On a coffee table in the office of Robert Gentry, UC Irvine’s associate dean of students, is a wicker basket loaded with what appear to be gold-wrapped chocolate wafers. Only they aren’t. They’re condoms.
Gentry explains that they are available to any student who wants to drop by and pick some up. There’s just one hitch: They also have to pick up two pieces of literature on the nature of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and how to protect oneself against the virus.
The fight to educate the public on AIDS is a very special imperative to Gentry because as a current city councilman (and former mayor) in Laguna Beach, he is one of a small handful of elected officials in the state--and the only one in Southern California--to acknowledge their homosexuality publicly.
“That affects my life and performance every day in profound ways,” he says. “I have to work harder and perform at a higher level than my colleagues because I’m being judged more. So I take on issues I wouldn’t take on if I weren’t gay. I’m sure I feel this more than I need to because I’m more of a social activist and change agent--and therefore more likely to be judged.”
The condoms in his office are an example of that activism. So are his efforts to deal with a recent series of brutal attacks on gays in Laguna Beach that have cost one man an eye and caused serious injuries to three other victims. Only in the second attack have suspects been arrested.
Since the first attack took place June 19, Gentry has been working constantly with community leaders and other public officials to “improve relationships, make things better"--and try to make sure that the attacks aren’t repeated.
“We all assume that Lagunans are open and aware because we have such a substantial population of gays here,” Gentry says, “but conditions always improve by discussion. We’ve also raised a lot of hell since the third attack, and I think that’s why it hasn’t happened since. Law enforcement people have made it very clear that this sort of thing won’t be allowed and that the attackers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Gentry says Laguna Beach is highly visible to outside racists looking for victims because “our city has always attracted non-traditional people, independent thinkers who wanted a different quality of life. We’re not just another suburb but a real town with a very unique character.”
Gentry was first elected to the Laguna Beach City Council 6 years ago and has been reelected since. He says he was “openly gay both times, but the media showed no interest until after the first election, and although my opponents tried to bring it up in underground ways, it didn’t help them.”
A major reason is probably because Gentry has generally gotten high marks as a councilman (he has served one term as mayor and expects to serve in that office again) and has been a leading voice in opposing oil exploration off the Orange County coast. He estimates that he spends about 25 hours a week on public work.
Not all of his fellow Lagunans are comfortable with Gentry’s high visibility--especially since the attacks on gays have put Laguna Beach into the news. Several weeks ago, a group of two dozen local businessmen met privately with Gentry “and told me I was talking too much and should shut up because I was ruining business. To me, it’s part of the territory. When I’m in the forefront making statements, there’s going to be a backlash. But it showed me the colors of some people who would put money before safety--and that surprised me.
“They wanted me to be quiet about the violence because we’re a tourist-based economy, and the Chamber of Commerce was getting calls from people who were asking if it was safe to come to Laguna. They also asked me not to talk so much about AIDS and other controversial issues.
“I told them I was elected to look out for the welfare of the entire community and would continue to talk about anything that endangered the community. They walked out on me.”
To underscore his point, Gentry sponsored a council resolution calling for increased public education about gays, then was a principal mover and shaker in organizing a City Hall meetings to discuss ways of curbing violence against homosexuals. About 50 Laguna Beach residents--including church and education officials--attended.
One of the suggestions offered was using panel discussions to better inform high school students on the nature of homosexuality. To this end, Gentry offered 15 “misconceptions about gay . . . people” that he believes need correcting before understanding and tolerance can be improved--"and there’s no better place to start than the schools.”
“We got some flak from fundamentalist evangelical Christians,” he says, “who strongly opposed panels on homosexuality at schools, but others were much more open to the idea. It was a candid discussion, and there was no name-calling. In the 18 years I’ve lived here, there’s never been this kind of community dialogue, and I think it is very healthy.”
Only in the last five of those 18 years has Gentry, 49, gone public with his homosexuality, even though he has acknowledged it to himself since his junior year in high school. He grew up with two brothers in a Boston suburb where his father was an insurance company executive. His great-grandfather founded the Hollywood Christian church, of which Ronald and Nancy Reagan are still members.
Gentry attended a small Presbyterian college in southern Indiana “where I had strong spiritual feelings and did a lot of student preaching.”
He admits that some of this grew out of guilt. “When I surfaced my gay feelings in high school,” he says, “I was convinced I was the only one in the world. So I dated furiously and did all the other right things.”
He also tried to discuss his feelings with a college psychiatrist at the student health center “who said he didn’t want to talk with me about that.” While Gentry was in graduate school at Indiana University, a friend he didn’t know was gay took him to a gay bar in Chicago “and I realized for the first time I wasn’t alone.”
His first job took him to Cal State San Bernardino in 1968, and he joined the administrative staff of UCI two years later. His decision to go public and, finally, to be a strong advocate for gay rights began when he moved to Laguna Beach in 1974 and met the man with whom he lives today, Gary Burdick, owner of a Newport Beach hair salon.
Gentry decided to make his homosexuality public in an interview with The Times a year after his election to the Laguna Beach City Council.
“Most of the people who worked with me already knew,” he says. “I didn’t hide it. When I did go public, I received a lot of support from colleagues. But I still think it has affected my career. I’ve won lots of awards but only three promotions in 18 years here. I think it’s tough, especially in the student-affairs area, to promote someone as open as I am.”
But Gentry has no regrets. He’s a small, mustached, well-groomed, dapper man, on this day wearing two-toned shoes and a two-blocked tie. He’s soft-spoken but firm, giving a definite sense of strength.
“I have this feeling,” he says, “that if every gay and lesbian person in the United States turned green for 15 minutes next Monday morning, homosexuality would forever after be a non-issue because of the sheer weight of numbers.
“But that won’t happen, so we have to speak out--and that’s what I’m doing. Some of my biggest critics come from the gay community. They tell me I’m too open, that it’s better not to talk about it, better to let us lead our quiet life.
“I don’t feel there’s any merit to that argument, not with the level of discrimination we feel in this country today. The black poor people of Africa, the IV drug users and the homosexuals are seen as the discardable people of the world--and it’s tough to be one of that minority. Discrimination against the gay and lesbian community is extremely subtle. So many people say: ‘We can accept you if you don’t bring it out into the open. Just know your place.’ ”
Gentry says enormous progress had been made in public understanding of the gay community “until AIDS hit--and that’s been a real tough nut. Education has worked with AIDS--(the disease rate is) actually going down in San Francisco--and we’ve put great energy into that education program. I suppose the biggest setback we’ve had is when Paul Gann got it and helped put Proposition 102 on the ballot. And the most important progress in fighting AIDS came when Rock Hudson got it and talked about it.
“I’m an optimist, even though the federal government is spending less than $1 billion on AIDS in a real war and $30 billion on a phony war with Russia. But even with those kind of priorities, I still think we’re going to put together, finally, an unrivaled public health program and research network that will end up not only eliminating AIDS but curing (other) viral cancers as well.
“I think we’d have a cure for AIDS now if it affected babies and children. But we’ll get there. I really believe that.”
Meanwhile, Bob Gentry doesn’t plan to do anything different in either his public or private life--even though a lower profile might simplify his life considerably.
“Sure I’m scared sometimes,” he says. “I get hate letters and threatening phone calls, and now I’m always looking over my shoulder. That’s new within the last year. But that isn’t going to stop me from taking on issues I think are important to this community.”