'I Felt Like I Grew Up as a Criminal': An 83-Year-Old Gay Man Looks Back

Jimmy Arrowsmith has witnessed the evolution of attitudes toward the LGBT community for nearly a century.

Noah Berger/AP Images

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court made two decisions that constituted major victories for the gay rights movement. In my neighborhood in Uptown San Diego, rainbow flags are a permanent fixture; but between June being Pride month, and the celebratory mood after the SCOTUS decisions, the area was positively festooned.

I sat on my friend Jimmy Arrowsmith's patio and talked with him about the new developments in gay rights, and about his experience as an 83-year-old gay man who has witnessed the evolution of attitudes toward the LGBT community for nearly a century.

I asked him if the SCOTUS decisions would affect him in any way, and how his life might have been different had same-sex marriage been an option when he was growing up. Although he's ecstatic about the progress that he's witnessed in the last decade or so, and he's generally one of the most positive people I know, he's a bit wistful about the past. "I felt like I grew up as a criminal," he said.

Jimmy was born in central Kansas in 1930, into a family of Southern Baptists. His dad was a roustabout in the oil fields, and his mom was a homemaker. They followed the oil rigs around Kansas, and Jimmy never stayed in one town long enough to finish the school year. Shortly after his father died when Jimmy was 14, Jimmy quit school and went to work delivering dry-cleaning to support his family. His mother got remarried shortly thereafter, to a man who treated Jimmy like a servant, and charged him for room and board. Jimmy realized that it would be cheaper to move into the YMCA; so, after completing, for the last time, his Friday chore of washing and polishing his stepfather's car--this time "polishing" it with sandpaper--he packed up and moved across town.

Jimmy had known that he was attracted to boys since he was six or seven years old. But he didn't know what it meant, or that there were other people who felt the same way. His earliest memory of a gay man was a character who hung out at the local poolhall, an outcast among grownups and bogeyman to the local kids, rumored to have physical deformities such as female genitalia in his throat. The kids were warned to never allow themselves to be alone with this "evil man" who would certainly do unspeakable things to them given the chance. Jimmy remembers thinking, "I'm like him."

And yet, there were physical encounters with other boys--kids who would grow up to be husbands and fathers, pillars of the community. So Jimmy started to realize that he wasn't alone.

He also realized that if he were to ever be happy, he needed to get out of Hutchinson, Kansas. After a year of living at the YMCA, he spent a summer in California where he stayed with an aunt and uncle and worked at a produce market. The living arrangements were far from perfect: his aunt and uncle had never had children, and complained about how much food sixteen-year-old Jimmy ate. He would hide a loaf of bread from his store in the hedge outside the house, and eat sandwiches in the middle of the night to avoid their censure.

An older man that Jimmy worked with took him under his wing, and offered to let Jimmy stay with him in his small apartment so he could get away from his aunt and uncle. The man was kind, generous, and gay; and Jimmy describes this time as a "great experience." But when summer was over, Jimmy either had to go to school, or get a work permit. Because his aunt and uncle weren't his legal guardians, they couldn't sign the work permit, and Jimmy couldn't afford to stay in California without a job. So he returned to Kansas.

Jimmy stayed in Kansas until he turned 18, at which point he joined the Navy. His stepbrother had served in the Navy in World War II, and had gotten Jimmy interested in the service. Mostly, Jimmy just wanted to get away. "I just wanted to be anywhere where I could be more comfortable," he said. "There, I felt like I was walking a tightrope. If I made a move, I would be tarred and feathered."

Jimmy went to boot camp in San Diego in 1948, and then spent most of the next four years on a ship in the Far East. His primary MO was as a sea-plane tender, but he also worked in the food service.

He recalls one sailor aboard the ship, "Joe", whom he describes as "the most out guy I've ever known."

"Well, after a month or two on the cruise," Jimmy told me, "I don't care who it was--married guys with five kids, whoever--they would come around looking for" him. Joe and the other sailors would sneak into the storage area where they kept the potatoes, and Jimmy would lock them in and stand watch. "He would give me five dollars to use the locker for fifteen minutes," he said. He "was getting paid. I mean, he was a prostitute."

At one point, Jimmy's ship transported a prisoner back to the States to face a court-martial: an American serviceman who had been busted for homosexual activity. The prisoner was always in the company of two guards, and he ate by himself off of a special tray that had to be sterilized between uses as the other sailors taunted him.

"Here were all these guys calling him queer and making fun of him, and some of them were the same guys who had been hanging around with " Joe, Jimmy said. "I just didn't get it."

During this time, Jimmy was trying to make himself straight, which is understandable since his very few examples of gay men included the poolhall pariah, the ship's prostitute, and the sex criminal. He figured it would be easier to be "like everybody else." But aboard the ship, he found himself having flirtations and dalliances with other sailors. He describes a tryst with a shipmate from Florida : "There was a 40 mm gun on the deck, and nobody would go up there at night. We would sneak up there and have a...session...behind the gun's bulwark. Just...terrified the whole time, listening for those footsteps coming near us."

