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Shirley Greenes was born in 1921 in Brooklyn, NY. Growing up, her father taught her the values of equality, tolerance, and the inclusion of all. When she was 13 years old, her father purchased a run-down burlesque theater in Harlem, and renamed it the Apollo Theater. The Apollo became a groundbreaking space for African-American talent and patrons. Shirley saw her father’s values made real, and when she got married and had three sons of her own, Shirley put those values into practice—particularly when her son Rob Eichberg told her he was gay.
 
Rob was a student at UC Berkeley when, according to Shirley, he suddenly began acting “obnoxious.” Shirley worried her son might be on drugs. When he told her he was gay, she was relieved and immediately gave him her unconditional support. Soon, Rob’s friends were also leaning on Shirley for love and guidance as they came to terms with being gay—and with families that were often not as accepting as Rob’s.
 
After earning his PhD in psychology, Rob and a friend named David Goodstein (then-owner of The Advocate) created a program called The Experience to help gay men and lesbians learn self-love, and how to be out and proud. Shirley helped Rob with the accounting and other elements of the program. The hundreds of letters they received from grateful participants became the foundation for Rob’s groundbreaking 1991 book Coming Out: An Act of Love. Rob later helped create National Coming Out Day, an event which still takes place every year on October 11.
 
By 1991, the AIDS epidemic had been decimating the gay community for a decade. Rob and Shirley helped countless participants in The Experience to navigate their own illnesses and the traumatic losses of countless friends. In 1995, AIDS took Rob as well. More than 1,000 people attended his memorial. “You have to come to terms with what life gives you,” says Shirley.
 
At the time of her OUTWORDS interview in 2016, Shirley was happily married to her second husband, Walter Greenes. Shirley and Walter had been together for 38 years. Part of what brought them together was that Walter had also lost a son to AIDS. 
 
In August 2021, Shirley Greenes passed away, just shy of her 101st birthday. Her son Peter wrote, “She lived the most amazing life, and she went out on her own terms, with no pain, no angst. She simply closed her eyes and went to sleep.”
 
OUTWORDS is grateful to have had the chance to meet and interview Shirley Greenes and, through her, to have met her beloved son Rob. Thanks to Shirley, Rob’s story lives on.
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] We're rolling, and Shirley can we have you just clap one time?
Shirley Greenes: (Claps twice)
Mason Funk: Perfect. Perfect. Okay, so Shirley again I'm gonna talk to you from here but you can answer directly.
Shirley Greenes: [crosstalk] Yeah.
Mason Funk: To the camera. Alrighty? Do me a favor? Start off by telling me your name and spelling your first and last names.
Shirley Greenes: Shirley Greenes. What's the second part of it? I didn't.
Mason Funk: Oh you can just spell your names.
Shirley Greenes: [00:00:30] Oh. S-H-I-R-L-E-Y. Greenes. Capital G-R-E-E-N-E-S.
Mason Funk: Okay. And where are we today? Where are we conducting this interview?
Shirley Greenes: We are in the community of Laguna Woods, not far from Laguna Beach California.
Mason Funk: Alright, and who's here with you? Who's sitting with you?
Shirley Greenes: I have a husband, whose name is Walter Greenes.
Mason Funk: Great, and how long, tell me the story of how you guys met. How did you and Walter meet?
Shirley Greenes: [00:01:00] I put a newspaper in the paper. And Walt answered it. And the first night we're together we have been together ever since because it worked. I put it in on a dare and he answered it and we went out and had a wonderful first time together, and we've been together for 38 years.
Mason Funk: [00:01:30] That's terrific. So now, why don't you just start by talking to me about your son Rob.
Shirley Greenes: It's easy to talk about Rob, he was very special. He was, from day one, shown that he was very bright, he was loving, he was caring. We named him Robert because I loved the name Bob, and not once in his entire life was he anything but Rob or Robby. He exhibited an unusual amount of brains,
Shirley Greenes: [00:02:00] in fact for his 21st birthday, I remember his professors from UCLA where he was getting his PhD called me over, they were all sitting together, and they said "We want you to know that anything that Robert wants to do, he will be the best at." He was always kind and caring and the only significance that I can think of that he might have been on the gay side was that he didn't want to play ball. He hated to play ball. But I don't know how far you want me to.
Mason Funk: [00:02:30] You can just keep, keep sharing, reminiscing.
Shirley Greenes: [crosstalk]When he was growing up, he became engaged a few times, we never thought anything of it. But when he went up to Berkeley, he was always so wonderful and all of a sudden, he became obnoxious. We thought he might be on drugs, which was very prevalent at the time. But he finally came out to me,
Shirley Greenes: [00:03:00] and I understood what was bothering him. But he wasn't ready to come out with the rest of his family, and one night shortly after he told me, we were having dinner at one of my sons' homes, and Rob made the, there was something on TV, That Certain Summer with Hal Holbrook. It dealt with two gay men living together. And one of my sons brought it up. I know now that he brought it up because they knew he was gay, but they were waiting for him to tell 'em.
