Own Your Life

By Charlene Strong

Originally published on Advocate.com November 16 2011 12:50 PM ET

 Putting one’s experiences on paper can bring a light that has not been considered before. This is just one of those moments. Now is a time to share. I lost my father over 15 years ago and it was the catalyst for dealing with my personal homophobia and pain.

I was holding my Dad when he died, his once handsome face was being ravaged with the very visible cancer that literally ate at him with a very cruel suffering, the likes of which I hope to never witness again.

When I laid him back in his bed for the first time since he was admitted a month earlier, the machines were all turned off, the quiet a gift. The calmness that came over me was strange, just an hour before I was screaming into a towel in the bathroom begging for the suffering to stop. Was it that someone heard that scream and silenced the struggle? I removed his St. Christopher medal to give to my mom; as I sat quietly in the room with him until the funeral home came to receive his body; I felt clarity of needing to make some changes in my life. I felt at that moment that I was moving through life without any life. I was onto my second marriage and my husband was nice enough, but by writing that assessment I knew my days were numbered on this one.

I rushed into this marriage after much heartache. My first marriage was a sad and damaging moment in my life. I married a very handsome young man when both of us were far too young to know who we were. Had we spent time in the same city while engaged perhaps we would have figured it out. That’s really just conjecture so we married.

Shortly into our marriage the intimacy stopped and the more I pushed the farther he pulled into his own world. I would sit up wondering if he were ever coming home and calling the state patrol to see if there was a truck in a wreck that matched the description of his truck. When he would arrive home he would often be bedraggled and not in the mood for explanations which only fueled our arguments.

Finally one night he told me he thought he was gay. It was not what I had expected. I didn’t want to know that this hunky man I married wanted anyone, but me. Being the good Christian I was, I set about to pray the demon away in him while he slept. He had said that he didn’t want to be gay, so I could fix it.

Okay, I couldn’t fix it. For that next year-and-a-half we fought like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, it was ugly and, goes without saying, frightening. See AIDS was just being understood and I knew he was out in bars, and it was obvious he was feeling his sexuality. Was he being safe, was he planning for encounters? I had no way of knowing and the fights continued and the fear in me escalated, to a boiling point. I found myself hating him and hating gay people.

Our fights led to an explosive exit and I never looked back. I was so hurt and frustrated and disgusted by his gay life and lack of concern for my health. Had my rush to be loved become my death sentence? How dare he expose me to his life?
  My final task I needed to accomplish was to find out if I was negative. I entered an ER and asked for a test. As I sat shivering sitting in the small room waiting for the test, I wondered what I would do if I wound up positive. How long would I have? How would I explain it to my family? Would they reject me for my stupidity in marrying a gay man?

As the nurse gave me a look that I could not discern, she finally asked why I was being tested. I looked up at her and mumbled that my husband was gay and I wasn’t sure what he had been up to. Was it important for her to know my reasons? Was she going to write in my chart? I could just see it: “Woman marries gay man, test for HIV. “

The test was negative, and it was negative the three other times I was tested. It had not gotten me. I was free to find a real man. So I set out for redemption. I could be a good wife. I could be sexy and beautiful to a man that wanted me. It’s what I was determined to do.

As the second marriage unfolded and the months turned to years, the pain in my heart was getting too much to bear. My house was either black or white furniture, which matched the way I was looking at the world. My husband and I rarely talked and rarely touched, and when we did it was as if I wished I could be somewhere else.

I knew nothing else to do. I was feeling emotions and desires that I could not deny. I had felt funny around women in the past, but that was not who I was, nor did I really understand those moments, I could easily brush them aside, but it always had a way of creeping in. I was not going to question why I found women so…it’s hard to put into words. I had felt the thrill of being close to a woman once. She and I were in a church group and our amazing friendship grew. We would laugh until the wee hours of the morning and then fall asleep in each other’s arms explaining it away as a bed too small for the two of us.

One night I felt my heart beating out of my chest when she cuddled into me in the bed we were sharing on a retreat. I am sure she could feel the energy and my bounding chest. Her warm soft body was so close and my desire to touch her face and pull her into me for a soft kiss was so strong (what would it be like to kiss her lips, would she let me?) Just as I am relaxing into this moment I hear, “We need to pray. We need to pray that our love for each other is Agape and not Eros (a.k.a. friends, not lovers). I wasn’t going to disappoint and closed my eyes and prayed my gay away.

I never forgot that feeling and it only served to shut me down further into my denial and, after my first marriage, my homophobia was never far from the surface. I had prayed about my husband being gay and had prayed not to be gay myself. Why was it so hard?

