Letters in Search of Love
Part One
Letters in Search of Love

Contents Part One
  1. My Letter Goes Out
  2. The Letters Come In
  3. Letters from Prisoners
  4. The Curious Case of the Widower
  5. What It Was All For

My Letter Goes Out

It took a long time for me to warm up in the spring of 1990. We'd had a colder than normal winter for this southern part of New Mexico. There was snow off and on through the end of March. My aunt's cactus garden froze out. And I had spent a miserable winter in my one-room cabin. It had no plumbing and, although it had electricity, the only heater I had was an ancient heat-resistor unit with two coils—and one of them was burned out. I was working on my second novel that winter and sat many nights with the heater between my feet, under the computer desk, where about all it accomplished was to keep my toes from breaking off with the cold.

Then, just as the weather was warming up and I was able to get into my garden to turn the soil, I took a job for the month of April to drive an old man to St. Louis, Missouri. I did it mainly for the experience of seeing a state I'd never been to, but I also needed the three hundred dollars it would bring. The problem was that the trip to St. Louis moved me back into winter. The old man and I left temperatures in the low eighties in Deming and, by the time we arrived in St. Louis, we were back into the low forties and rainy weather. So, even when we returned to Deming, I still carried physical memories of the cold in my bones.

That spring, I was also suffering from another kind of cold. Like the unusually cold winter that year, I had been trying to get over the demise of a fourteen-year relationship. I was cold from the inside out. My soul was cold. I could feel it inside, still curled up in the fetal position it had been in for over three years. My heart had shrunken to a hard knot in my chest, no longer able to pump warm blood to my extremities. It resented beating and keeping me alive. But I was determined to warm up, to come to life.

So as I turned the soil in my garden in those waning days of April 1990, I marveled at the warmth of the desert sun on my shoulders; I would often stop shoveling just to smile up at the crystal-clear sky and sigh. "Come on," I urged myself. "Quit wallowing in self-pity and get on with your life. Things will get better."

As I worked outdoors, feeling my body growing stronger, able to chunk up twenty pounds of soil at a time and turn it with ease, I did begin to warm up—but slowly and deliberately—my heart and soul resisting. I think of that year as a turning point in my life, one in which I came out of a long winter of the soul and sought to bring to reality some of the fantasies I had kept in the back of my mind.

One of those fantasies was borne in St. Louis. It began at a little bookstore called Our World Too on Vandeventer Avenue with my rediscovery of a magazine for rural gay men called RFD. If ever there was a magazine perfectly targeted for a gay man like me, it was RFD. I enjoyed the articles about the country lifestyles gay men were establishing for themselves. There were cute little articles about gardening from a screaming queen's perspective, articles about raising goats, and many articles on country retreats. I especially enjoyed those articles about Faerie Gatherings and the photographs of the nude men that were included. I took a couple of copies back to Deming with me. I had read them thoroughly at night in the motel rooms I shared with the old man as we made our way back home. Then, once I was home, after a day of working in the garden, I lay on my waterbed with its heat turned up to "slow roast" and read them again, fantasizing about finding a lover with the help of RFD. Before that trip, I never would have tried anything like it, nor even thought to try it. But I discovered there were many men who read RFD with interests similar to mine, who were also looking for a rural kind of life, far from the madness and sex-hunt of the cities. Rather than small, hard to interpret ads, like those found in The Village Voice and the back of every gay rag, RFD allowed its readers to write "Contact Letters."

There was something appealing about many of those letters —something that made even my shriveled heart beat faster, that finally began to warm the blood in my chest. Most of the men sounded earnest in their search for lovers or pals. I thought the letters must have been similar to the mail-order bride letters of the previous century, although a lot less genteel, I'm sure. It was necessary for most of the men to describe their "type" and to tell about their physical appearance and HIV status. I paid attention to the ones who wanted to live in the country.

Living in the country was a new desire of mine after my "divorce." I had lived in Deming, by then, for over two years. I was not willing to give up the serenity that country living offered. That was quite a transition from my youth, when all I could think about was getting a white-collar job in some city or another, hoping to carry a briefcase and live in a high rise. I cannot explain the shift in my thinking. But when I moved back to Deming to take care of my parents, I felt immensely better than I did holed up in my apartments in Dallas or San Antonio, Texas or Washington DC—places I had lived for twenty years.

As I worked in the garden, I was mentally composing my own letter, which I would mail out in a few days and which would appear in the Fall issue.

Of course, I could have tried to find a lover in the usual way gay men have open to them, which is hanging out in bars or living in gay ghettos of some urban area. But, as I said, I just didn't want to live in a city any more, so the contact letter was an option. In my circumstances, it beat driving a hundred miles to El Paso, Texas to hang out in such gay bars as the Old Plantation or the San Antonio Mining Company. The likelihood was slim of meeting a man there. I had tried that for three months in 1987, when I was temporarily living in El Paso. I discovered that, at thirty eight, I was usually the oldest man there. Besides, in my state of mourning for my ex-lover, the bar scene was too intense, too rushed, where the most likely thing to happen was a sexual encounter and empty promises on both sides to meet again.

Now, at forty-one, I felt I was ready for another lover—not just a string of sex partners. I wanted something more substantial than mere sexual fulfillment, and I was concerned about having multiple sexual partners, anyway, because of the AIDS plague. For me, the AIDS decade had brought the sex-hunt lifestyle to a screeching halt. This time, I had a clear image of what kind of man I was looking for and what his attitudes would be about being gay. I wasn't going to subject myself to the same kind of relationship I'd had with my ex-lover; he was, ultimately, ashamed of being gay and had never treated our long relationship as legitimate. I had also decided my next relationship would be monogamous—or nothing. I was at least strong enough, by then, to be determined that if my next lover cheated on me even once, I would kill it dead, right then, and never look back.

So, at the end of April, after writing several drafts of a letter, in which I tried to outline what wanted, I submitted this letter:

Dear Brothers,
I'm wounded. I spent fourteen years with a man who constantly said, "I love you and never want to lose you." But he didn't mean it—after fourteen years. I wish it hadn't taken him so long to decide. Four years ago, he came home drunk one night and confessed to being a closet heterosexual.

