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subfield code a C59-000042 USFLDC DOI0 245 Robert W. "Bob" Pope oral history interviewh [electronic resource] /c interviewed by Emily Weisenberger.500 Full cataloging of this resource is underway and will replace this temporary record when complete.1 600 Pope, Robert W.650 Holocaust survivorsz Florida.Holocaust survivorsv Interviews.Genocide.Crimes against humanity.7 655 Oral history.localOnline audio.local700 Weisenberger, Emily710 University of South Florida Libraries.b Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.University of South Florida.Library.Digital Scholarship Services - Digital Collections.Oral History Program.730 Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.773 t Out Down South Oral History Project4 856 u http://digital.lib.usf.edu/?c59.4
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text Emily Weisenberger (EW): Okay, cool. So, I am here withâ€”
Robert Pope (RP): Robert Pope.
Lawrence Konrad (LK): Lawrence Konrad.
EW: And it is February 27th, 2017, two oâ€™clock. So thank you for sitting down with me.
RP: Weâ€™re happy to have you in our home.
EW: Thanks. So, first, I just want to start off with a general question. What was it like growing up in the South? And we can start, like, chronologicallyâ€“probably betterâ€“and then go onward.
RP: Well, my home town when I grew up was Tallahassee, which only had about 16,000 people. You know, itâ€™s now a couple of hundred thousand. So it was a very small, small town. I grew up in a family. I had an older brother. And, at 10 years, I had a younger sister, so I was the middle. And that's always a tough time, you know, middle kids get it bad. He's an older one, so he can stay thatâ€”I can say that. My father was a beautician, actually. He owned a beauty shop, and my mother was a first-grade school teacher and was very well respected in her career. My father and my mother were married in Tallahassee. My father had a third-grade education; my mother was just shy of a PhD. So that was an interesting dichotomy between the two.
RP: And when I discovered who I was, which I really didnâ€™t know who I was when I found out who I wasâ€”I didnâ€™t know what it was. I just knew I was different. I knew I liked the little boys in the neighborhood and didnâ€™t like the little girls. I know that, one time, I wasâ€”the first experience I had with my parents, particular my father, gay-wise, was when I was down with another boy in the neighborhood, doingâ€”or I was trying to doâ€”little things, but the little boy didn't seem to be too interested and told my brother. And my brother told my father. My father wanted just skin my fanny. And that was the first experience of real rejection, whatever might have happened. Nothing happened in that instance, but it did with a lot of other little boys in the neighborhood, but not him.
EW: And how old were you?
RP: I was in junior high school when that happened, probably 13 [or] 14. I knew I was different from the age of 9. Not that Iâ€”you know, my brother was a football player. He was an athlete in high school, got a scholarship the University of Florida to play football and this type. And I wasâ€”I was in the band, in the glee club, in the plays, et cetera, et cetera. So I was playing the part of a little gay boy coming along. But I ran for student body president when I was a senior in high school, didn't win, but I ran, didn't feel any rejection that far that I knew about. And, as a matter of fact, even now, I go to my high school reunions. And I graduated from high school in 1953, so we're getting ready to have, in 1958â€”I mean, in 2018, weâ€™re going to have our whatever that adds up to, 55 [or] 65 years, our reunion. We're still very, very close. And I've taken him to the reunion ever since, well, our 30th, I started taking you, I guess, and leaving you in the corner.
LK: That was an experience.
RP: But when I went away to college, I went to the University of Florida, and I had limited, very limited, sexual experience there. But I sure did like my roommate. And I transferred back to FSU and did have some experiences at FSU, but never feeling a matter of rejection from them. As an example, as a senior in high school, our class always chose who would give the graduation speeches. And there were three people selected by vote of our fellow classmates. And I was voted to give one of those three speeches. And so, I never felt like I had been shunned. Whether I was outwardly a sissy boy, I don't know.
LK: You had a longtime girlfriend.
RP: Yeah, I did. I had a girlfriend in high school, and we never did the bad thing. It's really interesting. She ultimately became a lesbian. Isnâ€™t that weird? And, unfortunately, she also took her life a few years later.
LK: So he had his little tryst in high school, down in the woods, some of the afternoons.
