Posted by: Randy Allgaier | September 9, 2007

A Half Century on the Planet: A Reflection on my 50th birthday


Less than a month after I was born on September 9th, 1957 there was an event that was heralded as world changing- the launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957. It was the beginning of the “Space Age”.  As an interesting juxtaposition- Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” was published just 4 days before I was born- so not only was it the “Space Age” but it was the age of the Beat Generation too.

During the last fifty years there have been a number of events that have forever changed the world: the first man to go into space- Yuri Gagarin; the first man to orbit the earth- John Glenn; the assassination of President Kennedy; the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy; the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; Kent State; the Summer of Love; the Viet Nam War; the first man on the Moon; the first heart transplant; Watergate; the resignations of Vice President Agnew and President Nixon; the Iranian hostage crisis; the AIDS pandemic; the eradication of small pox, the invention of the personal computer, the development of the internet; the rise of the radical Christian right in American politics, the mapping of the human genome, the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism; Glasnost and the resulting fall of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe; the ongoing struggle for rights by African-Americans, women and gays and lesbians; the recognition of the dangers to the planet by human induced global warming; the domestic terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the waging of the first American preemptive war in history- the Invasion of Iraq are just a few of the history changing events that have occurred in my lifetime.

It’s really been an amazing half century. Fifty years ago would anyone have imagined that there would be a woman Speaker of the House or that an African-American, a woman and a Hispanic were all serious candidates for the US Presidency? Would it have been thinkable for the country to be having a debate about gay marriage and have many of the candidates for President supporting gay unions? Could we have imagined that many of us would have computers at home on our desks that are thousands of times more powerful than computers that took up an entire floor of an office building fifty years ago? Would we have imagined a world where we could identify the genetic markers for certain diseases? Would we have imagined that we would have access to an amount of information at our fingertips with the click of a “mouse” that would rival all the information in all the libraries that ever existed in the world?

Conversely could we have imagined that a debate about Darwin and evolution would have erupted 80 years after the Scopes trial in Dayton Tennessee? Could we have imagined a country where our Constitutional freedoms are under attack, its system of checks and balances out of kilter, and the separation of church and state becoming blurred? Could we have imagined in the era of Camelot – that this country would no longer judge itself by how it cares for its most vulnerable but by how it protects it’s most privileged? Could we have imagined that we would be, for all intents and purposes, in a global holy war between Muslims, Christians and Jews not the likes which has been seen since the middle ages? It seems for every leap forward there has also been a leap backwards.

It has been an interesting fifty years indeed. Obviously I don’t have any memory of Sputnik since I was less than 1 month old, but my mother wrote about it in my baby book (which I now have in my possession). I have a vague recollection of John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth- but I can’t be sure if it is my memory or a memory that has been informed by video replay. Probably the first vivid memory I have of world events is the assassination of President Kennedy. I remember being told about the President’s death at school- I was in first grade and we were sent home early. But what I remember the most is the funeral. I was glued to the television and to my child’s mind it seemed that the funeral lasted for a week. When I have seen replays from the funeral it evokes memories of being at a neighbor’s house watching the funeral on TV.

In 1967 at the age of 10 my family went to California for a vacation and we visited the Haight Ashbury during the “Summer of Love” to see the hippies and in 1969, like the rest of the world, I was rivited as I watched grainy images of Neil Armstrong taking man’s first steps on the moon. I remember- I was in summer camp and they set up a television in the mess hall and allowed us to watch this historic event. It was indeed a special moment that I will forever remember.

There are many personal events that have informed the man that I have become at 50 years of age- the divorce of my parents, my mother’s suicide, my family’s reaction to my coming out as a gay man, my internal battles and coming to terms with being gay, being diagnosed with HIV then AIDS then HCV, meeting Lee my partner of 19 years and through our lives together learning what it means to truly love someone are among many profound aspects of my personal journey.

But like all of us there has been an intersection along the way between the events occurring in the world and my own personal journey to become the person that I am today- September 9, 2007. If you had asked me on September 9, 1978- when I turned 21 where I would be at age 50 I am sure that my answer would not have been an accurate predicator of the future. But I know that at age 50, I am happy with the man I have become, what I have accomplished in my life and I truly cherish the life that I have. A great deal of my life’s direction is a result of that intersection of world events and my personal experiences.

I guess I developed a political nature as a child. I remember as a kid being glued to the TV- not to watch “I Dream of Jeannie” but to watch the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I was fascinated with the political process and my parents allowed me to stay up to the wee hours to watch the nominating conventions.