I'm now staring 42 years in the face. I've had to start over. I've left the city, got out from behind a desk and got behind a shovel raising a garden. I've trimmed down to 145 pounds, which puts me on the thin side for my 5'11" height. Raising a garden, carpentry work, hiking, and sweating out the poisons of fourteen years has put me in better physical shape than when I was in the Air Force. I've published a novel and am finishing a second one, yet I'm still haunted by that long relationship.

I need a mate, a relationship where both of us is monogamous, where we have eyes only for each other. I need to learn to trust again. It will be hard. But I'm romantic enough to hope it's possible. I pray that one of you is a farmer or rancher, or just loves the simplicity of the country, and that you want someone easy on the eyes, not devastatingly beautiful. For me, inner beauty is essential. Sex is important, but it won't form the basis of our relationship. Holding hands, kissing, sleeping side-by-side, looking in the same direction toward the future, working on our home together, having pets, friends, sharing holidays and our respect is more important than the sex. Of course, I love all positions in gay sex, experimenting with it, but not in the absence of love or respect.

I want a man who is quietly masculine—hairy or hairless doesn't matter—but I prefer seeing my lover's face rather than a beard. I believe the man I settle down with should also be ecologically conscious, proud to be gay, knowing who he is. I think I would get along best with someone between late 30's and early 40's. Kindness and sensitivity are my only real desires in the man I fall in love with. If you're out there, please write.

Although I wasn't completely pleased with it, I mailed it off to RFD. As usual, when I dropped the letter into the mail box across the highway from my parents' place, I thought of it like the effect that casting a stone into a still pond has on the water. The ripples that emanate from that single stone form a ring of waves, then another, and another, moving outward, until they reach something that is affected and causes ripples to come back. I didn't know what kind of effect my letter would have, and I would have to wait several months to find out, since the magazine was only published quarterly, but I felt I was finally taking a step that would change things in my life.

While I waited, living on my parents' property in my one-room cabin, I worked in the yard every day, swearing I would harden my body into some kind of shape someone around my age would find attractive. At least I wouldn't be afraid of my physical appearance—or I would be as unafraid as a middle-aged man can be about starting life over. I even hoped there was someone "out there," who was likewise searching for me.

The Letters Come In

I distinctly recall when I received the first letter in response to the one I had submitted. The garden I had raised that year was looking picked over, after a summer of unusual rains. In the southwestern part of New Mexico, we rarely get over ten inches of rain a year. But that summer, it seemed every time a cloud passed overhead it dropped its load in the vicinity of my garden.

That summer, I harvested around three dozen ripe tomatoes a day. My mother had canned well over two-hundred quarts of beans, tomatoes, and corn—anything she could get into a jar—and still I brought in the vegetables in buckets and paper sacks. One day she asked, rather helplessly, "Can't you just stop picking them?"

I could, I told her, but then they'd just rot on the vine.

That continued all summer, but even though I had laughed at the pickle I'd gotten myself into by planting so much, and the rain exploding the production, I was sad one day to go out to the garden and see the last of the tomatoes, small green things that probably wouldn't make it to maturity. So I was feeling let down after the productive summer, when I went to the mail box across the highway.

And there was the first letter.

It was from a guy down in San Antonio, Texas, where I had been in the Air Force and met my lover and had lived for three years . Because of the lousy way our relationship had gone in its infancy in San Antonio, I had no desire to move there, which is precisely what this man wanted me to do.

He also said he would furnish me a photograph and details of himself, if I responded. Which I did. What I got in return was a photograph of a man nearing his seventies! Although I had considered trying to meet men a little older than I was, I hadn't considered meeting men as old as my father. I did not want to string him along, so I wrote back a heartfelt thank you, and called it quits.

[I must interject, here, I won't reveal the names of the men who wrote to me or the real states where they live. Nor do I feel comfortable quoting verbatim from their letters, so everything is paraphrased. But I would like to share the contents of some of the letters because, unlike the suspiciously insincere bar talk, I feel the letters reveal quite a bit about gay men across the United States —what many of them are like, who choose not to live in gay ghettos in large cities, who do not haunt the bars, or join gay support groups.]

The next letter I received was from an honest-to-goodness farmer in Arkansas.

Dear Ron,
Your letter in RFD #63 caught my attention. The 80s dumped on you, but I'm sure you must believe the end of one thing is always the beginning of something else. In a way, I'm in a similar position, six years down the road, but needing change in my life, and needing someone to change with.
I am a farmer and do environmental/social justice work as a recreation volunteer. I really need someone to farm with me, so I'm looking for an employee for starters, who, as I said, will work with me. This is the medium in which our relationship must begin.
Arkansas, where I live, is just about all married folks and roaming divorced. My social life is with these folks, and it is fine. It's just not intimate in any way. I have no sexual relations with anyone. I had one sexual night in 1989—none so far this year. I don't mind that, just letting you know, sex is not the basis of my life, either. My main man, a truly gentle-man, is very married, which is probably a good thing...

Although I wrote a nice response, I felt I could not, in all good conscience, pursue the mail-order bride business with this man, because I felt that he was already in love with his "main man" who was already married. I would likely fail to hold a candle to him.

However, I was glad of the contact. The thing that appealed to me about this man's letter was that I got a slice of life from a state where I'd never been. It was interesting, not only from the personal information he revealed about himself (and the fact that he was already in love with a married man), but also he included information about his farm, which had been in his family for over a hundred years. No doubt he was a hard worker and dedicated to his rural life.

But he was not merely a farmer. In the rest of the letter, he told of attending graduate school in business, working in Saudi Arabia, being a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, and working in the mental health and retardation field. I was pleased with his depth and variety of interests.

