THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Twist of Fate : Pat Mayo ‘came out’ in a Leisure World paper to form a social group. But the outpouring from parents of gays added an unexpected dimension.
To understand the ripples 79-year-old Pat Mayo is causing at Leisure World, you have to understand that she is sort of, well, not exactly like, I mean, she is, um . . . .
“A lesbian,” Mayo says. Stop mincing words.
That’s what’s wrong here at Leisure World, where she has lived for eight years, she says. In this retirement community, “they can’t even speak the words gay and lesbian .” So she decided to do something about it.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Mayo, the former secretary, social worker, construction worker and teacher, is not a crusader. Her “coming out,” postponed for 53 years, was gradual and hardly defiant.
After a lifetime of keeping her homosexuality private, in 1993 she sought out a gay/lesbian social group, then became active in support groups, then began lecturing to small groups away from Leisure World.
Then last October, when she received literature about a national coming-out campaign, she took the plunge from the high dive and came out in the pages of Leisure World’s weekly newspaper.
She announced she was forming a group for gays and lesbians inside Leisure World, and she made it plain she was one of them. It just seemed the time was right, she says.
The brief announcement would have gone virtually unnoticed in a less cloistered environment. But in Leisure World, where 20,000 members of the retirement generation are concentrated, it would be a jolt. And some who knew Mayo dreaded the consequences.
“I think it is more conservative here, on the whole,” says a Leisure World resident who, because her son is gay, asked not to be identified.
“These are people who think this is a big, horrible thing that you don’t discuss. Back when they were in charge, you couldn’t even say the word pregnant. If you were pregnant, they didn’t even want you to go outside.
“In other areas I know, you wouldn’t have a problem coming out, but here I think it was very risky for her. She’s living in very close quarters and is in different clubs and things. I think she risked neighbors being very nasty to her. People make cracks when you’re out. People can be very cruel.”
Mayo concedes that she received lots of warnings. “I know maybe half a dozen lesbian women and gay men around here. The women all said: ‘Oh, you’re crazy. Just exclude me. You’re going to get into all kinds of trouble.’ They are of my generation, you see, afraid of being out as gays.”
They turned out to be wrong, Mayo says. Since her announcements began appearing regularly in October, she has heard no disparaging remarks, although she assumes there are some she can’t hear.
But she admits she was wrong too. Thinking that calls would come in from Leisure World gays eager to socialize, she received none at all. “That surprises me,” she says. “They are just going to let sleeping dogs lie, apparently.”
Instead, she received an outpouring from parents of gays, who had some coming out of their own to do.
“You feel so isolated,” explained one parent who responded to Mayo’s announcement. “You can’t be free around people here. You’re constantly being drilled: Why doesn’t your son have a girlfriend? Why isn’t he engaged by now? Isn’t it about time? What’s he waiting for? Well, how about him meeting my daughter?
“You’d like to be able to come out and tell them, but you’re afraid of the derogatory remarks. They make you feel like the dregs of the earth. They think it’s your fault, that you’ve done something. Or that your child is just a pervert. You feel so isolated, like you’re the only one.”
Mayo’s newspaper announcement proved they are not the only ones. Nowadays on alternate Mondays, as many as 25 parents of gays come to Mayo’s condominium to talk about their problems with people who share them. And Mayo, who wanted to form a group of gays, is the only openly gay in the group.
“That’s a non-issue with me now,” she says. “I didn’t have anything constructive in mind for meeting other gay and lesbian people, you know--just meeting some people I might be interested in.
“But these parents are a marvelous group, and they are so desperate. The need is so great that I just feel delighted I stumbled into this. Serendipity led me here.”
“It’s pretty rare for someone to come out to their entire community like that,” says Frank Butler, a project assistant for National Coming Out Day, a gay and lesbian project headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“People probably just assumed she was not a lesbian, because after all, she’s their age and she lives there. In fact, gays and lesbians are in every environment and many times are afraid to come out for fear of rejection.”
