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Jim Van Buskirk

Image of Jim Van Buskirk

Out of the Orange Groves
A Native Californian Looks Back on His Gay Life

I was born in Los Angeles on August 29, 1952, the first-born child of a manipulative, domineering mother and a Caspar Milquetoast WWII veteran father, who was later in life diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Just before my only sibling, John, (3 years younger, heterosexual) was born, we moved to a tract house in Buena Park, suburban Orange County, where we lived until I was 16.

Never interested in sports or any activities that the other boys seemed to like, I played "house," hopscotch and jacks with the girls. Because I was overweight, uncomfortable in my body, and nerdy, I was teased frequently. Each year I would develop a "crush" on a different classmate. I envied him his artistic, or sportive, or social ability. I didn't realize I was attracted to him, I thought I just wanted to be like him. Mostly I escaped into a world of books and movies.

Like many men of my generation, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I understood that my feelings were different, a difference that was shameful and to be kept secret. I was terrified of being effeminate, and took great pains to disappear. What little I did hear about homosexuality referred to leading a life of loneliness.

My family moved to the Pacific Northwest where, after finishing high school, I attended Bellevue Community College and the University of Washington, before I "stopped out." I left my family in Bellevue and moved almost by accident to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was attracted by the availability of foreign films, good coffee, and a certain je ne sais quoi. I was certainly not aware of San Francisco's reputation for being Bohemian, or gay.

Because I had worked in his Bellevue Square store, I was hired by Lew Langfeld, the owner of Hunter's Books and Books, Inc. to work in his warehouse in San Mateo and he also invited me to live in an apartment he maintained in Belmont. After I had lived there alone for a short while, he informed me that two other men, a gay couple, would be moving in. I liked Mike and Dale a lot, and soon allowed myself to be seduced by one of them, falling in love with the other, and briefly involved in a ménage à trois of sorts. My initial coming out and first sexual experiences were remarkably easy. Now I understood why I'd felt different. I kept waiting for the angst and anguish, but this seemed so natural. I checked the mirror to see if my new identity showed on my face. By now I was working at Books, Inc. in San Jose. One of the very first books I remember reading was Dennis Altman's Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971). I “borrowed” the book from the bookstore in an attempt to understand what was going on with myself. (I eventually returned it.)

My living arrangement quickly got complicated and I moved to San Jose, then to Los Gatos and finally to San Francisco. I remember trying to buy The Advocate from a coin-operated street newspaper stand, I walked nonchalantly past the machine, then dropped in the quarter, then walked back by and yanked the handle. Of course it got stuck, frustrating my futile effort to appear as if I weren't really buying a gay newspaper. Marching in one of the first gay parades in San Francisco, I worried that my parents would see me on the news.

I was hired by Scott Martin to work in his tony shop, Scott Martin Books on Sutter Street, and immediately realized that all the employees were gay. I met Lillian Hellman, Audrey Hepburn's mother, and other celebrities. I was invited to smart parties, many of them given by Chuck Williams and the employees of Williams-Sonoma with whom we were all quite friendly. At a party where the entertainment was provided by Steve Silver, Nancy Bleiweiss and members of the precursors to Beach Blanket Babylon, I met Bob Bendorff with whom I became lovers. In some ways this was the existence I had dreamed of, yet I soon tired of the incessant drinking and superficiality of the relationships. I still could not find my place.

I began attending Cal in the Spring of 1975, largely because it was convenient and because of the ugliness of the alternative, San Francisco State's campus. I continued living in San Francisco, commuting on the "F" bus. I worked at the Fairmont Hotel in the Food and Beverage Control Department, evenings from 7:00 p.m. to 3 a.m. Then I would take the bus home sleep a few hours, get up, hurry to morning classes, and then bus back to work. I felt very self-conscious, returning to school a bit older, and now out as a gay man. I resented working full time, while most of my classmates either held part time jobs or none at all. I barely had any time to socialize, but would occasionally go with friends to dance bars like Buzzby's on Polk Street.

