The memorial bench for John Ungaretti is located in the southward extension of the park, approximately due west of the boat launch ramp, on the western shore. I knew nothing about him, as I know nothing about most of the people whose names appear on the memorial benches. I have approached the Berkeley Historical Society for help in providing biographies, with no result. Then I got lucky. A park visitor, Dennis Claudio, who was walking his Pomeranian in a baby buggy, stopped me to chat, and shared that John Ungaretti had been a classmate of his, a remarkable individual, whom he remembered well. Today, Dennis sent me a link to a 2004 S.F. Chronicle story about John, written by his sister, Lorri Ungaretti. Here it is.
A young gay man’s courageous letter
Lorri Ungaretti Published 4:00 am PDT, Sunday, October 10, 2004
Thirty-five years ago, my brother helped change history. On Oct. 24, 1969, Time magazine published a short piece under the heading “Behavior,” describing homosexuals as “one of the nation’s most despised and harassed minority groups.”
It referred to a CBS poll of people’s attitudes and to a report on homosexuality for the National Institute of Mental Health, which said that “such hostility is unjustified.”
Time’s article generally favored tolerance and acceptance; however, it ended with this: “Still, the research makes clear that Americans can now recognize the diversity of homosexual life and understand that an undesirable handicap does not necessarily make everyone afflicted with it undesirable.” Over the next several weeks, Time published more than 15 letters responding to the piece.
One of those letters, published Nov. 7, 1969, was written by my brother, John Ungaretti, a San Francisco native who lived in the city until he was 13 and later as an adult. He wrote:
“I am a homosexual. I am also happy as a homosexual (though this society does not make that very easy), and I reject the implications that I have an ‘undesirable handicap’ — for it is not my homosexuality, but rather society’s insane reaction to it, that is the undesirable handicap.
“More than a homosexual, I am a person: a person with most of the same goals in life and needs from life that heterosexuals have. The amount of love and not the sexual object choice determines the value of a relationship.
“The ‘problem of homosexuality’ is misnamed. More accurate is the ‘problem of a society that refuses to accept (embrace?) minority behavior.’ The Indian experienced that problem; it killed him. The black man experienced that problem; it enslaved and ghettoized him. The homosexual experienced that problem; it castrated him.”
Time magazine telephoned twice to ask if John was sure he wanted his name printed. Yes, John told them; he was sure.
The address John gave was the School of Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis, where he was a sophomore. People wrote to him from the United States, Australia, Borneo, Brazil, British Honduras, Canada, Ceylon, India, Ireland, Italy, Libya, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, South Africa and Trinidad.
The letters can be divided into several categories: nine people who condemned John and his letter on religious grounds, 10 men who were hoping to make a date with this brave homosexual, 10 who admitted to being gay but were confused and/or unsure of how to live their lives, and 50 people who praised him for his courage. John saved the letters in manila folders.
One file, which John labeled, “S- — Mail,” contained letters condemning him for his homosexuality. One person parodied John’s letter, writing, “I am a murderer. I am also happy as a murderer (though this society does not make that very easy) and I reject the implications that I have an ‘undesirable handicap.’ ” The author went on to say, “It’s OK for a horse or a dog to p- — on the streets or sidewalks and, if you want to do the same thing (or worse), go right ahead, but in my book, you’re no better than an animal. … But since I’m a Christian, I’ll pray for you.”
John received other negative responses:
“If you think society will ever change its attitude toward scum like yourself you are really dreaming.”
“I take notice that most of your kind are in mental institutions, because very deep down in their minds they know they are violating Jehovah God’s law.”
More positive responses came from people around the world who did not feel they could be open about their sexual orientation. From Canada: “I am really amazed how you publicly accept your behavior. How is it possible? It is to be really appreciated — your guts to do so even after knowing about the society’s ‘insane reaction to it.’ “
A man in Borneo wrote, “I nominate you man of the year for 1969. It was courageous of you to speak for all of us.”
From Dallas: “Your example of courage and self-respect is enormously heartening to those of us who lead lives of circumspect resignation. … Homosexuals will never be popular, but your generation … may be able to force the majority into grudging acceptance.”
From Canada: “I long for the day when I may quietly say to an old friend that I am happily married to another man.”
From the Philippines: “I, too, am a homosexual, but I am so afraid to expose my real self that I seem to live in an unreal world.”
From Australia: “My efforts to make my relatives, friends more tolerant of me and my ilk have not been very successful.”
Eddie, a 16-year-old boy in the Northeast wrote, “I’m just so mixed up when it comes to my future and my desires. Should I give in to homosexuality? Is it all worth it? Does it work?”
John answered this letter. A few weeks later, Eddie wrote back: “John, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your helpful advice. You have really taken me a long way in understanding myself.”
In 1977, John wrote again to Eddie, keeping a carbon copy of his own letter, which said, “Seven-and-a-half years ago, when you were 16 and I was 19 … we wrote to one another talking about our life goals and about questions for which we’d not yet found answers. Ever since, off and on, I have wondered what became of you, or your letters stayed in my mind more than any of the other letters which I received.”
Eddie wrote back: “Your name is well remembered. … Could you believe I came out less than two years ago? I was living a lie.”
A quarter of a century later, it is hard to imagine the context that made John’s letter such an amazing act of courage. Today, movies and television shows feature sympathetic gay and bisexual characters. In summer 2003, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” premiered on television and immediately became a hit.
In March, the Baylor Lariat, the student newspaper at Texas’ Baylor University — the largest Baptist university in the world — published an editorial stating that “Gay couples should be granted the same equal rights to legal marriage as heterosexual couples.”
Several cities, led by San Francisco, and some states are working to legalize same-sex marriage. While intolerance still exists, there are more places where gay and lesbian people can live open lives. My brother did not live to see these changes.
John, who earned two master’s degrees, loved theater, opera and music and worked for more than 10 years as a manager in UCSF’s accounting department, died of AIDS in April 1994 at the age of 43. After his coming-out letter to Time, he was always honest about and comfortable with his homosexuality, living openly with his loving companion, respected and loved by both families.
He would have been pleased at the cultural and media shifts we see today, changes he helped pioneer.