74 year-old, white, gay man Dennis Shelto at home in Orlando. Dennis is widowed. He used to be a clothing designer. Behind the scenes photography and video and assistant: Juan Pablo Ampudia, juanpablo@cuartocreativo.com. Phone +52 1 55 8676 5741. Photography by Robin Hammond, pitures@robinhammond.co.uk. Editor: Mallory Benedict, Mallory.Benedict@natgeo.com, +1 202.791.1282. 23 March 2019

Dennis Shelto /

“Even though we have come so far in terms of gay rights looking back, some of the struggles I had are the same for some kids today. What they don’t have a real role models in the media that they can relate to. I grew up knowing I was different, but didn’t know why. I had no one to relate to. People knew Liberace was different and he was called a fairy. Gay characters in the movies had small parts and they were not taken seriously. It was always disguised. I had no one to turn to.

As a family, we didn’t know any gay people. I remember being at my grandmother’s house and hearing a story about a fat, bald man in a schoolyard who was a child molester. My mother said, “He is one of those homosexuals.” I then thought that is what all gay people are…..fat, bald child molesters.

I did not really have any issues in school. I did not understand I was gay, that I didn’t know the meaning of the true word. When I got to be about 16, I realized I was gay. It was life changing for me, it was so difficult and I went into a long depression. I had been led to believe I would end up in jail or a child molester or worse… if there is anything worse. My father thought all homosexuals were ill. It wasn’t until the day before he died he called me in and apologized. He admitted being wrong and recognized that my relationship with David was real.

My parent’s expectations were that I would get married and have children. I only dated women when I was young. It was when I went into service that my real issues began. There were so many men from the Midwest. They would rather kill someone who is gay, then talk to them. I was not one to go out and play sports with the group. I kept to more to myself. This was looked on as wrong. One night a guy from Iowa asked me if I was gay or a priest. I called him an ass. I woke up that night with a pillow over my face, he was trying to kill me. There was another guy in my group who was gay and I did hang around with him a bit. They would not bother him because he was black and so was our sergeant. I took the brunt of the abuse for both of us.

Another time I was on leave with the same guy. A stranger grabbed me and put a knife to my throat. He said he hates faggots, thank goodness another group of men saw what was happening and got they guys off me. If they were not there I would probably not be here to talk to you today.

When I got out of the service all my parents wanted me to do was get a job, settle down and have kids, so I got engaged to a girl I knew from school. Right before the wedding I had a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself and was hospitalized for six months. I did not know what to expect if I told them I was gay, so I could not and did not tell them.

When I got out of the hospital I went back to my “normal” life. I started dating the woman who would become my wife. We were married a year later and she was pregnant within 4 months. I knew art this point that all was not right with me, but wrong! I went to a psychiatrist at the VA to bear my soul. I told him I was gay and all my issues. His response to me was, “With all your problems you should find the nearest bridge and jump off of it.” I did! I jumped 80 feet and broke just about all of my bones in my body. I was in the hospital/psych ward for months. Towards the end of my stay I met one of the patients. We went on a weekend leave and he took me to my first gay bar. I met a guy who ended up persuing me and it ended my marriage. One would think this was the start of a new beginning and I was happy and gay. Unfortunately, the relationship was toxic. We were together for few long years of fighting and infidelity. My psychiatrist opened my eyes to the fact that one again I was trying to hurt myself. This time through mental anguish I was self-inflicting.

When I got out of the hospital I decided to go back to working as a hairdresser. One of the employees decided to write: “You are crazy and a fag and you don’t belong here” she did this on the mirror of my station on the day I returned. I cut one customers hair and then had to leave. I never returned. Not only was I discriminated against as a gay man, but now for my mental illness. I could not escape.

I started to go out to gay bars in the area. They are nothing like they are today. We could not dance together close and could never show public displays of affection. If we did and got caught we would be arrested. Actually, you could be arrested just for being inside the bar. We had nowhere to safely be ourselves.

Just when I was ready to give up, I went to a bar with one of my buddies. A tall, dark handsome man entered the room and it was love at first sight. I looked at my buddy and said, “I am going to spend the rest of my life with him.” And I did!! We were together for 46 years! I had found my soul mate – The person who accepted me for who I was and loved me unconditionally.

Unfortunately, even though I had found happiness and was in love, the discrimination continued. I was attacked one night when I pulled over at a local bar. Men with baseball bats smashed my car windows and attacked me too. They were hitting me in the head until I bled, I survived because a cop drove up and they ran, He did nothing to the men – another sign of the times.

Fast forward to today…The one message and the only reason I am sharing my story is I want LGBTQ community members to “Have Hope because there is a Brighter Tomorrow.”

No matter what you are going through, life can get better. You don’t know what is behind the next door. For me it was a loving man who gave me the autonomy to do what I wanted and loved me through it all. I thank God every day for keeping me here on this Earth to see how far we have become.”

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