Carl Hillebrand and Chuck Tarkington were both sophomores in the 2006-07 academic year, and both members of Sigma Alpha fraternity. As Carl was majoring in civil engineering, and Chuck in music, they had no classes in common. Consequently, while they were acquainted, they were hardly well acquainted. That began to change at the Sigma Alpha end-of-semester party on 4 May.
Carl Hillebrand was the son of the late Lt. Col. Carl Hillebrand and his wife, Theresa Webb, who was now married to Col. Ephraim Tremoyne. As the son of a career military man, Carl had grown up all over the globe. It was in Germany that he acquired his love of soccer, which never left him. He was not yet ten years old when his father was killed in an event in the Balkans, and had not yet recovered from that shock when his mother, sister, and he moved to Clifton, his parents’ home town. It was soccer which kept Carl sane, and fostered his recovery.
He clearly prized the memory of his father, although he had no resentment toward his new step-father. Col. Tremoyne joked that it was the uniform which made him acceptable to the boy, and there was something to that. It seemed that Carl was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, and so was first active in Boy Scouts, then, when he reached Baltimore High, he became a gung-ho member of the JROTC unit there. When he turned 18 Carl joined the Knights of Columbus, of which has father had been a member. In 2005 he graduated from Baltimore and entered the University as a Civil Engineering major. That was done on his own, as his father had not been in that profession at all, but Carl was thinking about a career in the Corps of Engineers. He also joined the ROTC unit on campus, where, as in high school, he was an outstanding cadet. That, and the decision to pledge Sigma Alpha, were the most important events of his life thus far.
Chuck Tarkington came from a very different background. His family was fairly well-to-do, with his father holding down a significant post in the federal government and his mother being very active in a variety of social causes. They lived in northern Virginia, within commuting distance of Washington, and it was there that Chuck attended high school. He was very interested in music, and played guitar in a band during high school. He also played the viola in a youth orchestra. Chuck wanted to get out from under the scrutiny of his parents, so he made a big deal out of attending the university where his grandfather was chaplain and faculty member. His parents wanted the University of Virginia or an Ivy League school, but he got his way, as he often did, by playing them off against each other. His grandfather, Rev. Mr. Charles Tarkington, the Rector at St. Augustine Episcopal Church, was very happy to have his grandson and namesake in Clifton. Like Carl Hillebrand, Chuck Tarkington joined Sigma Alpha in his freshman year, and in the following year had been appointed chaplain by President Hunter Bryce, more or less because of his grandfather, as Chuck was not especially religious.
Both young men had pledged the fraternity, but only Carl had attended the December end-of-semester party their freshman year, when there was a great deal of sex on display with lots of brothers and their dates going upstairs to make use of the private rooms there. Everyone assumed that it was because of some religious scruple that Chuck declined to attend. That, however, was not the case.
Well before graduating from high school, Chuck had come to the conclusion that he was gay. All his sexual interests focused on other guys, with minimal interest in girls – just enough to keep up the façade. That façade was maintained because Chuck knew his orientation would not be welcome at home. In this case, it was not religious considerations which formed the basis for opposition, but a deep-seated bias on the part of his father, which Chuck could not explain. His mother’s potential opposition was easily explained – it would be socially awkward, especially as she was always pairing him with “acceptable” young women. But Chuck had no idea where his father’s opposition came from. He was a typical bureaucrat in that he was fairly cynical about morality in general and sexual morality in particular. He made a number of comments about Senators or Congressmen caught with a stripper or prostitute to the effect that such things always went on, and it was nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, he became almost rabid when it came to homosexuality. He was heard to use the most denigrating terms for gays, and once said that a Congressman who was said to have an affair with a House page should be castrated – and he meant it. This was the primary reason Chuck wanted to put a good deal of distance between himself and his father, in particular. On one occasion, during the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Chuck had spent two weeks with his grandparents in Clifton, at which time he heard his grandfather give a sermon in which he expounded the idea that sexual orientation was not a choice but a given, and pointed out that Jesus called on us to love all our neighbors, not just selected ones. That definitely was consoling to Chuck at that point in his development, and was a reason he thought living in Clifton would be acceptable. He was fairly certain his parents would insist on an East Coast institution otherwise, where they had connections which might prove embarrassing if Chuck happened to be seen in a gay situation. He had not yet come out to his grandparents, but he felt certain that when he did, he would be accepted, and not reported to his parents.