RP: In 1953, Dan McCarty was governor of Florida. I was a big Dan McCarty fan, and he went to a big September parade in Tallahassee, and it rained on him, and he got pneumonia, and he died. And, at that time, we did not have a lieutenant governor in Florida. At that time, the president of the senate became the acting governor. And the president of the senate was a man by the name of Charley Johns, and he became acting governor. And Charlie was from a little town, over near the state prison. Itâ€™s Starke. And he had been the chairman of a subcommittee of the senate that was investigating homosexuals and communists in state government and in the teaching profession.
And he was a real rabble rouser. Teachers were losing their jobs, committing suicide. Students, I mean, even the accusation that you had to go before the Johns Committee was enough to lose your credibility within a school district. And this happened, repeatedly, all over the state of Florida, not justâ€”happened here Pinellas County. And, of course, they were getting all the communists out, too, because that was a bad thing. Well, there wasnâ€™t any communist around here; there wasnâ€™t any. A lot of students were found to be gay [and] asked to leave the universities. Professors were found to be gay [and] asked to leave the university. Some of them would not answer the question. They invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not answer the question and were fired.
So it was a very difficult time in Florida, and one that created an opportunity. They created a book on the activities of the Johns Committee. Actually, I have a copy of it. And it was so bad that it was labeled to be obscene because of some of the things that were put into the book that they, quote, discovered. So it was a bad time, particularly in the early â€™50s. And he became governor and did not make things very comfortable around Florida. That's when LeRoy Collins ran for governor. I donâ€™t know whether youâ€™re familiar with LeRoy Collins. LeRoy Collins was from Tallahassee. In fact, heâ€™d been a very strong supporter of my father. My father had a third-grade education, as I said. But he wanted to be a lawyer so bad, he could taste it. And LeRoy Collins was helping him train and study through the old school out of Chicago. But he ran against Charlie Johns and became governor and then succeeded himself, as the first governor to ever succeed themselves in Florida. He was also very enmeshed in the Civil Rights Act, ran for the senate, but, unfortunately, lost. Probably the best governor we ever had. But anyway, letâ€™s get to work.
So I went to law school after I got out of Florida State [University] and just lasted a year. I was tired of studying. So I went in the army and went into the counterintelligence school. And I went to Fort Holabird. Now, this is the first incident of confrontation with my sexuality. I was called in one day. And they wanted to know about my experience at the Children's Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, which is a therapeutic center for emotionally disturbed boys. And I had interned there in my senior year at Florida State [University] because I'm a social work graduate in juvenile corrections. And this is a this is a very fine school in New York City, or right outside of New York, Dobbs Ferry.
And I had a very, very close relationship with one of the boys. I never had a sexual relationship, but we did have a very, very close relationship, just a delightful young man. And I had a good rapport with all of the kids. And I was working through the chaplain as part of the FSU intern program. And I guess he wrote something in his report back to the school, that he thought I was having a little bit too close of a relationship with this young boy. And when I got to the army, they had a copy of that report from the internâ€”from the chaplain. So they wanted me to take a polygraph examination because they did not accept homosexuals in the army, you know. I had been through basic training; I had already come to Fort Holabird. Actually, I volunteered for the army for three years, instead of being drafted. And I had to take a polygraph.
Anybody taken a polygraph before? Well, actually, I passed it. I don't know how, but, anyway, the guy whoâ€”I went in, and I served as a special agent with the counterintelligence corps for three years, including 13 months over in South Korea. Never had a problem, until a young man was caught opposite the White House in Lafayette park. He was a CIC specialâ€”not a special agent, but it was one of the analysts, did the paperwork. And he was over there for sex, and they caught him, the police caught him, CIC was called in. They investigated him and, through that young man, 267 people around the world were brought in for special investigation because heâ€”he didn't have the big mouth. It was one person that he told on that had a big mouth. I was brought in. Here's what the boy said. He said, when I was at counterintelligence school at Fort Holabird, Maryland, and was training to be a CIC agent, I asked too many questions. And, therefore, I must be a homosexual. Excuse me. The reason I can tell you that is because I had the occasion to read my dossier at the intelligence school when I went over to Korea to get out of Fort Holabird. And I came back, put back into Fort Holabird, and happened to read that. And it was stamped. (somebody speaking in background; inaudible) Pardon? What James?
James: Iâ€™m going to the store.
RP: Okay. Excuse us.
EW: Thatâ€™s okay.
RP: Okay. So they brought everybody in. One guy killed himself in Germany. He was brought in. This was not a very pleasant time.
LK: So they may want to ask a question.
