Jeff Keith: Turning the pages of LGBT history

Jeff Keith: Turning the pages of LGBT history

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If you want to know about gay history, you’d do well to speak with Jeff Keith of the William Way LGBT Community Center Archives. Not only does Keith have material on file, but as the longest-working volunteer at the center (since 1978), he has personally seen many of the historic moments at the center and in the city.

A poet, author, linguist and activist, Keith joined the Quakers at age 16 and got involved in the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s. The non-violent philosophy he learned there prompted him to return his draft card and become a conscientious objector. This Easter Sunday marks a special milestone for Keith.

PGN: Tell me a little something about yourself.

JK: I was born during World War II on a military Navy base in Oregon, in January 1945, but home was Louisville, Ky. My father was a Southern boy who got to go to Harvard, where he got liberalized and met my mother, who was from Englewood, N.J.

PGN: Any siblings?

JK: I’m one of six. I have an older sister and four younger siblings.

PGN: Since you archive history for William Way, what’s a fun historical fact about your family?

JK: My grandfather in Kentucky was the head of the state Board of Education. On my mother’s mother’s side we had a governor of Minnesota. He was an early liberal.

PGN: So tell me why Easter Sunday has special significance?

JK: I came out as gay on Easter Sunday in 1971; in Spanish they call it Resurrection Sunday. I left my marriage and joined the Boston Gay Liberation Front. I also told the folks at my Quaker Meeting.

PGN: Had you already joined GLF?

JK: I had been calling myself bisexual for some time but the rest all happened pretty fast, within a month. There were so many bad gay stereotypes back then — that gay men were partiers and all that — that I was afraid to get involved. But the GLF mixed political radicalism with gay people and that appealed to me.

PGN: How did your wife respond? Did she know you were bisexual?

JK: Yes; we didn’t break up because of my sexuality, it was because of lifestyle differences. She was becoming more and more radical and wanted drop out and live off the land. She’s a tax resister, off-the-grid type person and I’m more of a city guy. She still lives on the land in New Hampshire.

PGN: How old were you?

JK: I was 26. I had a 2-year-old daughter who I delivered myself. The hardest thing about breaking up is that I thought I would lose her, but I didn’t. We’ve always been close.

PGN: Backtracking, what was life like in Louisville?

JK: Well, it was very segregated. My parents, being liberals, were all for integration. I was one of the first white kids to go through integration, which is interesting because my grandfather — the big state educator — was against it. He believed in segregation. When I got into high school and started making friends with some really bright, amazing kids who happened to be black, I began to get really angry about segregation and social injustice.

PGN: What’s a moment that stands out?

JK: There was an amusement park in Louisville called Fountain Ferry Park that we used to go to as kids. We spent many a happy summer there. It wasn’t until high school that I learned that they did not allow black people to go in. It still makes me want to cry to know that our beloved amusement park had been the cause of so much pain for other kids. They advertised the park heavily and it must have been terrible to be denied like that. It was a shock to learn that in the “Land of the Free,” a whole group of people were being denied basic rights and privileges. It was going on right under my nose. It kind of rocked my world and spurred me to become involved in the movement. When we moved to the Washington area, there was still a lot of segregation. I remember a movie-theater chain that refused to admit black people to any shows. We went to hearings to try to get bills passed banning racial segregation. Another thing we did was to “test” restaurants. Some places that didn’t outright ban black people would do things to discourage them, not taking their orders, etc. We would send in a racially mixed couple to see how they were treated and then send in a white couple to compare.

PGN: So, what were your best subjects in school?

JK: English and French. The French had to do with trying to break free of that conservative environment. I got very passionate about languages.

PGN: How many do you speak?

JK: French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and now, with my boyfriend, who is deaf, I’ve learned to talk with my hands.

PGN: Where did you go to college?

JK: Ha. I dropped in and out of college — first Reed College for a year, then Antioch, then at age 30, I went to a community college and did well enough to do years three and four at University of Pennsylvania and then got a master’s in Spanish at Temple. I taught for a while but really didn’t like it, and I got a job at a publishing company editing the famous “Dorland’s Medical Dictionary.” I did that for 22 years.

PGN: Is that how you got to Philly?

JK: No, I was very active with the Quakers and there was a Philadelphia group called Movement for a New Society — they were pacifist and feminist and pro-gay — and I came partly to live in one of their houses. You’d call it an anarchist house.

PGN: Tell me about a character from the house.

JK: There was this older woman named Ruth who came out as a lesbian at an older age. She had two sons and she wanted to be a strong feminist lesbian but refused to be a separatist because of her boys. One of the problems that I had with the movement was that most of the guys were white; that really bothered me. Fortunately I found the group Men of All Colors Together and they were working on two things that were dear to me: gay rights and racism. I joined them right away and have been with them ever since 1981. I’m on the board and serve as treasurer. In fact, that’s where I met my boyfriend, Mark. It’s funny, our biggest challenges are not because of color, they’re because he is deaf and doesn’t read well. His mother said when he was little they put him in a class with people who had mental challenges, which he did not, and they never taught him good reading skills.

PGN: I understand that you were jailed as a conscientious objector.

JK: Yes, in Louisville back in 1960 I was really antsy about breaking free of the conservative environment there. I started reading about the Beatniks and they talked a lot about the Quakers, so I started to go to Quaker meetings in Louisville. I learned about peace and the black civil-rights movement through them. So I sent back my draft card right as Vietnam was heating up and I went to jail for a year. I was raped in prison that first month.

PGN: Oh my.

JK: Part of the problem was that I was young and they put me in an adult prison. They later moved me to a youth prison but I was the only draft resister there other than the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They saved my life and I’ll be forever grateful to them.

