In honor of Pride Month, I interviewed my 92-year-old neighbor, Clifford Browder; he is a long-time New York resident of sixty years, a published author, & a proud gay man. His story is a sweet one full of self-discovery, love, adventure, & sex. For many people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, each story of self-discovery is different but can bear so many similarities. This validates the unique experience it is to be queer, making these stories all the more tender, relatable, & necessary. So, here’s Cliff’s story of navigating his sexuality, love, & life.
While attending high school in his home state of Illinois, Cliff started dating a young lady. Being a teenager in the ’40s, being gay wasn’t even really an option, but there was always something in him that never felt settled.
“In high school, I went steady with a girl, and I was attracted to girls; I have always been attracted to women. But there was one thing missing… Good, ole steamy LUST,” he said with a laugh.
“When I was going steady with this girl, it was our first big affair on both sides. We were sweet 16, and she was very patient, but I did get around to kissing her eventually. While we went steady, we had wonderful times together, but there was something in me that couldn’t accept this happiness. I would get angry at her for no reason, and it could spoil the evening. It bothers me to this day that this was the case. I just didn’t know myself. Now, with my ancient wisdom,” he said with a smile, “I know I just needed to know myself better, but at 16, how much self-knowledge are you really going to have?”
He explains, “We broke up, on my initiative, but after that, we still dated. We would update each other about the other dates we had. And we necked like crazy! I no longer felt bound to her but was still involved with her. We were just terrific friends & during all that time, I didn’t think of myself as gay. I didn’t even know what it was.”
Cliff headed to California for college after graduating high school.
He dated some women during his college years but claimed he must have been a “boring date” for the ladies since he never wanted to pursue anything sexual with them. During this time, he only knew of one gay man at his university (though this wasn’t how they referred to gays at the time), but he still didn’t consider himself gay. Looking back, he says he knows some of his friends were gay as well. But in the late ’40s, this was just the way it was! It wasn’t anywhere near normalized yet.
After college, Cliff moved home to Illinois for a year & struggled. He was later offered a full-ride scholarship to live & continue studying French (as he did in college) in France. He says this opportunity genuinely saved his life & gave him something to live for. During his time in France, he was hitchhiking & recalls one of his first conscience thoughts that led him to believe he may be, in fact, gay.
“I was hitchhiking once during my second summer in France. There was this, I call it, commandery of the road. A guy on a motorcycle stopped to pick me up and take me to an intersection where he knew I would have more traffic. I just instinctively knew that if that guy made a pass at me, I would just fall into his arms. I didn’t really think about it; it was just a sudden feeling.”
It wasn’t until he moved to New York to attend Columbia University that he began to explore his sexuality truly.
Cliff says, “A friend of mine from college, who was gay, was making discrete passes at me. He brought me out, just as a nice thing to do for a buddy; He wasn’t enamored with me, which helped me process & focus on this new development.”
Cliff explained that his friend had to take off quickly, leaving him alone after his first sexual experience with a man. This left him overwhelmed & feeling like he had to do quite a lot of debriefing on his own. So, he went to an underground restaurant at Columbia to get some food & ponder his new experience.
Cliff then began venturing out to gay bars to meet even more exciting & like-minded individuals.
“I was adjusting to a lot after moving to New York. School, making new friends, going to gay bars, & learning about gay life. I was sort of just learning who I was in this world,” says Cliff.
In New York, Cliff explained, there were pockets of gay life relatively easy to find in The Village, but this didn’t mean that it was normalized yet. This was still the 50’s, after all.
“During this time, the mafia owned most of the gay clubs & the police were being paid off to keep them open. You would be in a crowded or even overcrowded gay bar on weekend evenings, & police in uniforms would come in. They wouldn’t even bat an eye at what they were seeing & head to the back of the bar to talk to management. Then, they would come back out & leave. We took for granted that this was the way life was,” he explains.
Towards the end of Cliff’s time in school at Columbia, he began feeling an overwhelming itch for newness, adventure, unknowns, & self-discovery. He quickly finished his dissertation & moved to San Francisco, California, to begin a new era of his life.
His first day in San Francisco was nothing short of the adventure he was so eagerly anticipating.
After dropping his things in his room at the Y, he wandered to Coit Tower to explore the city a bit. While at the tower, he met a man named Dick, who almost immediately struck up a conversation with Cliff and then invited him to lunch. He accepted & experienced his first sexual encounter in San Fran, fully embracing his new life in a new city.
“Later that day,” he begins, “I went to The Coexistence Bagel Shop, which was a hangout for beatniks (a young person in the 1950s and early 1960s belonging to a subculture associated with the beat generation) & tourists. There I was, looking at a map of the city, & a guy said to stay at The Golden Eagle Hotel. I moved in for months & only paid $5 a week! $1.50 a night or $5 for the whole week!”