I was interested in sociolinguistics, but there was no such program and I quickly realized that the Sociology Department would afford me more flexibility than the Linguistics Department. There were no courses which advertised that they specifically dealt with homosexuality. In my first quarter (Spring 1975) I learned about roles of women, becoming a life-long feminist as a result of Sociology of Women taught by Anne Swidler. There was some limited discussion of lesbians. I remember in Arlie Hochshild's Sociology of the Family (Fall, 1975), we had a guest presentation by a man and woman who talked about identifying as gay and lesbian. To my knowledge none of my instructors identified as gay, nor was there ever any discussion of transsexuality.

Some of the books I read in an effort to understand myself were Best Little Boy in the World by “John Reid” (1973), Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller(1973), Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (1973) and the excellent anthologies by Karla Jay and Allen Young: Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation (1972), After You're Out (1975), and Lavender Culture (1979).

I took a seminar with Bob Blauner who became my faculty advisor for my senior thesis. In that class I met Avery Dean Pierce, a Social Welfare graduate student several years my senior. We became lovers and he eventually divorced his wife of seven years. As a result of his encouragement I applied to the Masters program in Social Welfare.

I attended a couple of men's groups, and then went through a peer counseling training at Pacific Center for Human Growth, the preeminent East Bay gay/lesbian/bisexual social services agency. Was it my imagination or was that Carole Migden (with straight hair) who was running around the Telegraph Avenue offices? I soon found I didn't care for the experience of "reflecting" back what the "counselee" had just said. I wasn't very empathetic, and even the other counselors-in-training got on my nerves. I quickly realized that I wasn't cut out to be a counselor. When I failed to be accepted into Cal's MSW program I was relieved. Later, in 1979, I was involved in developing a traveling library exhibit under Pacific Center auspices. Working with John David Dupree and others, "Out of the Closets" was displayed in several Bay Area libraries, including Berkeley Public. I wrote about the experience in "On Display: Presenting Gay Culture in a Library Setting," which appeared in a special issue of Catalyst: a Socialist Journal of the Social Services (No. 12, 1981). While in library school I did a field study, developing a plan to institute a library at the Pacific Center. I don't know that any of it was ever implemented.

I vaguely recall a Gay Students' Union with offices in Eshleman Hall, and often a card table on Sproul Plaza. One Fall (Halloween?), my friend Randy and I took the bus over from San Francisco, to attend a dance that they were sponsoring at Strawberry Creek. Later these dances were held at the more visible Bear's Lair. Initially I remember self-consciously borrowing gay books from the Moffitt Undergraduate Library: I would "sandwich" one gay book between two straight titles, hoping that my choices would not be noticed by the clerk checking them out.

For a linguistics course (Fall 1976) I wrote a paper on the social constructions of gay argot. I compiled an annotated bibliography on homosexuality, and my honors thesis explored the dynamics of the lifelong process of "coming out." The next year Blauner invited me to serve as reader (student assistant for grading papers and exams) in his lecture version of Sociology of Men. I took responsibility for planning and participating in a panel presentation on homosexuality. I graduated with honors, majoring in Sociology in Winter 1977.

When Dean moved to Southern California to teach at Long Beach State University, I accompanied him, and we lived together briefly. I moved back to San Francisco and took a CETA job at the SF Art Institute. I realized I was seriously depressed, and began seeing a therapist.

While working in the library at the Art Institute I decided to attend graduate school at Cal, earning my Masters of Library and Information Science in Winter 1981. I often fulfilled my assignments by developing bibliographies on homosexuality. I used some of my annotations as writing samples when I started reviewing for Library Journal. Before I even completed my coursework, I was hired as a librarian by the San Francisco Public Library.

Despite a host of fond memories, I don't remember my years at Cal as being either happy or unhappy. I felt somewhat estranged from my classmates perhaps because I worked full time, didn't live near campus, and was gay. Academically, my education at Cal has stood me in good stead; as an environment to develop social/emotional skills, it was lacking. I only hope that the GLBT students who followed found a more supportive atmosphere.

Postscript: From 1991 through 2007 I was the librarian responsible for the development of the James C. Hormel Gay& Lesbian Center, which opened as part of the new main San Francisco Public Library in April 1996. Since 2007 I have been working part-time as Book Group Coordinator at the Jewish Community Library. For more information, please visit:


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