PGN: I didn’t know the Jehovah’s were pacifists.

JK: They’re not personally pacifists but they’re opposed to joining earthly armies. They believe they only serve God’s army.

PGN: How was the rape reported? You hear about prisons turning a blind eye.

JK: I didn’t go to the guards; someone else told them that there had been a rape. Rather than give me any counseling, they dragged me into a room and browbeat me for hours trying to get me to tell them who did it. I knew I shouldn’t tell considering I was still a prisoner but they broke me down and I finally told them. It put me in a lot of danger so they pulled me out and sent me to a youth prison.

PGN: How did the experience change you?

JK: The whole experience made me hostile towards men. It made me think that having sex with men was dangerous so it delayed my sexual development.

PGN: I hadn’t even thought of that aspect, that being raped as a young gay man — in addition to the trauma of the assault — would have the effect of making you fearful of men. Male rape is so misunderstood; they still treat it as a joke, like in the new Will Farrell movie.

JK: Yes, I was very angry towards men for a while. People don’t understand it very well but I think it’s common that you’re very hostile towards sex. It’s obvious in the book, which I wrote from my notes that were taken when it was still fresh.

PGN: You’ve said that there was a relief in not having to act “respectable,” not caring what people think.

JK: Well, my family turned out to have some problems with mental issues, which was very traumatic to go through as a teenager. My sister started having schizophrenic breaks when I was 12 and my mom was put in a mental hospital for three months for a different kind of mental illness. My younger brother had some problems too. I’ve actually helped start support groups for family members. I was angry and alienated and it spurred me to go out and change society.

PGN: Talk about your connection to William Way.

JK: I started volunteering there in 1978. I worked at the coffee house when the community center was on Kater Street, then I started volunteering at the library and did that for at least 10 years. I’ve kept personal diaries and archives for the last 50 years and eventually got involved with the archives and have been doing that for some time. A lot of my personal collection is in the library, including some things I’ve written. I love it.

PGN: Tell me about your written works.

JK: I used to read poetry at the coffee house and in 1979 I published a book of my poems. And 40 years after the event, I wrote a book called “Inmate 31114 “ about my time in jail. And of course there’s the medical dictionary. I’m credited as an author for that. It’s in just about every medical library.

PGN: What would be the top-three items you’d put in a time capsule?

JK: When I lived in the woods in New Hampshire, my boyfriend Eddie and I tried to start the New Hampshire Gay Liberation Front. We got some publicity from that, which I would include. In West Philly, the Movement for a New Society kind of had an explosion of love for lesbians and gay men that I was in the middle of and I have some documents from that era. Also, now that I’m fluent in Spanish, I travel to South America fairly often. I always bring back magazines and stuff from LGBT organizations there.

PGN: What was the first time you ever left North America?

JK: I was 35 and I’d been studying languages for over 20 years. Penn sent me to Spain for a semester and it transformed my life. I got my master’s in Spanish and began a love of travel.

PGN: What can people find at the archives?

JK: We have what we call ephemera, which are all sorts of memorabilia, but my favorite things are the written archives. We have thousands of magazines from all over the place and I think we have almost every issue of the PGN.

PGN: Tell me about your first love in 12th grade?

JK: Richard. It was after we’d moved to Maryland and an earlier friendship went bust around gay issues. But Richard loved me back. It was terrifying, and after a while I decided I had to break it off. It was 1962 and we were in love and you just couldn’t do that at the time. I was afraid people would reject me. I called myself bisexual but my image of myself was that I would get married and have kids; something told me, “If you keep having gay experiences, you won’t want to stop.” Which of course turned out to be true. I actually wrote a short story about it.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve hitchhiked?

JK: Oh, I’ve been all over the country, from the East Coast to Oregon and back. I went barefoot when I was a hippie. I had long hair that I would tie with a lavender scarf. Sometimes, when I was a really discouraged radical, I’d get out and hitchhike and people would be so kind it restored my faith in humanity.

PGN: What are you most afraid of?

JK: Physically, I’m afraid of getting hit in the face. When I was 11 years old I got shot with a slingshot and lost an eye.

PGN: Eek, that sounds like something from “The Christmas Story.” What’s your favorite photo of Mark?

JK: Well, it’s not exactly a photo. Mark likes to draw and he did a nice self-portrait from our trip to San Diego.

PGN: What’s a hidden gem here in the city?

JK: I’d say the Fair Hill Burial Grounds in the Northeast. There are famous Quakers buried there, including Lucretia and James Mott.

PGN: What genre of music would I find in your collection?

JK: My favorite music is a combination of Tex Mex and Norteña. It’s kind of a polka style, but it’s Mexican.

PGN: Share a memory about an LGBT leader.

JK: I loved Walter Lear. I knew him through the Lavender Left. He was my father’s age — they both went to Harvard — and he was always very nice to me. The last time I saw him was at a Pride march and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. It was a good model of what being a sexy old man looked like. He was a real groovy guy.

PGN: Any other extracurricular work?

JK: I’ve been teaching English to immigrants for 40 years and it’s very satisfying. I taught one family of refugees who had been kicked out of Bhutan. It’s really sad, they threw out all the ethnic Hindus and a bunch of them landed in Philly. I’ve met, taught and come to love a lot of undocumented Mexicans!

PGN: Three smells that make you stop and reflect?

JK: I’m ashamed to admit it but certain smells remind me of a gay bathhouse. Olive oil reminds me of Spain, and Southern flowers like lily of the valley or peonies remind me of growing up. n

Visit the William Way Archives at 1315 Spruce St. or learn more at

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