72 year-old, Caucasian, gay man Russel Hiett at his home in Orlando. Russel was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war before becoming a therapist. He is married. 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. 20 March 2019

Russel Hiett /

From about age ten, I knew I was different from other kids, and in those days, difference was neither honored nor encouraged. There were no harmless or friendly sounding words to describe that difference. “Gay” did not exist in my small rural Michigan community. Only words like “queer” or “faggot,” with all their negative connotations, were used to describe those like me. Consequently, I kept my secret buried as best I could all the way through high school and college. I did not act on my sexual awareness, and there was absolutely no one to talk to about this. My best understanding was that I was all alone in a world hostile to what I kept secret. 

College was no different. I had fourteen psychology courses, and in only one of those on “abnormal” psychology was homosexuality even mentioned. If I recall correctly, it was discussed in two pages of the course text book. This did not encourage me to explore my sexuality. In my Junior year, one of my roommates—a good friend to this day—came out to me. He was in a relationship with a fine young man, and he reveled in telling me his story. However, his experiences with being in a relationship was also the first time I became aware of rampant discrimination. He and his boyfriend were walking down the street one evening after enjoying a few drinks. At some point, his boyfriend leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. A few minutes later, a police officer pulled them both over and arrested the boyfriend on a public lewdness charge. He was released from jail fairly quickly, but there were long standing repercussions. Later, when they were both settling into their new Peace Corps jobs, the FBI investigation into their background brought up that “morals” charge, leading to both of them being released from the Peace Corps. 

During that same period, I was beginning my 4 ½ year stint in the Army. This was long before “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Any suspicious sexual behavior would lead to an investigation, causing someone to be released under “Section 8,” a general discharge under less than honorable circumstances. Since there was no way I could embarrass my family and friends, I tightened down on my secret and didn’t dare act on intense sexual urges. 

After leaving the service, I moved to Florida and pursued my career as a therapist. Over a short span of time, I had a few sexual experiences which turned out to be disappointing and unfulfilling. I got married and earned both a masters and a doctorate. Before marrying in 1974, my future wife and I discussed my sexual orientation. Because little or nothing had been written at that time, we both thought “it” might just go away. It didn’t. Raising two children and developing a career as a therapist kept me so busy over a 30+ year period, that I had little time to explore those desires which wouldn’t go away. Then, my wife was killed in a bicycle accident in 2005, just a few months after she retired. I retired soon after because it was abundantly clear that we can’t take time for granted. 

Even after her death, I did nothing about my sexual urges for the next seven years. I stayed busy with leisure time activities—gardening, genealogy, music—and kept my head buried in the sand. Finally, the urges demanded my attention, and I acted on them. Soon after, I came out to my children, one of the most nervous experiences of my life. Their response? “Dad, we already figured that out.” They and their wives have been incredibly supportive throughout. One officiated my marriage in 2015 to Rob, and the other served as my best man. 

Generally speaking, I have avoided sexual discrimination because I have led so much of my life as a “straight white man.” Admittedly, coming out to several friends has been nerve wracking each and every time, but to date, no one has blinked an eye. Their love and support have been incredible.

However, family has been a different situation. The most important family members, my cousin and his wife, have been understanding and supportive. Most of the rest of them have not been critical. They simply have disappeared. When around them at family reunions, they never ask me even one question about my life or my husband. To use an old expression, their silence is deafening. 

The one really negative family member has been my adoptive brother and his family. He came into our family life when he discovered my mother about 30 years ago. For several years, we enjoyed phone calls and letters, and I visited them whenever I was in Michigan. All that has come to a screeching halt. I rarely have any contact with them, and when I do through e-mail, the content of our conversation is solely about winter weather. He is a practicing Catholic, and he uses that religious cloak to justify his negativity about gay sex and relationships. Fortunately, my husband’s family has been totally supportive, so I have a new family to enjoy. 

I’ll finish with a brief story about subtle discrimination from my family doctor. I came out to him in 2012 because I thought it was important for him in his understanding of me as his patient. His knee-jerk reaction was to insist that I should have an HIV test. He never asked me once about sexual activity or if I was practicing safe sex. When I told him that I had been tested twice at the gay and lesbian center where I volunteer, he noted that in my records and never mentioned the subject again. While he never said anything hostile, it was clear from his behavior that he was very uncomfortable with the subject. 

I could ramble on, but that broadly covers my life as I transitioned from a closeted to an openly gay man.”

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