I’m not willing to lead a double life with Gary Nygaard

In this episode, we talk with Gary Nygaard (he/him) about the book Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. This book is a classic of LGBTQ literature. For Gary, he read it as a cautionary tale of how destructive it can be to pretend to be straight and how damaging it can be for yourself not to live an authentic life. We discuss how Giovanni’s Room shaped and reaffirmed the life decisions he was making, particularly as he attended seminary. Episode transcripts are below.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

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J.P.: On today’s episode

Gary Nygaard: I think what Giovanni’s Room did for me, other than so strongly identifying with David’s struggle with himself, I think it showed me how destructive it is to try it is to pretend. How awful it can be for yourself and for other people.

J.P.: I’m talking with Gary Nygaard about a classic of queer literature: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. For Gary it was a cautionary tale about the harm that can come from double lives. We discuss how those themes affected Gary as he sought to become a Lutheran Minister.

Gary: It was kind of a shock when I got in my first year of seminary to find myself in an environment where it was so closed. It felt like I was being thrown in a jail cell with the door slammed shut.

J.P.: Here’s a story about making the choices to live an authentic life. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!  

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J.P.: Allow me to introduce you to Gary. His pronouns are he/him. He was a serious reader when he was younger. In Junior High School, he read James Michener’s Hawaii. The book is about 900 hundred pages long and it was a point of pride for him to have read it. He read all of the Sherlock Holmes books, got into Edgar Allen Poe and Steinbeck.

Gary is a die-hard fan of Stephen Sondheim. He told me that he appreciated how Sondheim never repeated himself in his work, that each show was so different from the other. He loved how Sondheim’s songs were complex and conflicting, illuminating the characters and their emotions, to really hear them and learn from them.

There are two big thick volumes of all Sondheim’s lyrics with essays from other composers and lyricists and Gary has read both of these, in addition to biographies of Sondheim.

Theatre is a passion of Gary’s. He and his friends had season tickets to Park Square theater in St. Paul, Minnesota for 26 years. They had season tickets to the Minnesota Opera before that. And more recently he has had season tickets to the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis.

This is special: Gary and some friends would host Cabaret evenings. They would invite folks over and sing songs for them. Confident in his singing voice, and a real love for Sondheim, Gary read that there was a local production of Sondheim’s musical Company. He auditioned and landed the role of Larry.  

Gary’s career first started in social services, focusing on counseling, support groups, and family therapy. He then earned a degree in Business Information Systems. He got to do computer programming in a variety of sectors like bookselling, insurance, railroad transportation. Then he joined a consulting company which he liked so much he worked there for 21 years!    

Today he is reading Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr.

Here is my conversation with Gary.

J.P. Der Boghossian: Hi Gary! Tell us what was the book that saved your life.

Gary: When you first asked me about this, the book that came to mind immediately was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

J.P.: And how would you describe it?

Gary: It’s a real complex book as far as emotions but it’s a really sad book. I remember I’ve read it several times and I remember the first time I read it. It was it. It was just very painful to read because of the conflict of the main character David and how he’s fighting against himself through the whole thing.

JP: For folks who haven’t read this classic of queer literature, here is a basic, very basic, plot summary. David is our main character whom we meet in France. His girlfriend has gone to Spain to consider David’s marriage proposal. In Paris, David meets Giovanni at a gay bar. They are attracted to each other, start a relationship, spend a lot of time in Giovanni’s room. David eventually moves in. But his girlfriend, now fiancée, returns to France. Drama ensues. Throughout the novel David wrestles with the ideas of what it means to be a man, his social alienation, how he navigates queer spaces, and trying to reconcile his ideal manhood with his affair with Giovanni and his past gay relationships. Baldwin has said that a driving question of the novel is “what happens if you are so afraid you finally cannot love anyone?” Gary, when was the first time you read Giovanni’s Room? How old were you?

Gary: Ah I was probably about 20, 21 and it was probably maybe two or three years after I had accepted to myself that I’m gay. And I had actually started coming out to a few friends, but I wasn’t out very much when I first read it.

J.P. Tell me more about the start of your coming out journey.