EW: Were there any of your friends that were also brought in, or anyone you know? Like, youâ€™ve talked a little about people getting, like, the government or someone is calling them in and accusing them of being gay or being a communist or whatever. And you talked about some people that committed suicide from that. Did you know any of those people closely?
RP: I did not. I did not know any of them. We did have an experience after we'd been together for a year or two. We'd moved to Clearwater. Iâ€™d accepted a job as a Clearwater convention and tourist director with the chamber of commerce. And we were going out that night to a little bar on Madeira Beach called the Gate, which was on the second floor of a building. Anyway, and I was just very, very tired, and I told Lawrence, I said, â€œUnless you really want to go, I really would rather go home.â€ And so weâ€”
LK: We were halfway down to St. Pete.
RP: So we turned around, went backâ€”we were living in Clearwater. And the next morning, the St. Petersburg Times, on the front page of the B section: Raid of the Gate, 14 people arrested. Moss Brothers, which used to be a great department store here in town, five of their employees were arrested.
LK: Everybodyâ€™s name.
RP: Everybodyâ€™s name, their age, where they worked. One teacher killed himself in Tampa. And this was a nice, little bar. Nothing going on there, except they were gay.
EW: So what were the charges they were arrested on? Being gay?
LK: Trespassing or being in a house of ill fame. Or nothing.
RP: They didnâ€™t charge them with anything. Just arrest you, take you in, and then release you and not charge you. Harassment.
LK: When we met in â€™63 in Daytona, we were we met a bar and the bartender was always aware of nobody touching each other. Your hands had to be on a bar, but every time that door opened, you really sweated [sic] that the police were going to be on their way in. You knew how to get out of there through the back door. But it was just the times.
RP: This was 1963 that we met, February twenty-third.
LK: Isnâ€™t that a few days ago? (laughing)
EW: Do you want to, like, tell a little bit more about that?
RP: Yeah, we were sittingâ€”I had been stationed at Daytona Beach as a special assignment. I was working for the American Red Cross as a specialâ€”uh, what do you call it? A field director. I was stationed out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and somehow got involved in fundraising. And so, I was down there, and I was going out for the evening. And this very, very handsome young man came and sat right across the bar from me, had the prettiest smile of anybody I ever saw, and I was smitten. (laughing)
LK: I think we both were.
RP: So we sat there and probably looked at each other for 30 minutes. And a mutual friend who is a nurseâ€”
LK: I tell the story differently. (laughs)
RP: She was wandering around the bar, you knowâ€”
LK: No. She came over, and she said, â€œIf you donâ€™t come over to meet this guy, heâ€™s going to drive me crazy.â€ And she literally took my hand and took me over to meet him.
RP: Because every time she'd come over, I said, â€œGoodness, would you look at that? Oh, my, my, my, my.â€ Anyway, he was a very handsome young man. I have a picture of him, if you would like.
EW: Yeah, Iâ€™d love to see that.
LK: Actually, the St. Pete Times did a story for us on our 50th [anniversary]. And got a picture of us then and a picture of us now. A lot of difference. A lot of difference.
RP: But we met there. And we were talking about hands on the bar, not under the bar; your hands had to be showing. No dancing, noâ€”
LK: You couldnâ€™t dance close. You could doâ€”so the bossa nova wasâ€”
RP: Solo dancingâ€”
LK: So line dancing and all of that was okay.
RP: So we had the experience of Daytona. We almost hadâ€”I mean, in Clearwater. We almost had another experience out in Daytona, where we were going to a place outside ofâ€”
LK: Winter Haven.
RP: Winter Haven. Was it Winter Haven?
LK: Well, it was a big, big estate.
RP: Huge mansion. And they were opening up for evening, people coming out, bring your own bottle, dancing, not worry about the police, and that type of thing. And we had been there once before. So we were getting ready to go there, and, again, we didn't go.
LK: I think weâ€™re protected by theâ€”
RP: And they raided the entire thing, took everybody to jail.
EW: So was that like a constant worry, whether or not you would get arrested by the police or harassed?
LK: Oh, yeah. You never knew.
RP: Now, jump forward a little bit. I graduated from law school, Stetson [University] law school, in 1971. I'm practicing law. I'm not hiding who I am, but I'm also not wearing a tag or a badge.
EW: Nothing written across your forehead?