“Hers is a much more puritanical generation, and it probably would have been just as hard for her (to come out) when she was a young person,” says Nikki Yocham, director of mental health services at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Orange County in Garden Grove.
“One thing they didn’t have that the younger people now have is some religious support. It would have been very difficult to find any kind of accepting spiritual guidance a lot earlier in the century.”
Yocham says very few gays and lesbians in Mayo’s age group appear at the center for counseling.
“Someone who has suppressed a part of their life that is not considered acceptable, regardless of what it might be, has probably become so accustomed to denial that they’re not willing to go through the fear of coming out now. It’s, ‘I’ve hid it so well, I’ve denied myself so long, why make waves now?’
“But it really doesn’t matter what age you are, you still have to go through people not being happy with it.”
Mayo concedes her life has probably not been typical of lesbians in her generation.
“I never personally suffered anything negative from people because of it,” and even if she had been born two generations later, not much would have turned out differently, she suspects.
She was born in 1915 in the small Oregon town of Stayton to John Walter Mayo, the owner of the Bank of Stayton, and Marcia Stewart Mayo, the daughter of a wealthy Nebraska attorney who had provided the money to found Mayo’s bank.
John Mayo was untypical of the time, his daughter says. A business school graduate, he respected rather than resented his wife’s more extensive schooling, a classical education in fine arts, foreign languages and the like at the University of Nebraska. He urged his daughter toward not only a university education but also toward an independent career.
Mayo says she detects lesbianism in her early life only when she looks back. At the time, there was no thought of it. She felt strong affection for some of her mother’s friends and formed a crush on a female teacher in high school, “but I really didn’t think of it then as lesbian. I didn’t know much about lesbians or things like that. People just didn’t talk about it. A boy couldn’t be a sissy, but it was OK to be a tomboy.” Nothing was said within in the family.
“But I remember when I was in high school my mother telling me about this book, ‘The Well of Loneliness,’ which was from the 1920s, a novel about a lesbian woman,” Mayo says. “That was pretty modern for a mother at that time, but she had a college education and maybe that made her a little more alert to these things.”
College also educated Mayo. At Oregon State University, “I got my eyes opened. I could spot lesbians, a lot of them, a mile away. Some of them approached me, but I didn’t have any affairs.” The realization that she, too, was a lesbian was years off, Mayo says.
She graduated with a degree in business education, “which I was not really interested in at all.” Rather than teach, she got a scholarship to two universities in Germany, then returned a year later and administered a Depression-era Works Progress Administration program to pay off her debts.
She had worked as a secretary in a county welfare office while in college, and social work had kindled her interest. She decided to enter that field and had just landed a job as a social worker in Roseburg, another small town in Oregon, when a husband suddenly appeared.
“I had always expected to grow up, get married and have lots of children, and when I was in college, I decided I wanted to marry a college professor,” says Mayo.
“So this guy, the son of a friend of my mother’s, was getting his Ph.D. at Stanford. We’d met maybe two or three times, spent maybe a total of a week together, but he was apparently going through the same intellectual process. He had decided Pat would make a good professor’s wife, and he came to propose.
“I thought, this is it, so we got engaged. He went back to Stanford, and I went back to Roseburg. And then I met this lady.”
Helen, another social worker in Roseburg, was eight years older than Mayo, “a quiet, thoughtful person” with no doubt in her mind that she was lesbian.
“We were drinking and just having adventures and sleeping together, and it was great stuff. I felt totally in love and captivated by the relationship with this woman, but I had just become engaged. And I thought, after I get married this will go away. After all, what kind of a life can there be with another woman? I still thought that.”
Mayo married and moved with her husband to Menlo Park near Stanford, but it didn’t go away. In 1941 at age 26, Mayo had reached her turning point.
After six months of marriage, “I decided I can either stay married and lie and cheat and have families and then break them up, or I can talk it over with my husband right now, which is what we did.
“He liked marriage; he was very pleased with it,” Mayo says. “We lived in this small town, and everyone envied us. We had a good life; we could do anything we wanted.
