My Namesake’s Legacy of Hope

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TheGrays

The author (center) in 2011 during his annual visit with the parents of his namesake, Albuquerque LGBT activist Russell Gray. Photo courtesy of Russell Page.

By Russell Page

— Every winter, my family treks down I-25 from Albuquerque to Las Cruces to visit the Grays. When I was little, I thought of Russell Gray Sr. and his wife Edith as another set of grandparents—even cooler versions of my biological ones because, like me, one of them was named Russell. The memory of their son, Russell Gray Jr., brought us back to their house. He was a leading gay rights organizer and activist in Albuquerque during the late ’70s and ’80s before his death from AIDS.

Before he died, Russell had become a close family friend. My mother, Susan Page, says her far too brief friendship with Russell changed her perception of LGBT people and instilled in our family a legacy of community service, activism and tolerance.

Coming Out of the Shadows

Growing up in Albuquerque during the ’60s and ’70s, my mom was largely naive, and unaware of gays and lesbians. Albuquerque was a post-World War II boomtown, propped up by the federal defense industries at Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories, where my grandfather worked. During the Lavender Scare era when the federal government and many employers routinely discriminated against gays and lesbians and labeled them as “deviants,” gays and lesbians in Albuquerque were marginalized and largely out of view.

My mother remembers finding out that there were gays and lesbians in her extended family and her parents’ work and social networks, but their sexual orientation was kept quiet. Much of this silence, my mom says, stemmed from the overall sexual repression of the period.

“We didn’t understand much about straight sex—much less gay sex,” she says.

By the time my mother entered college at UNM in the mid-’70s, things had begun to change. During this period of gay liberation, she watched a growing and visible gay, lesbian and transgender community emerge. Albuquerque followed the pattern of San Francisco or New York as an urban center that drew LGBT people from the surrounding hinterlands. During the mid-’70s, more gays, lesbians and transgender people began to come out in Albuquerque, especially on the UNM campus and in the eclectic Nob Hill neighborhood.

My mom remembers P.M. Guffy, a butch lesbian, running for homecoming queen at UNM. In 1976, the first Gay Pride Parade in Albuquerque, composed of only 25 people, marched up Central Avenue. The second Pride Parade in 1977—which drew a larger crowd of 100 marchers and enlisted Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay as its Grand Marshal—garnered more public attention and provoked mixed responses. While some observers showed support, others hurled eggs at the marchers.

When my mother left Albuquerque to attend law school in the late ’70s, she left behind a city still in conflict over how to include its emerging LGBT community. When she returned to Albuquerque nearly a half decade later to work for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, my mom met the man who had taken the lead in organizing and advocating on behalf of Albuquerque’s LGBT community, lawyer Russell Gray. District Attorney Steve Schiff—who’d later become a congressman—assigned my mother to head the Metro Court office. He told her Russell Gray would be one of her assistant attorneys.

“He’s gay,” she remembers Schiff telling her, “but don’t worry about it.”

Of course, Russell was much more than just gay. And by that point, he had established himself as the city and state’s leading gay rights activist.

New Mexico’s Harvey Milk

Russell was born in Las Cruces in the late ’40s. He attended college at New Mexico State University on a music scholarship, where he learned about the emerging gay liberation movement, discovered gay identity and came out of the closet. Russell attended UNM Law School after graduating from NMSU and stayed in Albuquerque as a lawyer for the rest of his life.

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, just beginning his legal career in the D.A.’s Office, Russell spent his spare time working as an early organizer and leader in the gay community. He joined upstart gay and lesbian musical groups such as The Wilde Bunch—a GLBT square dancing club—and the New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus. In 1981, Russell founded Common Bond, the first gay and lesbian community organization in Albuquerque. Throughout the ’80s, Russell led citywide campaigns for gay and transgender rights and started programs designed to strengthen the city’s GLBT community through support networks.

Whenever local newspapers, radio and television stations wanted to cover stories on gay issues, reporters talked to Russell. Although he did not hold public office or garner national attention, Russell Gray truly was a local Harvey Milk-like figure, speaking out for gay rights and politically organizing gays, lesbians, transgender people and allies.

On a personal level, my mother didn’t know what to expect when she first met Russell. She says he challenged many of her previously held notions and defied stereotypes about gay men. “Other than being gay,” she says, “he was one of the squarest people on the planet.” He looked like Clark Kent, she says, like an average guy. They instantly got along. During lunch hours, they’d walk around Downtown Albuquerque, jokingly scoping out men that walked by. In a weird coincidence, she says, Russell’s partner Roy looked remarkably similar to my father. In the years she knew him, Russell went out of his way to be friendly and outgoing.

Sadly, the AIDS epidemic claimed Russell’s life along with many of his fellow gay men. My mom recalls the disease seemed to hit Albuquerque’s gay community about a half decade later than major cities like San Francisco and New York. During the late ’80s, hundreds of gay men from Albuquerque died of AIDS. At first, it was not clear that Russell was sick. He may not have known until late into the disease’s onset. In late 1988, my mom noticed he was taking more sick days from work than usual. The disease progressed quickly. Within months, Russell was forced to stay in a hospital bed.

This was also a particularly trying time for my family. My older brother Larry, born in December 1988, died in 1989 from bronchiolitis. My mom will always remember with sincere gratitude that Russell left the hospital in a sickly state to attend Larry’s funeral. Russell died not long after.

Russell Gray

Russell Gray

My mom spoke at his memorial service, which was attended by a large crowd of people from the GLBT movement, the Gray family, the D.A.’s Office and many others from the larger community. My parents first met Russell’s parents at the funeral. Russell Sr. and Edith were  open about discussing their son’s sexuality and the way he had died during a time when gayness and AIDS were both stigmatized in society. After befriending the Grays during a period of shared grief, my parents made annual trips down to Las Cruces to visit and catch up on life. When I was born a little over a year later, my parents named me after Russell.

Russell Gray’s life story, though it ended far too quickly, offers compelling evidence that one person can have a great impact on the world around him for the better. On an individual level, he made friends with people like Steve Schiff and my mother.

“Once I knew somebody,” my mom says, “I was more tolerant.”

Contemporary Albuquerque has a thriving LGBT community and hosts regular Gay Pride celebrations with participants numbering in the tens of thousands. Many more LGBT organizations have emerged, such as Equality New Mexico and Pride Albuquerque, following the lead of Common Bond. These organizations are now capable of addressing the diverse needs and causes of the broader queer community in Albuquerque and New Mexico. The Common Bond Foundation annually awards the Russell Gray Lifetime Community Service Award to New Mexicans who have contributed significantly to the LGBT community and movement.

I hope I’m carrying on Russell’s legacy, too, by keeping an open mind and being an ally to people society marginalizes because of sexual orientation, gender identity, economic class or race. As Russell’s contemporary Harvey Milk once said, “Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up…You have to give people hope.” Russell’s story gives me hope. Learning more about the complex history of gays, lesbians and transgender people in Albuquerque and in America gave me hope. Now it’s time to continue working to translate that hope into substantive changes toward tolerance and equality.

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