Revisiting the Archive — Episode 8 — Morris Foote

From top clockwise: Standing on the steps of Idaho’s capitol building is a clean-shaven Morris Foote (front row, second from right) with the organizers of Boise’s first Gay and Lesbian Freedom Parade and Festival, which was held on Saturday, June 23, 1990. Credit: © Troy Maben; book jacket from John Gerassi's 1966 account of the Boise homosexual panic; Carolyn Mobley (at left with megaphone) teaching marchers songs and chants prior to the start of the 1990 Freedom Parade. Credit: © Troy Maben.

Episode Notes

In late 1955, the police of Boise, Idaho, started a sweeping investigation into an alleged “homosexual underground.” Fearing arrest, Morris Foote fled town, not to return till 20 years later. A story of Pride from the U.S. heartland to remind us that what unites us transcends red/blue state divides.

Visit our Season Two episode webpage for background information, archival photos, and other resources.

Episode Transcript

Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History coming to you from inside my guestroom closet for another socially distanced trip into the archive. 

It’s now been eight weeks since my partner Barney and I began sheltering in place here in New York City, and I’m feeling a growing sense of despair over what I’m seeing happen across the country. It’s not just the horrifying number of deaths, the new normal of more than a thousand families bereaved every day. It’s this: despite so many of us united in sorrow, each passing week it feels like the fault lines between red states and blue states, between cities and rural communities, are growing wider. That inability to come together in the face of this crisis adds another layer of sadness to this challenging chapter. 

But I remind myself, these divisions are not new. They were there 30 years ago when I first started recording interviews for the Making Gay History book. That’s why I very consciously decided to look beyond New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to unearth our gay history. And what I found, from Alaska to Florida and from Colorado to Idaho, was a shared humanity that transcended borders—both real and the ones we construct in our heads.

What brought me to Idaho was the story of a 1955 roundup of suspected homosexuals in the city of Boise that I read about in a book by John Gerassi called The Boys of Boise. The so-called homosexual panic of 1955 was a phony, months-long scandal that led the police to question nearly 1,500 Boise citizens—in a town of only 40,000. In the end, 16 men were arrested. Ten went to jail. For most of them, their only crime was engaging in sex with another consenting male. 

Morris Foote was 30 years old when all that was happening. He was working in Boise’s capitol building as an elevator operator. Afraid of getting caught up in the scandal, Morris fled Boise and headed to Middleton, Idaho, a flat-as-a-pancake farming community about a half hour to the northwest. And that’s where I found him in 1989. 

So here’s the scene. After parking in front of Morris’s green mobile home a block from Middleton’s main drag, I walked to the cafe where we’d agreed to meet for a pre-interview lunch. The town had clearly seen better days. Morris, his friend Sammy, and Morris’s younger brother, who had severe cerebral palsy were all waiting for me in the cafe. Morris’s brother had moved in after their mother died. Sammy was there for support.

Morris looked like a retired Amish farmer. A compact, heavyset man with a long white beard and old-fashioned glasses. Over iced tea and sandwiches we talked about everything. Everything except what I was there to talk about. 

Morris had warned me not to say anything gay until we were back at his place. An hour later, we each took a seat in the cramped living room of Morris’s mobile home. I clipped my microphone to the strap of his overalls, settled back into a well-worn easy chair, and pressed record.

———

Eric Marcus: Interview with Morris Foote. Thursday, November 16, 1989, 2:30 p.m., at the home of Morris Foote in Middleton, Idaho. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.

What was Boise like at that time? Was it a busy town with lots of bars or…?

Morris Foote: Main Street was skid row. You wouldn’t recognize it now. You see what is now is the Egyptian Theater. Across the street was bar after bar after bar after bar after bar. And you’d go into some of the bars and very plentiful homosexual activity right in the restrooms. Opened. It was too opened. They were just asking for trouble.

EM: So, if you met someone at a bar, you’d have sex there. You didn’t go back to someone’s house, did you?

MF: Oh, you wouldn’t have sex with anyone except in the bar, noooo! 

EM: Well, what did you do then? I don’t know…

MF: You went to the bathroom and took a leak and then someone come up to you and said, “Would you like to have it?” And then you’d go back to the bar and you’d never see the guy again.

EM: And you wouldn’t talk to each other.

MF: No, never see the guy again. 

EM: Did you have any sense that being gay was bad at the time?

MF: Absolutely not. One time, about 1955, The Statesmen put an editorial out that all homosexuals must… activity must cease. And it was a sin of society. And there was a homosexual ring operating in Boise and it must be put down. 

I looked at that and said, Is that act illegal? Here they had the men in jail on felony warrant and was going to send him to the pen for the rest of his life for doin’ it. I thought that anytime you had sex in privacy, no one would bother you. As long as it was an adult. It was two adult men.

