Family Portrait—Ricardo Bostic: Longtime union organizer with a longtime relationship

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” — James A. Baldwin

At 68 years young, Ricardo Bostic has not quite hit elder status—but as someone who has been out, loud and proud for close to a half-century, he’s certainly worth emulating. He’s also a longtime union member and organizer, on the board of the local NAACP and a member of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black Episcopal church in the United States.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. RB: I, uh, oh boy, I hate talking about myself. I’m originally from North Philadelphia, born and raised around the Temple area.

PGN: Are you an only child? RB: No, there were six of us, five boys and one girl. Two of the brothers are now deceased. Mom’s deceased, pop’s deceased. My mom worked for the University of Penn and Pop was a musician and for a day job worked at Frankford Arsenal. I had a pretty great childhood. After high school I went to work and eventually got a job at the University of Penn as a lab technician and then got a job at Temple, where I stayed for the next 35 years until it was time to retire in 2007.

PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? RB: I had a little group of friends that I met in the seventh grade. We were all from the same neighborhood and we had a little club. They were all straight guys and I always knew I was different, but it was never a problem. When I really started exploring where I was coming from, in terms of sexuality, I moved away from the gang a little, but even now, some of us still keep in touch.

PGN: Nowadays, most kids coming out use the Internet to find resources on coming out. How did you do it? RB: You didn’t really come out. Since I was 5 I knew I had a certain attraction, but you didn’t act on it. But as I got older I got tired of that. I knew I was gay and started meeting people and dating and soon my mom and dad fell into the flow of things. At first, she didn’t particularly like it, partly because she didn’t like [my partner] Le-Mont at first, but she grew to love him and both of our families became close. We shared our holidays with both families together, which was nice. We had a great support group, which I know was rare at the time.

PGN: Speaking of groups, what was the Wet Set? RB: Oh, how do you know about that now?

PGN: [Laughs.] I do my research! RB: Well, there were 13 of them, only one original member is left; he’s 84 years old and I just talked to him this morning. It was a club of guys all from West Philly. They would have these big affairs, but they weren’t considered gay affairs even though all the guys were gay. This was back in the 1950s and all the gay people would go, but there were also a lot of straights there. Gay people wouldn’t dance together at these affairs either, though we would have private parties of our own, but everybody wanted to be invited to the affairs; they were the place to be. There was another club that was all-male called Just Us and a group that I joined called the Philadelphia Friendship Reunion. Later on, the affairs became more openly gay. Eventually the groups broke up but then we formed a group called the Social Solutions, which I’m still part of. We do occasional events but we’re all getting old now, so it’s mostly around the holidays. The friends that Le-Mont and I have now are friends that we’ve had from 50 years ago. And what’s nice is that they’re real friends, not just people who you interact with but are never really close to.

PGN: How did you find out about gay things back then? RB: It was mainly word of mouth. In the black gay community, we didn’t really have any bars except for SK. Mostly people had house parties, a lot of house parties where you got to know people. The best parties were around Penn Relay time and guys would come in from all over the place for them, and if you were in the clique you were invited. The first time Le-Mont took me to SK, it was like, Wow, look at all these men!

PGN: I think those kinds of social clubs are a part of the black community that I think a lot of folks don’t know about even now, like the Jack & Jill clubs. RB: Yes, Jack & Jill, the LINKS, Sundowners, there are a lot of them.

PGN: And you’re a union guy too … RB: Yes. I was the cofounder of the first union at Temple, Local 1723, along with my friend Gary Kapanowski. It was a very successful union, and I’m proud that it enabled people to earn a decent wage and a good pension.

PGN: What do you think of the current attacks against unions, like in Michigan? RB: Oh God, it’s terrible, just terrible. I just read today that Gov. Corbett is talking about privatizing the lottery. That’s AFSCME’s union. So many people would be out of work, but they have him in court about it so hopefully they’ll stop it. I don’t know why you would attack teachers, law enforcement, firemen, I just don’t understand what’s going on with that. Why wouldn’t they want people to make a decent wage? I guess it’s all about control. I hope this anti-union trend goes away and quickly.

PGN: I think they need to find a middle point because both sides go to extremes. I remember working on a TV show and since we were non-union, I made more driving a horse and carriage on the weekends than I did as the star of a show that was on five days a week. On the other hand, I’d go to a union set and I remember walking on with an armful of props and I wasn’t allowed to carry them on set, so I handed them to the union guy, we stepped over the threshold and instead of taking them to the table for me, he handed them right back. Because technically he’d carried my props, he told me the contract didn’t say he had to put them down. RB: Yeah, all things in moderation, but all in all it’s good to have a union to fight for you when you need it. As a gay person especially, a union will make sure my partner has benefits, even when my employee might not. PGN: So how long have you and Le-Mont been together? RB: I met him when I was 20, that was 48 years ago and we’re still together.

