GLEN BURNIE, Md.—Larry Esser was 25 when he met Tom Toth on his first day of work at the old Chessie System’s office in Baltimore in June 1981. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just reported the first cases of what later became known as AIDS. Maryland’s anti-sodomy law was still on the books, but Toth, who was 32 years older than Esser, felt it was important to live his life as an openly gay man.
“Tom kind of pursued me, to put it quite bluntly,” Esser tells the Washington Blade during a Dec. 13 interview. “I really liked him, that’s the funny thing. I didn’t feel like he was imposing himself or anything like that … he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. His personal courage astonished me.”
Esser stressed he “had no idea I was gay” when he met his future spouse. He grew up in what he describes as an “extremely strict Roman Catholic household” in Connecticut where he routinely heard gay people “were probably worse than murderers and they were to be avoided at all costs” and they were “mentally defective.” Esser eventually found himself in a relationship with another man he conceded wasn’t “going anywhere” when Toth finally made his move.
“He was sitting at his desk and he was singing,” Esser recalls, laughing. “It was like in a joking sort of way he was singing and the other people around him were laughing when he was doing it and he was singing something about it’s springtime and it’s time for love. The way he tells this story, I came in the door and heard him singing that and I tried to sneak away. I didn’t want any part of that. And he saw me and he said, ‘Uh oh.’ And that’s when he began to realize that I was not what he thought I was. How can you explain how two people fall in love? I can’t explain that. But it just happened. I wasn’t afraid of him personally.”
Couple’s activism starts at home
The couple routinely engaged in what Esser calls “guerrilla activism” that began when he said the railroad fired him after they began dating in 1983 because of his sexual orientation. He considered moving back to Connecticut, but Toth insisted he move into the small Glen Burnie home he shared with his then-84-year-old mother, Mary.
“There was no arguing with that,” Esser says. “The funny thing is when he said it, it was exactly what I wanted to hear, but of course I couldn’t ask him that. It was up to him to ask me, and he did. And I was delighted.”
Esser took care of Toth’s elderly mother until she died the following year. He says the same Chessy System vice president whom he claims fired him threatened to do the same to his partner once he found out they were living together. (He says the railroad in the late 1970s had tried to fire an early member of the Baltimore Gay Alliance that later became the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland, but the union fought for him.)
“He couldn’t do it directly,” Esser says, recalling efforts to fire Toth, who was a unionized stenographer. “He did a bunch of different things to try to get Tom to quit. And amazingly, Tom was actually ready to resign. A woman whose name I can’t remember, but will always be grateful to her told him don’t resign because the railroad is going to do a bunch of buyouts and you’ll be able to get a lump sum payment and retire, and that’s what he did.”
The couple also for years distributed copies of the Blade at locations throughout Anne Arundel County.
They decided to approach the Anne Arundel County Public Library Board of Trustees in Annapolis in 1993 after they read about the newspaper’s threatened lawsuit against the Fairfax County (Va.) Library for its proposed ban on the publication’s distribution inside its branches. Esser said Toth was “really rough with them,” in part because “he’d gone through a very repressive time back in the 1950s.” (He lived in Manhattan for 25 years and the New York Police Department once arrested him during a gay bar raid.)
“When we got to the library board, he told them point blank, ‘You’d better do this,’” Esser says. “They were not happy. They were not happy at all. I think some of them were actually kind of sympathetic to what we wanted to do, but they were taken aback by how assertive he was. They weren’t used to that. The library board is used to people coming and requesting things, not telling them what they’re going to do. And they were not happy.”
Esser says one of the board members later told him the board did not want to meet with Toth anymore because “he was very blunt,” but in the end they granted them permission to place 15 copies of the Blade in libraries in Glen Burnie, Severna Park and Annapolis. They continued distributing the Blades each week from the Center for more than two decades.
