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And he wants to talk about it

Randy Strawderman is gay.

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If you know Strawderman, the artistic director of the Barksdale Theatre and a longtime fixture in Richmond's theater community, you might have already guessed his secret.

Even he says, "People see me out, they see me talk. I dance. I choreograph. I'm in the theater. I'm a single man and I'm 51 years old. I think more people know than don't."

Those who know, though, still don't talk about it. When Strawderman shared his homosexuality with his parents about 10 years ago, they said simply, "We know. It's OK." He hasn't discussed it with them since. His two brothers have known he was gay since he was in his late 20s, but they never talk about it. Even the straight friends who know he is gay never mention it in conversation.

"He never told me [he was gay]," says longtime friend Duane Nelson of Nelson Communications. "But I've known forever and ever."

Now, Strawderman is ready to break the silence. He wants to share his story, to finally talk about what it means to be a 51-year-old gay man who "has been straddling this fence between the straight world and gay world."

"It's time for me to get off that fence and get on the side that I'm supposed to be on," he says. "I am a gay man, I was a gay kid … I need to get off that fence and be who I am."



For many lesbians, bisexuals and gays, including Strawderman, that is much easier said than done. Although it is widely cited that one in 10 people is homosexual, look around you and think about all of the people you know. Is one out of every 10 of them gay? How can you be so sure?

Even in 2000, in our seemingly enlightened age where diversity is celebrated and where everything and everyone is politically correct, labeling yourself as a homosexual carries a stigma, and a risk. Sure, "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch is gay, and everyone loves "Will and Grace." At the same time, though, the military still espouses a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy; gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by two men who posed as homosexuals; and only 14 states in this country bar employment discrimination because of sexual orientation. Virginia is not one of them. "Virginia can't even deal with reforming the sodomy laws for nongay people," says Stephen Lenton, Ph.D., a local licensed professional counselor who works with many homosexual clients.

Living in a conservative community such as Richmond makes it even more difficult to live openly as a homosexual. There are people who do, for sure, but when is the last time you saw a same-sex couple walking hand and hand down Monument Avenue?

Here, the president of the Richmond Pride Coalition lives most of her life "in the closet," afraid that she will lose her public-service job if she reveals her lesbianism to her co-workers. The city's thriving gay and lesbian professional business organization, "the gay Chamber of Commerce" to some, asks that its name not be identified in print, although it has 250 active members and a mailing list of more than 1,000 people. And this Saturday's Gay Pride Festival (see sidebar) has been threatened by Grace Street merchants who are afraid their businesses will be hurt by the event.

Deciding to come out publicly as a gay man has not been easy for Strawderman, who spent many hours this summer sharing his story, both in personal interviews, and in lengthy and eloquent e-mails he's sent at odd hours of the night.

He is most concerned about embarrassing his family. "I don't want to hurt them," he says, "but then I thought, who has the biggest burden here? I also think they're going to find me much more in their lives because of this decision."

He also knows his disclosure could cause him to lose his job, that it may cause some people to end their support of Barksdale Theatre, that it may shed unwanted attention on his family. But at age 51, he believes it is time for him to start living his life.

"I can never be a good leader if I continue to follow the fear and prejudices of others by keeping a low profile concerning one of the most basic and important things about me, my sexuality," he writes in one of his long, midnight e-mail missives. "I need to be out-front, not hanging back in the shadows of perceived safety. By stepping out into the sunlight, by moving to the front of the line as a gay man, I will be a better person, a better leader, and an honest role model. If the Richmond community, my theatre, and the other leaders here don't want me in the sunlight as a gay man, then I will follow my own lead to a more compassionate community where I can do the work I love and be the person I am."

From an early age, Strawderman knew he was different. Born the middle child of three boys in Broadway on Nov. 10, 1948, he grew up on a Powhatan farm managed by his father, E. Sidney Strawderman. His mother, Bonnie, was a schoolteacher. According to Strawderman, he lived an almost idyllic life.

"I loved singing and dancing and creating fantastic scenes for me, my brothers and my friends to act out," he says, recalling his "happy, perfect childhood." "If these scenes meant that I was a shining knight in armor one moment and a damsel in distress the next, it didn't matter."

When he asked for a tea set at age 5, his parents bought it for him, and his brothers attended his tea parties. His father taught him how to dance, and little Randy went on to enter and win many dance contests with a neighborhood girl. He loved watching Jimmy Durante on television and impersonated the performer in a 4-H talent show, where he also sang Judy Garland songs. "It is so stereotypical, but it's true," Strawderman says, laughing at his early fondness for Garland, an icon of modern gay culture.

"I was a really happy kid then," he says while showing off this third-grade school portrait. He looks like he stepped out of a "Dick and Jane" reader with his blond haircut close to his head and a neatly pressed button-down shirt.

But even then, he knew he was different. One day after riding the bus home with his brothers, Dennis and Sydney, one of them noticed it too.

"My brother asked me not to talk so much on the bus," Strawderman says, the hurt still present in his voice. "He said I was embarrassing him. It was the beginning of me being aware of how I walked and talked."

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Randy StrawdermanStrawderman began checking himself. "I was always walking around looking at myself in my mind," he says. "I became very self-aware. I was putting on armor." That armor remains to this day. "I just want to crash it away," he says.

