“We have a surprise for you,” said Gary Cooper, grinning as he sat down for coffee. “We are going to get married–and this story will be our announcement.”
Both Cooper and his life partner of 28 years, Richard Hartgrove, have connections to New York City and are going to make it official in the eyes of that state in June of 2012. The ceremony will be at the Brooklyn home of old friends. Both of them are excited by the prospect of being able to refer to the other as “my husband.”
Although they’ve marked their commitment to each other in various ways before–Hartgrove presented Cooper with a wedding band to wear in the early 1990s, and they registered as same-sex couple number 306 in Travis Country back in 1995–this additional public affirmation of their love and mutual respect is the perfect touchstone for a couple who have had a major impact on the civic and activist growth of Austin’s LGBT community.
Many of the gains of the modern LGBT civil rights movement were ignited by the men and women of Cooper and Hartgrove’s generation: people who came of age in the era of Stonewall, who risked having their careers destroyed and being completely ostracized by their family and peers, in order to pry open the door of the closet. Very few bars or social establishments welcomed gays and lesbians in the 1950s and ‘60s, while government-enforced persecution, in the form of police raids, was comm The mere idea of a same- sex couple holding hands in public was radical. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder.
“We strongly believe that a lot of advances made in our generation have been because people have come out and displayed who they really are,” Cooper said.
With any relationship, particularly those with a long-lasting bond, there is the heavy lifting of maintaining the spark that shines brightly at the beginning. Cooper said they’ve always made a conscious effort to keep their intimacy passionate while trusting each other unconditionally. “I’ve always said to Richard, ‘I would be just as happy with you in a shack. It really isn’t about material comfort.’” On New Year’s Eve of 1983, they committed themselves to doing whatever it took to spend their lives together.
The two men, both fifth-generation Texans who are close in age and have close-cropped mustaches, are sometimes mistaken for twins by strangers. “Of course that offends both of us,” Hartgrove deadpanned. These gentlemen, who met at a bar in Dallas in June 1979 while they were both visiting family and residing elsewhere, at times cracked jokes and digressed to get “preachy” in support of a larger point.
Hartgrove, for example, said, “If we value our rights and freedoms, it’s very important that gay people register to vote and vote for progressive candidates, so the bad old days don’t return.”
Even so, beyond having similar tastes in music, food and travel, humor is a significant part of their bond. Both of them enjoy the type of subtle, nuanced humor that’s not obvious. Hartgrove explained, “We have this common history, like all old married couples do, that one word will represent an entire scene and all the corresponding emotions.”
During his foray into book publishing doing marketing at W.W. Norton, Cooper was mostly quiet about his sexuality. First it was in New York City, right at the time of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and later offsite as the Norton rep in Seattle. Nevertheless, he was always honest if he was confronted about his orientation, and by the mid-’70s he was completely out as the marketing director of the University of Hawaii Press in Honolulu. At times, however, there were costs–for both of them.
Hartgrove had climbed the ladder for 18 years at Southwestern Bell (formerly AT&T, prior to the phone company’s breakup), where he ran the legal office in Arkansas as head attorney. In this visible high-level corporate role, he interacted with such people as the Arkansas attorney general. While living in Little Rock in 1987, he was told that his “lifestyle” was unacceptable. “There were no laws protecting me. What my general counsel told me was that we couldn’t have a gay man living a gay lifestyle at that level,” Hartgrove said, adding that his superiors sent him back to the company’s home office in St. Louis to work until the “gay lifestyle rumors” died down.
Little Rock was small enough that Cooper and Hartgrove couldn’t see a movie or go out to dinner without seeing one of their work colleagues. Despite that, and the fact that the entire experience left him feeling “like shit,” Hartgrove was adamant that the problem was not Arkansas, but the entrenched, good-old-boy corporate culture of the phone company. He said that the current AT&T management is much more enlightened on gay issues.
Relocating to St. Louis, where they bought a small condo and spent the next eight years, ended up being fortuitous after all; professional and personal circumstances aligned in an unexpected way. Cooper had been diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985. With a low T-cell count, he believed his time was limited and had a frank discussion with Hartgrove at a time when they’d only been living together for a year.
Cooper told Hartgrove at that time, “‘You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to go through this with me. Get out while you can.’ And he wouldn’t. He stayed. I have always attributed a lot of the stability to keep going and to keep my spirits up to that kind of emotional support I had from him.”