At Clifton, as at his high school, Chuck had a number of discrete sexual encounters with other gays, but he was not one who needed sex on a daily, or even a weekly basis, and so was able to keep things under wraps. But one consequence of this was that he formed no significant relationships with another gay. He was envious of Chris Todd, who was so openly and unabashedly gay, and who had a long-standing and serious relationship. He likewise became aware of several other gay couples in Sigma Alpha, including Anthony Finch and Gene Cuttlesworth, Dermot Barry and Jeremy Darren, and Jason Williams and Dave Harvey. He did not want to cause any trouble for any of those, but he longed for something similar for himself. He was just too careful to take a chance by approaching anyone. What if his father did find out?
Carl was a different story. He was in denial big time. His desire, bordering on obsession, to emulate his late father refused to allow him to accept his sexual orientation. He had it firmly planted in his mind that being gay was incompatible with that goal, and especially with a military career. He had a contrary example before him in the person of his cousin, Frank Hillebrand, who had successfully put in a four-year stint as an officer in the Marines while keeping his sexuality to himself except on trips home. Moreover, Carl’s step-brother, Scott Tremoyne, had not only been an outstanding cadet in the JROTC battalion at Baltimore, commander of the unit, and leading shot on the rifle squad, but had been accepted at Annapolis and was now launched on a career in the Navy with a regular partner in Dave Zobrinski. To further add to his influences, his mother’s nephew, Dr. Benedict Spalding, was a successful psychologist in town and at the University, and was in a committed relationship with his partner, Gabriel Valderama. Despite all these role models, Carl was still fixated on the idea that being gay was incompatible with the image he had of his father, and what his father expected of him.
As a result, Carl had successfully covered his feelings and pretended to be straight. He had been quite successful at it, dating a variety of girls in high school and college. But the inner stress which this deception caused was beginning to have serious consequences. By the end of his sophomore year, Carl was getting a reputation as a loner, someone who would do what was expected of him, but would not join in the camaraderie expected of a Sigma Alpha brother. Also, his grades were beginning to slide, as was his performance in the ROTC unit, ironically. Carl was aware of this, but was unable to motivate himself to do anything about it. He felt caught, with nothing but frustration staring him in the face as far as his future was concerned. On several occasions, he even contemplated suicide, but his Catholic upbringing held him back.
These were the conditions which led to a break-through at the May end-of-semester party at Sigma Alpha in 2007.
Carl attended with a date he had picked up from one of his classes, and about whom he cared nothing, if truth were told. It was just that he was expected to attend with a date. After some dancing and drinking, his date began to express an interest in going upstairs, something which caused Carl serious negative reactions. However, when the girl hinted she would go with someone else, Carl gave her the go-ahead, saying he was not feeling well. That was true, but not in the sense she understood. Carl stayed in the vicinity of the bar, and drank quite a bit.
Chuck was also there. He enjoyed social events like this, and even dancing with the girls. He was a good dancer, and always popular as a dance partner. But he noticed some of the gay couples dancing with each other, or just being together, and felt deep pangs of longing for something like that for himself. And so, after a while, he, too, drifted into the orbit of the bar, and began to drink more than usual.
There, he encountered Carl, who was further gone than he. Chuck thought Carl very attractive, and was beginning to have some suspicions about him, so, fueled by his drinks, he decided to take a chance, and push the envelope a little.
“Hey, Carl, how’s it going?” Chuck opened.
“Okay, okay,” Carl dispiritedly replied.
“Where’s that good looking date you came in with?”
“That a problem for you?”
“I don’t have a date, myself,” Chuck changed tactics.
Carl turned to look at Chuck for the first time since they began talking. He took a long look. Something stirred in him. He tried to still the feeling, but it showed in his face, and Chuck noticed.
“You never do have a date, do you?” Carl asked.
“Nope,” Chuck said, grinning at using the same response Carl had used on him.
“Why is that, I wonder?” Carl said, going just where Chuck wanted.
