Alexei Romanoff (AR): 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.
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, ’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, ’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.
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.