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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Just Another Plague

Friday, Dec. 1 is an important day --- or at least it should be --- for the gay and gay-supportive community. OK, class, does anyone know why?

If you said, "It's Bette Midler's 55th birthday," you'd be right, but you'd also be wrong and probably spend too much time watching network TV and ordering stuff from QVC.

However, if you said "World AIDS Day," you're completely right. It's a time to recall gay history and particularly the many loved ones lost to an insidious disease.

Yes, I know --- it's politically correct these days to point out that AIDS is not just a "gay" disease; it currently is making its quickest deadly inroads among heterosexual communities in Third World countries. But it also will be forever associated with gay men, among whose numbers the disease was first identified. Much of a generation was lost to AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s and in Western countries in particular, most of the early victims were gay.

The spread of AIDS among gay men has had mixed effects on society. The initial reaction of many people was that it was God's punishment on homosexual people for their wicked "lifestyles." The spread of this misguided thinking caused a counter-reaction, best expressed by Julia Sugarbaker on "Designing Women," who told off a homophobic acquaintance by saying, "If God handed out sexually transmitted diseases to people for sinning, you'd be down at the free clinic every day!" Public education about AIDS has helped its victims become less pariah-like in society's eyes, although there are many whose consciousness still needs to be raised. It's always been a special disease with a special impact on society --- not "just another plague."

That's why we observe World AIDS Day --- to remember those we've lost and to remind ourselves what the disease is and is not about about. It's not just about wearing red ribbons or holding candlelight vigils while the names of the dead are recited. It's about committing ourselves to eradicate the disease and its side effects on society, which can include social isolation of those folks living with the disease and ignorant fear on the part of some who still do not understand how the disease is and is not spread.

It also is a time to encourage our young loved ones --- one group continually at risk because of youth's natural instinct to believe themselves invincible --- to know the risks and take steps to avoid them, whether by practicing "safe sex" or abstinence until they're old enough to enter into a committed long-term relationship.

For me and my family, it's a time simply to remember special loved ones we have lost. On Dec. 1, I'll be lighting a candle to remember my cousin T.J., a talented professional actor, who, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, burned his own candle at both ends in his short life, making a glorious and lovely light. His gay sexual orientation caused a permanent rift between him and his father although our extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles rallied around T.J. at the end of his life and shunned the father for his own rotten attitude.

I also remember my friend Jeffrey, a movie-star-handsome Presbyterian minister who continued his ministry even after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. Jeffrey focused his work on the gay community of Columbus, Ohio, providing dignified spirituality to many gay and lesbian people and gently forcing the reserved and conservative heterosexual members of his congregation to interact with those who were "different." When I gave one of the eulogies at his funeral, it was before a crowd of nearly 400 people from a wide range of backgrounds --- demonstrating the effect one motivated life can have on many.

Another friend, Matthew, died as he lived --- angry at his life being cut off so quickly and fiercely independent and determined that he would live what time he had left his way, even down to making specific instructions for his funeral. Matthew was a handsome, exotic man --- he shaved his head and had an obscenely erotic tattoo from his shoulder blades to the small of his back, as well as multiple body piercings. His career included being a theatrical designer and creating beautiful gowns for some of Ohio's top-ranked beauty queens. Some of his creations he also duplicated for his own personal use. At the end of his life, before the last of his energy was spent, he managed a troupe of male strippers.

Matthew and I knew each other through a community theater group and formed an unlikely friendship because he chain-smoked and I needed fresh air. Consequently, when we were not onstage, we hung out in an alley behind the theatre. We talked casually about life and family and shared with each other our angers and regrets. I was focused on the then-very recent disappearance of my gay oldest son, who is still a missing person after four years. For Matthew, it was abandonment on the part of his father, not only in Matthew's childhood, but also in later life, when Matthew's sexual orientation became an issue. When Matthew said he did not want his father to be present at his funeral, my heart broke. I blurted out, "If I could, I would give back to you everything your father should have given you. The worst thing in the world is for parents and children to be estranged."

Matthew and I became very close --- a middle-aged married guy and an angry young gay man who came from two different worlds. On the last night of the show we were in, Matthew invited me to go to a bar where his motley troupe of strippers were performing.

"Can you just pretend to be my boyfriend while we're there?" he said. "I get tired of being hit on."

And so, for one evening, I was Matthew's boyfriend, "Killer," named after the unseen love interest of Geraldine Jones, Flip Wilson's drag persona. Drunks would come up and try to hustle Matthew --- who was better looking than most of his strippers --- and he would put his arm around me and say, "Have you met my boyfriend, Killer?" I would glower and look as large and scary as I could and the drunk would stumble away, his tail between his legs.

At the end of the evening, after Matthew paid off his strippers, I walked him outside to his car and we hugged.

"Thanks, Dad," he said, and drove off. I went home to my wife and, still amazed by the experience, told her about my bizarre evening.

On World AIDS Day, T.J. and Jeffrey and Matthew will be remembered. I'll also remember one of the songs played at Matthew's funeral --- the Columbus Gay Men's Chorus' version of "You'll Never Walk Alone." I'll be humming it throughout the day because I know the spirits will be with me and other folks who loved them all.

Published 29th November 2000


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