EM: Do you remember seeing the headline that day when it first broke, about the arrests?

MF: Mmm-hmm. 

EM: What did you think?

MF: Well, I think I better move out of Boise and not be around there anymore. 

EM: Did you get calls from friends of yours who were being picked up or people who were being questioned?

MF: No. No one knew me. 

EM: No one knew you.

MF: Uh-uh. You don’t tell your name. And I don’t know their name. 

EM: Uh-huh. During that whole investigation, did you ever go into Boise at all?

MF: Not after that.

EM: Why didn’t you go?

MF: Well, I just decided I wouldn’t be a part of it.

EM: Because?

MF: I didn’t want to go to the penitentiary. 

EM: That’s a good reason.

MF: And I still don’t know when the statute of limitations are now. Whether I told you I had sex with someone, whether I could still be put in court on it. I don’t know. Do you know what statute of limitations…? I don’t know.

EM: I don’t think… seven years.

Growing up in high school did you know any other kids who were gay? Or did you even know what gay was?

MF: I didn’t even know what I was.

EM: Did you know you were different?

MF: No. 

EM: Did you think about it at all?

MF: No.

EM: No crushes on boys?

MF: Always went around with boys. But during that period of growing up, that’s customary for boys to go with boys in high school. I went with a boy from about seventh grade all through high school, through college. 

EM: The same boy?

MF: Uh-huh. 

EM: So he was your best friend.

MF: Yeah, we owned property and owned a car together. Just before graduating college, why, he took me aside and then he told me what I was. I didn’t know. He wanted sex. I never had any sex.

EM: With him?

MF: Hmmm.

EM: All those years.

MF: Hmmm. So he propositioned me and told me what I was, explained what a gay homosexual was. He said I was one. And I had just taken abnormal psychology, the study of those things. But in that book only about a paragraph on homosexuality said about three percent of the population had it. It went right on… It hardly mentioned it in the textbook. I bet today there’d be a lot more on it. 

EM: And you hadn’t heard of that before, homosexuality?

MF: Didn’t pay much attention to it. ’Till he explained it, because he went off and got married. 

EM: To a woman.

MF: Oh, yes. 

EM: And he was… Was he gay?

MF: No, he’s straight. He had probably had some fun in the Navy. So then I got interested and started going to Boise finding boyfriends. 

EM: Did you miss him?

MF: I miss him all my life. One of the saddest things, last year went to his funeral. They had a private interment, but they notified me. They wanted me to be present. And I was honored.

EM: Did you see him during all these years?

MF: About twice or three times.

EM: Did he know how much you loved him?

MF: I think so. 

EM: Yeah. That just makes me sad. That’s sad.

When did you start hearing about other places having gay rights groups and marches and all that business?

MF: Oh, probably after the gay community in Boise started. The gay bar opened in ’77. Started going to Boise again. 

EM: After, that’s after… That’s twenty years later.

MF: That’s right. It wasn’t like the old Indanha downstairs nor The Gas Light, where you never seen a homosexual picture and there wasn’t any gay talk at all or anything. This was strictly gay. You knew what you entered into.

When the gay movement got started, I considered myself part of it. Right, the very first time here in the bar. Then I got invited to join the gay rap group.

EM: Why did you join the gay rap group?

MF: Socialize. Meet other gays. It’s a wonderful time to get together.

EM: When did you join MCC?

MF: Metropolitan Community Church, 1978. When it started. 

EM: Why did you join?

MF: Because I like evening worship service. I’ve always liked evening worship service. Of course, being my sexuality, that feel right nice. And moved right into it.

EM: When did this march come about? The gay group and MCC didn’t protest much out in public here in Boise or Middleton, did it? It was kind of private, I would think. 

MF: You mean when we marched on the state capitol? We were having a district convention. Just before our meeting, two days before, I think, the Reverend Jerry Falwell scheduled a rally on the state capitol steps. 

EM: Why did he do that?

MF: He was going to every state capital at that time. I think he was trying to organize a political party. I’d say ’82, ’83, along in there. So a lot of us gays went to the Jerry Falwell Crusade.

EM: So you went to his talk?

MF: Oh, yes. You always want to go to the opposition and see what they have to say.

He spoke so much against homosexuality. Then when the convention started, then they decided, voted, let’s have a march to counteract what we had heard a day or so ago. We’ll have it a 11:00 p.m. at night, so those that don’t want to be on camera, they can kind of shy away. So no one would lose a job or anything over it. And they had 500 march.

EM: Were you worried about marching at all?

MF: No. Not at all. One thing, you couldn’t be seen on TV. Just a mass of humanity out there. That was the march. And Rev. Frieda Smith, who was borned in Pocatello, and is one of the elders in the church, gave the most wonderful talk that night on the state capitol.

