GLEN BURNIE, Md.âLarry Esser was 25 when he met Tom Toth on his first day of work at the old Chessie Systemâs office in Baltimore in June 1981. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just reported the first cases of what later became known as AIDS. Marylandâs anti-sodomy law was still on the books, but Toth, who was 32 years older than Esser, felt it was important to live his life as an openly gay man.
âTom kind of pursued me, to put it quite bluntly,â Esser tells the Washington Blade during a Dec. 13 interview. âI really liked him, thatâs the funny thing. I didnât feel like he was imposing himself or anything like that … heâs the bravest person Iâve ever met. His personal courage astonished me.â
Esser stressed he âhad no idea I was gayâ when he met his future spouse. He grew up in what he describes as an âextremely strict Roman Catholic householdâ in Connecticut where he routinely heard gay people âwere probably worse than murderers and they were to be avoided at all costsâ and they were âmentally defective.â Esser eventually found himself in a relationship with another man he conceded wasnât âgoing anywhereâ when Toth finally made his move.
âHe was sitting at his desk and he was singing,â Esser recalls, laughing. âIt was like in a joking sort of way he was singing and the other people around him were laughing when he was doing it and he was singing something about itâs springtime and itâs time for love. The way he tells this story, I came in the door and heard him singing that and I tried to sneak away. I didnât want any part of that. And he saw me and he said, âUh oh.â And thatâs when he began to realize that I was not what he thought I was. How can you explain how two people fall in love? I canât explain that. But it just happened. I wasnât afraid of him personally.â
Coupleâs activism starts at home
The couple routinely engaged in what Esser calls âguerrilla activismâ that began when he said the railroad fired him after they began dating in 1983 because of his sexual orientation. He considered moving back to Connecticut, but Toth insisted he move into the small Glen Burnie home he shared with his then-84-year-old mother, Mary.
âThere was no arguing with that,â Esser says. âThe funny thing is when he said it, it was exactly what I wanted to hear, but of course I couldnât ask him that. It was up to him to ask me, and he did. And I was delighted.â
Esser took care of Tothâs elderly mother until she died the following year. He says the same Chessy System vice president whom he claims fired him threatened to do the same to his partner once he found out they were living together. (He says the railroad in the late 1970s had tried to fire an early member of the Baltimore Gay Alliance that later became the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland, but the union fought for him.)
âHe couldnât do it directly,â Esser says, recalling efforts to fire Toth, who was a unionized stenographer. âHe did a bunch of different things to try to get Tom to quit. And amazingly, Tom was actually ready to resign. A woman whose name I canât remember, but will always be grateful to her told him donât resign because the railroad is going to do a bunch of buyouts and youâll be able to get a lump sum payment and retire, and thatâs what he did.â
The couple also for years distributed copies of the Blade at locations throughout Anne Arundel County.
They decided to approach the Anne Arundel County Public Library Board of Trustees in Annapolis in 1993 after they read about the newspaperâs threatened lawsuit against the Fairfax County (Va.) Library for its proposed ban on the publicationâs distribution inside its branches. Esser said Toth was âreally rough with them,â in part because âheâd gone through a very repressive time back in the 1950s.â (He lived in Manhattan for 25 years and the New York Police Department once arrested him during a gay bar raid.)
âWhen we got to the library board, he told them point blank, âYouâd better do this,ââ Esser says. âThey were not happy. They were not happy at all. I think some of them were actually kind of sympathetic to what we wanted to do, but they were taken aback by how assertive he was. They werenât used to that. The library board is used to people coming and requesting things, not telling them what theyâre going to do. And they were not happy.â
Esser says one of the board members later told him the board did not want to meet with Toth anymore because âhe was very blunt,â but in the end they granted them permission to place 15 copies of the Blade in libraries in Glen Burnie, Severna Park and Annapolis. They continued distributing the Blades each week from the Center for more than two decades.
