I first met my cousin, Alex Flett, when I was 26. I was driving across country, heading for LA in hopes of establishing myself as a comic. I stopped off in San Francisco with $50 to my name, and a phone number. I needed a place to crash, and my mother had suggested calling cousin Alex if I had the chance. I had never met the man.

Alex and my father, Sidney Flett, were first cousins. My paternal grandfather (also Sidney Flett) and Alex’s father were brothers. They came from a huge family (7) who grew up in the western reaches of the greater Chicago area.

Looking for A Place to Lay My Head

Mind you, I knew little of this side of my family, so I was reaching out to someone with whom I thought I just shared a last name. To my delight, I found a witty, debonair, generous, inquisitive man who had an extra room in his flat on California Street who generously offered so I could stay for a bit until I was ready to move on.

Alex Sinclair Flett was born June 6, 1922. He would be turning 101 this week.

But that is not why I am writing about him. Dear Alex was happily, proudly, and unabashedly gay.

Different Times

Of course, having been born in 1922, even though he knew he was different, his awareness of just what that difference was wasn’t clear. He grew up in a family that was strictly WASP, and high church Episcopalian. His school days were unremarkable until the Crash, then everything changed.

He spent the Depression with his mother and father and two sisters in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Throughout his elementary and high school years he found a niche doing small parts on the Chicago stage and fell in love with the theater. He grew into a handsome lad, and was then cast in leading man roles. He had just graduated from high school when the war in Europe boiled over.

War Years

Like so many young men, after December 7, 1941, he responded to the call to defend his country and enlisted in the Navy. He did his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base, just outside of Chicago, and then was shipped out to San Francisco.

As he later shared with me, this was his introduction to a much “wider” world. On leave in San Francisco, he ended up in a bar in San Bruno, CA where he was picked up by the man he would spend almost a half century with, his beloved Bob Willcox. It was then that he accepted and fully embraced being a homosexual. This was not easy, and Alex and Bob spent too many decades having to “pass” as straight men.

Post-War Years

After the war, Alex and Bob returned to San Francisco and established themselves professionally. Alex joined the faculty at San Francisco State University, and rose to full Professor in the Theater Department. Bob joined the Kaiser Hospital system, and ended up as a hospital administrator, managing the hospital in Hawaii, and then in other part of the world.

In the intervening decades, San Francisco remained home. It was also a haven, albeit closeted, for gay people. Politically it was always progressive, but that did not make it easy for folks in the 1950s or 1960s. Civil rights, anti-war movement, and the women’s movement all opened doors a crack, but it wasn’t until Stonewall and the AIDs epidemic that gay people found their voice.

San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate

Fast forward to the late 1970s. I confess at that time I met Alex, I was both ignorant and prejudiced about homosexuality. I did not believe I knew anybody who was “that way”, although in looking back with eyes that were patiently opened by Alex, Bob and other mentors, I now see how much of my life has been guided and enhanced by gay people.

I am indebted to both Alex and Bob for accepting me as family, and welcoming me into their extraordinarily diverse coterie of gay and lesbian friends, colleagues, and co-workers. Without the care and tutelage from Alex, I know my life wouldn’t have been as rich or as wonderful.

Staying Put

I never made it down to LA and my career as a comic was put to rest when I found work in San Francisco. I made sufficient income to move into an apartment of my own. Life went on, and Alex and I became true family, sharing holidays, events, relationship ups and downs, and the stuff of daily life that family share.

Eventually, Alex and Bob retired to Sonoma Valley, north of San Francisco in Wine Country. My husband and I would come up for weekends, enjoying the Wine Country lifestyle and meeting new and wonderful friends that Bob and Alex had made. Sadly, Bob died within a few years of retiring, leaving Alex a widower.

Grief, Loss, Acceptance

Initially, Alex grieved and did his best to adjust to being single again. Ever the sailor, he got himself a job as a port lecturer on a cruise line and spent several years floating around the world sharing tidbits of history and culture. He absolutely loved this!