Gary: Well, I was born in 1951 and so I grew up in a time when basically gay people were invisible except for to make fun of or to be horrified by. And so when I started realizing that I was gay I mean I remember having feelings for other guys and some of my male teachers all the time I was growing up and didn’t think there was anything bad about that. But at the same time I knew enough not to tell anyone I had those feelings so when I was in high school. My best friend was Susan and she and I spent a lot of time together and it was. Actually, my parents and probably her parents as well figured that someday we would get married um and she’s still a very good friend of mine and she is Lesbian and we figure that we gravitated to each other because we felt that a relationship would be safe that we wouldn’t have big expectations for it with one another to really advance into something really romantic and sexual. She was the first person that I came out to and at that point I was only able to say well you know I think I’m bisexual. When I started thinking about being gay because it was so invisible because there just wasn’t much around. I didn’t even really know what to call it I thought well I guess I’m a homosexualist.

J.P.: Homosexualist?

Gary: Which I guess is someone who studies homosexuals. So, but then when I got finishing high school in the first year of college. I realized that you know I was gay and this is who I am, it’s not going to change and all the things that I thought about growing up that I would somehow then someday you know find someone and get married and we’d have a family and have kids and to be all Leave It To Beaver, you know. That wasn’t going to be the case and I wasn’t very happy about that for a while but then I started accepting it and I was okay with it and started feeling confident enough to share it with some other people that I felt were also safe to talk to.

J.P: Was reading Giovanni’s room part of that acceptance process?

Gary: It was. I think what I at least subconsciously when I think about when I think about it now. I think what Giovanni’s room did for me other than so strongly identifying with. David’s struggle with himself to try to try to believe that that wasn’t the case about himself. I think it showed me how destructive it is to. To try to pretend. How awful for yourself and how damaging it can be to other people to pretend and go into relationships dishonestly and I think that gave me some more impetus to go forward and see if I could find other people who would accept me and  other people who were gay and had the same kind of feelings and experiences.

J.P.: At the time like how did you find Giovanni’s Room? Was it you found a library? Was it recommended as a gift?

Gary: Well at the point that I got it, (laughs) no, it was not a gift. Yeah, no at the point where I realized that I was gay. I thought you know I really want to learn about what other people are experiencing and so I  started looking around and I don’t remember exactly where I saw it but there was a list of books that had gay themes. And there were only maybe about 8 or 10 books on the whole list and so I went over to Rosedale Mall to the b Dalton bookstore and looked on the shelf and most of them were not there. But Giovanni’s room was! I bought it and took it home and read it.

J.P: I’m curious what it was like for you at B. Daltons bookstore to be buying a book with gay themes, to go out through the cashiers, and show them that you’re buying this type of book. Was it the first time you had bought a book like that?

Gary: Yeah, actually that was the first time that I that I went into a bookstore specifically looking for you know, something like that. But I don’t remember feeling at all self-conscious or afraid or embarrassed or anything about going up to, buying it, I mean you know it was James Baldwin and I would guess that most of the clerks who worked there had no idea what the subject matter was anyway just looking at the title of the book. You know, who knows? So I just thought I’m just buying another book and I think. That’s probably how they felt too.

J.P.: Did you read it all at once like in a day or did you spread it out? 

Gary: I read it over two nights, yeah, I did.

J.P.: Wow, so you really dove in!  What was it about like initially, that hooked you?

Gary: Well there early in the book, he tells him an experience that he has with another teenage friend and how that experience was so pleasurable and yet so terrifying and what he ended up doing with that relationship with that friend from that point forward but I think another thing that really drove and pulled me into the book is that I found it so visual I’ve always thought you know I don’t understand why no one ever made a movie out of this because there are so many things that are so clearly visual that are just made for putting on the screen. You know the very opening vision is David sitting in this  cottage in the south of France looking out the window in the middle of the night and his reflection in the window and he’s thinking back on his life. You know what a great opening image for a movie in a way.

J.P.: Had you been to France at that point? I guess I’m curious if France was a country you wanted to go to and then got to read about gay life in Paris in Giovanni’s Room.

Gary: Well, you know I don’t know if I if I had such a strong desire to go to France at that point. But I have been to Paris since then. David and I went to Paris about twenty five years ago so I did I did yeah um.

J.P.: Did you think of Giovanni’s Room while you were there? How so?

Gary: Just visualizing Giovanni and David you know, walking around the city along  the sand and you know, what it must have been like 40-50 years before that. Kind of the Bohemian life.

J.P.: As you were initially reading through it what were the parts you really felt were speaking to your experiences?

