When the pandemic required staying home this spring, 90-year-old Arvada resident Ken Felts says he did OK for the first month. But isolation began to wear on him. So he decided to do something meaningful with his time — he began writing his memoirs.
The past became more real to him as he reviewed his life, from his birth in Dodge City, Kansas, to his service in the Navy in the early 1950s.
But when he’d written 50 pages, painful memories of his first true love stopped him. Scenes kept surfacing that he’d buried decades earlier. Felts’ daughter, Rebecca Mayes, noticed his sadness. She asked him what he was missing most.
“I’m sorry I ever left Phillip,” Felts said.
Until that conversation, Mayes didn’t know her father had been hiding his sexual orientation for most of his life. It was the first time she’d heard of Phillip.
“When I was actually speaking to Rebecca, it just came rolling out uncensored,” Felts said. “And all my life I'd censored everything. And so all of a sudden I was letting out things that I’d held back.”
Mayes wasn’t shocked that her father is gay, yet he’d always seemed rigidly conservative: from how short he kept his hair to the dark clothes he wore. He’d been a mainstream church leader years ago in Colorado Springs, married to Mayes’ mother.
Born in 1930 in Dodge City, Kansas, Felts was brought up in mainstream Protestant churches. His family moved to New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado for his father’s railroad work, but they always sought a new church home. And the Biblical teaching was always the same: Homosexuality is a sin.
“The world was not accepting of gay people, especially in the ‘50s when I was a young man,” Felts said.”It could be deadly to come out. There were sodomy laws. You could go to jail for years, lose your job.”
But in 1957, Felts's first day as an insurance investigator in Long Beach, Calif., he met Phillip. Phillip offered to help him file reports.
“He had blue eyes, a killer smile and laughed a lot,” Felts said.
Right away they began dating, though they didn’t go to bars or movies. They liked to camp on weekends around southern California, but it wasn’t safe to be perceived as a couple.
“It was just us against the world,” Felts said.
After an exhilarating Saturday night with Phillip at home, they went to church the next morning. Phillip sang in the choir. Sitting in the pew, Felts was overwhelmed by a sense that he was in a place that condemned their behavior.
He felt tremendous conflict, torn between two thoughts: “What you did last night was wrong, you can’t continue,” versus "I loved our night and hope it lasts forever.”
After a month of relentless inner turmoil, he couldn’t continue the relationship. He quit his job and went back to Dodge City, Kansas. He dated women, though he wasn’t interested. One time he checked his watch during a romantic moment. She was so insulted, she threw him out.
At first, Phillip wrote to him.
“Unfortunately, I was so determined to be straight that I did not respond to his letters,” Felts said. “Eventually, he stopped writing.”
He came to regret his decision.
“I beat myself up because I had made the wrong choice back when I was leaving Phillip.”
If he could do it over, Felts said he would examine the validity of what society was telling him about the Bible and figure it out for himself.
Felts eventually married a woman. He was faithful to his marriage vows, but it was no use. The marriage crumbled in 1980, but he still couldn’t come out as a gay man. He feared losing his daughter, just 8 years old then, as well as his job as a vocational counselor for the State of Colorado.
As soon as the divorce was final, he tried to find Phillip. He went to the library and pored through California phone directories. He called every Phillip Jones in the book. No Internet in those days, of course. No luck. He did his best to re-bury the memories. As he grew older, there was no reason to come out, he thought.
Fifty years later, a pandemic underway, he sat down at his computer to begin his memoirs. Thoughts of Phillip insistently surfaced, reminding him of the person he’d lost.
After Felts came out to his daughter, he was relieved by her loving response. He decided to email his gay status to friends. They were supportive. He wanted to keep going. One evening in early June, Pride month, he posted a statement on his Facebook page:
“There comes a time when you grow old that you have to face up to how you have lived your life, to face up to your inner-self. I have always had two personas, the one out in public that I call Ken / the other which is my alter ego I know as Larry. Both of us have fought for control and each dominated for a period of time. Ken, however, for a long time has done a pretty good job of keeping Larry at bay ... Ken had planned to take Larry to the grave with him, but now Larry is on his own and may have replaced Ken as the dominant persona in his body. The message here is that I am free, I am Gay and I am out.”
However, Felts didn’t realize his page was public, accessible by all Facebook users. He woke up the next morning to hundreds of encouraging comments from people in the U.S., Japan, Australia, Sweden, and several countries in South America and Africa. Most identified as gay.
“I was flabbergasted, actually speechless,” Felts said.
His announcement wasn’t to seek validation.
“I just saw myself being buried way back in the closet and I was finally digging my way out and standing on my own two feet,” he said. “And that is an achievement for me. It wasn’t meant for anybody else.”
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A couple of commenters said they’d like to help him with the Bible’s view of homosexuality.
“Anybody can go to Leviticus, but then I turn around and quote 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope and love,” Felts said. “Where’s the love in your statement when it’s over here in Corinthians?”
After Felts came out, a Facebook user in New Jersey offered to search records for Phillip. Initially, she reported she’d found Phillip and he was alive. Felts was elated. Then she wrote back to say Phillip died in 2013 in California. Felts’ grief was profound.
“I was always hoping that he would be alone when I found him and we could get back together,” Felts said.
The new Facebook friend located Phillip’s niece, who hadn’t known Phillip well, but said he had a companion of many years who died before him. The niece sent pictures of Phillip to Felts. He treasures them.
Mayes doesn't want her father to live in regret.
“He made the best decision he could with the information he had at the time. And I hoped that he could focus on that and not beat himself up so much,” she said.
Twenty-five years ago, Mayes made a different decision than her father. She came out as a lesbian, compelled by love for her girlfriend. Felts told Mayes their relationship wouldn’t last. He cited the anti-gay worldview he’d labored under, concerned for how society would treat Mayes.
But as a closeted gay man, “deep behind rows and rows of clothing,” he was in an uncomfortable position telling another gay person it’s wrong to come out, especially his daughter.
When she and her girlfriend got married, Felts walked her down the aisle.
“He came around very quickly and is the biggest supporter of our marriage and our children,” Mayes said.
Felts’ memoir stands at 135 pages and has a few more pages to go. He plans a chapter of some of the Facebook messages he’s received, a sort of timestamp of 2020.
Now that he’s out, he feels free from the burden of what others might think about him. He no longer worries, “Is this going to make someone suspect I’m gay? If I do this or read this or wear this?”
“What I have found since coming out is that the world out there seems to be dipping from a never-ending supply of love,” Felts said. “It was easy for me to come out because all these other people came out when it was hard to come out. They paved the way for me. I appreciate them.”
He includes Mayes in that vanguard, absolutely.
“Let people know he’s an eligible bachelor,” Mayes said.
Felts laughed. He’d be happy to have a companion, he said.