John Barlow was a man about town of modest means. He seemed to be at every art opening, every concert, every lecture. He had a host of friends, and was a conversationalist par excellence.
He also was a gay activist, a calling he could not even have imagined as a youth or young man. He was brought up in Springfield, Mass., and his parents Edward and Margaret Livingston Barlow made disparaging remarks about homosexuals and said they hoped their son, who never dated, wasn't "one of those people."
He later said he knew when he was 10 that he was gay, but he never told his parents.
Barlow, 77, of Hartford, died on June 27, 2011.
His mother was a descendant of the Livingston and Bull families, founders of Hartford, and Barlow was held to the highest standards — and in the 1950s, being gay did not fit the profile.
He attended the Classical High School, but didn't play sports and felt like an outsider. He attended Bates College in Maine, where he majored in history. He had a close group of friends who used to go to the opera together and talk about everything — or almost everything — of importance to young men, but not homosexuality.
Friends used to try to line up dates for him, but he kept his secret to himself. (Years after college, a friend wrote Barlow a letter saying, "I am gay, and I think you are, too.")
After graduating from Bates in 1954, Barlow worked as an editorial assistant at the G. & C. Merriam Co. in Springfield and contributed to both a children's and an international dictionary. He enlisted in the Navy and served in the intelligence division inWashington, D.C.One of the questions on the application was: Do you have homosexual tendencies? He loved the Navy work, but left after his enlistment was up.
He spent 20 years as a textbook salesman, working for Houghton Mifflin & Co., but he was fired in 1990.
The reason was never revealed. "We had our thoughts about it," said Dave Knapp, Barlow's close friend and a fellow book salesman who is gay.
The loss of his job was devastating, and except for a short stint at the Yale Co-Op, Barlow never worked again.
With limited funds and a limitless interest in the arts, he stayed extremely busy and developed friends who shared his various interests. He got to know the classical pianist Paul Bisaccia, and attended all his local concerts, helping Bisaccia sell CD's. "His ability was to relate to people," said Bisaccia, "and he had so many people he knew and kept track of. He had this great love of life."
Barlow searched out free offerings, like concerts of the Musical Club of Hartford or at Wesleyan University.
"He lived on a pittance," said Nita Hansen. "He was a raconteur, a conversationalist like the old days, but without being self-aggrandizing."
Like her, he was a faithful and long-time volunteer at WNPR and WGBY in Springfield. He attended the Monday movie series at Real Art Ways and the weekly lectures at the Wadsworth Atheneum, tutored at the Noah Webster School and was active in the West End Civic Association.
He frequently occupied a big Windsor chair in the West Hartford Public Library, where he indulged his appetite for good books and newspapers, which helped him stay up to date on current events and supplied ammunition for his progressive politics.
He lived in a small walkup apartment in the West End of Hartford, and liked to eat at the cafeteria atSt. Francis Hospital— it was convenient and cheap. His old car was heaped to the windows with old newspapers, coffee cups and other debris and his clothes were best characterized as "genteel shabby."
He was never without several invitations for holidays, and his ability to tell stories, exercise his sly wit and be entertaining meant he was rarely alone.
"He sparkled when he saw you, and he listened," said Hansen. "Who listens anymore?"
He was a longtime member of the Unitarian Church and had belonged to two parishes in Hartford.
What made a huge difference in Barlow's later life was the growing acceptance of homosexuality and the revolutionary change in attitudes that began with the Stonewall riots in June 1969, when gays took to the streets to protest a police raid on a gay New York bar.
Stonewall marked the beginning of a gay rights movement, which led to the legalization of gay marriage and the expansion of rights for gay and lesbian people — developments that Barlow and others of his generation could not have imagined in their youth.
Barlow was a founding member of True Colors, a group that works with LGBT teens, and served on its board. "I wish, back in my day, that I could have had the same opportunity to come out and have the same support," he told Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors. "It was a taboo word in the 1950s."
He volunteered with PFLAG, a group of parents and friends of gays, lesbians and transgendered people. He was a frequent speaker for the Stonewall Speakers about gay issues at school groups, where his age and experience lent a perspective.
"He was a valuable reminder of how far acceptance for civil rights for gays has come and how far we still have to go," said board member Gary Gianini.
Barlow attended gay pride marches and performances of the Gay Men's Chorus. "He was everywhere that was anything gay," said Donna Shubrooks, a volunteer with PFLAG.
His family never knew about his sexuality, and he thought he had no living relatives as he aged. (A family quarrel decades ago had split the family.)
He was even reluctant to tell some old friends about his sexual preference, fearing he would be shunned. He was shocked to learn that, in many cases, his secret was out, and he was still loved.
After Barlow developed pancreatic cancer last year, friends rallied. Four formed an informal safety net and made sure he took his medications, got to doctors' appointments and had food to eat. After he went into the hospital, they made sure he was never alone. During his six-month illness, the friends he had cultivated in different parts of his life met for the first time — his music friends, his church friends, his LGBT friends, his art friends.
They packed the pews at his memorial service as other friends, from high school to college and the Navy, gathered to say goodbye.
After his death, a cousin who has a gay son contacted Barlow's executor. They were distressed that they never had the chance to meet him.
"I think he was not positive that other people would accept him — and they did," said the Rev. Sarah Person, associate minister of the Universalist Church in West Hartford. "I never thought he believed how much he was loved, and that's pretty tough to take."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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