At the age of 85, Jim Kersey has never seen, before or since, a day like Nov. 22, 1963; he remembers that day and the 50 years of change and growth that was set in motion during the thousand days of the administration of President John F. Kennedy
Barry Houston Phillips | Contributing Writer
Dallas Voice: Ok, take me to November, 1963 and where you were in your life and your career.
Jim Kersey: In 1963, I was 35 years old. I had already gone to college and graduate school and had lived in Dallas for about three years and was at Southwestern Medical School. I worked there in the department of psychiatry but had been offered a job in Fort Worth as director of the Mental Health Association.
I had not particularly wanted to come to Fort Worth because people who lived in Dallas thought of Fort Worth at the time as a “jumping off place” and I, too, had that impression of it. I really began to like it though, and in the spring of 1963, I bought a house in Fort Worth, which I am still in to this day. I can always remember when I bought the house because it was the year of the Kennedy assassination.
November 22nd. In the third week of November, I went to Washington to a meeting. On Thursday, I walked over to the White House to take a tour because in those days, you could just walk up and say, “I want to come in,” and they let you in. While we were in one of the rooms on the tour, we suddenly heard all this commotion in the hallway. We asked what it was all about, and one of our guides said the president was leaving, and a helicopter was coming to pick him up because he was on his way to Texas.
The conference ended the next day, the 22nd, and I was wanting to take some time off so I got on a train to go to New York City. The train left late morning and when we stopped in Philadelphia, the conductor walked down the aisle announcing that the president had been shot. Of course, we all wanted to know more, but no one knew anything more at that point.
We found a man in one of the coaches who had a portable radio, so we were all hovering over him trying to hear any news at all. He turned it up as loud as it would go, but being on a train, we could hardly hear anything. But while listening to that radio, they did, in fact, announce that Kennedy had died. It was another hour and a half from Philadelphia to New York, so during that time, we knew nothing. But when we arrived in Penn Station, they already had extra-edition newspapers out.
It was all very strange. It was the first and only time that I had been in New York, and the city was literally entirely shut down. Broadway was closed. All the theaters were closed. What people you saw were wandering around dazed and stunned.
Were you hesitant to return home? No, not at all. I wanted to return home. I just wanted to get out of New York. I remember going into a Delta Airlines reservation office. I told the airline agent I wanted to change my reservation, and he wanted to know where I was going and I said “Dallas,” and he just went off ranting and raving about Dallas.
When you got off the plane at Love Field, did you sense any change? Well, what I did sense was the extreme grief with everyone, everywhere. Curiously, I remember some people saying, “Well, what did you expect in Dallas? They spit on Adlai Stevenson.”
At the time, did you regret you were not at home for the president’s visit to Dallas? No, after it was all over, I felt a real closeness to the president having been in the White House the day before he died. Actually, too, when he was running for president, he came to Fort Worth, and I made a point of it to go see him then.
Kennedy’s death was only about five-and-a-half years before Stonewall, which is credited generally for bringing the agenda of the gay rights movement to the forefront of the consciousness of the late 60’s generation. But in the early ’60’s, was there any awareness of any gay rights agenda at the time? The term gay rights I don’t think had even been coined, at least not to my knowledge. We certainly knew the term “civil rights,” and I remember very vividly we were all in the efforts for black people. It was all very obvious that they were being denied their rights. The people really took to the streets and held marches. I remember joining marches here in Fort Worth that went down Main Street.
Then, civil rights primarily pertained only to racial equality. Right. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that gay rights were being overlooked as well. There wasn’t any such thing that I was aware of. I think in those days you just simply accepted the fact there were gay people around, but it was never discussed, at least not openly. I never ever heard the word “gay” used in public or in the media in that sense. It was all very “hush-hush”. I remember as early as about 1950, someone did ask me if someone was gay. I honestly had no idea what they were talking about.
So, how would you have referred to someone’s gay sexual orientation? Well, we would say, “Does he know Dorothy?” or another term, “Is he a ribbon clerk?” or “Does he have lace curtains?” And all of this was strictly underground. None of it was discussed openly.
Did Dallas at the time have any attitudes toward sexual orientation that were different from other major cities in the U.S? Possibly, Dallas being much more conservative and in the center of the Bible Belt was certainly different from San Francisco and New York. But then, even San Francisco was never referred to as a “gay” city, but New York was known to have its own gay area, Greenwich Village. Even Dallas’ Oak Lawn in the late 1950’s was not a gay area. It didn’t become that until later.
Homosexuality was illegal at the time, correct? Oh yes, there were sodomy laws in Texas. Ironically, I was called for jury duty once in about 1958, and the first case that came up was a sodomy case, which was a felony. However, I was not allowed on the jury because I did not own property in Dallas. Also, women could not serve on juries if they were not married. Homosexuality was never, ever discussed because just to be associated with it could mean you would lose your job and be disgraced.
Did you ever see that happen first hand? Well, yes, probably. But mainly I would read about it in the newspaper. When I was a teenager, I remember the term that they would use in newspapers was “perversion”, and I didn’t know what that meant. So, I got a dictionary to look it up. I was so naïve.
With Kennedy coming on the scene with so much energy and determination to take a stand for racial civil rights, did that give you a glimmer of hope that it would also set in motion a stand for gay rights as well? No, I don’t think I did actually. You just accepted being gay as a fact that would never be talked about. The thing, though, that struck a chord with me was his interest in mental health. He proposed a lot of mental health legislation. Today, we have a lot of mental health centers that did not exist before Kennedy.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that recently passed [the Senate] was originally championed in 1996 by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Would you say that perhaps President Kennedy had some posthumous influence on his brother in the passage of this bill? Well it’s entirely possible. There is no question that Jack had quite an influence on his brother, Ted, as well as Bobby, in every respect. Being like-minded, the Kennedys were devoted to public service, and many of their contributions were of a liberal leaning.
How much do you feel that the spirit of Martin Luther King with the march on Washington in 1963 influenced any movement toward gay rights, if any? Well, what comes to mind is that he was a member of the clergy. Years ago, when I taught at UTA, I had a student who wrote about AIDS and people with AIDS. She did her research at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. What she concluded in her thesis was that the demographic with the most negative attitude toward gays was the clergy. So, I’m not so sure that even though he was a crusader for human/civil rights that he would have been in favor of gay rights. To my knowledge, he never addressed publicly anything to do with gay rights.
With so much of what we are talking about right now, you have to transport yourself back to the era of which we are speaking. You have to call it for what it was then even though things are very obviously different now. It’s a whole different vocabulary now.
What did you and your generation lose on Nov. 22? Actually, I think it renewed history for us. We can read about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and think about it what it was like. But, you haven’t really lived through anything quite like a president being assassinated until it happens in your own time. I think it will always have a profound effect on me.
In your 85 years, did you ever think you we would see some of the things you have as far as the advancement of gay rights? No, never, never! What is going on today, I didn’t dare dream of 50 years ago. It’s just amazing what has happened in 50 years. To think that we have a black man in the White House today? Why, when I was growing up in the 1930’s and 40’s, that would have been absolutely unheard of. And gay marriage? When we couldn’t even say the word gay publicly? And now, we have what, 16 states recognizing gay marriage? It is just astounding, and I’m glad I’ve lived this long to see it.
Barry Houston Phillips is a two-time Emmy-winning designer and art director. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 22, 2013.