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Love, Jerry: A Celebration of Love, Loss, and the Life of a Gay Man in the 1970s-90s

In celebration of Pride Month, student Curatorial Assistant Jake Gentry shares his exploration of the newly-processed archive of writer, activist and artist Jerry Boyd. The Lilly Library thanks Jerry’s brother Mike Boyd for his generous donation of this archive and his wish to share his brother’s legacy with present and future students.

Note: For the inclusivity of every queer person in our community, the plus sign in the term “LGBTQ+ community” represents all people who identify as non-straight and non-cisgender.

Content warning: AIDS-related death, mild references to sex.

Image of a faded green journal with a rectangular sticker on its front cover. The sticker is dated January of 1981, and is inscribed “Dear Diary, Please leave 3 quarts of milk starting next week. Thanks, Mildred.” The name Mildred is underlined.
Jerry Boyd’s 1981 journal.

As Pride month comes to a close this year, the queer community is supported by the legalization of same-sex marriage, inclusivity in the workplace, and anti-hate crime and speech laws in many parts of the world (certainly not all, to be perfectly clear). As a whole, this foundational and most basic of governmental aegis for the LGBTQ+ community is a fairly new one–with Obergefell still a little shy of a decade old. Nevertheless, the queer community is not out of the water yet–with severity ranging from anti-drag bills to the utter infringement of the rights of transgender people (especially trans youth), who are endangered today, yes, today, by laws that restrict gender-affirming treatments and healthcare. Given this, it is not surprising that yanking the clock hands back a few decades leaves the LGBTQ+ community with hardly any of the protections above. However, this did not stop Jerry Thomas Boyd, an activist, artist, author, and cartoonist from Gary, Indiana from living a wondrously queer life filled with lovers, friends, and the occasional heartbreak. Boyd passed in 2019, survived by his husband Dennis Kniat. Unfortunately, the materials consulted for this blog post do not showcase Boyd and Kniat’s love story, though, through Boyd’s journals, other relationships of his youth can be explored.

A close-up image of a handwritten journal page, inscribed in cursive script. Image is centered on a passage that reads “…We may part someday but I know and cherish that part of me that will always love him, no matter what. Dear Diary, do you catch my drift? Good! Love, Jerry.” The word ‘always’ in the above text is underlined.

Moving to Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s up into the 1990s, Boyd documented his extensive social and love life within his journals and calendars. Often writing to work through his feelings about his love life, he penned personal reviews on his dates and lovers, wherein he would rate the chemistry he had with the men he was seeing. Criteria included their personality, appearance, whether they had the potential for a long-term relationship, and even how well they performed, with Boyd at least once reporting an Alan Goodman was a “lousy lover” before concluding the entry with “So, Dear Diary, you see that Jerry Boyd can be just as shallow and self-serving as any gay clone/ Disco Queen around (too bad I don’t also have the looks.” Despite this comment, Boyd’s entries are rarely negative, and his emotional maturity is showcased by his contemplative analysis of why certain relationships did not work out, or why he chose to end things. Among the more notable lovers that made it into Jerry’s journals are Charlie, who had a waterbed, a multitude of recreational drugs, and the belief that he and Jerry had met before in “at least two previous lifetimes;” Pat, who is described as irresistible, delicious, and Texan; and Brian, who Boyd could “see something in his eyes” that he did not like but thought was cute enough to consider going to Fire Island with.

A spread of an open journal, (recto) photograph of Steven LeBlanc (left) and Jerry T. Boyd (right) standing together indoors and (verso) passage in handwritten cursive script that reads “getting out of St. Louis and to San Francisco [,] Steve wrote me a postcard saying ‘Happy at last’ [,] Jerry and Steve, July ‘94.”
Steven LeBlanc (left) and Jerry Boyd (right) pictured in one of Jerry’s journals.

However, one of his most intense and prolific relationships was with his roommate and on-again, off-again partner Steven LeBlanc, an actor whom he met in a gay bar in Boston on June 25, 1977, which Boyd described the meeting as “[like] Christmas in June” (Boyd).

Although the two men faced communication issues, (Boyd commented “We don’t talk about how we feel”’), they never strayed from one another for long, even on their “breaks” from each other as lovers. They both vehemently sought each other’s friendship when they were not romantically involved and continued to live together even when they were seeing other people. Eventually, the two did split, with Steven reluctantly renting out his own apartment, and it took Boyd years to fully move on from him emotionally: “eventually I would experience an internal moment of quiet epiphany when it dawned on me that I was truly ‘over’ Steven.” Upon moving to San Francisco, Boyd would reunite with Steven once more, becoming platonic roommates for another four years. As Boyd’s entries near October 1995, he begins writing about Steven’s health issues, such as his reluctance to take medication, concerns regarding his body weight, and speaking to his doctor. Boyd, along with Steven’s family and friends, sat with Steven in room 5E of the Intensive Care Unit at San Francisco General Hospital on October 7, 1995, when Steven died due to complications from his battle with AIDS.

In Boyd’s various drafts of Steven’s eulogy, he comments “I want you to understand that Steven was ready for his death. He was ready as anyone can possibly be.” Boyd later reflects upon his experience taking care of Steven during the last year of his life, watching the man he loved suffer, writing “Patience was not an easy lesson… I struggled alongside him, but I couldn’t do it for him.” After Steven’s passing, Boyd moved out of their apartment, but not before tearfully bidding farewell to each room and thanking the space for giving him more time with Steven. He would later dream about Steven, often wondering whether Steven was visiting him while he slept, or if he was the one calling Steven to him.