RP: Nothing across my forehead. And we bought the bar on Fourth Street South. And it was a country western bar. I told the real estate man, because we were starting to need a little bit of business to practice law. And I told the guy, â€œI want to buy a bar. I donâ€™t want to pay anything for it. I want nothing down, and Iâ€™ll pay it out over a period of time.â€ Well, damned if he didnâ€™t come back in about 10 days. He says, â€œI found you a bar.â€ It was called Kittyâ€™s at that time. And it was a country western place. And I had the man who was going to manage it go down there for two or three weeks before we took it over, to learn how to operate the bar, the cash register, ordering, this and that and this other. Well, we took it over at noon. And, at one oâ€™clock, it changed from a country western bar to a gay disco bar.
LK: I want to go back to Tallahassee.
RP: Well, what happened to Tallahassee?
LK: So he had this big football player, popular, I think any father would want his son to beâ€”
RP: My brother.
LK: Your brother. So, when we met, he took me home for Thanksgiving. And I sat next to his sister in law, who was married to his brother, who said, â€œThank God youâ€™re not like the last one he brought home.â€ And the last one was obviously a little effeminate and a little obvious, and they were a little upset about it.
RP: Well, Brucey was a very, very sweet boy. He was a very sweet boy. And he also was an excellent cook. He was a graduate of the American culinary school institute. So he was a very, very good cook. And we had a good time the eight or nine months we were together. Met at a resort in Cape Cod and then came to Florida to make our fortune. (laughs)
LK: But we did getâ€”one week, or one time, we went home. And his father slapped him and said, â€œHeâ€™s just in your life to take you for your money.â€
RP: I forgot about that. Yeah, my father saw Lawrence coming in. And although he was very respectful to Lawrence, he got very upset one time. I donâ€™t know why he was thinking about it; I guess he thought since Lawrence didnâ€™t have a, quote, job all the time, he said, â€œYou must be paying all the bills, and whatâ€™s he doing?â€
LK: I did have a job at that time.
RP: Well, who knew?
LK: And then there was a time that, in Tallahassee, when we moved there because he accepted a job as a convention director for the state. And my sister was in a bad marriage, and she came down, and she lived with us, and she went to work for his brother. And she told his brother that we were sleeping in the same bed. One Saturday, Trevor, his brother, tried to break into our house, into our apartment.
RP: He didnâ€™t have to break into the apartment. The door was open. But our door to our bedroom was locked, and he didnâ€™t understand why our bedroom door was locked.
RP: Well, for brothers who want to break in and see what weâ€™re doing.
EW: They didnâ€™t know that you guys were together?
LK: Well, I donâ€™t think they put two and twoâ€”
RP: Well, thatâ€™s the thing. In those days, they didnâ€™t evenâ€”it wasnâ€™t something that came up. Isnâ€™t that interesting?
LK: There really wasn't a name for it. And you reallyâ€”I was raised in Pennsylvania, and I knew very, very early on, my father was a blue-collar machinist for Bethlehem Steel. And I remember, one time, when I was nine or 10, there was a guy on the street. And he said to my mother that, â€œThe only thing that guy needs is a purse.â€ And that put a thought in my mind that I had better watch the way I walk and how I act and how I dress and all of that. And you really do take on a persona to be safe that you're not going to be obvious. You develop a whole personality, a protective personality. So, as that happens when you're young, this journeyed intoâ€”many times, I accused him of being internalized homophobic. It took us years to get out of this mindset, to be comfortable with each other and to not be afraid. And we've had several businessesâ€”
RP: That's what I want to talk [about]. We bought this bar. We turned it gay, had no problems. The only problems we ever had with it were with lesbians, if you can believe that. They would have problems with their girlfriend, and they would literally tear up the bar or tear up somebodyâ€™s car.
LK: There was role playing, and the lesbians, then, were dykes. They were very butch women who owned their women and acted out.
RP: But I wanted to get to a point. So that was so successful, I wanted to go into competition with myself. So I bought the Wedgewood [Inn], or I took over the Wedgewood [Inn], which is now, in the South, itâ€™s gone. It used to be one of the best, greatest places to eat in the area, had a huge area for our dancing. We had we had dancing there. We had a disco and hundreds and hundreds of people there on Friday and Saturday night. Three times, the police came and raided that place, and they did it every time after I had left and gone home. And I'd be walking in the door of my house in north St. Pete, and the phone would be ringing. The police have raided us. So I had to come all the way back down. I was a lawyer at the time, and I wanted to know what in the world you were doing. It was harassment, just pure harassment. Now, this is the 1970s.