Shirley Greenes: [00:03:30] When they brought it up, he looked at me and he said "Now?" And I said yes, and he made the big announcement. And he finished it by saying "I'm going back to Berkeley when I graduate and get my PhD." One of my daughter in laws looked at him and she said "Why?" And he said because I don't want to embarrass anybody. And she looked at him and said "Rob, do you know how much we love you and what a dent you would make in our family? You are not going anywhere." That's the way it's been with our family ever since. Everything that Rob's done his family has cooperated,
Shirley Greenes: [00:04:00] I've worked with him hand in hand with his workshops. He has always been a wonderful, wonderful son full of personality. He moved to Santa Fe and in six months I think he knew everyone who lived there. Everybody liked him, and he was so caring. He just wanted to do good for the world and basically helping gay people know being gay was okay.
Mason Funk: I'm gonna have you pause for a minute, because we have a leaf blower.
Goro Toshima: [00:04:30] Oh God. These mics pick up all the sounds and.
Mason Funk: Sorry I can't control them.
Walter Greenes: Yeah. I think he, oh I think he's.
Shirley Greenes: Somebody was doing the leaves today, they should be finished.
Mason Funk: Yeah he's got to blow off the steps. And then I think he'll be done.
Walter Greenes: I apologize, there's nothing I can [crosstalk]
Mason Funk: No, that's totally fine.
Shirley Greenes: [00:05:00] Unfortunately we hear the freeway from here.
Mason Funk: Oh you hear the freeway?
Shirley Greenes: We didn't realize it when we moved in.
Mason Funk: Four to five?
Walter Greenes: No two blocks away.
Mason Funk: Oh okay.
Walter Greenes: [inaudible] Hears the freeway.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Walter Greenes: And we can't compete with that.
Shirley Greenes: It's funny we didn't hear it for years, it's only the last.
Walter Greenes: Yeah.
Shirley Greenes: Year or so we're hearing it.
Walter Greenes: We're on a dead end of a cul de sac in other words.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Walter Greenes: We pulled into park, half a block down there is the creek.
Mason Funk: [00:05:30] Oh okay.
Walter Greenes: So there's nothing.
Shirley Greenes: You know what I suddenly realize? I think the reason we never heard it, because we didn't have hearing aids. That's the reason.
Walter Greenes: It's true, very sharp.
Shirley Greenes: I'm serious. We didn't have hearing aids the last couple of years, I'm sure maybe that had something to do with it.
Mason Funk: Oh.
Walter Greenes: I hope you never find out.
Mason Funk: I think he's gonna be done in a minute. He went down the steps and I think he just has to, it's already been an hour huh?
Walter Greenes: Yeah.
Shirley Greenes: He did all of this 'cause I watched him. I heard the noise.
Mason Funk: [00:06:00] Yeah.
Shirley Greenes: And he was all the way over there but he's been there a long time.
Mason Funk: I think he's gonna be finished in just a minute. Hopefully he's gonna turn it off.
Goro Toshima: Well let's get ready to go.
Mason Funk: Okay. So Shirley, because he started blowing right when you were still talking.
Shirley Greenes: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I'm just gonna have you tell me the story again about Rob saying that he was gonna, that he was gonna go back to Berkeley. And your daughter in law.
Shirley Greenes: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Tell me that story again if you wouldn't mind.
Shirley Greenes: [00:06:30] Okay.
Mason Funk: Whenever you're ready.
Shirley Greenes: Okay. Rob came out to me but he hadn't told anybody else in the family. One night, we were all together, visiting and having dinner, and there was a movie on TV, That Certain Summer, which dealt with two gay men. And Rob looked, one of my sons' brought up the movie, and Rob looked at me and said "Now?" And I shook my head, and he told everybody that he was gay, and that he was gonna go back to Berkeley
Shirley Greenes: [00:07:00] because he didn't want to embarrass anybody. And one of my daughter-in-law spoke up and said "You cannot go anywhere but stay here with us. We love you and we want you here." And that's what he did but he had the total acceptance from everyone in our family and more than that, such cooperation in helping him deal with his being gay.
Mason Funk: Hmm. Now let me ask you this personally. How, why do you think for you,
Mason Funk: [00:07:30] it was relativity easy for you to accept having a gay son, when it was so difficult for so many parents?
Shirley Greenes: I think it would really have to do with the relationship that we had with Rob and that I had with him. We were exceptionally close, we did a lot of things together. I worked with him, I took care of all of his accounting. It was such a total relationship also he hadn't met his father
Shirley Greenes: [00:08:00] until he was 15 months old when Norman was in the Army. And at that time, he and I were together constantly, and I think there was a bond that was created at that moment. And I just have always had a special place in my heart for him.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative). But over the years you met a lot of parents, boy.
Goro Toshima: That, its, it keeps starting and stopping here.
Walter Greenes: [inaudible] Enough.
Shirley Greenes: This happens.
Mason Funk: That's okay. That's alright.
Shirley Greenes: This happens about once every ten or fifteen days.
Goro Toshima: [00:08:30] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Lets see. Okay he's doing the walkway, he's doing the walkway.
Shirley Greenes: That should be the end.
Walter Greenes: Okay can I ask you a question?
Mason Funk: Sure.
Walter Greenes: Do you want, I don't know 'cause you shoot the lighting, you want to draw any of the drapes, it'll kill out the noise more?