Gary: Yeah, though that whole struggle that he had of realizing that he had these same sex feelings, but not wanting to admit them and not wanting to accept them. I think once I got to the point of realizing that my attraction to other boys and male teachers and so forth was more than just you know, a physical curiosity about how they looked without their clothes and that it was a strong emotional component too. That I really was looking for love besides just a physical connection. It was very scary. David in the book was having definitely those same scary feelings and unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get past them before he wrecked several lives. I felt by the time I read Giovanni’s Room, I felt like I had mostly gotten past that. But the memory of it was certainly still strong.

J.P.: What did you think of Giovanni?

Gary: You know, in preparation for talking with you I went back and I reread the book and I have mixed feelings about Giovanni. I think he’s a sad character and I think he’s a, oh I don’t know if weak is the right word but dependent. I’m kind of afraid and needing someone else to rely on. And I didn’t dislike Giovanni at all. I guess I have compassion for Giovanni much more so than David by the time the book ends I thought David deserves his guilt at the end. The feeling that you know, look what I’ve done and he had plenty of opportunities along the way to NOT do that.

J.P.: For folks who maybe haven’t read it, what do you see as examples of where he could have been making different or better choices?

Gary: Well, when he and Giovanni first meet. They are with two older men. Jacques who is sort who’s a rich man who is sort of a a sugar daddy and Guillaume who owns the bar where Giovani is working as a bartender. He’s an old lecherous man, also rich, and from an aristocratic family. But the 4 of them go out and Giovanni and David end up going off by themselves. David certainly was feeling the danger of the situation at the time. He could have extricated himself from that at that point but he didn’t and once he went back to Giovanni’s room with him and spent the night, he had kind of started down a road that he was very uncomfortable being on and he wouldn’t let himself stop.

When he met up with his girlfriend and then fiancee Hela, he had already been living with Giovanni for a few months and feeling very ambiguous about the whole thing and saw Bella as his rescue from the horror, he terror that he was feeling and ultimately you know used her. Even though he was basically using her as an escape and he  just left Giovanni without telling him that Bella was back. That’s where he was going to be and he was just cruel toward Giovanni rather than just being upfront and saying this relationship really scares me and I’m sorry you know. Even at that point he could have said I should have never gotten involved with this. This hurts you and I know it. I’m really sorry. Instead he just abandons him and then goes back to collect things out of the room and treats him very badly. Not an admirable character by the end.

J.P.: It sounds like you were reading it as a cautionary tale.

Gary: Yeah, now! Actually, I would say, I wonder what it would have been alike if it had been a cautionary tale. If I had read it maybe three years earlier or whether I just would have said oh my God, I understand that and I know I’m going to stay away from any relationships as opposed to saying I’m going to treat my relationships with respect and I’m going to accept who I am.

J.P.: After this short break I talk more with Gary about acceptance as he tells us about his experiences in seminary and how Giovanni’s Room played a part in that.

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J.P.: I can’t say enough how important it is to have empathetic people in our lives, to be in a explicitly stated supportive community – particularly when we find ourselves pursuing our passion, but finding ourselves navigating an oppressive environment. Here’s more of my conversation with Gary.

J.P. It sounds to me that you were choosing authenticity, integrity, and not wanting to go down David’s pathway despite also living in this heteronormative country that was saying get married, have kids, you have to do this.

Gary: Yeah, and I’ve certainly had male friends who were probably just as gay as I am who didn’t choose that route and they got married. I don’t know how happy their lives turned out, but that’s where they went.

J.P.: Did you see Giovanni’s room as kind of saving you from a tragic kind of life?

Gary: In a sense you know I don’t know if it necessarily was the thing that saved me but it certainly reinforced the direction I wanted to go.

J.P.: If reading Giovanni’s Room was affirming choices you had made, could you share what were those other things helping you in the direction you wanted to go?

Gary: Well for one thing when I first admitted to Susan that I thought I was Bisexual anyway, she was very accepting of that and very cool. Actually she didn’t come out to me for quite a number of years after that. I had a couple of other friends who I trusted very much and who I came out to. And they were also really supportive. So I was feeling like hey I can do this and people will say you know hey, this is Gary. He’s a good guy. His sexuality is part of him. But, even if I don’t like that, which nobody said, nobody said they didn’t like that. But even if they had they were still willing to say, but hey he’s still my friend and I still like him and I’m going to accept that.

