Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America

Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America

Richard Chamberlain made a contribution to the book "Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America" by Mitchell Gold. Below is Richard's extract from the book.

Part 2: Family and Community Rejection
Richard Chamberlain page 105

Richard Chamberlain

Richard Chamberlain will always have a special place in my heart: He was my first crush. As a boy I watched him play the handsome physician on the 1960s TV series Dr. Kildare; I never took my eyes off him to look at any of the nurses. Even then, I knew I was smitten. And yet, even then, I could sence others would feel it was “wrong,” and that frightened me.
Born in 1934 in Beverly Hills, Richard lived both a thrilling public life and a painful private one. In addition to playing Dr. Kildare, the beloved stage and screen actor starred in two popular 1980s’ miniseries, Shogun and The Thorn Birds. He was also the original Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity, playing the character in the original 1988 TV movie that Matt Damon later made famous on the big screen. He was more recently seen on Desperate Housewives as the gay stepfather of character Lynette Scavo, and as Councilman Banks in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
But in one area of his life, acting did not serve him well. In 2003, at age sixty-nine, he published his memoir, Shattered Love. In it, he came out publicly for the first time–sharing with the world the private agony and costs of an inauthentic life.
Here he recalls all the acting he did as a young person to hide who he was-and what a struggle it was to undo all the consequent damage later in life.

Growing up in the forties, certain things were quite clear. The clearest of all was that girls were inferior and utterly other, and for us guys, any deviation from the sacred masculine was unthinkable, loathsome. To be thought a sissy was social death. The key to life, to happiness itself, was a firmly fixed male gender identity. Polarity was sacrosanct. Androgyny was verboten.
By the time I was ten or eleven, it became obvious to me that my gender ID was disastrously off the mark. I was attracted to boys. To me and, as far as I knew, to just about everybody else on earth, this meant that I was despicable and unworthy of existence.
But I did exist, and instinctively knew that to survive, I must pretend to be someone else, someone other than deformed me. Which brings us to the fifteen-year old Richard I was inventing.
Ah, high school and its raging cauldron of adolescent angst. Luckily, I was good looking, agile, reasonable intelligent, and a budding actor. Acting became my life. I acted Richard the Straight and pretty much got away with it. I had girlfriends whom I genuinely liked and enjoyed, Kissing was fun and, in the fifties, not much more was expected. (And who knows, perhaps I might magically transform into a genuine male.) Nearly all my friends were straight.
My deep fear of being unmasked and revealed as an emotional leper was somewhat glossed over by friendship, scholastic requirements, sports success (I was a four-year letterman in track), and some unexpected distinctions. I was chosen as chief justice of our student court, received an art award trophy and a summer scholarship to Art Center School in Los Angeles, and was accepted by Pomona College in Claremont, California, despite my mediocre grades. And to my total surprise, I was chosen most reserved, most sophisticated, and best physique by our senior high school yearbook.
So invented Richard was doing pretty well. Except for the fact that his sexuality, a very big deal at fifteen, had been banished to a dark, dank cellar lockup where it languished, fearful, vexed, and angry, through four years of college and two years in the army.
In 1959, I was living in a tiny apartment in LA pursuing my longed-for career, deeply involved in acting, singing, and dancing lessons, and occasionally even working in television. Sounds good-sounds just right. But I found myself becoming inexplicably fatigued and withdrawn and vaguely fearful. My real self, the self I had been taught by my family and culture to hate, was beginning to agitate for recognition, for light and air and life. Living a lie day after day can be exhausting, even dangerous. But I was psychologically ignorant and had no idea why I was sliding into depression.
My singing teacher, noticing my thinly disguised unhappiness, suggested I see a psychologist she knew. I made an appointment. Our first session was, in retrospect, hilarious. She asked me how I was. "Fine," I said. And how was my work? "Fine," I said. And my family, how were we getting along? "Oh, just perfectly," I said. And my romantic life? "Great just fine," I replied. After a pause, she asked why a person so fine and great and perfect was consulting a psychologist. Well, there I was, caught right in the middle of my Great Lie: that I was the absolutely perfect person my absolutely perfect family had always wanted me to be. Despite being totally busted, or rather because of it, I realized the way I was living my life had to change. I stayed, and our serious work began.
It had taken me many years–decades in fact-of psychological and spiritual exploration to begin to understand the power and tenacity of our social conditioning. The imprint upon a child’s mind and heart of family and cultural fears, prejudices, and hatreds can be deep and almost indelible.
Despite my loving relationship with my partner of thirty years, the last vestiges of self-loathing remained into my sixties–and then vanished in a moment of grace. Suddenly, I at last realized that I had been sabotaging myself with totally absurd, completely fallacious belief that being gay made me despicable. Suddenly, it was clear that being straight or gay tells us next to nothing about people–not whether they are good or bad, smart or slow, kind or cruel, loving or hateful. Being gay is simply a benign fact. Barely interesting. How I wish I had known this early on.
So parents and teachers and preachers beware. Your unexamined fears and prejudices are powerfully contagious and can infect and deform the young, whereas mindfulness and loving-kindness will free their spirits to fly toward great things.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Years after my TV love with Dr. Kildare–and still in the closet–I was working at Bloomingdale's as an assistant buyer in the comforter and blanket department. My sassy colleague from towels came over, beaming: "There's Richard Chamberlain with his partner." Partner? I must have looked dumbfounded. She said, "Oh, everyone knows he's gay." What she meant, however, was that lots of people knew, but it wasn’t publicly known. I stood there in a shock, watching what looked like two normal guys shopping for a comforter. And in that moment, I realized it could be okay–that maybe I could live my life somewhat openly and honestly. Some in my New York City world could know, but back home, my parents and old friends need not know. Although this is not the message we want to send to our gay teens–that they can only be who they are in certain areas of their lives–it was, for me at least, a first step toward living authentically, and for that, I thank Richard.