Cliff Arnesen was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1948. His father was an alcoholic merchant marine and longshoreman. His mother was a Roman Catholic French-Canadian with heart damage from a bout of rheumatic fever at age 13. At age 3, Cliff was sent to an orphanage after his father drunkenly threw him against a wall. His troubled childhood continued until he joined the military at age 17.
Cliff’s time in the military shaped the rest of his life and forged him into the advocate he is today. It also left mental and emotional scars. Rather than being sent to Vietnam, he was dishonorably discharged for homosexuality; but first, the military forced him to masturbate with another solider to prove that he was not faking his condition. Cliff, meantime, began a lifetime of insisting that he was bisexual, not homosexual.
Cliff later attended Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, becoming the first in his family to graduate college. In 1988, he became president of the New England Gay & Lesbian Veterans in 1988. In 1989, he testified before the 8th Congressional Speaker’s Conference on the Concerns of Vietnam Veterans, representing bisexual veterans. He was the first and only openly bisexual veteran in U.S. history to testify before members of Congress.
In 1990, Arnesen was a co-founder of the National Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA), now known as American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). The inclusion of “bisexual” in the name of the original group was vitally important to Cliff. It acknowledged the collective struggle of the LGBTQ community, signaled inclusiveness, and strengthened his love and appreciation for his fellow gay and lesbian veterans.
With over 27 years of experience as an advocate, Cliff remains ever aware of the global threat to LGBTQ equality, and the risk of oppression and violence. He continues to urge for unity, inclusion, and civility within the gay community, and fights with extra tenacity against the marginalization of bisexual people within the gay community and society at large. He has been with the love of his life, Claudia Van Putten, a heterosexual woman, for over 25 years. He also does daily battle with a variety of physical challenges. In 2018, Cliff successfully won his lawsuit against the U.S. Military for service-connected PTSD/Military Sexual Assault and Trauma while in the U.S. Army.
OUTWORDS interviewed Cliff in August, 2016 at the home of his close friend, fellow bisexual rights advocate Robyn Ochs, in Jamaica Plain on the south side of Boston. Cliff proudly wore his U.S. Army Veteran baseball cap to his interview, and asked us to incorporate an American flag into his backdrop. We were honored to grant his wish.