Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Story That Needs to be Told, Again - Today of All Days

Today is the 12th anniversary of my brother Jason's death due to HIV/AIDS related complications. 

It sucks. 

As I read through this again I was struck by how badly this post needs edited, but I hesitate to change it since it was 10+ years of repressed feelings rushing out like a tidal wave. The tide has come back in, but something in me feels lighter for writing this lengthy and scattered piece. 

Share it with someone who struggles to accept, struggles to be tolerant. Time is short.

Two people have asked me recently about in a round-about way about my brother and/or why I post vehement messages of support of gay rights on my Facebook page often. While I don't think I need a better reason than the good ol' Golden Rule, like most, the events in my life have shaped how I feel.

My brother Jason was gay. He was always different, although we didn't realize it the way you would now that it is more accepted in our society (it is better now, I think). He was five years older than my sister and me, and was really a great older brother. We should have realized then that it was odd that he helped us cut and dye our Barbie's hair and liked to organize stage productions of "Grease" (1 and 2), and produced and acted in a live sitcom he created a la Partridge Family called "The Beckwith's"....A lot of times I was the dog, but I am over it. Yes I am. Really. I am.

When beard trimmers and markers go wrong..

While we were pretty Brady Bunch-like, Jason and my Dad had a tough time connecting on a man/boy level because their interests were so far apart, but not for lack of trying on my Dad's part. I was more of that person, since I caught salamanders and frogs while Jason cooked and Stephanie hid from the frogs. We had a pretty great childhood, so don't go there. Jason was very well known for singing and acting, and graduated high school "promised" a girl. Yep. You heard me. With the not-an-engagement-ring-ring. He was very popular with girls, which should have been another huge and glaring indicator. There were always rumors he was gay, but since he was always dating someone...

Any opposite sex escort taken to an event in an effort to give a homosexual person the appearance of being out on a date with a person of the opposite sex.
Half of the women on the red carpet at the movie premier were not real dates, but beards.

After High School, he toured with a musical group called Up With People *, during which his girlfriend broke up with him. She was still in school and he was traveling and performing all over the world (awesome!). It was pretty typical for the break up to happen at that age, and I think she probably realized what was up. He was devastated by the break up. I think the break up signified that he knew he could no longer travel down a path that wasn't his. He wasn't so great at facing things, so this was a tough time for him. I suspect he also found that when he left Wyoming, there was a whole world and many of the UWP cast who were having the same feelings he was, and FINALLY, he fit in somewhere. Still, he struggled with coming to terms with who he was and tried to fight it. He was still "in the closet" at this point, at least as far as we knew. 

* Up With People is a great organization and will not, I repeat, will NOT make you gay. Unless you are already gay. The end.

After his touring year he left Up With People, a mistake I think. He went downhill from there and really struggled with drugs and bad relationships over the next 4 years. I was 5 years younger and went from thinking he hung the moon to being very disappointed in his drug use, lack of responsibility and continued lying to my parents, who didn't seem to comprehend the drug use, especially my Dad.

At one point I told my parents I suspected the money they were sending was going toward drugs and that I thought they should stop helping him. My Mom knew, but I don't think my Dad ever stopped trying to help him. I was about 16 years old by then, i guess. I was ultra responsible and possibly a little uptight (Read: SUPER uptight). I was worried and I wanted him to come home so we could assess him in person, but he kept saying he couldn't. We all knew he was gay but my Dad (who probably knew too - ignoring reality apple didn't fall far from that tree ) so during a phone call I finally said we knew he was gay, please come home. (He seemed genuinely surprised that we knew. Again with the reality - my Mom had thought it for years.) He came home alone for a visit, but he was a hot mess. He had a new partner who was also trying to straighten him out, who was off-putting on the phone and seemed not to realize that we were struggling with all of this too. This partner likely saved his life, so I thank him even though he really pissed me off. It wasn't a good visit.

My parents struggled financially in those years of the oil bust and I was very angry at my brother for making their struggle harder, by not paying car payments, continually needing money that was likely not used for dental bills, rent and other excuses and the CONTINUAL LYING. I was pissed at him, done dealing. I stopped talking to him. He wasn't invited to my wedding. This was hard for my parents, and I spent a lot of time being angry at my brother since they couldn't be. I was a bitch about it, and I am sure I added to their stress over the matter. Apologies.

Onion: I'm furiously angry! Grrr...
Jason: Palm Springs! Mimosa, please..

By then, he was still with his life saving partner who had moved him from AZ to CA to get him away from some of the influences that plagued him. I think he may have had to stake him in the back yard for a time in order to keep him from returning to his former life. Jason prospered there and we started talking. No more hard drugs, good jobs, they bought a home and had two dogs. Finally he was at peace with who he was and thought he deserved a regular life. My sister and I went for a visit in 1997, the first time we had seen each other since he had left Up With People.

