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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.
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Come here a moment.
Cliff Arnesen: Is it good enough back?
Mason Funk: It's great, yeah. Okay. Let's just plan on ignoring the cat. You know what, I mean?
Cliff Arnesen: She's so cute.
Mason Funk: Okie dokie. I think we're ready to go. Speeding OK?
Kate Kunath: [00:00:30] Yup. Speeding.
Mason Funk: Cliff, thank you for coming. Do me a favor, just start us off by telling me your name, first and last name, and spell both of them, please.
Cliff Arnesen: Clifton Francis Arnesen, Jr.
Mason Funk: Okay. You go by Cliff Arnesen, right?
Cliff Arnesen: Right. Short.
Mason Funk: Can we identify you as Cliff Arnesen on camera?
Cliff Arnesen: Absolutely. Cliff.
Mason Funk: Can you spell Cliff Arnesen for us?
Cliff Arnesen: C-L-I-F-F A-R-N-E-S-E-N.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] Okay. Great. Do me a favor, you know you had a Let's just see if she gets comfortable there. You know what, I'm going to take her upstairs. I'm going to take her upstairs and put her in a bedroom, see if that works.
Cliff Arnesen: You want to be in there?
Mason Funk: Come here, baby girl. Yeah.
Cliff Arnesen: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: She's so cute.
Mason Funk: [00:01:30] Come on, sweetie.
Cliff Arnesen: She decides too much.
Kate Kunath: She wants to be a star.
Mason Funk: She wants to be a star. You're a good girl.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:02:00] Will that be able to pick up a gesture if I move my hand?
Mason Funk: Yeah. We're seeing your upper bodies, your hands, your gestures you want, but mostly just forget that the camera is here. Imagine we're just having a conversation.
Cliff Arnesen: I'll try.
Mason Funk: [00:02:30] I know. Easier said than done. Tell us when and where you were born. Tell me a little bit about your family.
Cliff Arnesen: Well, I was Excuse me. I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. I moved to Brooklyn My family moved to Brooklyn. My half-brother, Kenneth, was playing with matches and lit the house on fire.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:03:00] I was in a crib. He ran outside. He was 4 years my senior. He pulled the fire alarm box. Some strange man saw the smoke coming out of the apartment. He ran upstairs and grabbed me out of my crib. My mother had just gotten home from across the street, to buy some milk or something. He put me in her arms.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:03:30] He went off into the crowd of spectators. Nobody ever saw him again.As a result of the fire, we moved to Brooklyn. I also had a half-brother named Kenneth I'm sorry, Richard, who was 12 years my senior. He went to live with an uncle. He joined the United States Army when he was a young man. He served 25 years, and 2 tours in Vietnam.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:04:00] He died at Walter Reed Army Hospital at age 57 in 1993 of suspected Agent Orange from his 2 tours of duty in Vietnam. I loved him very, very much.My other brother, Kenneth, got in trouble with the law. He was always in juvenile detention centers, et cetera. We moved to Brooklyn.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:04:30] My mom had rheumatic fever as a child. We lived with my father who was a longshoreman. He worked in the docks. He was a very violent alcoholic. He beat me. He had these alcoholic rages. Having said that,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:05:00] my mother really had no alternative, because she couldn't work for herself, having a damaged heart from the rheumatic fever. He would be away sometimes.My recollection of my childhood is kind of scattered. At about the age of 3, my mother placed me into an orphanage.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:05:30] While at the orphanage, I can remember, it was a very hot place. All kinds of things went on there. I recall children who wet the bed were paddled as punishment if they wet the bed. I recall one Halloween night,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:06:00] I was going towards the bathroom. Somebody had built a papier-mch witch right at the entrance of the bathroom. I ran back to the bed because it was a big ugly witch. Then, I got the courage up. I ran by the witch because, at night, so you wouldn't wet the bed, they would take the faucets off the handles. In turn, they forced the children to drink from the toilet bowl, believe it or not.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:06:30] I was in the orphanage until 1954. Then, I was returned back home to my mother. My mother and I lived in a one small bedroom apartment. Lot of roaches in Brooklyn. We lived on welfare. My father was in and out of the picture all the time,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:07:00] but always drunk. Very violent alcoholic. At times he would beat me, he would threaten my mother Don't call the police. Don't call the hospital. Don't call the school. If the school calls, just tell them that I'm sick and I couldn't make it."I became very wary of the dysfunction
Cliff Arnesen: [00:07:30] of my father, and very afraid. As a consequence, I had a habit of standing back at least 6 feet away from him, because I was always afraid he would take off his garrison belt and start to beat me.
Mason Funk: May I interrupt you for just one second?
Cliff Arnesen: Certainly.
Mason Funk: Hey, Christine, if there's really any possibility that you're going to need to cough, I'm going to You just have to not be in here, I'm afraid.
Christine: [00:08:00] I was going to say, I probably should leave.
Mason Funk: I think it's going to be best, because it sounds like you've got kind of a recurring cough.
Christine: That's all right. I feel so bad.
Mason Funk: It's all right. It's understandable. It's just that the mics are so sensitive.
Christine: Yeah. Im sorry.
Mason Funk: Yeah. I know. I'm sorry.
Christine: No. It's me. I'm going to take off. I'll be back in a little bit.
Mason Funk: Okie dokie.
Christine: Maybe just text me when you're
Mason Funk: I'll text you when we're wrapping up. Give us about an hour, and I'll text you.
Christine: [00:08:30] Perfect. I'll just go to a coffee shop or something. Thank you guys.
Mason Funk: Thank you.
Christine: Thanks for everything.
Cliff Arnesen: Where's Claudia ?
Claudia: I'm right here.
Mason Funk: Claudia is right over here. We'll see you in a little bit. Do me a favor Oops. Your recorder has caught there Okay. As soon as she's out the door.
Cliff Arnesen: Did I stray too much there?
Mason Funk: No that was great. You actually had a great way of covering a lot of territory quickly.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:09:00] I'm trying to.
Mason Funk: You're doing awesome. Now, let me ask you this, just for the record, what year were you born?
Cliff Arnesen: I was born on Thanksgiving day, November 25, 1948.
Mason Funk: Good.
Cliff Arnesen: 9 pounds, 6 ounces.
Mason Funk: Okay. Now, I get a picture of your childhood, traumatic, to say the least. One incident that I know you've written about and talked about was, under some circumstance, you met Elizabeth I mean not Elizabeth. Eleanor Roosevelt.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:09:30] Yes.
Mason Funk: Tell me that story.
