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Pondering history and forgiveness with Vincent Burke

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Vincent Burke — Photo courtesy of the author
Vincent Burke — Photo courtesy of the author

Memoirs always tend to hold a special place on the bookshelf. They are not perfect, cookie-cutter stories written from the idyllic mind of a young dreamer but rather stories penned with the grit, authenticity, and ugly scars of real people. Memoirs connect to a reader's soul like a long conversation with a friend.

This week the SGN had the pleasure to discuss Forgiveness: A Gay Man's Memoir with author Vincent Burke. His collection of stories takes readers a step back in time, following the life and legacy of a man who lived through some of the LGBTQ community's most trying decades. For Burke, writing a memoir was like therapy.

Image courtesy of the author  

A labor of love
Once Burke decided to sit down and write out his stories, he found the process moved along quickly.

"I completed [the book] probably last October," he recalled. "It was pretty fast. I worked on it for six months, but you know, it was something I enjoyed doing, so it wasn't work."

When Burke began writing, he didn't plan on completing or publishing a memoir. "I started small," he said. "I had a strange aunt, Mary, that I lived with for a short time when I was changing location, and she was odd, but I felt an affection for her, so I wrote a story about her, and I thought, well, maybe I can have this printed someplace."

While doing this, Burke realized he had never really taken the time to tell his Aunt Mary just how much he liked her. "My story was really a release for me [in] that I was writing... on paper that I liked her, and that made me feel good, so I just continued," he said.

Burke decided to go back to his childhood and write about the influential people in his life, those he had never recalled thanking or sharing his admiration for. As he continued, Burke realized that many of the people he wished to acknowledge had since passed. "I thought if I had this published, it was a way of acknowledging how good they were, and I felt good writing it," he said.

As the title suggests, the theme of Burke's memoir is forgiving people, even those who may not seem to deserve it. "The focus is forgiving people for past things that you objected to," he said.

"Every Gay person has come across bias, even now. ...I believe you should forgive those people because of several reasons, but mainly because they were brainwashed, they were indoctrinated, just like how a soldier who is captured is indoctrinated, so they really could not help it," Burke explained.

Hateful indoctrination and forgiveness
He believes that much of the mistreatment LGBTQ+ people faced in the early days of the movement was due to the hateful ideology taught to otherwise well-meaning people. Today, Burke says, we see a different America, where people can recognize the flaws in their prior "indoctrinated" thinking.

"Many of them are coming out of it now," he explained. "We, as a Gay community, should lead in forgiving, especially now that many of them have become our friends. We can now be friends with straight people." Burke cites the acceptance and even adoration straight people have come to hold for the Queer community in recent decades as a reason for forgiveness of past transgressions.

"In my early life, I could not be friends with straight people without worrying about what they would think if they knew I was Gay," he said. "I did not come out as Gay, but I was worried all the time even though I had straight people I was friends with who were good people. I worried about being brainwashed and what they would think of me as a result if they knew my other life."

"That affects every Gay person. Bias, even today, affects every Gay person," Burke continued. Despite the trauma that can come from experiencing bias, "I think [we] should handle it by forgiving," he said.

Burke believes the key to forgiveness is acknowledging "that these people are victims and should be treated like a soldier who is indoctrinated and who will come out of it."

Forgiveness is a journey for everyone, even Burke, who admitted it hasn't always come easy. "I mean, amazingly, I have forgiven policemen," he said, recalling the abuse LGBTQ+ people faced at the hands of the police in the days of Gay bar raids.

"I was fired on and approached where guys gather at night," he remembered. "I was standing there, and suddenly there was an announcement by two men in the shadows, and I knew that was the police, and I fled." Burke barely escaped that night.

"I understand that they were just like everyone else at the time. That was their job, and they were brainwashed. I will forgive someone like that," he admitted.

One person Burke has had trouble forgiving was a co-worker. For a while, he worked in an ad department in New York City, inspired by the value the company put on diversity. Even with that "progressive" business stance, Burke still encountered homophobia.

"There were people in [that company] who called one of the TV producers by a terrible, insulting name because he was Gay, and they called him that name in secret," he said. "I am having a hard time forgiving them. That's the only one. I think it's because it was more recent, and they would have known better in that field."

Queer history
Through his stories, Burke paints a picture of Queer history. He lived in New York in the 1960s, when Stonewall happened, and can recall his feelings about the events.

"I am a little embarrassed about Stonewall," he admitted. "I came back to New York City to my apartment, which was in the Village... and I did not even find out about it until about a week later, when I [saw] items in the paper," he said. "I should have been down there on Sunday night. Unfortunately I regret that I did not participate in it."

