The Billys foster lifelong bonds
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At age 56 Robert Zarren was living life for the first time as an out gay man, a number of years after having divorced from his wife, the mother of his two teenage children.
"I just didn't realize why it was such a struggle with me with women until much later in life. I was determined to be a father; I really wanted to have children and carry on the family name," said Zarren, who lives in Sebastopol and turns 60 on June 26. "It wasn't until four years ago that I became authentic with myself and free and clear."
The process began when he met a man at a Christmas party in Marin County and they starting going out. To ring in New Year's, his date brought him to a celebration hosted by the Billys, a social group for gay, bisexual, and transgender men.
The encounter for Zarren, it would turn out, would be revelatory and life changing.
"A big part of my coming clear is within four months of coming out I found the Billy community or it found me. I like to say it was beyond my doing; the spirit was involved," said Zarren, who started his own design consulting business two years ago after being laid off from Knoll, the design furniture company he had worked at for 15 years.
A few days after the party Zarren attended his first Billys gathering, where members of the group convene over a weekend to take part in various activities and fellowship building exercises. Nearly all are held at Saratoga Springs Retreat Center, a gay-owned facility two and a half hours north of San Francisco in Lake County.
"First of all, it changed my life overnight. I went from being very isolated and coming out with no community and no friends," recalled Zarren, who this spring joined the Billys board of directors, "to having a whole community of lifetime friends."
The Billys traces its history to 1988, when a group of men involved with the Mendocino County AIDS Volunteer Network hosted a "Good Times Gathering For Rural Gay Men" over the Memorial Day weekend.
"Having an isolated lifestyle made living with AIDS much more challenging, and made it more important to find other gay men who lived rurally so we could support one another," wrote Billys co-founder Ron Vanscoyk in a personal history about the group. "This was also true for those of us who did not have AIDS, yet longed for contact with other gay men since we were so few and far between."
In attendance at the first gathering was Bill Blackburn, 68, who today lives in Camp Meeker, an unincorporated community in Sonoma County located on the Bohemian Highway, between Occidental and Monte Rio.
Also formerly married to a woman "happily for 13 years," Blackburn said that, "early on in my marriage I discovered I was attracted to men. Before that I was totally repressed as a good Catholic guy."
Sixty-five men from Sonoma, Humboldt, Lake, and Mendocino counties in northern California took part in the inaugural Billys weekend, said Blackburn, who would go on to serve on the Billys board for eight years, including a term as president.
"We met at somebody's undeveloped land where we had a pond we swam in. We made our food and shared that and sat around and told stories," recalled Blackburn.
The men also formed a circle and took turns speaking about whatever was on their minds.
"One memory that sticks out most in my mind from that first circle was there were two men sitting beside each other. They were grizzled, backwoods looking guys with long hair and big beards," said Blackburn. "One said, 'I thought I was the only person living in this county who is gay.' His nearest neighbor was sitting beside me. They had never been out together until they saw each other there."
The heart circle, held daily during Billys gatherings, is a main draw for many participants. The group promotes the ritual as a way to bind members "together in a deep brotherhood."
"Our core defining ritual is the heart circle," said Blackburn. "We sit for hours each morning, pass a talisman heart rock, and speak deeply from the heart about whatever is in the moment for us."
As for the name the Billys, it is derived from The Billy Club, the name of a handmade card business owned by one of the group's co-founders, Richard DiGiulio. When sending out invites to the second gathering, held over Labor Day weekend in 1988, the organizers "kinda got lazy and didn't want to hand write the return address on all of them," explained Vanscoyk in his history of the group.
They instead used a rubber stamp with the name and P.O. Box address for DiGiulio's business. Billy was also a term of affection between DiGiulio and his boyfriend at the time, Terry Brown, another co-founder of the group.
"As it happened, when Terry and Richard got together, Richard had recently broken up with a man named Terry and didn't feel nearly as warm to the name of this new man in his life as he did to the man himself," according to Vanscoyk's history of the Billys. "Wanting to speak affectionately to each other (as lovers do) they fished around for another affectionate name they could call one another. Annette seemed a bit too demure, and Bronco seemed a bit too bold. Billy â€" now there was a name even Goldilocks would like â€" just right! It is indeed a name of affection to this day. (Imagine we could have been the Annette Club!)."
More than 100 men showed up for the second two-day Billys gathering. By 1990 the group began inviting men from the more urban Bay Area to attend, forever changing the dynamic of the group.
"Honestly, the influx of city men has changed the whole dynamics of our gatherings," acknowledged Blackburn. "Before, the people getting together were talking about road paving and road grading and hydroelectric power systems. Now it is a whole different thing, with people talking about opera or city things."
Over time the numbers of rural men participating declined while those from San Francisco and the surrounding cities have continued to increase. It led to questions on if the group should limit its focus to just rural men.
"We came to realize gay men in the city can be just as isolated as somebody sitting out in the distant rural countryside," said Blackburn. "We felt it was really important to be open for anybody who felt they needed us. We are no longer a rural organization."
Through the Billys Blackburn has met most of his gay friends. And in the early years, recalled Blackburn, the group cared for those felled by AIDS and consoled the loved ones they left behind.