Cliff Arnesen: Well, when I was about 9 and 1/2 years old, my mother and I was still in Brooklyn in the apartment. She had taken me out of school actually, because I was having a rough time in school because of the emotional problems that I was having due to my father beating me.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:10:00] Also, the children at school would take my quarter that my mother gave me for milk money and they would beat me up.One day, the principal called my mother there. I was in a fight with like 5 kids. They were trying to get my quarter. She saw me in the fight. She took me out of school. For 3 years, she tried to school me herself. She did a wonderful job with the little that she had.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:10:30] She took me to the New York planetarium where I could see stars, the Bronx zoo, where I learned my love for animals, and just educational places where I could learn things that I couldn't when my father was around.What she had finally done with my father was I had to go to At that time,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:11:00] they had Family Court. The judge had ordered my father He asked me Both my parents were there, "Who do you want to live with?" I said, "My mother, of course." He said, "I grant custody of me, to my mother," and ordered my father to pay $25 child support per month, I think it was. It may have been per week or per month, but whatever.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:11:30] My father, sometimes he wouldn't be on time with the money. We would have to go with her to the bar where he hung out on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to get the money. He would just simply torture my mother. "This was your fault. This wouldn't have happened if that " I never did get I never did know
Cliff Arnesen: [00:12:00] the reasons why he was so angry. I suspect, as an adult, that he may have had mental health issues, possibly schizophrenia, or something. It was definitely exacerbated by the alcohol. He was a big man, 6 foot 1, 2, 240 pounds. People were pretty intimidated by him. You can imagine why a 9-year-old was intimidated.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:12:30] Going back to how I got to with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, was my mom at about the age of 9 and 1/2, was looking through Reader's Digest. She saw an article on a place called "The Wiltwyck School for Boys," which was basically an African-American school for delinquent children. It's the same school that the former heavyweight champion of the world, Floyd Patterson, attended, and as well as a gentleman named Claude Brown
Cliff Arnesen: [00:13:00] who wrote a book called "Manchild in the Promised Land." He later on became a professor. As you may know, Floyd Patterson became the heavyweight champion of the world. I had the fortunate honor of meeting Mr. Patterson on several occasions, once while I was at Wiltwyck over at his house in New Paltz, New York.My relationship with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt
Cliff Arnesen: [00:13:30] I'll tell you the story leading up to it. Every year, she would throw annual picnics for the 100 children at the Wiltwyck school. She was on the Board of Directors. My initial meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt was I was by myself. We used to play marbles outside. It was a cold day. I heard this very high-pitched voice, and saw this very tall woman.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:14:00] I didn't know who she was, really. I did notice that she was wearing these foxes around her neck. They had these beady eyes. I was an animal lover. I just picked up my marbles, and I approached her. I said, "Excuse me, lady. Your foxes." She looked down. She said, "Yes?" I said, "They're dead."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:14:30] She said, "I wear them because they keep me warm." I said, "But somebody killed them."Then, she was with another woman who, I believe, was her secretary. When she heard that, she said, "Mrs. Roosevelt, you're going to be late for your meeting." Mrs. Roosevelt looked at me, and she said, I'll see you at the picnic, and explain some time."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:15:00] That was my initial meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt. She was never really known to dress up. I guess as she was at a big board meeting that day, and just was dressing formally. That was my initial meeting.Come that summer, we went to her estate in Val-Kill, Hyde Park, New York. As we were in line getting our hotdogs, and potato salad, and everything,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:15:30] I looked at her. I said, "Mrs. Roosevelt, do you remember me?" She looked at me, she said, "Yes. How could I forget you?" This also happened to another child, because when you're a child like that, you always want Most of these children were from Harlem. They were from very disadvantaged homes.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you. Tell me Let's restart the story a little bit. Were you a student at this school?
Kate Kunath: [00:16:00] Also, are you sucking on something?
Cliff Arnesen: Am I what?
Kate Kunath: Do you have something in your mouth?
Cliff Arnesen: No. I have a plate.
Kate Kunath: Okay.
Cliff Arnesen: Is it coming out?
Mason Funk: No. It's fine. Were you a student at this school? Is that why you went to Hyde Park? Is that how ?
Cliff Arnesen: No. That was a picnic she threw for the boys
Mason Funk: Okay. Do me a favor.
Cliff Arnesen: at the school.
Mason Funk: You were there because you were Okay. When you went to Hyde Park, was this just as a tourist?
Cliff Arnesen: [00:16:30] No. This was at her invitation. She would invite the boys at Wiltwyck.
Mason Funk: You got to go because you were-
Cliff Arnesen: Because I was at the Wiltwyck School for Boys. She was the chairman of the board.
Mason Funk: Let's make this kind of a
Cliff Arnesen: Okay. I'll try to
Mason Funk: You just basically say, "When I was about 9 years old, I was a student at this school.
Mason Funk: [00:17:00] Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt was on the board. She would invite the students to her house every summer." Then, tell the story from there, so that we have a condensed version.
Cliff Arnesen: Okay. Just tell me when to start.
Mason Funk: Go ahead. Whenever you're ready.
Cliff Arnesen: When I was about 10 years old, I went to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, New York. Every year, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was on the Board of Directors of the school,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:17:30] would throw a picnic for the boys at the school. I met her that summer at her estate in Val-Kill, Hyde Park, New York, on the Hudson River where she lived in her cottage, her retreat. As a matter of fact, at that time, there's a photograph that I gave you for the archives,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:18:00] that was taken in the summer of 1959 as a shot for fundraising efforts for the children, because it was a school that needed money. Mrs. Roosevelt was a great humanitarian. She loved children. She wanted to raise money for the kids.Wiltwyck changed my life around. Here's the point,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:18:30] coming from the dysfunctional family that I had, the alcoholic father, and living in a roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn, this opened up my whole world for me. I had fallen behind in school. My self-esteem was low. I had remedial guidance at this school. Because it was African-American, of course, I happened to be the minority within the minority.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:19:00] As I acclimated myself to the school, and when The school also had a public school on the grounds, which was connected to the public school system in Manhattan. We had the same courses that you would have over there. It had woodworking classes. It had science class, and things of that nature.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:19:30] When I had gotten to Wiltwyck, I wasn't a very good reader, or speller or writer, just as Floyd Patterson was. I had read his autobiography. In the first year, I skipped 2 grades. I started to apply myself. I learned things. I found love and caring from the staff of the school.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:20:00] As an example, sometimes When I said I was a minority within a minority, some of the African-American kids would pick on me just simply because I was white. You have to remember that they came from families that horrible situations in Harlem and the slums. Some kids had no families at all. They were used to seeing terrible, horrible things.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:20:30] We had one kid, he used to like to We had to stream their fish. He would kill a fish for no reason, or try to hurt an animal. That was his way of acting out his aggression. In a large part, the counselors would protect me from kids who would discriminate against me.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:21:00] It was mixed, but the school was predominately the staff was 3/4 African-American. The rest, I would say, Caucasian, or other. I found love there.One place I found the love was There was a Rev. Daniels. He was a big man, about 6 foot 4, 6 foot 5. He was the minister. One Christmas,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:21:30] they would let kids go home for a weekend pass if they had a home to go to. One Christmas, I didn't have anywhere to go, because my father was away at sea and my mother was sick. He took us to New York City. We went up to the Empire State Building. I looked down, and everything looked like ants. Then, he took us to the Apollo Theater up in Harlem.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:22:00] He encouraged me to sing. I became the only white kid in an all-black choir. We would go around Harlem. I would sing in the choir. As a matter of fact, I recall being in one of the Baptist churches. I did a song by Mahalia Jackson called How Great Thou Art.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:22:30] I was really hoping people would like it. At the end of it, everybody just clapped.We went downstairs. We had the typical southern meal, cornbread, black eyed peas. I just felt the warmth and the love. Then, I began to realize that there was good and there was bad. There were a couple of kids that didn't like me, but they were in the same boat as me. They came from dysfunctional families
Cliff Arnesen: [00:23:00] where there was no love. I found that love through some of the counselors like Rev. Daniels.Then, I had other counselors. My woodwork teacher, his name was Thad Matras. He was my science teacher as well. He taught me how to make things with my hands. I would make lamps and tables out of wood from scratch, cut down a tree.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:23:30] I began to blossom. I would be in the woods at night at camp. I would listen and look and gaze up at stars, and the quietness. There would be a fire. We would roast marshmallows. We had horses. I learned how to ride a horse. I did well in school.Had it not been for Wiltwyck, I would've become,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:24:00] I believe, a statistic on the streets of New York. In any case, I was at the Wiltwyck School for Boys for about 3 years. Then in 1961 or 2, I was transferred to the Floyd Patterson house at 208 East 18th Street in Manhattan, New York. The Floyd Patterson House was named after Floyd Patterson boxer.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:24:30] At the day of the opening of the house, Floyd Patterson came down to visit us, along with an entourage of his family, as well as with Director John Houston who produced Moby Dick.Also, I came to While I was at Wiltwyck and Floyd Patterson House, came to get to know other people who were friends of Eleanor Roosevelt's such as Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger would come up and sing songs for us.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:25:00] The green grass grew all around and around. I got a chance to meet Pete Seeger. Howard Bellefonte would come up. Mrs. Roosevelt, you never knew who she had at Val-Kill, Hyde Park, New York. I grew like a flower.I spent 3 years at the Patterson House,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:25:30] so 6 years all total between the 2 schools. While I was at Patterson House, the problem was there is We lived in separate rooms instead of dorms, like we lived in Wiltwyck. I had to go to a public high school, which was way up in Harlem, about 100 blocks from 18th Street. It was on the 116th Street. I had problems there because they were selling drugs,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:26:00] and carried guns and knives to school. I didn't really go to school I started to be truant. Reports came back to my supervisor at the Patterson House. It was, "Cliff, we hadn't seen him in school." The supervisor pulled me in his office. He said, "What's the story?" I said, "I don't want to go to this school. It's a bad school. I can't learn anything."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:26:30] He said, "Well, you have to go to school, though, to to learn." I went along with him. I said, "Oh, okay."While I was at Floyd Patterson House, I also became a member of the Boys and Girls Club, which was on 29th Street in Manhattan. That's where
Cliff Arnesen: [00:27:00] I socialized with other people. There were a lot of Hispanic people. I wanted to back up a little bit about something, though, that happened to me at Wiltwyck to explain sexual identity. While I was at Wiltwyck, I also became a
Mason Funk: About how old were you?
