Revisiting the Archive — Joyce Hunter
In 1939 Joyce Hunter was born into a world so hostile it’s a wonder she wasn’t crushed. Instead, the challenges and brutality she faced proved to be the launchpad for an expansive life of pioneering activism and accomplishment. A guiding light in tough times.
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Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History, “Revisiting the Archive,” coming to you again from my guest room closet on West 20th Street in New York City.
What is it now? Nine weeks? Time’s meaning has shifted a little, but, yes, it’s been nine weeks since my partner Barney and I began sheltering in place, and the novelty of recording Making Gay History in a closet has worn off.
When this all started two months ago, I found my makeshift closet studio cozy and comforting. I felt swaddled in this small space, surrounded by the stuffed toys we roll out when hosting friends and their kids, shelves of old photo albums and the memories they contain, winter coats, and camping gear from long-ago trips into the wilderness.
But these days, cozy comfort is being edged out by claustrophobia. This closet is a reminder of how constrained life has become—and how much I’m missing the company of my colleagues and the pleasure of collaborating face-to-face—a pleasure that I took for granted.
Barney knows that outside of a pandemic I can be a little moody, but I’ve been a lot more up and down over the past two months. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve got work and I can do it from home. I’m healthy. I’m not alone. All too many of us have had lives completely upended—jobs lost, careers derailed, unpaid bills piling up, and much worse.
I’m fortunate, and I’m grateful, but the down days still happen, and on those days I find that revisiting the voices from the Making Gay History archive, and sharing them with you, really helps. And one of the voices I find most inspiring and hopeful belongs to Joyce Hunter. It’s partly because Joyce’s voice reminds me of home. She speaks with the same New York accent as my late mother and father. It’s also because—as you’re about to hear—she’s just amazing.
I got to see Joyce a few weeks ago at a performance of the Making Gay History play. Just before the lockdown. At the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in early March, we gave each other meaningful hugs after watching 20 LGBTQ pioneers brought to life on the stage. One of the last times I’ve hugged anyone apart from Barney. I miss hugging my friends.
Joyce Hunter was born eight decades ago into a world so hostile and unwelcoming that it’s any wonder she wasn’t crushed. Instead, the challenges and brutality she faced proved to be the launchpad for an extraordinary, expansive life of pioneering activism and accomplishment, much of it focused on the most neglected LGBTQ youth.
So here’s the scene. Joyce greeted me at her apartment door in Sunnyside, Queens, with a smile. At the time, Joyce was just shy of 50 and had close-cropped curly dark hair and wore large wire-rimmed glasses. She was dressed in dark slacks and a button-down shirt. She led me into her bright living room. We took our seats and I attached the microphone to her collar. I pressed record.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Joyce Hunter of the Hetrick-Martin Institute on December 9, Friday, 1988. Location, Sunnyside, Queens. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Joyce Hunter: I was born in Staten Island. 1939. I was born in a home for unwed mothers. My mother and father were not married. My mother was an Orthodox Jew. My father was Black. And my mother, by the way, was 16.
JH: Yeah, 16, 17. She was kind of young. And my mother got ill with hepatitis and then we were taken away when my mother was in the hospital. Today they call them group homes. In those days they called them orphanages even though your parents weren’t dead. From the time that I was five until I was 14 I was in an orphanage.
EM: Did you have any sense during those years that you were somehow different?
JH: Different. Different. Definitely different, especially when I was around 10. I knew, but, you know, you don’t know what it is. And it was like, number one, they used to take us to the movies every Saturday and I was crazy only about the women. It was the only thing that I would focus on. You know what it is? You recognize difference before you recognize sameness. And I didn’t feel the same as everybody else.
EM: So at 14 you left the orphanage?
JH: Yeah. I went to live with my mother and father in the Bronx in the projects. Growing up in the Bronx and on the streets of the Bronx is… You hear everything. And then you can get your first word of “faggot” and “queer.” It scared the hell out of me. I thought that somebody was gonna come after me, but I don’t think that anybody knew. Although, I don’t look much different. You know, I was kind of like, quote-unquote, “butch-y looking,” but I don’t think they made the connection because I was very quiet and I tend not to… at that time, speak a lot, believe it or not. Then I went through a period where I wouldn’t talk at all and went into therapy because of it. I tried to commit suicide at 17. I was in a situation that was pretty violent.