I was a Republican until a year and a half into Ronald Reagan’s presidency. There are a number of reasons that I left the Republican Party and became an ardent Democrat that will become clear during this article.

During my high school years I paid attention to world events and read the New York Times regularly but the summer in 1974 was a turning point. A number of things intersected for me. I had come out to myself as a gay man earlier in the year, I was exploring religion and the nation was transfixed by Watergate.

Spring break of 1974 I was 16 years old and I took a 10 day trip to France with students and teachers from my school. It was an amazing trip and probably was the seed planted for my lifetime love of France and becoming an ardent Francophile. Many years later Lee and I would spend our 15th anniversary in the South of France on what we think of as our best vacation ever- mornings spent over croissant and planning that day which usually meant exploring a nearby ancient town, visiting amazing wineries and having fabulous and leisurely lunches- returning back to the house we were renting only to take a nap and then find some extraordinary place for a gourmet dinner! Yes that trip in 1974 started a love affair with France but it is also when I recognized that I was in fact gay. I won’t detail the private thoughts I had at the time- but they are detailed in my travel diary and dated March 18, 1974.

During that same period I was exploring various philosophies and religion. I was fascinated with philosophy and was reading Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard but after many years being involved in church activities  I also looked at Christianity in a new light. Quite frankly I was alone – knowing I was gay, afraid of what others would think, feeling that if my true self was revealed- everyone including my family would revile me. I felt alone and unloved. The philosophies I was reading really did nothing but validate isolation and at that particular juncture, I needed to feel accepted.

Oddly enough I found that acceptance at a coffee house that was run by some other teenagers – kids who were commonly referred to as “Jesus Freaks”. I was drawn in. I was lonely and was afraid- and I thought maybe God would accept me while being afraid that no one else would. At this time- there was no conservative Christian movement that taught hate and intolerance. “Jesus Freaks” were an offshoot of the Hippie culture and it was all about love and acceptance and I was drawn in. While I never divulged that I was gay (after all it was 1974) I never thought that being gay was inconsistent with having God’s love. It seemed ok. It was during this period though that I began to develop a sense of social justice and recognized the pitfalls inherent in a society that is obsessed with material gain rather than caring for others and being stewards of our society and our planet. It was my belief that Christ cared about the poor and warned about liars, false prophets and those obsessed with amassing personal gain and I think that my immersion in Christianity at the time informed my sense of values.

The third event in 1974 was Watergate. I was horrified by what was happening. I had lost my innocence in one way when I came out earlier that year, but I lost my innocence again when I realized that my nation’s leaders were not necessarily noble leaders that followed in the hallowed footsteps of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and Roosevelt. While I had lived through Viet Nam, I hadn’t really thought about government corruption until Watergate. I was shocked, disappointed and angry. I had assumed a level of integrity, noble purpose and compassion from government and that fantasy was suddenly ripped out from under me.

I remember distinctly the day that President Nixon left office and President Ford was sworn in. I was working in New York City that summer for my father’s Wall Street firm and during lunch I went to Trinity Church to pray for the nation. Of course that prayer didn’t seem to help since 33 years later we are still wrestling with many of the same problems.

That intersection of being gay, being immersed in a form of Christianity that focused on love, respect and charity and being disappointed by my government were significant influences on another important milestone in life- high school graduation. 

In June 1975, about 10 months after Nixon resigned I graduated top of my class and thus I had the honor of giving the Valedictory address. I still have a copy of that address and recently re-read it. While the language is stilted and obviously written by a high school student, I found that my values and my passions really haven’t changed since that time. Here are some excerpts from the address:

“… The joyous occasion of commencement hardly seems the time to concern ourselves with the harsh realities of our society. However, it is now our time to take the step into the tumultuous world from which we have so long been protected by our families and our school. It is a world filled with crime, disrespect, immorality and hatred. A world in which leaving one’s own home is becoming an increasingly dangerous act. Our “protectors” have tried to shield us so that at times we lose true insight into this society. Nevertheless at the same time that society has deluded itself, hiding under the pretenses of freedom and democracy and the mistaken connotation that our country is a land of opportunity, have we recently been exposed to the truth.”

“… The public scandals of Watergate are only the surface of corruption which seems to exist in all areas of our government, right down to the local law enforcement agencies. Aristotle said “It is better for a city to be governed by good men than by good laws.” Too long have we been a nation under the yoke of good laws but the good men have been lacking. [N.B. Today I think I would celebrate good laws as well as the need for good leadership].”

