Not Losing My Religion

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I just received my current issue of RFD Magazine, with my story, “Not Losing My Religion” in it:

Born in the South at the end of the Baby Boom, I have a long and complicated relationship with the church. ‘The church’ for me being Christian, and, more specifically, the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.

As a child, I loved my religion. I remember sitting in Christ Lutheran’s sanctuary of blond wood and stained glass windows, a larger-than-life statue of Christ resurrected hanging over the altar, feeling transported by the setting, the music, and the rhythms of the liturgy. Some of my earliest memories are of liturgy—the Te Deum laudamus and Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.  As a gay child, I found great comfort in the teachings of love and meekness and the reverence of a savior who taught us to “turn the other cheek.” Fights at school and the bus stop were common occurrences growing up, and I was a ‘sensitive’ child in my mother’s words; a ‘mama’s boy’ in my older brothers’ eyes; a ‘sissy’ in the words of at least one teacher; and all that or much worse in the taunts of my classmates. Church was truly a refuge for the pre-adolescent me.

All that changed with my sexual awakening, which was so different than that of my straight brothers and peers. I came to hear more clearly the message of the church that I was wrong—an abomination. Like so many other gay and lesbian men and women, I slowly turned away from religion, dismissing my previous feelings of comfort and belief as being primitive and naïve. I stopped going to church when I left home for college, and it was a long time before I found my way back there again.

Two pivotal things worked to bring me back into the church’s orbit and, finally, into a pew. The first incident happened soon after I graduated from college. I found myself in the Southern gay mecca of Atlanta, and I found myself with a boyfriend. As Christmas approached, I realized that I was going to have to choose between spending the holiday with my family or with my new boyfriend—an untenable choice in my mind. Hoping to be able to spend Christmas with my family and my boyfriend, I came out to my mother. Not surprisingly, my mother, a good Missouri Synod Christian woman, struggled with my revelation. “Are you sure?” she asked, hoping that I had somehow made a mistake. My boyfriend did not come home for Christmas. I, however, continued coming home every weekend after coming out in hopes of showing my mother, recently widowed, that I was the same person she had always known.

One evening, as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, my mother returned home from a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League meeting. She walked up behind me as I continued washing the dishes, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I talked to Pastor about you after everyone else left the meeting. He said that God still loves and accepts you. I hope you know that I do, too.” My hands immersed in the hot soapy water, I stared forward, out the kitchen window, unable to wipe the tears that ran down my face. We had a good talk that night, and I called ‘Pastor’ the next morning to set up a meeting to talk with him. He admitted that he didn’t know anyone who was gay, but he was sure that God loved me. He and I became pen pals for several years after, corresponding regularly while I was away in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

While his loving—his Christian—response was enough to keep me interested in God, it was not enough to overcome my fears of condemnation by God’s church, and I continued to keep my distance through my years in the Peace Corps and my return to the United States. I did, however, read and study on my own, finding much comfort, to my surprise, in the Bible. I also read historian John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and began to realize that ‘God’ and ‘church’ might not be synonymous. Nonetheless, I avoided the institution and the risks associated with it. Then, something happened in 1987 that brought me back through its doors and into a pew.

I had returned from the Peace Corps and was a nurse at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, working with AIDS patients. One afternoon, as I was walking into a patient’s room to hang an IV, I heard a conversation taking place and, for some reason, I stopped and waited—and listened. A minister was visiting the patient, a gay man with AIDS, and they were having a beautiful talk, full of kindness and acceptance—no condemnation or guilt. I even heard the minister talk about the patient’s partner, who was also apparently a parishioner, in loving words. I was surprised—genuinely and pleasantly surprised. When the minister walked out, I asked him about his church. He was also a Lutheran, of the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he invited me to come to a service. After thinking it over for a few weeks, I did, and I felt as if I’d returned home, easily falling into the rhythms of the liturgy. I ended up joining, and God seemed to bless my return by introducing me to the man who has been my partner for over 25 years at that church.