While I was ok with the gay lifestyle, I will admit I was a little nervous about what it would actually be like to stay with a living and breathing gay couple. I am from Wyoming after wasn't like I had ever really been exposed to it.
Wow, thanks for meeting us at baggage check...

Jason and partner Victor picked us up and we immediately started laughing hysterically like we were back in the day, sneaking cigarettes on the snowmobiles and saying "douche" a lot. Victor stared at us in awe, these people who had been so recently estranged and frankly, seemed like assholes. My sister and I were both married, and it was obvious that they, as a couple, were really just like us. They didn't stand around and make out in front of us, just like we wouldn't have in front of them. They argued about their checkbook (a lot) and made fun of each other (Jason called Victor's look "70's Bathhouse gay" and he had a point.) They bickered in the car. They argued about dinner. Victor was kind of annoyed at how noisy we were being while he tried to drive. It solidified how I thought I felt about a gay lifestyle not being so different from anyone else's.

My parents never talked the fact that Jason was gay. I understood it, but I didn't like it. They were accepting in private, more as time went on. Local people jerks would ask us "Is Jason Married?????? (they knew) and my parents would hem and haw about not finding that right person yet or whatever. I started just blurting out "no, he's gay...but you knew that, right?", to much sputtering of beverages. My parents did not appreciate this much, and I will admit I was being petulant because I was annoyed that people who knew damn well he was gay would make my parents uncomfortable by asking. Rude.

But the the thing I realized by being rude was that was when I said he was gay and asked if they already knew, most admitted they DID know, and then we had a nice pleasant conversation about Jason and his partner of many years. They were actually very accepting once we were honest. I realized that by acting like we needed to hide it, WE made it appear we agreed it was something to hide. When we were open about it, so were others. It was a much more positive experience. Like having a gay coke and a smile.

My brother and Vic joined us in middle America for my Granny Grunt's 80th birthday celebration a few years later. My husband and I picked them up at the airport, or vice versa, I forget. They immediately wanted to stop for drinks in podunk Missouri, so Special Agent liked them immediately. He surmised they were a lot more fun than my sister and her lame-ass husband (we don't miss him now that he is former, either). 

It was a little tense, thinking about the elderly folks of the bible belt having to mix and mingle with a real live gay couple and we were all a little afraid of how that might pan out. But again, we were pleasantly surprised as shirt-tail relation referred to Victor as my brother's "roommate". They knew too, and once again I was reminded that:

a) being gay is not a new concept brought forth in the 70's
b) Everyone (I mean all y'all) have some gay people in your families

That Latino roommate of Jason's is a keeper!

It was a great trip, and sadly would be the last time we would all be together in person. 

My brother died in 1999. I was pregnant with the first wisecracker at the time, and he was the first person in my family who knew about it. I am glad I told him early. He died of cryptococcal meningitis, which was related to HIV. He said he did not know he was positive, although he had told me he had been getting tested every six months. This was a lie, Jason was still not able to be realistic about being gay and the need to be tested often. I hate this. I would be mad at him if it helped at all. But being mad at a dead person is futile.

It was horrible and awful and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. My Mom and I went to CA on Christmas Eve, knowing full well we were not on a rescue mission. Special Agent brought my Dad a day or two later, something I will love him for until the end of time. Special Agent deserves props for being the manliest of men, who isn't afraid of a couple of gay guys, or to take charge of a scared and worried Father in law who desperately needs him to. And then to take said Father in law to a bar in gay town because they both really needed a drink. 

On Dec 29, we discontinued life support and let Jason go. He was 29 years old.
The Onion, Jason and Victor
(see the 70's gay mustache? Do ya?)
1997-ish, San Francisco

I feel that the root of Jason's death was his inability to deal with being gay in a completely open way, which started in Wyoming, in his childhood, in religion, in society. Not my parents fault, as they accepted him wholly, but the arena of people and culture who saw his differences as something he should hide from. Of the many after school specials dealing with self esteem, none of them dealt with what to do when you didn't fit the sexuality mold.

I think Jason's shame for not being "normal" led him to drug use, lying, and a more dangerous and risky lifestyle than he might have if he could have just been himself, grown into his life, and tried to be happy. He got there, but about 15 years too late, and not without damage that would eventually be his undoing. 