When he reached puberty, things became even more difficult. "[I] found I was looking at the boys and not the girls," he says. "I had no frame of reference in which to figure out why I was going against the grain. I knew I had to be wrong. I knew I was bad. And so I shut that away and coped the best I could without letting anyone know."

Though he had many friends, Strawderman could never be himself when he was with them. In order to fit in, he acted like "one of the boys," talking about girls and laughing at jokes about queers, faggots and fruits — people like him. "That's where the dishonesty starts," he says, "when you start laughing at things that hurt."

At home, though Strawderman's family was "the epitome of family values: work hard, be honest, go to church, study hard in school, play fair" — he couldn't find the words, or the courage, to share what he was feeling. "Everything you're taught is to be true to yourself, to be honest,"

he says. "But inside [I was] saying, 'I can't be honest.'"

He wasn't even aware of the term "gay" then. But if the subject of someone like him came up, the usually garrulous Strawderman would become silent. "It had to be a dead giveaway," he says in retrospect. "I sometimes wonder if my parents were testing me, seeing if I would open up. I used to blame them about not being open about those kinds of things, but I wasn't open either. ... I could have used some help. Not to change myself, but to understand myself."

Strawderman was active in the youth group at Salem Baptist Church, though he realized that in the eyes of the church, what he was about was wrong. "I loved the church," he says. "You're in a place that you like to be, and yet there are parts of the sermon that are directly canceling you out as a person." Toward the end of high school, he finally stopped attending church. He still doesn't go today.

He's sitting in a popular Fan coffee shop, sipping a fruit smoothie and wearing a "Full Monty" T-shirt and pukka-shell necklace. He talks with his hands, his arms, his whole body, really, and is constantly pushing his floppy blond hair out of his eyes. It is a boyish gesture, and it is not difficult to imagine Strawderman as a child some 40 years ago.

He looks again at his third-grade photo.

"Everything I still deal with in terms of my sexuality came from when I was a child," he says quietly. "I don't believe this kid made a choice. ... At this age I didn't say, 'I want to be a gay person.' Why would I want to go through all of that?

"If I could go back to that age and did have a choice I would say I want to be exactly who I am, and the only difference is I'm going to march straight in to my parents' bedroom and I'm going to tell them … but I wouldn't change who I am."

Every gay or lesbian person who has shared the truth with their friends and families has a coming-out story. Many of them detail childhoods similar to Strawderman's: feeling somehow "different" from a young age; being taught what they are feeling is wrong; keeping their sexuality a secret out of fear of rejection. However, Lenton, the local counselor who specializes in homosexual issues, says how and why people decide to reveal themselves varies.

"One reason people come out is because they want to be true to themselves," he says. "A true value is supposed to be one we hold publicly, and how do you be proud of a secret?" Others come out when it takes more energy not to come out than to do so, to clarify their relationship with their parents, or to reduce stress or anxiety by coming out of hiding. Also, Lenton points out, "If you're known as a gay person, other gay people will approach you ... in some ways coming out is a way of looking for love." No matter what the reason, "coming out is a long-term practice," Lenton says. "It is not a one-time event."

That is where Strawderman says he has gone wrong previously. Yes, he told his parents 10 years ago that he was gay, but he never went beyond that. "I'm guilty of not talking to my parents," he admits.

But this time, with them and with everyone else, he knows that his revelation is something he will have to deal with every day. "I'm looking forward to that," he adds.

Strawderman began working with Lenton, who is himself gay, in summer 1998 when he took a leave of absence from Barksdale Theatre. In 1997, he had returned to the theater that gave him his first professional break in 1972 to serve as artistic director. It was a difficult time: Barksdale was in enormous debt after moving from the historic Hanover Tavern to the Shops at Willow Lawn and Strawderman, in effect, was charged with saving it.

"I was under a great deal of stress with the theater," he says, looking tired even now from his recent stint directing "Sweet Charity." "Red Hot and Cole," the enormously successful show that he conceived and co-wrote in 1977, and that originally opened at the Barksdale, was running, and Strawderman was torn between the demands of directing and fund-raising. "I was exhausted and depressed," he says, "I just went inside myself."

The Barksdale's board of directors realized Strawderman was being pushed to the breaking point and encouraged him to take a leave of absence to take care of himself.

Strawderman saw a doctor who diagnosed him with depression. He immediately entered therapy and started taking medication. Though he had experienced bouts of depression all his life — retreating for weeks, even months, after a period of intense activity, this was the first time his feelings had been medically diagnosed. And he was pretty sure of the root cause. That's when he began working with Lenton and attending a gay man's therapy group. "I really wanted to come to terms with all of this stuff I've been holding in," he says. "It takes a lot of energy to be on-guard all the time."

This summer, Strawderman was diagnosed with adult attention deficit disorder, which he is also being treated for. He says it has made a big difference in his life, that his focus and organization skills have vastly improved, that he has since started dieting and exercising at the downtown YMCA every day. He's feeling better, both mentally and physically, than he has in many years. Still, he says, "there is still something missing that medication or therapy is not going to help, and that's revealing myself completely. I need to take that step. It's long overdue."

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

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