by Dan Woog
John Kiley and Gene Silbert could be poster children for gay men of a certain age. They met in a Greenwich Village bar in 1953, and have been a couple ever since. Their careers – Gene’s was in the textile business, working with some of the world’s top fashion designers for women; John ran motivational incentive programs for large corporations – took them around the globe, and gave them great joy. Now, in the autumn of their lives, they want to pass along their comfortable wealth to organizations that are important to them.
A ballet or opera company, maybe? Perhaps an AIDS group, or a political cause?
Nope. The two men, both pushing 80, have created the Gene & John Athletic Fund. They are offering generous scholarships to gay and lesbian student-athletes who have contributed meaningfully to society.
And they’re finding that giving money to a relatively narrow niche of the population is not an easy thing to do.
Kiley and Silbert’s interest in athletics came relatively late – not surprising for gay men of their generation. When he was in his 40s, Kiley began running – for fitness, personal fulfillment, and (he later realized) camaraderie. Silbert became an avid athlete, too, accompanying his partner on long runs throughout the world.
Kiley completed his first marathon at age 51, and went on to race-walk at the 1990 Gay Games III in Vancouver. Silbert – who still runs – participated then, too.
After a hip replacement, Kiley turned to swimming. He recently competed in the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championship in Paris. (He downplays his gold medals, saying, “At 78, there’s not much competition.”)
“We’re not hugely wealthy, but we’ve had houses in the country since 1969, and a place in Australia,” Kiley said recently from his home in New York. “We’re getting on in age, and our lawyer urged us to work with a foundation to make sure our estate went where we wanted it to. Running – including Frontrunners (the gay club) and the Gay Games – has been good to us. We decided to work with the Stonewall Foundation (a New York-based community organization) because it does so much, but had no athletic programs in place.”
Kiley and Silbert first tried to inaugurate a Gay and Lesbian Athletic Hall of Fame, but were stymied because so few athletes were willing to participate. “A lot of them just didn’t want their names associated with this,” Kiley said. “We tried to showcase what people had done, but it was difficult to get it off the ground.”
A second project is sponsoring sports programs for GLBT teenagers who are in special schools or group homes. Silbert and Kiley are working with organizations like New York’s Harvey Milk High School to organize after-school activities for youngsters who, because of their sexuality, may never have felt comfortable playing sports – or have actively been discouraged from doing so.
“Gene and I got involved with the athletic community relatively late,” Kiley said. “Anything we can do to help young gay people start earlier is important. The rewards are so important, and they last a lifetime.”
But the focus of their efforts has become the Gene & John Athletic Fund of Stonewall Athletic Scholarship. Last year they gave $5,000 to Shaun Sperling, a runner who also inspired and encouraged thousands of people to complete a marathon that raised money for HIV/AIDS. Sperling, a student at John Marshall School of Law who hopes to complete an Ironman marathon, has been named one of Chicago’s Windy City Media Group’s “30 Under 30” recipients, for his work with various LGBT organizations.
“There is no greater joy for me than to help others accomplish something they never thought they could achieve, just as I have been helped,” Sperling said.
You would think giving away $5,000 would be a race-walk in the park, but Silbert and Kiley have not been inundated with applicants for the 2007 prize. “Getting the word out has been a big hurdle,” Kiley said. “First of all, we’re targeting a very small market: People who are gay, athletic, and have given something back to their community. We’ve contacted universities, coaches, gay groups, and gay teams. We’ve posted information on the Internet. But so far we”ve received very little feedback.”
As of late June, the Stonewall Foundation had received a dozen or so completed forms. “That’s encouraging,” Kiley said. “But we want more.” Applications are available at www.geneandjohnfoundation.org, or by writing the Gene & John Athletic Fund of Stonewall, 119 West 24 Street, New York, NY 10011. The telephone number is 212-367-1155. The deadline is July 31.
“Sports has really transformed us,” Kiley concluded. “Exercise has contributed to our healthy, productive lifestyle, and the athletic community has brought additional texture to our lives. Our objective is to give back to that community that has given so much to us.”