I don't remember the time frame, or the numbers of letters I received from each of the respondents, before we mutually quit writing, but the letters continued to come in. This next one was from a man in Nevada who wrote:

I, too, am searching for a mate. But that is not why I am writing. I am drawn, a great deal, by your pain and by the fact that you left the city and live more-or-less a rural life. And you hike. Good.
I have lived on these 40 desert acres for the past twenty-one years and find it hard to imagine living in a city. I am an environmentalist. For ethical reasons, and to continue to lessen my impact on this planet, I have elected to live as a vegetarian. Did that about six years ago. Because most folks really have no idea what that means, let me say I eat no animal flesh (fish, fowl, red meat or whatever), no eggs, and no foods with animal by-products in them. Because this is a life value for me, I would not feel inclined to take up a permanent relationship with a meat-eater.

I exchanged several letters with this man, even though from the outset, I knew we were not destined to be more than friends. I was comfortable with that and not in the least disappointed. I felt he, too, added depth to my perceptions of what gay men are like.

Perhaps part of my own internalized homophobia was that, as a gay man, I had wrestled from an early age with my masculinity. (Wouldn't some pre-seventies psychotherapist have rubbed his/her hands together at how well I fit the psychiatric stereotype?) Yet, here was a gay man who led white-water rafting trips down wild western rivers. In one of his subsequent letters, he invited me to come along. I never did because I couldn't afford it. But I was glad he arranged such trips, sometimes fraught with danger, for gay and heterosexual people. As their leader, they looked to him, his strength and what would be admired, I think, as his masculinity.

Part of what made receiving letters from strangers interesting (in response to my letter in RFD) was to see that my hurt and pain were not unique, and that other gay men had a whole host of hurts and pains. Yet we reached out, across the miles, to touch each other's lives in ways that transcended the chance encounters in a gay bar.

This next letter came from a man in the northeastern United States. His lack of self-assurance and a lousy self-concept spoke directly to my heart. It squirmed uneasily, and I told it, "See there? His heart is still beating. He's still trying to live and find love. So don't be so damned self-absorbed."

Dear Ron,
I'm sure by the time you finish reading this letter, you'll scratch your head and have a hard time deciding whether or not you want to respond. Nothing I could say could even begin to explain how I feel and the hurt I've experienced with the ending of my relationship. I can't express myself nearly as well as you have done.
My body is 45 years old, so that puts me a little over the age you would prefer, but I'm sure if you decided to correspond with me for awhile you would find my many other qualities more than outweigh the years. I need a mate also. However, I thought I was the only monogamous gay male in the world. If you feel that's also important to you, I'm probably your only chance for happiness.

I've been dating for a couple of months, but the guys just don't understand what deep consuming love is all about. Sharing and caring are not what they have on their minds. When they touch your hand, or kiss you, it's because they think that's the way to get their sexual needs fulfilled. I realize that touching and kissing are terrific and most often lead to the ultimate, but what about a quick touch of the hand just because, or a deep kiss just because, even a glance that tells your special someone he really is.

Well, I really hope you won't toss my letter away without really giving me some thought. People that have the emotions you and I seem to possess are hard to come by.

Please take the time and the chance.
Write me if I haven't scared you off...

This man's letter made me sad. I wrote back to him and responded to the things he said. He later sent another letter, this time with a photograph of himself sealed within another envelope asking me not to look at his picture until I had read his letter. I don't remember who stopped writing first. I think he did, because after awhile, he'd scared himself with his own self-image and was afraid to keep up the correspondence. I don't remember the details of his or my letters back and forth, but I will always remember the hopeless tone of his letters and I cringe, because that was precisely the tone I felt I'd set in my letter to RFD. Without realizing it, I had written a letter as full of self-doubt as this man's. Only by seeing his did I see my own. I will always be grateful to him for revealing the self-doubt within me.

In total contrast to this last letter, within the same week, I received this one from a fifty-seven year old man from the west coast.

Dear Ron,
Right at the beginning, before you get too involved in any misconceptions or head trips, I want to tell you that I am 57 and very happy about it. I should also say that I don't look it, act it, or feel it. Well, I don't.
I am sorry about your relationship. I just went through a fifteen-year one with someone who didn't bother to say "I love you" very much and was really involved with his fantasies and the bottle. I am afraid I am the one who ended it. And it still hurts, but it is what has to be.
I am looking for a 'good and loving relationship.' That could be anything from a pen-pal to a close friend to a lover. I don't know and I am not going to start out by deciding how something should end that has not even started yet. As for the rest of it...

I could tell by the man's rapid-fire sentence structure and no-nonsense style that I was in contact with a man who knew himself. His letter was a mirror for me to see myself by. I was uncomfortable with the person I saw in myself. Yet I was fascinated by him.

As for the rest of his letter, he revealed yet another person who had lived a full life, so different from the homogeneous stereotypes people associate with gay men. He ran a mail-order book store (on non-gay subjects), then went into publishing reprints from another century. He was also into Japanese massage, spirituality, and personal growth. In addition, he had farmed on a small scale, done the "back-to-the-land bit," as he put it, and felt he had to live close to the water. He had done enough serious work in a local AIDS support group to be concerned about his own status, was negative, and intended to stay that way.

We corresponded briefly, then exchanged cards a couple of Christmases. I am sure his life has gone well and interestingly.

The last letter I want to mention from this collection came from another man on the west coast. As with others, he had also come out of a long-term relationship and had also ended it. He put it very poignantly, so I hope my paraphrase does it justice:

I mourn the loss of the person I loved. But he can only help himself.

I was not as forgiving in getting over the man I had loved, but his words struck a nerve in me and, like other letters before it, made me think about my own attitudes. Then he wanted to know a curious thing, which made me realize my views about monogamy (which I'd mentioned in my letter to RFD) somehow confounded him. He wanted to know what I meant by monogamy, then went on to say:

I think that word has the most elastic definition of any word, except for love.

I am aware that my desire for a monogamous relationship was for a time in the gay world not very politically correct—and maybe still isn't, since my desire could be construed as wanting to parrot a heterosexual marriage. During the wide-open seventies, for example, as a group, I think we gay men felt liberated—and it translated into unabashed sexual freedom. I know my ex-lover felt the call of the wild, so to speak, and in our first ten years estimated, rather proudly, that he had had sex with hundreds of men. By that time in our relationship, I had given up hoping he would give up that part of his life and want to settle down. By then, I had invested a lot of emotion and energy into maintaining our relationship solely for the longevity of it.