"The Billys helped countless men die and helped countless men grieve and go on to survive," he said.
To this day the comfort and support Billys provide one another is a defining aspect of the group. Kensington resident Peter Carleton, 75, went to his first Billys event in 2010 a year after the death of his husband, Simon Karlinsky, whom he had been with 35 years. The leader of a grief group he attended, where he was the only gay person, suggested he check out the Billys.
"It was a good safe place to be," said Carleton, who works in cognitive linguistics psychology and philosophy spirituality. "It was a feeling this really could be my tribe or this is my tribe."
The heart circle, in particular, provided him an outlet to grieve his partner in a safe space with other gay men.
"The heart circle was really important to me. You get to vent and share and listen from the heart," said Carleton, who has been to roughly 15 gatherings since joining the Billys. "I could talk about really intimate things that happened around my husband's death I could not talk about in the other group."
Phat Huynh, 54, a self-employed jewelry and watch repairer who lives in San Leandro, also credits the Billys with helping him after the deaths of his partner, Jim Hughson, and a former lover, Richard Seguin, within a nine month span in 2012.
Without the Billys, "I would have probably gone crazy," said Huynh. "Because of them, it helped me get through a rough time. I am very in debt to the Billys."
He volunteers with the Billys as a way to give back to the organization.
"It is very positive for me being a Billy. They have enriched my life so much," said Huynh. "I can say the Billys saved my life now."
Billys welcome with open arms
With the Billys growing in popularity and size, the members decided to formally organize themselves as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Not only did it provide a way to raise money â€" $18,000 to $25,000 a year â€" it also created a board of directors who could manage the gatherings.
The Billys current board president is Alameda resident Michael Eccles, 57, the director of alumni relations at UCSF. He and his husband, Michael Towne, 50, joined the group in 2009 after tiring of the bear bar scene that had become the focal point of their social life.
"We were going out to the Castro drinking and having that kind of experience. After awhile it didn't feel very fulfilling. We needed something new in our life," said Eccles.
Towne learned about the Billys while attending a Radical Faerie gathering held in Oregon. The couple, together 21 years, attended their first Billys gathering over the July Fourth weekend.
"From the very first minute it was amazing because it was a truly accepting and amazing community feeling. Everyone was nice," recalled Eccles. "We were accepted from the moment we walked in the door and became part of the group."
It is a story Eccles hears time and again from newcomers to the Billys.
"We work hard so everybody who comes to the Billys feels like they have belonged there forever," he said.
The Billys are a particularly welcoming group for those men aging out of the gay bar scene, said Eccles, and feeling like they have no other outlet for forming friendships and socializing with like-minded men.
"One thing I don't feel like we are good at as a community is what we do with people as they sort of age out of the Castro area," he said. "There are not a lot of places for older gay men to feel accepted, loved, and challenged when the community no longer feels warm and inviting to you ... I don't think we are as supportive of older people as we are to our younger selves."
Since joining the group, Eccles and Towne have formed lasting friendships with other men with whom they routinely get together for dinner or take trips.
"Through the Billys we found a community and friendships we know we will have the rest of our life. They are our brothers and best friends," said Eccles. "We have created a huge circle of friends that is just invaluable to us."
Any man at least 18 years of age is welcome to become a Billy; the group is free to join. The cost to attend one of the six gatherings the group hosts throughout the year averages $100 a night, which includes lodging and food. There is a scholarship fund to help those on a limited budget attend.
The largest gathering occurs over the Fourth of July weekend, attracting 100 to 150 of the nearly 1,000 Billys members. While that weekend is men only, women are invited to attend several of the group's other gatherings, such as the annual New Year's party.
All Billys gatherings are alcohol- and drug-free.
"It is really incredible to be in a space like that with everything based on your real authentic self, your real person," said Eccles. "Having no drugs, no alcohol adds to the experience of feeling connected in a true way."
One of the bigger misperceptions about the Billys, said members, is that their weekend gatherings are just an excuse to meet men for sexual encounters.
"We are a sex-positive group. When you bring a bunch of gay men together there is bound to be sex. But we are not focused on sex," said Eccles. "Our favorite, and also our nemesis, reputation is we are a bunch of guys who like to have sex in the woods. If only it were so true we were getting tons and tons of sex. But that is not who we are."
With the majority of members white men, the Billys have made it a priority to recruit more men of color to join the group. They are also trying to bring in younger men, as most Billys are 40 or older.
"We are definitely working on increasing our diversity," said Eccles.
The group now has its own website and Facebook page, attracting men from across the country and the globe who have traveled to California to take part in a Billys gathering. This year there will be a special weekend just for transgender men, called Transmission, and a man who lives in southern California is trying to launch a Billys chapter in that part of the state.
"Anything we have is open source for anybody who wants to use it," said Eccles.
Billys members will be manning the gates at this weekend's Pride celebration in San Francisco and staffing a booth to drum up interest in the group.
"We have a really good thing. It is really stupid to hide it from people, especially when you need new people to keep it going along," sad Eccles.
For more information about the Billys, visit the group's website at http://thebillys.org/.