I still go to church, although I moved to the Episcopal Church in 2002 because I found them more theologically welcoming to LGBTQ persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has since opened its doors wide as well, but I’m a committed Episcopalian now, often serving on the altar with the priest. I remember the first time I gave communion to my partner—I had to choke back the tears as I offered the cup of wine, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Another time, a parishioner called me after church to tell me that he had watched as the priest and I walked out into the congregation to commune an elderly member who couldn’t come forward. He said he had watched as I offered her the cup, and my face was changed. In truth, I do feel changed into a better version of me when participating in the service this way.

While I, too, have wandered down alternative paths on my spiritual journey, they have always brought me back home to ‘church’ through the blessings of clergy and others who have truly shown me the loving image of Christ that is at the heart of all true Christianity. At the same time, I understand that is not the case for so many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and I pray that all of us find that love and acceptance somewhere, whether it be a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or in community or nature. We are all children of a loving God.

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AIDS Witness

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I don’t know how
I survived.
Present at the onset,
Before it even had a name;
I walked through minefields
and watched them fall;
boyfriends, friends, and foes:
Hogie, Steve, Chris, Chepé, Scott,
and the guy in room 312 in 1984, hidden behind a wall of isolation gowns and masks.

I don’t know why
I lived
When they all died.
Was I more deserving?
Or, like Job, did God let me survive to test my faith?
We lost.

I lost my faith,
And I ran,

Fled the scene, the death, the destruction.
A refugee, hiding,
Waiting for the plague to end.
It didn’t.

I don’t know how
I survived the hiding,
Dead to the world around me.

I don’t know how
I returned
To live—to life—in the land of the dying.

I don’t know how
I searched a quilt for his name:
Hogie
Hogie Gaskins

I don’t know how
I held the hand of the man in room 508
While life seeped out of him.
I didn’t know that he—that all of them—gave me my own life back.

I didn’t know that
God was right.
We won.
I lived—I live—to
bear witness.

My Peace Corps Service

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Like some Peace Corps Volunteers of an earlier era, my decision to join the Peace Corps was shaped by the events on the ground when I volunteered.  In the 1960s, it was the Vietnam War and the draft; the Peace Corps was one way to defer draft eligibility.  For me, in the 1980s, it was AIDS; the Peace Corps was my way of avoiding that “war” of my generation, my way of deferring being drafted into the AIDS epidemic.  In both cases, volunteers were hoping to avoid death while managing to do some good in a world turned upside-down.  I had no idea at the time that I volunteered how profoundly my Peace Corps experience would change me, just as I am sure that those volunteers of the Sixties seeking draft-deferment found their service similarly life-changing.

I volunteered in 1985, beginning the process in 1984.  AIDS had only just earned that ominous title, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in 1983.  When it was first identified in 1981 it was known as the “gay cancer” and then GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency.  There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year.  A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections” – unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised.  These infections had their own ominous-sounding names:  Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus.

Another such opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to.  I had a terrible case of the chickenpox in 1984 and, as a recently graduated nurse, I feared that I had already developed AIDS.  My recovery, however, seemed to indicate that my immune system was, in fact, intact, and I did not have AIDS.  I made the decision to “get the hell out of Dodge,” avoiding further exposure to the virus that caused the disease, and Peace Corps was to be my method of escape.

My decision to volunteer didn’t come out of nowhere; nursing school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had begun the process of educating me on the value of service.  As a country boy from the foothills of North Carolina, I had grown up in a very conservative environment of Jesse Helms Republicans and flag-waving patriotism.  UNC’s nursing school challenged those beliefs, but, as a recently-out gay man, I held onto as many of my childhood beliefs as I could.  There was just too much change in my life to jettison everything at once.  Peace Corps service seemed like a good way to mix flag-waving and service, not to mention allowing me to escape AIDS.

My Peace Corps service in Guatemala continued my education in ways that would have been impossible had I stayed in the United States.  I saw first-hand how policies – foreign and domestic – made in the States affected countries far away and peoples with no say in those policies.  I learned how American consumerism hurt and, occasionally, helped the economies and lives of others.  As I’ve told many people, I got so much more out of my Peace Corps service than Guatemala got out of me.

My time in Peace Corps did not, of course, truly allow me to “escape” the AIDS epidemic.  Newsweek, which was given to all volunteers, and letters from home kept me posted on the spread – the front lines – of the disease.  Rock Hudson died from it and a cousin developed it while I was in Guatemala.  Peace Corps did, however, give me the strength to return to the States and face the enemy.