âBy putting the paper there, I always felt that, I always wondered âŠ if a young person going by thinking they were maybe gay or knew they were gay but felt very isolated, if they saw those papers, maybe that would give them a little bit of encouragement or a little bit of reassurance. But the other point was just sheer visibility. By having those papers there, Tom used to say … if even one person picks one up, he said even if they throw them away they still got to look at them. And that was an excellent point. And he was quite right. That meant a lot to us.â
Trust the truth
The AIDS epidemic had begun to exert its toll on gay men by the time the couple began dating â Esser recalls a time both he and Toth went to a small Severna Park health clinic to get HIV tests. Toth says the nurse asked him whether he was a gay man. âHe said that was the first time in his entire life anyone asked him that directly,â Esser says. âHe had never been asked that question.â
Esser says he felt the atmosphere during the late 1980s was âpretty optimisticâ in spite of the epidemic and late-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, fundamentalist preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and other social conservatives who sought to demonize gay men during the AIDS crisis.
âOddly enough, Tom never disliked [then-President Ronald] Reagan, but I think thatâs because he remembered him from his movie star days,â Esser says. âHe felt Reagan didnât understand the whole situation that he was dealing with AIDS and gay people. He felt that Reagan really just didnât understand it. Itâs not that he was anti-gay particularly; he just didnât really know what he was doing … I didnât feel so kindly to Reagan at all. I thought he was just horrible.â
Toth and Esser also became involved in the effort to add sexual orientation to Marylandâs non-discrimination law in the 1990s.
He recalls one legislator who was âreally being ridiculous, saying really ugly things about usâ during a hearing on the measure in Annapolis. One of this lawmakerâs colleagues who had refused to listen to his speech asked Toth and Esser how they could stand to hear his rhetoric.
âTom said, âWell we know it isnât true, so we donât worry about it,ââ Esser says. âOf course youâve got to fight. You canât let people say things that arenât true and let them say it without challenging it. And Tom did that. But at the same time you canât let it stop you. You canât let that negativism stop you. You have to keep fighting, pushing against it and thatâs what Tom really, really did.â
Esser notes that Tothâs life spanned the same period through which Frank Kameny lived â the two met during the 2000 D.C. Pride parade. And Esser says when they met, it was as if they were kindred spirits.
âThey were really speaking the same language,â he says, noting both Esser and Kameny came of age in the 1950s when lobotomies were performed as a way to cure homosexuality. âIt was very impressive for me being a younger person relative to them seeing what these two men must have come through and how they were both so determined to do what they were doing. They refused to back down. They refused to accept what they were being told they had to accept. They wouldnât do it. And that was a beautiful thing to me. Itâs a moment I will never forget.â
Mesothelioma that Toth developed from asbestos exposure while working at a Baltimore shipyard that built liberty ships during World War II had already taken its toll by the time Gov. Martin OâMalley signed the stateâs same-sex marriage law in March.
Toth and Esser legally married in D.C. in 2010, but he wanted to vote for both Question 6 and President Obama on Election Day. He applied for an absentee ballot because he did not think he would live until Nov. 6.
It arrived in the mail in early October.
âIt came and I said do you want to sign it?,â Esser, who fought leukemia at the same time his spouse struggled with mesothelioma, says. âAnd he said, âNo, Iâll do it tomorrow. Well the next day he wasnât strong enough.â
Toth died three days later â on Oct. 11 â at age 88.
âHe never did sign the absentee ballot,â Esser says. âHe was very aware of what was going on. He was politically interested. He definitely wanted Obama to win. We just detested Romney. The hardest thing to communicate to people who were not gay (is) how much Obama had done to us, compared to everybody else.â
Esser says Toth wondered whether history would remember Obama along the same lines as Franklin Roosevelt in terms of âwhat he had done, particularly for gay rights.â
âWhen you come from a time where you were ignored totally … and suddenly hereâs the president and heâs doing all these executive orders and this happening and thatâs happening and then he comes out in favor of same-sex marriage, well thatâs fantastic,â Esser says. âHe was just delighted.â