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.
Cliff (age 7) and his grandfather, Francis Arneses, New York, 1955.First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Cliff Arnesen (Age 12) at her Hyde Park estate during her annual picnic for the 100 boys of Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, NY, 1959.First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at her estate during her annual picnic for the 100 boys (which included Cliff Arnesen) of the predominately African-American Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, NY, 1959.Clifton Francis Arnesen Jr. & His Father Clifton Francis Arnesen, Sr during the Christmas season in Brooklyn, 1961.Singing contest at Manhattan Boys & Girls Club with Cliff Arnesen and his singing partner, Stanley, from the Floyd Patterson House for Boys, 1963.Official US Army photo of Cliff Arnesen at Fort Dix, NJ, 1965.U.S. Army Pvt. Clifton Francis Arnesen, Jr, (age 17) at rifle rack in barracks during Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1965.400,000 protesters gathered in Sheep Meadow in Central Park for a peace rally and anti-war protest organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Violence broke out when tactical police on horseback attacked draft dodgers and other protesters who burned their “draft cards.” Later, Cliff joined thousands of protesters who walked to the United Nations to hear speeches by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Stokely Carmichael, and Dr. Martin Luther King on April 15, 1967.Cliff with his girlfriend Frances in New York, 1969.L-R: Rick (roommate), Dennis (boyfriend), and Cliff in their Boston, MA home, 1978.Cliff with his boyfriend Donnie on Christmas Day in Albany, NY, 1987.Bisexual advocates Woody Glenn, President of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston; Lani Ka’ahumanu; and Cliff at Harvard University, June 1989.Cliff Arnesen with Congressman Barney Frank and gay veteran Bill Lake, First Officer of the Los Angeles-based Veterans Council for Rights and Equality, in Washington D.C., May 1990.Chuck Schoen, Ken Huntington aka Ron Rasmussen, and Cliff Arnesen during the Congressional Testimonies By Gay & Bisexual Veterans before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in Washington D.C. on May 16, 1990. Photo credit: Doug Hinckle, Washington Blade Newspaper.Senator Ted Kennedy, Cliff Arnesen, and Miriam Ben-Shalom at the William Joiner Center Congressional Conference on the Concerns of Veterans in Washington D.C. on May 16, 1990.L-R: Cliff Arnesen, Lowell Choate, Joseph Harper, and supporters at the Boston Pride Parade in 1990.L-R back: Rebecca Schuster, Amanda Udis-Kessler, Cliff Arnesen, Bobbi Keppel, Wayne Bryant; L-R front: Rebecca Gorlin, Liz Highleyman, Robyn Ochs appear at the “Bi Any Other Name” book signing by authors at the Glad Day Book Store in Boston, MA, on April 20, 1991.L-R: Michael Corrigan (bisexual U.S. Army Veteran), Cliff Arnesen, Barbara Kay (Co-Chair, Gay, Lesbian, Irish, Bisexual Organization), Ren Jender, and Brian Callahan at the march for the 23rd Anniversary of Gay, Lesbian, Irish, Bisexual (GLIB) in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade where under court order issued by Federal Judge Harry Zobel, 25 members of GLIB marched a 5-mile route under heavy police protection through an anti-gay, hate-filled crowd of more than a half million people on March 15, 1992.L-R: Virginia Adams (lesbian Navy veteran), George Dunbar (Navy veteran), Cliff Arnesen, Aldo Rodriquez (gay army veteran), and Tomb of the Unknown Sentry step off to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, representing the New England Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, VA, on May 5, 1993.L-R: Cliff Arnesen, Sen. John Kerry, and Alan Hamilton, President of the Boston Bisexual Men’s Network, at the Boston Pride Parade, circa 1994.L-R: Cliff Arnesen, James Darby, National President of the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA); Marc Wolf, playwright of “Another American Asking and Telling,” Patrick Bova, GLBVA Archivist, and Mel Tips GLBVA Treasurer gather in Washington, D.C., May 1997.L-R: Members of the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA)gay—Marine Corps Cpl. Edward Clayton, bisexual U.S. Army Veteran Cliff Arnesen, and gay U.S. Navy Veteran Mel Tips—stand in front of entrance to the Pentagon prior to meeting with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management, Mr. Fredrick Pang to discuss the inhumane "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.L-R: Terry Tobias (Gay Veteran, Veterans Advisor Council), Mel Tips (Gay Veteran, GLBVA Treasurer), Cliff Arnesen (Bisexual Veteran, New England GLBVA President), Frederick Pang (U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy), Edward Clayton (Gay Marine Corps Corporal, GLBVA VP of Public Affairs), and James Darby (Gay WWII Veteran, GLBVA National President) attend an historic meeting at the Pentagon with members of the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBVA) and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense to discuss and make positive recommendations regarding the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, May 5, 1997.Bisexual Advocates Loraine Hutchins, Cliff Arnesen, and Lani Ka-ahumana at the Fifth International Bisexual Conference at Harvard University, April 4, 1998.L-R: Patrick Bova (GLBVA Archivist), John Belseth (NEGLBV Boston), Cliff Arnesen, Cpl. Edward Clayton (GLBVA VP, Public Affairs), and Anthony Young (Assistant to Mr. Richard Socarides, Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton) at the Hall of the Old Executive Office Building overlooking the White House. The Clinton administration welcomed seven gay and bisexual veterans to a meeting with Richard Socarides at the White House to express their dissatisfaction with the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Washington D.C., May 7, 1997.Senator Ted Kennedy and Cliff Arnesen during Sen. Kennedy’s Reelection Campaign, 2000.Bisexual advocates Cliff Arnesen and Prof. Robyn Ochs at a rally at the Boston Massachusetts State House in defense of Marriage Equality, Boston, MA, mid-2000s.Cliff Arnesen with Claudia Van Putten, his partner of 26 years, visiting the President John F. Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County, VA.Cliff volunteers at the front information desk at the Department of Veteran Affairs, Voluntary Services, Boston, MA, 2008.
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