Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Being Gay In The Sixties In Antonin Scalia's High School

Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their childrens schools, or as boarders in their homes.  They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe is immoral and destructive.

Justice Antonin Scalia (Xavier High School 1953) - dissent in Lawrence v Texas 2003

The mere existence of a Gay-Straight Alliance in a Roman Catholic high school counted as part of the transformation of both secular and religious attitudes toward gays. During the last three academic years, Xavier’s alliance had functioned as a sanctioned school activity, no more or less marginal than the engineering club or the track team. The alliance sponsors activities and events that engage hundreds of the school’s 1,100 students.

New York Times - September 18, 2015

Antonin Scalia when he addressed the Xavier High School JROTC Regiment lamented that military participation had become optional at Xavier.  The Class of 1971, the one after mine, was the last class that had four years of mandatory military participation.  I share Scalia's lament just a bit, but for different reasons, but that is neither here nor there.  This post is something of an interlude in the story sparked by a comment from one of my classmates.

Chagrined as Scalia was about the dimunition of the Regiment I can't help but wonder if he ever learned that Xavier now has a Gay Straight Alliance.  That probably would have made his brain explode.


In relating an incident from a Military Science class, I mentioned that my classmate Dave Posteraro was a "sensitive kid".  Frankly, I meant this as a compliment, because, the few kids I most identified with, which I have taken to calling the Unclique, united by our devotion to Jean Shepherd, prided ourselves on being insensitive.  A remark to me like "Pete, your father hangs out with a bunch of stiffs" (Because my father was, you know, dead) would just roll off my back.

Dave took it differently.  He thought "sensitive" might be a euphimism for gay. And as it happens, Dave is gay.  Back in the day, it never crossed my mind that any of my classmates were gay.  Being in Manhattan, I was hit on more than my share, I think, but those guys seem to be coming from another universe.

So Dave will be discussing what it was like to be gay at Xavier in the late sixties.  I think it might be helpful by way of context to point some things out about Catholic teaching on sexuality and how that translated to ordinary Catholics on the ground, so I have a lengthy sequel.

Being Gay At Xavier In The Sixties

by David Posteraro

One of the more peculiar experiences of gay men of my generation is that we had to “pass” or at least thought we were “passing” as straight.  So when I read the adjective “sensitive” I reacted, well, sensitively.  “Was it that obvious?”, I wondered. “Sensitive” is perhaps the kindest euphemism that one might have used in the 1960’s. I guess I was, “sensitive”, that is.

While Americans were fighting in Vietnam I was fighting my own battle between the dictates of my family, church, school on the one hand and, well, my dick, on the other.  The latter won.

I marvel at your vivid memories of Xavier.  Whether indifference at the time or intemperance in the intervening years I have no such memories of ranks, regiments, or routines. My most vivid memory is escaping 16th street, unbuttoning my topcoat, loosening my tie, pushing my hat to the back of my head, lighting a cigarette and walking through the Village.   “What a lark! What a plunge” to quote Mrs. Wolf.  Those are my happiest memories.  Escape from the rigors of the military for which I had no stomach, escape from the always feared exposure of my sordid secret, and into the Village where the poster advertising “The Boys in the Band” gave me  hope that I was not alone.

I suppose what first is to remember that in 1969, sodomy statutes were still on the books in many states and homosexual conduct between consenting adults was illegal. It would remain illegal and punishable as a criminal offense throughout much of my adult life.  That these laws were rarely enforced made them in some ways even more sinister.  In 1986 these laws were re-affirmed as constitutional in the Bowers case and only overturned in 2003.  From the distance of 2016 it seems unthinkable but nonetheless that was the case.

Much is made of the Stonewall riots a few blocks south of our alma mater but at the time (June 1969) they received little press coverage and what coverage there was tended to be sneering. The New York Post’s article carried the title “Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad”.  The Times was less snide but the story remained buried in the back pages.  I was aware of Stonewall but oddly at the time didn’t identify with the protagonists.  A year earlier, however, in 1968 the play “The Boys in the Band” had opened in the Village and I remember reading the reviews and seeing the posters advertising the play in and around the Village.  It was the first time that I thought, at last, there were other people like me in the world even if the descriptions of their lives – “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” – were anything but hopeful.

That there were other gay cadets (never thought of that but it does have a ring to it I suppose) was certain.  And since that time I have, thanks again to Facebook, reconnected with some of them.  At the time, however, it wasn’t spoken of and if acted upon was not in my experience.  I think some of us found refuge in the “salon” that Miss Salvati maintained in the library office. I forwarded you the memoir that an earlier student wrote about her.  In retrospect she kindly provided what educators today would call a “safe space” for vulnerable teenagers.  That a bunch of teenagers were allowed to debate the relative merits of Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi in the librarian’s office suggests that she, at least, was in on the joke if the rest of us were quietly oblivious. That she later spent much of her time ministering to men with AIDS at St. Vincent’s tells me she had a large group of gay friends some of whom no doubt were alumini of Xavier.

