Every day, as a high school senior, I arrived at French IV with wary excitement. It was a small class, maybe five total. Our teacher, a Ph.D candidate at University of Oklahoma with beautiful Auburn hair and a florid accent, possessed a love of Baudelaire I could not access within me. But that was beyond the point. French IV meant an hour with Gary Ralph, the most flamboyantly eccentric person, genius really, I’d ever met. He would bait and confuse the lovely lady whose name I’ve forgotten for the full hour, staking ribald positions just because he could and weaving double entendres of translation.
Gary and I were not friends, though certainly not enemies. He left me equal measure nervous and intrigued. So brilliant, so confident in being different while I spun so much energy trying to conform to an ideal it took two more decades to discard. Gary Ralph radiated so far beyond any norm he made it easy for me to imagine I wasn’t anything like him, so couldn’t be gay. Yet I intuited, in words I would not utter in any language, how we were alike.
Time and Facebook changes everything. A few years ago Gary friended me. When I began pedaling, he invited me to Delaware. I shaped my route to include Milford on a Saturday night so I could also attend church with Gary and his husband Bill the next morning. Forty-four years after we first met, I came home to the old friend I should’ve had all along.
Gary may be the only person I know who can say, “I have been a total one-off all my life,” with no irony whatsoever. He is softer, more loving, than I recall, but still so bright it can be difficult to face his ideas head on. He majored in American Studies at Yale and spent ten years in graduate school, both at the University of Delaware and a three-year stint in Poland. Gary teaches undergraduate history as an Adjunct Professor at University of Delaware’s satellite campuses. His expertise is colonial America, with emphasis on material culture (stuff) and armaments; a bit odd for man who’s never thrown a punch and lives in a modest two-bedroom home.
“My job is to expand the range of the possible for all of my students; I come out as part of each class.” He tells the story of one boy who took all of Gary’s classes, came early, stayed late. Before the young man moved to D.C. he invited Gary to lunch and explained how he considered himself both bi-gender and bi-sexual. “There are not a lot of other people in southern Delaware that he could have talked to; who would just accept that.”
Gary and his partner Bill have been together eighteen years. Bill describes the trials of their union with both humor and frustration. “In 2003 we had a commitment ceremony with a wedding reception. It was a symbolic, rather than legal, union. Then Delaware allowed domestic partnership, so we went to the Courthouse, filled out forms and paid one hundred dollars. A woman in jeans and sweatshirt tossed a black robe over her shoulders and performed a ceremony in front of a curtain flanked by fake flowers.” This offended Bill’s sensitivity. Fast forward to 2012 and Delaware allows gay marriage. “We have to fill out more forms and pay more fees to have our names shifted from one set of rolls to another. It’s just a money-making scheme for the state.”
Bill is as committed Christian, which has created other frictions. He attended the Methodist Church in Milford for years when he was married to a woman. He continued after he married Gary. A few years ago the minister announced a series of special sermons on sensitive topics for the church, including about gays and lesbians. He called Bill in advance of the date, and Bill gathered the sermon would be affirming. It was the opposite. “I’d given the church money, I taught Sunday school, I gave communion, and then they damned us.” Bill and Gary never returned to that church. Now, they belong to Epworth Methodist in Rehoboth, an open and affirming congregation.
A few years ago Bill retired from 35 years of classroom teaching, mostly middle school, lots of special ed. His patience is evident; it must have served him well in that work. “They were doing away with the most important stuff: cursive, grammar, the fundamentals were all going away. They have reinvented the wheel so often education is a flat tire.”
Gary was diagnosed with MD in his twenties. He has the slowest form of deterioration; the disease hardly affected him until a few years ago. Now he walks with a cane. But MD hasn’t cramped his intensity one bit. Gary often quakes when he speaks, sometimes he cries, as if the ideas he is trying to convey are so simple and precious to him, he cannot fathom why the rest of us are flummoxed. Before I arrived, he’d sent me a few Facebook messages about why my question is unsatisfactory. “How can you ask about tomorrow? Time is a frame of reference. We treat it as an absolute!” Watching him tremble as he rails, kindly, against my concrete nature, I recall the toe-headed teen with skew glasses that dazzled us all in French class. Gary still fascinates and intrigues me. But I no longer fear that we are alike. I celebrate it.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I worry about what I see around us. If I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t have them now.” – Bill
“I don’t understand the question. It cannot be answered. I think there is a cause and effect relationship between the present and the past. One reflects the other. History is like ballet. You have rules. You have to put your feet in set positions. If you do, it’s ballet. If not, you’re doing something else.
“Tomorrow is up to God and we are in God’s hands, but those two ideas are not necessarily connected. To the world outside Bill and I have a wonderful relationship, which we do. But I could have never foreseen what I have, it just happened because I was open to it and flexible. That’s my philosophy.” – Gary