However, he also acknowledges that if he had the chance to go, he may not have been comfortable being in such a public place. "I have to tell you, my life was hidden," he admitted. "I had this undercover life. I would have gone there and been on the outskirts of the riot and cheering the rioters on, but I would not have been able to be a rioter. I was not brave enough to be on the forefront."

Burke's stories are not uncommon. The bias, the hatred, and the risk of societal exile kept many members of the LGBTQ+ community in the closet in the '60s and '70s. His memoir stands as a testament to the experiences of the average Queer just trying to survive in the 20th century.

Another influential period in Queer history Burke recalls is the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the '80s. Like most Gay men at the time, Burke watched as close friends perished of the disease. "I never had a large group of friends, but I had a few close friends who died from [AIDS]," he said with sadness. "It was in part the government's lack of involvement in it for as long as they could get away with it."

"I think back on the people," Burke said. "I think back on one particular guy who was a partner of a good friend of mine, who died. He was in his early thirties. I was, at that time, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is a Gay center, and the male Gay community [there] was stunned and immobile by what was going on," he remembered.

"But you know who came forth? The Lesbians in Provincetown... like Florence Nightingale, running around with food and caring for people. And that is something I've never forgotten about them."

Standing up
After surviving the riots of the '60s and the epidemic of the '80s, Burke was finally ready to stand out and proud for a cause he believed in: the right for LGBTQ+ people to marry.

"My partner and I got married in 2013, and under Washington, DC law, which had already passed several years before, we got married," he said, with the joy reflected in his voice.

Burke's wedding was a spectacular statement against the injustice of American law: "We were married on the terrace of the Supreme Court," he said.

"Our purpose in choosing [that location] was to assert our right to it and dare them to deny us the right to [marry]. So, there we were on the Supreme Court terrace on May 3, 2013, getting married. I mean, let Justice Roberts or anyone else look out their windows. There we were," he said with a laugh.

What does the future hold?
On the day the high court announced its ruling on Gay marriage, Burke and his husband celebrated. However, they, along with thousands of couples in the country, now face an uncertain future.

"I certainly am worried about [the future of Obergefell v. Hodges], too. If they're going to have this victory over [abortion] now, I doubt they're going to be satisfied stopping right there."

Despite his fears about the future, Burke stands strong in his unrelenting optimism. "With Gay marriage, it's going to be a little more difficult thing. People have joined their property under a married couple's name. It's going to be very legally entangled, but that might not stop them. Let's just hope that someone stays as president and that we have a change in the Supreme Court now and then," he said.

While Burke spends most of his memoir looking toward the past, paying his respects to those he loves, and recalling important moments in history, he also displays optimism for the future. He sees with each new decade more acceptance and love for the LGBTQ+ community, which brings him hope, but also concern.

The LGBTQ+ community is where Burke found himself and his people and a corner of the world he credits for making him into the man he is today. Burke is happy to see straight people accepting the Queer community but hopes it doesn't mean a diminished culture for queers. "I think that unless this undercurrent of bigots gets ahead in the United States and the world... we are going to be intermingled and lose this sense of community," Burke said with worry.

"That's something I value when I look back at my life," he recalled. "I was hidden, but it was like belonging to a private club, and everywhere you went, you saw members of your club, and they welcomed you. I'm just afraid that that's going to diminish, and I would hate to see that end.

"I have had Gay friends, and they have been the best friends I've had in my life and the most loyal people you could rely on. I just hate [to think] that in 10 or 20 years, that... is going to be reduced," he admitted.

Despite the acceptance of LGBTQ+ culture by the mainstream, leading to a reduction of Queer-exclusive spaces, the changes are not all bad. LGBTQ+ kids have a unique opportunity to come out and live as their true selves much younger than Burke ever felt he could. His advice to the younger members of the community? "These days you should come out as soon as [you] can, as soon as you feel comfortable, because there is no point in hiding. Anyone who does not accept you should be the one in hiding."

Burke also recommends reflection in the form of writing for anyone, old or young. "I would advise anyone to write a memoir, because it gives you a chance to say things you have neglected to say."

Burke's story is full of heart and warmth. It is a firsthand account of Queer history told through the kind and well-thought-out perspective of a survivor. Burke reminds readers that hatred is an ideology that can be unlearned, and forgiveness is never something to withhold.

At the end of the day, his writing is also a reminder to cherish the ones you love and to let them know you care about them. It's a wonderful read and a great example that everyone has stories worth sharing.