When he no longer was working for the cruise line, he returned home and stayed connected with San Francisco State as well as local theater groups. A dedicated book collector, he involved himself with the library. He also became a greeter at the Visitor’s Bureau, and was a board member for many years with Salute to the Arts, a wonderful annual celebration of the arts held on the historic Sonoma Plaza.

All of these activities reflected his passion for the performing arts and strongly held value that you need to give back to your community.

I Am What I Am

While Alex would always be cautious about sharing his being queer (he would never use that word), he was never ashamed of who he was. He flew the Pride flag, supported gay initiatives, and lived a life of authenticity. Alex was not, however, a man to stay single. He continued to enjoy his friends, and eventually connected with a new love, Michael.

Alex lived through times where homosexuality was considered a crime, where gay people were attacked and killed, where a movement emerged demanding that they be treated like everybody else. He lived through war, through AIDS, and through political upheaval. He lived long enough to be legally married and proudly claim equal status.

Pride Legacy

My beloved cousin Alex died in November of 2011. He left me a legacy of tolerance, curiosity, acceptance and generosity. He left the world a better place for his having been in it.

June is Pride Month. We now have expanded our language in speaking of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual or two-spirit. These are words; adjectives, “labels” that merely begin the conversation of who the person who uses them is.

Having more conversations with people who use these words to describe themselves is a really wonderful thing to do. And June is a great month to do it!

3 responses to “June is Pride Month”

  1. Gary "Buz" Hermes Avatar
    Gary “Buz” Hermes

    Thanks so much for sharing your connection with Alex and the positive impact he had on you and many others! His early experiences as a gay man reminded me of the life trajectory so many of us pre-Stonewall LGBTQ+ elders have as part of our life stories. We grew up with “three strikes against us.” Qs you mentioned, it was a crime (many of us were incarcerated); it was also a mental illness (many of us were institutionalized and given electric shock therapy) and it was a sin (even if we avoided the first two, we were doomed to eternity in hell). Our safety required hypervigilance and many of us lived our lives with pervasive fear, anxiety and internalized homophobia. The current revival of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is reactivating past traumas. I am grateful that Vintage House provides LGBTQ+ older adults a safe and welcoming place for us to connect with each other, share our life stories and create community.

  2. Berkeley Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley Fuller-Lewis

    Your post is just one more “explanation” (unveiling) of why YOU — Mary — ARE the open-hearted, not “stuck in concepts,” intelligent and kind person that you are. And, isn’t it wonderful how select older people — by “living their truth” — can teach US to do same. I was born in 1947 to stunningly fear-based, sad and sexless married couple. I never witnessed one iota of affection, much less “loving behavior” (or [gasp] sensuality!). Thus (FINALLY) in my 20s, when I finally realized I had most definitely been born gay, the ENTIRE IDEA of people loving one another had to be discovered, not just my particular microcosm of that! Thus in the 1970s I began “coming out” in quiet layers, first to myself. (Of course, society THEN was a train-wreck for us “queers.”) And yes, it IS amazing how much social progress has been made, even though perhaps 15-20% of the U.S. population — still locked into sad, hopelessly impoverished lives — are cemented in (and manipulated) by their fear and hatred of The (“Evil”) Other.

    There’s one trope in the “rainbow movement” I have never been able to swallow — “pride.” I am not “proud” of being gay . . . there is nothing to be either ashamed OR “proud” OF. I have ALWAYS just loved myself, in a totally relaxed and natural way. Whereas, “pride” to me connotes a tense struggle to “try to” achieve THAT. Perhaps witnessing the bonkers example of my (self)- loveless parents opened my eyes to THAT!!! Ah well.

    And of course this IS a massively Puritan mentality nation, where “self-love” gets deliberately confused with egoism. Thus it is, that here in the USA, the ongoing cyclic struggle between Puritan life-haters versus those of us who love life goes absurdly repeats (we are now in some ways, back in the 1950s). To quote Maggie Smith on seeing such ridiculous behavior: How tedious! Meanwhile though, thank you for a “love”-ly post.

  3. Geri Avatar

    What a lovely piece! So sad that the prejudice and outright hate continue, despite (because of?) the right to marry.

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