Mason Funk: No, it's okay.
Walter Greenes: Okay.
Mason Funk: This light is actually helping.
Walter Greenes: Fine.
Mason Funk: And.
Walter Greenes: I just [inaudible]
Mason Funk: Oh he's taking it off, he just took it off.
Goro Toshima: Well that's a good sign.
Mason Funk: That's a very good sign.
Goro Toshima: Okay.
Shirley Greenes: [00:09:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: Okay. So tell me the story, when did Rob tell you personally, and how did he do that?
Shirley Greenes: He told me when.
Mason Funk: Do me a favor, say his name.
Shirley Greenes: Pardon me?
Mason Funk: Start with Rob's name. My son Rob.
Shirley Greenes: Rob, my son Rob told me that he was gay when he was graduating from Berkeley, he had been acting very peculiar, it wasn't typical of Rob. I thought he might be on drugs,
Shirley Greenes: [00:09:30] which at that time was prevalent. So when he made the announcement that he was gay, it was such a relief. I just didn't think it was the worst thing that could happen. I thought it was worse if he was on drugs. So, we, I adjusted to it. I didn't have any problem, and nobody else in the family did when they found out. I can't give you the reasons why we were easy with it, I think we loved him so much and he was so wonderful, and so smart, that we just accepted the way he was.
Mason Funk: [00:10:00] Hm. Now, you told me on the phone that, do you remember what year it was when he came out to you? Do you remember what the year was? And if so.
Shirley Greenes: Well, I was trying to figure it out, he was at UCLA getting his PhD, he must have graduated from Berkeley about 21, he probably was about 21 or 22, somewhere around that. I can't be specific about it.
Mason Funk: [00:10:30] Okay. But you told me that even as far back as like the 1970's, you got involved. Like, Anita Bryant. Tell me that story about how you became an ally very quickly.
Shirley Greenes: Well, Rob invited me to everything that he was doing and at that time, what really brought a lot of the gays together was that Anita Bryant in Florida. I really don't remember what she was doing that was so negative for the gay community, but she was influencing people all over.
Shirley Greenes: [00:11:00] There was a vote taking place, I'm sorry I can't be more specific, but it kinda united the gay community of the people who were already out, and they formed an organization called Mecla. The Municipal, the municipal something committee of Los Angeles, oh the [inaudible] committee of Los Angeles. MECLA, M. E. C. L. A. And it was started by a group of gay professionals,
Shirley Greenes: [00:11:30] who had a lot of money and their purpose was to raise money, first to fight Anita Bryant, and we won that battle, and then they stayed together and they raised money to give to politicians who were not in favor of the gay community. And I can remember being on a committee where we brought $5,000 down to Orange County, to some representative who was really vicious about the gay community, and after he got his money
Shirley Greenes: [00:12:00] he let up a little bit and God has a way of treating people, he ended up with a gay daughter. But that committee did raise money and we had, we had a Heely dinner dance and one year Mayor Bradley showed up at the dinner. So they were getting very very big in the organization. And Rob was a part of it and some of my friends who were here today were also a part of it.
Mason Funk: Hmm. You say just for so I can understand, you gave money to politicians that were anti gay?
Shirley Greenes: [00:12:30] Yes. Yes.
Mason Funk: So could you explain, what was the pur ... I would think you would give money to the people who were pro gay, but you gave money to the people who were anti gay.
Shirley Greenes: Well there weren't very many who were pro gay, but the people who were anti gray- gay- were very vocal. The people who were for gays, it didn't really matter. But the anti people, there were a real negative stuff going around legislatively for the gay community,
Shirley Greenes: [00:13:00] and it was at that time, it was pretty bad and these politicians were very, as I said very vocal. They came out and they said what they wanted to say, and that was the time when these young men got together and decided they were gonna do what they could to stop that kind of vicious conversation.
Mason Funk: Uh huh. So now, what was Rob going to school, what was he, what did he study and what did he eventually, what did he become professionally?
Shirley Greenes: [00:13:30] He became, he studied psychology and he got his PhD in psychology, and his basic, his whole business, all his counseling basically was not strictly gay people, but gay people who were at that time had nobody they could talk to. And he gave them help whenever he could and he went from there to a major organization for gay people.
Mason Funk: What organization was that?
Shirley Greenes: [00:14:00] It's called The Experience and it was started with the help of David Goodstein, who owned the advocate newspaper in Hollywood. Together they put this workshop together, it was a weekend workshop where gay people came for the whole weekend, and the premise of it was to get you to know that it was okay to be gay, you didn't have to drink, you didn't have to take drugs, and you could be out and I worked with him on the workshops,
Shirley Greenes: [00:14:30] and I know stories of people who came out after that workshop who wrote letters to their family and found out that everybody was waiting for them to say I'm gay. And they had more love than they had negatives by coming out, and I remember one particular professor, who went to UCLA, who was so down throughout the whole weekend, and after the weekend, when they had a reunion, he showed up with another man and the smile on his face. And he was in his 50's,
Shirley Greenes: [00:15:00] and he said "Shirley, if I had only done this earlier, look at what I missed." So those were some of the things that came out of that workshop.