“… We (society), in our apathy, living in our private microcosms are the ultimate reason for the spirit of corruption…. We have centered our lives selfishly around ourselves. Our words, our thoughts and our deeds can usually find their origins in our selfishness. Many times our relationships have become so demoralized that all we comprehend is our own satisfaction. Our amassing of material wealth has become an obsession. We have sanctioned and even encouraged this material gain for an individual so strongly that we measure personal success by such standards. In our obsession for material wealth and personal gain, our vision along with our identity has been narrowed to the task of climbing the rungs of the social ladder.”

While my thinking and my personal philosophy have matured and been informed by 32 additional years on the planet- I find it striking that many of the seeds of my social and political activism were there in 1975; much of it informed by being gay at a time when being gay was just beginning to be talking about, my need to understand my place in the world and find acceptance, and the sense of betrayal by those entrusted with our welfare thanks to Watergate.  In September of that year I entered Cornell University.  As a side note- I found my acceptance package from Cornell recently among my papers and the tuition for academic year 1975-76 was $3,775; for academic year 2007-08 the tuition is $34,600 (an increase of 912%).

When I was old enough to vote- I registered as a Republican. It seemed that in the 1970s the Republican party still had a soul and actually cared about people and about fairness. There was a history of “liberal Republicans” like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. Being a Republican did not seem inconsistent with my sense of social justice.

In 1980 I was a registered Republican and to the chagrin of many of my friends today, I actually campaigned for George H.W. Bush during the Republican primaries. To my credit though I was campaigning against Ronald Reagan. And while I voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, it was a little less than 2 years later that I changed my party because I was horrified by Reagan’s presidency. There were three reasons I disliked Reagan. First was his economics. In those days it was called “the trickle down theory” which is now called supply side economics. George H.W. Bush rightfully called that economic theory “voodoo econmics”- it doesn’t help the economy- just the wealthy and corporations. Reagan’s administration chalked up astronomical debt- not unlike the current Bush administration. The second was that Ronald Reagan became cozy with an avowed homobphobe and a man that used Christianity as a sword for power and hate rather than a plow to sow charity and love- Jerry Falwell.

But it was what Mr. Reagan didn’t say that infuriated me. In June of 1981 I was just 23 years old and the CDC reported a disease that a year later would be known as AIDS. It was not until September 1985 that President Reagan mentioned AIDS in public. More than 10,000 Americans died within that period. He could have used the bully pulpit of his office to bring the epidemic to light- but he didn’t. I had friends dying and Reagan’s government took no notice and as his party became more beholden to the so called moral majority, my friends and I were villified and my community was dying. Ignorance, intolerance and hatred became the bywords of the Republican party and I could not sit by and watch my friends die.

As it turned out- I was probably infected with HIV during those years where Mr. Reagan remained silent. The HIV/AIDS epidemic became a central part of my life. Before I even knew I was HIV positive, the seeds of my activism were sown. The first fundraising event I ever attended was a performance of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1983 (2 years before Reagan publicly acknowledged the epidemic) with Leontyne Price singing the national anthem and Leonard Bernstein conducting the orchestra. That event, the first AIDS fundraising gala in the nation, is now legendary.

When I moved from New York City to San Francisco in February of 1988 at the age of 31, I went from one community being devestated by AIDS to another. I decided to get involved directly. I became a volunteer for an organization named Shanti – now 19 years ago- and it literally changed my life. I met Lee, my partner at my volunteer training, I immersed myself in HIV/AIDS work as a volunteer and it eventually became the center of my career and the work I continue to this day. I could not sit still and watch while my community was dying and testing positive made it personal- very personal.

Another event was decisive in sealing my fate as an advocate for my community. It was the candidacy of William Jefferson Clinton for President in 1992. I had abondoned the Republican party a decade earlier and the experience of the Republicans apalling lack of attention to HIV/AIDS and their villifcation of gays and lesbians had already made me an ardent Democrat. But while I was active in community work, I wasn’t politically active yet. That changed thanks to Bill Clinton.

Behind the scenes Clinton was already courting the gay and lesbian community through his gay FOB (Friend of Bill) David Mixner. David Mixner and a handful of others – all of whom I would eventually get to know and work with- put on the first fundraiser within the gay community for a Presidential candidate.

