A proper, crystalline epitaph for Richard Rhodes could be found in 1988, when he and Gil Robison became the first openly gay men to run for the Georgia House of Representatives.
Rhodes didn’t win, finishing fifth out of seven candidates, and he never ran for elective office again.
The cameo political run, however, captures only a fraction of the idiosyncratic marvel that was Rhodes’ long life.
Around 1984, for instance, he earned a real estate license, but his career proved nearly as abbreviated as his run for the House. He achieved one notable success by representing his second cousin, Pam Auchmutey, and her husband Jim, who were buying a Craftsman bungalow in Inman Park. The selling agent was none other than Lester Maddox, Georgia’s former governor. He had come to national prominence in 1964 by openly violating the Civil Rights Act when he refused to serve black customers in his fried chicken restaurant, the Pickrick, near the Georgia Tech campus.
“That closing was surreal,” said Jim Auchmutey, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer. “Here was Dick [Rhodes], a gay activist, and sitting across the table was our last openly segregationist governor, who no doubt wouldn’t have approved of Dick’s lifestyle. Plus, Lester kept making cracks about Jimmy Carter having a peanut for brain. Weird.
“But the closing went off fine,” he added, “and as we were leaving, Lester gave each of us a plastic chicken drumstick.”
Richard Grover Rhodes, 81, died July 21 from complications from a stroke. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. August 3 at the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta, 3107 Clairmont Rd., Suite A. Following the service there will be a celebration of life at the Hideaway Bar in Ansley Mall, 1544 Piedmont Ave. N.E.
Rhodes was born August 14, 1937, in Lake Wales, Fla., but his family moved to Tampa several years later. He met Larry Lucas at Tampa’s Hillsborough High when they were sophomores.
Lucas, who is three months older, recently described his friend as “just as outgoing then as he was his whole life. But unlike me he hated high school. He was bullied some, and he knew even back then he was attracted to boys.”
Rhodes later spent time at Florida State University, but in the late 1950s he disappeared from the state without a trace for several years.
For a decade beginning in the mid-1950s, a bizarre McCarthy-era spawn called the John’s Committee was given legal standing in Florida to harass those suspected of communist and “homosexual” tendencies.
Rhodes’ longtime friend, the LGBTQ historian Dave Hayward, believes Rhodes’ name was given to police. Rhodes immediately took off, landed in Rochester, N.Y., for several years. Though an only child, during this duration he had no contact with his parents or family..
“They didn’t know if he were alive or dead,” Hayward said. “He told me specifically that he didn’t want to [communicate with his parents], that they were law abiding and, in his words, ‘I was afraid they’d be forced by police to tell my whereabouts.’ “
“He made amends, and for the last years of their life he had a really good relationship with his parents,” said Larry Mock, another old friend. “It sounds strange to young people today, but those were dark times. You had to stay underground. You couldn’t go to a bar without the threat of getting kicked out of school, or losing your job, or just plain getting ruined.”
During that period he also enlisted in the Navy but was dishonorably discharged after telling a chaplain he was in love with another sailor.
In the mid-1960s he moved to Athens, Ga., and then to Atlanta in the early 1970s.
He held a series of jobs, including managing men’s clothing stores in Athens and Atlanta, and working in the food and beverage and hospitality industries. He also was a purchasing director for the Capital City Club.
In 1988 he was the first openly gay delegate to the Democratic National Convention held in Atlanta. It was during that week, after observing and listening to all the political balderdash, he decided, “Damn, I’m as smart as they are,” and ran for the House.
As he was passing age 50 his activism erupted with a volcanic intensity. In 1993 he became the first openly LGBTQ chair of the DeKalb Democratic Party. He was a founding member of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) in Atlanta and the Atlanta Prime Timers, a social group for age 40 and older gay and bisexual men. He also co-founded the LGBTQ Archives and Special Collections Committee.
Mock, who met Rhodes in the mid-1970s, said that even though it manifested later in life, his activism was a natural fit. “He was “outspoken, opinionated . . . and sometimes he could cut you in two,” Mock said. “But with time and age he learned that diplomacy and cooperation were the way to go.”
Hayward believes the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s not only brought a lot of gay men out, it coalesced them into activism.
Rhodes himself was diagnosed HIV positive at 65, though by that time new drugs were available to keep him alive. He knew many, nearly an entire generation in fact, who weren’t so lucky. Several years ago he told Emory Medical Magazine that initially he kept of list of friends who died from AIDs.
“But when it reached 100," he told the magazine, "I just shredded the list . . . Sometimes they died within a week of being diagnosed. There was only one drug, AZT, and it was pretty toxic. There were times when I was going to at least two funerals a week."
In the past decade Rhodes concentrated on the rights of aging LGBTQ members, particularly those in nursing homes.
“When you’re gay, lesbian or whatever you want to call yourself, most of the time, you live alone,” Rhodes told the AJC last August. “There are issues around housing and who’s going to take care of you — those are our main concerns.”
Several months ago he went before the Brookhaven city council pleading that they adopt a non-discrimination statement. Then in early July, just days before his stroke, he returned to his old hometown to visit Lucas. Among other things he was pleased to discover Tampa, once a haven for the John’s Committee, had recently elected the first out lesbian mayor for any major Florida city.
“We drove around town,” Lucas said. “We even went to a high school reunion. He was still passionate about all his causes, including still hating high school. But he was also more feeble than I’d seen him. He’d had some near-death experiences, like triple bypass surgery a few years back, and always came through. I figured, the man’s a fighter, right?
He’s bound to bounce back, I thought, right back to his old self.”
Rhodes is survived by second cousin, Pam Auchmutey (Jim) of Atlanta, a special dear friend, Duc Hein Luong Nguyen of Brookhaven, chosen son David Neubecker (Lee) of Chicago and longtime friend Larry Mock of Atlanta.