PGN: How did you two meet? RB: It was at a Penn Relay party! We started talking and he said, “Hey, can I call you some time?” So we exchanged numbers and I didn’t call until my roommate asked, “Did you ever call that nice-looking guy who gave you his number?” I said, “No, do you think I should? He is handsome, but I don’t know … ” He said, “Why not? I would!” so I called him up and he cut me off saying he was eating dinner and would call me back. At first I was put off but he called me right back and explained that he was living at home and they were in the middle of dinner. His mom was real strict so no calls during dinner. The rest is history. We do everything together. He’s a nice guy. I think we have a pretty good relationship.

PGN: I’d guess so after 49 years. What does he do? RB: He’s retired also, he used to work at the University of Penn. He’ll be 75 in April but we still go out dancing and have fun.

PGN: What was a fun adventure together? RB: We went to Toronto together. I’d never been on a plane before so that was a real memorable experience. We had a good time. It was during the Vietnam War so there were a lot of American draft dodgers everywhere and they were real friendly, hanging out the windows yelling to everyone.

PGN: Were you ever in the military? RB: No. I tried to enlist after high school but there was a problem with my eyesight. Le-Mont was, though; he was in the Navy for 12 years. When I met him he’d just gotten out and separated from his wife. Years later he went into the Reserves and stayed in until he retired.

PGN: I was watching openly gay actor Ian McKellen on “The Colbert Report” yesterday and at the end of the show, Ian took Steven’s hand and kissed it, so Steven kissed his hand in return. It was a small gesture, but it reminded me of how far we’ve come in many ways. RB: Oh yes, we’ve come a long way. I really admire the young kids and how open they are. It used to be that the black community was much more underground, and the whites were more out there, I guess because we had racism and so much other stuff to deal with, but even that’s changing. You see a lot of out and proud young black kids. It’s great because when people see you being yourself, they ultimately have more respect for you and realize, Oh, they’re just like us with the same problems and accomplishments.

PGN: What’s the biggest surprise? RB: I’d say the whole gay-marriage thing, how quickly people have come to accept the idea of it and have it be part of the everyday conversation. We’re not there yet, but just the fact that the Supreme Court is ready to take a look at it is surprising. I thought it would take a lot longer. Even our president has come out for it, which didn’t surprise me because I read his book and I remember when he lived in Indonesia his stepfather had a male nanny who cooked for them and he was openly gay. He was a drag queen who was with a group called the “Fantastic Dolls.” Barack really liked and respected him and I just read that the guy got in touch with him recently over some issues he was having. So Obama’s saying he’s evolving, but I think he was always there; he just needed to time it right.

PGN: What was the best Christmas you remember? RB: We lived in North Philly and I was the one who would meet my mother at the corner when she came home from work and carry her packages. This one time she refused to let me carry them. When we got home she sent me away which was odd, so I peeked back into the kitchen and she was standing on a ladder putting the bags way up high. When she left, I got the ladder out and peeked into one of the packages. I saw there were toys inside and said to myself, “Wait a minute, she’s buying the toys. There is no Santa Claus!” Of course I acted surprised when I opened the presents Christmas morning, but I told my brothers and sister that there was no Santa.

PGN: [Laughs.] How was that a good Christmas? RB: I just remember feeling smug that I knew something only adults were supposed to know. My brothers and I chuckled all night about it, though I probably shouldn’t have told my sister, she wasn’t too happy about it. But it was fun being in the know.

PGN: What’s the oldest piece of clothing you still own and wear? RB: An old pair of sneakers I jog in. They were some cheap little sneakers but I’ve had them forever! Much better than the new stuff out there.

PGN: Best concert you ever saw? RB: Shirley Bassey at the Academy of Music. She was incredible. That or Lena Horne and Tony Bennett.

PGN: What was the first car you owned? RB: A 1976 tan and brown Buick.

PGN: Celebrity encounter? RB: We met Mary Wilson of The Supremes at an NAACP event and Sheryl Lee Ralph who starred in “Dream Girls” at a different event. They were both really nice.

PGN: Any phobias? RB: Elevators, I’m not an elevator person.

PGN: Would you describe yourself as an RV, a sports car, an SUV, or a bicycle? RB: Bicycle. I try to be calm and down to earth.

PGN: The feature I get the most compliments on is … RB: Hmmm. It used to be my legs!

PGN: Have you ever done drag with such good legs? RB: No. I’m not opposed to it, just never have.

PGN: What was the biggest bump in the road? RB: Le-Mont used to like to party a lot. [Laughs.] I had to go get him a few times and say, “OK, it’s time to bring it in, buddy! Time to go home.”

PGN: What’s the secret to a longlasting relationship? RB: Being compatible and understanding. There’s always one who has to give in a little more than the other, and I think it’s me. But it’s all good. At the end of the day, we just like to be with each other.

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