Richard Bentley was born July 17, 1931, the fifth of seven children. His Boston upbringing was Roman Catholic, and he describes it as a “very shadowed life,” full of secret guilt at his childhood experimentation with other boys. His father died when Richard was ten, and his mother was left to raise seven children in the Depression. That same year, World War II broke out. His older sister, with the money from her war-era factory job, ultimately paid for Richard to attend a private Catholic high school.
During high school, taking the subway to school at rush hour was a “daily opportunity” for sexual encounters; Richard could seek out secret touch from strangers on the crowded train. He found anonymous sex in men’s rooms, especially at movie houses. Just out of reach was the thriving Boston gay scene, relegated to the bars that Richard didn’t know about because he didn’t drink.
WWII ended as Richard was finishing high school, and he worked for three years before joining the Air Force at the start of the Korean War. He was an “expert” at hiding his sexuality, but also found his way into clandestine sexual encounters while in the service. He then went to college on the GI Bill and was nearly 30 when he graduated – the only one in his family to attend college.
In the 1960s, Richard moved to Jackson Heights in Queens, a gay neighborhood at the time. By day, he worked as an accountant; by night, he started drinking and frequenting the local gay bars, which moved around weekly or monthly to avoid the increased police raids during the World’s Fair and could only be found through word of mouth. He met his first partner at the Jackson Heights bus depot – a gay meeting area at the time – and they moved in together.
In 1967, Richard and his partner moved to Christopher Street in the West Village. They were surrounded by gay bars – even the “straight” bars would unofficially “turn gay” at 6pm – and Richard became involved in the leather scene. After the bars closed, he would hook up with men in the trucks along the Hudson River, where sometimes there were 50 men at a time in one truck.
The night of the Stonewall riots, Richard was in another gay bar, called Danny’s. Someone ran into Danny’s yelling, “The queens are rioting!” Richard simply turned around and had another drink, unaware that history was being made. For him, Stonewall wasn’t the watershed moment of liberation that others came to see it as; but after Stonewall, something was always going on in the neighborhood, and the presence of the Gay Liberation Front was palpable.
In 1972, Richard got sober. His sponsor’s partner was one of the first five people diagnosed with AIDS. Richard quickly started keeping a record of everyone he knew who died; it was ultimately over 100 people. He watched some of his friends actively try to get the virus, “because they felt so guilty not being sick when all their friends were dying. I had a bit of that too. Why not me?” He had his last sexual encounter in 1985, and never had another partner after that. In his interview, Richard reflected on how “good” the younger gay generation had it: “We used to go to the gay march, not the gay parade. It was a whole different world. We marched for gay rights. We didn’t parade for gay rights.”