His story isn't unusual, you can hear the same from almost every gay person around. Hiding, lying, pretending...from an early age. Jason pretended, even to himself that he was being tested for HIV and might have been diagnosed and gotten the cocktail and still be alive today if he hadn't continued to hide in some way from the true reality of the risks he faced. It breaks my heart and frustrates me all at once.
This post surfaced partly due to a friend Jason went to high school with asking me about his death last week. She had "heard" a lot about it, but never really KNEW if he had died of AIDS/HIV. This girl's dad was my Dad's very close friend. My Dad's very close friend has no idea how my brother died. Even in death, we were still hiding the details, and only listed meningitis as the cause of death in the Obituary. I disagreed with this choice, but I also realize that everyone is not as accepting as I am. There were many who were afraid to shake hands with us after they knew we had been at his death. 

:-( Uneducated, ignorant asses.

As far as not being in agreement on the lifestyle and sin, I can accept that religion and the bible dictate that homosexuality is wrong. I am not religious so that doesn't weigh heavily with me, except to say that according to the Bible, God made every one of us just as we are. But for those who are worrying about other people's so-called sins, I say  "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.."

We grew up as Methodists, and regularly went to church until my teens. The shine wore off over a few incidents and I could never accept that it felt like it was more a place of judgement than of community and acceptance. I saw even good churches do things I felt were not in the spirit of care for others.

My brother's partner was a Catholic, so they subscribed to a lot of religion, even in their own way. When my brother died, we had a hard time finding a local minister who was willing to perform his service, further sealing the deal that religion is not a path i wish to travel.

I don't think anyone chooses to be gay. Who would choose such a difficult path? I believe it isn't an option that someone suggested to you, a bored experiment, or because your Dad didn't spend enough time with you, or because as a girl, you played too many sports, etc. We are who we are, when we are born.

I have several gay friends and feel that there could be members of my family and social groups who may end up being gay as adults. I hope that those who are on that path can feel all of the ease and love possible and tolerance of something not quite the same, but not really that different. I hope acceptance will help them have a better start to an alternate lifestyle than my brother had. 

I think the world is getting better at this, and I am glad.


SherilinR said...

that was beautifully told and a wonderful tribute to a brother who was clearly loved even if he wasn't always understood. nicely written.

Bretthead said...

10+ years old post and perfectly applicable today. I'm glad you were able to reunite and repair your relationship with your brother, especially since he went away to young.

Thanks for re-posting.

Lazarus said...

Stacie, this was great, very well-done and honest. It seems like your relationship with your brother had a lot of layers (I sense a theme here...) but it's clear that you loved him dearly and accepted him. My sister is gay and didn't come out until her mid-30s, although I knew much earlier. Hopefully someday soon society will be more accepting and supportive. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt piece, I read every word.

Just Jane said...

Sitting at work blubbering over this post.

I grew up in Wyoming too at about the same time. Jason would have been just a grade or two ahead of me. I sit here wondering if he and I crossed paths. Very possible. It's a small Wyoming world. I was the (unknowing) beard for my first two boyfriends. They are both still dear friends of mine today now that they are out and proud.

I do think things have gotten better generally - even in Wyoming. The death of Matthew Shepard changed many people. Up until then, I had blissfully ignored what Wyoming must have been like for all the kids who didn't have friends like me. When Matthew died, I was so angry because this was not MY Wyoming! And then I realized yes, yes this was my Wyoming because those of us who are loving and accepting of alternative lifestyles were all too silent in the discomfort of others.

I'm sorry to ramble. You've touched me very deeply today.

I am so very sorry for the loss of your brother. Thank you for remembering him here.

Anonymous said...

This may have been written ten years ago but still holds valid truths today. I too am from Wyoming and have a gay family member. Growing up here was hard enough (read tough men from a tough state). To look at my young man would you immediately get your gaydar gun out? No, he is manly, handsome and also one of the finest human beings you would ever want to come pull you out of a ditch. I am sorry for the loss of your brother, but appreciate you sharing you story.

Pepper said...

beautifully honest ... love

Anonymous said...

Many people you don't know mourned Jason and had empathy dor your family . . .

Elle said...

Thank you for sharing. And I'm sorry for your family's loss. I'm from MO and don't even mind the podunk comment. : ) Take care.

Jeran Artery said...

Thank you for sharing this heart wrenching yet beautiful story honoring your brothers life. As an out proud gay man in Wyoming I find things are getting better by the day. We still have a huge battle ahead of us but by continuing to speak out and telling our stories; and by letting people know that we are not so different from our heterosexual counterparts we can continue to make progress towards the Equality State possibly living up to its name someday!

Let's stay in touch Stacie, and the next time your back in Wyoming we should try and have lunch or coffee.... or vodka (how's that for a gay stereotype) hehe! Seriously would love to meet you sometime and hear more about Jason.

Your new friend, Jeran