Robert Boyd Hunter, Jr.

Robert Boyd Hunter, Jr.

Died March 21, 2009

Boyd Hunter’s life encapsulates, as much as any one life can, the struggles of the gay community over the past 50 years.

He came to Yale as an aspiring filmmaker with one movie already in his credits. Boyd and his childhood friend, Edward Hermann, who would go on to a successful acting career, wrote, directed, filmed and starred in a mock horror film, Out of the Swamp, complete with sound effects made by sloshing water in a bath tub. But the real drama in Boyd’s life was his homosexuality, which he kept hidden from his classmates at Yale.

He left Yale after two years and moved to California, first studying film at U.C.L.A., then at U.C., Berkeley. From there, he moved to New York City, where he was treated by a psychiatrist named Dr. Edmund Bergler, author of a book, the title of which perfectly captures the attitudes of that time – Homosexuality: A Disease or a Way of Life? Bergler’s answer to the question was that homosexuality was a “neurotic disease in which extremely severe and unavoidable self-damaging tendencies engulf the whole personality.” That may sound outrageous today, but, at the time, it was conventional wisdom. Only in 1973 did the American Psychiatric Association vote to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

Boyd stayed in New York for 20 years, living in an apartment near the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side and working for publications as disparate as Chocolate News and the infamous Screw magazine, where he chronicled the city’s sexual underworld. “He was a wonderful writer with a fiery wit,” says his sister, Molly Giles, herself a published poet and news feature writer.

In today’s world Boyd surely would have found more mainstream outlets for his writing. But it was not today’s world. He moved to San Francisco and the Castro Street scene, commuting to Berkeley to work for the Spectator magazine, which billed itself as “California’s original adult news magazine.” Boyd took to computer graphics and digital media, setting up a media center in his apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, where he would make videos for his friends, including a remix of Out of the Swamp, starring Ed Hermann.

Boyd became an expert on the development of Technicolor in film and on the animated movies of Walt Disney.
The gay life on Castro Street was a high risk life; and, although Boyd never contracted AIDS, he kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about young men who died in that epidemic.

In 2006, Boyd was diagnosed with colon cancer and given six months to live. He lived for three years and “was always very sweet and close to his family,” Molly Giles says. During that time Boyd wrote his sister about his reaction to the movie Brokeback Mountain, one of the first mainstream movies about homosexuality. “The overall theme has to do with secrecy and furtiveness and the consequences of having to hide your real identity, who you are, your most intimate thoughts and feelings, sometimes even from yourself. I remember vividly how you were expected to go through life interpreting codes and signals and body language and sometimes you were right, sometimes wrong, but most of the time were never really sure whether the messages you thought you were receiving from the other person were accurate.”

Boyd died on March 21, 2009 at the age of 66. The last word about Boyd’s life belongs to a man named Orville Dale, who worked with him at United Artists in New York. He wrote this note to Molly, capturing what Boyd might have become in a more enlightened time: “I often felt he should have written for a magazine like the New Yorker, Tattler or even Onion. In today’s world I could also imagine Boyd creating an extremely biting, sophisticated blog that would constantly remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.”

John Iskrant remembers: Boyd and I were randomly assigned roommates freshman year, along with two others. He was from a different coast (the West), a different background, and a different temperament. He was chaotic to my organized. His electric blanket had to be replaced frequently because he would forget to turn it off in the morning, and it would burn out. (I hope the design of electric blankets has improved since then.)

He also was brilliant and free-spirited. He went to New York one weekend on the train, and mentioned that he had a big English paper due Monday. He knocked it off on the return trip. The next thing I heard about it was that his teacher accused him of plagiarism because it was so extraordinarily good.

Knowing Boyd enhanced my life and, I’m sure, that of others he met after he left Yale.