Tom Yates says the Capital Pride Heroes Reception where he was honored last week felt somewhat surreal.
“I sort of felt like a bride,” he says. “Every time I stopped to try to eat a bite or something, someone was coming over to talk or asking me for a photo. I felt like a celebrity for the evening, which is a very odd feeling for an introvert like me.”
Yates, a charter member and current president of Defenders LLC, a local leather/Levi group, is a longtime board member and volunteer with Dignity/Washington and DignityUSA, an LGBT Catholic group, and also worked many years with Brother Help Thyself, where he was vice president for one year starting in about 1999, then president for seven years after.
“I guess I’ve done a little of everything,” says the 60-year-old Liverpool, N.Y., native, who’s been in D.C. 34 years. “It’s always flattering to be honored.”
Yates works as a civilian mathematician with the U.S. Navy. He’s been in a 15-year relationship with Jim Hyde and lives in Silver Spring. Yates enjoys reading, film history and yoga in his free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
About 37 years. I came out to only a few people and then because of my public involvement in the campus and community gay and lesbian groups I was suddenly out to lots of people.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Marshall McClintock, who was co-founder of Harpur Gay Alliance, a gay and lesbian group at SUNY Binghamton in the 1970s. People like Marshall — and there were lots of them scattered across schools, colleges and communities — were incredibly brave being so visible.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
The D.C. Eagle in the 1980s. For me, part of the Eagle’s charm was that the leather regulations were not as strictly adhered to, as say the leather bars in New York. A lot of people were afraid to even walk into the D.C. Eagle, but it was actually more welcoming than one would have expected. In the 1980s there was a certain sense of community among the regulars at the Eagle.
Describe your dream wedding.
Something small and private with just my closest friends.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
I’d like to say environmental issues, which I feel really passionate about. But lately I’ve devoted more of my time and energy to the issue of diet, health and fitness. I think so much of our health problems are rooted in our behavior and diet.
What historical outcome would you change?
A non-“butterfly ballot” in the Palm Beach County 2000 election — would it have changed enough votes to change the outcome of the 2000 presidential election? And perhaps something in pop culture that would have made condoms cool, smart or sexy in the ‘80s. Imagine how different the decade would have been.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
The invention of the Internet. Our immediate connection to information and each other has certainly changed our behavior.
On what do you insist?
That I keep my sense of humor.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
Pictures of the Heroes Gala.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Why Does Everything I Say Sound Like the Last Line of a Limerick?”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
Something, but not sure what it is. Surely not the cloud kingdom in sky depicted in so much of popular culture. I wonder how Tom of Finland would illustrate an afterlife.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Appeal to people’s better nature. I think our recent political, judicial and social successes have been achieved through the general public’s sense of fairness and justice. The screaming and name-calling are emotionally satisfying — at least for me — but I don’t think it convinces that movable middle in voting booths and church pews of the justness of our basic rights.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
A three-way with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
I kind of like the stereotypes. I think we have, or at least I have, spent too much effort trying to avoid the stereotypical. Though sometimes I think it’s performance, I like the people who are the most comfortable in their skin, the people who are ready to let their freak fly.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“The Hanging Garden.” It touches on the themes of uncovering truths, forgiveness, redemption and second chances.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Overrated? Right or wrong, I don’t think a lot of people value most social customs any more.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
The Michael Olivieri Award, the Defenders’ national service award, which was given largely for my work with Brother Help Thyself.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
At 18, I was scared of everything, especially of being gay. Probably like most LGBT teenagers in 1972, I felt like I was the only one. The possibility of anything like a gay community was unimaginable to me in 1972. I wish I had known there would be a community for me in the future — that there would be groups like Dignity and the Defenders who would be there to console in times of sorrow and to celebrate in times of joy.
Thirty-four years ago I moved to the Washington area for a job — one I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like. Three years later, when I considered moving elsewhere, I realized that I was home. I’d made too many friends and connections to consider leaving the D.C. area.