Dennis Milam Bensie isOne Gay American. Born in the 1960s and raised with traditional values in Robinson, Illinois, Bensie desperately wanted romance, a beautiful wedding, and a baby to carry on the family name. He denied his sexuality and married a woman at nineteen years old, but fantasized of weddings where he could be the bride. The newlyweds “adopted” a Cabbage Patch Doll and ironically witnessed a Cabbage Patch Doll wedding (a successful fundraiser staged by a local women’s club) where the dolls were granted the type of grand ceremony off-limits to gay couples.
In search of his identity as a gay man, Bensie divorced his wife and stumbled through missteps and lessons that still sting his generation: defending against bullies, “disappointing” his parents, and looking for love in gay bars, bath houses and restrooms. He helped his straight friends plan their dream weddings and mourned his gay friends dying of AIDS. Although true love has not yet come his way, Bensie has learned to love himself.
Bensie is the author of the much-lauded memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men, which recounts his battle with paraphilia. One Gay American tells the rest of his story and draws parallels to gay history, decade by decade, with newspaper headlines and quotations. Bensie is the gay neighbor that you either love or hate. Either way, he’s got a lot to say and says it with no apologies.
Monday, October 5, 1987
New York Times
DENYING AIDS ITS STING: A QUILT OF LIFE
The Names Project was a campaign to create an American quilt, each panel a memorial to someone who had died of AIDS.
There was no way my friends or I could deny that AIDS was a crisis with images of the AIDS quilt all over the media. It was shocking to see the thousands of panels covering the grounds of the nation’s capitol, the Washington Memorial in the background.
Later, in Seattle, I visited The Names Project exhibit. Jim and I wept as we looked for the panels commemorating our friends who had died of AIDS.
When my divorce was final, I rented the movie Making Love with Harry Hamlin, Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean for the first time. The movie had come out in theaters while I was in high school, but I had never seen it.
The story concerned a successful Los Angeles married couple who seemed to have it all until the husband realizes he is gay. It was the first mainstream Hollywood drama to address the subject of homosexuality and the effects of coming-out on a marriage.
Even though the movie never played in a theater near Robinson, it was an ironic twist that when I first met Jessica, she and I both had the 45-rpm record of the haunting theme song, “Making Love,” by Roberta Flack.
The movie had a huge effect on me. I tried desperately to buy a VHS copy in Carbondale with no success. I finally recorded the scene where Michael Ontkean comes out to Kate Jackson on my portable tape recorder. I listened to the recording over and over, hoping I had been as thoughtful in my dealings with Jessica.
I had already been through the marriage and divorce part of the movie’s story line. I’d had one brief anonymous sexual encounter with a guy in a parking lot on the SIU-C campus that left me unsatisfied. I hadn’t yet experienced anything like the film’s Hollywood ending of gay love and happiness. Carbondale, Illinois, was a far cry from Los Angeles and Hollywood. The residents of this rural town resented their gay population. The patrons of its one gay bar were often harassed coming and going.
Although I was finally out, I found limited ways to explore my new sexuality. I was ready for all the challenges. I wanted to find a boyfriend and true love just like Michael Ontkean’s character in the movie. I wasn’t finding a love connection with any of the guys in the theater department. I told myself I had to explore all my other options, that I certainly wasn’t going to meet anyone by staying at home by myself.
One of the first options I heard about was the men’s room in the SIU library. Located in a quiet corner of the basement, it was a known meeting place for men to have anonymous sex. At the entrance was a small foyer with two sets of doors; one would have to walk through and turn a corner to get to the restroom. The room itself contained a row of urinals followed by a row of toilet stalls with no doors. The room was so long that when the foyer door opened, men would have plenty of time to cease their activities and retreat to a urinal or stall and not be caught in the act.
The library restroom could sometimes be quite busy with sexual activity. Most of the guys who played around there were obviously students, but others didn’t look like college students at all. There never seemed to be security or police monitoring the area. Guys just came and went with no accountability. I occasionally ran into friends from the theater there, and we would act coy and laugh about it later.
On my first trip there I saw Ben—the husband of the theater department’s business secretary, Monica. She was older than Ben, who was a graduate student in the Speech Communications department and often involved in the theater department productions. I assumed that Monica had no idea her husband was gay or bisexual. Ben and I pretended that we didn’t know each other and minded our own business while in the rest room. I was shocked to see Ben having unprotected anal sex with several different guys. He must have trusted me because my presence didn’t stop him. I felt bad for Monica. Just like in Making Love, I couldn’t imagine a marriage that could sustain such behavior.
Even stranger was a much older man who spent a lot of time in the bathroom looking for sex. He was one of the library’s janitors and never hid the fact that he worked in the building. He wore work clothes and had a big set of keys hanging from his belt. The keys made a lot of noise when he walked, so everyone heard him coming and going. My friends and I nicknamed him “Keys.”
Keys was not popular in the bathroom. He was maybe in his 50s, and not attractive to the college set. The janitor was very pushy and would always wear out his welcome watching men having sex and occasionally joining in on the fun. There was much speculation as to how he was able to keep his job, since he seemed to spend so much time in the restroom. I couldn’t help noticing that Keys wore a gold wedding band.