I was hooked and after the Democratic Convention, Lee and I volunteered tirelessly for Clinton. I will never forget election night 1992- we were giddy with the news of a Clinton victory and apparently the entire gay community in San Francsico was giddy too. We decided to walk down from our house to Castro Street where a spontaneous street party had erupted. It was magical. Because of Clinton I got political and I would later go on to serve on the Board of Governors of the Human Rights Campaign (the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization with more than 700,000 members) and to be one of the founders of the California Alliance for Pride and Equality- which is now Equality California- California’s LGBT adocacy organization.

In 1997 I was again present for a moment in history. As a member of the HRC Board of Governors, I attended its national dinner where President Clinton was the first sitting President in history to address an LGBT audience. It was an electric evening- I will never forget.

But it was in 1995 at the age of 38 that my career reflected the intersection of political activism and HIV/AIDS community work- it is when I entered the world of HIV/AIDS public policy working for the Public Policy Department of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and found my niche.  I’ve since lobbied at San Francisco City Hall, the California State Capitol and Capitol Hill for HIV/AIDS issues and GLBT civil rights issues and I have dedicated my life to bettering the world for people living with HIV/AIDS through policy work at every level of government. 

In 1997 I was honored to be one of advocates that were the primary architects of developing a statewide coalition that vigorously advocated for increased state funding for California’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), one of the nation’s most comprehensive ADAPs -an effort that led to the first significant increase in state funding for ADAP and paved the road for further substanial funding increases during subsequent years. After my retirement I took out my policy and advocacy skills once again when I became eligible for Medicare. I realized that there was no one in the HIV/AIDS community paying attention to Medicare and became one of the first HIV/AIDS advocates in the nation to work on Medicare issues- more than a year before the debate began on the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 which was one of the biggest changes in the history of the nation’s entitlement programs.

Ironically- it was the passions that I have for the work that forced me to leave the work as a career. Through the stress and strain of the intensity of HIV/AIDS and LGBT policy issues and the battles fought daily, my own HIV got the better of me and I had to retire in the spring of 2000 at age 42 – just as a presidential campaign was about to get going.

In those early months of 2000 who would have guessed that George W. Bush had an iota of a chance to be President?   But thanks to connections and money  this man – who  didn’t seem particularly bright and possessed a minimal amount of public service experience other than 6 years as a Governor of Texas which was not a particularly memorable but did seem to come about due to an array of family connections- lost the national popular vote but won the Electoral College count and became President.

It hadn’t dawned on me that Al Gore would not win the 2000 election. Of course- as far as the popular vote goes, I was right. Due to my health, Lee and I didn’t get involved with the Gore camapign. Actually Lee had made me promise that I would not get involved with any community work for at least 6 months after I retired- and I agreed.

Being one who does my best to keep promises, but one who can’t stand still- even when I am not feeling well,  I joined the Board of Directos of PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) in the autumn of 2000 – mostly due to the inspiration of my beloved beagle Darwin- and in December I was elected its President a position I would hold for 4 years. Lee and I took a wonderful trip to London and Paris in December 2000- I got the word of the PAWS Board election while we were in Paris and we got word of Gore’s consession to Bush while we were having breakfast at our hotel in London. We and a few of the other guests half jokingly talked about not returning to the United States because of the news.

Lee and I both assumed that George W. Bush would not be a good President, but we never could have guessed during breakfast at our hotel in the Bloomsbury section of London that morning what a disaster this presidency would mean for both the country and the world.

Just days 2 after my 44th birthday on September 9, 2001 was of course a date that has become indelidbly etched in every Americans mind- September 11, 2001. It was a day of horror and sadness but somehow the country became united in its grief and its determination. Lee and I had long standing plans for a two week trip to Italy and we left the country on September 20, 2001 for that holiday. Flying to Rome just 9 days after 9/11 seemed crazy to some folks, but we felt two things: 1) Determination not to have 9/11 change our plans and our lives because we felt it would have meant that the terrorists would have succeeded.  2) It was probably safer to fly at that moment in time than perhaps any other time.

During the days following 9/11 there was a sense of unity in the country – it was palpable and one thought that, if harnessed, this unity could be a powerful force for good in the nation. While we were in Italy- we felt compassion and friendship from all those we met because of what our nation had just endured. There was great affection for the United States at that time. Little did we know than that President Bush and his administration would fritter away the unity of our nation and the good will of the world by ignoring the threat of terrorism by turning his attention away from the conflict in Afghanistan in order to pursue his partisan unilateral agenda that had nothing to do with 9/11 and everything to do with neo-conservative idealogy. Through his cynicism Bush would evoke the memory of 9/11 at every opportunity in order to manipulate the American people to support an ill-conceived and immoral war in Iraq.