“That night, I went back to the Coexistence Bagel (having just had sex) & another guy approached me. This is not at all how I lived in New York, but he was very likable & invited me back to his place; I spent the night there. He wasn’t one to get right into things, so we slept side by side & very stealthily through the night; his hands made their way over to me. I had never had sex twice in one day & it was not the way I was going to live in the future, but it was part of my new life.” Two meetings of happenstance during his first week in California with passionate flings resulted in much-needed friendships. Cliff remained friends with both men & saw each of them quite regularly.
During his time in San Francisco, Cliff taught at a Jesuit school, made many friends through his social life, & fulfilled his longing for something “new.” Cliff was later offered two new job positions out of state after living in California for a few years—one in Walla Walla, Washington & one in New York City.
“It really didn’t take much consideration. What kind of gay life would there be in Walla Walla??”
30, Flirty, & Thriving in the City
So, he packed up his life in Cali & headed back to NYC to teach French at St. John’s. Cliff loved his time teaching at St. John’s & said that the students were absolutely delightful. He also shared that he could tell some staff & faculty were gay, but sexuality was definitely not an open conversation since it was a Catholic school.
This didn’t stop him from continuing to enjoy the gay scene back in New York. Cliff rented an apartment on Jane St. in the West Village which happened to be close to many gay bars & clubs. He was even reunited with his first Californian fling, Dick, again in NYC.
Aside from exploring his sexuality, Cliff also began exploring other areas of himself that he hadn’t spent much time navigating yet. He started going to therapy for no reason other than to get to know himself better. “I sensed that I needed it for self-knowledge. It helped me look at parts of my life that I had never looked at closely. I learned how to show emotion & to not be afraid to show emotion.”
During this time, he also began stage writing. Although it wasn’t his full-time job yet, Cliff found solace in being creative & putting his words on paper.
Now that Cliff was in his 30’s, he’d seen many friends marry, including gay friends. However, these gay friends weren’t marrying someone of the same gender; they were marrying women. This phenomenon happened because identifying as gay wasn’t socially accepted yet in the 1960s, many people would still marry, heterosexually, to start families & try to have a “normal” life.
“For a while, I was tempted by ‘straight life’ because if you’re going to ‘change’, it would have to be now; I couldn’t wait forever. But like I said, I was always attracted to women, but the question was, how far could I go?”
“A friend of mine named Eddy got married and had a son before he realized he was gay. He wanted a second son, but it took a great effort to manage that, though he did. Finally, he told his wife they should agree to go their separate ways, but she wanted to stay married to him, even so. They were in Europe, where he taught in an American school, but then they came back here, he got a house in Vermont where he planted his family, and during the week, he taught in a school in Boston. On weekends, he rejoined his family in Vermont, but he frequented a gay bathhouse in Boston during the week,”
Cliff explains, “A mutual friend and I agreed that this arrangement was good for him, unconventional though it was. For the first time in his life, he could satisfy his gay sexuality, but his family was not affected. Conventional morality would condemn the situation, but I don’t think it could fully appreciate its complexities.”
In the later 60’s while on a trip with friends, Cliff attended the show called “Pajama Game” & had one of the most unexpectedly dreamy evenings.
“The only seats we could get were the front row, which wasn’t ideal. The chorus came right up to the footlights. There was a chorus boy upfront & our eyes met for just a split second. After the show, we went to a bar & I saw the chorus boy across the room. He approached me & said, “You’re the one who wasn’t applauding!” As it turned out, he remembered our eyes meeting too.”
“One of the chorus boy’s friends who owned a car offered to drive us to where each of us was staying that evening. In the car, I reached around and stroked the chorus boy’s neck without the driver noticing. Ted (chorus boy) mentioned to me later, “I liked that.” We dropped him off at his hotel, and then the driver dropped me off at mine. It was one of those warm summer nights & I just wasn’t ready to go back to my room. So, I walked back towards Ted’s hotel & who did I meet coming toward me? TED!”
Cliff says, “It was one of those things you imagine happening in a novel! He took me back to his luxurious hotel room & we kinda fumbled around with sex but were pretty tired. I woke him up to watch the sunrise together that morning. Then, later that morning, Ted had a date with the same guy who had driven us home the night before. I was trying to get away before, but he ended up seeing me. It was a bit awkward, but oh well. Ted told me to come around & see him again at intermission for their last performance of the show that same evening.” He did, of course.
Love, Life, & Everything In Between
Around this same time, Cliff decided to quit his job, live on his savings for a bit, & pursue writing. He was offered a freelance position not too long after through some connections he had proving to his decision paying off in his favor. We now worked remotely (very ahead of his time) & he was pursuing a career that he thoroughly enjoyed.
