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Fear and Freedom in the Land of AIDS

Robert Chesley ’65

Photo by Rick Gerharter

December 5, 1990, in San Francisco, California, from AIDS.

A passionate advocate for gay rights, Robert  Chesley wrote plays that celebrated sexual liberation and dramatized the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll AIDS wreaked on the gay community in the 1980s. Fear, he said—and not AIDS—was his subject.

He was born in 1943 in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a family of privilege. His father was a physician, and his mother was a socialite and a socialist who taught Robert that the rights of one are the rights of all. When they divorced in 1948, Robert moved with his mother and sister to Pasadena, California. He knew he was gay by the time he was four, though he didn’t have the the language skills to identify as such.

“My first memories were sissy,” he said, “wanting to play with the girls and with the girls’ things. Of course you don’t get any support for being sissy in our culture.”

Bullied throughout his youth, he took solace in playing and composing music, and through music made friends. At Reed, he became an enthusiastic and serious member of the folk dancing group as both a performer and a choreographer. “He was the only member of the group who helped me with the choreographies, which I especially appreciated,” says Jim Kahan ’64. “He was a kind, gentle soul.”

Robert majored in music and wrote his thesis, “A Study of Tonal Structure and Form in Three Works of Prokofiev,” advised by Prof. Mark DeVoto [music 1964–68].

“Reed (in my time) was certainly for the extraordinarily self-motivated kid,” he wrote later. “I probably should have been in a college which offered one helluva lot more guidance and counseling. The work with Prof. Seth Ulman [theatre and literature 1959–73] was the best part of my education—for no academic credit, of course.”

The expectations of family and society had pushed him deeply into the closet. When he graduated from Reed, he married his first cousin, Jean Rusch, and they settled in upstate New York, where Robert taught at a private school. The couple was emotionally close, but quickly settled into a sexless marriage.

“In some ways,” he said, “I had always been aware of being homosexual, and I had been unable to face this . . . getting married made it the more difficult to face, as I had then involved another person—who was and is very dear to me—in my self-deception. I went through a stage in which I planned to remain sexually inactive as, after all, I was married and very much in love with my wife.”

During the years he was married to Jean and taught at the school, Robert composed more than 60 pieces of music, including songs for solo voices and choral works. He frequently set music to texts by poets such as Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, James Agee, Walter de la Mare, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Whitman. His instrumental works include the score to a film by Erich Kollmar.

In 1975, at the age of 32, Robert had sex with a man. He ended his marriage and came out at the private school where he had been teaching for nine years. Though he had been a valued member of the community, many now saw him not as “Robert” but as “the homosexual.” But he found it liberating to be open. “It is more than enjoyable,” he said, “It is also healthy to be openly what one is.” Resigning from his position at the school, he moved to New York City and immersed himself in the gay rights movement.

That movement had been catalyzed six years before by the Stonewall riots—six days of rioting that followed a police raid on a gay dive bar called the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. After Stonewall, the movement changed course; instead of trying to gain civil rights without upsetting the larger culture, groups such as the Gay Liberation Front adopted in-your-face tactics. Coming out became more than a personal decision; it was a revolutionary political act.

Robert abandoned himself to the pleasures of sex and embraced kinks and fetishes—like an obsession with spandex and tights. Gay sex, he believed, was a language gay men used to develop their identities and form community. He began writing essays and criticism for the Gay Community News, the Advocate, Gaysweek, the San Francisco Review of Books, the Bay Guardian, and the New York Native. “Gay pride is self acceptance,” he wrote, “without shame of one’s sexuality—a willingness to be as open about one’s sexuality, life, and loves as heterosexuals are about theirs.”

Robert believed in the political power of theatre. He founded the 3-Dollar Bill Theater in New York City and began writing plays. In 1976, he moved to San Francisco and became theatre critic at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. As he roamed the city, he was often seen wearing a pink triangle on a black background pinned to his shirt or jacket—a defiant reproduction of the symbol that gays were forced to wear in Nazi Germany.

