Legacy of Voices is an oral history project created in 2008 by Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell, inspired by their realization that to better understand their own lives, they could turn to LGBTQ+ community members who had gone before them. From 2008-2012, Lara and Brian recorded interviews with gay and lesbian elders over age 70 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. Hearing the stories of these elders with their passions and beliefs, failures and successes, and reflections moved Brian and Lara deeply, and helped them chart their own paths forward. Meanwhile, the actual interview tapes sat in a box in Brian’s closet for over a decade, until Brian discovered OUTWORDS—a unique opportunity for these remarkable, nearly-lost stories to be seen, heard, studied, and celebrated by queer people and allies around the globe. OUTWORDS thanks Lara Spotts and Brian O’Donnell for their visionary work, and for donating thirteen Legacy of Voices interviews to OUTWORDS.
Cyril Brosnan was born on May 20, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up as one of four children in a working-class Irish Roman Catholic family. Starting in the 1st grade, Cyril began taking piano lessons with a nun, Sister Amadeus. She spotted his talent and he soon picked up choir, the organ, and the cello under the tutelage of the nuns. He began performing on the weekly Saturday radio in Chicago, the WLS Prairie Farmer Station, and sang as a boy soprano up until his young adulthood.
By 4th grade, Cyril realized he was queer when he formed a strong emotional and physical connection with a classmate, George Schumann. He also started taking piano lessons with an older man, Earl Blair, who introduced him to the recreational use of prescription drugs, Dexedrine and Dexamil. Around the same time at about age 12, Cyril was exposed to sexual exploration. This soon led to frequenting sailors’ cruising spots, such as the Greyhound bus station and the YMCA. Cyril introduced his classmate George to these spots, and the two friends would often go together, both thinking this would be a phase.
On a whim, around age 15, Cyril interviewed for a University of Chicago scholarship and was granted one conditionally, if he transferred and performed well at a nearby high school. Against his parents’ wishes, Cyril moved out and rented a room to attend school. He supported himself through singing mass at the local Catholic church. He excelled academically and ended up finishing a Bachelor and two Masters from UChicago.
Cyril described his young adult self as “addicted to sex, food, liquor, and pills.” He frequented the bars near campus and had sexual encounters in various bathrooms and hidden areas around campus to avoid police raids. After he finished school, he spent two years in El Paso with the Army, where he had an affair with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra conductor. Returning to Chicago, he used the GI Bill to fund his singing and opera graduate lessons. His friend Sydney Malek offered him an office administration job through the Ford Foundation grant. Cyril enjoyed the work, and when Sydney’s grant took him to New York, Cyril followed him. In his forties, he sought out support for his drinking habits and became sober through therapy and AA.
Cyril stepped further into administrative careers as he went on to earn a doctorate in public administration in New York. Cyril devoted his career to making healthcare more accessible, and worked for nearly two decades at Blue Cross/Blue Shield until the company switched from a nonprofit to for-profit model. He stood by his values and floated between jobs, determined to do all he could to make healthcare a right rather than a commodity. As Director of Public Affairs at The Actors Fund, he was a major force in the creation of The Aurora, a New York City housing building for low-income groups such as seniors and people living with HIV.
Later in life, Cyril became involved with Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). He was determined to combat the commonplace isolation faced by many queer elderly people. Throughout his life, Cyril remained devoted to service, across different sectors. He passed away in July 2017.