Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Still Marching For Freedom

Rupert Starr has done many dangerous things in his eight-six years.

He fought the Nazis in World War II. He spent four months as a prisoner of war in Poland. But in 1990, he stood in the bushes watching a Pride Parade, in fear of being spotted, and outed.

Don't ask, don't tell.

But this year Rupert Starr won't be behind a bush; he won't hide from people who might see him watching the parade as it passes by. This year he will be the Grand Marshall and keynote speaker of the Columbus Gay Pride Parade--what's considered the largest gay-pride celebration in the Midwest.

You see, it's really only been recently that Twink, as he's known to friends, felt comfortable enough to be open and out and proud. And to talk about his experiences in the military as a gay man; and to condemn Don't Ask, Don't Tell. So the organizers of the festival--the theme is "Freedom"--decided to honor Rupert 'Twink' Starr for his activism.

In 1951, Starr was twenty-eight, had a girlfriend of many years, but knew he was different. He sought out the help of a psychologist who helped him see why he could never marry his girlfriend and helped him understand his feelings for men.

But it was the 1950s, and gay life was very underground, very out of sight, out of mind. And then Rupert found a book, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, which helped him understand that he was not alone. And yet he still kept his secret to himself.

Don't ask, don't tell.

"I wanted people to think of me as the president of my company and my church," he said. "I didn't want to be different. . . . I didn't want to be a second-class citizen."

In private, away from business colleagues and members of his church, Rupert Starr began living with interior designer Allan Wingfield, whom he met in 1954 at a bar near Ohio State University. While some of their gay friends and colleagues in denial had married women; the Rupert and Allan continued a relationship until Wingfield's death in 2007.
Fifty-three years of silence.

Don't ask, don't tell.

Most people who knew Rupert and Allan simply believed they were nothing more than roommates, platonic roommates. Even Rupert Starr's two brothers were surprised to learn of their younger sibling's sexual orientation. It was only after Allan Wingfield passed away that Rupert decided to test the waters of living his life as an openly gay man.

Yet even some longtime friends, many of whom knew, were never told. Loan Crane, a friend for five decades says, "I never knew whether he'd come out with it or not," Crane, 84, said this week. "There are just some things you don't discuss."

Don't ask, don't tell.

But something happened to Rupert Starr, standing behind those trees and bushes, watching that Pride parade in 1990. Something happened to make him step out, to come forward. To discuss his life, his long life as a gay man. It was the new government policy regarding gays in the military; it was the idea that you could serve, in silence only. Rupert had spent fifty years in silence and he knew all too well how hard that was, how unfair, how unjust.

Rupert Starr decided to talk.

He joined the Log Cabin Republicans club in 2001, and began discussing the military's policy, Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Rupert was so angered by the policy that, after meeting documentarian Patrick Sammon in 2004, he found himself as the Log Cabin unofficial spokesman regarding DADT.

Rupert Starr: "It's important to shoot straight, not be straight."

So, Rupert's had quite the journey, from college in Ohio, and living a life of shame, to fighting in a world war and surviving the indignities of being held prisoner. Now, Rupert marches in a different kind of formation. Now, he'll have American flags and rainbow flags, and he won't be standing on the sidelines, behind a bush, hoping not to be seen. He'll be up front and center this year, the 65th anniversary of his captivity.

Since the war, Rupert Starr he has traveled all over the world, but just recently came back from a visit to Poznan, Poland, the area surrounding his former prison camp:

"To be able to say, 'I made it; I'm a man' -- that gave me courage.
That courage evolved into me living my life the way I was born
and facing my sexuality.
I felt if I could do it in battle, I could do it in my private life."


Ultra Dave said...

A sad and amazing life! Now he can finally live it.

DuPree said...

Thank you for telling this story, Bob.

I have a godfather who is 70 and still in the closet - he lives alone but for frequent travels with his 'friend' Tom. He lives with his mother until a few years ago when she passed.

My heart breaks when I compare the freedoms of today with the stigma our forebears carried - and continue to carry.

This is a story of coming out on top. No pun intended. (okay - maybe a little)