EM: At home.
JH: My father was pretty abusive, yeah. And, uh, so that was a factor. Not being able to… I missed the kids from the home. You know, they were like my… I was there eight years, you know. And I didn’t like being where I was. So the homosexuality was a factor. The family situation was a factor. And I just thought it would be easier to be dead than to live.
My mother was, like, banging on the door and I stopped and she took me to the hospital. And I never went back home since. That was the last time I was in that home.
EM: When you were 17 years old.
JH: Yeah, I spent my 18th birthday in a state hospital.
EM: So you saw psychiatrists there then.
JH: Once. You served time there.
JH: I swear to god, that’s how it was to me. I was away for almost a year, I guess. When I came out, I started seeing a therapist and I didn’t want to be gay and I didn’t everybody to hate me. And I wanted it to go away. And some therapist said, “Well, if you get married, it’ll go away.” Well, I wanted to believe it and so I did. And at 18 I went and got married to a really nice guy.
EM: Did it go away?
JH: No. I was married one year and then I met this woman, my first adult lover, while I was married, and I knew it was never going away. And I fell in love with a woman and I kept it a secret. I mean, I was so… I had never experienced any kind of feeling like that ever. You know, not with no guy. But it took me 13 years to leave the marriage. And I had two children while I was married.
EM: You must have felt trapped.
JH: Terribly trapped. When I decided to come out it was either killing myself or coming out, but I had the kids and the kids kept me from doing such a thing. And, um, so I came out and I was a much better parent for it. I have a wonderful relationship with my kids today.
EM: Did you go to any of the early gay pride marches?
JH: I didn’t go to the first one. I was not there.
EM: That was ’70—’70 was the first one.
JH: And I didn’t go in ’71. ’72.
EM: Tell me a little about that first march.
JH: I was kind of excited, almost arrogant. “Gay rights now!” You know, and excuse me, fuck you if you don’t like it. It was like… One of the things that the movement did for me, it gave me a vehicle to express my anger.
EM: What were you angry about?
JH: Everything. That I had been denied my life. That I had no adolescence. My childhood was robbed. I always say that when I come back in the next life I want to come out at two and I want to be able to enjoy being who I am.
Let me just tell you how I got involved in the first place because I think that might help a little. My former lover took me down to the Fire House. And this was 1971. I remember walking in and it was a woman’s dance. And I was, like, really overwhelmed. I’ll never forget that moment and it was exciting. And to see so many gay people on the street because people were coming out on the street. Never, never saw anything like that.
When I was growing up I didn’t think there were any gay people at all. And I just thought I was this odd entity, you know. And it was like, you know, oh, wow. All I could say was, “Oh, wow.” It was just like… ooh.
EM: You found home.
JH: For me, it was like coming home. This is it. This is who I am.
EM: What were you doing for a living then?
JH: In ’71 I was working in a factory. I didn’t get a high school diploma until ’75. So I was also… I had dropped out of school.
Also, going on at the same time, was my ex-lover was a student at Hunter College. They wanted to start a lesbian feminist organization and I got involved with Lesbians Rising.
Nobody wanted to be the spokesperson for an on-campus lesbian group. You know, they were concerned about their careers. And I said, “Well, I’m not a student.” And they said, “Well, we just want you to be the spokesperson.” This also meant that I was going out to other groups, representing Lesbians Rising.
EM: Did you also work with non-gay people? Did you talk to non-gay groups?
JH: It’s very interesting because in those early years most of my work was in the non-gay community, educating people. I walked into a classroom in 1972 in Mary Lefkarites’s human sexuality class. Yeah, Harold Pickett and I walked into that class. And basically we went in there and talked about who we were. Even though it was uncomfortable at first, you know, I felt that it was so important to dispel the myths about us. Because I also felt, you go into a class of 30 there’s got to be a couple of gay people in that class.
