Making Something of Myself

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Gary Miller helped found the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in 1971 and served as its president in 1975. He was the first openly gay person to serve as the chair of the Sacramento Democratic Party and was Sacramento’s first openly gay human rights commissioner. As a staff person in the 1970s with Friends Committee on Legislation in California, Miller worked to defeat Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays, lesbians, and their supporters from working in California public schools. Miller is a member of Sacramento Friends Meeting (PYM). He spoke to Western Friend by phone on June 18, 2014. Following are edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview.

Ron Bentley and Gary Miller (AKA “Chris Gordon” and “Jerry Mills”) working on the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm. Photo used with permission of Gary Miller.Western Friend: I’d like to start by getting to know a little bit about your history with Friends.

Gary Miller: I grew up in the Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. What started me toward the Quakers was, as a kid, I studied the teachings of Jesus; Martin Luther King was my hero; and I was learning about Gandhi. All that brought me to the point that, when it was my turn to file for the draft, I filed as a Conscientious Objector. When the draft board asked, “Do you belong to one of the Peace Churches?” I didn’t know what they were talking about. So they denied my C.O. claim.

So here I was, nineteen years old – I didn’t know whether I was going to prison or to Canada. How would I take care of myself? So I was really frightened. One day, when I was leaving high school, some people were leafleting the school. And their leaflet said, “Do you need draft counseling?” So I met with them. And at the end of the conversation, I said something like, “I’ve heard Quakers are pacifists, and I’d love to talk with some of them.” And they all looked at each other and smiled, and I thought, “Did I say something wrong?” And finally, one of them said, “Well, you’ve been talking to us all evening.” So they gave me some literature and invited me to worship. I got hooked. That was Penn Valley Friends in Kansas City, Missouri.

WF: Back in those days, when you lived in Kansas City, I know you couldn’t be open as gay. I read a nice profile of you in the May 25, 2014, edition of the Kansas City Camp, and I was struck by how, as a young man, you were certain the words “gay” and “homosexual” did not apply to you, even though you were attracted to other men. What can you say about that time and about your sense of self then?

GM: I didn’t think too much about it. If I had thought about it, I would have said the whole world was heterosexual. Except for me. I had this problem or illness or something. The thing is, back in those days, I had absolutely no one to talk to. I couldn’t talk my parents, teachers, classmates, no one. Then between high school and college, I found this Baptist minister who I thought I could talk to. And he convinced me that I was not gay. But I didn’t fit in. I didn’t have friends. Books became my friends. I made up imaginary friends. And I was suicidal a lot of the time.

WF: So do you remember how you reframed your idea about yourself?

GM: At college, we had a religious club. We talked about a wide variety of social justice issues – capital punishment, race relations. And one time, we had a meeting with this Methodist  minister who was the chaplain of a gay community center in Kansas City. He talked about how gay people were just like everybody else, mothers and fathers, ditch diggers, nurses and doctors and ministers – that’s when the light turned on. That’s when I realized, “OH! There are more people like me! And it’s normal. It’s okay.”

WF: You know, reading that article in Camp, I got such a great sense of your independence as a little kid. What can you say about how you could be such a strong character even though you were denying part of who you were?

GM: Yeah, I have reflected on that over the decades. I don’t understand why exactly. I didn’t get that from my parents. It was like, from my own reading. And just something within my soul, or my conscience, saying, “You know you have to be involved in the black civil rights movement. You know you have to claim a C.O. status.” Just things I felt I had to do.

WF: And your parents, were they politically active also?

GM: No, they just had their jobs and then they came home. I was much more liberal. I got involved in the Black civil rights movement, which they were horrified about. You know, my father was someone who always seemed to be telling me that everything I did was wrong. Even saying, “Bye-bye,” when I was hanging up the phone, that was wrong because it wasn’t masculine. His message was, “You’re never going amount to anything.” And then my mother was saying, “I want you to read. I want you to enjoy theater. I want you to make something of yourself.” She was very uplifting.

