In November of 2002 lawyer Daniel J. O’Donnell became the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly. When we spoke in November, 2010, five days before his 50th birthday, the older brother of entertainer Rosie O’Donnell represented the 69th District, primarily comprised of the 40 blocks between 85th and 125th Streets on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the neighborhood where he had lived with his partner John Banta for over 20 years. O’Donnell had run unopposed in his previous two elections and had assumed a leadership role in the attempt to pass the Marriage Equality bill in Albany.
The Marriage Equality Act passed the New York State Legislature and was signed into law in June, 2011, and O’Donnell, whose friends call him Danny, and Banta married in January of 2012.
I would say that I was mildly to strongly depressed in the last few days about this looming day. My mother died at 39, and so I didn’t like turning 40 either. It seems almost like borrowed time. It’s time that I don’t know that you’re supposed to have. My mother didn’t have it.
It’s not really a rational thing. I do know that the life expectancy of an American male is 77, but that’s an emotional response. I guess if you were somebody who had alive, active parents when you turned 50 as some of my friends do, then 50 may not seem quite as old as it does to me, and so much older than the lifespan of my own mother.
I have a friend who turned 75 and when he turned 75 I offered him a happy birthday and he said, Yep, I’m three quarters done. And I don’t really have that worldview or attitude, but I suppose it’s technically possible, and that would require me to deny my gene pool, but one never knows, right?
I would say all of my siblings had a sense, and I certainly had, that you don’t get 100 years on this planet and so there was an ambition/drive to get out of life what you want quickly because you don’t know how long you’re going to be here.
When I was younger I had this theory about percentages, that when you were 10, a year seems like a long time because it’s 1/10th of your total life and 1/10th of your memory. Now a year is 1/50th of my memory, and it goes by in a flash.
I wasn’t organically glad as a kid. I didn’t have a youth. I wasn’t youthful as a young person, and so to some degree I feel like I’ve been old for a very long time. Although on the good side of that is that I have grown into accepting what I am and who I am and the way I am to a much greater degree than I ever thought I could in my 30s. And so, you know, that I’m a big, bulky, some would say fat, hairy guy, which used to really bother me and spent hours and hours of my life trying to not be, I no longer try so hard not to be what I am. You know, when I first came to terms with my sexuality I spent a lot of time trying to not be what I am. I don’t do that anymore, and there’s great freedom in that.
I’m scared of leaving my partner. I love him with all my heart. And he’s tall, thin and good-looking and everyone likes him and blah, blah, blah, you know, all that good stuff, but he needs me. That as devastated as I would be if he walked out and got hit by a bus, I think at some level… the things that would be hard for me and what would be hard for him are very different. I’m insured up the wazoo. I have more money tied up in me dying than you can possibly imagine. At any opportunity, if they say, Do you want more? Yes, I take more. So I’m afraid of leaving him. I’m not really afraid of not being alive. I’m somewhat afraid of suffering. I’m not really into the suffering thing. But I’m afraid of leaving him.
I grew up and I wanted to be a politician and I was the president of my class and I went to college in Washington because it was Washington, DC and I was an intern in Congress. And then John and I became lovers. And there were no gay politicians. Barney Frank was in the closet. There was no path. There was no path to be gay and successful in America.
Coming out of the closet and admitting that you’re gay and living your relationship open for the world is the turning point. Until you do that you have no life, really, and so spending your life gender neutralizing your statements and not saying who you’re spending all your time with or, you know, choosing not to live with someone because you don’t want people to know, that all takes an awful lot of work and energy. Once you stop having to do that, it’s a lot easier. It’s so much easier.
One of the greatest things about having my sister in my life, my famous sister, is that I was aware of what the private cost of public notoriety was, and so it’s not like I’m like her, but people do stop me on the street and say, This traffic light is out, or come up to me at dinner and talk to me, and there are some of my colleagues or people who get into this who are just like dumbfounded that that would happen. So I knew what that was, and I knew how that would feel, and so I was prepared for it. I’m not claiming I like it, I’m just saying.
The last birthday that my mother was alive, she forgot my birthday. She was riddled with cancer and not telling her children. And it’s pretty clear to me, it’s absolutely clear to me that she did not remember that it was my birthday. She died in March so she probably knew then that she was not well. In fact, I know she knew. They thought she had hepatitis because of the liver stuff, and so we all got hepatitis shots, and that was sometime in the fall. But back to the good boy thing: you know, I did a lot of chores, did a lot of things that day. I could tell that she was distracted and worried and so I vacuumed the dining room and put stuff away and tried to be the good boy. And she had forgotten.
I think that when people have children their children’s birthdays become the birthdays that get celebrated. So people who don’t live their lives daily with children, their birthdays go on in a way that doesn’t go on with others. And so there are no children in our house so his birthday, my birthday, our anniversary, are the days, are the celebratory days in our home which, if we had five kids running around, that may not be the case.
When John turned 50 in July I took him on a surprise trip, 16 days to Spain, that I planned for a year. Frequent flyer miles, you have to book them eleven months in advance. Cleared his calendar with his bosses. Set up fake things on this calendar. I did all that stuff. The night before we were to go I realized he had no clean underwear and I called him and I said to him, John, you need to do laundry, and he said, Why don’t you do the fucking laundry?
