With Roots in Kansas City, He Serves in California
In March, Gary Miller, who spent many of his early years in Kansas City, celebrated his 65th birthday with friends and loved ones in Roseville, Calif. Those gathered took a few moments to reflect on Miller's accomplishments thus far.
Miller was part of a pre-Stonewall gay rights organization headquartered in Kansas City. After he moved to San Francisco as a young man, he continued living out his beliefs in peace, equality and education. In Northern California, his appetite for politics and public service had him working for and witnessing many advancements in social justice, some of them incremental and others gigantic leaps.
He says he has served longer -- in various positions -- than any other openly gay elected official in the country with the exception of former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who started in the Massachusetts House. 2014 marks Miller’s 50th year working for the Democratic Party.
Miller’s mother, Vivian, was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo. His grandparents lived at Lake Lotawana, Mo., where his grandfather operated Doile’s Pontoon Boat Center.
Miller’s family was traveling while his mother was pregnant with him. His birth, therefore, was outside of the Midwest. He was born in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, which is known for its welcoming attitude toward LGBT people.
Miller sometimes jokes that this is the reason he is gay. His aunt and uncle both came from several generations of circus performers. Considering his place of origin and his extended family’s unusual occupation, Miller started life amid a diverse group of people.
According to Miller, his biological father chose not to support his mother and him, causing his mother to return to Kansas City when he was 2 years old.
Even before entering grade school, Miller displayed an independent spirit. His mother had placed him in day care in downtown Kansas City, where she or his older brother would collect him daily via bus. One day, no one came to pick him up, and while the day-care manager was across the street phoning his mother, Miller decided he knew the way and started walking the two-mile bus route home. When he arrived home, he was greeted by a policeman who invited him into his squad car. He then saw his mother in another police car and he started to cry because he thought she had been arrested.
Miller attended Longfellow Elementary School. During that time, the circus for which his aunt and uncle worked would come to Kansas City around the first week of March. Several times, his birthday parties were held on the circus grounds. For a kid, that’s pretty great stuff. When Miller was young, his Uncle Dime, who worked as a professional clown, would put him in a costume and makeup to help warm up crowds.
During that time, Miller said, “I remember my friends would go to Fairyland Park. It was sort of a carnival thing with all kinds of rides. It was a fun place to go, but we had to go on the bus. My family loved Swope Park. My mom would buy season tickets to Starlight because she wanted me to be exposed to the theater. I saw many shows -- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Porgy and Bess, plus many of the old standards.”
Miller attended his mother’s alma mater, Westport High School, where he was the editor of the school newspaper, The Westport Crier.
“I had a girlfriend in high school,” Miller said. “I believe she still lives in KCMO. I don’t think she ever married. She and I hung out together. Now I didn’t understand anything about myself, but I do remember the kids always called me faggot and other similar names. Believe it or not, I had no clue what that term meant, but I knew it was bad. I remember a male classmate told me once that if there was a naked lady on my couch at home that I wouldn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell him that he was right. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
It was during high school that Miller realized he was attracted to other men, but he didn’t know what to make of his feelings. In his experience, homosexuals were drag queens or pedophiles. He knew that he was neither of those things. Therefore, he reasoned that he was not a homosexual. He received some counseling from a Baptist minister in Westport – the area where he usually hung out. The minister managed to convince Miller that he was not gay. So after his 1967 graduation, he was off to college to look for “the woman of his dreams.”
Miller attended Central Methodist College (now University) in Fayette, Mo. There he heard the Rev. Vann Anderson talk to a religious club about gay people. Anderson said gay people were just people like everyone else. That statement and a romantic engagement with a classmate led Miller to realize that it was OK to be gay. He found his first love at age 19. It was with a man whose church had caused him to have all sorts of confusion about his sexual identity. After several months of dating, the man ended their relationship without bothering to tell Miller. Obviously, this was heartbreaking.
