Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 13, 2016

TWO KINDS OF HERO: Richard (Butterfly) Locke, 06/11/41 – 09/25/96

When I first heard that Richard Locke had signed up to attend a Billy Club gathering I would also be attending I got all excited and nervous. One of my gay icons was going to be at a gathering. I had no idea what, or for that matter who, to really expect and I certainly wasn’t sure whether I actually wanted to meet him or just look at him, preferably from a distance.

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Richard at the 1995 Kamp Kimtu Billy Gathering

Richard Locke had starred in, and set the tone for, some of my favorite gay porno films. Along with writer/director Joe Gage (and let’s not forget the rest of the “Gage Men”) Richard had helped to redefine gay men’s images of themselves. At a time when most gay porn was full of young, buffed models with body waxes, Richard was a natural man – masculine, hairy and sexy as hell. Called by BEAR Magazine “the original porn daddy” his image was that of a regular guy, rough-hewn but gentle, masculine without being a jerk about it, and definitely gay – unapologetically if not exuberantly gay.

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Richard participating in the May Pole at a May Day Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs, 1996

Films like “Kansas City Trucking Co.,” “El Paso Wrecking Corp.,” “L.A. Tool & Die,” and, my personal favorite, “Heatstroke” may have had minimal plots (at least they had them) and certainly weren’t going to sweep the judges away at Cannes, but even while trading in fantasy, they managed to present a relatively realistic picture of a life I could have as a gay man. And Richard’s was certainly an example of a realistic gay man.

Something that I’ve always loved about many of Richard’s film performances, and something some folks seem to miss, is what I call the “aww shucks” factor that would turn up from time to time. There is an awkwardness about Richard’s on-screen persona that is sweet and endearing, even when he plays an evil ranch foreman. In the best films he doesn’t play some kind of inhuman, impossible to attain gay fantasy figure [like the prison guard in an early short] – he’s a normal guy, someone any one of us could meet and have a chance with. His devotion to love at first sight in “LA Tool & Die” really is touching – running across the country after the one that got away. Richard’s “just plain guy” character was real.

One of my favorite scenes of him is in “Heatstroke” where he plays the allegedly “straight” foreman of a Montana ranch. He goes to town to meet his girlfriend and encounters her ex-husband, a marine in full uniform (Clay Russell) who proceeds to seduce the “straight” Richard. At one point Clay tries to get Richard to let him touch his cock and Richard tilts his head back a bit, looks down his nose at him and with a perfectly straight face says “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before.” Richard had a way, a tone of voice, an undefinable attitude, that lets each of us in on that joke like we are the only ones who get it.

Richard Locke was a gay icon – a hero of the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement.

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Richard with Sam Kissee & Randy Terrell at the Kamp Kimtu Billy Gathering, 1995

But, as much of Richard as there is in his performances, it is still important not to confuse them too much with Richard himself. At the Kamp Kimtu gathering in 1995 he told me to call him Butterfly (he had a butterfly tattoo on his right pelvis) and asked me not to bring up his films around folks who didn’t already know who he was. He wanted to just be Butterfly, a gay man, one more Billy at the gathering. At that point in his life he really wasn’t interested in being a gay icon, for me or anyone else.  However, he certainly was not above using that status, and anything else he could find, to promote the causes of AIDS education and services. Richard had been living with AIDS for a long time, he told me that he was pretty sure exactly when he’d been infected, he’d narrowed it down to 1983.

He published two books: “In the Heat of Passion” one of the earliest works to deal with issues of safe sex and HIV in a manner that was still sex-positive, and “Locke Out” a collection of short stories and essays. His one-act play “Loving” has been through several productions. When he died he was working on a pair of autobiographies, one called “Living” and the other “Dying.”

Richard was a tireless advocate for HIV and safe sex education, and HIV support services at a time when the disease seemed to be spreading unchecked and what little treatment there was for it was primitive with damaging and dispiriting side effects. He toured the country lecturing, giving informal talks, appearing on radio programs, and working his message into his live sex shows. Later he worked with HIV support groups and put himself to direct use bringing his massage training to people in hospitals and hospices. He talked safe sex and HIV prevention to anyone who would listen every chance he got. His work in that area was pioneering and invaluable.

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Richard with Stewart Scofield (in hat) at the 1996 May Day Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs

Richard had become a second kind of hero. The kind that was easier to miss. The kind whose everyday life becomes a series of quietly heroic acts.

