Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Melvin Dwork's "Honorable" Discharge

It has been a good week for 89-year-old New York City resident Melvin Dwork. Seventy years after being booted from the Navy for being homosexual, his discharge papers were amended from “undesirable” status to “honorable.” The decision was made by the Board for Corrections of Naval Records in Washington. Even though the Navy had an outright ban on gays in place in 1944, Dwork has worked tirelessly for decades for the amendment. The board pointed out Dwork’s “exemplary period of active duty” and said that changing the terms of his discharge was done “in the interest of justice.”

As if Dwork were not already skipping down the sidewalk, today the Pentagon will formally repeal the ban on gays in uniform, a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” that has been in place for almost eighteen years. Troops may for the first time reveal publically that they’re gay, without fear of official retribution. Enlistees who declare their sexual orientation to military recruiters or troops discharged under the ban who wish to reenlist will be eligible to join up if they are qualified. The Defense Department says it will have zero tolerance for anti-gay behavior within the military.

Unlike many men of his generation, Missouri native Melvin Dwork was never shy about his homosexuality. In his unfinished memoir, he recounts how he was thrown out of the Navy during World War II, after love letters he was exchanging with another hospital corpsman were intercepted. Dwork was horrified by the Navy’s reaction. “I was put into a brig ward until I was reassigned to a psychiatric ward for evaluation,” he recalled. “I was treated like a felon or murderer.”

After being discharged, he returned to New York and the Parsons School of Design, where he had been studying before being drafted. Mr. Dwork began work as an interior designer in 1956 and continues to work today, while well into his eighties. He has created distinguished interiors for both commercial and residential customers. Dwork was named one of Architectural Digest’s top 100 designers in 1990 and again in 2002. His clientele is decidedly A-list, such as film director Milos Forman.

This 1979 photograph shows an interior done for acclaimed soprano Anna Moffo and her husband Robert Sarnoff, a former RCA board chairman. Commercial clients include such power houses as Aetna Life Insurance and Shearson Lehman Hutton. His design projects have been published in Architectural Digest, Interior Design Magazine, The New York Times, House & Garden, Town & Country and Elle Decor.

John Butler (1918-1993), a celebrated ballet choreographer, was Mr. Dwork’s partner from 1961 to 1973. He was “the love of my life,” Mr. Dwork writes in the unpublished memoir he has been working on for several years. Dwork established The John Butler Foundation in 1997 to preserve and promote Butler’s legacy as a choreographer. Dwork currently serves as the foundation’s chairman. For years Butler choreographed world premiere operas for gay composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Dwork and Butler’s extensive knowledge of art and design led to associations with prominent painters, sculptors, musicians and writers, such as Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Alban Berg and Ezra Pound. Butler created choreography for famed dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.

Melvin Dwork, representing the John Butler Dance Foundation, at a Symphony Space Gala, seated with Geoffrey Holder (shown here sipping wine, instead of 7-Up; I remember Holder's 1970s-era "un-cola" 7-Up TV commercial as if it were yesterday).

The first draft of his memoir focuses on his experiences as a gay man in postwar New York and Fire Island Pines in the 1960s, where one summer he shared a house with two other design stars – Halston and Donghia – before building his own house there in 1967. Dwork was a senior associate of the Burge-Donghia design firm in the 1960s.

His current apartment was photographed for the September 2007 issue of Architectural Digest. “I am very proud of that,” he said. He is also working on a furniture collection with a major manufacturer. “I don’t think I will ever retire completely,” he said. “Most of my friends now are half my age,” Mr. Dwork states.

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