Cliff Arnesen: I was 11 or 12.
Mason Funk: [00:27:30] Start off by saying, "Around the age of 11 or 12, when I was at Wiltwyck School "
Cliff Arnesen: Okay. Around the age of 11 or 12, while I was at Wiltwyck School, I studied catechism to become an altar boy. One of my motivating factors was the fact that when I went to the church I saw a cute kid named Richie. I had a crush on him. At the same time,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:28:00] a movie had come out called The Parent Trap. There was a girl in it named Hayley Mills who starred in it as well, and I had a crush on her.It became a little confusing at that point, because I had this very strong attraction to the other altar boy, Richie, and then I also had a mutual attraction to the girl,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:28:30] Hayley Mills. I was kind of confused because I said, "Well, something isn't quite right here." There was nobody to tell. There were no support groups. In my imagination, I would think about kissing Richard, and I would think about kissing her. I was a little bit confused.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:29:00] I didn't say anything. I did play doctor with some of the other boys at the school. If you play doctor, it wasn't considered At that time, the kids used the the real bad words. You were a fag, or you were a queer, or something like that. You could play doctor to a certain extent and get away with it.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:29:30] It was interesting.My first realization that I was attracted to both genders was when I was at Wiltwyck, and I had a crush on the altar boy, and at the same time on Hayley Mills from the movie The Parent Trap. I was kind of confused by it all because I knew the church was against it It was "Sin." I was really in a dilemma because
Cliff Arnesen: [00:30:00] I didn't have anybody to tell except one teacher. He happened to be gay, as I found out later on in life. He became my mentor later on in life for many, many years.I stayed at Wiltwyck and Floyd Patterson House, combination of maybe 6 years. At the age of 16, you had to leave the Patterson House. Then, I went back to live with my mother in Brooklyn.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:30:30] There I was where I began before my going to Wiltwyck and Floyd Patterson House. Finally, one day, my father, same thing, but I'm a young man now. I'm 16. He was away then. I wanted to do something with my life. I asked my mother one day, I said, "I'd like you to sign a waiver.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:31:00] I want to join the Army." She said, "Son, you know there's a war going on now in Vietnam." I said, "I'm aware of that." I said, "But there's nothing here for me in Brooklyn. By joining the service, I could also send you some money from the military to you at home."It took a little prodding,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:31:30] and what have you, but she finally agreed. I quit school in the 10th grade. My mother signed a waiver. I joined the United States Army. I did fairly well as a soldier
Mason Funk: Just pause right there. Let's start Just take a little breath. Then, let's just start this as a new chapter of your life, if you will.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:32:00] The operation, it just because I had 33 rounds of radiation.
Mason Funk: Oh my goodness.
Cliff Arnesen: It saved my life.
Mason Funk: Wow.
Cliff Arnesen: The VA.
Mason Funk: Wow.
Kate Kunath: Speeding.
Mason Funk: Good. Let's start When you're able to, certainly try to keep moving forward in order to cover territory. Then, feel free to slow down when there's something important.
Cliff Arnesen: Where did I leave off?
Mason Funk: [00:32:30] When you were just joining the military. You're at the age of 16. Maybe you can start by saying, "At the age of 16, I joined the US army."
Cliff Arnesen: I did 17.
Mason Funk: 17. Start there. Maybe just start by painting a picture for us of Just give us, if you could, an overview of your time in the army. Try to just walk us through real quickly from the time you joined until the time you life, even if it's just like a quick summary. Then, we'll go back, and we'll talk about specific parts of that process.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:33:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: How does that seem?
Cliff Arnesen: Fine.
Mason Funk: Great.