His first play to be produced was a one-act titled Hell, I Love You, which played at San Francisco’s 112-seat Theatre Rhinoceros in 1980. Robert’s plays were performed by gay theatre companies across the country and overseas. Night Sweat, produced in 1984, was the first play dealing with AIDS to be staged in New York. At once tragic, funny, and erotic, it spoke to the reactions of fear, isolation, and self-hatred elicited by the AIDS crisis and had extended runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Stray Dog Story was published that same year. Robert sent a copy to Reed, writing: “The play had a four-month run last year at New York’s (off-Off Broadway) Meridian Gay Theatre. A production of it opens this week in, of all places, Portland, Oregon; but no one involved with that production has had the courtesy (or, perhaps, the time) to contact me with any details as to where and when—my impression is that it will be staged at the local leather bar, where there have been productions of other gay plays which, I hear, have been pretty good.”

His work struck a deep chord with his audience. “It is our lives that Chesley takes as his subject, our pain that he articulates, our joy that he articulates, our pride that he makes palpable, our joy that he crystallizes, our guilt that he exorcises, our devastation that he makes us face all over again . . .” wrote David Stein, in GMSMA NewsLink.

His commitment to staging graphic gay sex scenes prevented Robert’s works from crossing over into the commercial mainstream—and shocked censors. In 1986, the Federal Communications Commission asked that the Justice Department prosecute Los Angeles radio station KPFK for broadcasting Robert’s play Jerker, in which two men fall in love after having phone sex and live happily until one of them dies of AIDS. The Justice Department ultimately dropped the charges, and the play was was performed in Los Angeles, London, Toronto, and other cities throughout the United States.

Weighing in on the controversy, Robert sent Reed a copy of Jerker. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “and in the opinion of others, this idiocy of the FCC is disastrous and arguably lethal in a time when frank discussion of sexual matters can save lives. Anyway, if you’d like to be offended in the privacy of your own home, the play is now available.”

In his relatively short career, he created 10 full-length plays and 21 one-act plays—most of which were never produced or published—as well as erotic short stories, editorial essays, news articles, and two novels.

Robert formed a relationship with Gene  Weber, a gay financial advisor/stockbroker in the Castro District. They traveled together to see Robert’s plays performed in London; New York; Chicago; Alberta, Canada; Portland; and Columbus, Ohio. Both were devoted to the hypermasculine, role-playing leather scene and the hardcore sex reflected in his sexually explicit plays.

“My self-esteem comes from my dedication to the gay community and to erotic liberation—a more basic issue,” Robert said. “I don’t believe in creeds. I’m a humanist renegade. What is important to me is figuring things out for myself: acting properly, ethically; offering good to the world.”

In 1982, scientists identified the virus that caused the disease hitherto referred to as “gay cancer,” which had begun affecting San Francisco’s gay community in the late 1970s. With the discovery of the HTLV-III virus (now known as HIV) in 1984, it became clear that AIDS was caused by a retrovirus—not sexual preference.

Robert used theatre to convey his view that sexual behavior was self-destructive only when driven by impulses such as self-hatred. The gay rights movement had been spurred by the sexual liberation of gay men in the 1970s. The days of unprotected, anonymous encounters might be over, but that did not mean that the ways men had established intimacy during the ’70s should be viewed with disdain.

“The basic issue is erotic rights,” says a character in his play Come Again. “We’ve gotta be up front about that, no matter how unpopular the issue is now. There’s no point in trying to get our other rights while ignoring the basic reason we’re denied them!”

University of Maryland scholar Rebecca Gavrila analyzed Robert’s work for her PhD dissertation in 2014. “Chesley was writing his histories of San Francisco, and his memories of people lost, as it was happening,” she wrote. “He was not given the time, literally, for hindsight.”

Robert was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He bore his status proudly, often wearing as little clothing as possible, so his lesions and gaunt appearance were unavoidable. After a battle of almost three years, the lesions reached his lungs. He died in 1990 at the age of 47.

AIDS may have killed Robert, but it did not silence him. The Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting, given annually by Publishing Triangle, is named in his honor.

Last year, the New York Philharmonic presented a three-week festival, “Music of Conscience,” that included a concert focusing on young composers who had died of AIDS. One of the works performed was Robert’s song “Autumn.”


Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2020

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