(Claus Ihlemann and Robert Roman, pictured recently at Decorum Furniture, are pillars of the community. )
By Jeff Maisey
As Pride Month approaches during a time of continued social fluidity, it seemed this might be a good opportunity to reach out to Claus Ihlemann and Robert Roman for their reflections on the past challenges of being gay in America and bring it forward with the many accomplishments uplifting today’s LGBT community.
Ihlemann and Roman are successful, civic-minded business owners, developers of commercial retail and real estate, social activists, volunteers, philanthropists, and trailblazers.
Here’s our conversation.
VEER: I can remember what a big deal it was for entertainers such as Elton John and Freddie Mercury to come out as being gay. What was the social environment like in American culture at that time?
Robert: Well, you know, in the late ‘70s, I was becoming of age and it was still very difficult. No matter whether we had stars or others, they were coming out but not coming out completely. Everything was still very taboo. Everything was still underground, not that we had a secret handshake, but it was always very taboo.
If you were going to live your life fully you had to do it in a place where it was accepted. That’s why we had this mass exodus to go to San Francisco, New York, all the big cities where there was this expression where we could live our lives freely.
Yet, when you look at Middle America — anything from New York to LA — there was still that whole time where you didn’t want people to know who you truly were.
VEER: So those major cosmopolitan cities were safe zones, would you say?
Robert: I would say those were safe zones.
Again, you look at big cities like San Francisco, New York, Miami where you had sections of the cities where the Gay Ghettos kind of evolved. That’s where they would live; and that’s where they were safe.
Even though, in the late ‘60s, when we still had police going to bars and taking people to jail. In the 1970s that’s when we said, “No more.”
That’s kind of when a movement was created.
We were stopped again in the 1980s with the AIDS crisis. That put a jolt in our life because we suddenly had people who were afraid of us. They thought most everybody was HIV-positive or had AIDS.
Claus: They were afraid to shake you hand, you know? They were afraid to eat at the same table because “Can I catch it from them?” There was that fear.
VEER: There was such a lack of information and education at that time.
Claus: Oh, absolutely.
Robert: I became a volunteer for some of the AIDS organizations to help these people with AIDS that were dying and didn’t have anybody there.
I would help feed them and get them to appointments.
There was a big coalition of people who said, “I am going to help.”
VEER: Now, Claus, you came from Denmark. Was Danish culture more accepting of gay people than in America during the 1970s?
Claus: So, coming from Denmark I had a very different background and life experiences than Robert had.
But I didn’t really recognize my sexuality until the mid to late ‘70s, so my experiences are far more in this country and Norfolk, in particular.
At that time it was very difficult to find role models that you could look up to because, frankly, they were all in the closet. Until you had a chance to meet people where then you could privately get to know them you really had no way of getting a role model that fit what you wanted to be and what you wanted to do with your life.
All you saw in the news media were characters that you did not want to aspire to become.
Robert: They were very stereotypical.
Claus: For example, if there was a gay parade in New York City the news media would take a photograph of the most outrageous person, and that one photograph was repeated again and again and again as if that was a defining characteristic of being gay.
And it was challenging to say, “Well, that’s not who I am.”
I have lots of goals in my life and lots of things I want to do, and finding a role model really was, for me, finding people, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that were professionals, that were in business that you then privately realized were preferring to share their life with another man.
VEER: I realize the importance of finding local people as personal role models, but was it helpful on an overall cultural level of gaining acceptance to have famous people come out? For example, if Middle America loved Elton John and he came out as gay, then maybe gay people are “just like everybody else” in their minds. Did that help?
Claus: It helped a lot because it certainly made the topic far easier to talk about.
And then, of course, as you reached that point in the early ‘80s where you’re saying, ok I can be out and I can talk about it and be comfortable with that. Then the AIDS crisis happened and suddenly you find yourself being classified as being bad people for a whole different set of reasons.
VEER: Can you speak to the devastation of the AIDS crisis in gay communities in places like Washington, DC and New Your City — those safe zones we previously talked of?
Claus: But an area like Norfolk was pretty heavily impacted as well. It became very difficult to go to funerals because not only were you attending the funeral of somebody you knew and loved, but also you were in the company of people who — I hate to say it — you knew their funeral was not far away.
Emotionally, it was very stressful and difficult.
Robert: Claus was at the forefront of helping. He was on the board of TACT.
Claus: Tidewater AIDS Community Taskforce.
Robert: They raised thousands of dollars to help all these people because they lost their job; they needed medication, housing.
Claus and another set of friends built this organization to help these kids. A lot of them were very young. It brought it to the forefront.
Then, with the Reagan Administration, they wouldn’t recognize what they called the gay plague. Suddenly we had people — activists in New York City like Gary Kramer — that helped get the research done. That’s when we saw AZT come out. That was the first medication that started helping people.
A lot of people were out there trying anything to cure themselves from this disease that they didn’t deserve to have.
Now we’re at the point where people can get medications where it’s undetectable. AIDS has now become a manageable disease like diabetes or high blood pressure.
They’re thinking we may get to a point where we can eradicate AIDS. We’re happy with that and how it has progressed.
VEER: Did the fight against AIDS gain strength when well-known basketball player Magic Johnson — who was straight — contracted HIV or after the young boy who contracted HIV/AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion died. The teen was championed by Elton John.
Robert: I think that it did. That was the young kid in Indiana.
Claus: Ryan White.
Robert: The Ryan White Foundation was very instrumental in getting people onboard. When Arthur Ashe, who was straight…then suddenly it’s not the gay plague, it’s the all people plague.
There’s still a lot of stigma not only here in the United States, but in countries like India and in Africa where HIV has become very prevalent.