Hand drawn illustrations fill the page: multiple faces, including a disgruntled masculine presenting person, a masculine face with long eyelashes and an earring, a person’s head from behind, and a feminine face, half obscured by shading lines; a burning candle with a heart engraved upon it that is producing a tendril of smoke; a bin-like object; a sharp angle accentuated with shading lines.
Sketches from Jerry Boyd’s journal.

Among his personal journals and commonplace books, Boyd also writes about his life, providing the contemporary reader with a window into the mind of a queer man living in the time long before Obergefell v. Hodges. Not only does Boyd’s journal chronicle his romantic life but also his everyday feelings as a gay man. Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was challenging at this point in history and coming out– being out– was something he struggled with. While at a restaurant in San Francisco on January 8, 1995, Boyd caught the eye of a man walking outside, who at first walked on, but then backtracked, entering the restaurant to order a coffee. Boyd describes having an instantaneous mutual attraction with the stranger, but does not act upon his desires, as he is in the closet. Boyd writes about this encounter in great depth, explaining “The old feelings felt again. The man wanted something. He made it that clear. I reacted as the man in his closet reacts. Paying him just enough attention to keep him hanging on but not making any concession toward full acknowledgement of the game being played.” Later in the same journal entry, he reflects upon his sexuality, elucidating that it has been and still is “impossible” to freely express his sexuality, and he sees freedom not as a joyous liberation, but a risk of rejection. 1995, firmly within the age of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the LGBTQ+ community faced a very different world than today, with an often oppressive political and social climate discouraging or intimidating queer people to conceal their sexuality.

Handwritten heading of page reads “Don’t let the tou-tou fool you. This one is a man.” Under the heading is a hand drawn illustration of a male ballet dancer with dark, curly hair and a mustache, wearing ballet shoes with ankle straps and a tutu. He is in mid-performance, with a leg raised high into the air. A handwritten quote inscribed in the lower right corner reads “Let you be you,/ Let me be me,/ that’s HARMONY.” Under the quote is the name Sly Stone, most likely an acknowledgement to American musician and songwriter Sylvester Stewart, whose stage name was Sly Stone.
Sketch from Jerry Boyd’s journal.

However, there is light in this dark time too. The American Gay Rights Movement was active in this time too, and although he wasn’t comfortable being personally out, Boyd attended the Gay Pride/Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1995, taking note of the groups of muscled men at the “Fair” after the parade. Eventually, Boyd did become comfortable with the idea of coming out, and in 2008, he married his husband, Dennis Kniat. The Chesterton Tribune reports that “His life expanded when he met his husband Dennis. Their marriage was far too short, but it was replete with love, fun, and growth–of the individuals as well as the bond of a beautiful team.”

Finally, I wanted to get a bit personal and close this post out with my great admiration for Jerry Boyd. As a gay man myself, I cannot express the gratitude I have for Jerry and his writings. As stated previously, members of the LGBTQ+ community faced many challenges in this time period, and it took great courage to write these thoughts down. It is rare to catch such an in-depth glimpse into anyone’s mind, let alone a gay man’s during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic–when social stigma and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community was critically severe. I am beyond indebted to Jerry for not only documenting his thoughts, his feelings, his loves, and his losses, but for also preserving them. It may not have been his original intention for his personal journals to become research materials, but I am glad they are now accessible. Jerry’s experiences offer invaluable insight for anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I am confident Jerry will continue to touch other members of the LGBTQ+ community in the future, as he did with me. Jerry’s journals are a testament to the experience of queer identity, proof that we have always been here, and that happy endings belong to everyone.

P. S. Happy Pride Month, everyone! I hope you have a safe, joyous, and liberating month full of love. In the spirit of Jerry Boyd, jot something down if you get the chance. Future generations of the LGBTQ+ community will thank you for it, I promise.

About the author: Jake H. Gentry is a 24-year-old gay writer, artist, and graduate student. He received his Master of Library Science with a specialization in Rare Books and Manuscripts at Indiana University Bloomington, where he is now also pursuing his MA in Curatorship. He is a curatorial and teaching/reference assistant at the Lilly Library. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his partner and his two cats, Poe and Jiji.


5 Comments

  • Tommy says:

    Jake – it is evident how much time you spent with Jerry’s materials.

    You are a gifted writer.

    Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and explorative reflection.

  • Elisabeth Fitzhugh says:

    Jerry Boyd was a magical person in my life. We shared art, metaphysics, silliness and delight in life. Our birthdays were one day apart. My young son was delighted to meet an adult who had his own toys. We shared friends and the loss of them as well. His leaving was unexpected which made it harder, but his remarkable dance through life stays with me always and reminds me to twirl.

  • Dale Maxfield says:

    Great article Jake. We’re all very proud of you.

  • Dennis Kniat says:

    Simply put. we were in love with each other, happily married and content. We were sympatico. Our marriage was truly blissfully happy ever after until death separated us. It was an affirmation that what we wanted and looked for could be found. We were lucky.

  • Mike Boyd says:

    Touching and beautifully written tribute, Jake, to my brother. Thank you so much.

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