Cliff Arnesen: At the age of 17, my mother signed a waiver for me. I joined the military. I joined the Army. I went through a basic training. I was assigned to the infantry. Then, I went to advance infantry training. My commander felt I was I also got a high school GED, which I had promised my mother, because she had told me
Cliff Arnesen: [00:33:30] it was important for me to get a high school diploma, which I didn't in civilian life. I did that.Based upon my performance, my superior commander put me in to go to trainee leadership school to train other soldiers, because the war in Vietnam was escalating then. They were really just pushing people Some people out of basic training,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:34:00] 8 weeks. Gave them a weekend pass. Boom, they were off on a plane to Vietnam. Others in specialized units would be given advanced infantry training. That would be another 8 weeks, 16 weeks. Then, boom. Off to Vietnam.What happened in my situation, though, was I never made it to trainee leadership school. I had gotten word that my mother's life was in danger.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:34:30] It was. I went AWOL. I went back to Brooklyn and knocked on my mother's door. As she opened the door, I could see her eye, it was black and blue. I went inside and sat down with my mother. I said, "Mom, what's going on here?" She said, "I slipped in the bathtub."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:35:00] At the time, she was living with another man who was an alcoholic. I said, "Mom, please tell me the truth." She said, "He punched me." I told her I said, "Where is he?" She said, "I don't want you to do anything."I loved my mother very much. My first reaction was I was going to kill him.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:35:30] I mean, because I'd just been trained in the Army. I knew how to kill a person in a second, and especially somebody who hurt my mother. My mother just begged me. She said, "Please don't. He'll be here, as a matter-of-fact, for dinner." I said, "No. This can't be." I said, "How can you live with this?" She said, "I can't do anything." She said, "What am I going to do?" I said okay.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:36:00] That night, I had to have dinner with the same guy that punched my mother and beat her. It was all I could do, not to show my anger. To make a long story short, I didn't return back to my unit. I overstayed, just keep an eye on my mom. I went to Greenwich Village to hide out from the military police. I was gone a total of 3 weeks.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:36:30] During those 3 weeks, I dropped a lot of drugs, because this is the 60's, the height of the 60's, 1967, 66. It was the age of Aquarius and Woodstock, and hippies. I was a hippie myself. I had long hair.In any case, I started hanging around Greenwich Village.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:37:00] I would go to cafs. I met Allen Ginsberg one time. He was down there. We talked. I met Odette, the singer in the caf. We'd listen to Bob Dylan music, and drop acid, smoke pot, drink. I did it all.Finally, after checking on my mom, going back to the village, hiding out from police,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:37:30] because I was always looking around me, paranoid. Then, I knew I had to get back to the base because it was a time of war. After 30 days, its considered desertion. I went to 42nd Street where there was a military police booth. I told them I was AWOL. I turned myself in. They arrested me. They drove me back Fort Dix.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:38:00] My company commander put me under house arrest to await a court-martial, which normally would've been just an Article 15. An Article 15 in the military is like a slap on the wrist, or you know, you did something bad. My particular company commander hated gay people. I finally told him, during my discussions with him, that, "Look "
Cliff Arnesen: [00:38:30] Actually, I told him I was bisexual. They used the term homosexual at that time.I said, "No." I said, "I elect both genders." He said, "You're a homosexual." He said, "I'm going to teach you a lesson." He was just one of those people, very bigoted. Instead of putting me in for an AWOL charge, he put me up for a
Cliff Arnesen: [00:39:00] special court martial based upon the fact that I had been gone from my unit for 3 weeks. One day, I was They transferred me to the Stockade. One day, another soldier came in. They pulled me out of my cell, 6 by 9. He put a gun to my back. He handcuffed me. He marched me over to the courthouse.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:39:30] I was court-martialed. I was sentenced to one year of hard labor in the military prison. I couldn't believe it. I said why couldn't these people just discharge me? I realized that my Company Commander, through his hatred, he just wanted to make an example out of me. It was so sad and frightening. I was sent to the Stockade.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:40:00] Then, I was in the general population. Then a group of soldiers came to me one night, and they said, "This is your last night on earth." I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "We're going to kill you tonight." I ran outside. I stopped an MP who happened to be going by. I said, "You've got to get me out here." I explained the situation. He radioed the commander. They sent down 3 other MP's. They came down. The MPs forcefully took me out of
Cliff Arnesen: [00:40:30] the general population as the prisoners were approaching me, actually pointing their weapons at them.They took me out. They put me in segregated confinement for my own protection. I remained there for 3 and 1/2 months in segregated confinement. Then, they let me go. I returned to my unit, my AIT unit, advanced infantry training,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:41:00] until the Army formally discharged me in 1967 and gave me an undesirable discharge based on homosexuality. For 10 years
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you there. The army discharges you in 1967, gives you a less than honorable Is that the same thing as a dishonorable?
Cliff Arnesen: They gave me an undesirable
Mason Funk: Undesirable.
Cliff Arnesen: Sorry. I should've said that.
Mason Funk: Is that the same thing as
Cliff Arnesen: No.
Mason Funk: [00:41:30] Okay. Clarify
Cliff Arnesen: A dishonorable.
Mason Funk: A dishonorable. Clarify for me, for us, what kind of discharge did you get from the army, and how that was different from a less than honorable discharge. Just clarify for them.
Kate Kunath: Maybe say so after X number of years in the army
Mason Funk: [00:42:00] Yeah, okay. After X number of years in the army, I was given a blank discharge. Then, explain how that was different from a less than honorable discharge.
Cliff Arnesen: Okay. Actually, I went in the Army in 1965 and got out in 1967. Due to my AWOL, and time served in the military stockade, and my bad discharge, in which I got an undesirable discharge based on homosexuality,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:42:30] which precluded me from getting any and all military benefits or educational or medical benefits. The difference being They had several different types of discharges. A dishonorable would have been one where you might've deserted your unit, and therefore had been given a dishonorable discharge, which would Any discharge which is less than honorable is the equivalent
Cliff Arnesen: [00:43:00] of the Scarlet letter. It always follows you around.If you go for an employment at that time, they had a code on your DD 214. An employee would look at that code. They would know why you were discharged from the military. That's the distinction. For 10 years-
Mason Funk: Take a breath. Now, we're going to start a new chapter. It's good to have these pieces broken up into
Cliff Arnesen: [00;43:30] Right, chunks.
Mason Funk: little chapters or chunks, exactly. Okay.
Cliff Arnesen: My emotions will get a little, as I
Mason Funk: I can imagine. Start from scratch. Let me just check the time. Yeah, we're good. In 1967, I was given an
Cliff Arnesen: Undesirable discharge.
Mason Funk: [00:44:00] undesirable discharge. Something like, "Over the next 10 years," and then tell what happened over those 10 years. Start with the day when you were discharged.
Cliff Arnesen: In 1967, I was given an undesirable discharge based on homosexuality, which precluded me from obtaining all medical or educational benefits from the military. During that period of time,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:44:30] I moved around. I left New York.
Mason Funk: Let me start you fresh, because I don't want to have to It would be easier if you just not have to It doesn't matter, maybe, so much about where you moved to. I think I want to get to the part where you're say over the next 10 years.
Cliff Arnesen: Okay.
Mason Funk: In other words, I think maybe the geographical locations is less important than what the actions you began to take. See what I mean?
Cliff Arnesen: [00:45:00] Right. Over the next 10 years Well, right after my discharge, 5 months after my discharge, my mother died of breast cancer. At that, I had lost the last thing that I truly loved in my life.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:45:30] At her funeral, I got in an argument with my father. He told me that he knew why I was discharged, because he had come up I had almost forgotten myself. He had come up to see me once while I was in the stockade and told me how I had ruined my life. He was aware He had looked at the chart where it said homosexual.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:46:00] After my mother's funeral, I walked my father home to his house. He was very drunk. I tried to ask him things. Why he was the way he was towards me as a child, this and that. He slipped into a coma after drinking a lot of liquor.During the next 10 years, I began to drink
Cliff Arnesen: [00:46:30] heavy just to drown out a lot of the pain, sorrow, and take drugs. I moved to Albany, New York where I've met a guy named Donnie, who was my first love. I fell in love with him. I was 23. He was 17.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:47:00] We lived together, got an apartment for about a year or so. My drinking was always constantly in the way of our relationship. It ended because of my drinking. After that, I stayed with my mentor who I met at Wiltwyck, because it came to the point where I was almost homeless,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:47:30] he invited me up to his house, because I really had nowhere to go. Once I got that discharge, I was a man without a country. Once my mother died, I had no more family.I was really empty in life. I couldn't go to the VA. I couldn't get medical care. I couldn't do anything. I was just kind of drifting along. My mentor helped me
Cliff Arnesen: [00:48:00] and took me under his wing. I worked for him for a while. In 1973, I moved to Boston, and went to a gay bar. I met some people. I found a gentleman who worked as a sexton at a church. He provided me a place to live
Cliff Arnesen: [00:48:30] until I could get on my feet, get a job. Make a long story short, I continued to drink. I was always drinking.Then, I read an article in 1977, I believe. Jimmy Carter had an amnesty program former President Jimmy Carter had an amnesty program for people who had gone to Canada
Cliff Arnesen: [00:49:00] because of their religious beliefs, and didn't go to Vietnam. I found out I was eligible under that program to apply for an upgrade in discharge. I filled out the necessary applications and sent it into Washington DC. Lo and behold in 1977, I received a reply from Washington, opened the letter. It said, "Based upon social mores that have changed,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:49:30] and a dysfunctional childhood, we grant you a change of discharge to a general discharge under honorable conditions." Then, I could access the Veterans Administration Healthcare System and go to school.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:50:00] I drank up until the year 1983. I ended up in the Veterans Administration Hospital dehydrated, and needles in my arms, and just, just a total wreck, 20 something years of drinking. Just like my father. I had always thought, "I never want to be like him," but I ended up like that, just like my father. The doctor, while I was in VA Hospital, I told him,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:50:30] "You know " I was drinking a quarter of vodka a day. He said, "If you keep on drinking like this," he said, "You're going to die. It's that simple.I left the hospital. I joined A.A. I went to A.A. for a year, and I quit drinking in 1983. Then, I had idle time on my hands.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:51:00] Then, somebody told me, "Well, why don't you go to school? Take a course at Bunker Hill Community College." I said, "I can't. I just have a high school diploma. Nobody in my family ever went to college." They talked me into taking a course. I took one course, and I got an A. I was about to leave the school, and one of the teachers stopped me in the hall, and said, "Where are you going, Cliff?" I said, "Well, I got my A.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:51:30] Go back to my job." I was a house painter. She said, "Take another course."I took another course, and I got another A." Then, finally I said, "Maybe I can do this." It took me 4 years. I had 2 jobs. I was a house painter, and a carpenter. I finally graduated from Bunker Hill Community College in 1988 with high honors,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:52:00] with a 3.8 average. Plus, I had a certificate in mental health. Then, in 1991, I applied for a job with the Veterans Administration. I was hired. That's where I met my girlfriend, Claudia. She was working at the Veterans Administration, as well. I told her right off the bat
Cliff Arnesen: [00:52:30] As a matter fact one of the books that we had written I had the fortunate honor to be included in an anthology book called "By Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out," edited by Lorraine Hutchins and Lani Ka'ahumanu, two of my very dear, close friends.My chapter was called "Coming Out to Congress." I didn't want to make a mistake with Claudia,
Cliff Arnesen: [00:53:00] because Claudia was heterosexual. I wanted her to know that I was bisexual. I gave her a copy of the book. She read it. She came back to me later. I said, "What do you think?" I said, "I really like you a lot," she said, "but I want you to know." She said, "I almost cried when I read the book, but it's fine." We've been together for 25 years now.