LK: In the mid â€™70s.
RP: Mid 1970s. And I remember telling one major that I invited [him to] take he and his lower portion of his anatomy out of my bar. And, â€œWell, Iâ€™m not leaving.â€ I said, â€œWell, you better do something because youâ€™re not going to be here. You better arrest somebody because Iâ€™m inviting you to leave my bar.â€ So he promptly arrested the general manager, who appreciated it very much, the fact that I had just gotten him arrested.
EW: What did he arrest him for?
RP: Operating a dance hall after hours without a special license. Took me eight hearings to finally get it dismissed, but I finally did get it dismissed.
LK: It was all part of the culture.
RP: Just harassment.
EW: Was there physical harassment, too? Like, people getting beaten up?
RP: Oh, yeah.
EW: Did you personally experience any of that?
RP: No, no. But I have represented a number of people who have. My main practice was criminal law, criminal defense. I represented many gay people accused of doing all manner of evil in the bushes and under the bridges, or just, you know. And policemen, who found it very easy to go and to harass a couple of gay people that are in the park holding hands or something or kissing or doing other things, but leaves the real problems of going and fighting robberies and gun shots, et cetera, in other areas of the city because it's easier to do that harassing.
EW: Were you at all active in activist stuff or gay rights stuff?
RP: Well, I was a member of the board and treasurer of the first gay activist organization in the state of Florida, which, at that time, was called the Florida [Gay and Lesbian] Task Force. And we even hired a lobbyist, and this was before Equality Florida. And we had representatives from most of the sections of Florida. And we raised money by having little events in local bars. People would put money in to help support a lobbyist in Tallahassee to try to protect gay and lesbian experience. I had a very interesting experience; we had a lobbying day in Tallahassee. There was a very, very huge gay bar right there on Park Avenue in Tallahassee. And so, we invited all the legislators to come to talk to us about the issues that affected the gay community. Well, a couple of legislators; not very many, but a couple them. One of them came in, and [I] offered him a drink and hors dâ€™oeuvres. And we were standing there talking, and he said, â€œGoodness, didnâ€™t this used to be a gay bar?â€ And one of our members said, â€œYes, still is.â€ The guy put down his drink and was out the door.
LK: We have been very involved with a lot of organizations, or at the beginning of organizations in town, like the gay hotline. When people were committing suicide, and they couldn't come to terms with themselves. I don't know who established that, but we were, at the beginning, on the board, being trained to accept telephone calls and know how to treat people or how to talk to people. And then the gay film festival that happened. And then I was the first founder of a support group of an AIDS support group in town. So we were activistsâ€”doers, really.
(RP and LK speaking at the same time; inaudible)
RP: We were both involved at King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church, and I was on the board for 11 years. He started there. This was in the mid â€™80s, when AIDS started showing its ugly head.
LK: And people around us were dying, and they were dying the worst deaths, and they would be holed up in a hospital. And the hospital would put them back in corners and not feed them. We had to threaten them with newspapers and television.
RP: So, from that, the church decided to start an AIDS support group beyond what Lawrence had started. And that is now Metropolitan Charities Metro Wellness Center. I founded that in 1992, I think it was.
EW: So what was that like, to watch what was happening during the AIDS crisis?
LK: What? Sayâ€”uh, repeat that.
EW: What was it like, experiencing the AIDS crisis? Iâ€™m sure you guys had friends who wereâ€”
LK: It was terrible.
RP: Oh my gosh, yes, it was terrible. It was not only terrible, but going to church, and you'd see one or two people sitting in the congregation, bundled up. They were all skin and bones, bundled up because they were freezing. You know, it takes a lot of your strength away. And seeing them diminishâ€”Lawrence tells a wonderful story. We had a group, too. What is the name of the Catholic group? The cruseo(??) whatever?
RP: We call it an MCC Excel. And itâ€™s a spiritual weekend where you come in for a spiritual renewal.
LK: You actuallyâ€”we brought this in from Texas. You actually experience God, or you build a relationship with God in yourself.
RP: So one of the people that had gone through Excel, was very active in the church, was also very, very sick. Was moaningâ€”
LK: I went to see him; I couldnâ€™t find him, and I found out he was a Saint Joseph's over in Tampa, and Iâ€”I'm going to cry. I, uh, walked into his room, and he said, â€œWould you please close the door?â€ And he said to me, â€œAm I going to go to hell?â€ And I couldn't believeâ€”because he's been through all these spiritual exercises and everything, and had not internalized that God loved him as he wasâ€”that he was dying afraid he was going to go to hell. So I had a lot of that because religion just threw you out. They condemned you and thatâ€™s what you had to deal with. You had all this stuff in your head, which you had to straighten out.
