The truth will out

As a reporter and editor, Dudley Clendenen spent years chasing lies, and running from his own. Now sober and openly gay, the Baltimore author seeks an identity for himself and for homosexuals in society.

June 15, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

In a resume inspired more by free verse than terse corporate speak, Dudley Clendinen reviews his career from 1989 to mid-1991: "Many tickles and offers, but Time Out for extended mid-life crisis, full jury divorce trial, and lots of time with daughter Whitney. No more drinks, no more wife, no more playing games."

And presumably, no more lies. Clendinen, a reporter and editor who had spent two decades getting to hard truths about American politics, banking scandals, Vietnam and Florida's death penalty debate, finally got to the hard truth about his own life.

At a Minnesota clinic, he quit the alcohol that made pretending barely tolerable, and then he quit the pretending. He openly acknowledged he was gay.

It would be two more years before Clendinen -- who was the Sun's assistant managing editor for writing for a short time in the early 1990s -- found a way to partially recoup what was lost by suppressing his identity all those years. Spurred by his own op-ed piece for the New York Times on the potential power of gay voters in the 1992 presidential election, Clendinen, the inveterate reporter, looked between the lines and saw a book.

Six years and nearly 700 interviews later, he and Times reporter Adam Nagourney have produced "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America" (Simon & Schuster, $30), a 716-page history that begins with the Stonewall riots in 1969 and plows through the raucous, jubilant and tragic terrain of homosexual politics until 1987.

The book is a densely detailed examination of a movement graced by bravery, marred by internal rifts, hobbled by dueling goals and strategies. The gay struggle to build clout in local and national government took place while Clendinen, not yet able to confront the truth, was channeling his identification with the underdog into other journalistic endeavors. When he did write about gay issues, it was from the dispassionate stance of a closeted homosexual. And so, "Out For Good," as the title might suggest, was "all part of the process of coming to terms" with himself, Clendinen says.

As the son of the editor of the Tampa Tribune, he says he grew up in a liberal Southern family that placed a premium on integrity and truth, making his secret all the more excruciating. But to say he was gay was not a truth his family would easily accept.

"My father's job was to sort out moral issues every day," says Clendinen, who lives in a Bolton Hill rowhouse crammed with family photos, books and folk art. "I came from a family that believed in rectitude and public service, and so, life has always been a sort of a conundrum for me. If you're Southern and you believe in doing the right thing and you're homosexual, you've got a problem."

A psychiatrist helped Clendinen understand that there was nothing wrong with homosexuality. Becoming sober also bolstered his courage. "Addiction treatment is a great thing for helping you to be what you were raised to be in the beginning, which is honest," he says.

By admitting the truth, Clendinen was able to see "how I fit into the world."

It was not Clendinen's excitement about Bill Clinton, but the waxing gay voting bloc that excited him about a possible book. "I was seeing this for the first time as somebody honest about the fact I am gay ... and still a journalist. So why wouldn't it be interesting to witness this phenomenon that was likely to occur, and merge for the first time my personal interest and my professional work?"

As he and Nagourney plunged into the project -- it took six months of exhaustive research just to map it out -- Clendinen found frequent opportunities for learning how he, as a gay man, fit -- or didn't fit -- into the world.

Gays' predicament as an oppressed constituency was singularly dismal, Clendinen contends. More so than "blacks, Jews, shunned immigrants, or Catholics, gays were deprived of their constitutional rights" to gather, to drink, to worship, he says. They were the "only group with no rights whatsoever."

State laws against sodomy, religious strictures and the American Psychiatric Association's listing of homosexuality as a disorder (removed in 1973), compounded gays' second-class status, Clendinen says.

And yet homosexuals, unlike other minorities, could choose to be invisible, he notes. But the only way to establish the fact that homosexuality doesn't matter was to "declare themselves," Clendinen says. It is "only when they cease to see you as unnatural that the understanding is complete."

"Out for Good" copiously traces how the gay rights campaign -- inspired by how black power, feminism, sexual liberation and the anti-war movement in the 1960s had launched a frontal assault on establishment America -- surfaced throughout the country, both in predictable cities such as New York and San Francisco, and in lesser known hotbeds such as Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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