Miller had met his future partner Ronald Bentley at Phoenix House in 1968 before the aforementioned college breakup. Bentley was a good listener and was interested in Miller romantically, but Miller was faithful to his then-current relationship.
Phoenix House, a large house at 1333 E. Linwood Blvd., served as gathering place, activism headquarters and residential space. It had been incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1968 in Illinois to avoid running afoul of Missouri’s sodomy law. Its newsletter, The Phoenix: Midwest Homophile Voice, ran items like local and national news, an organizations list, society officers, publication staff, and advertisements from area businesses such as clothes-cleaners, auto body shop and bars.
Phoenix House was supported by the Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom, a local gay civil rights group that participated in the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. The first conference took place in February 1966.
“Ron lived above the Phoenix House, edited The Phoenixmagazine and was serving in the Air Force all at the same time,” said Miller, who later wrote for The Phoenix himself.
As was the custom at the time, the men sometimes used aliases while out and about to protect them from discriminatory laws, military regulations, prejudiced employers or prying family members. Miller went by Jerry Mills, and Bentley was known as Chris Gordon.
During the first year of their partnership, the couple lived apart, as Miller was still away at college. They corresponded through letters, discussing not only personal matters, but also internal Phoenix politics.
The two were life partners until Bentley’s death from AIDS in 1994.
Bars in Kansas City
Miller has many memories of the gay bars in Kansas City.
“The Colony Club on Troost had female impersonators. One was Skip Arnold, who told fairy tales with a gay twist. Another was Yolanda, who only sang one song – ‘Say a Little Prayer for Me,’” Miller said.
“Then there was The Tent or Arabian Nights; it had a bouncer. To anyone who appeared to be straight, the bouncer would say that this was a private club.”
Miller said that many people would enter the Redhead Lounge via the back door so no one would see them entering a gay bar. He contrasts this with modern gay bars in San Francisco and New Orleans, which have big picture windows.
“There was a coffeehouse for those of us who were underage,” Miller said. “Same-sex couples could slow dance together. We were told if the lights in the place flashed, that meant the cops were coming in and sit down, pretend to be straight.”
Miller mentioned the rumor that many Kansas City gay bars of this era were run by the Mafia. This claim is backed up by a May 15 article in The Daily Beast, which says that the grandfather of St. Louis Rams player Michael Sam's boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, was a Kansas City mob boss who tried to establish some new gay bars in the River Quay area during the 1970s.
Bentley and Miller moved to San Francisco in 1970. In 1971, they had a religious ceremony to affirm their union at the Metropolitan Community Church
“Even though we were young and in good health, we decided to have wills done just in case something happened to one of us,” Miller said. “The attorney also suggested that one of us adopt the other. We thought this was a little excessive, but we did it and filed the adoption papers.”
When Miller first arrived in San Francisco, he applied for a job at the phone company. The interviewer asked about his draft status, which was 4F (unfit for service).
“Why 4F?” she asked.
“Because the military does not accept gays,” replied Miller.
“We don’t either.” she said.
A decade or so later, with the help of gay law school students, Miller sued and won back wages.
Miller was a founding member of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, a group that combined his interests of politics and civil rights. He served as its president in 1975. He was a member of the board of directors (publications director) of the Society for Individual Rights, the largest gay rights group in the country at the time. He was also involved with the Council on Religion and the Homosexual and participated in a large number of Democratic Party activities.
In 1974, Miller ran for the 16th District Democratic Party Central Committee. He also helped with George Moscone’s run for San Francisco mayor. Miller went to work as a lobbyist for the Society of Friends (Quakers), and he and Bentley moved to Sacramento in 1976.
During the Carter administration, thousands of Cubans left their country and headed to the United States. The Metropolitan Community Church, Miller said, “coordinated trying to find sponsors for the many gay Cubans who were arriving.”
A young man named Orte and his brother came to Sacramento, and Miller and Bentley took Orte in.