Mason Funk: Uh huh, uh huh. So eventually of course, Rob wrote this book. Tell us about the book he wrote.
Shirley Greenes: Well he wrote a book called.
Mason Funk: Do me a favor, say his, say his name. Say Rob.
Shirley Greenes: Rob wrote a book called Coming Out: An Act of Love, and it was in 19, I think it was 1994,
Shirley Greenes: [00:15:30] I'm not sure I have the date on, and it was a book based on a lot of letters that were written in his workshop. People contributed what happened to them after they wrote it. The whole workshop was Coming Out: An Act of Love, letting people know that when you came out, you in a sense were giving your family love because unfortunately, there were a lot of families who wanted you to tell them they were gay. They knew it.
Shirley Greenes: [00:16:00] But they wouldn't come out and embarrass you. So your coming out showed a lot of love, and the book was based on the letters that people wrote in the workshop and other things that he contributed to. And it was very well received.
Mason Funk: Uh huh. Can you remember like in our day and age, 2016, for people to come out is a kind of a relatively commonplace thing, but once upon a time, coming out was like a terrifying thing. And your sons' book, obliviously.
Shirley Greenes: [00:16:30] [crosstalk] Well you know Rob, in the workshops they actually came out. A part of it was writing letters and they went through all this process for the whole weekend, and the final process was writing a letter to someone that you wanted to know, or family, and the interesting thing as I said was that these families were not dumb. A lot of them already knew,
Shirley Greenes: [00:17:00] and we experienced after the workshop and a week went by, there was a reunion. And the look on peoples faces when they came in, they were beaming that they had come out and it was wonderful that, you know not everybody had it that wonderful. But, many of the young people did. And that was a gift that he gave, and then he created this National Coming, Rob created this National Coming Out Day, based on his experiences.
Shirley Greenes: [00:17:30] And actually Oprah Winfrey introduced that Coming Out Day on her TV program. And it is called National Coming Out Day. It has been going on since. I think it was 1994 that it started. They just had a celebration on Coming Out Day for the gay community. They combined it, it's in October, and it's still in existence. Its called National Coming Out Day, and in all the traveling we've done, everywhere we go,
Shirley Greenes: [00:18:00] in foreign countries, everybody knows about National Coming Out Day if they're gay, and they follow it. So it stays still going on. Rob is still being known.
Mason Funk: Hmm. How does it make you feel today knowing that your son helped create such a important event or institution for the gay community?
Shirley Greenes: How could you not feel anything but pride? He helped me, he helped my family because we,
Shirley Greenes: [00:18:30] we were the recipients of a lot of the love that we got giving it and getting, and my family still gives that love. Anybody can come into any of your houses that a black, green or orange, and they get love and so from him, we really experienced a loving world, and tried to give to people who come into our lives that kind of love.
Mason Funk: [00:19:00] Hmm. What I'm gathering from what you're saying is that for the person whos coming out, they're the ones who have love to give. They think they have nothing to give, but the reality is coming out is an act of love.
Shirley Greenes: That's exactly right, but unfortunately what they don't know, today it's a whole different story. But back then, parents did have love. Not everybody, because unfortunately what I experienced was that they were stuck on themselves
Shirley Greenes: [00:19:30] and their own beliefs. And once they opened up and their children opened up to them, and they developed the kind of love that most families do have, it was a wonderful thing. So that was, I think is contribution to what went on in the gay world is, it cannot be measured. I'm proud of what he's done.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shirley Greenes: And his memory.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Now tell me about your father and how he introduced you to the idea of being open to anybody.
Shirley Greenes: [00:20:00] Well, my father started the Apollo Theater in Harlem and when I was 13, I grew up in a home where all I heard was "If you're anywhere, in a subway or trolley, and somebody older than you is sitting, and you're up, and I don't care whether what their color is or anything about them, that shows respect." I grew up hearing this and finally, my father and his partner,
Shirley Greenes: [00:20:30] and I don't really remember how it all started, but a Theater in Harlem, his partner owned the Theater and it was a Burlesque clout. And when it emptied out, and it was sitting there not being used, I don't know how they got this idea of creating a Theater in Harlem, where at that time blacks weren't even allowed, and blacks and whites were not allowed to sit in the movie together. Black people when they weren't allowed to come in, had to go up to the balcony.
Shirley Greenes: [00:21:00] They started the Apollo, they put in the best Theater, there was a book written about this, how it had the best sound, the best everything that you could get. And they started hiring top, top entertainment, My father was very lucky, he was able to hire a man who was there for 50 years, Ralph Cooper the master of ceremonies. And the first night it opened, the Theater was packed. We were, I remember how worried we were that there might be a riot,
Shirley Greenes: [00:21:30] but there wasn't. In fact there was only one riot that took place at that time. It was probably the first riot that the black people had. One of the orchestra leaders, Chick Webb who was very white looking, went into a store across the street from the Apollo. He didn't look black and no blacks were allowed in that store. The manager didn't know he was white, er black, and somebody in the store recognized him, and told the manager and they threw him out.
