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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.

Five Lives Remembered in December

When I was in high school, there was a kid in the class behind me named John. He came from a fairly well-to-do family of brothers who all had a touch of arrogance about them that came from being born to privilege. John was the youngest of the bunch and in addition to this slightly patronizing nature that came from who his family was, he was blessed with an enormous gift of singing and an ability to make people laugh despite their dislike of him.

After I graduated from high school, I lost touch with John, but in recent years I learned he never married, was active in his church choir and pretty much stayed close to the area he grew up in. From this information, which I garnered by reading his obituary, I assumed he was gay. If he and I were teenagers nowadays, I can see John as being someone who might have brought a same-sex date to the prom and being elected president of the drama club or choir, simply because his flamboyance and arrogance might be more acceptable and thought of us as cool by today's kids, who are more accepting of differences than we were, although not a lot more.

I'm also thinking of David, the older brother of my childhood girlfriend Gloria, with whom I'm still friends. When I would visit at their house --- we're talking a friendship that began in pre-adolescence --- I would stay in David's room. He was a gentle, kind kid, involved in the Boy Scouts and a straight arrow in a very straight, somewhat conservative, All-American family.

After we became adults and Gloria and I married other people, I would learn from her and from our parents, who also were close friends, that David had moved to San Francisco and didn't come home to see his family much. There was always something hush-hush, don't ask, in the atmosphere when the subject came to David and it wasn't until less than a year before he died that he returned to Ohio and I got to see him briefly one more time. The truth about his life became obvious when I saw him: He was ill for some reason and he seemed uncomfortable being out of the West Coast city where he made his home.

Gloria and I still talk and reminisce occasionally about David. His surviving partner came to visit her family recently. She pondered about how to refer to him and explain to strangers his relationship to her family now that David was gone. She wasn't trying to hide anything but wanted to make David's friend feel that he was still a part of their family because he had been with David.

My friend Jeffrey was one of the handsomest men I have ever seen. I first saw him at the city swimming pool in the town we were living in. He was six feet, five inches tall, had a face like Richard Chamberlain in "The Thorn Birds," and as he sat in a grassy area, sunning himself, the church ladies my wife and I were sitting with whispered and giggled among themselves about who the handsome stud was. They were embarrassed when they found out he was new bachelor pastor at the local Presbyterian Church. And in his Sunday morning ecclesiastical robes, he looked even more like Richard Chamberlain in "The Thorn Birds."

Jeffrey and I got to know each other through our local ministerial association, where he was a breath of fresh air amidst more conservative elements. He called for inclusiveness in a small town which prided itself on its racial homogeneity (i.e., all white or passing for white) and advocated feminist activities and spoke of the need to pray for the homeless and for people with sexually transmitted diseases.

He and I also sat on the board of a substance abuse recovery counseling center, and in that function, he accompanied me, as chairman, to a meeting to discuss the possibility of moving the center's headquarters to a new neighborhood. There was much opposition among the more entrenched members of the community, and I asked Jeffrey to come along in case I lost my temper. I figured he would be a calming influence.

Two elderly ladies got up at the meeting and started expressing their opposition "to having drug addicts and drunks" in their neighborhood, which actually wasn't THEIR neighborhood; they just owned rental properties in it. They also said that sometimes they would go over and sit in the grocery store parking lot outside the Rotary Club building, where Alcoholics Anonymous held their meetings on Friday nights, "because it was important that someone keep an eye on who's going to those meetings and know who those people are."

Before my brain could process what was being said, Jeffrey was on his size fourteen feet and in the ladies' faces, angrily saying, "'THOSE PEOPLE' are your neighbors and your relatives and YOU are probably the reason they need to go to AA!"

We didn't get the zoning variance we were requesting, but at least I got to see a good man in his finest hour. I told this story just a few years later at Jeffrey's funeral, which was attended by more than 300 people, many of them members of the mostly gay congregation in Columbus that he eventually pastored.

