Clay Chandler- Falling Out of the Closet in the 80's
Clay (he/him/his) has been with his spouse Danny (he/him/his) for 30 years as of today April 11th! They were legally married October 22nd, 2014 the same week the law changed in North Carolina. They live in Durham in the loviest of houses with their cat Christopher. They are an absolute delight and it was my sincere pleasure to meet with them and hear their story.
How do you and your spouse identify?
We’re just two old queer men who use the term Gay to describe ourselves and our relationship.
For my generation, Queer and Faggot were the worst insults to be called. I think it’s funny how later generations are now using them a positive way.
When did you realize your identity?
I knew when I was 14 years old that I was attracted to men, but I was a good Southern Baptist. I knew I would never act on it. I ended up dating conservative girls who were safe places, which basically meant that I didn’t have to deal with things yet. It wasn’t until my best friend started working at a gay bar on 42nd Street that I started to process through things. Until one night I went home with a boy. It was all over after that. I knew I, for sure, liked boys.
What was it like “coming out of the closet” in the 80’s?
Well, I actually say that I fell out of the closet. Coming out in the 80’s was not the easiest thing. I was almost 22 years old. It was 1982. I had watched my friends lose jobs or become disinherited by their parents.
How did you parents respond when you came out?
My father told me he knew before I did. It would have been nice if he told me!
My mom though, she was ok with it, but she was troubled. She knew the dangers of coming out in those days. She had actually gone to school with a boy who was arrested in 1948 for being gay. He was 21 years old and dating a 19 year old boy. When the younger boy’s parents found out they brought charges against my mom’s classmate. He served a 23-month sentence.
Was this around the time of “The Crime Against Nature” Law?
Yes. Right now, actually there is still the “Crime Against Nature” Law in the North Carolina legal system. It doesn't get a whole lot of press or action anymore but it’s still there. When Danny and I started to go to gay clubs they were still be raided. My mom was terrified that I was going to get arrested.
What happened during raids?
They would try to catch people in a bar making out and then they would arrest everyone. If you were a school teacher, or a banker, or anything public, you would be ruined.
I remember a raid in the mid 90’s. Three North Carolina teachers were arrested. The police didn’t have to prove anything. They were toast as soon as the News Stories covered them.
It’s a good reminder that things have come a long way. Now young gay people mix with straight people at clubs and it’s not a big deal. Everyone just accepts one another.
Did you attend Pride Parades back then?
I didn’t go in the beginning. A lot of mainstream people didn’t go at first either. When they first started, they were just parties and I was at a visible job in Durham. I actually went to my first one in 2004. I went with Watts St. Baptist Church actually.
What advice do you have for dealing with hate speech?
1. God actually does love you. There is nothing that Jesus has ever said that supports hate speech. No matter what is spewed out to you, there is nothing that Jesus Christ affirms that supports any form of hate speech. God has created you just as you are.
2. Each person has their own beauty. You have to look deep inside to discover that beauty. Once you find that and let it shine you’ll be ok with what other people are telling you.
Did you ever experience discrimination?
I never really felt that anyone discriminated against me until I joined the workforce. Then I was passed up again and again for promotions. My supervisor was narrow-minded and he knew that Danny and I were living together. For a while, I kept training people who would come in and get promotions before I did, until he was finally pressured into giving me a promotion.
Can you talk to me about the AIDS crisis?
Before I met Danny, I was dating this beautiful man. When Danny and I started to date, I got a phone call from my ex saying that he was HIV positive. At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant. It was in the early 80s. When I told my mom that my ex was HIV positive I had to ask her if I should go to our family doctor or go where people wouldn't know me. We lived in a small town. Our doctors’ nurse went to church with us. Reputations were everything. People wouldn’t even welcome you into their houses if you were positive. My mom didn’t care. She told me to go to our doctor. When I took the test, the nurse didn’t even know what vial to use. She had to stop and ask someone. I didn’t know what was going on for 8 weeks. That’s how long it took. When my test came back, it was negative.
My ex-boyfriend died in 1995. He lived for a reasonable amount of time with what they could do. We knew a lot of people who had AIDS. I remember one night I got really depressed. I was sitting at the bar thinking about how many of the men Danny and I knew had died from AIDS. Now, you can live 30 years out. Things have changed.
How did you and Danny meet?
It was actually at a gay bar. My friend had just passed the North Carolina Bar Exam and he wanted to go out and celebrate. I was reluctant. I was in a phase of not wanting to date. I kept falling for pretty boys who cheated on me and what not. But I agreed to go. I actually spilled my drink on Danny. Someone bumped into my arm and it spilled all over Danny. He didn’t even look up before replying, “Well you’re just as original as hell, aren’t you.” I responded, “Hi Honey, what's your name? If you look up and let me properly apologize I’ll show you just how original I am!” The first time I met him, I knew he was special. That was April 11th, 30 years ago.
What was the legal process like, being partners but not spouses?
We moved in with each other in 1992. We had known partners who lost everything when one of them would pass away. There was not legal protection back then. If your partner died, everything you both owned went back to their family. So before Danny and I moved in we met with an attorney to make sure we were legally protected.
Why did you and Danny decide to get married?
It was Danny’s idea. Once the law changed he thought it would be cool if we could legally be married. Within the same week that the law changed in NC we got our license. We were afraid they were going to repeal it, we wanted to beat them to it. When we went they hadn’t even had a chance to change the paperwork. The women behind the counter laughed and told me to cross off the line that said, “female” and write my name in. I told them, “With all the drag I've done, this works out fine!” It was lovely. We ended up being the first gay couple married at our church.
Talk to me about drag.
I really enjoy drag. I have a bit of dramatic flair. Theater has always been a part of my life. Well, I’ve only done drag shows at churches. Watt St. was looking to spice up their beach retreat performances. So I was asked to perform and mix things up. I dressed like a woman, wore a wig, and hid in the crowd. After the speaker announced the show I stood up and asked, “Honey, how much longer are you going to talk?” Then I waltzed right on up and performed.
What do you think is important for younger LBGTQ populations to know?
It’s important for me that younger generations realize how much were fought to help you. We were trying to be out, trying to keep our jobs, trying to prove that we were as good as straight people. Things have changed now and it’s a lot better, but it’s because we fought for you to be accepted as you are. Gay people are going to have to continue to fight for their place in our world. So keep fighting!
What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t come out of the closet yet?
It’s the same advice I give to new Christians. Be still and listen. Know yourself and your timing.