I am glad he ended it and put me out of a misery I did not even know I was in, until I began examining my feelings after our breakup. At times, I thought I was coping with the promiscuity that prevailed in our fourteen-year relationship. But at others, I was hurt and angry about it. In the last four years of our relationship, out of a sense of revenge (probably) and from a need to keep from drowning in jealousy, I also became promiscuous. But when it was all over, when the smoke had cleared and I saw what our relationship had become, I decided I had to be involved with just one man and for my own happiness, it had to be monogamous.

I don't think we stopped writing because of our discussion of what monogamy means, but I was, ultimately, afraid of becoming involved with someone who wanted clarification of that issue. However, I think this man would have been, like the others, a good man to know.

The letters in response to mine in RFD continued longer than I anticipated. Even when I had begun to see the unrealistic notion of long-distance "dating," I received letters I felt I had to respond to, to let the men know I was still "out there." I also began to fantasize about getting some of them together, like the two letters I am about to present. These were both from men quite a bit younger than I felt I could settle down with; yet they seemed well suited to each other.

Bob: I am relatively inexperienced at relationships, particularly with men, as I've only really come out (to myself) in the last one and a half years.

Donald: I'm looking for a guy to settle down with. I never had a relationship with a man—and I could, would like to experience such an adventure.

Bob: I basically live summers in a rented house North of Santa Fe. I stay winters in Tucson with friends. I go back and forth, sometimes. I have an adventurous side that likes to travel and meet people.

Donald: I used to live in New Mexico, now in West Virginia. I will be leaving here in June to work in Iowa. I intend to sell my place in West Virginia, because I am unable to meet any guys—plus it is isolated.

As I said in my letter for RFD, I wanted to meet men closer to my age. I wanted to settle down with someone. These two men were too young, too new to being gay, and were a lot more suited to each other based on how often they seemed to move around. At least the experience of corresponding with so many men from so many places that late summer, fall, and into the next winter had brought me further out of my own feeling of isolation and hopelessness. In fact, by the end of this love-lorn, letters exchange, I felt quite warmed from the inside out.

Letters from Prisoners

I think, during that period when I was receiving letters from men from all over the United States—both in response to my letter in RFD and in response to my novel, Common Sons, that had been published in 1989—my parents were becoming curious about what was going on with me. I had not told them I was exchanging letters with men, based on a letter I had submitted to the magazine. When I was unavailable to get the mail, and my mother or father did, they would give me my mail with comments like, "Who's 'so and so'?" Or "You got a letter from Arizona. Is it someone who read your book?"

My general answer was that it probably was a fan and, if so, I'd read it to them when we sat down to lunch. Sometimes, I'd flash a ten-dollar check and say it was someone who wanted to buy a copy of my novel to send to a friend. But if it was a mail-order bride letter, I'd go into the living room with a cup of coffee and settle back for a quick read through, then I'd join them for lunch.

I wasn't ashamed of this form of searching for a lover. They'd both known and loved my former mate. But I didn't want them to feel uneasy at the unconventional method I'd chosen in my search.

So it was with some surprise and anxiety, when I also received a half-dozen letters from prisoners throughout the United States. I realized I'd made a grave mistake by submitting my letter to RFD using my parents' rural route mailing address—rather than having it coded by the magazine. Those letters came with tell-tale addresses on the envelope. Example:

Joe Blow
DOC. # 123456 Location 5-XX D/S
Indiana Dept of Corrections
Indiana Reformatory
PO Box XX/ Pendleton IN

Such envelopes as these were an embarrassment. My parents may or may not have registered the curious nature of the return addresses; but in case they had, when they handed me one of them, I tried to act dumbfounded, without letting them see my anxiety.

The letters themselves were usually innocuous; and I felt empathy for the young men who wrote. Such as this one:

I sincerely hope that upon receiving my letter you will be found in the very best of health and spirits. I can really understand how you are feeling, especially after giving as much of your life to one relationship, then being shocked by the reality of your love.

But my friend, it could have been worse. Life is full of pain and anguish. I have recently been convicted for crimes I am still attempting to prove I am innocent of. I am serving a sentence of 230 years. I can only hope my incarceration will not discourage you from allowing us to build a friendship through correspondence. For I believe you could use a friend, just as much as myself. For both of us has suffered a tremendous loss...

I do not have time for psychological games that always cause pain and destruction. I am sure you agree. I am also gay, although being gay in prison is a lot different. People have the tendency to harass and underestimate us.

Ron, I have no family, and a very few friends! I am emotional which tends to cause disruptions in my friendships. I want a friendship built on mutual trust, honesty, and sincerity. I would like you to know that I would never ask you to participate in any activities that could damage your integrity or good standing in your community. I don't believe in victimizing other people, but neither do I want to be victimized!
I would like to add that just because a man is incarcerated, doesn't mean he is a bad person. Some of us actually are innocent.

I did write a response to this letter, asking the young man the circumstances of the crime he had been accused of, to explain what was so terrible about the alleged crimes that he would have been sentenced to 230 years. I felt empathy for him and, regardless of whether or not he was gay, I would not have wanted to be in his shoes. But I imagined murder and mayhem about the crime—something so heinous as to deserve such a lengthy punishment.

Further, an issue or two of RFD dealt with outreach programs to gay prisoners as well as scams that had been run from the prisons on unsuspecting gay men who had become involved with prisoners, who had been taken on emotional and financially ruinous rides. Of the latter, I was not afraid since I was living on thin air and the good graces of my parents. But I did not want to become emotionally attached to someone I would likely never see.

This prisoner wrote just one more letter explaining, in somewhat muddy detail, the circumstances surrounding the crimes. Oddly, they did not mention murder (which was about the only kind of crime I could imagine that would justify the punishment) just a series of breakings and enterings in which expensive items were stolen and fenced.

With so much time on his hands, I wondered in my subsequent letter to him, why didn't he get involved in college courses, and take up some kind of interests that would absorb him. I tried to be understanding, while in the back of my mind, I wondered just how innocent he was. He stopped writing abruptly.