WF: So, how have you supported yourself over the years? I’m assuming that the civic positions that you have held have not been salaried.

GM: Right. As a school board member now, I get a stipend of just a couple hundred dollars a month. Well, right after college, in the mid-70s, I moved to San Francisco with Ron Bentley, and I started working for Friends Committee on Legislation of California. I started in their San Francisco office, but they decided that they really needed me in Sacramento, so Ron and I moved. I worked for FCLCA for about four year. In 1978, a measure came onto the California ballot called Prop 6, or the Briggs Initiative. It would have prohibited school districts from hiring either gay people or gay supportive people. So I became a campaign manager in Sacramento to try to defeat Prop 6. And FCLCA pretty much paid my salary to work on that campaign, which was kind of nice. The measure was defeated.

After I left FCLCA, I did clerical jobs at of various types. Then I spend the vast majority my working life, twenty-five years, with an organization called the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency – SETA. They ran Head Start for Sacramento and they also ran job-training programs. So my job was to help people who were having a hard time getting jobs for different reasons – low-income, people on welfare, disabled, ex-felons – to help them get connected with job training programs.

WF: So, how do you think your work to advance gay rights helped you develop as a civic leader?

GM: I think it helped a lot. I began to understand who I am. When Ron and I moved to San Francisco, we immediately got on the board of an organization called Society for Individual Rights. It was the largest gay rights organization in the country. One thing led to another, my union work and my work within the Democratic Party. Then in ’85, I decided to run for the Robla School Board in Sacramento in ‘87. I took two years to learn about our public schools. When I was working at SETA, I saw so many barriers that poor people faced. I thought if I could be on a school board and do something to help kids – that would be great. So I ran in 1987 and won. I was on that board for 20 years.  The first three times I ran, my opponents waged homophobic campaigns against me, but I won nevertheless.

Another thing helped me was – Ron was always encouraging me. To everything I suggested, he would say, “Absolutely, Gary. That’s a wonderful thing you should do.” Ron’s support from the very beginning really helped me to be the person I am.

WF: So, you had a religious ceremony when you started your life with Ron, but not a legal marriage. And now with Mike, you’re legally married. What has that difference meant for you?

GM: The fact that Mike and I are legally married, from a practical point of view – it’s a lot easier. Doing taxes is a lot easier. And beyond the practical, the feeling within my gut is huge – we are legally married. Mike and I are equal to every other heterosexual couple out there. With Ron, we were just kind of resigned to the fact legal marriage would never happen in our lifetime. We did think we should have wills, though, especially because we couldn’t get married. So we went to an attorney, and got our wills made, and the attorney said something surprising. He said, “I would also recommend that one of you adopt the other.” And we thought that was kind of weird, but we went ahead with it, and we never thought anything more about it. Then years later, when Ron got sick, I asked my employer for time off, and they said, “No. You can only take family sick leave for mother, father, children, spouse.” And all of a sudden, I remembered the adoption. So I took my adoption papers into work and showed them Ron had adopted me. Then I was able to get time off to take care of him.

WF: So, starting with your mom and dad, you’ve had some pretty extreme experiences with people who either have or have not helped you to learn who you are. What kind of lessons can you draw from all that, for people who want to help young people develop good self-identities?

GM: There’s a series of YouTube videos, “It Gets Better.” People talk about the process of coming out, and they say, “I know it might be difficult now, but it will get better.” And that’s exactly my life, because as a kid, as I said before, I had no one to talk to about this; I didn’t know what it meant; I thought I was the only person in the world like this; and I just felt terrible about the situation I was in. Now, everything has changed; it’s just amazing. Next month, it will be twenty years since Ron died. I look at all the things that have happened in the past twenty years, and it really is amazing. I mean, in my life, to learn to be open about my gayness, and to see society changing, it’s just wonderful. It does get better, that’s for sure.  ~~~