Mason Funk: [00:53:30] That's another good place to pause for a second.
Cliff Arnesen: I lost my ring somewhere.
Mason Funk: You lost your ring? Oh no.
Cliff Arnesen: Its alright. I'm sorry. I can find it later. It slipped off my finger. It's somewhere.
Mason Funk: [00:54:00] As long as you're sure I'm sure it is somewhere. For the camera, it's a little bit better if you don't cross your legs, because the white stripe takes over the image a lot, stops us from seeing you a little bit
Cliff Arnesen: I was just doing that I was having a little pain in my That's all. It's all right.
Mason Funk: Wow. You covered a lot of territory. I want to maybe go back
Mason Funk: [00:54:30] to a couple of parts in there. Let me ask you this, during the time You were labeled by the military. You were discharged for being homosexual.
Cliff Arnesen: I told them I was bisexual. They made no distinction.
Mason Funk: During the years after you were discharged for being a homosexual, whether you were or not, were you always aware during these years
Mason Funk: [00:55:00] that, even when you were living with a guy, I forget the guy, your first love.
Cliff Arnesen: Donnie.
Mason Funk: Donnie. Were you always aware that even though you were living with a guy, that people probably thought you were gay, were you always aware that this wasn't the whole truth about you?
Cliff Arnesen: That I was bi?
Mason Funk: You were bisexual.
Cliff Arnesen: Yes, absolutely.
Mason Funk: Answer this question for me, but start by saying something like, put it in your own words, "Even when I was living with my first boyfriend,
Mason Funk: [00:55:30] my first lover," something like, "I was always aware that wasn't the whole story," or something like that. I just want to understand how you were aware of your own bisexuality, even when, to the world, they were probably labeling you homosexual. Talk about that.
Cliff Arnesen: One day, when I was with my boyfriend, Donnie, I mentioned the fact to him that
Cliff Arnesen: [00:56:00] just off-the-cuff that I'd always wanted to have a boy, wanted to be a father. He kind of looked at me. He said, "What do you mean exactly? I said, "I guess it's maybe my childhood, because I always wanted to have a boy, and this and that, just to take around, take to the zoo, and this and that."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:56:30] He said, "You mean you like girls?" I said, "Well, in that sense, yes." I could tell by the tone of his voice, he became a little concerned. He kissed me and whispered and said, "I'm afraid I would lose you. It would break my heart if I ever lost you to a girl."
Cliff Arnesen: [00:57:00] After that, we really didn't talk about it too much more. Where it actually did come up, though, is I'll fast-forward, in 1987. I was working as a sexton at a Unitarian Church in Boston. There was a meeting of the New England Gay and Lesbian Veterans. They rented out space in the church for meetings.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:57:30] During the meeting, I listened in on the meeting about what the veterans were saying, the gay veterans. I introduced myself. I was the sexton. Mr. Bob Derry was the co-founder. I told him outright, I said I'm a bisexual veteran. Then, they talked about all the problems
Cliff Arnesen: [00:58:00] of gays in the military. At that time, I had graduated from Bunker Hill. I was going to Harvard University extension school, just taking a course there to keep busy.I dropped my course at Harvard. I ran for office. I was elected president. In 1989, we had a meeting with Dr. Paul Camacho who was the director for the William Joiner Center for the Study of War
Cliff Arnesen: [00:58:30] and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts. He is a Vietnam veteran. He arranged minority conferences in Washington DC with Hispanic veterans, African-American veterans and American Indian veterans. Finally, he wanted to introduce gay veterans into the agenda.
Cliff Arnesen: [00:59:00] This is with the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.We had a meeting in 1988. I'll always remember the winter of '88. 12 members and the director. He's a PTSD'd-out Vietnam veteran. He said, "I got a little problem with this." He said, "I don't how we're going to do this. How are we going to get gay veterans to testify before Congress?
