The Reverend Canon Malcolm Boyd…author of thirty books and one of the true elders of our community, had many different lives in his 85 years. Working in Hollywood in partnership with the legendary Mary Pickford, he became the first president of the National Association of Television Producing Executives and he left all that glamour and gold to become a priest.
From Hollywood, he marched to Selma with Martin Luther King, gave poetry readings with Dick Gregory at the hungry I in San Francisco, and put it all on the line when he came out as a Gay man. He lived in Los Angeles where he was the Writer in Residence for the Los Angeles Episcopal Archdiocese, and became a regular contributor, along with his late husband, Mark Thompson, to White Crane.
To celebrate Malcolm’s 85th birthday, White Crane Books published out A Prophet in His Own Land: The Malcolm Boyd Reader, a collection of the more than 50 years of writing from this wonderfully wise, kind, and deeply intelligent man. We asked him to think about the idea of “elder”. This is what he wrote:
As an Elder, I remember what it was like to be a Gay kid in the 1920s and 30s and 40s. Because I knew my being “different” was not only objectionable but also unallowable, survival came into place. I never had a childhood because, from the very beginning, surviving meant playing a calculated role, never being open to attack, never letting down my guard, and trusting no one. Required was an acceptable public role played to perfection.
High school meant being — not Gay at all — but a homosexual youth in a totally closeted culture. I ran with three other boys. We were outsiders, different, out of the mainstream. Also three of us, I realize now, were Gay. The fourth, quite outwardly effeminate, was the only non-Gay. We didn’t date girls or even think of it. Albert, one of the three Gays including me, was quite mad in his behavior, a kind of young Orson Welles in manner, very gifted and creative. One night in the bedroom of his parents’ home he placed a pistol in his mouth, pulled the trigger, and blew his head off. John — quiet, reflective with a lively sense of humor, shy, a sweetheart — later died in World War II. There was never anyone to ask questions about being Gay. The subject, in the first place, was forbidden — so there could be no counselor at school or church, no family member. TV wasn’t around yet, but there was no mention of “us” on the radio or in the press. The only exception was an occasional, ugly scandal.
In college one night, a group of students, including myself, was at a drive-in for a hamburger. We heard an uproar in the men’s room. We were told some guys had a queer, a faggot, in there and were making him go down on them with blow jobs or else they’d beat him to a pulp. Everybody was laughing: weren’t queers really lepers anyway? I remember this struck me as so sad, so unmanageable, so hopeless. Where and how could I find myself in this puzzle?
To try and walk on a bridge between this and any vision of a Gay community seemed absurd, an utter fantasy. Yet I found the strangest subliminal connections. For example, reading Richard Halliburton’s travel stories in the public library gave me a boner. It wasn’t until decades later I learned Halliburton was a Gay man. I was reacting to, and awakened by, a Gay writer. At another time when I was very young I fell in love with the paintings of Rosa Bonheur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I said she was one of my favorites. Years later I found out she was a Lesbian.
In my youth I can remember a few individuals who, like tribal elders, reached out sensitively to me. They were kind and perceptive. I was then a highly nervous, energetic, creative, overly imaginative youth who was obviously on the wrong planet. They brought some laughter, beauty and creativity into my life — and glimmerings of acceptance that gradually led to self-acceptance.
I had an older cousin who was so breathtakingly handsome it took my breath away. He was also sensitive and intimate and relaxed about himself. I looked forward to gradually letting myself go with him, trusting and surrendering my body armor. But, tragically, he died in a motorcycle accident. It broke my heart.
Gin — sophisticated, beautiful, sure of herself — was a Lesbian graduate student in medicine. She had a theatrical, cigarette voice, drove a red convertible, went to bars, had black friends, and said clever things that were quoted. She became my friend for a while. I was so scared, so alone, so unattractive in high school. Gin wasn’t ashamed to be seen with me. When I visited her at home she wore pants and her shirttail out. She had lots of records. I played “The Man I Love.” I didn’t know then — would it ever be ok to express my sexuality without holding my breath or looking around for the vice squad? Could I ever love a man in the unguarded way I desperately longed to do? Could I ever be myself in a world that seemed to hate people like me?
Yes. I found out I could. A few tribal elders, and other people who cared, made all the difference in my education. I think we need always to keep lines of communication open between generations. Our need is a mutual one. Elders often have wisdom and maturity to offer, yet can so easily become trapped in inflexibility, frustration, anger, solitariness and regret. A true Gay community is inclusive of its elders — and its youth — and everyone else. Rip Van Winkle, if he were a Gay man transported into the midst of Gay life now from some ancient time, would no doubt be utterly astonished — and then delighted, and have a good time. It would truly be Oz for him and he could find wonderful companions walking along the Yellow Brick Road.