And during this time, I might add, from ’73 to ’75, all those years up, I was working with college… doing peer… gay peer counseling. But what happens was that some of these students were bringing in high school students, or kids that they had picked up on the street. And I would never say no to the kids. If they came in and they wanted counseling we would counsel them.
EM: You were at that time a peer… You weren’t a professional then.
JH: I was not a professional. I was not even a student.
EM: Were you working at the time doing something else?
JH: I was working on Pippin’s on Fifth Avenue as an apprentice chef. I was going to be a chef. Things changed for me, it was ’75 when I got attacked. And it really changed my life around. I couldn’t do the work anymore. Being a chef was out of the question. Because I was attacked and I was hurt pretty bad and it left me with a chronic back problem.
EM: You were attacked in the restaurant or you were attacked out on the street?
JH: I was attacked out on the street near NYU [New York University] on the northeast side of the park, Washington Square.
EM: For any particular reason?
JH: For being gay. It was an anti-gay attack. They came behind us and started kicking this can at me. They were kicking it pretty hard and it was hitting me and I turned around to like… I remember saying, like, “Aw, c’mon,” or something like, “What’s the matter here?” you know, “What’s this all about?” And the guy hit me. And with the first punch, my nose was broke. And the other person hit me in the stomach, which I couldn’t stand up after I got hit in the stomach and I fell down. And I was already now a bloody mess, but I got kicked in the back.
EM: And they were yelling things.
JH: “Who do you think you are? You wanna look like a man? We’ll show you.” You know, that kind of stuff.
EM: Ugh, god.
JH: The woman with me, she had to fight off the other two. And there was this guy who hailed a cab and got us in there so we got to the hospital. I was in the hospital for a month. So now I come out of the hospital, my doctor is saying, “You can’t do this work,” because I was in so much pain. My doctor told me to go to OVR, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. They said, “We’ll retrain you.” So they took all these tests and everything and they said, “We’ll send you to college. You’re college material.” And I said, “Well, I don’t even have a high school diploma.” So they said, “Well, we’ll send you to NYU to college prep course and you’ll take the test.” And that’s what I did.
EM: What an irony! Do you ever think about the irony of that experience?
JH: Yes. Yes. I do think about it a lot. Because, what they really did, I mean, my education, I mean, then, boy, and it was… I was hungry for it.
EM: What did those… The people who beat you up had a motive.
JH: Yeah, I think they wanted to bust my face, which they half did.
EM: But their motive was not…
JH: Not to make me this better activist, no. Or this person who would go on to make some real change. No, I’m sure that was not in their… I think they wanted to put me six feet under. They sent an activist really on her way. That’s what they did. That’s what they did. They don’t know.
EM: How did you meet Emery Hetrick and Damien Martin?
JH: I came to speak at NYPAC.
EM: NYPAC was?
JH: New York Political Action Committee? NYPAC. And they were members of NYPAC.
I wanted something to happen in a big way for lesbian and gay youth and when I met them… You know how you get this feeling that the right people met at the right time? I immediately took to them. Emery was such a wonderful, warm kind of person. And he was such a caring person. He, uh, you know, he started SAGE. He was a man with vision. And he really felt that, you know, we have to start protecting our youth.
So those first three years we were basically doing education and advocacy. And we were training professionals to work with lesbian and… We were raising the issue. We got very little support from the gay community.
EM: Why do you think that’s so?
JH: Because I believe that the gay community has internalized that child molesting myth. You know? It really is. And I think that we have to get that monkey off our backs. These young people are part of our community. And we can’t deny that.
In 1983 we opened our doors for social services, direct services.
EM: Can you tell me about the first kid at all?
JH: 001, yes. And she’s doing very well today. She’s a kid who’s grown a lot. She’s going to college and working today. There’s been some real good stories. A lot of these kids come back later. It’s exciting. That’s the good part.
EM: Tell me why it’s exciting?