RP: The church was an excellent areas [sic] for teaching hate, and still do.
RP: (laughs) Howâ€™s that for a nice statement?
EW: (laughs) So did you go to church when you were growing up? And did youâ€”you continued, I guess; you went when you were older?
RP: I did. I was very faithful. I was a member of the Methodist Church. And I, even when we got together, went to church most every Sunday, and Lawrence would join me many times, was member of the First United Methodist Church downtown. And the reason I joined the First United Methodist was because my mother was raised in St. Petersburgâ€”she moved here in 1912â€”so I thought she had gone to First United Methodist, when, actually, sheâ€™d gone to the other one on Fifth Avenue, but that's another story. But I was invited to speak to King of Peace MCC one Thursday night, this was in 1984, about how to avoid being arrested. And I had a great time. People were very responsive to my silly jokes, and I enjoyed that. And I think that we hardly missed services.
LK: Well, there was a reason for that, too. He had invited his pastor to our house for supper. And the pastor did not come; he sent the associate pastor. And associate pastor did not bring his wife.
RP: No, his wife wouldn't come.
LK: And I was in the kitchen, and I heard Bob ask this guy about how he felt about theâ€”
RP: The Methodist Church has a general conference every four years. And the issue coming up was the ordination of gay people as ministers in the Methodist Church. And that was an issue that was getting ready to come up in a meeting of the of the conference at the Methodist Church within the next couple of months, so I was asking him, â€œWhat is your position on that?â€ And he says, â€œI support the church's position not to ordain gay people.â€
LK: He also said he knew this was going to be brought up. And I was very curious because he can be very protective about himself. So I was in the kitchen listening to what he was going to say about this or how he was going to handle it.
EW: How did you handle it?
EW: How did you handle it?
RP: Um, I haven't been back to the Methodist Church. In fact, it took me almost 22 years to get my name off the roll. I donâ€™t know why. The reason I know they didn't date take my name off the roll is because they sent me aâ€”when they had a big capital campaign, raising a couple million dollarsâ€”they sent me a request for money. So I told the pastor, I said, â€œYou didn't take my name off the roll, so please do.â€
LK: King of Peace was a good spiritual home for us.
EW: How did you find that?
RP: They invited me to speak. And I was on the board when we found the president home; if you're from Tampa, you don't know anything about it, but (laughs) it was an old multiple, dual theater. And we bought it and converted it into a very nice church. So thatâ€™s where we go now. Still do.
EW: So can we talk a little bit more about your childhood?
EW: And you mentioned, like, you realized that you were, like, different when you were younger. At what pointâ€”did you ever, like, come out to your family that you were different?
RP: I never, ever did. Even, my father died at 98; we never discussed the issue. I don't think the last 20 years of his life he had any question about that. Although, Lawrence will tell you that he tried to get me married to a girl, even a couple of years before he died. But I keep telling you that's not a true story because the girl was marriedâ€”(LK and RP speaking at same time; inaudible).
LK: So it was the director of the of the retirement center that he was in, the social director. And, one time, we were going up for a birthday party and he wanted to have a piano player and we were waiting for her to arrive. And he actually had all these seats around him delegated to was going to sit there. And she was going to sit next to him, and Robert was going to sit next to her, and I was going to be over here. And I sat down in her seat, and he just glared at me. (laughs) He knew on some level. And on some level wouldnâ€™t believe it because, after he died, I woke up. I see these things, and I saw him right over my bed. And he said to me, â€œHow long have the two of you been together?â€ Which was a startling question coming from him because he was looking at us from a different perspective. And I told him, and he wasâ€”he said, â€œI'm so sorry, I didn't see that.â€ You know, it was a while.