“Maybe I don’t find girls as attractive as most of the guys,” Chuck answered. “How about you?”
Carl looked into Chuck’s eyes, and saw an invitation. “I ... I .... I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be what a Marine .... Damn it, I just can’t,” Carl fumbled.
Chuck refused to break eye contact, keeping Carl with him now that he had gone this far. “What about Dermot and Jeremy?” he asked, indicating the gay couple he saw dancing in the next room. “Are they bad Marines?”
“No,” Carl was forced to admit. “They’re good. Better than me this semester,” Carl reluctantly admitted. He was drowning in Chuck’s eyes.
“My father was military,” Carl mumbled.
“So was Dermot’s,” Chuck informed him.
“Yeah. Dermot told me. Not career, like your dad, but National Guard. He was killed in the service,” Chuck said quietly.
“He was?” Carl almost whispered.
“That’s what Dermot told me,” Chuck confirmed.
“My dad was killed in the service, too,” Carl said, beginning to weep.
“Hey, Buddy, it’s okay. You’ve been under a lot of stress. Let’s move aside to a more private place,” Chuck said, guiding Carl into one of the smaller and unfrequented places in the fraternity house, the library.
Carl broke down and wept. Chuck held him and spoke encouragingly, repeating the mantra, ‘you’ve been under a lot of stress.’
After a while, Carl looked up, wiping his nose and drying his eyes. “You know don’t you?”
“I think so. You’re gay,” Chuck said.
“So am I,” Chuck said, and leaned in to kiss Carl.
Carl melted, for the first time allowing his natural inclinations to come out. He returned the kiss. After a few moments, they were interrupted by Tony Todd, who said, “Oops. Sorry, guys. But there are rooms upstairs.” Tony then left.
Carl looked absolutely frightened to death. He started to bolt, but Chuck held him. “Whoa. Tony’s no blabbermouth. Cool it.”
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Carl mumbled.
“Did you like it?” Chuck asked.
“Yeah,” Carl cautiously admitted, thinking about his experience. “It felt right.”
“For some of us, it is right,” Chuck insisted. “Do you want to go further?”
“I never have ...”
“I figured that. I have, but not a lot. Still, I can teach you a few things, and you can see how they feel. Nothing you don’t want, okay?” Chuck suggested.
“Upstairs?” Carl asked, obviously uneasy with the possibility.
“No,” Chuck replied. “I think my dorm room would be better.”
“Yeah. That’s better,” Carl agreed.
The two young men left, with Carl not even thinking about his date until he got an angry text message the next day. They made their way to the male dorms, where Chuck had a single room. Chuck took it very, very slowly, not wanting to scare Carl away. This just might be something he would want to hold on to for a long time, so he did not want to screw it up by being too demanding, too quick.
Carl might never have had sex with another guy before, but all the right instincts clicked in. He responded eagerly to Chuck’s leads, and found it the most natural thing in the world. He felt like he was made for this, and was many times more comfortable than when he had done it with a girl. They explored each other’s bodies, kissed and caressed, and engaged in oral sex, both individually and in a sixty-nine. After several blissful hours, both boys fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next morning, Carl awoke to the feeling of another warm body in bed with him. He was not sure where he was, or who was in bed with him. Cautiously, he opened his eyes. Chuck was grinning down at him. For just a minute, Carl panicked. Chuck grabbed him and held him, and the panic passed.
“Not regretting last night, are you?” Chuck asked, clearly concerned.
“No,” Carl cautiously replied, examining his own feelings. “Surprised. Just a moment of panic. Facing the new world.”
“It’s a brave new world, if you chose to make it so,” Chuck said.
“I’ve had sex with – well, more than one girl. It was never like last night. Last night felt right,” Carl said.
“What does that tell you?” Chuck pressed.
Carl hesitated, then took the plunge. “I’m gay.”
“Congratulations! Facing the truth is liberating,” Chuck said.
“It sure is,” Carl replied, and turned to kiss Chuck.
After sex and breakfast, Carl said, “I’m going to have to do a lot of re-evaluating. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to be alone for a while, and to talk with some other people.”
“I understand. I’ll be around when you need me. Note, I said ‘when’ not ‘if’ because I’m confident you and I have a future together,” Chuck accepted and promised.