Claus: When somebody like Rock Hudson came out as gay in his final days of his life, (funding for AIDS research) got support from Hollywood. In particular, Elizabeth Taylor was instrumental in raising an incredible amount of money for research.
It changed it from a topic that was taboo to a subject people were talking about.
Unfortunately, by the time that happened, thousands of lives had been lost.
Robert: You had a lot of organizations pop up. The Gay Man’s Crisis Center raised millions of dollars. All of those things that happened were the catalysts to get research done. The (Federal) government really fell short in their involvement, but that got circumvented by the public outcry and philanthropists that came in to help.
VEER: We discussed safe places. Can you talk about the role gay clubs play in the community where people could relax and not worry about being stared at or harmed for being themselves?
Robert: The gay bars are still a safe haven. They still have that sense of community. They represent a place you can go and be safe, but now there’s more than just the gay bars. There’s gay organizations, places like the LGBT Life Center where people can go and gather.
Our lives in the in the past revolved around bars and dark rooms, and all of those kind of things. That’s part of our history and we embrace that because that was the only way we could find people, but now it’s very diverse. You have people meeting everywhere.
Not only do we have bars that we can go to, but we have business organizations like HRBOR — the Hampton Roads Business Outreach — that’s like a LGBT chamber of commerce. It’s growing by leaps and bounds. Those days of the secret handshake are long gone.
VEER: Would you say gay bars are still relevant in a time of so much openness and inclusion? Do they serve the same purpose?
Robert: They are relevant because those are still safe places. It’s a place where people can go and let their hair down.
In a world where the word “gay” has changed in so many ways and you have so many diverse groups within the community — the trans community, the lesbian, the bisexual, people who don’t want to identify their gender or be pegged into a closet. They all have come under that LGBT umbrella because there they feel safe.
If somebody wants to say, “You know what? I just want to love the person I’m with, whether they’re straight, gay, trans or whatever,” then it is a really big, diverse community.
VEER: Back when we started VEER Magazine, the topic of gay marriage was a major issue. Much has changed in the past 12 years and it is now legal in the Commonwealth of Virginia. You two had to go to California to be married, right?
Claus: That is right. We got married in 2008 in San Francisco.
Robert: In the beginning, when Virginia voted into law that any contract between two people of the same sex that purported the benefits of marriage would be illegal — that was a big thing.
We stood in front of polls. Our neighbors walked by us with their heads down as we stood there together holding hands asking them to vote “no.”
That was really tough to see our own neighbors say, “No, you don’t deserve to be married.”
But then there were a lot of people who did, and that’s when we really became activists.
We said the only way we were going to get this done is if we have the right people in place to advance our cause.
That’s when we supported Ralph Northam for the State Senate at that point. We supported some of the other delegates who were still on the fence and said marriage is still between a man and a woman. We said, “We will educate you and hopefully you’ll change your mind over time,” and a lot of them did.
Suddenly it became this ball that grew and grew, and we finally had the support.
Claus: One of the things we learned in that process was having straight allies was super important.
In the monumental goals that were achieved and getting things done was through straight allies. I would say it is as important today as it was 20, 30 years ago.
Robert: And as we got closer to marriage equality…suddenly it was a big celebration.
We had gone to all these protests. We had gone to Richmond where people asked us if we wanted to marry our dogs. They shipped people from everywhere.
We were there and we said, “Love is love.” And that’s all we needed to say.
We didn’t ask if they wanted to marry their sister.
Those questions don’t need to be asked. Love is love.
When (Marriage Equality passed) we had a big celebration here at Decorum. Senator Northam, the Attorney General, all these people came to support us, and that was a unique moment.
We rattled the hornet’s nest.
Now we’re at a point where people want to circumvent those laws and take our rights away.
VEER: So, let’s focus on that. What are the key issues facing the LGBT community moving forward after having made so much progress?
Claus: One of the core issues is there are forces working to try and overturn the law that allowed same sex marriage. They’re trying to put different laws in place to make it difficult.
Robert: There are also laws trying to limit trans rights and trans kids in school trying to find out who they are. All of those things in the trans community are being challenged.
There are a lot of states and communities that are still fighting adoption — things going on behind the scenes where they don’t want people in the LGBT community to adopt. They think we’re going to brainwash people.
You have to be able to educate people about who we are, what our lives are like, and take the core of our lives, get out of our bedroom, and just see what our lives are like.
Claus: It’s fascinating that the politicians that tell you how government needs to get out of everyone’s business are the same politicians putting their nose in everyone’s bedroom and discuss what happens in the bedroom.
Robert: I think what’s important is that we can have the same rights. They say we’re doing this for the children, but that’s not true.
Claus: And the laws that are being passed about education right now where this book can’t be used and that word can’t be used — where you can use “gay” in classrooms — the reality is that is a plan to limit education, suppress knowledge. And knowledge is power.
Students need to know history; they need to know the difference between right and wrong.
When you go back to the 1930s when they had big book burnings in Germany and other parts of Europe they were burning educational books they deemed evil. There are forces in this country in different states that, in a different way, are doing the same thing by banning books.
VEER: June is Pride Month and these days there are a lot of festivals and events in the community ranging from restaurants and breweries to city-sponsored parties, the Virginia Zoo and Norfolk Botanical Garden. I’m wondering if you might comment on the increased number of events now celebrating the LGBT community? Does it give you hope?
Robert: It does.
It just brings it all to the forefront.
We were able to get banners for Pride Month on 21st Street and Colley Avenue. It took us forever to get banners. There was so much pride to have those banners up and to reflect upon who we are as a group in terms of who we are within our community.
It is important to have a Pride Month not only for the LGBT community, but also for those who support the LGBT community.