Robert F. Gentry gropes for the right way, sharing his pain and his anger, his grieving in the public eye.
“My personal pain is very, very important. Part of my life is over. It’s like I lost part of myself . . .” Laguna Beach’s mayor says, his blue eyes staring with a glassy intensity. "(But) the fact that my Gary died, and we are being public about it, that helps people discuss it. And that’s what I want. We’ve got to talk about it.”
Gentry, associate dean of students at UC Irvine, has offered an unusually public slice of his most private life since the Jan. 24, AIDS-related death of Michael Gary Burdick, his companion of 15 years and owner of a Newport Beach hair salon.
Though he has had a public career, the process of revealing his private life has not been easy for Gentry--a gentle, quick-witted 50-year-old who describes his upbringing as “Victorian Bostonian” and whose name almost always is followed by a shorthand description of him as “Southern California’s only openly gay elected official.”
He had never even considered discussing his sexual orientation publicly until 1983, when a Times reporter researching a story on gays asked him to verify the spelling of his name.
“I remember I said, ‘You’re not going to use my name, are you?’ ” he recalls. “I broke out in a cold sweat. I asked for 24 hours to think it over. . . . And I came home, and I was really agitated about all this, and I told Gary and he said, ‘Why, of course, you’ll do it. What are you, ashamed?’ He was right, of course. I had to do it.”
And though his political career in Laguna Beach, the funky-swank Orange County community with a tradition of social tolerance, does not appear to have been damaged by his frankness, Gentry says the price of honesty also has been a loss of privacy, more open discrimination, resentment and, occasionally, hate.
“I didn’t know in the early stages of this how it was going to be,” he says. “No one sat me down and told me. Who was going to train me? There are only 12 of us (openly gay elected officials) in the nation.”
This new stage in Gentry’s life, the one without Burdick, also is terrifying. Gentry says he is afraid of personal loneliness and hurt, and now especially of public scorn born of the fear of AIDS. “I understand that fear,” he says. “But we have a vaccine--education. It works every time. The more people learn, the fewer people die.”
Didn’t Tell Clients
It was this same fear, Gentry says, that initially led Burdick to tell his clients and employees that it was the flu that kept him from work. At the time of his death, even his neighbors had not known he was ill.
"(Gary) was scared to death that if his clientele knew that he had AIDS, they would desert him,” he says. “But at the point of his death, he accepted that he was an AIDS patient. He accepted the fact that he was going to die.”
At the same time, Gentry pushed his own doubts and fears about the disease out of his own mind. “I frankly thought Gary would rally, be able to come home, get his strength, get on (the drug) AZT, be able to go back to work part time,” Gentry says. “I really thought that was going to be the prognosis.”
Gentry says he and Burdick discussed their future. “Our plan was to have him here at home, with 10-hour-a-day care, seven days a week . . . he wanted to have the press come and spend a day or so with him and understand what it was like to be ill and talk to him about how he felt, his concerns.”
Died in Hospital
But on Jan. 20, a Friday night, they went to the hospital for what was to have been routine treatments for Burdick, who would undergo yet another in a series of blood transfusions. He died a few days later at age 49. He was awaiting test results that would label, in scientific terms, the strain of tuberculosis that seemed to be devouring his body from the inside out.
Burdick died before Gentry could get to the hospital. “I had dozed off and the phone rang and it was the nurse whom I had met, and she told me that Gary was gone,” Gentry says, his voice breaking. “That ride to the hospital was the longest, most horrendous drive I have ever had, and the loneliest, because I knew that I was just totally alone. It was dark. It was rainy. There was no one on the streets and I was going to see somebody that I had cared about so deeply for the last time. And I was all alone.”
He was angry too. Burdick had been ailing since last fall but the University of California officially denied Gentry’s request for time off to care for his mate--a benefit the university allows for the care of ailing husbands, wives, children and in-laws.
Gentry took time anyway.
“Because I am a 20-year employee of the university,” he says, “people looked the other way. . . . If I had been there six months, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Called Moral Turpitude
It is just one more inequity, Gentry says, in a society in which homosexuality is often equated with moral turpitude and in which acquired immune deficiency syndrome is seen as the scourge of the damned.
“There is nothing worse than being sick when you have your head held down, too,” he says. “We have got to get beyond that so that we can have adequate treatment and adequate help.”
Gentry is suddenly both crusader and mourner, a self-described zealot for AIDS education and homosexual rights who attended a City Council meeting less than 24 hours after Burdick’s death. He had promised constituents he would appear at the session, at which he wanted to raise certain issues, he says. He wanted to show that a gay man “could do the job, no matter what it took.”
“See, because, don’t forget,” he says, bending forward to stress his point, “I’ve been in a relationship for 15 years that has been sanctioned by no one but me. The church hasn’t sanctioned it, the state hasn’t sanctioned it, family hasn’t sanctioned it. . . . We have sanctioned it.
Breaking the Tension
“I feel very, very purposeful, almost to the point of radicalism, if you will,” he says, breaking the tension in his voice with a bit of a laugh. “Losing Gary is personally very devastating, but as we sit here right now, I can see Gary sitting there, being a part of this interview, saying, ‘Yeah, Bob needs to do these things. Just because I’m gone doesn’t mean these things shouldn’t happen.’ ”
Gentry, needing sleep and solace, struggles to compose himself. He knows how AIDS kills. He recites statistics as part of his public and private campaign to educate others about AIDS. He has grieved over the bodies of friends who have succumbed. He repeats a grim figure as he sits in the living room of his Laguna Beach home: “The average person with AIDS lasts 2 1/2 years. Sometimes, it goes all the way to five (years), but the average is 2 1/2.”
Theirs was not a sexually monogamous relationship, Gentry says, though he adds that Burdick believed he knew where he had contacted the virus. “The day that we both knew how the HIV virus was transmitted, and this was probably in 1982, was the day that we assured ourselves that it was not anymore coming into our bodies, or going into anybody else’s body,” he says.
But Gentry still does not know for certain if he is a carrier of the AIDS virus. He has not been tested.
“With Gary being sick, I could not emotionally handle the knowledge of a positive HIV test for me,” he says, “and I did not want to burden him with that information either, while he was sick. I pushed it out of my mind completely.”
Spector of Public Fear
But with Burdick’s death, and the specter of public fear, Gentry says he will be tested. He and Burdick, he adds, talked about it “all the time.”
“I would say to him, ‘Look, in my gut, Gary, I don’t think I have been exposed to the virus’ . . . and he would say, ‘You know, Bob, I think you are right.’ . . . AIDS is hard to catch. You have to work on it.”
Although Gentry initially told reporters he would reveal his AIDS test results, he says he is not yet sure he will do so.
“I haven’t really thought it out,” he says, “I need to talk to some people, to see if it would be helpful.”