Lee and I both opposed the Iraq War from the outset. We didn’t have a problem with our country going into Afghanistan after 9/11, but we along with millions of others viewed the war in Iraq as a horrible decision. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq we took part in the February 15, 2003 antiwar protest in San Francisco that was part of a world wide action that day that included 800 cities across the globe.

A year later- as the war entered its second year the country embarked on a presidential campaign. Lee and I, like many others, felt that for the good of our country and of the entire world- it was imperative to get Mr. Bush out of office. But what could we do? We live in San Francsico where campaigning against George W. Bush was truly preaching to the choir.

Lee is active in SEIU and we discussed at length his taking a leave from his job and taking a month to work with the union in its American Coming Together campaign in a swing state. We agreed that he would take a month and go to Wisconsin. It was my job to keep the home fires burning and continue my community work in San Francisco and that allowed Lee to have the freedom to become deeply involved with the effort to defeat Bush. We know thousands and thousands of people worked hard but we like to think that this helped in a small way to put Wisconsin on the blue state map. Ever since Lee and I met in 1988 the support we have given to one another in our community work and activism has tuly made it a family affair.

As it turned out the election ended up hinging on Ohio and that ended up in the red column.

It’s three years later now and it seems that the world is a colossal mess. But I keep plugging along with my policy, planning and advocacy work and while I get frustrated by some of it- I do love it. I have often drawn an anology between my love for this work and a scene in the movie “Patton”. There is a scene where Patton is looking out over the smouldering field where a battle had been raging only hours before. The scene was quiet but it was clear that there was carnage. He whispers to a colleague “I love it, God help me I love it.” That sums up my relationship with policy and advocacy.  What I pray for most is a day where neither I nor anyone else needs to do this work because HIV/AIDS will be a bad memory.

Who knows where the next chapter of my life will lead me or where the world will be a year from now (Heck- I haven’t even made a decision about who I want to support for President).   Technology is changing at light speed and I think that over the coming decade or two we will see remarkable things and we will be provided with incredidble opportunity and potential.  But we run the risk of losing a lot too.  Technology is changing the way we communicate and share information, the information available to us, how we interact in the political sphere, how we treat illnesses and diseases and how we clean up the enviornmental mess that we have created on our planet.  We can use these for good- but we also run the risk of thinking in nothing but sound bites- and that is highly dangerous.  We need to ensure that we listen slowly and that we act with thoughtful diliberation as we take advantage of technology’s enormous gifts. 

It seems that my fifty years have provided me more prospective on life but the essential motivation- compassion, respect and caring for others was there decades ago. At 40 I would not have assumed I would be alive at 50.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I know that I can be demanding and short when I am passionate about something. It seems I tolerate fools less as I have gotten older and I also seem to tolerate self congratulatory egos even less.   I hope that I am a good person with a good heart and fair minded. I think I have made some small difference to others through my work and the intersection my life has had with world events, at least I hope I have. I know that I have felt honored and privledged to have touched a number of historic events and am blessed to have good people in my life that I cherish dearly. 

But what I truly hope that I have accomplished in my 50 years on the planet, more than anything else, is to be a good partner, a good friend, a good brother, a good son and to be, at my core, a good person.

Even though there have been some tough challenges and bumps in the road, I’ll be a little cliché and a lot Capraesque and end this by saying “It’s A Wonderful Life”.

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Responses

  1. In spite of it all, (the things about our lives you did not mention), you and I have come to know who we are and what we want to do in our lives. I am very proud of you brother for all you do for others and the causes that you are so passionate about. You are my best friend and an excellent brother. I envy your eloquence and admire your integrity.

    You have served your passions with a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. I can’t imagine this world without you in it.

    Congratulations on your 50th Brother, hope you’re here for 50 more!

  2. What a life! Thanks for working so tirelessly to create a better world for all gays and lesbians.

    The comment from your sister was very sweet. It’s obvious that you are greatly loved by those around you, which verifies that you have attained your goal of becoming a good person.

  3. […] You can also read how much I feel that his inattention to the AIDS epidemic in the United States was beyond reprehensible and that he has the blood of thousands of people on his hands by not addressing the issue for years which led to not funding prevention, care and research appropriately in my piece A Half Century on the Planet: A Reflection on my 50th birthday


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