Upon my return, I found a job as a nurse working with AIDS patients at a hospital in Washington, DC.  While there, I met another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a doctor, working with AIDS patients.  He asked me to join his infectious disease practice as his nurse and office manager.  My Peace Corps experience had turned me around and allowed me to join the battles of my day.  I only wish that those battles were won today.

Lost Innocence

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This is another story of mine that was published in this summer’s RFD Magazine

I came of age in the “Age of AIDS,” coming out at 17 in the idyllic, innocent, pre-AIDS year of 1978. AIDS took all that innocence away. I lost all faith and ran away, joining the Peace Corps in 1985, hoping to escape the plague—the war being waged on my people. But . . . no matter where you go, there you are.

Like so many other gay men of that time, I first learned of the disease that would later be named AIDS from the New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”  The year was 1981, and I was a nursing student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I came across the article while researching a paper for my Health of Populations class. I had chosen gay men as my population to study. I was, after all, one of seven men in a nursing program with over 300 students. I felt it would be easier to choose a population I actually cared about; a population I knew a little about from my own experience. After all, I had my own experiences as a gay man to draw upon. I, myself, had been called by the county health department after being reported as a “contact” from someone with syphilis. I had dutifully reported to the Student Health Center, to the knowledgeable and sympathetic physician—a physician who worked with gay men. While it turned out that I did not have syphilis, I did now have a knowledgeable and sympathetic physician who knew that I was gay and would attend to the unique health needs of a gay man. For example, a sore throat would require swabbing for gonorrhea, not simply looking for strep or some other run-of-the-mill cause. It only seemed fitting that I should honor this relationship by looking at the specific health needs of gay men for my HOPs research paper. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much research had been done on my own health needs—journal articles and studies, all about gay men and their needs.  It was while looking through the latest updates and abstracts for health journals, I found the Times article. I noted it in my paper, in a short paragraph without much concern, concluded the paper, and handed it in.

I didn’t realize how close I would come to this new “gay disease.” None of us did.  By the time I graduated in 1984, several of my friends—and boyfriends—would be sick or dead of the disease. The first man I slept with at Carolina would get sick, be hospitalized, and die while I was rotating through the wards at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. I would visit him while he was in the hospital, although he would not recognize me.

Later that year, while I was working as a cardiology nurse in Atlanta, I came down with the chicken pox. I would miss 3 weeks of work, lose some thirty pounds, and be scarred from head to toe, but especially on my face.

More than scarred, I was scared. There was no test for AIDS in 1984; the cause, a virus, had just been identified that year. A diagnosis was made based on the occurrence of “opportunistic infections”—unusual infections that occurred because the patient’s immune system was compromised. These infections had their own ominous-sounding names—a Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus—that came with their own shorthand—KS, PCP, CMV.

Another so-called opportunistic infection that might indicate the development of AIDS was the reactivation of a childhood illness that a patient had already had and should, therefore, have immunity to. I didn’t remember if I had had chicken pox as a child, and I feared that I had already developed AIDS.

My first night back at work, I was confronted with the fate that awaited me, if I did indeed have the virus. The Emergency Room called in the middle of the shift with an admission—an AIDS patient with cardiology complications. I volunteered to take him. He was brought upstairs by a team of orderlies in biohazard suits.  He was placed on “strict isolation”—we all had to don biohazard suits and masks to enter his room, discarding them in a biohazard container at the door to his room. All reusable materials used in his care—sheets, towels, washcloths, blood pressure cuffs—had to remain in the room or be placed into bright red bags marked “BIOHAZARD” and be sterilized before being put back into use. All disposable materials—dressings, gloves, masks, gowns—had to be placed into bags also marked “BIOHAZARD” to be disposed of separately from all other trash on the unit.

He looked like hell, emaciated with the open weeping sores of KS, and severe PCP.  I don’t recall what his cardiology complications were, but that he would have some cardiology problems was no surprise.

Is this what is going to happen to me? I worried. At some point during that night shift I decided that I had to leave—I either already had AIDS and would die a very ugly death, or, somehow, I didn’t have it, and I needed to get out of town—out of the country—to avoid that fate. 

