The first conversation took place in a dark hospital room. I was right out of college volunteering as a buddy for Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City – a helpmate to a person with AIDS. It was 1988, the height of the epidemic. My buddy, Bruce McGowan, a fixture at Warhol’s factory, was so acerbic he seemed to spit more than speak. He was emaciated but vain; he’d covered his Kaposi’s sarcoma spots with lightning bolts, painted with makeup he would have me pick up at the local drug store.
Bruce was not well. I headed over to visit him at St. Vincent’s Hospital late one evening. He was nonplussed when I arrived, as usual. I sat with him while he spat out complaints and barbed comments about the state of affairs in his body and the world. I laughed as if I shared his sensibility, hoping I was a comfort, feeling like a sham.
From out in the lighted hallway, a man walked into the dark room with a Bible in his hand. As the son of a minister, used to my father’s visits to his infirm parishioners, I knew the drill, and jumped up to body block my buddy from contact with the invading party, sure that a Bible-toting pastor was the last thing my acerbic buddy wanted as he lay dying. I started in: Thanks for coming. I don’t think this is the room for you, but Bruce interrupted, greeted the chaplain by name, and asked him to pick up where they had left off the night before. The chaplain skirted my body block, sat down on the edge of Bruce’s bed, turned to the chapter they were on, and read.
When the chaplain left, Bruce, who knew my father was a minister, turned to me and asked me why this was happening to him. I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing. I waited until he slept and then left for home. The next time I visited there was a sign on the door that Bruce had died.
The question Bruce asked sent me to seminary – I was angry at the church for all it had done to oppress and neglect people like me, but aware also that, if souls did exist, people like me have them too. The questions about our very nature – from whence we come and to where we are going, the longings for the love of our maker – longing for love like that on earth as it is in heaven, the rituals and rites that point to the mystery, but also to the truth of life –all of us are plagued by these questions and longings, wandering in exile, in dark hospital rooms.
The second conversation happened last Monday. I screened Love Free or Die – the film I recently directed about openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson and his courageous, game-changing leadership – at GMHC with an audience of board members, staff and constituents. During the Q & A, a man stood up, clearly pained. In a thick Spanish accent, he called my film a masterpiece, which pleased me certainly, but really just meant that the film met him where he lives.
His speech was like confession. He had loved a man for 19 years. Every Sunday during the period of his lover’s death, he would sit in the back of mass, praying for mercy, praying for his man, unable to seek support from a church that condemned him from the pulpit as he prayed for help in the last pew.
He said that to see the church repent and reform in Love Free or Die answered his agony and freed his soul.
That night, I got the answer to the question Bruce McGowan asked me in the hospital room 24 years earlier.
If there is a God, then this I know for sure: Having bore us, God loves me, and Bruce, and the man at the back of mass. He loves us with the same agonizing depth of love that I have for my two daughters, Alice and Penelope. God railed and wept as we gay men died alone during those bleak years, and as men and women continue to die today all over the world.
GMHC buddies were better angels than most priests and pastors back in the day – better to be present and tongue-tied than nowhere to be found in person but heard everywhere in condemnation.
I have lived to see God, through us, break down the walls we have built once again between God’s love and those society scorns.
That is, of course, if there is a God. If not, then oh, here’s to the courage, and the exquisite beauty of my people.
Click here to learn about the Groundswell of Courage and the campaign for LGBT equality.
Find Macky Alston on Twitter, @mackyalston.