‘Don’t be a doormat to the world’
Lucius Harwell greets me with an oxygen tank and a smile.
The 67-year-old Cartersville native meets me at Galano Club, the LGBT 12-step meeting spot in Midtown. He’s a Galano board member and comes here almost every day.
When people in AA meetings talk about what is going on in their life, they call it “sharing.” So Galano is as good a place as any for us to talk. We grab an empty meeting room and Harwell proceeds to share his life.
Harwell has been attracted to both men and women for most of his life, and he dated “some very pretty girls” in high school and college. But it wasn’t as easy to address the other side of his feelings.
“I didn’t like it,” he tells GA Voice. “I hated myself. You were such a pariah if you were gay, so I didn’t want to be gay.”
But he was honest enough with himself not to take a chance at ruining a girl’s life. He was engaged to be married to a woman in his senior year of college. The wedding date was set. But Harwell wasn’t.
“I had to tell her. I couldn’t say ‘gay,’ but I did muster up ‘bisexual,’” he says. “She’s a beautiful, sweet person. Still is.” She was the first person he came out to.
Soon after, Harwell’s inner conflict would manifest itself thanks to another conflict much farther away.
‘This is what you’ll be living with’
In the fall of 1970, Harwell showed up at the U.S. army induction center on Ponce de Leon Avenue at what is now Ford Factory Lofts. His draft number was up, and he had no qualms about serving―even though his sexuality could have gotten him out of it.
But with a father that served in the Navy and a brother that had been in the Air National Guard, it wasn’t a consideration.
“A lot of my friends said, ‘Oh just tell them you’re gay’ but I didn’t think it was right,” he says. “I wouldn’t honor my family by doing something like that. To me it was not being a man.”
Lucius Harwell, 67, fell in love with another man while serving in Vietnam. (by Patrick Saunders)
He was stationed at Fort Jackson in Savannah for basic training, when one morning he was called to battalion headquarters and given orders to go to Vietnam. “I was looking forward to seeing more of the earth,” he says. He was 26.
But on a 30-day leave back home before shipping out, his secret came out into the open.
One day, Harwell’s mother went through his things and stumbled across a love letter from another man. “All hell broke loose,” Harwell says.
He left for Vietnam without telling his parents goodbye, which hurt his father, because he was more accepting than Harwell’s mother. It was at this point that Harwell decided he was going to be straight.
When Harwell’s captain found out he wasn’t writing home to his mother, he ordered him to do so. It didn’t go well.
“This was about the time that Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson were supposedly boyfriends,” he says. “She clipped that article out of the Enquirer, sent it to me and said, ‘See, this is what you’ll be living with.’”
He managed to “stay straight” for a few months, before a former rival became something altogether new and different.
‘We swore undying love for each other’
His name was Dan.
He and Harwell had gotten into a fight about one thing or another, but right before Dan was about to ship out, he slipped a note underneath Harwell’s door apologizing…and admitting he had feelings for him.
“I tore off down to his room and we spent the next three days together,” Harwell says. They wrote each other after Dan returned home to Ohio. Harwell was going to Hawaii with a couple of friends and Dan’s 21st birthday was coming up during the same time, so he sent him a plane ticket.
“That’s when we swore undying love for each other,” Harwell says chuckling. “I couldn’t wait to get out [of Vietnam].”
He moved in with Dan as soon as he got out of the service. They told people they were stepbrothers. “This was the 70s. You couldn’t be out,” he says.
They moved to Florida together and started a business. But a change in location didn’t change people’s mindsets. “Very few people knew the truth,” he says. “When we told a few people, they turned on us. It just wasn’t healthy being gay yet.”
As time went on, the relationship soured. Harwell was co-dependent. Dan was drinking too much. It ended. They were together for 14 years.
Harwell’s mother passed away around the same time, and he came back to Georgia. He sold the home she left him and moved to Atlanta in 1988 for a fresh start.
‘I don’t hunt for a definition any longer’
Harwell started going to AA meetings in Atlanta to deal with his addiction issues. It was there that he met the first person he had known who had HIV/AIDS. “I was more scared of being around someone with AIDS than I was being in Vietnam,” he says. “We just didn’t understand it yet.”
He counts the number of friends he’s lost to the disease at over 200. He couldn’t stand anymore funerals. He had survivor’s guilt.
As he grew older, Harwell started thinking about having a family. About having grandchildren. There were no men in his life to fill the bill, so Harwell married a woman.
“Some people have said, ‘Oh that’s just so wrong of you,’” he says. “I’m growing old and I don’t want to grow old without family. It gives me a sense of responsibility.” He considers her grandchildren his grandchildren. He and his wife live apart.
When asked if he dates, Harwell hesitates before answering. “I have friends, I go to movies,” he says. “I’m true to my marriage though. I don’t believe in divorce. That goes back to my parents.”
“Am I defined as strictly being gay? I don’t like that. You can define yourself in so many different ways. I don’t really hunt for a definition any longer,” he says.
He’s going through therapy right now at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, dealing with what he calls “A lot of ‘Who am I’s?’”
When he goes out socially, he is typically the oldest one in the group. “Most people my age bore the hell out of me,” he says. “They turn into little old ladies.”
He looks back on his time in Vietnam fondly, with one major exception. “They sprayed me with Agent Orange, which has shortened my life,” he says. “Everything that’s going wrong with me physically is due to that.” He has type 2 diabetes. Peripheral neuropathy which has left no feeling in most of his torso and legs. The COPD that requires him to cart the oxygen tank around on bad days, which have been more frequent lately.
“I loved serving my country, but they didn’t have to poison me.”
‘Don’t be a doormat to the world’
Regardless of his health issues and the bumps in the road along the way, Harwell is grateful. He’s been battle-tested in more ways than one, especially when it comes to discrimination.
“I’ve ridden on the back of the bus at one time in my life,” he says. “Then I got to ride up front. I’ve learned that I’m just as good as anyone else. I don’t need to hide the fact that I think differently.”
And he’s not afraid to say what he thinks. He says there’s no such thing as gay marriage, just marriage. He doesn’t want gay rights, he wants equal rights. We shouldn’t attach the word “gay” to everything, he says.
He believes in God but has no time for organized religion, which he says has caused the suffering of too many children who were a little different. He doesn’t like how different subsections of the LGBT community are being split up by race.
And what would advice would he give the 20-year-old Lucius? The one who hadn’t come out yet? The one who had yet to fall in love? The one who survived a war, an epidemic and an addiction?
“Listen more than talk. Always be true to who you are. Don’t be a doormat to the world. Stand up for your friends. Enjoy life every day.”