Every summer, LGBT people across the country step out during Pride season to honor who we are, celebrate the progress we’ve made, and re-energize ourselves for the battles ahead. Yet in the midst of all the revelry and marching, older people are often overlooked. This summer, SAGE is celebrating some lesser-known “Heroes of Pride” on our blog.
While today’s hero, 72-year-old bisexual Alec Clayton, makes his home in Olympia, Washington, his accent reveals his southern roots. Born in Mississippi, Alec has deep experience as a community leader in the South as well as the Pacific Northwest—two very different regions that he feels connected to. Though Alec’s voice is gentle and his spirit is generous, he’s also a formidable advocate for social justice.
Thanks for talking with me, Alec! Can you fill us in a bit on your personal story first?
I grew up in the Deep South and was closeted most of my life—in Mississippi in the 50’s and 60’s it wasn’t ok to be gay. In fact, I don’t think I came out to myself until I was in my late 20’s. My wife and I moved to Olympia Washington in 1988, and I work as a novelist and a freelance writer.
What drew you to LGBT activism?
The reason I got involved in LGBT issues is that 20 years ago last month our 17 year-old-son committed suicide after a gay bashing. He and his friends were attacked—three boys hit and kicked him. Not long after that another of his friends was also attacked for the same reason. At the time, he felt that was all he had to look forward to for the rest of his life, despite the fact that his family loved and supported him.
I’m so sorry for your loss. I wonder whether or not the pain eases over time, after a loss like that.
In a way it does. Because of that, we got involved in different LGBT organizations, and have built a new family that way.
Were you out to your son?
Yes I was. When he came out to my wife and said “mom I’m bisexual” she said “well so is your dad!”
That must have been reassuring for him to hear.
Yeah, it was. I hadn’t told him yet because it just hadn’t come up.
I think that’s so beautiful that you turned this tragedy into something so positive. That really takes courage!
We’re told that, yes. And my wife has written a story [about our son] which you can read online at gabiclayton.com.
What was the thought that motivated your activism after your son’s death?
It was about a month between his assault and his suicide. Right around that time Anna Schlecht, co-founder of SAGE Olympia, also a founder of Unity in the Community, pulled together an anti-hate rally at a local park. Our son and my wife and I spoke at the rally. And when I stepped down off the stage the president of the local PFLAG chapter asked me to speak at the father’s day meeting. So we went to the meeting, which wasn’t until after Bill died—when I agreed to speak it was before that happened—and we felt so welcome and supported there. I was president of the local chapter for 10 years, and we’re still active.
Right after it happened, my wife also wrote a story telling Bill’s story, and as a result of that we got invited to speak on television. We still do a lot [of public speaking on the subject].
What kinds of questions do kids ask you when you speak in schools?
The most common thing is, “How things have changed? Has it gotten better?”—which is a very complicated thing. The answer is usually yes and no. In many ways things have gotten better, DADT has been abolished, and [we have] gay marriage and anti-hate crime legislation. But there’s also been a lot of backlash and the reactionary forces have redoubled.
Do you feel encouraged by the current political climate?
I think so, yes. I say that with reservations because some of the more reactionary conservative forces have become so outspoken. I think they make a lot of noise, but they are a very small and vanishing group on its last legs.
What is the change you would love to see with regard to LGBT equality in your lifetime?
I’d like to see general acceptance and celebration of difference. Laws changing is good but the hearts and minds need to change. It’s happening; we see it in the younger people.
What about the older generation? What’s been your experience working with SAGE?
I see a lot of fear and confusion and loneliness. SAGE passed out surveys recently and when we were asked what we needed most, and they said social connections and activities.
It sounds like you have good community.
Yes! Olympia is a great community
Do you have family in Mississippi still? Have you been back recently?
About a year ago we went back for a reunion, which was my first time there in 17 years. It was enjoyable! It seemed like people there had come a long way in acceptance of LGBT people and of changes in the racial climate. Of course, that’s just within my relatives and friends.
That must have been comforting. You’re living in such a different community now!
Yes, it was intentional. It was such a repressive climate, in Mississippi. We lived there after we got married for 11 years and published an alternative paper and were active in progressive causes but we were in a small minority. But there was a lot of support too! Because all the progressive or liberal people tended to support each other. Now living in Olympia we feel like the whole town is in a larger bubble. But we have our share of problems here too. Just recently a cop shot two black men.
Were there demonstrations after the shooting?
Yes, there were a lot of spontaneous demonstrations. And the leadership of Unity in the Community, which I mentioned before, has been helpful. We had meetings to help calm the waters because there were some spontaneous actions both on the left and right and there’s potential for conflict.
Coming back to SAGE—how did you initially get involved? What’s new for SAGE Olympia?
I was part of the original founding group that met informally to plan, about 4 years ago. I’ve been on advisory committees and in unofficial leadership ever since. The main things we do right now are social activities including bingo, pool, a dance for elderly lesbians. We work in conjunction with a similar organization in Tacoma which isn’t too far away. In the past we’ve done film nights in conjunction with the local theater and we also do some diversity awareness trainings with different local groups, providers of healthcare, etc.
What motivates you to continue doing this work with the community?
Probably the thing that motivates me the most are my friends and my wife—the camaraderie from other people that are activists in the community. The work that we do is also our social life!
Sounds like a recipe for success!
Yes! It keeps me alive and it keeps me vibrant.
-- Posted by Kira Garcia