Carl smiled. “I think so, too. But I need to work out some things, okay?”
Carl went home, to the house where he lived with his mother and step-father and little sister. He spent the rest of Saturday thinking about what had happened, and how he felt about it. He prayed. He prayed especially hard on Sunday at Mass at St. Rose. Back home after Mass, he examined his feelings, and found that nothing had changed. He still felt good about what he and Chuck had done, and did not feel that he had done anything wrong, either in having sex with Chuck, or in receiving communion that morning.
After dinner, Carl asked to speak privately with his step-father. That was kind of unusual, but he felt that another career officer would understand. When they were alone, Carl opened up to Col. Tremoyne, confessing his affair with Chuck, and his doubts about how that fit into his plans to pursue a career in the Marines.
Col. Tremoyne had not only spent twenty years in the Marine Corps. He had also commanded the ROTC unit at the University, and had some experience of young men. More importantly, he had two sons, a straight son who was only too happy to have completed his military obligation, and a gay son who was intent on a career in the Navy. He looked with love at his conflicted step-son.
“Carl, you know about Scott. It’s possible. But it’s not easy. But there is a more serious question I want you to think about. I’ve observed you for about ten years now. Don’t answer right now, but think about this. Are you interested in a military experience, much less a career, for your own sake, or because you think it’s what your father wanted? Wait, don’t answer that now. Just think about it. Let me tell you, as the father of two boys, that I am every bit as proud of Jimmy as I am of Scott, and I would be even if neither of them decided to go ROTC at all, but to pursue some other career. There’s nothing wrong with Civil Engineering.”
Carl did not know what to say. He looked at his step-dad, and knew that the Colonel loved him, and wanted what was best for him, just as his father had. He stuttered a bit, then said, “Thanks, Colonel. I’ll think about it.”
On Monday, Carl went to see Father O’Connell at the Newman Center. The chaplain had a crowded schedule at the end of the semester, but recognized something demanding in Carl’s call. It was late afternoon when they met. Although Carl touched on the morality of his relationship with Chuck, especially as he was not Catholic, most of what he wanted to talk about was his father, and what he owed him. Father O’Connell convinced Carl that no one could decide for anyone else what was best. His father, if he truly loved him, would want what was best for Carl, not simply a copy of himself.
That evening, Carl spoke with his mother. He was very afraid she would be disappointed in him. But when he came out as gay, she hugged him. She said she had suspected as much for years, and it was okay. Frank was a great guy. Ben was a great guy. Scott was a great guy. And he would be too. She also assured Carl that his father was the most loving, understanding person in the world, and not only would not reject him for being gay, but would not want him to undertake a career in the military if that were not his real desire.
Braced by all this support, Carl contacted Chuck on Tuesday. They got together, and spent some time talking about themselves, getting to know something more than that they were both Sigma Alphas, both sophomores, and both gay. They found that they shared a sense of humor, so each could make fun of the other’s major and career choice. Chuck admitted Carl was further along at coming out than he was, for, although he had been self-consciously gay for about four years, he had never come out to any of his family. Almost as a last minute comment, Chuck also said, ”If this works out, it will be a real trial when you go off to war in two years.”
Final exams began on Wednesday, and both guys were too involved to do much more as far as their developing relationship was concerned. They met daily, and had sex a couple of times, but more importantly they continued to talk about themselves and each other. By the end of finals, they were both convinced that what they had was serious, although neither was certain at this point just where it was leading.
Then, with the end of the semester, Chuck had to return home to his parental house in Virginia.
During the first part of the summer, Carl continued to re-evaluate his life and his goals. At his request, he began to see his cousin, Ben Spalding, in the latter’s professional capacity. He found Ben very professional from the outset. He was friendly, and acknowledged the relationship, but made it clear that Carl could expect no benefits from their sessions if he wanted nothing more than reinforcement from his cousin rather than counseling from a professional. After a few minutes of resentment, Carl realized that this is exactly what he did want. He went to Ben because he would be comfortable talking to him, not because he wanted a facile cover up of his problems. So things were going well. His mother and step-father accepted him, as did his cousin Frank and his step-brother Jimmy. When Scott came home for a few days’ leave, he, too, was encouraging, but talked about how difficult it was being gay in the services, even with a more accepting official policy. Old attitudes died slowly. Scott confessed to Carl that he was afraid of losing his partner because of those attitudes. That definitely gave Carl something to think about.
