Things Get Better

garyHe was my first first boyfriend. The first one who was a real friend, anyway.

I had dated, a bit. But, during high school, I was unpopular, bookish, and alienated. My two closest friends always had dates, so sometimes I dated just so I wouldn’t get left at home. Those guys didn’t talk to me; I just ended up fending them off in the back seat.

But Gary and I talked a lot, about movies, books and poetry. My parents and friends liked him. At a very critical time in my life, Gary, another alienated teenager, made me feel like I was ‘OK’ after all, and that life was going to eventually get better.

By the time, I started college, we had drifted apart. But, things did get better for me. The early seventies were a heady time, and I left my high school persona far behind.

Gary, through, had a tough first year of college. He went to a party school, did a lot drugs and ended up, the next summer, with a “nervous breakdown”. His family put him in a psychiatric hospital, where I visited him. Although our “romantic” relationship had ended, we had stayed friends.

Sitting by his hospital bed, he explained what had happened.

He was gay. That was why I had not needed to fend him off in the backseat. It was why he was so close to his high school English teacher. It was why he had a nervous breakdown.

In the hospital, he was given electric shock treatments and eventually released.

The next time I saw him, he was no longer in contact with his family. I don’t remember whether he left them, or they had kicked him out. I know that his father was a self-made man, a macho guy who prided himself on his hard work, and audacity, a man who blamed Gary’s problems on his mothers’ “sissifying” him. Out of school and adrift from his family, Gary plunged himself into the promiscuous gay culture of the 70’s. He bragged that he had slept with hundreds of different people. The guy he was living with, he boasted, had bought him a thousand dollars worth of clothes. But despite his bravado, he seemed unhappy and restless.

After college I lost track of him. I got a good job, got married, and had kids.

I thought about Gary again when my own kids were teenagers. There had been a couple of surveys done that discussed the high rate of suicide among gay teenagers.

“Don’t ever use the word “gay” as an insult.” I cautioned them. “You don’t know if your best friend might be gay. People have good reason not to share that information. You don’t have any idea what effort your words might have.”

I told them that because I worried about their friends, and because, after all, I wasn’t sure I knew their sexual orientation.

They listened. In fact, It seems like a whole generation listened.

In the late 90’s I sat in on a “lunch talk” sponsored by my work. It featured a number of speakers. One, a bank president, stated that his company provided benefits to gay partners.

“It is a business decision,” he explained. “Our company wants to attract bright and creative young people, gay or straight. Young people” he continued “use ‘benefits to gay partners’ as a kind of marker. It signals that the company culture is likely to be someplace where they, Gen X, will feel comfortable. It’s a good recruiting tool.”

“Wow!” I thought.

Still, when there was talk of ‘gay marriage’, I thought it was crazy talk. I thought the gay community should go for civil union, aka ‘marriage lite’ not, I reflected, that I would want that for my children. For my own children, I wanted what my husband and I had. I wanted them to make a promise, before God. I wanted them to stand up and state their commitment, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, until death due us part.” And then, I reflected, a bit uneasily, that civil union, aka marriage lite, might well migrate. It might supersede traditional marriage, and come to my own children.

But then Massachusetts passed gay marriage.

“Wow!!” I thought.

Clearly things are better for people like Gary. These days, you are on the wrong side of public opinion if you discriminate against gays. Many churches even include the phase “open and affirming” in their mission statement, or show a rainbow on their websites to show support for gays.

“Millennials” someone explained “don’t want to join a church that isn’t friendly to gays. It’s marker that tells them whether the churches’ overall culture is likely to be a place where they will feel ‘comfortable.'”

They didn’t add that young parents can’t tell whether their toddler will grow up to be gay or straight. Or that growing up in a supportive church might make a world of difference to a struggling teenager. But it should be in the back of every parent’s mind.

I don’t know what ever happened to Gary. No one had heard of AIDS in the 70’s. There was no reason for him to think that his lifestyle might be a death sentence. As a lonely and alienated child myself, I did and do, understand the impulse to reject before being rejected, to scorn the values of a culture that scorns you. After all, when you can’t possibly be the child your parents want, it’s tempting to become the child your parents will despise. It’s a matter of pride. By the grace of God, I always knew that my parents loved me, and that solid tether stopped me from going over any edges, but my friend Gary would never have been able to be the son his father wanted.

Recently, I’ve reconnected with some high school friends. It inspired me to try to google Gary, and look for him on Facebook. I’d like to hear that he survived the seventies, and is out there somewhere, reconciled with his family, happily married, and growing old in a boring middle-class kind of way.

But I haven’t found a trace of him. Things do get better, but sometimes for some people, it’s too little, and too late.

1 comment to Things Get Better

  • how things have changed! these days, if you protest against gays, you are viewed as being n the wrong side of history. it is my belief that God put those folks here to test our tolerance. after all, he made us ALL the way we are…

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