Bill Thieleman – Pillars of Pride Honoree
Bill is a founding member and has always brought his cheerful spirit and empathetic heart to their work and community of members of all ages. He has engaged and gently educated younger singing members helping to enlarge the circle of acceptance and appreciation for our history within our chorus. Even now, Bill is involved in working on a Historical Archives project for SMC.
Bill’s “Gay Life in a Nutshell.”
Growing up in a middle-class family on Long Island, New York, there was, from a very early age, a sense that my shoes were on the wrong foot. I was quite a sissy but once I became aware of it around age 12, a great effort was made to cover it while not being at all aware of why. Friendships with girls were always easier and with boyfriends, there was often something of a secret crush. Most boys, however, just made me nervous. And God forbid anyone should have ever found out my penchant for crossdressing at age 10! Somehow, I got through high school, likely with more peers guessing my truth than I would have dreamed. In college, I had some sexual encounters, but it wasn’t until nearly graduation that I admitted to myself I was Gay.
In 1969, I graduated from college and got “invited” to my draft physical at which I “checked the box”, meaning I acknowledged to all and sundry that besides mumps, chickenpox and measles, I experienced “homosexual tendencies”. The rest of the year involved exploring New York City’s astonishing gay life. Then one night, I was arrested for consensual sodomy, a term I only vaguely understood as a very sheltered 22-year-old. Besides two nights in jail, my family’s attorney got me off the charges while the boy arrested with me was found guilty with a two-year suspended sentence and probation, thanks to the lesser efforts of his public defender. Apparently, you get the “justice” you can afford.
In 1976, I headed west and after seeing a lot the country and enjoying Gay people’s hospitality, I landed in Seattle. Lucky me, a houseful of socially conscious and activist Gay people took me in. Following their example, I became involved with Seattle Counseling Service fielding calls on the help line and later serving five years on the board of directors. In 1979, I joined the nascent Seattle Men’s Chorus and have remained involved on and off ever since. Initially, it was a brilliant way to meet boys and eventually, I matured enough to see it as a form of activism.
I also learned a lot from the Dorian Group about politics and advocacy and met a lot of extraordinary people at demonstrations and Pride marches. Throughout most of the 1980s and all the 1990s, AIDS raised its ugly specter. Friends got tested, friends lived with fear, friends withered and died; it was a truly horrible time that haunts those of us of a certain age. I found volunteering at Bailey-Boushay House a way to help patients and remember those wonderful people I loved and lost.
Something I find very special among the next LGBTQ+ generations is their effort to put together their own form of family in whatever manner suits them which is a remarkable phenomenon. In the late 1960s, being Gay seemed to rule out the option of a family. And we all expected to fight the inevitability of growing older together. As our dearest friends were torn from our midst, we had to keep making new friends and forming new relationships. It remains a challenge.
One evening just before the “damndemic” blew in, I was having a drink with chorus members after rehearsal. A young couple was telling me how hard it was to find community among Gay people in this day and age. It was surprising and disturbing, given how connected the 20- and 30-somethings are especially via the Internet. Hopefully, it is not the general sense. When I arrived in Seattle, some people still used a “bar name” and an answering service because they were terrified of being outed. And yet, Gay people would find each other, band together, and slowly, ever so slowly, influence the broader community until here we are.
Of course, there remains for all of us a mountain of work to be done. And so I share this bit of wisdom from Peg and Harry, who eventually accepted their son just as he is: “Volunteer! You grow, you matter, you make a difference. And you meet the nicest people when you do.”