Cliff Arnesen: [00:59:30] It's never been done before." We talked for about 3 hours, the pros, the cons, and this and that. He got up. He walked out. He went outside, came back 15 minutes later. He said, "Damn it. I didn't go to Vietnam to fight for just some people's rights." He said, "I went there to fight for everybody's rights." He says, "You're all invited."Then, we had to pick a platform. Now, you have remember, I was working for the Veterans Administration at the time.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:00:00] Luck had it, as it were, that I met the HIV-AIDS coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We spoke about the meeting. We came up The way that we would go to Congress would be on a medical platform, and advocate for our country's veterans who had HIV-AIDS, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness and
Cliff Arnesen: [01:00:30] other illnesses. In particular HIV, because it had been ignored by President Reagan. Ronald Reagan didn't do a thing. Meanwhile, my friends were dying, very good people I knew who died of AIDS. It was heartbreaking.I remember in 1987, I went to the March on Washington. The AIDS quilt laid out.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:01:00] People were just crying in the middle of the thing. Let me backtrack. Dr. Camacho said we could testify. We got together. The first testimony came on May 3, 1989. I had the honor of testifying with another gay veteran who also had HIV, by the way. He was AIDS positive,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:01:30] named Stan Berry. We testified before Congress on AIDS and PTSD. That was the first Congressional testimony.Now, the second one was with the Veterans Administration, Ilonka Thomas. There were two gay veterans, Mr. Chuck Schoen from Veterans Care, and Kenneth Huntington, who was the president of the gay veterans in Texas.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:02:00] That was May 16, 1990 that we testified before Congress. I testified once before. It was before Congressman Lane Evan's Veterans Affairs Committee, subcommittee on oversight and investigations.That basically opened the door. However, during that time in 1990, I met a woman named Miriam Ben-Shalom who was one of
Cliff Arnesen: [01:02:30] the first lesbian soldier to be reinstated back into the military. She and I had discussed the necessity for the formation of a National Gay Veterans Organization, because what you basically had was a handful of grassroots organizations in different directions. We wanted to solidify it and grow it,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:03:00] because my belief is that coalition building begins from the bottom up, not from the top down, because there were other national organizations that had their own agendas.After my congressional testimony on May 16, 1990, the next day Miriam Ben-Shalom founded the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:03:30] I was one of 3 co-founders along with Chuck Schoen, and Mr. Jim Woodward, President of the San Diego Veterans Association. Then things started to take off. Then, Bill Clinton was elected president after that. The Republicans hit him right out of the gate with the gays in the military policy. By this time, we had gotten to meet
Cliff Arnesen: [01:04:00] and become friends with people like Congressman Barney Frank, Gerry Studds. Gerry is a wonderful person, so is Mr. Frank. Joe Moakley, the late Joe Moakley, and Senator Ted Kennedy, who we became friends with. I became a personal friend with him, and introduced Claudia to him on several occasions.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:04:30] Ted Kennedy and I also worked with the Nondiscrimination Act. We would meet sometimes when he came to Boston. He would give me tips on writing the President, because they had sealed the deal with Senator Sam Nunn That was an interesting story, because I had written Sam Nunn's committee that I wanted to testify before his committee before they made that decision about passing this stupid Don't Ask, Don't Tell Law." They called me up. They invited me to testify.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:05:00] I was just about to get on a plane, get my tickets. I get a call the next day. They found out I was bisexual. That's where the prejudice with the bisexual component started to come in.They said, "Well, we have enough veterans to testify for the committee. However, Senator Nunn would appreciate your written testimony." They disinvited me essentially,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:05:30] because I was bisexual. The military did not know how to handle the gray matter. They did not know how to handle the gay component, never mind the bisexual component.
Mason Funk: How did you know what they disinvited you because of you being bisexual?
Cliff Arnesen: Well, first, I got the call, said, "Would you like to come to Washington Monday?" Then, they read some literature
Cliff Arnesen: [01:06:00] or something I had written, or they somehow found out. From my testimony, that's what it was from. Because I testified both times before Congress as an openly bisexual veteran. Not only that, I had to deal with prejudice in my own ranks from other gay veterans who were telling me, "You can't do that." In fact, one of our members in the New England Gay and Lesbian Veterans told me not to do that.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:06:30] I said to him, "Look, we're all in this together. This is one for all and all for one. 3 Musketeers, and all that." I said, "Do you want me to go up there and deny who I am?" I said, "No." I said, "If that's the way you feel, I want your resignation when I get back from Washington."I was not only fighting the issue of gays in the military. I was also fighting other gay veterans who felt that it wasn't my right
Cliff Arnesen: [01:07:00] as a bisexual veteran. It was getting very, very hairy and scary in a lot of areas. That's exactly what happened. One of our officers resigned when I came back because he didn't want me to testify as openly bisexual.Getting back to Senator Sam Nunn. I get the call. They wanted me to submit the testimony. Then somebody,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:07:30] I think had told them that I had testified before Congress as an openly bisexual veteran. I got a call the next day, said, "Submit your testimony, but in writing." I gather that's the reason why. They didn't want to deal with the bi issue because it was already such a mess. Then I called Congressman Barney Frank. We talked about it because he was on board with it with Director Paul Comacho.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:08:00] I said, "Barney, what's going on here?" He said, "Cliff, the Congress had threatened to codify this permanently into law if nobody went along with this policy." Because the Republicans had hit him right over the head with it as soon as he was elected.I understood the risk involved, because once you had a codification into law, it would probably
Cliff Arnesen: [01:08:30] take an act of the Supreme Court to reverse that. We had to fight that battle. We did over a period of, what? 16, 17 years. When I say "We," it was not only the New England Veterans. We advocated with many other groups and organizations around the country. I am happy to say that the organization that Miriam Ben-Shalom founded, The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Veterans of America, and
Cliff Arnesen: [01:09:00] I co-founded with the other 2 veterans, is now still in existence. They have chapters in many, many states. They've now changed their name to the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER).
Mason Funk: I'm sorry just to interrupt. We actually interviewed Jim Darby in Chicago, who's very active with AVER.
Cliff Arnesen: On the .zip I gave you, there are photos of Jim Darby and I together.
Mason Funk: [01:09:30] Is that so?
Cliff Arnesen: We had meetings at the Pentagon and the White House. I can mention those, if you want?
Mason Funk: That's okay, but I'm sorry to
Cliff Arnesen: My foot?
Mason Funk: That's okay. Sorry about that. Tell me a bit more Let me ask you this, how hard was it for you to keep insisting on your identity as a bisexual veteran when there was a lot of pressure to
Mason Funk: [01:10:00] silence that part of yourself and just go along with people who said, "Well, you're gay. This woman over here, she's a lesbian. We don't really want to talk about anything besides " Because this is what I would say, is this is a pattern. Many, many times, social movements, like even the women's movement, they're like, "No lesbians," because that's going to complicate our message. You've faced some of the same discrimination. Talk about how hard it was,
Mason Funk: [01:10:30] and the decision you made to hold on to your identity when there was a lot of pressure to discard it or erase it, or just Yeah.
Cliff Arnesen: It was hard, as I mentioned. Excuse me. Twice, I testified as an openly bisexual veteran. Now, when the Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy came along, it specifically included that those who were found to
Cliff Arnesen: [01:11:00] be or engaged in homosexual or bisexual acts would be discharged from the military. The DOD Policy specifically had bisexual in the policy. I was like a junkyard dog. I would not let go on that issue. Because I said to myself, here I am fighting for my
Cliff Arnesen: [01:11:30] gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and they don't want to fight for me? It actually caused a lot of dissension in the ranks. Who's this bisexual veteran testifying for Congress? We later laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. We had been invited to meet with President Bill Clinton's liaison, Richard Socarides, at the White House, as I'm sure Mr. Jim Darby told you.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:12:00] We had been invited to the Pentagon and met with Mr. Frederick Pang regarding Dont Ask, Dont Tell policy He was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management.Years before that, we had been outside these places, demonstrating against the White House, demonstrating against the Pentagon, Miriam Ben-Shalom got arrested. They chained themselves to the White House fence. No, I was very insistent because that was my identity.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:12:30] I was not about to let anybody rob me of my identity. Furthermore, people had to understand that we were all in this together. If you're gay, if you're lesbian, this same policy applies to me as it does to you. Don't make a distinction and push me away or disregard me, because as I pointed out
Cliff Arnesen: [01:13:00] very succinctly in a quote that came out in the lesbian news, the military makes no distinction between whether you're a homosexual or bisexual. You don't get half a discharge.I was like a junkyard dog. I was very tenacious in that area. I really didn't care, because I am who I am. As I told you, when I was a kid, I had affections towards boys and girls.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:13:30] I knew it was dangerous at times, because people were saying, "Well, you've got to make up your mind. You're sitting on the fence." All the clichs. The fact of the matter is is that I suspect that there are a lot more bisexual people than people really realize. During the course of my lifetime, I've had lesbians even come up to me and say,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:14:00] "Between you and me, Cliff, I have had relationships with men." However, they did not "Identify" as a bisexual person. See, that's where it is. It is what you identify as, what you label yourself as. That's why labels can hurt sometimes. I've found this out that in life, people have a tendency to be able to
Cliff Arnesen: [01:14:30] They want to compartmentalize things. They want to see things in terms of black and white.Lesbian and gay is more black and white than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Now, when you get the 4 elements, as what is going on today with the transgender issue, that's just been worked out with the Pentagon. It's been worked out with certain bathroom issues.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:15:00] There's your other element, the transgender. I have a very good friend, Janice Josephine Carney. She served in Vietnam as John Carney, and later on had sexual reassignment surgery and is now Janice Josephine Carney. She's one of my best friends. I use the pronoun she because she is now a she. My defense for myself is I would not let anybody rob me of my identity, my love, my association.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:15:30] I felt sorry for the people who were so fixated that I could not deviate, or didn't want me to go down that path. I'm sorry. We're all in this together. Unity is the only way because we had circular firing squads at times. It was subliminal in some cases.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:16:00] You couldn't actually prove it was because he's bi, or something. I could feel sometimes the tension. I just wouldn't have it. It was my nature. You're not going to deny me of who and what I am, and what I identify and talk to me, because this is who I am. Remember that play, with the song, "I am who I am"? That was it.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:16:30] Because to do so would be to rob me of my identity. I certainly was not going to let anybody do that.