Another letter from a prisoner revealed a young man, only twenty four, who was serving seven years for stealing money from a house and writing bad checks. He writes:

I thought I was a know-it-all, but as you can see, I know nothing. It's a bummer that it took something like this to really get a grip on life.

I have been reading your ad over and over, and you have touched me deeply. I'm sorry your past relationship went down hill, but you must move on. The beginning of a new relationship would be good for your mind and soul. Don't give up cause if you want someone strong enough, it will jump right at you in time. Ya best not trust anyone when they want to jump right into a relationship. Guess I really shouldn't say that, cause I believe in love at first sight.

I haven't had a relationship in five years, and no sex at all. So if you think you're having bad luck, look at myself. I don't talk to many people in here. People in here play too many games with others' feelings. To me that's just not right at all. I do a lot of cell time, and read, read, read.

I don't drink or do any drugs at all. I don't like being high unless it's on life itself. Sure, I tried it when I was younger, but just didn't want anything for a high. I have never put a needle in my arm for a high. I have only had one relationship. The guy turned into a real ass hole, and he started beating on me and I just couldn't take it any more and left him. That is why I broke into that house, was because he was taking real good care of me, and when I left him, I had no money and no place to go.

You are the first person I have ever tried to contact in the free world in five years. I just cut the free world from my mind. I really had a lot of problems when I first got locked up. I have to say that I think I am a great looking guy. I'm always having people wanting to get involved with me here, but in this place most people think that just because I'm gay I should go to bed with them. I've been told by many that I'm the best looking guy in here, but I really think it's just games to get their way with me, and I'm not falling for it.

I could imagine this young man, sitting on his bed in his cell, late at night or after chow, putting pen to paper in his slanted writing, covering the three pages he wrote. I could imagine his face, or the way he walked, but it was all fantasy. As I usually did with the other letters I received from the prisoners, I asked him to give me details of the circumstances of his incarceration. Maybe I was perceived as being too interested in those details and those that would tell me a little bit about their prison routine.

This particular prisoner made me anxious, because in a subsequent letter, he said he was getting out on parole, soon, and would I mind if he came to Deming to visit me when he got out because he had nowhere else to go.

I have to confess that such a letter made me nervous as hell. One of the tragedies that befell my ex-lover was that his father and stepmother were brutally murdered by an ex-convict only five years before we broke up. It was months before he stopped crying about the incident, and years before he quit observing the anniversary of his father's murder. The circumstances surrounding the murders was a scenario right out of a movie. My ex-lover's step-sister had become involved with the ex-con, and when she tried to break up with him, and when my ex-lover's father tried to intervene, the man broke into their house when the family was at church, and when they came home, he was hiding in a closet. When they got ready for bed, he came out of the closet and killed them both with a shotgun, point blank, then made the children drag the bodies down the stairs and leave them in the living room. After that, the ex-con kidnapped the children.

It didn't matter to me that the young man who wrote to me professed to being gay. It didn't matter to me that he seemed sincere, or that he wrote so eloquently about learning from his mistakes, and that his first and only gay relationship had been with a man twice his age who beat him up. When he wrote and asked if he could come visit when he got out of prison, I couldn't face the prospect. So I told him in my last letter to him that I was moving—soon.

Not only was I nervous for myself, but I did not want to bring into my parents' lives any potential problems, because of my misjudgment in not having RFD code my address. I vowed that, from then on, I would try to discourage any other prisoners who wrote to me.

The next letter came from a young man, about thirty-two years old. Like most of the other prisoners I heard from, he also maintained his innocence. Again, this one was going to be getting out of prison, soon. Also, like the others, he wrote eloquently about himself and what he was looking for in a mate. He referred to me as an older gentleman and said he preferred men older than he was. He said he hoped I would reconsider my age requirements, because he felt he was mature for his age.

Like the others, he opened his letter by referring to mine and offering sympathy and advice about getting over my hurt. By this time, in my exchange of letters, I was getting over my hurt. I was also feeling guilty that I had sparked the interest of prisoners—all of whom I could imagine as being in much more miserable circumstances than I had ever been in, or that I would hopefully never find myself in. The closest analogy I had to compare to prison life was probably basic training in the Air Force, where we were ordered about from dawn until we fell into bed exhausted from a day of physical training and psychological discipline from our torturers.

About being gay in prison, this young man wrote:

Out of all the known gays and queens in here, I get the most respect for I stand up for myself and do my own time, meaning, I don't mess around sexually and treat everybody fairly. If someone feels they have to lie, I don't need them, and if a person doesn't like the truth, they don't need me. I'm not scarred up or tattooed. I'm one of the lucky few to have never been raped, cut or stabbed. I can deal with people pretty good and I don't put myself in the position to have that occur, but it unfortunately occurs here regularly and I hate it. I bet it's nice living out somewhere away from everybody.

Again, I could only imagine the kind of life this and other young men were leading in prison. As with the others, I wrote the last letter, then didn't hear from him again. It was just as well, since my fear was stronger than my sympathy.

Another prisoner wrote to me from the same prison system that one of the other guys had written to me from, and I wondered if they might know each other. But I didn't want to ask, because I felt it would have been betraying the trust they had put in me by writing. This last prisoner, however, just did not get the thrust of my letter in RFD. I include his letter to illustrate that I did not necessarily hear from sincere, learning-from-their-mistakes kinds of guys. He wrote in a large printed script that was easy to read.

I am all the way gay. I have been undercover since my incarceration. I have not been sexually involved with a man since 1986. I am 36, look much younger, with a slim, muscular build, no facial or body hair, dark hair, green eyes, well endowed ten-inches, circumcised. If and when you respond to my letter, I will send you pictures, answer any questions you may have, and tell you everything about myself.

So I did. I did not feel this man was being sincere, but I tried to respond in a way that would let him know, once more, what I was looking for. I think I wrote a lot of garbage about not caring about really "rad" music or boom boxes, or cars and flashy clothing. I reiterated what I'd said in my RFD letter, but he was not to be dissuaded.

