Gus Kaufman used to wish he wasn’t gay. Now he talks about the liberation of being your true self.

"Once you accept and cherish who you are, you shine like [a] star."

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Atlantans: Gus Kaufman
Kaufman in Cascade Springs Nature Preserve

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Gus Kaufman, a psychotherapist and social activist, as told to Charles Stephens.

I have always been a sensitive person, caring about others, myself, nature, and quiet. As a therapist, I don’t want to numb that. Being in nature calms us—birding helps us be in beautiful places and love them. It’s a restorative, healing activity. The Japanese talk about “forest bathing,” but a beach, an estuary, a marsh, a desert—they all have tremendous subtlety and diversity that replenish you.

My interest in birdwatching started with my parents. My father was an Eagle Scout. My mother was in Girl Scouts. They both loved the outdoors and nature. There was a professor at Mercer College, now University, who got my father interested in birdwatching when he was very young. We lived next to the largest tract of woods in Macon. Once, I remember finding a pileated woodpecker—a huge bird. I saw a nest, a hole way up a tree with three young ones coming out.

I came to Atlanta in the fall of 1968, post-college. Here, I got involved with the Great Speckled Bird [an underground newspaper based in Atlanta from 1968 to 1976]. I wrote for it under my old Macon family nickname, Smokey Kaufman. I wrote reviews of films like Performance, in which Mick Jagger plays a pansexual rocker. I also interviewed Holly Woodlawn, one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s film Trash.

I would have been fired from my job teaching public school in Atlanta if they knew I was with the Bird, and I needed the job to escape going to Vietnam. At the time, teaching in a “hardship area” provided an exemption from service. The army was drafting guys left and right. You had to work hard to figure out how not to be sent to Vietnam. I was terrified. I did not want to go.

At the Bird, I met out gay people. I was scared of them, but I began to flirt with bisexuality, especially after I went to West Georgia College, now University, in Carrollton in the early 1970s to study for a master’s in humanistic psychology. It was very liberating! But when I moved to Boston to learn a body-based psychotherapy method, I went back in the closet, married a woman, came back to Georgia. I didn’t finally come out for good until the late 1980s.

I led a couple of workshops in Atlanta in the early ’90s for LGBT people called “Shining Like the Stars We Wished On.” I told them how, when I was an undergraduate at Davidson College in the mid-’60s, I used to walk back to the dorm from the fraternity house in the evening and, as my mother had taught me, wish on the first star. I always wished, “God, make me not a homosexual,” since I could imagine no life as that. And I told the workshop participants, once you accept and cherish who you are, you shine like that star.

Malcolm Hodges, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy who lives in Atlanta, started the Greater Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Birders 25 years ago. He said, “gay people should be together doing the things we love.’’ The Queer Birders of North America spun off from the group. Through their planning potlucks, I got more involved. We take trips, mostly in Georgia and the Southeast, and sometimes, we visit more exotic locations like South Dakota and Washington. It’s really taken on a life of its own.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

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