On the other side I remember a firery sermon/talk from Father McGowen on the evils of masturbation one day that was right out of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.  I remember asking my older brother what he thought of the idea that if one masturbated it would make you go crazy.  He said he thought it was the other way around, that if one didn’t . . .

As I wrote earlier, I wrestled with my own sexuality over the next few years.  I entered the Jesuits along with our Bob Grimes who also had gone to Fordham.  Bob is now the Dean at Fordham Lincoln Center.  He and I used to go to the opera in college but I never thought he was gay.  Others in my novitiate class were.  Pages could be written about the Jesuits and homosexuality.  In an era when being gay was disparaged, and same-sex conduct criminal, the Society of Jesus was a safe retreat for those who were incapable of following the path of heterosexual suburban married life. I don’t say this with disdain.  I’ve known many fine men who were gay and Jesuits.  A vocation appealed to our nobler selves as much if not more than any lesser motives.

I’ve since come to learn that there were many gay bars in and around 16th street but I never was in any of them.

I mentioned Stonewall and much is made in queer history of the importance of Stonewall to the LGBT civil rights movement. I also mentioned “Boys in the Band” but for me, and many of my clannish (as you would say) friends, it was AIDS that changed our lives. Randy Shilts surely was giving a nod to Mark Crowley when he titled his 1987 AIDS memoir “And the Band Played On”.  AIDS made us visible. Literally.

What was it like to be gay at Xavier in the late 60’s?  Lonely.

But as soon as I left 16th street, the Village beckoned and even if I didn’t act on any urges at the time I could see other people like me living openly, outrageously, happily, vividly, and knew, that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t an oncoming train.

 I envy the comradery and bravado of your time at Xavier. It seems so funny to me that you have such vivid memories compared to my vague-ish recollections.  Good for you! As I’ve said, when I think of Xavier at all it is of escaping into another world outside those halls. Et in Arcadia ego.



by Peter J Reilly

I really appreciate Dave sharing his memories.  The transformation in attitudes towards homosexuality in our culture is really kind of breath taking.  Changing views towards racial minoirites and women may seem equally revolutionary, but you can trace those controversies deeply into the nineteenth centrury and before.  You can point to plenty of people calling for racial equality and womens rights in the 1840s, fringe as they might have been.  Gay rights not so much.

At any rate I have added a bit about Catholic teaching on sexuality and how it translated to ordinary Catholics on the ground to provide some more context.

This Is Now

I checked out the current Cathechism and found the teaching is not at all different in its essentials, just in nuance. For example on the subject of masturbation you get.

By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.""The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
As Father Guido Sarducci puts it - "Masturbation is a cheap sin"

On homosexulaity we have:
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
They soften it up just a bit.
 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
But not much
 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Being straight is not exactly a walk in the park either.
 Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.
And even when you are married there are challenges
Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil.
Some Of It Is Lost In Translation

 The Encyclical Humanae Vitae which made it crystal clear that the recently invented birth control pill would not be a Catholic thing came out during the summer of 1968 making it a big topic in our Junior year theology classes and I could probably use it as a way of illustrating how this all translated to ordinary Catholics.

I have often remarked that the Sergeants were the most colorful members of the Xavier faculty only exceeded by Father Harreis, who had deserted the Wehrmacht after helping occupy Austira and made his way to New York in an adventurous manner.  Rather than teach us German, he regaled us with stories that always started "Ven I vas a young boy in Chermany" and involved things like street fighting with Nazis in Munchen and the like.

None of those guys was the most colorful guy I knew though.  That would be Tony Genaro, whom I worked for on Saturdays as a helper on his bread truck.  He was a character and a half.  One time he decided to try to take advantage of my elite Catholic education to clear something up that was troubling him.  The conversation went something like this.

Tony: Pete, what this thing about the Pope and the Pill.
Me: Well the encyclical Humanae Vitae says that you can't us any artificial methods. The rhythym method is OK, but that's it.
Tony: He didn't mean rubbers did he?
Me: I'm pretty sure rubbers are included in the ban, Tony.
Tony: That's ridiculous.  If you don't use rubbers, every time you have an affair with your wife, she'll get pregnant.

What Is Your CAO Score?

So before you get going on how unCatholic gays are, it might be good to think about the typical American straight male, Catholic or not, and contemplate how many of his orgasms say from Sophomore in high school to qualified for Medicare are Catechism Approved.  It is true that on a percentage base, a typical gay man will score 0 and it is conceivable that somebody like Scalia who fathered nine children might be in the high nineties, but that is probably not very common.  Sorry if this is TMI, but I don't think I would break into double digits.

At any rate, the point of this extensive follow up is to indicate that you didn't have to be gay to have a lot of conflicted feelings about sex in a Catholic high school in the late sixties.  On the other hand, it must have been extra hard.

