This morning I met a man who is a gay man, an actor and a Mormon. By the time I got home, I had to tell him the story of my being entrusted with an extensive collection of letters from Robert McQueen and principally two of his correspondents, Nathan Fein and Tom Youngblood. Just over two years ago, Affirm, an organization of gay, lesbian and bisexual Mormons, accepted the letters as part of their gay and lesbian collection which is housed at the University of Utah. Here is my letter.
Hey guy, Here is an article about Robert from the time when he began his career as editor of The Advocate, highlighting his Mormon roots. I read it this morning and found it very moving. His letters which I donated to Affirm start just about where the article leaves off, and cover the next 10 years or so, the last ones about six months before he died in 1989.
There about 250+ letters in all. They are divided into two parts. The most extensive is the correspondence between Robert and a writer named Nathan Fein who was The Advocate’s point person, editor, and columnist reporting and writing about the AIDS epidemic from the very start, before HIV/AIDS had a name. They show two men really grappling with how to present this information in a responsible way. And they are a real mirror of those times.
The second section of the letters were written to Tom Youngblood, the man who gave me the collection (in a big gray box from the men’s sweater store that used to be in St Francis—yeah really) with instructions to find a home for them and perhaps to make them into a book or, A PLAY. Tom loved the idea of a play. Tom was a gay activist and the most often quoted gay man in Herb Caen’s column. He died from either from AIDS complications or his own hand about 10 days after he handed me the box on the front steps of the Zen Temple where I was living on Hartford Street.
And finally, there are copies poems that Robert wrote when he was on Mission, plus one or two letters to the man who was his companion, his coming out to the man, his confession of love (I don’t have the copy in my hands, so they may not be that dramatic). These are the hardest to read—they are old-fashioned Xeroxes of the originals. They also are probably some of the most interesting when looking for the spiritual roots, and conflict, of this talented man.
I had all of McQueen’s letters to these two correspondents. I tired for several years to find Nathan’s literary executor. I have a suspicion (or can hope) that some one of his friends or family recognized the value of his work, and saved as much of it as they could. Or they may be stored in a sweater box in some closet waiting to be found. Or they may be lost. I have actually met Youngbloods’ literary executor, Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral. I tired to find out who has possession of Tom’s side of correspondence. After a few phone calls and letters back and forth, I felt that perhaps there was something about my request that did not sit well with the Dean and took no further action, or maybe I just dropped the ball. Perhaps a play—or knowledge that Robert’s letters are now part of the gay and lesbian collection at the University of Utah—might peak his interest. We can pray.
I have the entire collection stored in digital copy on my old Power Mac. I scanned them all and then ran an optical character recognition program to create a Word version. It was one hell of a job, but for some reason I knew that I wanted to keep a copy for myself. Affirm accepted the collection with the understanding and their permission that I might use them someday in a play or a book.
Over the course of working with the letters, I discovered something about the reverence that Mormons have for the correspondence of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as well as other early LDS leaders. I read about very large sums that were paid for any original. I think that there was even a scandal not so many years ago about forgeries that were either bought by the Church or some of its leaders. I have always felt that Robert’s letters were somehow part of that same tradition, the spiritual lives of Mormons that is, and not forgeries. I can attest that those are really the letters of Robert McQueen. And they are pretty amazing in their frankness about every subject they touch on.
I would love to send you off to Utah with something to read, but that might not be in the cards. But you have access to them anytime you want. I may need help in getting the Power Mac powered up, but they are yours.