The first time I encountered Richard was at his first Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs Retreat Center.  Saratoga Springs is a peaceful resort tucked back in a beautiful, narrow valley in Lake County, California. The Billy Club has been gathering there several times a year since 1992, and continues to meet there.  It was the second day of the gathering. I knew Richard was registered but I hadn’t yet seen him anywhere. I asked the guy in charge of registration if he had really shown up or if perhaps he was coming later.  I was told that he was there and he’d been there the whole time. In fact, I was told, that’s him on the Lodge porch right now. I followed the pointing finger.  I would never have recognized him on my own. At that point he was doing chemotherapy and was nearly bald. He was also, of course, older than the video and magazine images I had of him which had fleshed out so much of my sexual fantasy life.

I remembered seeing that man since the gathering began but had not connected him with Richard. I was now even more intimidated and afraid to approach him, I had no idea what I could say to him.  But he didn’t give me much of a choice. That afternoon he came to the poetry circle I was facilitating. Poetry circle was an opportunity to get poems off the page and into the air by speaking them. People could bring their own or others’ poems to read and I also brought a box of poetry books from which people could choose poems. Richard came and read several pieces by his friend, composer and poet Lou Harrison, from a book he had brought with him. He listened carefully as the rest of us read our poems. He talked in between people’s readings, which was not part of the format but you couldn’t fit Richard into a format, he didn’t notice them. He brought such energy with him that the poetry circle ended up being one of the best ever. His enthusiasm and participation inspired the rest of us and healthy discussion ensued. Afterwards he and I talked a lot more. And at every gathering Richard came to it was like that.

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Richard with Gryphon Blackswan at the Labor Day Billy Gathering at Kamp Kimtu – 1995

Heart Circles are a space created at gatherings where a talisman is passed among the participants and each person is allowed in turn to speak from the heart without interruption. It is what many consider to be the core of the Billy Club (now known simply as The Billys) experience. It is a process initially borrowed from the Radical Fairies. Once exposed to them Richard took to Heart Circles like he’d been there all his life. Listening attentively as each man spoke and speaking himself when he was moved to do so. He brought such intensity to his shares that he would pull us with him where ever he was going. He fit in like he’d found home.

When protease inhibitors became available Richard was one of the first people I knew to get on them.  As a result he started to feel like his old self again. His hair grew back, he put some weight on, and he dared to hope. One of the medications he was on was supposed to be taken with fatty foods. I remember him coming to a heart circle one morning on the lawn in front of the Lodge delightedly munching on a salami and telling us all that he had awakened with a boner for the first time in ages, because of this new medication. Unfortunately the PIs were too late to save Richard, he was already too far gone.  His reprieve was short lived.

The last time I heard Richard speak out in a Heart Circle was the Labor Day Billy Gathering at Rancho Cicada in the Sierra foothills in 1996, his last gathering.

Rancho Cicada is an idyllic retreat location where steep hills hug the Cosumnes River and hammocks sway in the trees. I remember walking in the river and stirring up the sandy bottom, flakes of iron pyrite rose and sparkled like gold in the cool water. An expansive lawn next to the river is perfect for Heart Circles. It was a beautiful, peaceful location for Richard’s last gathering.

Before the gathering he told me in a phone call that he had to get there. He had to tell us about the heroes. He was in a hospital in Sacramento doing his best to fight off that final illness.  His father and brother picked him up and drove him to the gathering so he could tell us about heroes. And once in Heart Circle he did. He spoke of the everyday heroes he saw all the time whose continuing care and sacrifices went unnoticed and too often underappreciated. He spoke of the doctors, nurses, home health aides, and caregivers from the hospital housekeepers to visiting masseurs. I cannot remember everything he said and I could never say it as well as he did even if I could remember it. 40 or 50 of us were sitting in that circle and most were moved to tears, or close to them. I think all of us knew that we were sitting there listening to one of those very heroes Richard was describing, although he would not have considered himself to be one.  We also had a pretty good idea that it was likely to be the last time we would hear Richard speak in Heart Circle. Afterward I told him he should write down his “Heroes” talk, but by then he just didn’t have the energy.

