Street Smart Chicago

Pride 2008: School of Thought, Retired Northwestern prof David Hull reminisces about a life in the community

Chicago History, Lit, Pride Add comments

By Andy Seifert

When retired Northwestern professor David Hull sat down to write his memoirs with the aid of forty scrapbooks to help remind him of his past, he couldn’t stop remembering things that had been lodged in the back of his mind and forgotten for years. “I didn’t think it’d come to four volumes,” he says, before revealing the title of the first installment. “‘Where Were the Child Molesters When I Needed Them?’ What I really mean was, where was one gay person who could take me aside and tell me what the dangers are and what you can get away with and what to do when you got busted.” He pauses, and then simply says, “Nobody.”

At 73 years old, Hull appears to have a gaggle of topics to cover regarding his professional career, having been a founder in the philosophy of biology (which deals in the study of metaphysics and ethics in biological fields) and the writer of ten impressive, scholarly books with titles like “Promises and Limits of Reductionism in the Biomedical Sciences.” To him, none of that was worthy of four volumes. He simply dismisses all of that as “bor-ing.”

But as a gay man who’s grown up through decades of social change, Hull has a rare perspective on what it meant to be homosexual during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. “Next to being a communist, being gay was the worst thing you could possibly be,” he says. “You had to be secretive, but there also was sort of a thrill to it, there was the possibility of being busted, which added to it.”

While growing up in the Midwest during his high school years, Hull always seemed to know he much preferred men, before even the term “gay” was even in society’s lexicon. After a short stint in the Army, Hull attended Illinois Wesleyan, where he met Dick Wellman his senior year, “fell madly in love and sort of felt our way after that.” He would live together with Wellman for twenty-five years, until he died of AIDS.

“We really didn’t know what was accepted and what wasn’t, because no one had decided that yet,” he says. “A lot of times we just modeled ourselves after the straight couples.”

Eventually, Hull and Wellman found themselves living in Chicago’s gay community in the 1960s, which for them consisted of twenty-to-twenty-five tight-knit friends living on one sole block of Wisconsin Street, just north of Wells.

“On Clark Street, there were two bars, one called the Volleyball, the other called Scarlet Ribbons,” he says. “Guess which was lesbian and which was gay? And there was a swinging door between the two. In the boys’ part, it was packed with guys dancing their heads off, and the other part was seven women getting in a fight.”

Hull says the nightlife was a blast—that is, until election season would come and he’d find himself in the middle of police raids that, somehow or another, managed to bust every single one of his friends but him.

“Once, the cops descended and were arresting everybody,” he recalls. “And one cop looks at me and yells, ‘Hey, kid, better get out of here or we’ll bust you, too.’ And I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute, if you’re busting everybody else, you better bust me, too.’ But then I thought better.”

As Hull grew older, more and more people found it easy to look to him for advice and emotional support, many of them young adults and kids that had been rejected by their families after they had come out. While Hull never had a “coming-out moment” with his family (his father committed suicide and his mother moved to Reno before his coming out), Hull sympathized with these characters, oftentimes becoming a father figure.

“These kids are not bad kids,” he says. “It’s just they’ve been treated so badly by their parents, usually their father. To have someone who’s about 50 years old, who treats them decently is what they really need. They need approval of an older man.”

His kids also led him into a few peculiar situations.

“One of our kids became a drug dealer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and it was Dick and mine’s twentieth anniversary, so they had an anniversary orgy for us,” he says. “He had made some Kool-Aid, and I had a cup of it. Well, it was announced there was ecstasy in there, about a half of sip will do. I was so out of it, I said ‘Dick, you gotta find some place for me to lie down, I can’t take this anymore.’ As I’m laying, I looked outside and there was a guy tied to a palm tree with other guys whipping him, and I thought ‘Oh my God, what must the neighbors think?’”

Discrimination also plays a key part in Hull’s memoirs, recalling that even at the universities, the hotbeds of progressivism, gays were unfairly singled out. Hulls claims that at the University of Indiana-Bloomington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, homosexuals were specifically targeted and expelled. “There have been periods where universities had witchhunts with gay guys, and they tend to commit suicide,” he says. “They get a letter from school saying ‘We’re sending your fairy son home’… They were busting both students and professors for being allegedly gay. Proof was not required.”

When Wellman contracted AIDS in the 1980s, Hull was shocked and disappointed in the behavior and lack of care offered by the hospitals in the wake of the new disease.

“We were so mistreated,” he says. “I just cannot believe that the medical profession could be so cruel and evil as it was to gay people in the early stages. Dick was going to be put on a ventilator, and they had him sign forms, and he wanted to see if his body could be used for research, and no one had even mentioned AIDS to Dick at this point, and the doctor said ‘Oh, we can’t use the bodies for people who have AIDS.’”

Eventually, Hull became active in gay rights, even if just in small portions. In every academic society that he was president of, he used his power to guard him and others from the prospects of inequity by proposing “anti-discrimination” clauses, which everyone passed.

“Once, I raised the issue, and we all passed it, four or five came up to me,” he says. “They were gay. And I said, ‘Why haven’t you opened your mouth on this topic?’”

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