Respect Your Elders is a monthly column in which Lou Barrett sits down with an LGBTQ+ elder in their community and gets to know them over a cup of tea. Or, a Zoom session for social distancing!
Antonio Feo is a 72 year old gay man who came out around nineteen years old. During the ’60s, Antonio would use a fake ID to get into gay bars. The bar he went to, Anne’s Bar in Warren, Ohio, presented itself as a straight bar. It was owned by a lesbian, and gay people went there, but they weren’t allowed to touch or dance with same-sex partners. Antonio assumes the owner had paid off the cops to prevent raids; however, the shame and fear was so great that patrons still kept to themselves.
“I think that was pretty much common at that time, because we still had not had Stonewall,” he told me over Zoom, “so bars would present as a straight bar, and a lot of gay men went but you couldn’t do too much.”
Antonio is a therapist who started working in the field in his mid-20s. He moved to Cleveland to be a part of a larger gay culture, a freer culture, and to go to Cleveland State University. He has dedicated much of his career to serving transgender people. When he first started his studies, he was told he’d never encounter a trans person. Little did he know he’d end up working with trans people consistently since the ’80s.
“When I was at graduate school, we would look at pathology. One of the ‘pathologies’ we were reading about was being transgender. The professor said, ‘This is not going to be on the test. Don’t worry about it. You don’t even have to read about it. This is such a rare occurrence that you will never see it in your practice.’”
“Wow,” I breathed. “And this was what year?”
Antonio reminded me that this was in the ’80s. He was working at Laurelwood Hospital, and had always worked with clients with sexual disorders and sexual dysfunctions. Not long after, a patient in the chemically dependent unit was referred to him. The patient was 35 or 40 years old and liked to dress in women’s clothing. Antonio told the patient he’d never met anyone similar in his career, and didn’t know how to help.
“I says, ‘Well look,’” he paused, “You teach me and I’ll take care of you. I will do the best I can. You teach me what it’s all about. And she did. She starting teaching me what it meant to be transgender.”
There were two social clubs for crossdressers and trans people in Cleveland at that time, where crossdressers went and brought their wives. Antonio would go to meetings there. His first patient referred Antonio to one of her friends, and then that person referred him to their friends. Suddenly, Antonio was predominantly working with trans people. The concept of being trans became more well known and Antonio found the Harry Benjamin Society, which later became World Professional Association for Transgender Health or WPATH. They set the standards for care for working with the transgender population.
I asked if he ever found himself working with gay men since he’s gay and people often seek therapists who share their identities.
“When AIDS hit, I started working with different issues. People were mourning their loved ones, they were anxious about getting AIDS themselves. It was a horrible time,” he said.
Antonio has been uniquely exposed to the trials of LGBTQ+ people. While many of us know that queer folks are more likely to have alcohol and drug dependencies, depression, and anxiety, many don’t know the severity. We’re more likely to smoke as well. A lot of this is because cigarette and alcohol companies have targeted us to market their products, and a lot of it is due to the pervasive bar culture that’s so much a part of gay life.
For Antonio, he was seeing the result of these decisions in combination with shame, fear, and trauma. He works hard to remove as much of that shame as possible, and to offer patients healthier choices. Like working with gay and trans people, working with chemically dependent folks has been a big part of his career.
I offered some thoughts on this topic. “I think some people, personally, if they’re seeing a lot of this they might not see it as a problem. If people are just going to the bars or whatever, they may not be thinking, ‘Oh, wow, our community has a real issue with alcohol.’”
Antonio agreed. “Oh no they don’t, they don’t. It exists. It’s a way of coping. As a professional, people come to me and I ask how much they’re drinking.”
I switched gears, and brought up how when the pandemic first shook our lives it was often compared to the AIDS epidemic. I asked if he thought that was a fair comparison.
He didn’t hesitate: “No, it’s not. AIDS had shame and guilt. People called it God’s wrath on gay men. You don’t get COVID through anal sex or sharing a needle. You get it through saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and coughing.”
Antonio now owns a private practice in Westlake, Ohio. His practice is gay friendly, and caters to trans people. I asked him about his staff and the requirements he has for straight therapists, and he explained that of course they have to be LGBTQ+ friendly and need to be able to offer their clients “unconditional love.”
“We’re getting a lot of bisexual folks figuring out who they are now,” he told me. Antonio talked about how bisexual people face unique stigma in the LGBTQ+ community and oppression outside of it, and went on to talk about how fluid identities are becoming more and more understood.
It became clear early on in our conversation that Antonio was committed to the needs of the larger queer community and not just the gay community. I added, “It’s interesting that with bisexuality, that if you’re a woman who identifies as bisexual, people just assume you’re straight. And if you’re a man who identifies as bisexual, people assume you’re just gay.”
Antonio laughed, “Yes, yes. The binary is so boring.”
I asked him what advice he’d give to younger LGBTQ+ people.
“I would tell them give yourself and people you love unconditional love, and to make space for yourself in this world and others. Be present for yourself and others. It’s not asking a whole lot.”