In his next letter, he wrote:

Thank you for your long and very interesting letter.
I truly wish we were together right now and you were sucking on my long dick!! It has been so long, I am craving a warm body. You just don't know how badly! I will keep in touch and someday I will come and visit you.

I have my own cell, I love to masturbate, I masturbate sometimes three or four times a day. I put baby oil on my dick and just stroke it long and slow with both hands.

He then mercifully got off that subject for an additional two pages of his large-printed writing, to tell me he was innocent of the charges against him, but that a key witness had perjured himself and that, after several jury trials, he was finally convicted.

He closed with this:

Well, Ron, I'm tired, but I want to get this letter out, so I'm gonna close for now. Take care of yourself and I will include you in my next fantasy when I jack off!!

When I got this letter, I tried a more direct approach and asked him to give me the details of his conviction, to describe what it was like in prison, etc. And I made a point to try to cool his penis talk.

He wrote:

I understand your feelings and you being apprehensive about meeting someone who has been incarcerated. But for one, I am innocent of this robbery charge I am in prison for. The Supreme Court of "—" will be overturning my case soon. My lover's admirer wanted me out of the way, so he fabricated a story and I was convicted.

You said you weren't sure what you could do with all this dick?! I can assure you, Ron, you would enjoy every inch of it and I would make you feel real good. I also love to be fucked and suck on my lover. I talk like this because I am very horny!! I have been undercover. I haven't had a sexual encounter in almost five years.
When you write back, would you tell me what you expect from your lover in and out of bed and also more about yourself. Ok?

We have a little more than two months before I get out. If we feel we may be compatible and would like to meet, would you be interested in me coming out there to live and work? This is really what I am searching for. A place to relocate to, friend, lover, and companion. If you are not interested in working towards that please let me know and I'll understand and I then won't waste anymore of your time or mine.

Although I did tell him I wasn't interested, I felt guilty. At times, I believed that any one of the prisoners to whom I was writing would eventually try to pull a scam, the nature of which I could not imagine. But at other times, I believed all of them were sincere, lonely, and had looked to me for some meaningful contact with "the free world," as that young prisoner had put it. But I was relieved when the letters finally stopped.

The Curious Case of the Widower

Except for a period of madness in my adult life in 1970 (when I tried to become heterosexual and married a female), I have been openly gay and proud of it for at least twenty-six years. As with other bleak periods in my life, I was able to come out of that heterosexual marriage with some valuable lessons learned, determined not to repeat the mistakes that had led me into such an abyss. I learned I was homosexual (like it or not) and that, no matter how much about the gay world I might dislike, there were also good things about being gay that were superior to being heterosexual. Most important, I learned, as African Americans had to learn, that I had to turn those words of condemnation and subservience—queer, fag—into power words for myself and I had to embrace the stereotypes about my people and to use them positively.

My perspective is of one who, for awhile, capitulated to social pressure to be what was expected of me as a "man." In a way, by having fathered a child during my heterosexual marriage, I disproved one of the stereotypes—that gay men are incapable of having sex with women. I also discovered I could enjoy heterosexual sex, although it was a little less erotic than sex with a man. My penis did not object to penetrating a woman; to him, it was just another warm, wet place, where he could move rhythmically for awhile, then ejaculate. I learned, however, that even during those heterosexual acts there was still something missing, physically and emotionally. I was constantly aware that those weren't male lips I was kissing, weren't male shoulders I was embracing, and that the tits I was suckling were too soft, too smooth, and too hairless; but more importantly, it felt "funny" for my penis to be the only one in the bed.

These physical activities with a woman were not enough to turn me into a heterosexual. There was something important my head and my heart were trying to tell me. "You've made a big mistake, son, if you think this heterosexual behavior defines you." Likewise, what many people in our society mistakenly assume defines us as "gay" does not. It is not homosexual behavior, per se, that makes a person a homosexual. Otherwise, it might be true that only two or three percent of the population is "gay" as a recent survey purports to be the case. But what the survey failed to account for are people like me, and all the other men and women who, for whatever reasons, have for a time capitulated their homosexuality in favor of acceptance by their families, churches, and friends. The statistics also fail to take into account the huge numbers of us who eventually (or very quickly) return to the gay world once we realize that our being homosexual is not a choice. Having made that incontrovertible discovery, I returned to the gay world, to my people, with a conviction that I would never again capitulate to pressure, subtle or forceful, to negate my gay being.

Although I had what turned out to be a bad relationship with another man for the better part of two decades, following my marriage to a female, I never gave up the feeling that it was up to me to make a good life for myself and others as a proud gay person. For this reason, I have always mourned when gay people I encounter are struggling with the same demons I did. They might be looking for forgiveness from the heterosexual God of the patriarchal Christian or Jewish religions. They might be struggling for outward acceptance from their families and co-workers, by remaining in the closet and dating women as a "cover." Or like my first gay lover, they might only be able to have sex in the dark with the bed covers pulled over them to hide the fact that there are two entwined male bodies copulating and sweaty beneath them. Or they might consider their homosexual sex something to be done only with strangers, without commitment, while their wives are at home watching the clock or (perhaps) sleeping with the milk man.

After my failed heterosexual marriage, I was determined I would be liberated from all my demons of self-abnegation, all those cloying, subconscious feelings that I was somehow unworthy of happiness, or that the love I felt was inferior to, or less real than, heterosexual love. After my long gay relationship had come to an end and I was beginning to discover that my partner had been battling these same demons, I was determined that the next gay man I tried to have a relationship with would be well on the way to self-liberation, himself, or I would not pursue him.

It is with anger, on the other hand, that I have observed heterosexual people toying with gay sexuality for their own purposes. We all know, for example, that heterosexual prisoners prey on other men for sexual release or, perhaps more appropriately, for exercising their power over them. We also know, if we listen to our lesbian sisters, that many heterosexual women occasionally play around with homosexuality, too—either for sexual thrills or, like their male counterparts, for some sort of power trip they derive from seducing other women. In either case, these heterosexuals will not be committed partners with members of the same sex. If gay people are duped into believing they can be, or if they can only be attracted to straight people, hoping to thereby legitimize their own worthiness, they will get hurt. In a tidy world, where gay people are attracted to other gay people, and heterosexuals have to make do with their kind, people would not get hurt as often as they do. But it's not a tidy world, and I fear that many gay people have fallen hard, and will continue to fall for these faux-gays and to be used by them.