My plan took shape over the next several weeks, as I continued to work the night shift, watching our AIDS patient die that very ugly death that I feared. I would join the Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps would send me overseas. If I didn’t have a healthy immune system, I would die quickly. If I had a healthy immune system, I would be safely out of harm’s way for two years. A little less than a year later, I was accepted and given my assignment—Guatemala. I left in June of 1985.

Of course, I couldn’t escape AIDS. It followed me there. It seemed to taunt me. In my work as a volunteer, I collaborated with the United States Agency for International Development—US AID—and the Canadian International Development Organization—CIDA, pronounced sida, the same as AIDS in Spanish.

It haunted me. The nights were dark. Darker than any I had experienced back home. The electricity went out around 8:00pm in my village, and I would be plunged into complete darkness. Something lived between the ceiling of my room and the tin roof overhead; it’s pacing a monotonous track, like my thought. We were given the international edition of Newsweek, with newsprint paper instead of the slick paper of the U.S. edition. I would read about AIDS by lantern light at night, learning that Rock Hudson had died. From AIDS. I would turn the lantern off, close my eyes, and try to go to sleep.

The Peace Corps did, at least, teach me to face my fears. I returned to the United States in 1987. I went to Washington, DC, and got a job at George Washington University Hospital, working with AIDS patients.

The AIDS Quilt came to DC while I was there, in 1987 and 1988. I visited the quilt in 1988—8,288 panels. Eight thousand two hundred eighty-eight lives. It was six years after last seeing the first man I dated at Chapel Hill, dying in his hospital room. I wondered if anyone had made a panel for him. I had to search my memory for his name—Hogie Gaskins. Then, I searched the Quilt. He was there.

It’s been 32 years now, and I still put flowers in church at Easter for Hogie. I only lost my innocence. He lost his life.

1985

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My “house” is not really a house—two rooms that don’t connect; they open onto a common patio. The “bathroom” at one end of the patio is an outdoor shower—no hot water—and an actual toilet, but it doesn’t flush. It must be “bucket flushed” with water from the pila, the cement sink fed by a hose from my neighbor’s house. It’s 1985, and I am in the Peace Corps, in Guatemala, but I am a fraud. I have not come because of my desire to help my fellow man. I am a refugee—an AIDS refugee—running away from the war being waged on my people back home. The nights are dark here, darker than any I experienced back home. The electricity goes off around 8:00pm, and I am plunged into darkness. There is something living in the roof of the house, in the space between the rooms’ ceiling and the tin roof. It moves at night, crossing the ceiling from room to room. I guess the wall doesn’t go all the way up to the tin roof. Bits of dirt fall from the ceiling like dirty rain when it moves. We get the international edition of Newsweek here. This edition doesn’t have the slick paper of the U.S. edition; its newsprint paper is good to use as toilet paper. I read the latest edition by lantern light. I read that Rock Hudson has died. From AIDS. The thing in the ceiling moves. I turn off the lantern, close my eyes, and try to go to sleep.

Hogie, or The First Angel of the Apocalypse

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Here is a story that I wrote and was published in RFD Magazine last year: 

            Hogie Gaskins bookended my time at Carolina.  He was my first date and one of the last people I saw before graduating.  I didn’t see him in between, and I have regretted it all my life.

            I arrived at UNC in the fall of 1979 already knowing that I was gay.  I had begun having sex with men during my senior year of high school in Hickory, North Carolina.    I had even come out to a couple of people close to me, including an older cousin who suggested that I try to date women when I got to Carolina, which I was determined to do.  Needless to say, I became depressed.

            Eventually, I landed in Student Health to talk with a counselor.  I was surprised by his advice:  “You need to go to a CGA meeting.”  Of course, the Carolina Gay Association.  Sensing my shyness, he asked if I would like to meet someone from the CGA to talk to—Hogie Gaskins.

            Hogie and I planned to meet on campus before a CGA meeting so that he could take me.  I was nervous—after all, I was a freshman from the “sticks.”  Yes, I had already been initiated to gay sex, but this was different.  I was on my own.  This seemed more like life than just sex.  This was for real.

