In 2007 my husband, an 80-year old straight emeritus professor of chemistry, and I booked a cruise up the Danube River from Budapest to Nuremberg. We did so to remember David, our son, who had died of AIDS fourteen years earlier. What was special about the trip was that Robert Driscoll, the CEO and founder of Venture Out — a small tour company specializing in escorted gay group vacations — had organized and accompanied the cruise. Robert had been David’s closest non-romantic friend.
Our traveling companions consisted mostly of other mid-forties gay men and women. They welcomed us with open arms. They had grown up during the 1960s and 1970s when the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a disorder, and many of them had not come out to their parents. Since we had accepted David and participated in his life, I often was a den mother to his friends.
My ability to feel close to the gay world did not only stem from loving my gay son. Having been a Jew in Germany and a German in German-hating Belgium I am very familiar with the ins-and-outs of discrimination and often bond with others who differ from the norm.
Some of David’s friends had been envious of our close relationship and wished that they too had been more at ease and open with their own parents. I am sure that the latter were equally sad, and it is my fervent wish that in the future America’s more accepting attitude will prevent these estrangements. A loss of closeness between parents and children can never be recaptured.
One evening I discussed these problems with Robert. He grew up in one of Massachusetts’ former mill towns. He was not much into sex, straight or gay. At home the subject was never discussed, neither by his parents nor by his older brother.
During the late 1970s, when gays all over America started to creep out of their closets, Robert went off to the University of Vermont where he mostly continued to suppress sex. Matters changed when he chose to spend his junior year abroad in Paris. In the French capital he finally “came out to himself.” When he returned to America he told some of his close friends that he was gay. “We knew all along,” some of them said.
But his parents went to their graves without him ever “having had that talk.” His father had always been distant and they seldom had long conversations. He was close to his mom, however. Robert knows that she knew and had even met a couple of his partners along the way, but had decided to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell attitude.” He now regrets that he was not more open with his parents. “I would have liked not to simply introduce my partners as ‘friends.”
In his final year of college he met a man eight years older than himself (who may or may not have stood in as the close fatherly-type figure Robert felt he’d never had), and they stayed together for four years. In 1983 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he attended graduate business school at UC Berkeley and where he also met my son David. That was the beginning of their 10-year-long friendship. Robert has shared his life with a same-age partner for 15 years now.
Like for the many who have issues with our parents, it had been essential for Robert to flee his closeted home. In the process he fell so hopelessly in love with traveling that he eventually made it his livelihood. He founded Venture Out, a tour operator that caters to a gay clientele, though straight people are welcome. Most often Venture Out’s groups consist of about a dozen people going to places both exotic (e.g. Bhutan, the Galapagos, African safaris, Southeast Asia, Japan) as well as more mainstream (e.g., Western Europe). In 1997, to celebrate his business’ tenth anniversary, he organized a riverboat trip for about eighty people going up the Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg.
We were not the only non-gay people on the tour. I bonded with Ina, who had also lost her son to AIDS. She was traveling with Jacob, her son’s long tine partner. Another guest had brought his ninety-year old Dad along. He was having a particularly happy time. Beryl, a single woman from Louisiana, was on her third trip with Robert because “he is so fabulous with handling details.”
Our gay travel companions, mostly younger by a generation, seemed to be happy to have us “straights” aboard. I interpreted their kindness as repayment for having supported their peers, when being gay was still commonly frowned upon.
For us this river trip was also significant in other ways. Our boat docked in Vienna, the birthplace of my husband; in Regensburg, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather; and Nuremberg, my mother’s birthplace. That was a pretty good batting average for a randomly chosen trip.
Our trip turned out to be great. The October weather cooperated. The landscape was beautiful, the food too excellent, for someone like me constantly struggling with her weight, and one day soon I hope to join Robert and one of his groups on another venture.