After he got out of the Navy, Jimmy hardly spent any time as a civilian before he signed up for the Air Force. He was stationed in Japan, where he continued to try and pass as straight by having two consecutive live-in relationships with Japanese women.

When he got out of the military for good, Jimmy moved to Southern California, as did some of his family members. Through a brother-in-law who turned out to be bisexual ("His four sons had dozens of 'uncles' hanging around over the years," Jimmy said), he learned of a gay bar in Long Beach. In fact, the brother-in-law drove him there the first time, introduced him to another man, and left Jimmy to find his own way home. Jimmy went home with his new friend. "Here I was, with my Southern Baptist upbringing, still thinking about this idyllic future with a white picket fence," he said, "but on my first day out...I'm a slut." He laughed and shook his head.

Despite Jimmy having played a straight man convincingly enough while in the Air Force, his sexuality was a well-known secret to his family. Although he never officially "came out" to his family, by the time he was in his late 20s, they stopped asking when he was going to get married, and simply never spoke of his romantic life again.

The bar became Jimmy's regular Friday night hangout. He was working as a draftsman in East L.A. and studying commercial art at Cerritos College. "On Fridays," he told me, "I would have enough money left over for one beer. I would go to the bar and nurse that beer all night, until it was body temperature from being in my hand so long; and I would hope that somebody would come along and buy me another one."

He got to know the owner of the bar and her son, Don. In 1960, Jimmy and Don started a relationship that would last until Don's death in 1990. They lived in an apartment above a vacant restaurant that Don's mother was planning to convert into the new iteration of her bar. One night, Jimmy and Don were in bed, after having eaten at a booth in the empty restaurant below their apartment, and sat on the roof to look at the city lights.

"Out of nowhere," Jimmy said, "Wham! The front door just burst in and was flattened on the floor. One cop came in through the front door, and another one came in through a window. They threw me against the dresser and handcuffed me, and they took us to jail on suspicion of selling drugs." Jimmy figures that the real reason they were arrested was because Don, who was both out and outspoken, had been to City Hall that day to apply for a license for the new business, and was "mouthing off about this gay bar." Don had managed to call his mom before they were dragged out of the apartment ("She was pretty hep" to situations involving police harassment, Jimmy said), and she bailed them out before they had to spend the whole night cowering in the jail cell while being harassed by the other inmates. The guards had thrown Jimmy and Don into the tank, saying, "Here you go, fellas...here's some queer boys to satisfy you."

When I asked Jimmy if he thinks he and Don would have gotten married if it were an option all those years ago, he got quiet for a moment. "Well...maybe," he said. "But it would have been a mistake." I was surprised at his answer. "Oh, yeah," he said, "he was an asshole."

Jimmy and Don were together for 30 years, but they were only romantically involved for the first five years. After that, they were friends and business partners in a very successful interior design firm, and beneficiaries in each other's wills. When Don was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in 1989, Jimmy made all of the medical decisions, and took care of Don during the end of his life. But over the years, they both had other lovers and partners, of varying durations and levels of seriousness.

They had a good life together, running their business, buying and selling investment properties, and moving around between Northern and Southern California, always close to or within a thriving gay community where they would be insulated from the prejudice of the general population. It wasn't the "white picket fence" lifestyle that Jimmy had longed for, but it was pleasant and prosperous.

I rephrased my earlier question. "Do you think you would you have married anyone, if it had been an option?" I asked him.

Jimmy told me that he would have gotten married if it had been an option and if the right guy had come along. But the men he became involved with weren't as into monogamy as Jimmy was, and being unfaithful was a dealbreaker for him. "It seems like, in retrospect, the lack of legal marriage for gay people really discouraged long one-on-one relationships," he said. "It was like there was no reason to be monogamous because there was no social or economic incentive to do so."

The night before Prop 8 passed in California, my wife and I were with Jimmy and a bunch of other friends at a rally in the heart of Hillcrest. Mayor Jerry Sanders and his daughter, who is a lesbian, gave gut-wrenching speeches about Sanders' decision to stand up against the anti-gay ballot measure, bathed in the light of candles held by thousands of supporters. Jimmy thought this outpouring was part of a turning point in acceptance for LGBT people, and that there was no way the "H8ers" would win. We all did. But of course, the next day, we found out that the path of progress was not going to be as smooth as everyone at the rally had hoped.

At age 83, Jimmy is active, sharp as a knife, and usually in the company of his many close friends. He moved into a new house recently, as he does every few years, and is in the latter stages of remodeling it. He's not as hands-on as he once was (I installed his new doors last week, something he would have done himself until recently), but he is on top of every detail. He says that, while he doesn't plan on getting married anytime soon, the SCOTUS rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 are meaningful to him in that they indicate that sexuality is becoming less of an issue. His friends these days are more diverse than ever. He talks about the group he belongs to in which they take turns hosting dinner parties--gay, straight, couples, singles, younger, older, it doesn't matter. And he's happy for the next generation of kids of all orientations: "The young people just don't seem to care who you are attracted to, which is great," he said. "Young people today can be themselves, and be attracted to whoever they want, and hopefully they can marry whoever they want."