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Barbara Blewster--May's fellow freshman and fellow Mormon--lived nearby. May played with Blewster's son; Blewster visited the May household as a teacher, on behalf of the church.
"I was a good boy," May recalls. "I never got in trouble, I never did anything wrong, I worked really hard. At church I gave all the talks, I was the kid that had to go out and bring in the wayward souls."
And convince them to register Republican.
In 1980, Democrat Bill Schulz challenged Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, and 8-year-old Steve asked his school principal for permission to hold a mock election. He canvassed for Goldwater, who was no match to Schulz, who happened to live in the Mays' neighborhood, Arcadia, in northeast Phoenix. Schulz won.
"I was so bummed," May recalls.
Jim May remembers that his son Steve and daughter Shannon "used to argue over who would be president of the United States first, and who would be secretary of state to whom."
At Arcadia High, Steve ran for office at every opportunity. His classmates even nominated him for student body president in the spring of his junior year, when he was in Germany on an exchange program. (He lost.) A decade later, former schoolmates still refer to him as "Mr. Student Council" and recall that he took himself very seriously.
Jason Rose, a political consultant who graduated from Arcadia a year ahead of May, remembers May as ambitious and driven. "He seemed like a guy that wanted to do everything possible to keep his political options open in hopes of assuming higher office."
Amy Rutkin, a 1986 Arcadia graduate who's now chief of staff to Brooklyn Democratic Congressman Gerald Nadler, was president of the Arcadia Student Political Union. She recalls clashing with May on the issues of the day, particularly during Model Legislature, a program sponsored by the YMCA in which high school students hold an annual mock legislative session.
Rutkin recalls that May's bills were outrageous; one year he proposed seceding from the Union.
Yet he was masterful in defending his positions. In fact, May was so earnest that even some adults found his diatribes annoying. One parent recalls sending a note to the House floor telling him, "Stick a cork in it, Steve."
But Rutkin respected May. "I never found him arrogant and obnoxious," she says. "I just found him kind of well-spoken and thoughtful. He definitely was as far to the other side of the political spectrum as I could have imagined."
Yes, she agrees, May took his role more seriously than most.
"Kids went to Model Leg to find a date," Rutkin says, "and he went to deliberate the serious issues of the day."
That's because for May, debating came easier than dating.
Steve recalls that in the third grade, he developed a crush on a classmate named Geoff.
"I remember sitting out on the playground, sitting next to Geoff," May recalls, "and telling him the next day that I was up all night crying, that I had these feelings for him but I knew it was wrong, but I just thought he should know how I felt. . . . It wasn't a sexualized thing, because I don't think we knew what that was, but it was definitely something that was inappropriate."
May didn't act on his feelings until he was 16. But even while he was dating men, he refused to accept the notion that he was gay.
"At a certain point, probably during high school, I decided that this was one of my challenges God had given me, was to overcome these feelings, that it was just one more Mormon trial," he says. "I worked very hard to overcome it."
Jim May announced he would pay Steve's way to college, provided he attend Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. Steve felt the Mormon institution was intellectually and socially restrictive. So May won a Navy ROTC scholarship to Claremont McKenna College, a private liberal arts college east of Los Angeles, part of a five-college cluster that includes Pomona College. Claremont McKenna is a bastion of conservative political thought and not a place that celebrated homosexuality.
But at the time, neither did May. He kept his social life private, attending church and insisting to himself that he could be both gay and Mormon. But a day of reckoning was at hand. At 19, Mormon men are expected to go on a two-year church mission.
"When you're 19 and you're Mormon and you don't go on a mission, you're an outcast," May says. "You're an embarrassment to your family. People say things about you."
The summer after his freshman year--weeks before his 19th birthday--May made his choice.
"I decided to be honest with myself one way or another," he recalls. "One was, 'I'm honest, I'm out,' or I forever put that part of my life and feelings away and I do the good boy Mormon thing for the rest of my life."
So May told his parents he was gay. They both wept for three days, he says, then insisted he quit school and come home to work for the family tea business.