I didn’t want to have sex with Keys, but I felt sorry for him and wondered what he was like as a person. I would see him in other parts of the library, doing his job and blending in. He didn’t speak to anyone, and he never seemed particularly happy or sad. It had to be very unsatisfying being married and hanging out looking for sex at work all day.
What was Keysʼ wife like? Did he have kids?
His kids could have been my age. What would they have thought?
I wondered if I would have turned out like Keys if I hadn’t divorced Jessica.
I imagined that Keys had been just as confused as I when he was my age. He had fallen into the trap of doing what society expected men to do. He never got out of his marriage, and his only fulfillment was chasing college guys for clandestine sexual encounters in a campus restroom.
Perhaps the gold ring was a commitment ring with his gay partner. Maybe he was out of the closet, and his partner was okay with him cruising the restroom. They could have been together for decades and have a completely open relationship.
Maybe his partner came there, too.
Who was I to judge?
My first real kiss from a man was from a stranger in the library restroom. As we stood in the bathroom stall, the handsome, dark-haired guy looked me in the eyes, cupped my face in his hands and softly kissed me. He was much taller and more muscular than I. We were the only men in the room and he picked me up in a big bear hug and lifted me until my feet were actually dangling off the floor. He kissed me again and looked at me. No one else in the bathroom had ever really looked at me.
I felt love for the first time. Real love … ever so brief. The stranger made me feel whole. All the other guys I had seen in the restroom were focused on genitalia, but this man saw me as a man with a face and a heart. I had waited my whole life to be romantically kissed by a man. In that moment my life changed. I could finally be who I wanted to be.
It was such a significant event in my life, and I was sad that it had taken place in such a depressing place.
Was this the best I could do? My first romantic kiss in a seedy public restroom? I didn’t even know the guy’s name.
Most of these guys were just looking for quick sex. If I wanted a partner, where would I find him? Carbondale wasn’t exactly a Mecca for secure gay men.
I just had to have faith in myself and be patient. I was twenty-two, in my sexual prime. Did I have to wait for love to come to me? Shouldn’t I go out and look for it?
I knew I probably wouldn’t find it in the library restroom or the gay bar. However, it would only take one guy just like me. If he existed in Carbondale, then surely we would find each other in the only gay spots in town.
While I was being hugged and kissed, we both heard the sound of Keys entering the restroom. My kisser released me and fled. My feet were back on the ground. I remained in my door-less stall. Keys walked by, as I had seen him do dozens of times, and took his place in the stall next to mine.
I never saw my kisser again.
I left the library bathroom not knowing if Keys had ruined the opportunity of a lifetime or saved me from myself.
“One Gay American” by Dennis Milam Bensie— The Search for Identity
Bensie, Dennis Milam. “One Gay American”, Coffeetown Press, 2012.
The Search for Identity
“One Gay American” is a book that any of us who came of age in the sixties could have written. I can already hear you saying, “If anyone could have written it, what makes it special?” The answer is quite simple—no one did write it except for Dennis Bensie. Remember, the sixties were a different time and the mood of the country was different. Coming out was a political act and even though it was liberating, gay people were marginalized by society. The younger generation does not understand that and that is why it is so important. We tend to forget how it was, how we got to where we are now and who got us there.
Dennis Milam Bensie was raised in Robinson, Illinois and in a “traditional” family. He was sure that he would eventually find love, get married, father a child, etc, etc. He was aware of his sexuality that he hid and when he was 19, he married a woman even though deep inside he knew that this was not the life for him. As he tried to find his gay identity, he left and then divorced his wife and hit the bars, public restrooms and bath houses. As happens so often, the chase becomes exciting and everything takes a back seat.
What I have always found so interesting is that we expect others to accept us yet we do not accept ourselves. Bensie goes through this as well even while mourning his gay friends that he lost to the AIDS epidemic. It has taken him a while but Bensie eventually accepted himself and this book is a memoir of that journey.
Bensie has divided his book into time periods, beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s and takes us through the present. These divisions are further broken down into short chapters each named for a significant event in the author’s life. Just as we have seen so many advances in society for the acceptance of members of the LGBT community, Bensie has experienced some of these changes personally and he relates them to us. This makes his personal life part of the larger picture of the American LGBT community. He talks about areas that need to be changed, especially the bullying of gay kids. It may seem better but then we really only hear about the urban centers. What happens when a gay boy in Damascus, Arkansas (like Bensie in rural Illinois) knows no one else like him, has no one to talk to and is bullied at school?
In effect, Bensie gives us a look at our culture and history and it not only makes us think, it reminds us of who we are. Those of us who have lived at the same time as Bensie have seen incredible changes in the gay community, both from within and from the larger society. It has not been an easy journey yet Bensie makes it an entertaining and fun read. We should never forget how it once was for us in this country and remember that every right we have today is the result of those that came before and worked hard so that each generation has it better than the generation before it. We stand on the shoulders of others and Bensie provides us with some very broad shoulders on which to stand. Red his delightful book and thank him for just that.