Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week, she talks with two men who became friends through the gay-rights movement in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s. They discuss what it was like attending protests during a big era for LGBTQ activism, the community of friends they built once they both moved to California, and the importance of continuing to care for the members of their found family as they age.
Fred Hertz, 66, a family lawyer and mediator who lives in Oakland, California
Arthur Morris, 64, a retired health-department official for San Mateo County, who lives in San Francisco
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: You two met in Austin in the late ’70s working in the gay-rights movement together. What led you both to Austin and to activism?
Arthur Morris: I was lost. I had attended multiple universities. I decided that I was going to finish up at the University of Texas. I was floundering for a career as well as [dealing with] this unsatisfied attraction to men. I simply had to do something about that, so I moved to Austin.
I got to Austin, and I lived several blocks from the Gay Community Services office, which was across the street from the University of Texas. I just sort of came screaming out. I became immersed within the lesbian and gay community that was there, and I was grateful for it. That’s when I met Frederick— at one or another of these events at Gay Community Services.
Fred Hertz: I graduated from college from the University of Minnesota in 1975, and my life was kind of falling apart. I’d [ended] a relationship. I was having a lot of emotional crises. On sort of a fluke, I decided to apply to graduate school and got in with a big scholarship to go to the University of Texas, Austin, in philosophy. Within about eight months, I realized I didn’t want to be in graduate school, so I quit. I then took a job at a university library just to make money and immersed myself in local politics.
The thing that was so magical is that Austin, especially then, was kind of a refuge from the rest of Texas. So every liberal, Jewish, gay, dope-smoking, unconventional butch lesbian from the rest of the South seemed to all come to Austin. There was a sense that doing social and political work there really mattered because you might be the only one showing up. So I got very involved with the gay community there.
My favorite thing we did was we picketed the local newspaper. They wouldn’t allow you to say “gay-only roommate” [in a classified ad] but they would allow employers to say, “No fags can apply.” So we protested. And they got their revenge by taking close-up photos of all of us and putting us with our names on the front page of the paper as self-avowed homosexuals, thinking somehow our lives were going to be ruined. The only thing that happened is I did get a delivery of a Bible on my front door with all the appropriate lines from Leviticus highlighted.
I decided to volunteer at Gay Community Services. There was a hotline where anybody could call in and talk about being scared about being gay. Arthur and I met answering calls.
Beck: Did either of you have a gay community growing up before you moved to Austin, or was this the first time that you found a wider group of LGBTQ friends?
Arthur: This is probably the first time that I ever had that. My high-school class in San Antonio had a cluster of us who were friends, but I didn’t know that they were all fags.
Fred: I never went to a gay bar or a gay community event or anything until I moved to Texas, because I was living my life. I had a boyfriend, but I was not at all politically active. I really only got into the community scene in Austin.
Beck: What were your first impressions of each other?
Fred: Arthur and I never had a romantic relationship, just so you know, at least not that I recall. I remember Arthur as being, compared to how I saw myself, kind of square. I was more of a dope smoker. My boyfriend then was a Buddhist. I was sort of more on the fringes, and you seemed excited to be gay, but otherwise much more mainstream. I always liked you, but I always thought you were more of the conventional one. At least at that stage of my life, I was more unconventional, probably just because I was from the North.
Arthur: I think that’s true. That’s probably part of the excess baggage that I moved with to Austin, being much more uncertain of myself. I think you had a much higher self-confidence level.
Fred: I thought being gay was so cool. One of the things I loved most about being gay was it got me out of the suburban life. I wanted to grow up and be Allen Ginsberg, you know?
Arthur: But you actually knew who Allen Ginsberg was.
Beck: And you did not?
Arthur: I did not. I was really naive.
If Julie will forgive such coarse language—I do remember sleeping with Fred, but it was after we moved to San Francisco. And it must have been better for me than it was for him.
Beck: That wasn’t coarse.
Fred: It’s coming back [to me].
Beck: So how did you become friends outside of the volunteer hotline?
Arthur: We would see each other on campus. There was dancing that would happen at the Pearl Street Warehouse. I was doing more electoral stuff. There was the work with the city council, and then there was creating the Austin Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus, which was trying to deal with building coalitions with other communities.
Fred: I didn’t do any mainstream politics. I would show up at demonstrations, which is where we intersected more. We did these lobbying days at the state capitol. Is that something I did with you?
Arthur: I think so.
Fred: I would say the highlight of my gay social life in Austin, Texas, was going with a group of men to Enchanted Rock, which is this huge granite rock formation, taking LSD, and staying up all night under the guidance of this guru slash shaman. I can’t remember his name. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t think Arthur would have done.
Arthur: While Fred was doing that, I would do things like go with a group of people to San Antonio on the gay-pride day and do a march on the Alamo. We pissed off the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. They did not view us as equal Texans.
Beck: You mentioned in our email exchange that the biggest protest you participated in together was against Anita Bryant. Can you explain what her deal was, what sparked that protest, and your role in it?
Arthur: Anita Bryant, at the time, was a burned-out beauty-contest contestant.
Fred: Wasn’t she Miss America? [Editor’s note: She was a runner-up.]
Arthur: Her career was floundering. It was on a sandbar in the middle of a river, and she ginned up [that it was a] threat to America’s schoolchildren to have gay men in teaching positions. I think she could not conceive of lesbians, and so she didn’t seem to have the same animosity towards them. She put together an organization called Save Our Children, trying to bar gay men from teaching in Florida. People at that time would do rallies in other states just to be supportive of the community that was being attacked.