J.P.: As you look back on that time after reading Giovanni’s Room, processing it, could you share what your life was like as a gay man living in the world?

Gary: I gradually came out to more friends. I fell in love with a straight classmate in college. But we were. We were very close friends. He initially had difficulty when he learned I was gay because he realized it wasn’t just that I was gay but that I was in love with him but that got sorted out. I went into the seminary and planned to be a Lutheran minister and at that time There was the Christian Church, all denominations were basically, if you’re gay you’re a sinner. Repent and change your ways or you’re going to hell and you’re not welcome here. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s that coming out to friends and being accepted gave me enough confidence to think you know, I can do this. I can get through that and I’ll be okay. It took me to my year of internship where I was actually out working in a parish in Chicago that I realized. I can’t do this because the church is not ready to accept me as an openly gay man. I’m not willing to lead a double life and pretend half the time that I’m straight and the other half be myself. So, I abandoned that plan and quit. But in the meantime, I did manage to make friends with Bill Johnson who was the first openly gay man to be ordained as a minister in a mainline christian denomination: United Church of Christ. He was ordained in 1972 and when I was in seminary I learned about him and I got in touch with him and got to be his friend.

J.P.: What drew you to the seminary?

Gary: Our family were always church members when I was growing up and I was part of the church youth group and all that. My senior year of high school I started really questioning everything and decided it was a bunch of crap! I left the church and I stayed away from the church for a couple years and in the meantime, my parents also got frustrated with the particular congregation that we had belonged to and they left and they went someplace else. My parents belonged to a duplicate bridge club and I used to, when I was home and the bridge club was at my parents’ house, I was the guy who served the drinks, took the beer and the pop and whatever people needed. Well, there was one couple, Lorraine and Floyd. I was still living at home at that point and I came home and they had finished playing and were having coffee. I went downstairs to say hi and Lorraine started talking to me and she just kind of divorced herself from the whole rest of the group and was just focused on me. She asked me if I was going to church these days and I said no. I was really frustrated with our old church and she said well you know the church I belong to isn’t like that and you should come. You should come and you should try it and she talked me into to going. I went. It was a very politically liberal place. All the people were really great and I ended up getting super involved and taught confirmation. I was involved in Sunday morning services and all kinds of stuff and so from that I thought, I really value this experience. I value being part of a community like this. So that motivated me to pursue seminary.

J.P.: And you were out?

Gary: I was out to a couple of the pastors. There were three pastors at the church I was out to two of them. And I also came out to Lorraine. She was the education director there. I was out to a few of the friends that I met there but publicly I was not out to the congregation.

J.P.: What were their responses? I mean it must have still felt inclusive since you were so active in it.

Gary: Yeah, it did. It was kind of a shock when I got in my first year of seminary to find myself in an environment where it was so closed. I mean it felt like I was being thrown in a jail cell with the door slammed shut! You know you keep your sexuality to yourself.  At that time if I had come out publicly I would have been thrown out of the seminary. That was their official policy. So I spent the whole first year afraid to come out to any of my classmates and it was a really repressive time being there. It wasn’t until the very end of that school year that I came out to a couple of my classmates. It was hard.

J.P.: That sounds hard. How do you feel David’s journey impacting you? I don’t want to project here. But you read this novel, David made some bad and cruel life choices. How did that feel then, having responded so strongly to Giovanni’s room, to suddenly be in the seminary that was like “no!”

Gary: It was really hard and it made me very angry to be there. Toward the end of the first school year, I wrote a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper and I basically said, you know the atmosphere here toward gay people and toward sexuality in general, I mean it was more than just same sex stuff, I felt like I was in Junior High sometimes. Some of the comments and jokes that were being told it was really…but I wrote a letter to the campus paper and I said you know that there are gay students here. I’m one of them. So, the editor of the paper who I knew, withheld my name from the letter. But I basically said we’re here and you know the attitudes here are very disrespectful; toward Gay people and toward sexuality in general.

J.P.: What was the response?