Shirley Greenes: [00:22:00] At that point there was the first Harlem riot that ever took place, and I'm proud to say that they posted, the black people posted guards outside the Apollo. It was the only place on 125th Street that wasn't touched, because my father Sussman was a good guy, and I remember that very distinctly. So there's a lot of history on, in that part of the family.
Mason Funk: That's amazing! So what values do you feel like you learned from your father?
Shirley Greenes: [00:22:30] That I learned from my father?
Mason Funk: Yes. What values?
Shirley Greenes: When you live with it all the time.
Mason Funk: Sorry. Oh gosh. Whoa.
Shirley Greenes: That's funny because it doesn't happen that often.
Walter Greenes: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I need a roll of five dollar bills.
Goro Toshima: Uh actually I think it went away. That's good.
Walter Greenes: It went away yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:23:00] Okay. So my question, before we were so rudely interrupted, was what values did you learn from your father? And if you could kinda incorporate my question so say something like the values I learned from my father.
Shirley Greenes: I don't exactly understand what.
Mason Funk: Okay so what values would you say you learned.
Shirley Greenes: What values?
Mason Funk: Values yes.
Shirley Greenes: My father taught me that people are equal and some people have more luck than other people, circumstances determine a lot about how you grow up.
Shirley Greenes: [00:23:30] I did a lot of volunteer work personally and work with teenagers who had no place to go, were thrown out of their homes for whatever the reasons, and most of them didn't have homes. We took children in with us when they had no place to go until a home was found for them. I just feel like I got a knowledge and a feeling for life in general and how much more if people would understand
Shirley Greenes: [00:24:00] how much more you get out of life because every time you give you get. And I got that from him, he just was that kind of person. He raised the most, he got an award, he raised the most money for Liberty Bonds in World War One. He was always doing and giving.
Mason Funk: Hmm, hmm. That's amazing. So you told me stories, you told me that your house when you were raising your kids, the house was always open and friends of your son would come to you and ask for advice. Can you tell me that story?
Shirley Greenes: [00:24:30] Well I had three sons, I had twins, and my twins were, well they grew up in that particular neighborhood, and a lot of them had parents who didn't want to listen to anything. So our house was an open place where kids knew they could come in and be welcomed and talk, and then we also took young boys in who were between sixteen and eighteen,
Shirley Greenes: [00:25:00] who needed a home to come into until the social workers could find family or somebody to, who would take them. And we served that purpose. I had about five young men who came in, my friends couldn't get over that I took boys in but they were the age of my sons and I never had a problem. In fact the story I remember is the first young man that I got, the policeman brought him to the door and said "Here's, suddenly I'm losing his name,
Shirley Greenes: [00:25:30] but whatever it was, this is Mrs. Akburn," at that time I was Mrs. Akburn, and he left and he said the social worker will contact you tomorrow. Well we sat down to eat, and we were watching him, he was devouring the food that was on the table, and after he finished, he stood up and my husband said "Dwayne, after dinner we sit and we talk, this is when we have a chance, we all visit with one another" and he looked at my husband and this is a young man of seventeen.
Shirley Greenes: [00:26:00] He said "Please excuse me, this is the first time I've ever ate with a family." And I asked him "Well where did you eat?" He said "Well if wherever we were, if there was a refrigerator, we opened it up and if there was food, we ate it, and if there wasn't we didn't eat."
Mason Funk: Hmm.
Shirley Greenes: I heard stories like that a lot.
Goro Toshima: Wow.
Mason Funk: And this just came naturally to you? This was just, it doesn't sound like you had to learn how to do this.
Shirley Greenes: [00:26:30] It still comes naturally. We have, I talk to everybody in the street, I don't care who it is. I just like people and my life is very full because of it. People always say you know you're 95, how did you get there? And I say I don't have any stress. And I mean it, I have minimal stress. We had a lot of stress in our family but at this moment in time over the last few years, it doesn't matter that all my children aren't huge successes,
Shirley Greenes: [00:27:00] but we all love one another and my husband is incredible and I don't have that indigestion feeling all the time. That is what makes you have stress, and then I have a masters in holistic health, where I taught health for quite a while and so that has helped.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now tell me when you first heard about this disease called AIDS? What was, where was the first mention of AIDS?
Shirley Greenes: [00:27:30] A very sad story. I knew what was happening, but I didn't encounter anything and one day I got a call "Shirley go see." And I forget the young man's name but he didn't live far from me. They said "We can't get ahold of him on the phone and you're the closest to him." And I went over and the door was opened, and if I live to be 600 I'll never forget the scene. There was this young guy sitting in the corner in all of the dirt and stuff that you get when you can't move,
Shirley Greenes: [00:28:00] and he didn't want to call anybody because he was ashamed. And I, that vision has stayed with me all these years.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shirley Greenes: Then I began to lose friends right and left.
Mason Funk: Tell me about that.
Shirley Greenes: Well, my husband has a son who was gay, and David lost his lover first, and I don't really, I'm trying to think of the year but I don't, it was. I'm not su, I think it was 1994, or 5, 1995,
Shirley Greenes: [00:28:30] David came down with AIDS. First his lover died, then David died in April of 95, and my son who had been okay, went to Mexico unfortunately for treatment, which ended up killing him. And he died four months after David died. And right at that time I began to lose one friend after the other. Just, it's pretty sad.