“He was 19 going on 13,” Miller said. “He spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish. We got him into English classes and got him oriented to the U.S. way of doing things. He lived with us for at least a year.”
In 1978, Miller served as the Sacramento campaign manager against Prop 6 (the Briggs Initiative), which was an effort to ban gays and lesbians, as well as anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools. After the defeat of Prop 6, Miller received a thank you letter from MCC’s founder, the Rev. Troy Perry. In the letter, Perry mentions Harvey Milk and George Moscone, who were assassinated three weeks after the victory.
Miller was the first openly gay (the term “out-front gay” was used at the time) person to serve on the Sacramento County Democratic Party board, where he was chair for eight years. Miller was a Clinton delegate to the National Democratic Party Convention in 1992. He helped form several Democratic clubs and was the first openly gay Sacramento human rights commissioner.
In a run for Sacramento City Council in 1981, Miller came in third. Regularly regarded as low-key or soft-spoken in demeanor, he was identified as gay during the contest, which may have played a part in the loss.
During the 1985 Robla Elementary School District election in north Sacramento, Miller had noticed that he had received no campaign literature from candidates. This led him to believe that he might have a chance in the 1987 race. He campaigned door-to-door, but newspapers didn’t identify him as gay as they had in the City Council race. However, a current board member went around saying, “We really don’t want a homosexual on the school board.”
“I hadn’t really expected to win,” Miller said. “I thought at best, I would get my name out and perhaps run again in two years and win. I was running against two incumbents. To everyone’s surprise, I won, beating both incumbents.”
Once again, Miller was the first openly gay person to serve in this capacity. He advocated for bringing HIV/AIDS education to schools statewide.
Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 Murphy Brown speech -- in which he said “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” -- resulted in a wave of “family values” candidates and campaigns.
“In 1992, when I ran for re-election, they had fliers ... handing out to voters ... talking about my homosexual agenda. I won anyway. In 1996, one candidate for the school board told people the only reason he was running for the school board was to get the fag off. I came in first. He came in last.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) International recognized Miller’s accomplishments and endorsed his candidacy. He served as president of Local 146, AFSCME, where he was steward and helped negotiate contracts. Miller also organized employees at the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency.
Bentley and Miller signed a declaration of domestic partnership in 1992 in Sacramento. Bentley was diagnosed with AIDS, and Miller wanted to take sick leave during that time, but his employer denied his request.
“Then we remembered the adoption papers we signed back in the early ’70s,” said Miller. “Ron was my legal father. I was able to take sick leave after all.” Bentley passed away in 1994.
Miller was part of a 1995 White House delegation of openly gay elected officials. In 1998, he was elected president of Robla school board, and he was re-elected in 2000. By 2002, he had met Mike Gollbach, a teacher in a neighboring school district who lived in Roseville. In 2004, the always-out Miller was elected to a fifth four-year term. Amazing.
Miller served as grand marshal for the Sacramento Gay Pride parade in 2005 and that same year, he received the Freedom from Fear award from the Stonewall Democratic Club of Greater Sacramento.
In 2008, Miller resigned from the Robla school board after serving 18 years and moved to Roseville to be with Gollbach. He decided to run for the Roseville City School District Board of Education in 2008.
“I was told that the only people who win elections in this town are people who have been here several generations, not a few years,” Miller said. “I won, beating one incumbent. Roseville is in Placer County. Placer is one of the most conservative counties in the state.” Miller was the first openly gay elected official in Placer County.
Gollbach and Miller legally married in July 2008, four months before California voters passed Prop 8, the constitutional amendment that barred the state from recognizing same-sex marriages. They had a Sacramento Friends (Quaker) Meeting wedding in 2009. Miller had begun attending Quaker worship while living in Kansas City. Miller served as Roseville City School District board president and won re-election in 2012.
After a life filled with extraordinary accomplishments, Gary Miller continues to serve.