CONTENT WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS EXPLICIT DESCRIPTIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT. TO PROTECT THE IDENTIFY OF THOSE INVOLVED, SOME NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED.
Erick Crail, a survivor of homophobia and sexual assault who used his trauma to advocate for others, reminds us that it’s never too late to progress.
Erick: When I was 11, my stepdad’s company transferred him [from Oklahoma] to a town in western North Dakota. It was a little dinky town of about 900 people. It was a rural town that was basically oil and farming and Catholics. That was about the time I started to question my sexuality. I kept my mouth shut, and so I got involved in everything I possibly could. By the time I hit high school, I was managing to get straight A’s, work six nights a week at a movie theater, I was in band, speech competitions, Model UN, and I was student body president. So when someone asked who I was taking to prom, I would say, “Oh, I don’t have time for that!”
There was a campground north of town in the middle of nowhere where students went to drink and camp over the weekend for graduation. I had a good friend, Jeff, and we decided we were going to share a tent that weekend. He’d told me he wanted to talk to me about something, and I kept bugging him to tell me. He said, “No, it can wait.” One night, I started to go to sleep, and suddenly, he rolled over in our little tent, and kissed me! He immediately panicked, said “I’ve made a mistake,” and I said, “I don’t think you did.” And so we kissed again. It was the beginning of a beautiful three years!
I spent a lot of weekends in his dorm room, and he spent a lot in mine. But a nagging cough led him to drop out, though, because it turned out he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph glands.) He came here to the Minnesota Masonic Children’s Cancer Unit. At one point, he was getting his hair back, his weight back, and he was happy. I took him out to the Badlands, and we spent the day together. I thought he’d turned the corner on this, but two weeks later I got a phone call, and they told me they’d lost him. And I had to go through his funeral knowing that there wasn’t a single person in that room who knew about the relationship I’d shared with Jeff. I wanted to scream, “This is the guy I loved!” – and I couldn’t say a damn thing.
Josh: I am so sorry you had to live in secrecy. And I am so sorry that such a beautiful relationship would eventually result in something so horrifying.
A few years ago, you bravely shared your “Me Too” story with the Chorus – an act that continues to empower victims of sexual violence. Thank you again for your vulnerability, and please, continue.
Erick: I had been friends with pretty much all of Jeff’s family, including his brother, Sam. We had been friends and gone hunting together a few times. About five years after Jeff died, Sam calls me up one night and asks me to shoot some pool. He had driven that night, and instead of bringing me home, he stopped at his place, and said, “I’m hungry, and I’m going to put a pizza in.” And he invites me in and says he’s going to change. I don’t know what set him off; I may never know. Sam comes out, he’s butt-naked, and carrying his 44 Magnum pistol. He points it at my head and forces me to give him a blowjob, and he’s yelling at me, saying I was responsible for his brother being gay, and that he was going to beat it out of me so bad that I would never want to have relations with anyone ever again. Then he took me into a bedroom and sodomized me with the handle of a toilet plunger.
That’s the story I talked about with the Chorus. I did it because I wanted people to know that rape is not a strictly a male-to-female issue; it can happen to anyone. After the rape happened, I’d retreated into myself, but I still maintained a front. I was on the City Council, I was the Police Commissioner. In 1998, I finally reached a point when I knew I had to do something. I needed to start coming out to my family.
Josh: And eventually, you did. After you came out to your family, your mom became your biggest supporter and ally. After ending up in Minnesota for work, you got involved in politics, becoming the State Political Director for Stonewall DFL, the LGBTQ caucus, in the 2010 and 2012 elections. What did that involve?
Erick: I figured out that in the time I was Political Director, we interviewed over 300 candidates for public office. They were state senators, congresspeople, legislators, mayors, city counselors, park district reps… They all wanted a Stonewall DFL endorsement.
I also got involved with Minnesota United, and the Interfaith Council through OutFront Minnesota. In 2011, the Republicans made a major tactical error. After they’d gotten control of the legislature, the first thing they did to pander to their base was to try to ban same-sex marriage in the Minnesota Constitution. It gave us an extra year to prepare [before the state-wide vote]. And we mobilized people like crazy. I think that, over the course of the Minnesota United campaign, they generated over 100 million phone calls.
We had individual conversations with Minnesotans across the state, and how it would affect them. It occurred to me that one thing we were asking them to do is change their definition of “family.” Once someone finds out their child is gay, it changes the dynamic. Their dreams for their kid have forever been changed, and we have to be cognizant of the fact that we are creating a change for them. It may not be their dream of their son and his wife and grandkids; it may be the son and his partner, and their adopted children.
From singing I Am Harvey Milk with the chorus in 2014, I learned the song, “Tired of the Silence,” which is based on a speech where he told everyone to come out to break down the barriers of discrimination. It’s much harder for someone to vote against the person they know, rather than an ideal.
I wanna tie this into my point. That same year , we [the Chorus] took a road trip to Fargo. We raised a bunch of money, and we went up there. I almost didn’t go. I had to ask myself, “Am I ready to walk out on a stage in North Dakota, where I’d been physically assaulted, raped at gunpoint, discriminated against… The state that had hurt me so much…” One of the most cathartic things I ever did in my life was walk out on that stage under the banner, “Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus.” At the end of the concert, I’m singing 25 times, “Come out!” They did a complete blackout, and while the lights were out, I heard one person go “Wow!” And you could tell that’s how much the song had wrapped around their spine. It brought me to tears hearing that; it was like, “This is what I got out of being part of the Gay Men’s Chorus.” In that moment, I saw the power of music to connect us.
Josh: I’ve learned so much from you today. You took the horrible experiences from your past and used them to do good. I’m so happy you’re here. With the idea of changing identity in mind, I believe there was a final topic you wanted to share today.
Erick: When I came to the Gay Men’s Chorus, and I stood on the stage in Fargo, part of what was important for me was having found my tribe – my “chosen family” of gay men. Then over time, we had members wearing skirts and makeup, and then we couldn’t say gentlemen during a centuries’-old Christmas song. I thought, “We’re going to keep chipping away at this until it’s not an organization of gay men anymore. And I’m going to grieve that.” When I started with TCGMC, I was looking for my identity at that time, and found it with a group of people who embraced that identity as gay men.
But it finally dawned on me a month ago. And I’m not sure what set it off, but I realized that the Chorus isn’t asking anything differently of me than what I was asking those people on hundreds of phone calls: to change their definition of family. The Chorus is my chosen family, and it reflected my identity at the time when I needed to find my folk. But now I see the need to allow that family to change over time. And if it means we are paying more attention to pronouns, and the terminology we use to not exclude people… even if that means watering down our identity as gay men or changing the name to “Twin Cities Queer Chorus,” I think I’m okay with that. I think that’s a message I want the rest of the Chorus to hear – that it’s okay for us not to hang on to just “gay men” as our identity, but to expand upon that. As long as the next repressed person finds something they can belong to, let’s let them know that WE can be their chosen family, and they will always be welcome!
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.