Fred: She came to Austin, and we had a protest that was on a Sunday morning. There were these hundreds and hundreds of people driving to the Austin conference center, and we stood out there with our posters confronting the Christians driving in and out of the parking lot. It was great fun. My favorite sign, it really says [something] of the time. It said Two, four, six, eight, we don’t overpopulate. We were proud of the fact that we didn’t overpopulate. It was just a great day.
Beck: What do you feel like the role of friendship is in a big activist movement? How do your relationships with each other affect the work that you do and vice versa?
Arthur: There is a kind of trust that is given. If I’m going to be involved in something, it’s nice to know people that I trust that are involved as well. Frederick has good judgment, and if he asked me to do something, I would not start off skeptical.
Fred: I have a strong sense of public engagement as something that is our moral duty, our social duty, but also is really fun. Many of my friends are people who are politically active. I like having friends who are involved in this way because it’s my way of connecting.
The other piece of it is: I’m not so serious politically that I can do stuff without there being a social component. Having friends where you share this political commitment and understanding, and you also stay connected in your personal lives—to me, that’s a friendship that has legs, or extensions into the larger world.
Beck: When did you move to San Francisco?
Fred: I moved in August of ’78.
Arthur: I moved in January of ’79.
Fred: Within six months of each other.
Arthur: Is that true, Fred?
Fred: Yeah, because you saw the demonstrations after Harvey Milk was killed in November ’78, and I remember you came, and maybe you stayed with me. You said you wanted to move to San Francisco because you were so moved by those demonstrations, which I thought was a slightly wacky reason to move cross-country.
Arthur: Well, I had $175 in my pocket. I don’t know why I couldn’t up and move.
Beck: Did your friendship change when you were in this new city together? Were you both still active in the gay-rights movement?
Fred: I came to law school at Berkeley. I was involved at my law school in gay legal issues. In the first couple of months, I was involved in stopping the campaign to ban gay men as schoolteachers. Then Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were killed.
Arthur: Frederick was very positive and supportive of me when I moved to California because I would sometimes get lost emotionally. I didn’t know that many people well, and he was somebody from a previous life. He offered me advice from time to time. Fred also introduced me to people. He had some entrée into people who were in graduate school in the East Bay. You introduced me to these people who became important in my life forever.
Fred: One of the things I really love is loyalty and interconnectedness of friends where we have a shared life together. So even if years go by, we’re still close and we’re connected. This network, we became sort of family-like, with complications, and that cemented our friendship. There were seasons to the friendship, but there was a kind of cohesion that was more than just two individuals.
Arthur: It was both a cohesion and a kind of continuity. A really good example is one of the people that was involved with that group is now a good deal older and she had some maladies. Frederick had the insight to say, “This is our obligation. We have to go help her.”
Fred: And then I assigned it to you.
Arthur: But when she was feeling low, you helped set up visiting and assured people they had to do it. That’s some of the manifestation of the values that you talked about.
Beck: Have there been any major milestones in your lives where the friendship was particularly important to you?
Fred: Arthur got married. And I celebrated my graduation from law school by taking a half-dozen of our friends up to Mendocino, and we all got poison oak, remember? There’s a picture that was taken in what turned out to be a bed of poison oak.
Arthur: We were staying at the Fools Rush Inn, so it’s perfect.
Fred: The low point in our friendship is when Arthur got involved with a guy who had an intense grudge against my boyfriend, who had dumped [Arthur’s boyfriend’s] best friend. We would have holidays together, we would have birthday parties together, and it was just nasty. Arthur and I were friends, and our partners just hated each other.
Another one of our mutual friends so hated going home for Christmas that a group of us decided we would have a Christmas dinner in Oakland so he wouldn’t have to go home. This became an annual ritual that extended at some point to like 20 different people. That was an annual family gathering of this extended tribe of mutual friends.
Beck: Do you guys still do that for Christmas?
Fred: No. Like every family, we started having so many rifts and conflicts that people started saying, “I won’t go if he’s there.”
I don’t know if you agree with this, Arthur, but you are the most easygoing of my friends. I don’t remember you ever having an emotional meltdown or a personal crisis. You probably keep those things private. But when things have been really difficult with some of our mutual friends—we have two friends who are really challenged medically and emotionally—I always know I can call Arthur, and he’ll just listen, and say, “How can I help?” Arthur’s a very loyal, caring friend. When I hang out with my 96-year-old mother who’s still on the phone with her college-age friends talking about their dying friend, I expect Arthur 20 years from now will be doing the same.
I wanted to say something we haven’t mentioned—we both lost a lot of friends to AIDS. There was a lot of caretaking around friends with AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s. Arthur, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this to you, but I still have my 1988 address book, and there’s a lot of people missing from it. Having friends who have survived the AIDS crisis is something. Looking for people who have friends from the gay-rights movement, one of the reasons they would be hard to find is so many have died.
Arthur: I think that’s important to carry. It’s a little sobering to be reminded of, but it’s important.
Beck: It strikes me that you guys have seen a very significant era in the fight for LGBTQ rights unfolding over the course of your lives and your friendship. Over the course of this conversation, you’ve talked about connecting in the beginning over this less personal community of care with the hotline and with activism. And then later in life, not getting rid of the big circle, but moving to care for that smaller circle of friends.
Fred: You’re absolutely right. The role of long-term friends is not to save the world but to take care of each other.
Arthur: I think we know that none of us survive by virtue of being pure. We survive by dumb luck.
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.