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“We Just Stood Up for Our Own Self:” James Justen Recalls Growing Up Gay in the 1950s

Jim Justen grew up gay in Kenosha, Wisconsin during the 1950ís, a time when homosexuality was considered a criminal offense that was thought to sap the moral fiber of both the individual and the nation. Gays were subjected to the same hysteria and persecution engendered by anti-communism, and pressured to conform to mainstream cultural and gender norms. During high school, Justen hid his sexuality but ran with a rough gay crowd in his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. He dealt with potential problems by learning the basics of boxing and ju jitsu and developing a tough street-fighting reputation. When he finally told his parents that he was gay at the age of 19, Justen was lucky enough to find his family accepting and supportive.

Listen to Audio:

JUSTEN: I knew that I was gay, had been closeted of course in high school, but there was a small minority of gay people around us in school, and we knew who was and who wasn’t. And a few tricks that we were going to bed with occasionally and that was about it in high school. In fact I had my first lover in high school. I ran with a pretty rough bunch of people, regrettably. My ex-lover used to fight golden gloves and I got my butt kicked at one time, and made up my mind I was going to learn to fight. And I spent a year learning how to fight. He taught me how to fight and defend myself. And if a problem developed it was going to be solved real fast. We just stood up for our own self and that was it. I guess we made up for the fact that we were gay by being strong enough to handle any situation that would come up.

I notified my mother and father somewhere around the time I was nineteen years old or so that I was gay. I told my mother first and she accepted it although she would rather see grandchildren on my side. My father’s only attitude when I told him was, "you are the way you are and you better do one thing — accept yourself for what you are and don’t try to change or you will be a screwed up person. He did know some gay women that he worked [with], some lesbians on the railroad, he was close to and friends to. My father was a very bright shrewd person he was my best friend as well as my father.

Source: Interviewed by Miriam Frank 6/28/96
Courtesy of Miriam Frank