Mason Funk: Got you.
Cliff Arnesen: Because love is where you find it in this world. I can't, because my first love was a gay man. Would I ask him to be other than what he was? No.
Mason Funk: [01:17:00] Great. That's really powerful stuff. Let's take a little break. You can take a breath. That was really good, though, really, really fantastic.
Cliff Arnesen: No. I get worked up when I
Mason Funk: Course you do. We're going to swap our card out.
Kate Kunath: Thank you.
Mason Funk: God bless you on your 25.
Cliff Arnesen: Well, I'm very happy to say that played a part with Robyn for helping out with the Bisexual issue At that time, we were demonstrating at the Boston Statehouse. I can put that on if you want to hear that, too.
Mason Funk: [01:17:30] First thing I want to ask you the story about being invited Even though you weren't able to go, I would love to have you tell me the story of when you were invited to the White House even though you couldn't go.
Cliff Arnesen: It was confidential.
Mason Funk: Can you tell me, just in general.
Cliff Arnesen: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Great.
Cliff Arnesen: I couldn't. I wanted to, believe me.
Mason Funk: Tell me the story.
Cliff Arnesen: I was in so much pain.
Mason Funk: [01:18:00] Tell me that story. Just start with, "A couple of years ago "
Cliff Arnesen: Where did we leave off now? I have no idea which, because you're probably going to splice this and edit, right?
Mason Funk: Exactly. Just let me ask you this, tell me the story of being invited a couple of years ago to go to the White House, and how much you wanted to go, then unfortunately then, you couldn't go. Just tell me that story.
Cliff Arnesen: A couple of years go, I found out that President Barack Obama had started a
Cliff Arnesen: [01:18:30] reception for GLBT people at the White House. One of my very good friends emailed me and said that I had an invitation to go to the White House, but due to my medical conditions, I couldn't make it. That's one of my regrets, because I really have great admiration for President Obama.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:19:00] Not only did he finally put the nail in the coffin of Don't Ask Don't Tell, but he's just such an honorable, down-to-earth man, and happens to be the President of the United States. I'm so glad that I've lived so long to see an African-American president, and such a wonderful couple.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:19:30] I truly feel, in these times today, with Donald Trump running Personally, I think, he's got what they call psychologist a narcissistic complex. Just imagine if you will for a moment with him in possession of the nuclear code. It is quite a scary scenario.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:20:00] I don't want go into the political aspects. I would have liked to have met President Obama because I think he's a fine gentleman. I think he's a role model for a lot of people, including black youth. Just a wonderful man. He's done so much for the LGBT community. I can't say enough, and so many other areas as well.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:20:30] It is the Republicans that keep pushing him back because of old confederates down there still think that they won the war.
Mason Funk: All right. Well, we won't go there because that's a whole other conversation. I want to ask you this, when you testified before Congress, what did you talk about? Start off by saying, "When I testified before Congress, or in the 2 occasions when I testified "
Cliff Arnesen: On the 2 occasions when I testified before Congress,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:21:00] via Congressman Lane Evans' Committee on Veterans Affairs on Oversight and Investigations First, I just want to say Congressman Evans was a wonderful man. He passed away some years ago. He's included in the archives which I gave you. It seems that things just fell into place. Destiny, fate if you will.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:21:30] I never thought that a poor kid from Brooklyn would end up in the marble halls of Congress, testifying there before the Congress of the United States. It just goes to show you in life that you don't know where the path will lead you, especially in terms of the dysfunctional family that I grew up in, my being imprisoned in the military.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:22:00] I found out what I did. Through my testimony, I used 2 things to motivate me: my love of Donnie and I sublimated my anger at the military. I used that in a constructive way, because I've realized before that with my drinking and all that other stuff, and using drugs, I was destroying myself.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:22:30] It is not uncommon with veterans, with people who have hardships and bad childhoods. In my case, being at the Wiltwyck School, having met Eleanor Roosevelt, I mean, I've been so blessed. I'm honored, as a human being and as a bisexual person, that
Cliff Arnesen: [01:23:00] I could have a voice in maybe making this world a better place for other people to live in.I go by constants. One of the constants in life is always that tug-of-war between good and evil. When I speak to other people I stand upon the shoulders, first of all, of those GLBT veterans and advocates who came before me,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:23:30] as everybody else does. Prior to me, there was Brenda Howard. I don't know if you ever heard of her. She was a bisexual who started Actually, she was called the Mother of Pride, because she was involved in the Stonewall Movement. A lot of people don't know that. If you look at Wikipedia, you'll see her as the Mother of Pride. Yet, the gay community is not aware of that. That's why pride is always celebrated in the month of June
Cliff Arnesen: [01:24:00] to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion.I've been so fortunate in my life to come over the span of 40 or so years from Stonewall, to now see the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell, to see gay marriage by the United States Supreme Court, to be invited to the White House, and be accepted. All men are created equal, according to our Constitution.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:24:30] I believe that's so. I'm just humbled. I mean that. Because my advocacy was, not How should I put this? I don't like to use the third person, Cliff Arnesen. My advocacy was not It wasn't about me. It was about us.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:25:00] One of the things I did have some trouble with though, and I'm not bad mouthing any of the national organizations, but there are things that they should've known that coalition building begins from the bottom up.I was fortunate enough to also meet people like Kerry Lobel, when she was the head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:25:30] I met with her at the Fifth Conference of Bisexuality at Harvard University. She pledged us support. She opened up doors for us. Same thing with the human rights campaign when the director was What was his name? It'll come back to me when I get home. They played the part of us going to the Pentagon
Cliff Arnesen: [01:26:00] and meeting with White House officials. I mean, these things had never been done before.In essence, the modern gay rights veterans movement began with the congressional testimonies. That opened the door. Then Miriam Ben-Shalom, and our group forming the national organization which is now AVER. They just turned 25 years old, because they were formed in 1990.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:26:30] That's a legacy which is still going on, still necessary. I'm so happy. I'm so proud to see people married, that can love each other. The operative words, though, are always going to be eternal vigilance, because there will always be people, yet to be born, who will try to deny
Cliff Arnesen: [01:27:00] GLBT people their rights as equals and human beings.Basically, it goes back to religion in a lot of cases. I hear the Bible thumpers. They quote Leviticus, and this and that. I believe, personally, being a Roman Catholic, born a Roman Catholic, that there is a higher power, and that we are all
Cliff Arnesen: [01:27:30] the children of God. I mean that sincerely. Otherwise, if you look at it in logical terms, God would not have made a certain group of people if He didn't want them there. My logic dictates to me that that is the way of the universe, the way of the world. When you look back in history on the enormous contributions that gay men and women,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:28:00] and now bisexual and transgender people have given to societies, in the arts, and sports, and in all the fields that you can possibly imagine. It's so great, the music, the theaters, the arts. So many things have changed and evolved. I'm just so proud to have been a player, if you will, in making some of those changes possible.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:28:30] I say for future generations, don't ever let anybody label you. You always identify as what you feel in your heart. Don't let anybody try to steal that away from you.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. That was great. That was awesome. I have one other question for you.
