How to Love People as They Are: A conversation with Eric Tatum
Eric Tatum is a beloved long-time staff and community member at GLIDE. He has seen many changes over the decades, and has recently been collaborating with our Adult Education Specialist Stephanie McNally to record and archive his invaluable memories. We are grateful to Eric for recognizing the historical significance of his perspectives and experiences, and for sharing his personal truth with our community.
How did you end up knowing so many people?
Cecil gave me a job the first day he met me. Cecil asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him I don’t know. He told me there was a position open at GLIDE because someone was leaving the stockroom. I worked in the stockroom until December. There was many events coming up and Cecil asked me if I wanted to participate in the company events that were coming up.
So I went with him as a security guard and bodyguard. He liked how I worked and I became his bodyguard and security guard for 10 years. So everybody who he knew I met; anybody who met Cecil, I met, you know, being his top security guard.
So that’s how I ended up meeting everybody—going to the games, going different places, going to the state capitol, going to the White House. I was right there with him. President Clinton came. I got to meet him, Hillary and their daughter. I went to the inauguration. I went to Washington for the first day that Clinton got in office.
What did it mean to you, that Cecil asked you to play this role in his work?
It changed my life dramatically because I had just got out of the penitentiary. I had never heard of GLIDE. The only place I heard of Cecil was on the news—the man with the Afro, the man who married gay couples. That’s all I knew of him. I’d never seen GLIDE.
Some homeless people told me about GLIDE, told me to come here on a Sunday for the pork chops—and that’s what I really came for, to eat the pork chops!
I didn’t know nothing about the volunteering. I didn’t know nothing about the activities here, you know. Only thing I knew about San Francisco was Powell Street. And the beach, because they had the museum back then.
That was the only thing I knew about San Francisco. I came here and started volunteering and everything started growing on me, you know. All the events, all the people started growing on me.
And people start treating me differently because I was with Cecil. People thought I was a big-time person now when I wasn’t. I was homeless at the time.
It was a big step for me because I learned a lot about diversity. I actually got in a lot of trouble back then because the gay guys would call me heterosexual. And I didn’t know what heterosexual meant and I would get mad at them and tell them, ‘Don’t call me that because I’m not gay!’
So one of the heterosexual guys pulled me to the side and told me what heterosexual meant, that you straight, and that’s what they were saying, that I was straight.
I wasn’t into the gay population until Cecil put me in ‘Man Alive’. It was called ‘Man in Motion’ back then. I went to the ‘Man in Motion’ and learned the diversity of gay people and straight people. That taught me how to love and accept everybody. I learned that diversity.
Do you think in learning to love and accept everyone you also found more love for yourself?
Yes, I found a lot of love for myself because I seen a lot of people loving me. I didn’t love myself back then because I was on a lot of drugs back then, I was out of the penitentiary – and this was all stuff that was new to me, being on drugs and I had never been to the penitentiary a day in my life. They told me they were going to make an example out of me because I was a college student. They gave me 10 years, but I did five.
Coming to GLIDE really changed my life. Like I said, it gave me stability. It taught me who I was and it taught me how to love and accept other people, you know. It taught me that I’m powerless over people, places and things, so it brought me out of a dark closet.
So now I have light.
The book No Hiding Place really taught me, you know, because you can’t hide from yourself.
Back then, Cecil’s motto was, “Take your mask off.” You can walk around without a mask at GLIDE. You don’t need to wear a mask at GLIDE. You could be yourself, you know. People can accept you or reject you. I just learned how to have exceptions and those who didn’t want me I just learned how to deal with that. Basically that’s how I learned to have exceptions for myself, you know.
How to love and treat people as they are.