Ronald G. Perrier is professor emeritus of theater and film studies at St. Cloud State University where he taught for 27 of his 40-plus years as an educator. He has directed some 75 theater productions and taught classes in theater and film history, dramatic literature, and criticism. He holds MA and PhD degrees from the University of Minnesota. Perrier retired in 2002, devoting his time to writing. His first volume of memoir, Persistence of Vision: The Life Journey of a Gay Man, was published in 2008. Perrier recently spoke with Lavender about his life and new work.
In addition to the recent major change of same-sex marriage ability, what do you feel have been the greatest, or most valuable, gains in growing gay acceptance?
Ronald G. Perrier: One of the many advantages of being old is having seen the ebb and flow of public opinion and attitudes. When I was first struggling to come out, at age 20 in 1960, being gay was frightening. Of course I knew I was different by about the age of eight or nine, but I didn’t have a word for it. In 1960, gay folks were in a secret society, and most others held the notion that gay people were perverted, sick, and a danger to young people. Gay teachers were particularly suspect, because it was felt that they would “recruit” young people to the gay lifestyle. I like what Harvey Milk said about that: “Most of my teachers were heterosexual, and that didn’t persuade me to be straight.” The rare gay-themed films showed gay characters as troubled, perverted outcasts in a “normal” society. The gay characters were usually unhappy, and they usually died or committed suicide by the end of the film.
And then the AIDS crisis came, and the anti-homosexual public had new ammunition that we were not only perverted, but God had shown his displeasure with us by killing us off.
We are in a more honest and open place today. The myths & horrors of my earlier years in the 1960s and 70s have given way to notions of gay pride, gay marriages, and gay parenting. In the early years of the Gay Pride parade in Minneapolis, there were very few floats or marching bands; it was very short compared with today’s Pride parades. Many gay people were afraid to watch the parade for fear that relatives would see them in the televised pictures on the news that night, so they hid at home. What a contrast today! The Minneapolis Pride parade is one of the largest in the nation. Politicians willingly join the parade, parents and straight siblings of gays march alongside their gay siblings.
Today we have gay studies curricula in our colleges. In the early 1990s, while I was teaching theater and film courses at St. Cloud State University, I offered a liberal arts course called “The Gay and Lesbian in Film.” In this conservative central Minnesota university, 75 students enrolled — straight, gay, young, old, and curious. The discussions were lively. Lots of learning was going on!
What is your take on the growing transgender presence in the country? Do you feel they are being adequately supported by the GLBs in the Rainbow?
RGP: The transgender presence in society today is less in the shadows than ever before, particularly with all the publicity surrounding [Caitlyn] Jenner. I’m old enough to remember the scandal when a man went to Europe for transgender surgery and emerged as a woman named Christine Jorgensen. Cruel school kids of my generation would taunt feminine schoolboys with “Hi, Christine!” followed by derisive laughter. True ignorance in action. More recently [there was] Chaz Bono, the child of song duo Sonny and Cher, but it is Jenner’s change that has made the world stand up and wonder and listen and think.
What were your favorite courses, and why? What did you hope to draw from your students?
RGP: I had a course titled “Introduction to Theatre and Film” that was a comparison/contrast study of the two presentational arts. During my 27 years at St. Cloud State, this course grew more and more popular. I made each lecture not a lecture, but a performance. My “audience” numbered 425 students with lectures on two days and a feature film each week. Large classes like this can be deadly dull, but my own theater training came to my rescue, and my lectures were performances with all the histrionics involved. In Septembers I give several detailed descriptions of some of these presentations. One in particular is a description of a particularly bloody final scene of the Roman Seneca’s Oedipus the King that elicited groans and screams from my audience.
Do you feel your Catholic Church upbringing hindered your life as a gay man as much as the prevailing anti-gay attitudes of the time? Did the silence and secrecy imposed by both intensify your experience?
RGP: Being raised Catholic was a strong impediment to a healthy development in my childhood and adolescence. The love that Jesus Christ epitomized was preached at us in Masses and confessionals not as love, but as guilt trips and sins and warnings. And if you told a priest in confessional you were gay, you had reached the depths of human worth in the eyes of the church. Ironically, our punishment often came from a priest who might very well have been gay, closeted, or otherwise.
I mention in the book a handsome young man I’d met at the Gay 90s bar in Minneapolis. We really fell in love, and we dated for some time. I wondered why he never invited me to his home in western Wisconsin, and that’s when he told me he was a priest. He was intelligent and beautiful in mind and body, and he loved being a priest despite the opposing forces that were pulling him apart. This relationship, if you could even call it that, did not last too long.
Your home life seemed to be a balance, at least in your youth, for the other uncertainties in your life. You speak glowingly of your folks, the sights and sounds of rural Minnesota; night skies, barnyard, and so on. Would you talk about that a bit?
RGP: As to my home life on the farm, I make mention early in the book that we were poor but we really didn’t know it. It was a labor-intensive life, and we worked seven-day weeks without holidays. The first four of us kids were born two years apart. I was second in line after my older sister. Two more daughters were born several years later and several years apart. These last two didn’t experience farm life, because when they were very young, Dad sold the farm and moved to the city of Stillwater.
The bouquet of aromas on a farm were mostly sweet — fresh-mowed hay, corn silage stored in a high cylindrical silo, the beauty of the pastures and fields, growth, maturation, and harvest repeated over and over again in nature’s ritual.