Take the curious case of the widower from the deep south who responded to my letter in RFD. I must attempt to expose him as a type—a heterosexual who parades as a gay man to satisfy some inner need to engage in something forbidden or illicit—or, for reasons I cannot fathom. It angers me that this man thought that since I was gay, I would be willing to "do him" in some sense and that I had no moral perspective of my own from which to be insulted at the idea that he would want me for his purposes while totally disregarding mine.

I will not quote a single word from any of the three letters he wrote to me. But in this series of essays about the letters I exchanged with gay men from the hinterlands of America, it seems appropriate to include his case.

His first letter was sane enough, so I wrote a response telling him I would be interested in corresponding more with him. In that letter, he'd told me his wife of umpteen years had died and he'd read my letter in RFD. Although he was almost twice my age at the time I received his letter and I didn't intend to pursue him as a mate, I was willing to write to him believing he was a gay man who had lost the struggle for self-acceptance, or had subjugated his own needs out of a laudable commitment to his marriage partner. He was, after all, old enough to have lived in a period when it was unthinkable for him not to marry, have children, and to live as a heterosexual. I think I expressed my sympathy that his wife had died and said how it must feel strange after all those years to realize he was gay, and I understood, and wasn't it wonderful he was at least able to finally express himself.

His second letter should have given me a clue that he wasn't as tightly wrapped as he should have been. How can I express the impression his letter (and a seven-page, single-spaced narrative) had on me? The letter, itself, was friendly, yet cautious, giving a short account of his present circumstances, being widowed, having a nice house he would like to share with some young man, like myself. The seven-page attachment was a listing of a few guidelines that he should like to have observed in the event we did get together.
So, turning from the letter, to the whatchamacallit, I began to see into this man's mind. The vision was a little disturbing at first; then progressively I became angry and finally tossed it aside, in a fit of laughter and rage.
First, I was to realize that he was to be buried next to his wife in the cemetery, since he'd spent so many rewarding years with her. That was certainly understandable. One must put one's priorities where one's life's emphases have been placed, maybe; or in death, one must maintain certain appearances, so that natural family will not be too unduly distressed, for example, that granddad loved grandma and that there was no end-of-life craziness to detract from that lifetime certainty.

Second, I was to realize he had made his money and I was to make my own way and to not expect to share, after his death, in something I had not helped him to build up. At this point, I was certain I would not be flying south to become a mate of this grandfatherly person, anyway, so this requirement seemed reasonable, also.

Third, I was to read the rest of this thing, sign and date it, and return it to him.

Hmmm. Well...

I flipped through the rest of the pages. Was it a prenuptial agreement?

It was stamped CONFIDENTIAL in several places in red stamp-pad ink. It was typed on some ancient machine whose ribbon was almost gone, in some elite font that made its mere density all the more intimidating—or would have been, had it not made me laugh nervously.

I wasn't surprised when the guy told me he had worked for the federal government his entire life. Its afterburn on his mind was readily apparent in the document I now held. I continued reading...

Fourth, we would wear rubber clothing in the confines of his home.

Excuse me?

At that point, I wasn't sure if I should be my usual dutiful self and respond at all to this guy. In the next few pages, there were whereases and wherefores, and the whole thing was organized like a government document, with numbered paragraphs and sub-numbered, to the fifth head, full of governmentese and, ultimately, evidence of his insanity. Granddad had obviously worked on the document for hours and hours.

Sitting in my one-room cabin, surrounded by my very ordinary things, and boxes and shelves crammed with my belongings from a lifetime of accumulation, I could only imagine what his office looked like, crammed with twice as much lifetime as mine; but with that curious government-minded bent he had, I could only guess how it must look. And, did he work in his rubber clothing while he pecked away at the typewriter?

I wrestled with the idea of writing back, to let myself off the hook, and to not arouse his ire. Obviously I wasn't going to sign the thing that glared at me from beside my computer keyboard, stamped in red ink.

In the end, I punted, taking the friendly, indirect route to tell him he had missed the point. Had he missed the idea that I was interested in living in the country? What was it, exactly, that made him think I was a candidate for his particular tastes? I told him I'd never even seen, much less worn, rubber clothing and that I much preferred wearing nothing at all in the privacy of my home. I averred that I might be interested in a trip out his way for a visit, if he wanted to pursue a friendship, but I wasn't interested in committing myself, either to a relationship with him, or to signing the document. I would keep it for awhile, if that would be all right, and study it.

That this man did not get the point of my RFD letter was quite obvious, since he ignored almost everything I'd said in it about living in the country, about wanting someone within an eon of my own age. Further, in his third letter, he chose to respond with anger at my dismissal of his offer to do as he dictated. Maybe by that time, in his search for a young gay male to mistreat and to rule (probably as he had ruled his wife), he had become frustrated. And how many of those documents had he produced, how many other mail-order bride letters had he responded to from RFD?

That I had wasted my niceness on this man angered me more than his third letter. It came just a few days after I'd mailed out my letter in response to his rules and regulations. Its tone was like the whatchamacallit, full of governmentese, little of the former human still evident, businesslike and impersonal, dictatorial, where all pretense at geniality had been dropped. I had irked the old man with my (polite) refusal to sign the prenuptial agreement, had insulted him by saying I did not want to live in his big southern city and could not consider giving up the freedom I found in the country. But I pissed him off when I discussed the rubber clothing, wondering if it was healthy to deny that much skin surface a chance to breathe, explaining that was why I preferred nudity. In response to that he said (paraphrasing), "I hold no interest whatsoever in ANY form of Nudism and would insist that any partner of mine not be involved either."

So it was finished, this bizarre exchange of letters with the widower. Perhaps I've devoted too much energy to tell about him. But I want to reiterate my point about faux-gays and heterosexuals who like to use gay people for their own needs—especially that they assume gay people have no moral convictions and are, therefore, logical candidates for the sexual perversity they want to engage in.

