ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If Hector Black had written an autobiography, we would interview him about it. But he hasn't written one yet, and he's 90 years old. So we decided to talk to him about his life anyway.
HECTOR BLACK: I felt like I was nobody in the whole dang world - was a weirdo like me.
SHAPIRO: Did you even have a word for it?
BLACK: No, no word for it at all. I had nothing. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that I was attracted to men.
SHAPIRO: 2015 was a revolutionary year for gay rights. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. When Hector Black was born in 1925, the phrase gay rights didn't even exist.
BLACK: The word gay was never even mentioned, or even homosexual. It was whispered if it was used at all.
SHAPIRO: We should warn you that a more offensive term for gay people shows up later in this story. Hector represents thousands of men and women whose names we will never know, a generation of people who were forced to live in secret. Radio reporters have visited him before. He's been on StoryCorps, Radiolab, The Moth. But this is a story he's never told. He lives in a valley in rural Tennessee, where his family runs a plant nursery.
BLACK: This is a mulberry - delicious mulberry.
I sat with him in the flagstone patio overlooking his garden, wind chimes joining in behind us, under a canopy of trees that he planted decades ago. The first time he realized there were other people like him in the world was at Harvard in the 1940s, where he studied social anthropology. That's also where Hector had his first sexual experience.
BLACK: I thought this is not me. This cannot be me. And I was just horrified. And then, you know, after a few months, I started thinking about it and then I realized that I'd wanted to experience this again. And - and so we became lovers.
SHAPIRO: Hector served in the Army in World War II but soon realized he couldn't kill another human being. He was interested in social justice, pacifism and communal living. That interest carried him to a commune in Paraguay, where there was zero tolerance for homosexuality. So like many gay men in the middle of the last century, Hector agreed to undergo treatment.
BLACK: It was the treatment that people felt was the right treatment in those days - you take estrogen. And so I took that until I started growing breasts. And then, of course, they said OK. So I quit, and then I seemed to be OK.
SHAPIRO: He moved back to the United States.
BLACK: And that was when I met Susie.
SHAPIRO: Susie Maendel. They fell in love, married and had children.
BLACK: I felt that I was cured. I don't think I'd have done it otherwise. It wouldn't have been right.
SHAPIRO: When did you realize you were not cured?
BLACK: I was at the nursery and dealing my plants and all that - there was a young fellow who was sort of giving me the eye, you could say.
SHAPIRO: He told his wife he had to go to a meeting. He met the young man instead. The next day...
BLACK: A friend of ours came and said where you at the meeting, Hector?
SHAPIRO: In front of Susie?
BLACK: Yeah. And so I was a wreck.
SHAPIRO: He told Susie the truth and promised never to do it again. It was now the 1960s, Hector wanted to be part of the civil rights movement, so he moved his family to Atlanta, the only white family in an all-black neighborhood.
BLACK: There were some things just amazing how being gay helped me to understand what it means to be different - although I could blend in - the African-Americans could never blend in - but I knew what it was like to be a despised minority.
SHAPIRO: But temptation persisted - Hector would come to his wife in tears - transgression, confession, repeat. Finally, he thought to himself...
BLACK: This is for the birds. I'm hurting Susie, and I'm wretched. And so I started leading a double life, which (laughter) believe it, I moved up here from Atlanta to get away from the temptations of the city.
SHAPIRO: He's laughing because he moved here to rural Tennessee in the 1970s without realizing that he was landing on the doorstep of a hidden gay commune. Even becoming friends with people from that community was not enough to nudge him fully out of the closet.
BLACK: I felt as though all the work I was doing would be thrown in the garbage if it turned out I was just a [expletive].
SHAPIRO: Hector finally came out 20 years ago, at age 70. There were few gay role models in public life even then. I asked Hector what made him end the double life? He told me it was his daughter. She came out first, to Hector and Susie.
BLACK: We both loved her just as much as ever - more even because I knew how much she had been through, how much she suffered because of who she was. And I just said this is it - that I can't - how can I love her and hate myself for what I am?
SHAPIRO: After nearly 40 years of marriage, Hector offered Susie a divorce, and Susie said no.
BLACK: She said I'd be free to find somebody. And she said she hoped she'd like him.
SHAPIRO: That was two decades ago. Susie died late this past summer. Her grave rests in a nearby clearing under a canopy of trees, overlooking the creek that runs through the land.
You know her well enough now to be able to answer this question. If she were sitting here this whole time listening to everything you said, and I turned to her right now and I say OK, Susie, what's Hector leaving out? What would her answer be?
BLACK: I think she'd probably say he's still fighting a battle that I fought and got over 20 years ago.
SHAPIRO: But what I hear you say is that you might have some regrets about some choices that you've made. But you do not regret the life that you lived, even though you only really came out at age 70.
BLACK: I don't really because I think a lot of that - it's a weird thing to say, but I really think that suffering can be - it certainly isn't always by any means - but it certainly can be a way of understanding other people, opening. You know, Mother Teresa said, Lord, break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in. I can't say that. You know, that's - but I really am grateful that my heart has been broken a good many times because it does help me to love.
SHAPIRO: We went back inside the house that Hector built. He leaned on my arm. That evening, about a dozen people came over. The community he has built in this valley - friends, relatives, neighbors - they all prepare dinner in the kitchen while Hector Black sat down and played the piano.
BLACK: (Playing piano).