THE BLOG

A Portrait of the Artist at 83

05/07/2013 11:38 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

"Getting old is wonderful," my neighbor Robert Akeley told me with a smile, his blue eyes lighting up, when I asked him for the single most important message he'd like to pass on to Huffington Post readers. He's an 83-year-old gay man, a practicing psychiatrist and artist, whose shining, candy-colored paintings were recently exhibited at a small, homey art gallery in our north Oakland neighborhood. Still smiling, he added, "Being gay and getting old is not a tragedy."

Then, a few moments later, his face got serious. "I've had incredible luck," he added.

He was gracious enough to let me probe him about his life recently, on two warm Sunday afternoons in the shade of his rose trellis in his backyard. His corner-lot house is easily the most striking in our neighborhood: a late 19th-century, two-story diva painted in eye-catching shades of blue and green, with a wraparound porch and a separate carriage house and a windowed cupola topped with a bell-shaped roof. For me, it's hard to separate the house from the man who lives in it. I had to hear his story.

Early on in our conversations, he described himself as the "old fart with the long white hair that everybody sees on the street," the guy who landed a neighborhood art-show gig because he's a "local character." But I quickly learned that modesty was his habit. Each time I left his house, I felt something shift inside me. I got a sense not only of his long, varied, and well-examined life, but of the gay community as a whole--both our past and our future.

He was born in April 1930, a preacher's son in Rockland, Maine. I'm guessing it's because of his childhood that he picked up his understated way of putting things--that, and his penchant for collecting beach shells. And over the course of his life, he told me, he's managed to "come out" no fewer than three times.

His first coming out came in the 1950s, when he was in his twenties and was living in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood with "the love of his life," a young man named Peter. (Gay people hadn't yet found the Castro.) He described "very active" gay bars back then, especially the legendary Black Cat, where he painted a hidden but thriving scene for the patrons lucky enough to know about it. Back then, he said, both he and the guys he slept with thought gay sex was abnormal and wrong--and yet none of them cared. He said he found "joy" to belong to what amounted to a "secret society."

I asked him if he and Peter were faithful to each other. He smiled and answered, "One was not faithful in those days."

His second coming out came in the 1970s, when he and his fellow doctors started marching down Market Street in San Francisco's first gay pride parades. By then he'd broken up with Peter and moved to Oakland (in 1970, at the age of 40), having tired of the San Francisco scene as well as having tired of having to keep his life as a gay man a secret. By the time he started marching, he said, the gay rights movement had picked up enough steam that he didn't fear for his safety walking down Market Street ("we were welcome then"). He used to march with other gay doctors, behind a banner that they stored in his carriage house for the rest of the year. He said he felt "liberated."

He described the year 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association took the official stand that "being queer wasn't sick"--to use his blunt paraphrasing--as a turning point in his life. What he'd assumed about the wrongness of being gay, he told me, no longer held true. He added that unluckily for many of his fellow psychiatrists, they'd gotten married and started families to keep up the pretense of straightness. He feels fortunate, he said, to have avoided that fate.

But his third, and, perhaps, most momentous coming out happened just this spring, a few weeks shy of his 83rd birthday. Though he'd been making paintings and selling them for years, he described putting on the neighborhood art show in March and April as by far his biggest exposure and therefore biggest challenge. Not only did he have to have his work on naked display for two months on well-traveled Telegraph Avenue, but he also had to receive his public on two separate neighborhood art crawls. He told me he couldn't help wondering what people might think of him when they beheld his art.

What fascinates me is that this latest coming out has nothing to do with his being gay. For his first coming out, Robert found joy in his subversive "secret society"; for his second, he rode the liberating wave of the gay rights movement. But this time around he was coming out, as he put it, as a "human": his soul laid bare on the canvases lining the art gallery's walls, with no Black Cat to escape to, no banner to hide behind. It was as if, at the age of 83, his gayness had become ordinary enough for his truer identity--as an artist--to shine through.

I wouldn't be surprised if he has a fourth coming out one of these days. He's in good health and in good shape--I see him all the time in the neighborhood, walking without as much as a stoop. He's not sure when he'll do another art show, but whether he does or not, he'll keep on painting. And I'm glad for that. When I look at his paintings--the pulsing colors, the floating shapes--I sense a man whose passion for life burns as fiercely today as it did in North Beach in 1955. We should all be so lucky.