            I arrived early at the agreed upon meeting place and waited.  Anxiously.  Hogie arrived and introduced himself—at least, that’s what I assume he did; I was enamored.  Hogie was a handsome man—strawberry blonde hair that he wore in a shaggy cut that fell over his eyes; he wore small, round, wire-rimmed glasses that gave him a sexy-but-smart look; he was slightly shorter than I was, but nicely built.  The hyper-masculinity of the 1980s hadn’t hit yet, so Hogie wasn’t “buff” by today’s standards, but he had a nice body, visible under his polo shirt and tight jeans.  He was a boyishly handsome man, and I was immediately attracted to him. 

            We never made it to the CGA meeting, opting to go back to his place and have sex.  Hogie lived with several other gay men in a house in the middle of Sorority Square that they called FriendlyCastle.  It was their gay sorority house.  We made a second date, with no plans of going to a CGA meeting—we were going to go on a date.

            He took me to see La Cage aux Folles, the movie, which had been released the year before and was showing at the Varsity in downtown Chapel Hill.  I knew nothing about the movie—it hadn’t made it to HICKory; it probably never did.  We went back to FriendlyCastle after the movie and had sex.  We saw each other a few more times that first year, mostly for sex without the pretense of dating, but it didn’t last.  He was a senior, and I was a freshman; both of us were desperately horny; and we moved on to other men.

            I don’t recall running into Hogie after that first year.  I don’t know if he graduated and moved on, or if we just moved in different circles.  However, five years later, during my final senior year at Carolina, I found myself back at FriendlyCastle.  I had picked up—or been picked up by—someone who lived there.  Amazingly, it was still a gay sorority house.  After sex, I asked my trick if he knew Hogie.

            “Sure.  He was one of the original ‘house mothers’ here!”

            “Do you know where he is?  What’s happened to him?”

            There was an uncomfortable hesitation.  “I’ve heard . . . I think . . . he’s in the hospital.  I think . . . he’s dying.  I’ve heard that he has AIDS.” 

            AIDS!  It was 1983, and AIDS had just been christened with that ominous title—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—having previously been known as GRID—Gay Related Immune Deficiency—and before that simply the “gay cancer.” 

            I knew as much about AIDS as anyone in gay Chapel Hill.  I was a nursing student, and I had done a paper on gay men’s illnesses, all of them venereal in nature, for a class in 1982.  While researching that paper, I had found the 1981 New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” that heralded the beginning of the Age of AIDS.  I noted it in my paper, in a short paragraph without much concern, concluded the paper, and handed it in.  But no one we knew in North Carolina had actually gotten it.  Yet.  Hogie had the distinction of being our first known AIDS patient.

            I used my nursing student’s uniform and knowledge of North Carolina Memorial Hospital to find out where Hogie was and visit him.  I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I slipped into his room, still in my uniform.  Hogie—handsome, vital, funny, boyishly sexy Hogie—lay in a coma in an isolation room, alone, emaciated, and near death.  I had never seen such devastation in a patient so young; I had never seen such devastation in someone I knew, let alone slept with. 

            The room was dark, and it felt close, suffocating.  It was obvious that he would soon die.  Indeed, Hogie became North Carolina’s first documented AIDS patient to die.  My feelings moved from shock to horror to fear—was this a vision of my future lying in this bed?  Would I contract AIDS—did I already have it—suffer and die, alone?  Would my name be whispered, “He’s got it; don’t go near him”?  I backed out of the door and left, unnoticed by the staff, unknown to Hogie.  Seeing Hogie like that scared me and became my first step in escaping the crisis.  As the crisis grew and there was no way to tell if you were already infected, I decided to flee.  I joined the Peace Corps in 1984, an AIDS refugee.

            I never heard anyone speak of Hogie after he died.  He disappeared, wiped out of Chapel Hill’s gay collective mind.  It wasn’t until the AIDS Quilt came to Washington, DC, where I was living, in 1992 that Hogie came back to me.  I wondered if anyone had created a quilt panel for Hogie.  I didn’t know anything about his family, and I don’t remember meeting any of his friends—we had been too busy having sex to go out with his friends.  I searched my memory for his name, and I searched the Quilt for him.  I found him:

Hogie Gaskins's AIDS Quilt panel

            Now, all these years have gone by, and I think of Hogie often.  I still see him striding across campus to meet me and initiate me into Carolina’s gay scene; to put me on the path of living a wonderful gay life.  A life that Hogie never got to live.