My cousin T.J. was one of the "black sheep" in his own immediate family. He was much younger than I and if I ever met him in person, he was just a baby or toddler. His father, my cousin Terry Lee, was a redneck hothead and had estranged himself from our branch because of some remarks he made to my mother about certain actions I took to protest the Vietnam War. It made family reunions very tense and for years, weddings and funerals had to be carefully coordinated so that Terry Lee and Aunt Minnie, my mother, would not encounter each other.

T.J., when he became an adult, became a professional actor and changed one letter in his last name after his father and he became estranged. The reason? T.J. was openly gay. He was very active in the Columbus alternative theater scene and performed often at a Short North theater where many gay and lesbian oriented original shows premiered.

As I said, I never encountered T.J. until after his death, when I became involved with a theater troupe that performed short plays promoting AIDS awareness and safe sex activities. We were booked into a three-week run at the same Short North theater where T.J. had played some of his best roles. One of the actresses took me into the costume room and showed me some of the costumes he had worn and brought in a scrapbook she had made that had photos of him and other memorabilia.

In the course of the production, she also said that there was a ghost in the theater and many people who knew him thought it was T.J. I made further inquiries and discovered that there were several people associated with the theater who would admit to having "T.J." encounters.

Up to this point, I had been having a number of problems in maintaining order in my personal possessions I would bring to the theater. A book, a notebook, a special pencil, a script --- all of these would disappear during a rehearsal or a performance and then, within the next 24 hours, show up in a part of the theater where I hadn't been. I thought one of the cast or crew were playing games with me but then someone told me, "You know, it could be T.J. That's how he makes himself known sometimes."

The next evening, I got to the theater early enough to go out on the empty stage and perform a simple ceremony. I would walk to center stage --- an actor's dream location --- and say very quietly, "Hello, cousin. Hello, T.J. Hope you enjoy the show tonight, or some such thing." Now, it may be coincidence, but things stopped disappearing --- or at least they would reappear in the place they were missing from just as I would be leaving the theater. Whenever I found one, I chuckled and would say to the air, "Thanks, T.J."

On the next-to-last night of the show, several members of T.J.'s and my family --- including my mother and T.J.'s father's sister --- showed up. It was one of our best performances and in one sequence, where I played a man coming to grips with been diagnosed with AIDS, I was moved to tears by a feeling of understanding that came over me.

The missing object on the last night of the show was a paperback book in a bookstore bag that I bought. I was one of the last to leave the theater and I went out on the darkened empty stage one last time.

"Goodbye, T.J. See you around, cousin," I said.

And when I left the building, by the front door --- I always entered through the actor's entrance off the side alley --- I found the bag with the book still in it.

One of the actors in the play was Matthew, who joined the cast as a replacement for another performer. I had never met anyone like Matthew before --- his head was shaved completely bald and he looked like someone who walked out of a biker bar. I discovered, when we were in our shared dressing room, that he had, extending the full length of his back, a tattoo of an extremely well-endowed body builder with a werewolf's head. He also had a number of piercings on his upper body and when someone commented on them, he quietly replied, "That's not all of them."

In fact, Matthew was a theatrical costume designer by profession and had designed a number of beautiful sequined gowns for local beauty queens. One of them was for a former Miss Ohio who had gone on to become first runner up in the Miss America Pageant. One day, he showed me a picture of what I assumed was the beauty queen herself modeling the dress. I commented on how beautiful she was, and he laughed.

"That's not her," he said. "That's the copy I made for myself."

I looked at it more closely.

"Oh..." I said.

All of these men --- John, David, Jeffrey, T.J. and Matthew --- died of AIDS before their 50th birthday. They were people who were loved and are the ones whom I choose to remember every December, around the time of World AIDS Day. I remember them more often than that because they made impressions on my life and did not do anything to deserve to die so young.

In this age, we know the importance of practicing safe sex and why having anonymous sex or multiple sex partners increases the risks of getting AIDS or some other STD. Of course, knowing what to do and actually doing it require self-restraint, which is not always as easy as it sounds.

That's all I have to say on the subject. I'm no expert on AIDS or what people who live with it are going through. I only know what I know and what I know is I am remembering and missing five people who touched my life.


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