RP: I've never discussed anything. But I will tell you that, our 50th anniversary, which was four years ago, after the Tampa Bay Times did this long article on us that had the picture of us when we first met and today, I took a copy of that article up to our family reunion in Tallahassee. Now, I'm presently 81 years old. So this was four years ago. I'm 76 years old. I'm going to a family reunion, and I'm going to come out, which is what I really did. I said, â€œSince this elephant's been in the room for a while,â€ I said, â€œLawrence and I have been together for 50 years, and the St. Pete Timesâ€”or the Tampa Bay Timesâ€”had this article, and I wanted to give you all opportunity to look at it, if you will.â€
LK: It rustled feathers. His family isâ€”he has family in Columbia, South Carolina, and they are Southern Baptists. And theyâ€™ve raised their kids as Southern Baptists at private schools and all of that. And I could just watch their mother look at this, and his sister was also Pentecostal. So we did ruffle some feathers. But what happened, and what came out of that, was, once it was on the table, they had to come to terms with who we were. And then they to really start accepting us as a couple.
RP: Â Yeah. So my story is really one ofâ€”it probably took me some time to accept who I was. But I was very fortunate, even while I was growing up, of it not being a burden to me. I just continued doing whatever I thought was needed. I mean, I owned a gay bar, a dance barâ€”actually, at that time, two of them. I still went to court. I still saw people. They didn't ever confront me. A couple of them did confront me because they wanted to come down and dance, to come on down, you know. But they were kind to me.
I think I've only had two instances, since practicing law for 45 years, that I considered to be anti-me, personally. And that was I've never been invited to be a member of one of the Inns of Court programs here in the county, which are groups of lawyers that meet. And I donâ€™t know whether they have social or business meetings, but that's invitation only. I've regretted that. You know, Iâ€™m not going to cry about it. But I have. And the other thing, I only had one person, that I know of, that made a comment in court to a judge and those around him when I left to go to the restroom and said, â€œWell, I'm not going in that restroom while he's in there.â€ Those are the only two times that I felt, did I lose business because I was gay, and I was representing a lot of gay people?
LK: I knew he was a good attorney.
RP: Iâ€™mâ€”thank you.
LK: So (LK and RP speaking at same time; inaudible) going back to childhood, you learned how to survive. My father didnâ€™t like who I was because my father wasâ€”when I was 12 or 13, I was already aware that I may grow up to be a sissy. And he let the neighborhood know that by talking very loud with the windows open. And so, you grow up, you become actively involved in school in whatever way you can do, and you do well, as well as you can do without internalizing that. You donâ€™t know you internalize it.
RP: Yeah. I feel extremely sorry for a lot of kids who didnâ€™t have the foundation to be who they were. They felt that they were always being pushed down and pushed down. And that, I know, happens a lot. And I've represented a lot of kids who've had that problem. And those, some of their issues come out in other areas of their life, that is very destructive. And that is some of the products of the hate that is exhibited in the churches and in the schools and in society in general. I think the young people of today are coming, or are growing up, without that.
LK: And yet there are people that are being thrown out of their houses for being gay and being on the streets. Itâ€™s still happening.
EW: So how have you seen it change over the decades?
RP: I would have never put a penny on being able to marry Lawrence. When I was practicing law the first few decades, I wouldn't have. In fact, I was one of those people who would have said, â€œDon't push it because they'll have to come back and push back. And listen, we're liable to really lose some of the things that we're getting.â€ So I really honor those people who really stepped out and said, Weâ€™re going to fight for that. One of them was the founder of our church, who is Troy Perry in California. He has been fighting for the right to marry for 40 years. And he fought in California a, uhâ€”they call them propositions, I think, in Californiaâ€”to prohibit gay people from being classroom teachers. And that was on the ballot in California. And he was one of the leading opponents of that proposition. And they were able to defeat that in California. I'm not sure we'd be that successful in Florida, even today, I'm sorry to say. But those people who have gone out and really championed these issues, I take my hat off to them. I guess, in a way, we did some of that ourselves when we started the Florida [Gay and Lesbian] Task Force and went to Tallahassee and pushed those types of things. We have, still, a lot of homophobia among my peers.
LK: Self-imposed homophobia. They don't want toâ€”they won't tell their momma; they won't tell their daddy.
RP: And as I said, young people today growing up, seem to don't [sic] have those same problems.
LK: It's a healthier time.
RP: Now, whether that's because their fathers and mothers aren't teaching them hate, or whether they're not going to the churches that are teaching them hate.
LK: I think they're owning themselves, and theyâ€™re proud of who they are; they don't have all that crap that we had to grow up with and protect ourselves.
RP: Because I love that song from South Pacific that says you got to be taught to hate. And I think it's a truism. And I think, as a Christian, I sometimes have to ask these people, â€œWhat part of Jesusâ€™ is that lesson did that hate come from?â€ Because Jesus's message was totally about love. Period. Nothing else.