Mason Funk: [00:29:00] Mm-hmm (affirmative). These friends, these were, were these mostly your sons friends?
Shirley Greenes: They were my son's friends and they were my friends. A lot of them I met at the workshop. And a lot of them I met in Rob's home. He had his first lover, was 26 when I met Steven and Steven is now 62. And we've kinda adopted him like a son. He's around all the time, Michael and Gabe I know since 1970 something.
Shirley Greenes: [00:29:30] They were at my 95th birthday party. I have a friend in Laguna Beach who I see all the time. I've kept a connection with some of the people that I really have loved all these years.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). So do you remember when you found out that your son Rob was really sick and that he was?
Shirley Greenes: With AIDS?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Shirley Greenes: I don't know that there was a point. Yes I do know.
Mason Funk: Whole thing, okay? Okay.
Shirley Greenes: How old?
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] Can I just have you clap one more time? Just clap again please.
Goro Toshima: Great.
Mason Funk: Great. So go ahead, go ahead.
Shirley Greenes: When Rob announced that he was gonna go to Mexico for a special treatment that they had there, everybody screamed and said don't go. Up to that point, he had no visible signs of having Aids. He was 50 in April, he went to Mexico in January. We had a party for him when he was 50, and at that party was the first time
Shirley Greenes: [00:30:30] that he looked like he was sick. And the Mexican treatment, I really believe was what killed him. Because right after that he went home to Mexico, to Santa Fe, and by August he was gone.
Mason Funk: Uh huh. What, do you remember the circumstances of why he went to Mexico? Was he, was this tied to the fact that there were not good medications?
Shirley Greenes: [00:31:00] Rob had, going to Mexico, I keep saying Mexico, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, he knew people who lived there, and he fell in love with the community and there were a lot of, Michael whom I talk about all the time now, lived there. It was a big, there was a big gay community, and he found a home that was unbelievable. It was on a mountaintop in Suzuki, and he loved it. And he moved there purely out of love for Santa Fe. And he set up a practice there and he was fine.
Mason Funk: [00:31:30] Uh huh, uh huh, huh. So, how, how was it for you? I mean, its, it must have been very painful to lose him. What were some of the feelings you experienced when your son passed away?
Shirley Greenes: Well one of the things that was happening is that everybody wanted to come and visit him. He had so many people who loved him, and he handpicked the people who he, he couldn't see everybody, so we had constant company.
Shirley Greenes: [00:32:00] He had round the clock care all the time. You know I took care of the household, he had a lover who was incredible, whom I'm still in touch with. And it was, when he died I can't believe that I ever did this but when he was dying, I held onto his leg. Somebody was holding him and I held one leg and somebody else held another leg.
Shirley Greenes: [00:32:30] We knew he was dying, and he died while I was holding his leg. And, I mean when I think about it, but interestingly enough, he was in pain and he and I talked and talked and talked, and he said "Mom this is it." I knew he wanted out, he did everything that he wanted to do, he saw everybody he wanted to see. The memorial for him, well that's a whole other story, but there's a time when you have to be ready.
Shirley Greenes: [00:33:00] He was suffering, and we were ready. And when he passed away, the house was just full. Everybody came from Santa Fe to pay their tribute to him. When he came, when we came back to Los Angeles, I had been very active in one of the temples there, and my former husband, he had a memorial there. There were over a thousand people. Everybody said they'd never seen anything like it. The people from The Experience put on a program for him that was unbelievable,
Shirley Greenes: [00:33:30] and I remember he gave me a letter. He said "Mom, I don't know if you could do it, but I want you to read this to everybody at my memorial." And you know of course I did. But it was a huge, huge tribute to him and he lived a wonderful life and he, he got what he wanted out of it. Which was important.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you mean by that, when you say he got what he wanted? Like you, do you feel like, tell me more about it.
Shirley Greenes: [00:34:00] He, well he knew he had something to offer to gay people, in fact he had things to offer to everybody because he had a way of smiling, he had a way of thinking, and particularly he knew what he did for the gay community. And it was very critical. And I think that he was at peace when he passed away.
Mason Funk: Uh huh. That's wonderful. Did that make it easier for you, knowing that he was at peace?
Shirley Greenes: Knowing that?
Mason Funk: That he was at peace? Did that make it easier for you to accept?
Shirley Greenes: [00:34:30] Well it had. You know it certainly did but I've learned that you have to come to, you have to come to grips with what life gives you and you do it the best way you can, and we had so many people around who helped. It was incredible support. I remember some woman who was in a club with me who came to Rob's memorial in L.A., and she said "I have never in my life been to a memorial
Shirley Greenes: [00:35:00] that big with that much love pouring out of it." So that's what I have experienced and I think my family is carrying on that spirit of giving. One of my sons helped start a hospital in South Africa that worked with children who had AIDS. They're giving people and I'm very proud of it.
Mason Funk: [00:35:30] Hmm, hmm. Given the fact, given the fact that you're 95 years old, what is your hope, what gives you hope for the future of the world? What gives you.
Shirley Greenes: Don't ask me that because it's not positive, it's not very positive.
Mason Funk: Well then tell me, what are your thoughts?