JH: Because they grow up with a better sense of themselves. They don’t have to work it out in adulthood where a lot of us had to work out our identity issues, our relating to other people. And that’s an important thing—to learning how to socialize. I think about when we were growing up that we didn’t have the place to develop our interpersonal skills. We were not telling our friends who we were. You couldn’t honestly discuss relationships, sex, sexuality, because we weren’t saying who we were. And it was so great to see kids having friends that were gay.
EM: This must have made you think about your own childhood when you saw these kids.
JH: It did. I remember one time Steve came to me. He says to me, “Do you know the kids are real quiet.” I said, “Well, why don’t you go back there and check it out and see what’s going on.” So he went back out there, he says to me, “I want you to go back there and you have to see this to believe it.”
So I go back there. I never thought that I would live to see something like this. A group of gay kids playing spin the bottle. And I was… I almost cried, I mean, because I was so moved by it, you know, and remembering how hard it was for me. And I just, you know, my god… I said to them, “I want you to know what I think is going on here is so beautiful.”
EM: Why was it so beautiful?
JH: Because I could have never imagined it. They weren’t lonely. They were laughing. They were having a good time. And it wasn’t like… It was very affectionate stuff. It wasn’t, you know, hot heavy sex or anything like that. It was affectionate. There was a real closeness and friendship. And it was fun. They were having fun. I didn’t have fun when I was a kid. And the realization that they’re just like any other group of kids and if you leave them alone they’re curious.
And I explained that to them. I said, “I want you to know that while I’m going to ask you to stop this because you’re in an agency and it’s really not the appropriate place, I want you to know there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing.” And they all smiled and they said, “Aw, alright.” You know, but, I mean, it was never… nowhere in my wildest imagination that a group of kids could get together, you know, to do that.
EM: Did you feel that you’d accomplished your goal?
JH: Oh, at that moment?
EM: That this was validating.
JH: This was very validating that, you know… And it was good, clean fun.
EM Narration: Joyce Hunter’s work with the Hetrick-Martin Institute was just the beginning. She went on to co-found the Harvey Milk High School, an alternative New York City public high school for up to a hundred at-risk LGBTQ youth. Hetrick-Martin is still providing vital services to young people through this pandemic. You can learn more at HMI.org.
And Joyce didn’t stop with a college degree. She went on to get her master’s and PhD. She’s now a research scientist at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University. She’s also principal investigator of the Working It Out Project, a community-based HIV prevention research initiative for gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents.
Joyce still lives in the same apartment where I first interviewed her, which she shares with Jan Baer, her wife of nearly 40 years. Between them they have 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. What a life—and such an inspiration.
Before I sign off, I have another “I made gay history when…” email to share with you. This one comes from Bob Brager in the Netherlands. He wrote:
I was just listening to your podcast with Ellen DeGeneres… and I heard your call for “I made gay history when…” contributions. So I thought I would share with you a real story about how I met Barack Obama at the Democratic National Committee meeting in 2007, when he was seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination for the first time.
I told Obama I was an American love exile, and that I lived in the Netherlands only because I could not bring my Dutch husband legally to live in the United States. Those were the days of the dreaded “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Obama hadn’t known about the immigration problems of same-sex couples. So I was glad that I got the chance to tell him. His reaction electrified me. I think it made a difference.
To be honest, Barack Obama is a very straight guy and I think it took him a while to come around to us and our issues. But in our brief conversation at that DNC meeting in Washington, he responded to my personal problem in the most visceral, heartfelt way. He is a man who understands the hardship of discrimination of any kind. I instantly fell in love with him (politically, that is). I then worked tirelessly for his election. I was proud to be an Obama delegate (once a superdelegate) at both Democratic conventions where he was nominated.
Thanks for all that you do! Keep up the good work.
Thank you, Bob, for sharing your story.
Thank you also to our listeners who have recently made donations to support Making Gay History. I’m especially grateful to Andra and Irwin Press. Thanks, Andra! Thanks, Irwin!
We’re also extremely grateful to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which has chosen to support Making Gay History’s mission for another year.
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.