke of that back in the day.
Yaya never got the love she was supposed to from the rest of the family. And Yaya wanted me to be everything that she wanted to be if she could live her life over again.
She gave me pearls of wisdom–you could string a necklace to the moon and back with everything that she would share. I loved her, she loved me back, and behind that white door became my place to be the little girl that I needed to be.
JM: That’s Dee Westenhauser with her childhood friend Martha Gonzalez.
Aunt Yaya died when Dee was 21 years old, and Dee lost the only person who made her feel like she could be unapologetically herself…
DW: Back in the day… there were things never to be spoken of, never to be even thought of because it would be a sin. L, G, B, oh no, nd T wasn’t even discussed. So when you know you’re supposed to be who you are and you can’t, uou know, you get to a point where you just decide you’re going to become that little turtle and just put your head inside that shell. But when I turned 50, I took a shower that morning, looked in the mirror and cried. I didn’t like the body I was staring at.
And after that revelation, I’m in the car. No radio on. I’m just listening to the road noise. And the road noise became a voice. And it was Yaya, who said, You choose whatever path is in front of you. Whatever you decide, that’s you. And you live it to the fullest.
So when you ask me what do I want to be remembered for? As a transgender warrior…
JM: Last year, at the age of 62, Dee decided it was time to come out. And since then… she’s been living life openly as a transgender woman.
And as Aunt Yaya’s pearls of wisdom inspired her niece, those same lessons are still being passed on by Dee today…
Here’s what a listener said after Dee’s story recently aired on NPR’s Morning Edition: “I love this woman! I am sad she had to hide her truth for so long. But here I have another role model for my own truth!”
JM: Before we end this episode, I want to let you know there’s a way to help us preserve these stories before they are lost to history. We’re asking you, listeners, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in June, to pick up your mobile device and record these stories in your community… using the StoryCorps app. We may even share some of these on future episodes. You can head over to storycorps.org – slash- outloud to learn more.
This episode was produced by Mia Warren and me. Our engineer is Jarett Floyd. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to StoryCorps facilitators Jill Glaser, Nicolas Cadena and Kevin Oliver.
To find out what music we used in the episode, and to see original artwork created for this season by Michael Caines, go to StoryCorps – dot – org.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.