I am reminded of the slave-owners in the Ante-bellum South. They had an entire race of people at their disposal for three-hundred years. In the earliest period of American history, there were well documented debates as to whether this servant race was even human. Slave owners bought and sold them like cattle and deliberately separated mothers from their children to squelch any possible loyalties to family. It was a crime, punishable by death, for a Negro to learn to read and write. At the same time, slave owners were fond of saying that Negroes didn't have the intellectual capacity to learn such skills. Lords of the plantations used the females of the subservient race as their sexual playthings, yet felt no remorse at having impregnated them, feeling no obligation of fatherhood for their offspring.

Negro women bore children in the cotton fields, passed the newborns off to someone else and continued to work. The Negro men were whipped, castrated, and hung at will by the slave owners. And when an American president finally declared the basic freedom of the slaves, the South rose up to defend its way of life.

Yet it took another hundred years for Negroes to become "Black" and then to proudly declare that "Black is beautiful" and to stop trying to emulate the Caucasian race. But once black pride was a common thing, once Black people took back their history and gave themselves African names, and began to act like the strong, proud race they were in Africa, they were able to kill off the tendency within themselves to feel subservient.
This truncated and slanted history lesson serves to make my point. In the latter part of the nineteenth century and in all of the twentieth century, gay people have been the 'race' that has been trod on at the whim of the master 'race.' We have been victims of psychiatry and the medical community and, more continuously kept chained in self-hatred by the Judeo-Christian religion. We have asked for psychiatric healing, and as a result have been subjected to castration, aversion therapy, electro-shock treatment, and even had long needles stuck through our eyes and into our brains, undergoing lobotomies, in the hopes of being cured. We have subjected ourselves to religious programs that promise miracles, with the end result of only making us more self-hating. We celebrate Stonewall every year; our numbers swell to bursting in our marches on Washington to draw attention to the AIDS plague and to our stand on lifting the ban on gays in the military. Yet, in our private lives, many of us still yet are not really, absolutely, and forever liberated. We still yet have to revolt, to stand up to the dominant powers in this country, to the government in Washington, the Pentagon, the so-called Christian right, and even to individual heterosexuals who prowl the gay streets in search of game. We have yet to stand up to the men like the widower, who wanted me to be his plaything, to wear the clothing he dictated and to dictate that I wear clothing. We still yet have to take umbrage at the daily insults heaped on us, from the many people we are afraid to come out to like our fellow workers, our childhood friends, our casual acquaintances, our employers, and even our families. We still whisper among ourselves that "gay is good," yet we don't dare say it too loudly for fear THEY may hear us.

From the letters, I learned that while urban gays may be involved in a universe of liberation, a large number of gay people out there in rural America must take extraordinary measures in their search for the simple warmth and companionship of another human being. Yet these gay men are resilient, if not liberated. They have set priorities in one way, by insisting that they live in the country or in the small towns of their birth or of their own choosing. For that time in Deming, when I was licking my wounds, I was actually becoming stronger. The letters helped. I will always be glad there is a publication like RFD, which has continued to put out its magazine targeted to people in the middle of nowhere and that, by their policy of printing full-length letters, make it possible for gay men to meet with a little more depth and discussion than the distilled ads in the back of the other gay magazines.

It was refreshing to have exchanged letters with so many gay men, who live in the small towns of America and in the country; to know we cannot be stereotyped into creatures of the night, who look only for anonymous sex in the bars, baths, and bushes of the urban landscape. It was refreshing to feel anger at the old man who thought I could be brow-beaten into submitting to his particular brand of sexuality following the death of his wife.

It was instructive to have received letters from prisoners, who gave me a peek into the prisons of America. I was tormented that I had to turn down the invitations of these gay men because of my instilled fears about prisoners in general. And while I was sorry that gay people are among the prisoners (whether they deserved incarceration or not), I was glad to know that some of them were trying to find love and affection inside those concrete hells, even if it was through contact with what one of them called "the free world." I wish that ordinary people of heterosexual orientation were sophisticated enough to know what gay people have always known; that it is mean spirited heterosexual men in search of power who rape other men when they don't have their females to copulate with.

What It Was All For

I didn't meet a lover through the exchange of these letters. Perhaps I was too cautious. Maybe I passed up a chance to meet exactly the kind of man I said I was looking for, because I was too enveloped in a cocoon of self-pity. But the experience I had in exchanging what turned out to be several dozen letters with a couple-dozen gay men, from little burgs all over the country, was partly responsible for the healing I went through during that time in Deming, when I was trying to get over my long-term relationship with a man who, for a time, had tried to go heterosexual.

I last heard from him in December of 1991. After a five-year search, and countless female contacts later, he'd finally come to a place in his life, where he could accept his homosexuality, too, as being an integral part of his makeup. I felt it was ironic for him to have had to destroy our long relationship to find this out. But finally, now, after so many years, I am able to forgive him. He was as much a victim of self-hatred and doubt as I was. Perhaps, now, he will be willing to put everything he has into his next gay relationship and will, as I tried to do, treat it as legitimate and worthy of a lifetime of trying to make the best of it.

By mid-year of 1991, I began to feel warm. Of course the weather was warm. I ran around in cutoffs and T-shirts. My legs were deeply tanned by then, as were my shoulders and back and arms and face. That was evidence of the sun I learned to worship and expose myself to. But I was finally warm from the inside. My heart was strong, alive again. My soul sang, now, celebrating my newfound youth and strength. During my stay in Deming, I had built a back porch onto my parents' mobile home out of wood I had salvaged from a house my father and I tore down in Deming. I built a greenhouse onto my cabin. I re-roofed an old lady's house in Deming all by myself. I operated various kinds of heavy machinery for one of my nephews in his landscaping business. I dug ditches for an elderly uncle.

I gained strength from all the other physical activities I had done, too, like hiking into the mountains around Deming, herding goats in northern New Mexico, and working everyday in my garden on the north side of my parents' house. But more important, I gained inner strength, realized my whole life was ahead of me. That made me feel warm, so very warm and full of hope.
Home • Letters Table of Contents • Letters Part Two