Gary: Well kind of what you’d expect. It was like we’re sorry that this this person is so misguided and feels this way. One 1 guy who I was actually pretty good friends with wrote a letter back basically condemning what I had written and as it happens, that spring, he and two other guys were driving to Seattle; one of the guys lived in Seattle and another guy was going to be working out at a Lutheran camp out there and I had relatives in Seattle and so they said I was welcome to ride out with them and one of the three people was this guy who’d written this letter in response to mine and you know I didn’t confront him at that point but it was kind of icky sitting there in the car for 38 hours knowing that I’m sitting here with basically an enemy.

J.P.: Wow. How long was that trip?

Gary: We we drove straight through. But it was long.

J.P: Do you feel like that was the beginning of the end being in the seminary?

Gary: No I don’t but during my second year of school, I was kind of going back to where I had been in high school with my attitude toward religion and toward christianity. More and more I thought I don’t buy this because one of the things that I learned was that the bible and the scriptures, all the writings were written based on how people interpreted their experiences in life. I thought my experiences don’t connect with any of those and my experiences don’t tell me that there’s some god out there who’s watching my every move and taking care of me and all that. I’m so sinful that they had to come and die you know, it just became nonsense to me. So by the time I started my internship I was keeping a journal at that time and the very first day that I got to Chicago the journal entry compared myself to a character in a movie who was a lutheran pastor who had lost his faith entirely and he was just going through the motions. But I love that year. It was fun to be there. It was fun to be part of the community. I found that what I really valued wasn’t so much the religion as being part of a community of people who welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged. I made some very good friends there that I’m still friends with to this day. But halfway through that internship year, I had a house that they gave me. They gave me a house to live in and I was able to have a roommate who was a college/high school friend of one of my seminary classmates who knew I was gay and this high school friend was also gay so I had a gay roommate and they said that he needed to pay rent for being there but minimal. It was like $40 a month or something. He was a medical student so he wasn’t making a lot of money but he got his money for rent by making donations to the sperm bank! I thought that was just very fitting. Through him I’m I met a few other people.

J.P: [laugh] What a way to pay the rent to the to the church!  I love that!

Gary: I also got involved for a couple of productions with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and I made a couple of gay friends there and so I was able to be out in the in the gay community going to bars and stuff and not have any worries that anyone was going to see me because Chicago is so huge and the congregation was primarily older people and they’re not going to go out to a gay disco on a Friday night. But I was basically leading this double life where part of me could be who I was and part of me I had to hide. So, I found that it was just too difficult and I thought if I can’t feel good in Chicago, what if I get stuck in some small town… In North Dakota! Oh my God how’s that going to be when 100% of me is going to have to be this way all the time? So so I went back and I finished my last year seminary figuring that I wasn’t going to get ordained. So I changed my program and concentrated on counseling kinds of programs or classes so that I could come up with a degree and maybe do something in social services.

J.P: As you’re telling me your story you’re really kind of like the anti-David like the other side of the coin. That’s really interesting.

Gary: I’m glad to hear you say that. [laughs]

J.P.: I want to thank Gary for taking the time to share his story with me. As we talked about what was next in life for him, he talked about very much looking forward to getting back to the theater when it is safe for him to do so. And I really hope that is soon.

Our conversation reminded me of A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham. This would be the book that I would say saved my life. I didn’t learn about the book from a list like Gary did, but I went to a Borders Books to see if I could something that was queer. I saw the cover for Cunningham’s The Hours, a movie that I absolutely adore that I have watched dozens of times and will continue to watch dozens of times until I die.

But in A Home at the End of the World, I strongly identified with the characters of Jonathan and Bobby. As they came of age in the 1980s, came into their sexuality, the ambiguity of it, the tenuousness of their relationships with men and women, and ultimately, how they, with their friend/lover Clare move to upstate New York to start a polyamorous relationship. Like for Gary and Giovanni’s Room, there are some cruel choices made. And I’ve argued with the book as much as I’ve loved it. Jonathan, you idiot! Why? Cmon Clare, are serious right now? I too live in a polyamorous relationship, a thruple with two men, for the past 11 years, and I often find myself saying I’m going to do it better than Clare, Jonathan, and Bobby. I’m going to make different choices. I’ve often started the book thinking that I love you guys so much and I find myself hoping that this time it’s going to be different, they’re going to make different choices. But they don’t. That’s for us to do.

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J.P.: Thanks everyone for listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our new episodes drop every Tuesday. For all the updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Best Advantage Mortgage, Park Tavern, and Quatrefoil Library. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading.