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Stories from 1980s about city’s ‘invisible minority’ show progress made in LGBTQ rights

Last August, I received an email at the Jewish Light from Emily Deason. She wondered if I was the same Ellen Futterman who in the 1980s had written about her late uncle, Larry Deason, for the Post-Dispatch.

Turns out I am.

Larry died in 1985 at the age of 34 from AIDS. I had chronicled the last seven months of his 21-month battle with the disease, which back then was claiming record numbers of gay men. 

Emily said that she never knew her Uncle Larry, who was her father’s brother. “Like Larry, I left St. Louis and moved to New York City where I’ve been for about 3 years now,” Emily explained, “and I have been told Larry and I are one in the same thanks to our love of the city, music and pop culture.”

Larry had left North County for New York when he was 19 years old because he thought it would be easier to be a young gay man there. For a long time it was, until that February day in 1984 when he went to the doctor to get a purple spot on his groin, the size of a dime, looked at. 

The spot, doctors explained after doing a biopsy, was Karposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer that was striking gay men like Larry, who was later diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Eventually, Larry moved back to St. Louis so that family members could care for him as he grew weaker and weaker from various treatments, including chemotherapy.

Emily sent me the email after her dad visited her in New York and told her of the stories I wrote about Larry. She was able to find them online. 

“It’s really wonderful to finally learn more details about that time and read his own words,” Emily said.

When I started at the Post-Dispatch in 1982, the AIDS epidemic was just being written about in mainstream American newspapers, mostly on the East and West coasts, with the first cases reported in June 1981. The Post’s reporting on the topic began around 1983, and it was mostly medical in nature, quoting health officials saying it was unlikely to “get AIDS” through blood transfusions, and providing tips to minimize the risk of contracting the disease, which was pretty much a death sentence back then.

What wasn’t being written about were the people who already had full-blown AIDS, or were HIV positive, the overwhelming majority of which, at the time, were gay men. I remember making the case to my editors that to fully understand the disease and its repercussions, we needed to get to know the people most affected and tell their stories. In other words, our readers needed to know about the St. Louis gay community.

It was not an easy sell, but after some coaxing I got time to work on these stories. I had cultivated several sources, and at night they would take me to one of the handful of gay bars in the city, all of which were well hidden. Back then, these bars were the prime place for the LGBTQ to meet and socialize, though at that time, the acronym didn’t even exist.

“The Invisible Minority: Gays in St. Louis,” a three-part series, eventually ran in the Post-Dispatch in June 1985. I say eventually because the Post was reluctant to run the series at all; it went through multiple editors and copy editors (see — I really am going back in time!) with nearly every word analyzed and debated. Perhaps the biggest challenge was convincing editors that the term “gay” was preferable to “homosexual,” which the editors kept insisting I use.

Thanks to newspapers.com, I recently revisited the series and couldn’t believe it was ever “groundbreaking.” Yet few of the more than 50 people I interviewed allowed me to use their real names. Many told heartbreaking “coming out” stories of being thrown out of their homes, or sent to conversion therapy. 

When I interviewed sex therapist William Masters of the renowned Masters & Johnson Institute, he said, “If a homosexual is interested in changing his sexual preference we will help them, but we have to really be convinced they want to change before we accept them.” 

A professor of psychology at St. Louis University told me he used a four-stage behavior modification to change “homosexuals.” This included having clients hold their breath until pictures of members of the same sex were no longer attractive to them.

“I do not see homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle,” the professor said. “I see it as something you have to settle for because you got a bad break. You can do something about it but you have to elect to.”

Last week I asked a few friends to join me at Sunday’s Pride festivities. They said they were boycotting the parade because of the decision to allow uniformed police officers to march in it. These friends objected to what they say is continued police brutality targeting the transgender community, citing that the parade’s grand marshal — the Metro Trans Umbrella Group — had also pulled out. 

Certainly everyone is entitled to his or her feelings and beliefs. And certainly there is still a long way to go in terms of changing public perception and securing equal rights for all in the LGBTQ community.

But rereading the series I wrote more than three decades ago, and watching numerous TV accounts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I felt some celebrating was in order. Yes we have a ways to go, but yes, we have made much progress, too. 

That’s when I thought back to the email from Emily about her courageous uncle. When Larry Deason agreed to let me detail his journey with AIDS in 1985, he insisted I use his full name. He was one of only a few back then who chose not to be anonymous.

“If you are going to write my story,” he said, “I want my name attached to it.”

Emily seemed to appreciate that. “My assumptions might be incorrect, but I can’t imagine writing a profile on a gay man with AIDS for a Missouri publication in the ‘80s was the easiest thing to do, especially since (it) seemed to come from a place of understanding and empathy,” she said.

“And even today, understanding and empathy is something our country is sorely lacking, especially in situations revolving around social issues and personal identity. The articles (about my uncle) also gave me a sense of connection with this guy I never knew but have been told I am similar to, which is a feeling I can’t really put into words.” 

I attended Larry’s funeral and still remember, all these years later, his lifeless body resting in an open casket. I wept that day and again on Sunday as I remembered the paradox of his emaciated face hiding one of the strongest souls I’d ever known. 

Contact Ellen Futterman at efutterman@thejewishlight.com or 314-743-3669.