On the first day of class Don Amador always gives his California State University students a quiz. The subject of his course is homosexuality, and he expects few correct answers. (Sample true-false question: North American Plains Indians appointed homosexuals high priests or medicine men until around 1920. True.)
“Nobody knows much about gay history or sociology, and gays don’t know any more than straights,” Amador says. “This is the only minority group in the world that doesn’t know anything about its roots.”
Amador, 35, has been trying to change that since 1976, when Cal State asked him to start what is now one of the few gay studies courses for credit at an American college.
At Cal State’s Long Beach and Northridge campuses and at Los Angeles Community College, Amador digs back into history, claiming such figures as Alexander the Great, David of the Old Testament, Michelangelo and Tchaikovsky as gays. He points out that Thomas Jefferson, “who said all men were created equal,” backed a 1776 Virginia bill that would have made homosexuality punishable by castration. Amador also draws some semantic distinctions: “Homosexual is merely what you do in bed; being gay is an entire life-style on its own.” He even takes his students—who he estimates are 40 percent gay, both closeted and open—on a field trip to a gay bar.
Born Donald Grace, Amador grew up in Troy, N.Y. knowing he was different. He once overheard his mother asking an aunt “why I was a sissy and didn’t play ball with the other boys. It was very painful.”
He had his first homosexual experience at 11 with a playmate and at 17, with his parents’ consent, quit high school to join the Navy. He served in Vietnam and the 1961 Dominican Republic uprising. After an honorable discharge he spent a year in a monastery, having converted to Catholicism in the Navy, but left to work for an ecumenical council project in Boston. Then, reenlisting as a Navy recruiter in 1965, he served with Chief Richard J. Amador, a member of an old and wealthy San Francisco family. Amador’s only son was killed in the Normandy invasion and his wife had just died.
“Don told me he was gay and I didn’t care,” Richard Amador recalls. “That is not the kind of thing I think is important.” In 1971 Amador, then 70, legally adopted Donald Amador, 28. “My parents weren’t surprised,” Don says. “They’d already gotten a lot of shocks from me.”
His new father insisted Don complete his education. Seven years later Amador had earned a master’s in urban anthropology, for which he wrote a 400-page thesis on the L.A. gay community. Since 1970 he has considered himself “married” to Tony Karnes, who once worked for Hollywood agent-producer Allan Carr and is now a real estate salesman. They conducted their own wedding ceremony, exchanging rings on the steps of Hollywood’s Blessed Sacrament Church, which was locked at the time so they couldn’t go inside as planned.
Amador, his father and Karnes live quietly in a mansion built in the ’20s for silent film star Mary Miles Minter. It is decorated with memorabilia from the late director John Ford, whom the elder Amador met when both worked in the OSS in World War II.
Young Amador was recently named L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley’s liaison to the gay community and, despite losing a bid for the California Assembly in May (he finished seventh of 18 candidates), he admits to serious political ambitions. “I want to be a role model for gay people,” Amador says. “Someday I hope there will be equal rights for all. We shall overcome.”