Randy Rohl’s life as a gay man spanned two eras--giddy and tragic, liberating and lethal.
In 1979, when gay pride was ascendant and the sexual possibilities seemed endless, Rohl turned a rite of teen-age passage into a moment of political theater: He took another boy to the prom in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The national media were there to record the moment; the camera lights glared as Rohl and his date danced; gay activists crowed that it was the first time a same-sex couple had ever been allowed to attend an American prom.
Then, Randy Rohl faded into obscurity. Until this year.
In January, it was reported that Randy Rohl had died in a Minneapolis hospital in the last moments of 1993. The cause was AIDS.
When Isolde Rohl’s 17-year-old son told her about his prom plans, she was astounded. “I knew Randy was different, but I didn’t know why he was different. I had no idea at that time that he was gay,” she said.
Even now, in her memory and those of his friends, Randy’s sexual orientation pales next to his other attributes--his sense of fun; his love of computers and photography, skiing and swimming; the motorcycle and red Jeep he drove; his fluent German, Spanish, French.
And there is reason to believe that Randy himself felt his gayness was overemphasized. As far as his family and friends know, after the Lincoln High School prom, he never again participated in any gay-rights exercise.
“If you think about it, the sexual part of everyone’s life is such a small part, it’s unfair to judge anyone by their sex life. It’s such a trivial matter,” he told reporters in 1979.
The commotion came mostly from the news media when Randy and his date, 20-year-old Grady Quinn, arrived at the Downtown Holiday Inn’s Embassy Room.
The couple wore matching powder blue tuxedos, red rose boutonnieres and silver pierced earrings. “The only special treatment they got was a lot of room on the dance floor,” the Washington Post reported.
There were some police on hand--Randy said he had received threats to “tar and chicken feather” him--but they were not needed. Isolde Rohl was in the spectator section; when Randy looked around and saw his mother, he broke into a big grin, she recalled. The dance went on as planned.
Randy told reporters that Quinn was merely a friend, not a romantic interest. (In fact, Quinn was the partner of a local gay rights activist.)
“I think it’s rather sad that my date and I have to get more publicity or more acknowledgement from the press than any other couple,” he said. “I don’t think we’re any more worthy of special attention. Yes, maybe it’s a milestone in gay rights, but it’s being made into more of a freak show.”
Truth be told, Randy seemed like your average, bookish kid, with red hair and braces. And after the prom and graduation, his life went on.
At first, he moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. He hoped to become a doctor. He never accomplished that goal.
He kept in touch with his family, and gave his mother a doll with a photo impression of his face so she’d have him close by.
“He said, ‘If you miss me, just look at me. Here I am. You can punch me out,”’ Isolde Rohl said. “He could be such a clown.”
Nancy Herzog worked with Randy at University of Minnesota Hospitals.
“We hit it off right away. I liked him and he liked me. He told me he was gay right away. It was no big deal,” said Herzog, of Brooklyn Park.
When the two met, Herzog was single and said she and Randy enjoyed going to bars together and picking out men for each other. “He was wild. He made me laugh. We had a lot of fun,” she said.
“If he wouldn’t have been gay, I might have married the guy.”
William Lowell, who met Randy when both studied genetics and cell biology at the University of Minnesota in 1988, said his friend was fearless.
“He was always attempting to get a reaction out of people,” Lowell said. “You’d be walking down the hall with him and he’d let out a bark, then would look at you and say, ‘Knock it off!’ I always appreciated his sense of humor. I liked him because he did the things that I never would do.”
Randy didn’t tell Lowell about one feat of daring--the prom--until he’d known him a year and a half: “He said it wasn’t meant to be political.”
Nancy Herzog married and moved to Nevada, but she kept in touch with Randy. Then, in the mid-1980s, he called her to tell her that he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
He believed he contracted the virus from a man he had lived with for about three years, and who died of AIDS about a year ago, Herzog said.
“I couldn’t believe how accepting he was,” she said.
Randy had been a traveler all his life--indeed, his parents met in Germany, where his father was posted in the service (the couple broke up in 1968)--and after his diagnosis, his wanderings resumed.
Growing up, Randy and his younger sister, Tori, had often visited their maternal grandparents in Germany. Randy studied there during his high school years, and had used his grandparents’ home as a base for trips to Russia, Africa, Greece, Ireland, England, France and Holland.
Now, he went back to Germany, and worked as a translator and as a photographer, shooting weddings and doing 3D photo posters, his mother said.
“He took pictures of everything--a beautiful butterfly outside, a dandelion--and enlarged it,” she said. ‘Anything interesting that was a challenge and needed concentration, Randy was into it.”
He returned to Minnesota from time to time, and took classes. He moved to California but was too easily fatigued, too weak to do much of anything. Finally, last fall, he moved back to Minnesota to be closer to his family.
As his health deteriorated, Randy talked about death, often couching it in the language of the computer world. “He almost felt like he was a computer program that had gone awry and needed to be deleted and started over,” Lowell said.
“The only thing he regretted was that he didn’t get to go to medical school,” Lowell said. And, of course, he regretted that his life was so short.
“He would say to me, ‘Hey, Mom, we all have to die sooner or later. Just not so soon,’ ” his mother said.
In the end, he could no longer walk or stand up by himself and was blind in one eye.
Lowell said he believed Randy always held out hope that a cure would be found for AIDS. “At the end, he said he was really disappointed, that he didn’t feel they were any closer to treating the disease. In November, he said if things didn’t get better he wanted to be gone by the first of the year.”
Randy died at 10:52 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1993.
Randy’s ashes will be buried in the family plot in Pirmasens, Germany.
He told his mother he would like to have a square in his memory added to the AIDS memorial quilt. Isolde Rohl, an accomplished seamstress, is sewing the patch--a black bordered block featuring a picture of Randy sitting behind his microscope, a caption reading “Searching for a Cure,” and a poem she saw on a hospital wall:
With tearful eyes we watched him linger
And saw him slowly fade away.
Although we loved him dearly
We could not make him stay.