Shirley Greenes: Well I just, I can't get into what's going on even today, it so happens that when the first computer came out it was the size of a wall. I operated it, we had an insurance business,
Shirley Greenes: [00:36:00] and I worked that computer and I worked computers for about ten years until I went away in the motor home. When I came back now it's an enactment to me, I don't even want to look at it. My kids gave me an iPod, pad and I'm busy learning and I'm sorry they gave it to me. I'm not in a world that it is today, I can't stand the kids with the gadgets that they use. I can't understand why people walk down the street with music going in their ears, don't they want to smell the roses along the way?
Shirley Greenes: [00:36:30] I really am not enjoying what is going on, fortunately my family is not allowed to sit at a table and use gadgets unless it's for business. I'm perfectly, I mean I'm, I'm gonna say something now that may come as a surprise. I'm okay with living or not living only in the sense that I'm happy and everything is okay, and I guess maybe the reason for it is that I'm nervous that I may start to lose my hair,
Shirley Greenes: [00:37:00] get gray, lose my teeth, do all the things that I haven't had to do up to know, I've been very fortunate. And I'm not a good, I'm angry if I don't feel right and I don't go to gym, I'm mad at myself. Because I feel like I should. And so getting older is a little more of the same, and a little more aggravation because you're limited, and so that's where I am at this point.
Mason Funk: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well that's very honest, I appreciate it.
Mason Funk: [00:37:30] Now tell me this, when we first got here, you said that you were upset because young people don't wanna know about the history that enabled them to have all the rights they have. Can you talk about that and just talk about, just talk to camera.
Shirley Greenes: [crosstalk] Well in the community I live there is a gay, a gay and lesbian club and I tried to go and to talk to some of them. Not because 'cause I'm proud of what Robert did,
Shirley Greenes: [00:38:00] I just want them to know the history of what went on to give them all of the things that they have today. I have never gotten one phone call back, and we went to a, years ago we went to a gathering honoring a woman who lived here whose 88 and came out, and everybody was making a fuss about it, and Walt and I were saying "She's 88 and she first came out?" But we went to it and the only reason I went was that I was curious as to any,
Shirley Greenes: [00:38:30] if anybody had ever heard of The Experience or anything that went on, and there was a packed room with a lot of parents, and a lot of gay people. Not one person there, one came over to me, ever heard of The Experience or anything. They didn't want to know from anything, and every time I've called up to go to a meeting or something, nobody ever calls me back. So I don't even try anymore. But I find that there's a, they got it and they don't care. You know so if you die from AIDS you die from AIDS, most of them don't and most of them are taking medicine.
Shirley Greenes: [00:39:00] I have a, my friends, I have one of my friends, my son's lover is from Santa Fe, has been on medicine for as long as I can remember. Rob died and he's alive. So its, its kinda a crapshoot, and if they don't, it's not my job to educate them and they can live very well without it. I just get a little bit pissed.
Mason Funk: Hmm.
Shirley Greenes: Which you should eliminate from the conversation.
Mason Funk: [00:39:30] I get it, I get it. You know the project, this project that I'm starting is called OUTWORDS, and the goal is to preserve all this history, the history you're sharing, so could you say something about why you see a project like OUTWORDS as being important? Why, yeah go ahead.
Shirley Greenes: [00:40:00] Well I think that what you have in mind is exactly what I'm upset about not happening here. I think that its a tribute to all the people who worked so hard in the gay community to give it the place that it has today, that gay people can be so comfortable and I'm proud of what the history is that brought everybody up to this point because my real gut feeling is, and its not because he was my son or my close friends. If it weren't for them, these young people wouldn't have anything.
Shirley Greenes: [00:40:30] They made coming out easy, and I, you know I'm, I forgot your question.
Mason Funk: No you were doing great, you were doing great. You were just explaining the importance of a project like.
Shirley Greenes: You know I just, I feel like this project, interestingly enough we happened to watch, there was a program on ActUp on TV recently, and I was so pleased to see they really gave the entire program of ActUp,
Shirley Greenes: [00:41:00] I mean, everything that happened. And I think that something like you're projecting, that you're gonna be doing, anything that brings history into focus. We don't live in a vacuum, we are what we are because of what came before and very importantly what came before in the gay community is why everybody has what they have today.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. I want to ask you a question, going backwards. I, like okay
Mason Funk: [00:41:30] so when I was a teenager and I knew I was gay, I was terrified of telling my mother. And I remember one time when I was like sixteen years old, sitting at the kitchen table, and my mom was there and I think she wanted me to tell her what I was so bothered about, and I couldn't do it. And I didn't tell her for at least another ten years. And so the question I wanna ask you from your point of view is why was it so hard for people to tell their parents? What was so scary in that era about being gay?
Shirley Greenes: [00:42:00] What was so scary is the story that I will tell you. I was at a gay party and there was a young man of sixteen, he was in high school, and I sat and I talked to him, and he told me that he had just come out to his family. He was an honor student, they threw him out of the house. I said "Where are you staying?" he said "Luckily somebody here tonight offered to put me up."
