You cannot miss the big, pink Victorian house Robert Loyd and his husband, John Schenck, called home since 1986. What started as a try at brightening up the dark brown and yellow paint scheme soon became a symbol of stepping out of the shadows and being unafraid to be gay, in a town where that was often verboten and to some degree still is.
Loyd, a Damascus native who fought tirelessly for the cause of LGBT rights and acceptance in Arkansas after being moved to action by a series of humiliating run-ins with the Conway Police Department in 2003 and 2004, died suddenly on Dec. 30, 2015, leaving behind Schenck, his partner and husband of almost 41 years. The Arkansas Times conducted one of the last interviews with Loyd and Schenck in the closing months of 2015. The quotes in this article come from that interview.
Loyd was born in Germany, the child of a woman who had served in the German regular army and an American G.I. who brought her back home to Arkansas as a war bride when Loyd was 3 years old. Growing up, Loyd said, he never even heard the word “gay,” and never suspected he was different from anyone else. With two former soldiers in the family, Loyd said, his parents made the strong suggestion that he join the armed forces when he came of age, even though the meat grinder of Vietnam was spinning in Southeast Asia.
“My parents decided that I was going,” he said. “You can call that volunteering on paper. That’s what it says. But it was not my idea.” Loyd joined the U.S. Army, and shipped out to Vietnam in March 1968. He wound up working in communications, eventually supervising a staff of 400 manning tickertape machines. One of his duties was to take calls from the red phone that bore orders from the president, which he was required to deliver personally, accompanied by armed MPs, often riding through areas of heavy fighting. “I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he said. “My life up to that point had been so miserable that I was like, I don’t care. So I wasn’t scared.”
Always having dated women — he was engaged three times before he was 21 years old — Loyd left Vietnam in 1969 and was sent to Colorado before being reassigned to a base in Germany. He said he learned what gay was from a friend who came to him, saying that he wanted to commit suicide because he was homosexual. It was, he said, the first time he’d ever heard the term. “The straight redneck who has been engaged three times is hearing what gay people do for the first time,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t tell you how appalled I was!” Loyd said he would later kiss what he called “a cute, blonde German boy” while warming up in a restaurant’s open boiler room on a cold winter’s night. From that moment, he said, he knew that he was gay.
After leaving the Army in October 1970, Loyd moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he worked as a hairdresser. With clients from New York often wintering in Palm Beach, Loyd would often share notes on cut and color for clients he shared with a Long Island hairdresser named John, a bit of serendipity John Schenck and Robert Loyd didn’t puzzle out until they’d fallen in love. They first met in a Palm Beach dance club. With Schenck having arrived in the company of one of Loyd’s old boyfriends, Loyd said he gave his future husband short shrift. The wheel of fortune had turned, however, and Schenck soon convinced Loyd to move to New York to live with him. On their first trip to New York, Schenck said, he made Loyd a deal. “The deal was, we’d live together for six months,” Schenck said. “At the end of six months, if [Loyd] wanted to stay, great. … This past January was 40 years.”
The couple moved back to Arkansas in 1978 to take care of Loyd’s mother after his father fell ill and passed away. Though both had been professionally successful in freewheeling New York, moving to sleepy Damascus was like stepping back to the dark ages. Schenck said he applied at almost every beauty shop in the area, but got not a nibble. Things changed when Loyd’s mother rented them an old gas station on the highway outside of town, where they opened their first Arkansas salon, The Lion’s Den. While the first years were so lean that Loyd said they would often go to buffets and secretly stuff food in their pockets so they’d have something to eat later, the shop eventually became so successful that they opened others in Greers Ferry and Heber Springs.
In 1986, Schenck and Loyd moved to Conway, hoping to start a shop there. After the deal to rent a space fell through, they were driving through town when they passed a large Victorian house. When they happened back by 30 minutes later, Loyd said, there was a for sale sign out front. They took it as providence and stopped, eventually buying the home where they lived and worked for most of the next three decades for $70,000.
With the house a dreary brown, Loyd hoped to brighten it up by painting the porch pale lavender. Loyd said he was on top of a ladder painting when a woman approached to voice her disapproval.
“Some woman came up and said, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing to the house,’ ” Loyd recalled. “I said, ‘I hate your fucking dress. Get the fuck out of my yard. You don’t like this? Come back tomorrow. It’ll be yellow with purple polka dots.’ ” As a further poke in the eye of locals who disapproved, the color of the porch was changed from lavender to pale pink. As the years wore on, the pink would darken and spread until it covered the whole house, transforming just another house on the corner into the flamingo-colored Conway landmark it is today.
Their choice in paint notwithstanding, Loyd said that he and Schenck were focused on their business and almost entirely nonpolitical for the next 17 years, quietly taking in scores of kids tossed out of their homes for being gay, but keeping as low a profile as one can when living in a giant pink house in Conway. Even so, Loyd and Schenck said they often didn’t use their porch swing or benches in the yard because of passing drivers shouting “faggot” and “queer.”
During the funeral of a former Conway mayor at a nearby church in January 2003, however, Loyd confronted a police officer about people parking in their driveway, later snapping a photo of the officer before rushing back into the house. “They kicked the door in,” Loyd said. “Knocked the frame from its hinges.”
Loyd and Schenck were placed in handcuffs, dragged from the house, and put face down on the hood of a car as mourners left the funeral. “They were all walking by, tittering and laughing,” Loyd said. Schenck was detained for six hours, while Loyd was held for nine. That, and later run-ins with the police that they saw as motivated by homophobia, turned them into warriors for the cause of LGBT rights, they said.
“I am a German,” Loyd said. “I came from Germany with my family to get away from Nazi treatment, and moved into a nest of them. I am not a quitter. I am not a coward. I didn’t say anything for 30 years. I didn’t do anything. I never stood up for myself or anybody else.” When they kicked in his door, Loyd said, that changed. After seeing Gov. Mike Huckabee speaking out against gay rights, Loyd and Schenck were angry enough to step out of the shadows, appearing on local TV stations to publicly support gay marriage. They almost immediately paid the price.
“As soon as we came out on TV asking for the same rights you have to get married,” Schenck said, “I lost about half of my clients, and he lost about two-thirds.” Many, however, sent Schenck and Loyd thanks for their bravery and willingness to speak up for what was right.
“For the first time in my life,” Loyd said, “I was being praised for having a big mouth and saying anything I thought. I never had been before. I was told to sit down, shut up and say nothing most of my life, and I had done so.”
It was a shout that became a revolution in Conway, with Loyd and Schenck organizing the first Conway pride parade in 2004, attended by 100 marchers and over 1,000 protestors, an event that was marred by someone spreading six tons of cow manure along the parade route. Undeterred, they’ve continued the annual parade, held rallies and mass marriage ceremonies, and helped keep the cause of LGBT rights in the public eye. Married in Canada in 2004, Robert and John were, by all accounts, the first same-sex couple in Arkansas to be legally married following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision striking down the prohibition on same-sex marriage in June 2015.
Since becoming more political, Loyd said, one of the things he was most proud of was all the friends he’d made. He was also proud of the LGBT kids they had taken into their home and cared for when no one else wanted them, and the work they’d done to help gays and lesbians be more accepted in the state they call home. For Loyd, as it had been from the beginning, life was always about changing hearts and minds for the better.
“One of the straight peoples’ biggest surprises, if they actually bother to get to know us, is, we can do more than cut hair,” Loyd said with a smile. “I can move a wall. I can build a house. Give me a staple gun and a roll of tape, and I can rebuild your whole house.”
And so he helped to do exactly that in Arkansas.