They were scared, moving in uncharted territory, watching many of their friends getting ill and dying.
While in Little Rock, Cooper got his first taste of organizing in the LGBT community. Out of the sheer terror of this new disease came the type of activism and community building that would eventually lead to the formation of countless LGBT organizations around the country. Cooper helped form the Arkansas AIDS Foundation and a fundraising mechanism to support it, all the while speaking truth to power in front of a range of sometimes hostile audiences. He recalled speaking in front of the Lions Club of Little Rock, veering into a lecture about the longtime contributions of gays and lesbians to society.
Heifer Project International, where Cooper had been working for less than two months, underwent a major reorganization, and he was laid off along with several others. But they gave him a few months’ severance pay, and much more importantly, allowed him to stay on their insurance. At that time, there was a new drug, called AZT, for the treatment of AIDS. It cost $1,000 a month. “It’s the only time I ever lost a job and I was so thrilled,” he said, because it freed him to leave Arkansas with Hartgrove.
Meanwhile, Hartgrove was relocated to St. Louis for a new position with the same company, but with a new set of players and more responsibility. All those pesky rumors went away, and both Hartgrove and Cooper prospered in their new jobs.
Cooper served on the board of St. Louis Effort for AIDS and was board vice president/volunteer director of education. He helped the group transition to professional staffing later on, while also overseeing the information hotline and speakers bureau. All of this prepared him well for Austin, where he would later serve on the board of AIDS Services of Austin as chair of the development committee.
Indeed, Cooper is also adamant that the work of Out Youth, a group with two decades of history fighting discrimination against LGBT youth in Central Texas, is still vital, in spite of the many gains made in the struggle for equality. “It’s not just making a few kids feel better about themselves,” he said. “In helping that boy get a handle on feeling comfortable with himself, now he’ll be able to get an education. Being bullied and gay isn’t going to hold him back. That’s the best thing we can do with young people.”
The year 1994 was pivotal: Because of the two decades working for Southwestern Bell, Hartgrove was able to retire at the age of 51. The deferred compensation he has received since then has enabled the couple to flourish personally but has also allowed them to help lift up a number of financially struggling Austin nonprofits (through board service and also by hosting countless fundraisers at their ridge-top contemporary home in Westlake Hills). Simultaneously, the very first of a new class of drug cocktails were being approved by the Food and Drug Administration, thus providing Cooper–who had come down with pneumonia–the lifeline he needed. They returned in 1995 to the only city in Texas they would consider as home: Austin.
“I think he has a core of strength inside that I wish I had,” said Hartgrove. “He’s very strong. He’s very confident in his own abilities. I have to manufacture that everyday. I have to put on an extrovert suit.”
When Hartgrove, who had first seen a performance at Zach Theatre in 1997, connected with Carol Adams, a nonprofit consultant and formerly Zach’s director of major gifts and special projects, he was asked to serve on the organization’s board of directors. Hartgrove quickly became a lead donor, chaired the development committee for four years, and co- chaired the annual Red, Hot & Soul gala.
“One of Richard’s most commendable qualities is how humble he is about his role as a fundraiser,” wrote Adams, in nominating Hartgrove as Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year in 2009. “Richard never asks for anything in return for his time, effort or donations. Indeed, when approached for information needed in this nomination, his response was to suggest that another person may be more qualified for the award.”
His consistent ability to motivate others to give to Zach is what ultimately earned him the honor of Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year in 2009 from the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Both men said that while in the coming years they plan on a lower profile role in the philanthropic sense, they hope to see all of the organizations that they’ve touched–Zach Theatre, Family Eldercare’s Austin Gay & Lesbian Senior Services, Austin Lyric Opera, Out Youth, to name but a few–continue to thrive and engage with new generations of Austinites. Beyond that, they plan to spend more quality time with each other, do some more traveling, eventually live in a much smaller place, and visit their families more often (Hartgrove is a proud grandfather three times over from a 10-year marriage earlier in life.)
This December, over New Year’s, they’ll be celebrating their 28th anniversary in Marfa among friends.
“People wonder why this life seems meaningless–’I bought all these things and I’m not happy’–We figured that out early on,” Cooper said, adding that they largely eschew the material things typical of financial success. “We don’t just do things to further civil rights and make the community better and protect ourselves. It’s that the act of doing all this is what makes you feel like you have a full life.”