Shirley Greenes: [00:42:30] I didn't have a lot of money on me but I know I gave him a couple of twenty dollar bills. This was a kid who was an honor student, he was good looking, he spoke beautifully, his family threw him out. That's why theyre, gay people have been afraid to tell their parents because the fear of being left alone and being thrown out is so strong and ironically from the other standpoint, I've spoken to mothers who've said "
Shirley Greenes: [00:43:00] To think that all these years my child didn't believe that I don't love him enough, that he had to go through all this pain until he finally told me. I love him, and that's what really counts." So you've got two sides of the story, unfortunately the side of the non love is, was a little bit stronger at that period of time.
Mason Funk: Mhm. Mhm. And from the point of view, from the point of view of some parents, not yourself but other parents,
Mason Funk: [00:43:30] why was it so difficult for some parents to accept that their son or their daughter was gay or lesbian? What was, why was that so scary?
Shirley Greenes: Well number one it was a terrible thing, it wasn't, to be gay, that's awful. How could you be gay? People didn't understand, well we still don't know what causes it, but the fear of anybody knowing that I had a gay child was terrible. People were not comfortable with it at all, and people didn't know.
Shirley Greenes: [00:44:00] There was no education at all. When Rob did The Experience we experimented and we got bigger and bigger and took in parents, took in friends who wanted to come to the workshop, and I remember that I had the pleasure of conducting one workshop that was strictly an experiment. We only took parents and relatives or friends of gay people, not gay people themselves, and it was interesting because so many of them wanted to help their family but there were too many who didn't want,
Shirley Greenes: [00:44:30] who were ashamed. Because if your child is gay what's wrong with me that I had a gay child? Basically I think that was really the crux of it. Parents were afraid to feel that maybe they did something in their genes that gave them a gay child. And so they didn't, they put their heads in the sand. It was easier.
Mason Funk: Mhm, mhm. Well, this is great. Should we take a little break? Let's take a little pause.
Shirley Greenes: [00:45:00] You want some water or?
Mason Funk: Yeah I think so.
Shirley Greenes: Walt this is where you come in.
Walter Greenes: Yepp.
Mason Funk: Should, should, should I cut sound?
Goro Toshima: Yeah. Okay.
Mason Funk: I'm rolling sound.
Goro Toshima: Okay.
Mason Funk: Can you give us a clap? Okay. So the last question I just wanna ask is you said, I think the question I have is what advice would you give to young people today growing up?
Shirley Greenes: [00:45:30] Okay I really have something specific. The way to good health is really not to have stress. Sometimes you can't help it, but in any relationship I really believe that when two people learn how to talk to one another, that's what minimizes any stress. Because should you have stress, at least you'll face it together. I always tell people that they should, if something comes up and they have a conversation that's not going too good or they think something's wrong, sit down, two of you, and talk.
Shirley Greenes: [00:46:00] Not confrontational, really speak from your heart because what you discover is that something that you say which you mean one way, they hear another way and then they answer you based on what they think, which is totally wrong and then you're in an argument. Talk, talk, talk. Anytime anything comes up that's annoying, that you feel in your gut, get rid of it. And the way you get rid of it is don't let it get too big.
Shirley Greenes: [00:46:30] Just ask and sit down with that person and in a nice way communicate. That's the best thing you can do to remove stress from your body because I fully believe that when you have a blockage, that's what gives you that stressful feeling. It's like having indigestion from overeating. When you have a clear flow of energy that goes straight up and down your body without a blockage, there's nothing to make you unhealthy. You stay well and I honestly believe that's why I'm gonna be 96.
Mason Funk: [00:47:00] That's fantastic. Okay, now Carl?
Goro Toshima: Mhm.
Mason Funk: I'm just gonna take the mic.
Goro Toshima: Mhm.
Mason Funk: And put it on Walter for a minute.
Goro Toshima: Okay.
Walter Greenes: Sides, besides what I told her, she dies I'll kill her.
Goro Toshima: So did you cut?
Mason Funk: Oh no I didn't cut. Okay I'm cutting.
Goro Toshima: Okay. Clap. Good.
Mason Funk: Sorry, do that once more. Okay.
Mason Funk: [00:47:30] So again, so Walt, you just shared with us what you consider to be the four essential elements of a good relationship. Can you tell us that story please?
Walter Greenes: Yes I can. What you're asking about the, how Shirley and I have maintained a relationship for 36 years, and a loving relationship at that. The answer's very simple. Years ago when I came out of a divorce, I was an angry man and I didn't know how to handle it.
Walter Greenes: [00:48:00] And a lot of punish, a lot of times Shirley straightened me out. But, when I was in a workshop with Rob, we used to talk amongst the guys, what was going on and I figured out something which might calm me and it turns out it did. And that was four things that I had to have in any relationship with any person anywhere.
Walter Greenes: [00:48:30] And the four things that I needed was: sharing, caring, honesty and communication. Don't tell me anything or discuss anything with me one second later, because that's garbage. You have something to say, say it. We will talk about it, and clear it up
Walter Greenes: [00:49:00] because the longer it lingers, the angrier you become. And if you have a relationship that you want to keep, you better do it quickly because other than that you throw that relationship away.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Goro Toshima
Date: June 06, 2016
Location: Home of Shirley Greenes, Lake Forest, CA