Lou Chibbaro Jr.’s obituary of Tom Chorlton last week brought back a flood of memories.
In January of 1980, I was a closeted professor and associate dean of the American University law school. Tom was the head of the Mayoral Appointments Project of what was then called the Gay Activists’ Alliance. His job was to get openly gay people appointed to District boards and commissions by the mayor. He wanted to get Mayor Marion Barry to appoint me to the newly created police civilian review board. There was only one problem: I was not out. GAA, understandably, would not support the appointment of a closeted gay person. Tom worked on me for several weeks until I agreed to come out. He pressed me to get active in GAA and also the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. I did so and ultimately succeeded Tom as president of Stein.
Thus began a side career as a gay activist, which has now extended for some 33 years — and it all started because of Tom Chorlton.
Tom went from the Stein Club to the launching of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs, or NAGLDC. The association, through Tom as executive director, played a key role in pushing gay issues within the national Democratic Party, including a visible and active presence at the Democratic National Convention in New York in 1992.
Tom was everywhere at that convention, and it was the last time I saw him. We lost touch in the 1990s when I moved to New York and Tom to Missouri, but Tom ultimately wound up in the same business I was in, university teaching.
I can imagine Tom in that perfect setting for him: nurturing closeted gays and lesbians out of the closet and helping some of them become gay activists. There continue to be some in our community for whom “gay activist” is a pejorative term. Many of these are the still-closeted who feel threatened by boat-rockers like Tom.
But it is activists like Tom Chorlton who have paved the way for the rest of us to enjoy the freedoms and acceptance we all have today. All of us, me included, owe Tom a great debt.
Joe Tom Easley is a former co-chair of Lambda Legal and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and a former president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.