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Ancient Gay History

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A nurse wrote me back empty-handed but pointed me toward others who might help. A doctor and HIV/AIDS researcher named Dominic Chow responded to my query. The clinic had been named after Spencer because he had been the first patient to participate in an AIDS study at the university, as well as “a strong HIV research and care advocate for the state of Hawaii” when HIV was first discovered in the eighties. “I knew Clint for the last two years of his life,” Chow wrote. “He was a warm and compassionate man” who fought hard “without compensation or need for recognition” to fight the epidemic and promote “compassion and respect to those infected.”

Chow sent a link to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin obituaries of April 4, 2001. Spencer’s is just a few sentences long and makes no mention of his work on HIV/AIDS. The notice said he died at 53, named his domestic partner (of whom I could find no other trace), and described Spencer as “a retired stage director” born in New York. I tracked down his credits—he was indeed a stage manager for a few regional and Off Broadway productions in the seventies, though none of them intersected with Clayton’s theatrical orbit.

Thus the Clayton Coots story, like so many others of his time, trails off into fragments, ellipses, and mysterious dead ends. I’d like to believe that he did have a partner in his last years, and that he was taken care of as he had taken care of so many others in his peripatetic, too-brief life. But I can hardly say it for a fact. This being America, the next step for half-­forgotten stories like Clayton’s will be to fade away altogether, just as the vanished, unmourned world where they unfolded already has. That’s progress, isn’t it?

I imagine that if Clayton were still here, he’d find the idea of same-sex marriage as far-fetched and funny as his favorite late-night movies. But, of course, I am speaking of the dashing public Clayton, who was “always Happy and with it.” There’s no way of knowing what the hidden Clayton would think. Like Harold Hill in The Music Man, he might have found his someone and made a home. As the rest of us are swept up in the euphoria of weddings unimaginable only a decade ago, the least we can do is pause for a moment to remember him and all the others who were never given that choice.


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