Friday, June 20, 2014

Pride Month Gratitude

Richard was not at all my type or what I thought my type was.  Through a mutual friend, we'd met at the major department store where he worked.  I was purchasing a piece of carry-on luggage.  Six months later, the mutual friend called me and said that his buddy who'd sold me the bag wanted to go out with me.  This was 1992.  I'd just started a new TV job.  I was part of the original morning team on WNBC's Weekend Today in New York, a local news program.  We premiered in September.  The buzz was that our show wouldn't last more than half a year.  I was positive that, come the following year, I'd be relocating to Los Angeles.

I wasn't interested in going out with that polite department store clerk who looked like the kind of politically conservative young guy who should've been singing in the Up With People group.  I'd never been in a relationship. I was in my 30s and focused on my TV career.  Romantically, I'd been passed over, ignored and stood up several times.  I didn't want to do that to someone else.  I knew how it felt.  I had my friend give Richard my private home number.  If he called me, I'd honestly tell him why I didn't have time to go out with him.  It wasn't personal.  I was busy with my career and it might put me on the West Coast in a few months.

I'm a sucker for a gentle Southern accent and he was Southern gentleman.  He was so charming on the phone that, when he eventually said "I think we should go out.  Would you go out with me?," I simply said "Yes."

That one little word changed my life.  We went out to a nice downtown Manhattan diner for brunch on October 11, 1992.  We stayed together until the day he died.  No one made me laugh as much.  No one made me cry as much.
I cried when he died of AIDS on this day, June 20th, in 1994.  His parents, his grandparents and I were at the hospital with him.  He was in his 20s.  I felt like a lifetime was packed into our short relationship.  And, in many ways, one was.

Let me share this --- something that lets you know about his character.  He had an excellent work record at the top Manhattan department store.  He was ripe for promotion.  Yet, he was laid off a week or so before leaving to visit family in Tennessee for Thanksgiving.  On one of our early dates, he told me that he hated the way the store's security firm treated black and Latino youth, following them suspiciously and trailing them so aggressively that the minority kids would get irritated and leave the store.  However, upscale white kids would come in, be loud and mess up display clothing.  The upscale white kids were never followed although their behavior was often ill-mannered.  He complained about that to management.  But the exec to whom he complained was friendly with the head of that security firm.  So, the whistleblower (Richard) was let go.  Politically conservative, he wasn't.  He saw racial injustice and spoke out against it.

He was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS the following month, around Christmastime.  The illness came on suddenly and unexpectedly.  With the pneumonia and lymphoma, it had its horrors.  There were many nights I slept sitting up in a chair at his hospital bedside.  And once, I did have my pre-dawn Shirley MacLaine Terms of Endearment meltdown moment when a nurse was 15 minutes late giving him a medication.

I've written previously about the oppressive fear and ignorance that stifled society in those years of the AIDS plague (my Tom Hanks, O.J. and Me blog post).  We saw the oppression portrayed recently in HBO's production of The Normal Heart.  Scott Simon, that gift to Saturday morning radio, touched on the topic in his May 24th segment on what The Normal Heart teaches a new generation.  It aired on Scott's NPR show, Weekend Edition.

I could not have been as good a caregiver as I was without the information and strength I got from New York City's GMHC, the Gay Men's Health Crisis.  When I got to New York in 1985 and worked on WPIX/Channel 11, that station made local news regarding the fear during the AIDS crisis.  A man newly diagnosed with the disease was scheduled to come into the studio to talk about it on a public affairs show.  However, no one on the floor crew would clip a microphone onto his jacket for fear of catching the disease.  The interview never took place.  This was Manhattan but it was like being in Medieval times during the plague.  Gay men were treated like lepers.  Today, celebrities come out of the closet and get applause, congratulations on social media, they get cakes, flowers...a pony. The main thing is -- they get acceptance.  Back then, celebrities didn't come out for fear of being shunned, losing their jobs and having no income.

That's how social attitudes were back then.  It's different now.  When I worked at WNBC news, co-workers in whom I could confide urged me not to tell management that my partner had AIDS.  I told them my health was good, thank Heaven.  They felt, nevertheless, that the management in place at that time could find a way not to need me anymore on the show.  And I wasn't under contract.  Although it was not a big money part-time TV job, it still gave me steady income to take care of Richard and to pay our rent.  GMHC gave me the intellectual and spiritual fuel I needed.  I learned how to deal with hospitals, what questions to ask, what to do if Richard or I wasn't treated well.  I learned about financial aid we could get because he was technically disabled.  I learned that I also needed to take care of myself -- have a day or a half a day to myself -- so I could recharge and be an effective caregiver.  Being an interracial couple, being a same-sex couple and being a couple in which one was terminally ill...we had a lot to deal with.  GMHC gave me the emotional armor I needed.
I wish I could have done regular segments on the WNBC weekend morning news show about what I was learning as a caregiver.  If management back then had embraced diversity, I could written and produced features about my journey helping a loved one diagnosed with AIDS.  Those segments could have helped others the way Katie Couric's Today Show segments on colon cancer helped people after the death of her first husband.  He died of that disease.  If I'd felt that I had the executive support, I could have put a more personal face on the AIDS crisis and, possibly, helped reduce the fear and ignorance.  I would have included GMHC.  However, when I wanted to do two entertainment features with positive gay images, my ideas were nixed by my boss.  He's long gone from the station and WNBC now embraces diversity.  The show that some predicted would be canceled in 1993 is still on -- and it has the popular weatherman, Raphael Miranda, who is out and has a husband.  Viva Diversity!

Richard and I had several friends who were so loyal and helpful during his illness.  And his family was a model of unconditional love and kindness to him and to me.  He had a great doctor.

There was another group that helped Richard, me and countless other men during those dark days of the AIDS crisis.  That group -- lesbians.  Seriously.  In my life, they came in like knights in shining armor.  They got their gay male friends to hospitals, they were at bedsides in hospitals, they ran errands and did chores, comforted family members and cried at funerals.  They lost loved ones too. Lesbians helped so, so many of us men at that time and I've long felt that they never quite got the thanks they deserved.

This day, this Pride Month, I want to extend my deep gratitude again to GMHC and to all my lesbian friends who helped me, hugged me, put their hands at my back and said, "You can get through this."  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

One last note:  About four years after Richard passed away, I was working at another TV station on a weekday morning show.  A news team had taken a hidden camera into a department store because of constant complaints from minority students about the way they were harassed by security.  Yes!  It was the same store Richard worked for and the story had been brought to light because of that undercover news report.  Changes were made.  Richard would've been so thrilled.  I know I was.

It amazes me to this very minute how somebody wonderful changed my life simply because I said just one little word:  "Yes."  Wow.  If it's meant for me to have a second relationship, I'll go into it a better man because of him.

Happy Pride Month.  Thanks for reading this.

1 comment:

  1. Very touching and heartfelt tribute. Thank you for sharing this.


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