Mason Funk: [01:29:00] Well, a few other questions. The question I have is you used the phrase "Gray matter." That for a lot of people, they don't want to deal with the gray matter. Why do you think it's so hard for gay men and lesbians In other words, gay men and lesbians are already part of the minority. Then, there's a minority within the minority, which is the bisexual population. Why do you think it's so hard for,
Mason Funk: [01:29:30] maybe people in general, to deal with the, so-called, gray matter, the parts that don't fit neatly in the categories? Why is that so hard?
Cliff Arnesen: It's been my observation that I think maybe, the human mind, it's easier for people to compartmentalize, as I think I had said before, and see things more in terms of black and white.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:30:00] Once you explore the gray in between area This is why I went back to Senator Sam Nunn, the disinvitation when they found out I was bisexual, saying that, "You can send us your written testimony rather than come in person." I think at the core, there might be several issues. I think some people might fear the loss
Cliff Arnesen: [01:30:30] from a bisexual person, that they might stray off to another person.In fact, I've heard gay men who have been with bisexual people say, "I'd rather you go to a gay man than lose you to a woman." What does that speak to?
Cliff Arnesen: [01:31:00] In my case, it could be a matter of, perhaps, maybe having heterosexual privilege. That's kind of not really in the ballpark either, because as I said, I've had people confide in me who were gay and lesbian, that they had relationships with people of the opposite gender.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:31:30] That would be in private, but they identified. I think it's a question of identification, and the "Label" that one puts on themselves. I can't quite put my finger on why. This is why I had so much trouble
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you for a second. Just continue that thought. "I can't put my finger on why," then continue that thought, please.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:32:00] I can't quite put my finger on why. It's not a hatred. I think it's more a matter that people want simplification. They don't want to deal with the intricacies that are in between the 2 extremes. They'd rather just see left to right, or up and down, or black and white.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:32:30] I think that has something to do with human psychology. If you look in the course of history, how many people were bisexual, because I've gotten on my computer to see, you'd be amazed of how many people were supposedly bisexual. In fact, I laugh with some of my friends when they see the photograph with me and Eleanor Roosevelt. I said, "That was my first girlfriend. Who knew that we'd both end up being bisexual?"
Cliff Arnesen: [01:33:00] because we're holding hands. That's a joke.I truly mean what I said, no matter who you are in life, gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, in between, queer, questioning. I mean, there's so many acronyms and different labels now. I understand people want to even take queer back. Now, because I'm older When I was younger, queer was a negative term. Now people want to take it back.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:33:30] There's dissension amongst that. I mean, why would you want to take a negative word and bring it back to try to metamorphosis, if you will, make it good? There's a little conflict about that. I've had interesting discussions on the word queer. Growing up, to me, it was a negative. Now, people want to take it back.My message to anybody is this,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:34:00] whatever you feel in your heart, go with your heart. Now, if you're in a relationship with somebody else who doesn't understand, just try to explain it to that person. The bottom line for me is what I found, through everything in my life, is that love is where you find it. I mean that truly, because I found love in unexpected places, with the Reverend Daniels at Wiltwyck School,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:34:30] who happened to be a black man. He cared about me, a little, poor white kid from Brooklyn. That was a love there. I wish people could get together. I see so many differences. People don't like you because you're this religion, or you are that color. We've got to get to the realization that, like Dr. Martin Luther King said,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:35:00] he said, "We are all a caught in an inescapable mutuality. We are all tied in this single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one person, affects all of us." I think that hits the nail in the head.We are all intertwined. He was a great man. During my life, I can't believe I lived through
Cliff Arnesen: [01:35:30] the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. To see how far we've come, now and to have the first African-American president is just beautiful.
Mason Funk: Great.
Cliff Arnesen: I bet you that even if he found out one of his daughters was gay, he wouldn't blink an eye, not like Dick Cheney.
Mason Funk: [01:36:00] That's nice. I think you probably read on that. 4 final questions, short ones. I look for the shortest possible answer you can give me. First question, to someone who is about to come out, whether they're young, middle aged, or old, whatever that means to them, whether it's gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, or anything else, what single piece of advice, very simply, would you give to someone who's just about to come out? Start out by saying, "To someone who's about to come out, here's my advice."
Cliff Arnesen: [01:36:30] To someone who is about to come out, go to the place where your heart tells you to go. Now, today, you have support groups. You have people who can listen to you. Unlike me when I was growing up. Go where your heart tells you to go. Never be ashamed. Never be put down.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:37:00] Never feel down. Be proud of who you are, because you are a creation of God. You belong here in the universe. You have a right for a seat at the table.
Mason Funk: Excellent. Second question, what is your hope Again, as short as you can. What is your hope for the future?
Cliff Arnesen: [01:37:30] If there was a Utopia, I would go there. My hope for the future is that through all the things that have transpired in my lifetime, as I said, coming from Stonewall, to the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to the Supreme Court on gay marriage, is that people will try to get along and not divide,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:38:00] because once we start to divide, this is when we lose contact with our humanity. You cannot base a person on a Well, let me put it this way. I base a person on how they treat me. If you want respect, you have to give respect. You have to show respect to get respect.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:38:30] If somebody doesn't like you because of the color of your skin, or because of your sexual orientation, stay away from them. Go where you feel safe, where it's comfortable for you. Surround yourself with the people who care who you are, and what you are.
Mason Funk: Great. Why is it important to you to tell your story? Again, try to keep this as short as possible.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:39:00] It's important for me to tell my story because, especially as a bisexual person, because I have met too many out bisexual people in my lifetime. I mean, I know a lot of bisexual people, but I don't believe they have all been as tenacious as I have been. As I've already explained, I refuse
Cliff Arnesen: [01:39:30] to relinquish my identity at the expense of somebody else's interpretation of who and what I am. This is the way I am. If they cannot accept me for what I am, then just move on. Go to a space where you feel safe loving yourself, and loving others.
Mason Funk: [01:40:00] Great. Lastly, what is the importance of a project like OUTWORDS?
Cliff Arnesen: I can't say enough that It is very important to preserve the histories of so many LGBT people who have made so many contributions in so many areas in our society.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:40:30] It's important to capture it at the moment. People will look back on this many years from now. They will reflect, and possibly even say, "What the hell was all the fuss about before gay marriage? Why was there the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy?" It was like Barry Goldwater before he passed on, he finally changed his conservative views. His last line was,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:41:00] "Who cares if you're gay or straight, as long as you can shoot straight." Changed his mind. Before that, he was a Bible thumper.I would say, do not fear the words of people who will invoke the name of God against you,
Cliff Arnesen: [01:41:30] because they are just trying to destroy the humanity in you by labeling you by your sexual orientation. Whereas you are a creature of God. You are one of God's children. You deserve to be here in the universe, within society, and have a place at the table of equality.
Cliff Arnesen: [01:42:00] As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
Mason Funk: Great. That's a fantastic way to finish.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 15, 2016
Location: Home of Robyn Ochs, Jamaica Plain, MA