“It was not a sexual issue. That’s what people thought in those days, that if something like this happened, there was something wrong with the husband, which, of course, was not at all true. The sexual part of our marriage was fine, and everything else was too. He was a professor at Stanford and a very fair person, and I had no complaints about him at all. I just fell in love with somebody else.”
Mayo moved back to Roseburg and to Helen, aware that she was giving up more than her marriage. “I believed I could achieve anything I decided to do and rise as high as I wanted, but I decided, ‘I’m giving that up, I guess.’ Roseburg was Helen’s hometown--she was born there--and she never gave a thought to leaving.”
Living comfortably on their salaries, then on their property investments, they remained a couple for 38 years until Helen died suddenly of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1979, at age 72.
During that time, Mayo said, she never explained to her parents the relationship she had with Helen.
“I never came out to my parents,” Mayo says. “I never discussed it openly with them. But they accepted Helen as a daughter. She was involved in all our family things. My father even asked when he was dying and Helen and I had been together 30 years if he should include her in his will as a daughter.”
Yet when the topic finally did come up within the family, it was traumatic.
“I told my sister. She was 60 years old and living with me because she was dying of cancer. My friend Helen had died, and I told my sister of our relationship, and she was shocked! She said all of her friends told her for years I was a lesbian, and she told them they were crazy. She was very upset, so upset that she went to a psychologist to talk about it.”
Her sister said she just could not imagine two women as lovers, a reaction shared by most in her generation, Mayo says. “I think what probably happens is they start thinking about the mechanics of it. What the hell, you know, it’s so simple. If you have a man and a woman together, it’s easy to understand how it operates, right? But it’s not so easy to understand two males or two females.
“People fix on the sexual part of it, but that’s no bigger in a gay relationship than between a man and a woman. And as you get older, it becomes less important.”
It was that kind of denial, Mayo says, that allowed her to live a peaceful, unharried life as a lesbian. “Most people of that time didn’t even allow themselves to think the word.
“Now men could not live together without being under suspicion in my generation, but women, it was just sweet. Isn’t it nice they’re not alone?” Even now she chuckles.
“Old-maid aunts were taken care of. Then, 35 was old; you were an old maid. Someone had to take care of them, so it’s nicer if two of them can live together and not be a problem to their families. They didn’t associate with other lesbians because they didn’t know any.”
If she suffered at all from being lesbian, it was because she was childless, Mayo says.
“That bothered me most of the time in my relationship with Helen. I had some heterosexual relations during that time, and I think I might have been wanting to become pregnant. I had false pregnancies even, that sort of thing.
“Fortunately I had wonderful nieces and nephews. My brother and sister both shared their children generously, so I got my kicks out of having children around. In my generation, you didn’t have children if you lived a lesbian life. If I were a young person now, I would have them.”
At Monday’s meeting in Mayo’s living room, another newcomer had appeared. As has become traditional in the group’s brief history, the newcomer was invited to talk first. The assumption is that the newcomer most needs to talk. She talked excitedly, pouring out her anxieties to a room full of sympathetic strangers.
“It’s so new to them to be able to talk,” said one woman who had joined the group early on. “They get so excited. She was fine by the end of the meeting, and she wants to come again.
“I think this was very courageous of Pat, and I’m glad she did it. I like her; I think she’s very intelligent and outspoken. I look forward to these meetings, because I thought I was the only one in Leisure World in this situation.”
It’s what Mayo wants to hear. But she says more subtle gains may be the more important in the long run.
Take the women in the Leisure World library where Mayo is a volunteer.
“I was sitting there typing out catalogue cards, and I heard these four women talking. They knew I was there, and they’d seen my name in the paper and connected me with this new group. But they didn’t talk directly to me about it. They just let me overhear. ‘Well, my husband had an uncle who was gay and he was just, you know, we all were very fond of him.’ And someone else would say, ‘Yeah, well I have a niece’ and so forth.
“Here were these old women--one of them was 92--and they’re using the words gay and lesbian. So I said to my boss, ‘It’s working,’ and she understood.
“That’s what I wanted to accomplish.”