Things went much less positively for Chuck. He had determined to bite the bullet and come out to his family, despite the known hostility of both parents to gays. He waited until he was settled in for the summer, and even had a job in a government office through his father’s influence. It was not until the Memorial Day holidays that he was able to steel himself to make his announcement. He decided to take the easy step first. He told his sister Madeline, who was two years younger than he, and who had declared her desire to follow him to Clifton in the fall, although in an English major rather than music. To his great satisfaction, Madeline not only accepted him, but told him she had suspected for some time, and it was fine with her. She thought no less of her big brother, and just wanted him to be happy.
When, however, Chuck hesitantly came out to his father, the reaction was far different. Bligh Tarkington flew into a rage. He cursed and belittled his son, calling him dissolute and depraved and a disgrace to the family. Significantly, he blamed his father, and his father’s liberal opinions for his son’s orientation, even though Bligh did not accept it as an orientation, but insisted that it was a perverse choice. He even struck his son in his rage, calling him a disgrace. It was not Chuck, but Bligh who informed his wife, Cressida, of this latest disgrace to the family honor. All through June, Chuck attempted to talk to his parents, and convince them that his orientation was natural, and not a choice he had made to embarrass them. He was markedly unsuccessful. As a result, after being struck by his father a second time, Chuck moved out. He simply packed everything he owned into his car, and took off, leaving a note to his sister that he would see her in Clifton.
Fortunately, Chuck had a trust fund from his maternal grandfather. It would not make him wealthy, but it would pay his expenses for the next few years. He arrived in Clifton on Tuesday, 3 July. First, he contacted his grandparents, Charles and Vivian Tarkington. His grandfather was irate at his son, and wanted to call Bligh and argue with him, but Chuck dissuaded him. He convinced his grandparents that it was better that his parents not even know for certain that he was in Clifton, so they would not prohibit Madeline from attending there in the fall. As a result, when Bligh called, and attempted to blame his father for all the family troubles, Charles was prepared. He argued with is son, telling him bluntly that it was his prejudices which were the problem, but he never admitted that Chuck was in Clifton.
The next thing Chuck did was rent an apartment in one of the cheap blocks on Colosseum Street, and move in there. He did not want to burden his grandparents with his presence, especially as they would be put into an awkward position dealing with Bligh if he were there in the house. Only then did he contact Carl.
Carl was delighted that Chuck was back in town, although he was distraught at the problems his friend had with his parents. They got together that Tuesday evening, and it was as good as it had been before. Carl related to Chuck the results of his month and more of conversations, counseling, and cogitation. He had decided that he would drop out of the ROTC program, as he now recognized that he was doing it because of a misplaced concept of what his father would have wanted, not because of what he wanted.
The next morning Carl marched with the ROTC battalion for the last time in the Independence Day parade. Chuck was there, cheering him on from the sidelines. After the parade, they both turned up at Mansfield Park for the picnic. There, they found many friends and fraternity brothers. While they did not flaunt it, they also no longer denied their orientation, nor their relationship with each other. Chuck was overwhelmed and delighted with the acceptance he received after his negative experiences back home. He was especially pleased with the reception he was given by Carl’s mother and step-father. By the time the day was over, he knew he had made the right decision to return to Clifton, even if things would be tight for a while.
Over the next few weeks, Carl and Chuck met often, and discussed their future together. As Carl was no longer committed to military service upon graduation, things looked promising. It got even better when Carl announced that he had arrived at an agreement with his mother, so he would not be living at home in the fall. Instead, he was granted a living allowance, which permitted him to share the apartment with Chuck, “if he wanted.” Chuck made it abundantly clear that he wanted. By the end of July, Carl had moved in with Chuck. It was a cheap and poorly furnished apartment, to the horror of Theresa Tremoyne, but actually no worse than most male dorm rooms, or for that matter rooms at home. The important thing was that Chuck and Carl were happy there, which served to quiet all objections.