EM: Do you remember any of what she said?

MF: “The word is out that we are human beings, too. We should have our rights, too.” 

EM: What do you think the rights of gay people should be?

MF: Equal rights. I think one thing we need to do that sexual acts among two consenting adults done in private should be legal. But I don’t think it’ll get anywhere now with the AIDS epidemic. 

EM: I hear talk about a gay pride march this spring?

MF: Oh, someone wrote in the paper they’d have one, but I don’t know… 

EM: Are you in favor of a parade?

MF: Yes, I guess so.

EM: Why do you say that you guess so?

MF: I don’t know whether I’d be here or not. I would probably be in San Francisco.

EM: How come?

MF: 300,000 to about 30 people. 

EM: You mean there will be 30 people at this march.

MF: Yeah. About 300,000 there.

EM: Do you think you’ll go to the parade here?

MF: I don’t know whether it will materialize or not.

———

EM Narration: Despite Morris’s doubts, Boise’s first pride march materialized. And Morris was there after all. And not only was he there, he was one of the organizers! 

When I think about Morris and his journey from self-exile as a result of the homosexual panic of 1955 to joining the mostly gay Metropolitan Community Church, going out on a protest march, and helping to organize Boise’s first Pride Parade and Festival, I think about the journey all of us are on today—a journey whose end point isn’t yet clear. And I think about how grateful I am to have had the privilege to get out of my big city bubble, to meet Morris, for him to entrust me with his story, and to have the chance to share it with you. 

We don’t yet know how long our isolation will last, how long before we can live our lives with the freedom we once did. But in the meantime, we have the opportunity to contribute in whatever ways we can to help shape the world that emerges once this pandemic has passed. 

Morris reminds us of the importance of standing up and being counted and joining with other like-minded people to fight for shared goals—that we’re stronger together, no matter where we live. 

Morris Foote died on December 4, 1998. He was 72. He lived long enough to make his own bit of history.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been heartened by the emails I’ve been receiving from members of the Making Gay History community. Like this one from Neal, a new listener from Dallas. Neal wrote: 

Hi Eric and Team,

I just discovered Making Gay History this weekend, and have quickly fallen in love with it, not only because of the amazing quality of the content, but also because of your commitment to still bringing us all together during these trying times.

This period of self-isolation has been particularly trying for me. I’m single, immune-compromised due to a health condition, and recently was let go from my full-time, much-loved job due to the ongoing economic catastrophe… I’ve found myself in an endless spiral of anxiety about the bills, insurance coverage, unemployment, re-employment, and just the fact that I’m alone more or less 24-7 at this point. It’s been very difficult, to say the least.

But, Making Gay History was completely a breath of fresh air for me. It has given me courage in so many ways after I listen to so many stories about people who had the courage to withstand much worse situations than I have had to withstand, or will ever have to withstand thanks to their activism.

On one hand, I have a great support system, but that support system has always seemed very conditional. Even at 28 years old, I haven’t had the courage to come out to my parents—even though I’m certain they have their suspicions… Frankly, my own foolish anxiety has made me hide it from them, simply because I don’t wish to have what will be a difficult conversation.

However, this podcast has changed that for me. It has made me feel a great deal of courage, particularly given that I have nothing to fear except my own anxiety. And for that, I thank you. I am thankful for everyone who makes it just that much easier for the anxious ones like me to capably be able to buck up and just tell the truth.

Thank you, Neal, for writing. 

Thank you also to our listeners who have recently made donations to support Making Gay History, so we can continue sharing these stories that have the power to inspire. I know that many people are struggling financially, so I’m especially grateful to supporters like Kate Davison. Thanks, Kate! 

We’re also extremely grateful to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which supports organizations that advance social justice by empowering world-changing work in investigative journalism, arts and culture, and documentary film.

This special episode of Making Gay History was produced by Sara Burningham, Making Gay History’s founding editor and producer, and Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director, who handles all the post-production work to get our episodes out to you.

So long. Stay safe. Until next time.

———

EM: Actually, did you have any questions for me before…?

MF: You were born and raised in New York City?

EM: Yeah.

MF: And you been gay all your life?

EM: Yep.

MF: You’ve never been married.

EM: No. Except to my husband.

MF: [Laughs.] Have you ever faced any persecution, job loss or…?

EM: Uh, other than the usual stuff, no, nothing out of the ordinary.

MF: Can you tell another gay person by looking at him?

EM: Can I? Some.

MF: How do you tell a gay person?

EM: By looking. It’s just… Eye contact, uh, yeah…

MF: What causes homosexuality?

EM: You want the latest studies?

MF: Yes. [Phone rings.] Excuse me one moment…

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