Today is National Coming Out Day, an internationally-observed civil awareness day for coming out and discussion about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. I think it's a good day to talk about civil rights, religion, prejudice, truth and stupidity.
I'll never forget the first person who came out to me publicly in the mid-1980's. I was a young student at a Lutheran University, and most of my peers came from conservative families and congregations.
I handled it badly. Very badly.
I started being Lutheran when I was 13 and a friend of mine asked me to come with her to a youth group meeting. I found a group of nice people who welcomed me into their community and nurtured my interest in music, drama, and philosophical discussion.
By the time I was in high school, our youth leaders (who were only a few years older than us) traveled with us to perform plays and music we'd written at regional and national youth conferences. We had fun and I learned that there are many kinds of Lutherans. Some are quite conservative, some are liberal. I thought I was in the middle.
One of my favorite youth leaders was Craig who joined our church as the Director of Christian Education my senior year of high school. He was married to a wonderful woman and they both came from loving familes of Lutheran pastors and teachers. He was smart and funny, a great counselor when I needed one, and he introduced me to real coffee (shots of espresso with milk, as opposed to the horrible church coffee I tried to drink on Sunday mornings after church.)
When I went off to college in Craig's home town, I became friends with his younger brother and spent time hanging out at their parent's house. I was quite surprised when I heard that Craig and his wife were getting a divorce, but I couldn't get many details when I asked why.
Soon after, Craig called and asked me to join him for coffee, he wanted to talk to me. He told me he was gay and both he and his wife knew it when they got married, but due to their religious views, and because they really did love each other as best friends, they wanted to get married anyway and make it work. It didn't. After several years and no children, they made the painful decision to end the marriage.
Craig knew his family loved him, but this was a completely new world to them. His father was a well-respected conservative Lutheran Pastor in the region, and they were all figuring out how talk about this, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It had been tough year for everyone and I saw the pain etched deep behind his eyes.
Craig finished talking and waited for me to respond.
I was 18 and very naive. I'd just had my first kiss (and nothing more) a few months before. I was not comfortable talking about sex, or anything related to it, including pre-marital sex or adultery. Being gay was about sex, right? All I could think of was that the Bible lumped the homosexuals in with the bad guys. I had been taught it was a sin. I had never thought about it from a personal perspective.
I was speechless. Craig had been a dear friend to me, and I looked up to him. I wasn't sure how to answer him.
When I finally spoke my response was lame and included phrases like "I respected him and valued him as a person, I'd always be his friend, but I didn't agree with his choices." Because the dogma I'd internalized up to that point taught that he had a choice.
I saw my words hit him like a brick thrown in his face from across the little bistro table. He had expected more from me. He saw more in me than I was willing to let out at the time. He thought I was bigger than the dogma of my church. He thought I knew him well enough to know this wasn't a moral issue, it didn't have anything to do with sex. He thought I'd understand he had no choice. He thought I was a grown up.
He didn't say any of these thoughts out loud. I read them all instantly in the flash of sadness that clouded his eyes. I had to look away then. I was ashamed of myself for not having the insight or vocabulary to figure out how to talk to someone I cared for about being gay. I didn't even know how to try.
I realized I didn't have the guts to let him help me figure out what it all meant, even though he'd helped me deal with all kinds of other tough issues in high school. It was a huge disappointment for both of us. He regained his composure, asked if I could be a good friend to his little brother during this difficult time, gave me a hug and left.
I only saw Craig a couple of times after that. Once at his parents house for a family dinner, once on the bus where he introduced me to his partner. Each time very awkward. We were polite, to each other, but the friendship was clearly broken.
When his brother confided in me about trying to come to grips with Craig's new lifestyle, I sternly told him he should love Craig unconditionally, nothing had really changed in him, he was still the same as he'd always been, he was his brother, and none of the rest mattered. I heard the irony in my words, but saying what I should have said to Craig out loud made me feel better, even though I still couldn't tell him myself.
A few years later, I graduated, and Craig's brother moved away. I lost touch with the family. My mom called me and told me that Craig had AIDS and he was dying.
My mom was a home health nurse who had worked with a few AIDS patients and their families and was often on hospice calls when they were dying at home. She knew the struggles the families faced, often telling everyone their sons had cancer, to avoid the stigma and fear that came with the AIDS ordeal.
She drove up to see Craig and his partner a few times, and sent them letters and photos to cheer them up and let them know she was thinking of him. He asked about me. She told him where I was, what I was up to, weaving all my wild little adventures into funny Julie stories that they could laugh about.
I was in California by then, and had joined a liberal Lutheran church, complete with an openly gay choir director. I hung out with a tightly-knit group of friends, including Christians, Jews, Atheists, Muslims and yes, even a few openly gay people.
The veil of the immaturity I had hid behind at 18 had been lifted swiftly and thrown away by the time I was 22, and living and working in the real world. I had finally grown up a little, as Craig must have known I would.
My mom called again. Craig was really sick now. She had his address, I should send him a card, maybe make a trip up to visit him if I could work it in. I said maybe I would, and I wrote down the address. I composed a few letters in my head, but I knew I wasn't brave enough to send them. I knew he'd forgiven me by then, but I hadn't forgiven myself.
I cried hard the day my mom called and told me Craig died. I cried for myself, for being so stupid.
I guess this is the letter I would have written to Craig, if I'd been able to, 22 years ago.