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The last photo I shot of Richard, soaking in the Cosumnes River at the Rancho Cicada Billy Gathering, Labor Day weekend, 1996

While most of the accommodations at Rancho Cicada at that time consisted of platform tents & camping sites, there was a well-appointed cabin about halfway up the steep hillside above the main lawn; that is where we put Richard so he would be as comfortable as possible and have some privacy.

One of the things I’ve always found a little disconcerting about Billy Gatherings is the way I can know a man in the gathering context for years or even decades and yet never know what that man does for living, what his life is like outside the gathering. So I was surprised and relieved at Rancho Cicada to learn that one of the men I’d known for a number of years was a physician with HIV/AIDS experience.  That man stepped in to help take care of Richard while he was with us, giving up much of his own gathering experience to do so. There was a small group of us who took turns taking care of Richard, helping him get around, and seeing to his needs all under the newly discovered doctor’s supervision and direction.

Medications had Richard’s bowels so blocked up he could hardly remember his last movement – and something was making it nearly impossible for him to piss.  The doctor wanted him to keep track of the volume of his urine and I remember standing there with him while he squeezed out a scant few drops into a jar, so there might be something to measure.

Seeing him that last time at Rancho Cicada was disturbing and encouraging, inspiring and frightening – he was seriously ill, and yet wanted to be there so bad. Did he know it was his last chance to be with us? Probably, and that’s probably why he was so determined to be there. I loved Richard, and am proud to count him among my friends. Outside of a few letters and phone calls we really knew each other only at the gatherings – but that is O.K. – gatherings are very concentrated time and concentrated time is what Richard needed, because he didn’t have a whole lot of time left.  Richard Locke died in Sacramento at the age of 55 less than a month later, with family and friends in attendance.

His involvement with the Billy Club didn’t stop with his death though.  When I first wrote this I thought that Richard left money in his will for the Billy Club but memory can be tricky. Upon reading this essay his brother Bob Locke contacted me after many years and has very kindly  corrected that impression as follows:

“Just one small correction to your story about Richard. You say that it was a donation from Richard that was the seed money for the Richard Locke Scholarship Fund, but it was actually dearer than that. At Richard’s funeral (which was very well attended not just by our extended family but Richard’s friends and fans and also at least three of his doctors) I asked that if any of them cared to make a contribution, they should make it to the Billy Club and gave them the address. I had no idea that this would become the seed money for the Richard Locke Scholarship Fund until I visited Rancho Cicada with the Billies eleven years after Richard’s death.” – Bob Locke

As Bob noted the scholarship fund still bears Richard’s name.

Richard Locke was a man who had been two kinds of hero in his too short life and I am proud to have had the honor to know him.

See also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Holt_Locke

http://webpages.csus.edu/~boblocke/extext/heroes.html

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Responses

  1. Thanks for these memories, Joe. Richard’s easy masculinity in films made him iconic for me, too, yet his easy presence when I finally met him dissolved that distance we have with our icons. In the height of the epidemic, his insistence that porn films use condoms — and his refusal to back down even when threatened with being blacklisted — made him a hero to me, too, but a very human and personal one. I’m glad the Billys could be there for him, I think we made a big difference in his life.

  2. Dear Joe,

    Beautiful memoriam for Richard – You really captured everything I also felt about him and his attendance with The Billys. I remember talking with Sam Kissee at one of the gatherings and he told me that Richard was interested in attending an event, which blew my mind because Richard was also my first unconventional gay male icon I worshiped from afar. That image of him from the trucking video leaning back against the 18 wheeler with his one leg up against the tire, looking so hot and normal was seared into my young gay brain cells when I first discovered gay porn. Sam told me to expect a call from Richard at the Billy office soon, and I flipped out because I also get very nervous meeting my idols. So, when the call came to the Billy Office, I tried to get Jackson to take the call instead. The answer through the phone was clear – “I only want to speak with Terry” which then made me even more nervous – I took the call (sweating bullets) and he couldn’t have been sweeter or more charming. I’m so grateful to Sam for connecting Richard to us, and yes, meeting him at his first gathering was indeed ultra nerve-wracking. But that all vanished with his calm assurance to us that he had finally found this amazing group of men to gather and co-mingle with. Sometimes our idols do live up to and exceed our hopes and expectations about them. He was one of a kind, and your article really captures that, Joe. Bless you for writing this all down and sharing it.

    Much love to Joe and all the Billys from me –

    Terry (King Billy)


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