(January 02, 1929 – November 03, 2020)
Yesterday afternoon in the middle of election angst I received a call from our friend Garner who told me another friend of ours, Matt Chisling, had passed. Although the call was not unexpected, it was ironic Matt died on election day because at 91 years of age he never lost either his enthusiasm for democracy or his passion for the Democratic Party.
Pretty and I met Matt in the early 1990s at the beginning of his LGBTQ activist life following his retirement from a marketing career with Casual Corner that spanned decades. Matt was in his sixties at the time, but his energy and devotion to the queer community in South Carolina was an inspiration to all.
Matt was one of 21 individuals whose stories appeared in Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2017. As a tribute to Matt’s service in our community, I am including blurbs from his piece in the book.
“I was brought up in Birmingham, Alabama, a city where yes, there was a gay bar; but in order to go down there, I would put on a raincoat and a big-brimmed hat and hide my eyes under the hat. You covered yourself up because you never knew who was watching – whether there was a plainclothesman in a car outside taking pictures or something. You didn’t know, but Ben and I used to go. There was good music and good drinks, and they were cheap in those days. Down the road a piece there was a city called Atlanta which developed far faster and much greater than Birmingham. Once that got developed, I could always go to Atlanta to a bar with Ben, especially if it was a bar that had a musical event or dancers, as we might say. We would go.”
Matt was a graduate of the University of Alabama with a degree in political science and journalism. After college he entered the US military where he served in the Korean War from 1951 – 1953 as part of the army that exchanged artillery fire on the 38th. Parallel. “I was not an enthusiast of military life,” he recalled.
Matt and Ben’s story was not unusual for gay men in the mid-twentieth century. They never lived together but continued their loving relationship from their late teens until Ben died from cancer when he was sixty-two years old, two years after Matt retired from Casual Corner.
“My activism in the gay community started after I retired because I had the time and was interested in the social aspect of the organizations at first. A lot of the organizing in South Carolina started with basically sociability…I don’t think the groups had some grand idea of developing a fighting army to take on the discrimination in the world. I think they got started as purely a social place to go and talk to people of your own thinking. At least, it was for me, and then I wanted more.”
Two grassroots organizations were happy to offer Matt “more” than he probably had in mind. He served on the board of directors for the AIDS Benefit Foundation for many years and successfully chaired their Annual Dining with Friends fundraiser during his board tenure. He also became active as the chair of the membership committee for the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Business Guild for more than 15 years.
“In those grassroots organizations, you have to find a niche where you can do some good. There were two things I was fairly decent at: one was raising memberships, the other was raising money. For nonprofit organizations like that, those are the two things they cherish.”
Memberships and money were certainly movers of the movement, but nonprofit organizations also cherished the volunteers who worked tirelessly to find the people and resources to keep them viable, vibrant. Matt Chisling was one such volunteer. Pretty and I both admired his dedication and long-term commitment to causes that changed the course of history for LGBTQ people in the state of South Carolina from the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s to marriage equality in 2014.
Matt loved his mother, his partner Ben, his friends – both gay and straight – his community. Pretty and I loved Matt. We will miss this Jewish man who had fun at Christmas bringing gifts he wrapped in gorgeous paper with lovely big bows. We will miss our talks with him on the latest movies and his opinions on well, just about everything.
“This business of growing old, sitting around your condominium, even thought it’s a nice place to sit around, gets…I can’t do that…I enjoy being with people. I have to have something that fills my day, that fills my time, and that fills my mind.”
We enjoyed being with you, too, Matt. Rest in peace.
Stay safe, stay sane and please stay tuned.