About Gay Straight Alliances

I kind of wondered a bit about Gay Straight alliances.  I think that my tendency to favor the underdog might have drawn me to such a thing.  I remembered being mocked when in discussions of the draft, I mentioned that one of the objections is that it was used to perecute homosexuals.  As it happens, I knew somebody who had been in a GSA, my son William, who will soon have his degree in Creative Writing and oh how the money will start flowing.  Here is what he had to day.
I don't remember anyone being out in the GSA, so we were more about changing minds rather than outreach. We did a day of silence where we carried around whiteboards to talk with and it was supposed to emulate how a gay person risked themselves if they talked, but everyone took it as kind of funny
Dave On Scalia

I suppose we can close with Dave Posteraro's evaluation of of our most famous Son of Xavier, the late Justice Scalia.
So I suppose some final say on Scalia is in order.  He is, after all, the reason we both started down this path of recollections.
As a lawyer, I found him fascinating although I think “originalism” is hogwash as much as literalism and fundamentalism in biblical  Christianity is pure bunk.  But his dissents, at least, were fun to read.  (In fact he makes much more sense in the Lawrence case than the majority).  But as a gay man,  I think he was an absolute tool.


David R. Posteraro is an attorney focusing on intellecutal property law.

Peter J Reilly is a CPA who would rather be a writer, but you have to do something to feed your family,


  1. Sitting in the restaurant in Bloomingdales, taking a respite from Christmas shopping, my brother looked at me and said,
    "I have something to tell you."
    "What's that?"
    "I'm gay."
    That was how Dave came out to me. Only later did he tell me that of all the people in our immediate family, I was the one whose reaction he was most concerned about and he was surprised that it was nothing more than, "OK", and complete acceptance.
    I was a Colonel in the Army Reserves, and when I was in high school I thought that Barry Goldwater would make a great President. That's why Dave had been concerned.
    I never knew that there were gay students when I was at Xavier. I'm sure, in retrospect, that there must have been but, like Dave, they hid it well. [Never knew about your sojourns into the Village, Dave. Thanks for sharing.]
    I could never reconcile the Church's views on gays with Christ's teachings, which is one reason I'm an Episcopalian, today (but still support Xavier and Fordham, and am thrilled with Pope Francis).
    A Gay-Straight Alliance at Xavier; the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, recognition of same sex marriage ... maybe we are making some progress.
    I wish Bernie were ten years younger ...
    Thanks, Peter; thanks, Dave!

  2. I am Pete's expert on things that are gay, I guess: we were friends (via a mutual NJ friend) when we were both in high school (me in NJ, him at Xavier), I was "out" by 1970 (when Pete was still in high school), and I live now in Greenwich Village just 3 blocks south of Xavier. I frequently see young Xavier men in packs wandering through the queer-infused streets of Chelsea and the Village. What with the gay-straight alliance and all, it would seem that those boys have a much easier time than David had. But I don't think that David had a much harder time than any of us had--being gay at Cliffside Park High School was no picnic, although, because of countercultural infusion at the time (an infusion that probably did not reach Xavier), I was accepted as a rebel/nonconformist/hippie, which was not all that different from queer, and so friends who accepted me as r/n/h did not seem to have too much trouble accepting me as homosexual.

    Xavier, as Pete & Dave describe it, seems like an insular world within the New York melange--rather like the Hassidim, who can be among us but also totally in a different world. The crewcuts and military dress of Xavier kids in the late 1960s would certainly set them apart from mass culture. Of course, those who opened their eyes, as Dave did, could see the rest of the world: I, like Dave, knew about The Boys in the Band and gained comfort from its very existence, even if it was not the most affirming of gay plays.

    Two blocks from Xavier, at the corner of 6th Ave. & 14th St., was an institution called "Alternate University" in the late 60s and early 70s. Alternate U started having "courses" about gay liberation almost as soon as Stonewall took place. And it was there that I first went to meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, and heard discussions of how GLF fits within the overall Movement. What if Young Dave, in his military garb, had entered the door of Alternate U, climbed the stairs--I imagine that the cigarette-chaining habituees of the ramshackle quarters would have, as they say, "freaked out," and try to "educate" him. But that didn't happen, because Alternate U was in an alternate universe, as far as Xavier was concerned. Scholars at the two institutions would not have seen each other, or, if they could see each other, would not have known how to speak to each other. Like Klingon and Swahili, with no one around to translate.

    One other thing having to do with Xavier: the Catholic gay group, Dignity, used to have its services at the Xavier church. I was dating a Catholic in the late 70s, Billy, and Billy and I once went to a service at Xavier. As mentioned above, the Jesuits who controlled Xavier were OK with gay stuff, many if not most were gay, and they were probably happy to be having so many potential recruits coming to them. Cardinal Cooke (successor to the rather notoriously gay Cardinal Spellman, known in gay circles as Nellie Spellbound) banned such services, and Dignity found quarters elsewhere, probably in Episcopal churches.

    1. Oddly enough when it came to the life of the mind, Xavier was probably more liberating than the typical public school unless you hung with the really cool kids like Alan Jacobs. You will be probably be surprised to learn that a bunch of us went to see Boys in The Band as an approved school activity. One of the things that we could not help but note was that a couple of the characters had gone to Georgetown, which I hate to acknowledge is probably the most elite Jesuit college.