EW: So was that, like, when you went to other churches that you learned things, like, you learned hate for yourself or other people? Is that what they taught?
RP: Iâ€™ll tell you, in my experience, I was very fortunate. In Tallahassee, we did not have that kind of sermons. Maybe because Tallahassee is kind of a liberal area, I don't knowâ€”itâ€™s university, you know, there, not only [Florida] A&M [University] but also Florida State [University]. So you have a lot of highly educated people there that probably wouldn't put up with some of that stuff, you know. But I never heard that talk in my church. But I did see it taught in the hierarchy of the Methodist Church, when pastors who performed gay marriages were thrown out of the church because it's against the canons of the Methodist Church. Well, thatâ€™s just such hogwashâ€”
LK: And thatâ€™s just beginning to change.
RP: I mean, it's still the Methodist Church. You canâ€™t be a gay man or woman and be ordained, although there are plenty of gay men and women who are ordained in the Methodist Church. (laughs). Is just such a dichotomy, such hierarchy bull crap.
EW: So, going back to the things you guys were involved in, something that our teacher told us to ask about was the Stonewall riots. Were you guys, likeâ€”whatâ€™s your memory of when that happened?
RP: Iâ€™m sorry.
EW: The Stonewall riots inâ€”
EW: Stonewall riots.
EW: (laughs) The Stonewall riots. Werenâ€™t they in New York, right?
Unidentified Speaker: Um, I think thatâ€™s what she said, yeah.
EW: Like, they wereâ€”it was one of the biggestâ€”
RP: Okay, okay. It didnâ€™t affect us yet, okay. But I can tell you a couple of things that did affect me, particularly because you understand there's such a parallel between civil rights and gay rights. And that's one of the reasons why I can say that I never would have thought we would have the right to marry, because there's the parallel. Since the civil rights issue was so successful, not necessarily in the hearts of a lot of people, but as far as government goes. I remember, in 1947, I attended a exhibition at the Tallahassee railroad station of what they called the Freedom Train. And, after World War II, they took all the major documents in Washington: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, all these majorâ€”I'm talking about the originals. They fitted a beautiful train, and they went all over the country, letting people experience seeing the actual documents that were there.
And I was by myself; I don't know why I was by myself, but I was by myself, and I was standing next to a very handsome, young African-American, who was going to Florida A&M University. I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. And he took meâ€”not by the hand, literally, but almost by the handâ€”and took me through that train, pointing out all these documents and the important of them, with much more experience and historical background than I would have had. It was a memory I never forgotten. It's a memory I've never forgotten. And that's one of the things about the gay rights movement. When we see somebody sitting, shivering, it takes us back to a time of horror in our community. We were going to funerals, not every week, sometimes twice a week, to our friendsâ€™ and our neighborsâ€™ who were dying.
LK: I want to answer that a different way. I think the very fact that they finally got fed up, [said,] Weâ€™re fed up now; we're not going to take this crap anymore; we're going to start fightingâ€”it started a whole different movement. We didn't sit on our butts anymore. We weren't going to be enveloped in fear and bars. We were going to stand up for our rights and fight. And it did; we started fighting. The community started fighting. I wasn't part of that because I was too involved with taking care of us. But our friends, they were out there fighting. They were marching, and they wereâ€”what's their name? Nadene Smith. These things started, and we actively got involved in politics and that kind of stuff. So Stonewall was a buster.
RP: Yeah, Stonewall probably affected us in the Florida Task Force. But I wasn't one who started it; I just was on the original board trough some quirk. I donâ€™t really remember. But they knew I was active around here, so they talk to the people who are active, you know, and pick them.
LK: They also know who to go to for money. And so, they could use his legal mind.
RP: I think one of the things that we, as gay people, seem to forget, is that there is a lot of humanism in our friends and neighbors. Practicing law for 45 years, I represented a lot of gay people charged with a lot of gay crimes, crimes that would be considered to be gay. Out of all those people, I only had to try three of them because the fear that the individuals that I was representing had, if they ever went before a jury, they would think that they'd be put under the jail.
Those three cases, I won all three of them. And the reason I did is because people listen. And the gay part of it that the prosecutor tried to present, meant nothing when it came to the facts that were being presented. That was just a glossary. That was why we're in court because some police officer didn't like.