“By putting the paper there, I always felt that, I always wondered … if a young person going by thinking they were maybe gay or knew they were gay but felt very isolated, if they saw those papers, maybe that would give them a little bit of encouragement or a little bit of reassurance. But the other point was just sheer visibility. By having those papers there, Tom used to say … if even one person picks one up, he said even if they throw them away they still got to look at them. And that was an excellent point. And he was quite right. That meant a lot to us.”
Trust the truth
The AIDS epidemic had begun to exert its toll on gay men by the time the couple began dating — Esser recalls a time both he and Toth went to a small Severna Park health clinic to get HIV tests. Toth says the nurse asked him whether he was a gay man. “He said that was the first time in his entire life anyone asked him that directly,” Esser says. “He had never been asked that question.”
Esser says he felt the atmosphere during the late 1980s was “pretty optimistic” in spite of the epidemic and late-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, fundamentalist preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and other social conservatives who sought to demonize gay men during the AIDS crisis.
“Oddly enough, Tom never disliked [then-President Ronald] Reagan, but I think that’s because he remembered him from his movie star days,” Esser says. “He felt Reagan didn’t understand the whole situation that he was dealing with AIDS and gay people. He felt that Reagan really just didn’t understand it. It’s not that he was anti-gay particularly; he just didn’t really know what he was doing … I didn’t feel so kindly to Reagan at all. I thought he was just horrible.”
Toth and Esser also became involved in the effort to add sexual orientation to Maryland’s non-discrimination law in the 1990s.
He recalls one legislator who was “really being ridiculous, saying really ugly things about us” during a hearing on the measure in Annapolis. One of this lawmaker’s colleagues who had refused to listen to his speech asked Toth and Esser how they could stand to hear his rhetoric.
“Tom said, ‘Well we know it isn’t true, so we don’t worry about it,’” Esser says. “Of course you’ve got to fight. You can’t let people say things that aren’t true and let them say it without challenging it. And Tom did that. But at the same time you can’t let it stop you. You can’t let that negativism stop you. You have to keep fighting, pushing against it and that’s what Tom really, really did.”
Esser notes that Toth’s life spanned the same period through which Frank Kameny lived — the two met during the 2000 D.C. Pride parade. And Esser says when they met, it was as if they were kindred spirits.
“They were really speaking the same language,” he says, noting both Esser and Kameny came of age in the 1950s when lobotomies were performed as a way to cure homosexuality. “It was very impressive for me being a younger person relative to them seeing what these two men must have come through and how they were both so determined to do what they were doing. They refused to back down. They refused to accept what they were being told they had to accept. They wouldn’t do it. And that was a beautiful thing to me. It’s a moment I will never forget.”
Mesothelioma that Toth developed from asbestos exposure while working at a Baltimore shipyard that built liberty ships during World War II had already taken its toll by the time Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the state’s same-sex marriage law in March.
Toth and Esser legally married in D.C. in 2010, but he wanted to vote for both Question 6 and President Obama on Election Day. He applied for an absentee ballot because he did not think he would live until Nov. 6.
It arrived in the mail in early October.
“It came and I said do you want to sign it?,” Esser, who fought leukemia at the same time his spouse struggled with mesothelioma, says. “And he said, ‘No, I’ll do it tomorrow. Well the next day he wasn’t strong enough.”
Toth died three days later — on Oct. 11 — at age 88.
“He never did sign the absentee ballot,” Esser says. “He was very aware of what was going on. He was politically interested. He definitely wanted Obama to win. We just detested Romney. The hardest thing to communicate to people who were not gay (is) how much Obama had done to us, compared to everybody else.”
Esser says Toth wondered whether history would remember Obama along the same lines as Franklin Roosevelt in terms of “what he had done, particularly for gay rights.”
“When you come from a time where you were ignored totally … and suddenly here’s the president and he’s doing all these executive orders and this happening and that’s happening and then he comes out in favor of same-sex marriage, well that’s fantastic,” Esser says. “He was just delighted.”