While Cliff was in this stage of his life, he met a man named Bob who became his life-long romantic partner.
“In 1968, I met Bob at a gay bar named near the West Village. He was sitting & facing the wall, away from the crowds. I noticed right away how tall he was. He was reading a Jane Austen book: Persuasion. I walked over to him & asked, “Are you reading this for class because you have to or just because you want to?” He was very courteous; that was the first thing that registered to me about him. Bob responded, “I’m just reading it for pleasure.”
“Then we started talking & I discovered that he had wanted to learn French, so I spouted some French with him. As we were leaving the bar, Bob told me to go ahead of him & wait outside for five minutes, then he would follow. The name of the game that night was persuasion!”
“We walked back to my place, but Bob wasn’t interested in coming in. So, I walked him back to his place somewhere near 5th avenue. He let me come in & I sat on his bed. I remember he looked a little shocked, but there really wasn’t much seating in his place. He didn’t want to have sex that night, but he did tell me he wanted to see me again.”
Cliff says while laughing, “He counts the day we met as our anniversary; I count the day we first had sex.”
For the first few years, they spent a couple of nights a week together & lived in their separate apartments, but after two years of exclusively dating each other, they decided to look for a place together. So, in 1970, they rented the apartment in the West Village that Cliff still lives in today! Cliff remarked they had only looked around for about five minutes before saying, “We’ll take it!”
They were ecstatic to get settled & slowly began furnishing the apartment with Salvation Army furniture, much of which is still in the apartment today.
“When his friends met me, they approved because they knew he could use some stability & Bob gave me companionship. We had our ups & downs. The first three years, we didn’t know each other yet.”
“One time, after we’d been together for several years, we had an honesty hour on our couch that used to be right here,” he gestures to the wall he’s sitting against in his comfy chair.
“My one indiscretion,” Cliff began, “happened when Bob wasn’t just out of the city, he was off in France. When he went off for the first time to Paris, I told him I didn’t mind if he wanted to have a little fling over there as long as it ended when he came back here. He insisted he wasn’t going to do that, but while he was gone, I connected with a man I already knew & we had fabulous sex. I was more interested in him than he was in me, which was good because there wasn’t any temptation to have an affair. He ended up losing his shorts while he was up here,” he said, chuckling, “I had to find them before Bob returned home. They had slipped between the bed & the wall, so I mailed them back to him.”
“Bob’s honesty hour was a bit more complicated. He had an affair with a man named Dawn in Washington DC back in the day. I knew he was seeing a friend Dawn upon his visits to DC for work, but I didn’t know that they were still lovers—but they were. While talking about Bob’s affair with him, I learned I wasn’t a jealous person. I have seen jealousy kill relationships.”
Cliff described him & Bob as a pretty conventional gay couple. However, Bob would love to get dressed up in drag with some of his friends for fun. Both of these photos are of Bob decked out in his drag attire.
Considering the time Cliff grew up, I was curious how navigating his life with family played out.
When I inquired about his family dynamic & his being gay, he responded, “Back before Gay Lib, you didn’t tell your family you were gay. Result: They never really knew me—not completely. After Gay Lib, I came out to my two first cousins, both of whom had met Bob and liked him. They had guessed as much; I merely confirmed it. So there isn’t a lot to tell. My father died while I was in Europe. My mother and brother were in Illinois; I was in New York and saw them only at Christmas unless there was some special reason for me to go there at other times. My mother was not a clinging mother, but she quietly regretted that I showed no sign of getting married. But Bob sent her Christmas gifts that delighted her. They never met.”
“When Bob wanted me to meet his parents, I thought he was crazy, but once I met them, I realized that he had always introduced his friends, gay or not, to his family, so this was not so unusual, and we had many pleasant family dinners.”
Bob sadly passed away a few years ago, but since his death, Cliff has read all of the many journals that Bob left behind (an entire shelf’s worth).
“I know from Bob’s diaries that he found it so wonderfully satisfying that we knew each other’s bodies so well. He loved that this part of his life he could just relax into. We got to know each other so well. It was so calming to know each other.”
“Once,” Cliff began with a laugh, “our bed collapsed. It was a Salvation Army bed & we didn’t have clamps on it. The lack of those could have caused the collapse, or maybe it was just the action.”
Cliff still writes his blog from home, he’s a published author many times over, & he has friends who visit him often.
One of the things I love the most about listening to Cliff’s story is that he always seemed to remain true to himself even when it felt hard. No matter how you identify, what your gender is, what you believe in, what you want to do, or where you want to go, remembering to listen to that little inner voice that is quietly screaming at us who we are, is SO important.