It is in this setting that I developed my philosophical bearings and values. Close friends on farms are rare except in the one-room country school that I attended for all eight grades with the same devoted teacher. Being alone on the farm gave me ample opportunities to dream and think and fantasize about the mysteries of life.
You have a marvelous memory and you seem to have much written information at hand from which to draw. Have you always kept files of letters and so on?
RGP: I have been given the gift of a good memory. I am amazed that I can recall so many sights, sounds, aromas, conversations of my boyhood 60-plus years ago — as well as in the intervening years. I also am a pack rat. I save lots of documents and letters that most people would toss out. (That is what is so sad to me now that we use email and then delete it: nothing is kept to peruse later.) I have letters to and from a mentor of mine, a gay professor at UW-River Falls where I taught for two years. Our friendship began before that and continued after until his death. Our letters span about 25 years. When I wrote to Wayne, I always kept a carbon copy of my letters for my files. So this carton of correspondence has the “to” and the “from” all in chronological order. This is really a GLBT history in the period of the 1970s and ’80s since he and I wrote often of many personal issues. I catalogued these letters with that history in mind. After my death, these letters (as well as everything else I have of interest) will be housed in the “Ronald G. Perrier Collection” in the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Did your gayness enable you to more readily perceive the existing sexism for both girls and boys back in the early ’60s?
RGP: My first year of teaching in a small, provincial town in Wisconsin was in 1962–63. Being the only single person in a faculty of 17, and filled with the new ideas of educational philosophy, I was quite disappointed to find this school locked in a distant past as far as educational philosophy was concerned.
I also saw some of the students who seemed to be gay or lesbian, but to broach the subject with those students would have been unthinkable. This was 1962, after all! But I did develop some strong and lasting friendships with some of the students. One must remember that The Catcher in the Rye was new and shocking and controversial. I taught it to my honors seniors anyway. In my book I point out the ridiculous and sexist attitudes at that time. Boys took shop classes, girls took home economics classes. What about girls who wanted to learn drafting and design? What about boys who wanted to study culinary arts?
In your early twenties, well before AIDS, what kind of thoughts/hopes/expectations did you have for a gay man in his mid-’70s? Pride Parades, legalized gay marriage, and Kinky Boots at the Orpheum couldn’t have been even a gleam in your eye.
RGP: I’m not sure I thought too much about the future of myself as a gay man at that time. I was so busy sorting out what the present held for me as I worked my way through the intensity of first loves, determining how I fit in the whole scheme of things. If I had any means to see what the future of the gay movement, with all its ramifications and dimensions, would become as I progressed toward my 70s, I would have been shocked and amazed. And I probably would have denied that such progressive things for my gay friends and me could ever be anything outside the realm of fantasy. Marriage between same-sex couples was such a futuristic fantasy! The idea of same-sex couples having a family with children was also a remote and impossible dream.
When I was young and just coming out, we gay people existed in a secretive, closeted world. We spoke in code: “She or he was a friend of Dorothy’s” meant she/he was gay. There was a fascination with Judy Garland and her character of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. We sang those romantic, hopeful, and plaintive lyrics to Judy’s song: “If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why can’t I?” It was no coincidence that Judy Garland’s suicide and the New York Stonewall Bar riots occurred at the same time. Gay people weren’t going to “take it” any more from abusive cops raiding gay bars, and they fought back against the police who had taunted them and arrested them for being in a “disorderly” place.
To paraphrase Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, life must, by necessity, be lived forward; but life can only be understood backward. This concept seems simplistic and obvious, but we don’t usually understand our lives as we are living them. Only in retrospect do we gain insights about where we have been and what it meant in our development, and have a notion of where we are going.
You’re obviously not one to sit idle. Do you have a next project in mind?
RGP: I’ve already started it. I’m doing preliminary research on the Vietnam Conflict, and I’m seeing all those (mostly con) films of that era to refresh my knowledge. I hated that war so much. I was not up for the draft because teachers were exempt, but if I had been drafted I would have gone quickly up to my dad’s country of origin, Canada.
When I’m ready to get started, I will start getting word out that I am looking for vets to interview. VFW places, vet hospitals, family members, relatives. I’m fairly good at interviewing (Growing Up Male in America, A Sense of Honor: Remembrances of WWII Veterans), so I should have fairly good luck at finding these folks to interview. I suppose many just don’t want to think about that awful period, and certainly may not want to be interviewed about it. I found some WWII vets like that.
These vets are about my age, and if we are not careful in getting their stories, they will all be gone within the next two decades.
What especially would you want to say to a group of young Lavender readers?
RGP: I would say live your life responsibly, and take pride in what a different life you are living today compared with your older gay friends. The struggles and pain and sorrow and fear as well as the joys of my generation laid the foundation for the freedoms you have today. For example, on the issue of gay marriage: my generation could barely imagine such a phenomenon when we were young, and now, in most states, it is perfectly legal and openly celebrated. Enjoy, and remember that life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward. Don’t forget us. It will be very interesting to see what the current Supreme Court Justices decide on this issue.
Septembers: Senior Muses of a Gay Man will be launched at the Saloon Fire Bar, 830 Hennepin Ave., July 17, where Perrier will be signing books 6:00–10:00 p.m.