Now you need to know that the reason I didn’t do the fucking laundry was because at that point we were still in session, so most of my underwear was up in Albany and I was washing that—or dropping it off at the laundromat, as the case may be – and I was just dumbfounded. And I went home and washed his fucking laundry. And was just filled with anxiety. But it went off without a hitch and he was shocked. He said, Who knows? I said, Everyone knows, and blah blah blah. And then his three best friends showed up two days later and knocked on the door and we had this fabulous dinner for seven. I mean, it was just a perfect vacation.
At the last dinner we had together, I said, You know John, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow I don’t want you to cry for me. If you want to be sad you can be sad, but you know I’ve got to do what I wanted to do. I have a very happy relationship with you. I’m not rich, I’m not thin, but I’ve gotten to somewhere where I’m very happy to be. I don’t want any more things, but I want to see places. I want to go want to go to Madrid. I want to go to Buenos Aires. You know, our culture is very accumulative in nature, and I don’t need to accumulate anymore, but I would like more experiences and I regret that when I was younger I didn’t feel free enough to let myself open to them.
I think that what it is, it’s a societal-imposed mechanism to force you, if you can be forced, to reflect on your life. Turning 30 is when you become an adult now in America. 22-year-olds are not really adults. So 30-year-olds become adults and, you know, at 40, allegedly, you’re coming into the prime of your life, and certainly in your earning power—supposedly that’s when that’s supposed to happen—and 50’s the new 40, or 70’s the new 40. However old Barbara Walters is now the new current age you’re supposed to be. You’re fully engrossed and fleshed in adulthood.
And there’s no denying it. It’s no longer time to reflect, to blame your parents for what went wrong or what happened to you 30 years ago as an explanation for why you aren’t what you are or you’re not doing what you’re doing. You’re grown. You can’t claim 50 and not grown, and so if you don’t like who you are, change who you are. You’re not getting much chance left to do that. And obviously if you’re turning 50 and you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything, if your lifelong desire is to be a parent and you’re not a parent or your lifelong desire is to be a massage therapist and you’re not a massage therapist, there’s not necessarily a whole lot of time left to do that. But, you know, the American culture and society is one of second chances. And third chances and fourth chances. And so you can recreate yourself, but only of your own volition.
Fat people have an advantage in that we don’t get lines. My partner has more crow’s feet and things than I do—he’s much better looking—but that’s because I have a rounder, filled out face. If I were to lose 30 pounds I would look older. That’s not why I don’t lose 30 pounds. I’m trying to lose 30 pounds. But the truth is that, you know, yes. I think that that helps.
I still want to be able to have fun and go out dancing. I still want to be desired sexually. I still want to be able to play tennis and run around and do all those things. And I know that those days are going down now. The number of days left when all those things can be true are going down. Will I be able, health-wise, to eat dinner at Per Se when I’m 55? Or 60? Maybe not. Maybe my doctor will say, No, you can only eat vegetables, and Your blood sugar’s too high, and No, you can’t have any more wine. What’s coming is depravation as a mechanism for health. And that’s clear. It’s part of aging.
I have a very handsome friend. Like, he should be a model. Drop dead gorgeous. And he actually once said to me, It can be a burden. And it’s true. I think that people who are really attractive, despite getting so many things because they’re really attractive, they have this burden to carry. I don’t have those burdens.
If I got hit by a bus tomorrow—which is what my mother said to me—that’s how my mother told me she was dying. We weren’t told. We were not told. My family did not tell us what was going on. What we now know is she had breast cancer that metastasized into her pancreas. She was not diagnosed with cancer until the pancreatic cancer kicked in, which is a very fast… so she was not sick very long. And she was home and she called me into her bedroom. She was lying in her bed. And she told me she was sick. And I told her I knew that, and I said, But you’re going to the doctor, right? She said, Yes. I said, The doctor’s going to make you better. And she said, Well, the doctor’s given me pills. And I said, Well, what happens if the pills don’t work? And she said to me, Danny, what happens if I get hit by a bus? I said, Mom, you’re lying in bed. There’s no busses. She said, Yes, but what happens if I don’t get better? That was all I knew. The night before she died, during Johnny Carson, my father told me she wasn’t going to make it through the night, which is the first time anyone… now she had been in a coma in the hospital, and we were not permitted to visit her for the last two weeks or something. Or a week. I don’t remember. The times are all messed up in my head. So that’s what she said to me: What happens if I get hit by a bus? So it’s sort of an expression that when I hear it or when it’s used it evokes a certain emotional response. But I said that to John: If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, don’t cry for me because I got to be what I wanted to be. Would I rather be a United States Senator? Sure. Would I rather be a United States Congressman? Probably. If I don’t become those things is it a shanda? No. It’s not. It’s just, I feel that I have a role to play and I feel that I get to do what I want to do. I wish I were 30 pounds thinner. I wish I took better care of my health. I wish I exercised more. I wish all those things, and I wish that I didn’t let myself hold myself down when I was younger. That’s all you really get.