I’m not sure I need to spell it out, but my heart was asleep. I was trapped in my heart that was not wiling to live.

As that second marriage continued to stagnate I decided to find something to do to bring some meaning to my life. My promise to myself when my father died was also part of my quest to make those changes I was determined to explore.

My husband and I were out enjoying a nice Sunday in June and, as we ran into the city’s gay pride celebration, we were not really able to get around the crowds waiting for the parade so we decided to watch the parade.
  After the parade, walking around looking at all of the vendors we ran across the Humane Society booth and picked up a brochure about a volunteer organization called The Pet Project. It was designed to help clients with HIV/AIDS who were financially disabled by their diagnosis. I thought this sounded like a good fit since I wanted to do something, and my husband was not a fan of animals in our house so it would satisfy two needs at once. My love of animals and my promise to do something that mattered in my world.

I was assigned numerous clients that I would deliver cat or dog food to in an effort to help with their animal’s care. I was scared to death at first because some of my patients were pretty shut in and their homes were often not very easy to enter. Being that their health was so poor, who had time to clean, right? The stench at times was overwhelming, and the sadness of their illness was difficult to see. I was completely in over my head and wondering - what had I gotten myself into?

I would visit clients about once a month and deliver food. Sometimes they would open the door just wide enough to take the food and then I was on my way. It was all they wanted or needed from me. I have to imagine that having to ask for help was not easy on their part and that the thought of it was a very difficult step. It hurt their pride. There were those patients who were more than happy to see my face as well. After an hour or so of talking, it dawned on me that I was most likely the only person who had talked to them in days. With this realization came a sense of heaviness, but I felt like I was really helping and that was my intention, right?

As I continued to volunteer (and being the overachiever that I am), I learned of the financial toll the organization was taking and there needed to be some changes. It was not that we lacked enough food to bring to our clients; it was the amount of veterinary care that was tapping out our resources. Veterinary clinics that were helping us with our clients’ needs were offering discounts to us, but their costs still needed to be covered and it was becoming clear that we needed to come up with a clinic.

The director of the program who asked me if I could design a veterinary clinic approached me. I was deeply touched that she was giving me such freedom and that she believed I was the right person to take on the project. I went to work trying to figure out how we could get the biggest bang for our buck. I set about to take banquet tables to make dividers and set up vet treatment areas that would accommodate about six vets per clinic. Color-coded bins with every item tagged the same color and we were set. I asked for volunteers to assist our clients when they arrived at the clinic with their four-legged best friends. Veterinarians were never in short supply. It was a potent energy you could feel and the commitment of the volunteers was feeding my soul in ways I don't think I understood then.

What did surprise me was the obvious lack of my gay brothers as volunteers. The majority of volunteers were married heterosexual women and my lesbian sisters. I can only remember two gay men involved, one of whom was dealing with his own health and AIDS status. I remember that oftentimes he would arrive completely exhausted and in worse shape than most of our clients. His soul I have never forgotten. Buzz, as we knew him, was the sweetest and most gentle man. His willingness and love for giving in the world has never been far from my heart and I think of him now as I write with a deep sense of loss and sadness that yet another person is gone too soon from a disease for which we had no understanding at the time...and are just beginning to really have now.

One night, Buzz needed someone to stay with him while hospitalized due to a death in his extended family and I said I would stay the night. As the machine raged louder than possible for anyone to sleep, I saw Buzz sit up and look at his hands. His head was down and I got up off my cot and sat next to him. His eyes were drawn and so full of fear my heart was aching. Why was I there? It had only been about two years since I lost my Dad and to see Buzz’s struggle brought me back to the pain I felt then.

Buzz looked at me with the honesty of a child and said, "It's not going well is it? They want to put me in Bailey-Boushay. Charlene no one ever leaves there.” Bailey-Boushay was our AIDS hospice home in Seattle. I had no good answer and then I, too, started to look down at my hands. I told him I was so sorry, but he would not be alone, I promise. We took each other’s hands and our foreheads touched, I wanted him to feel some peace for a moment. I started to pray for my dear sweet friend with as much composure as I could muster so as to not let Buzz know how badly I felt. I am not sure it was so much a prayer, but a pleading in my heart to let him feel peace from the disease that had its clutch on my friend.

Buzz did not leave Bailey-Boushay and, in fact I knew he wouldn't but I couldn't tell him that night. I chickened out on my friend, but I think he understood.

That night was a reminder of how life is a gift, it is fragile and capricious It is not to be ignored. As I listened to the eulogy at Buzz’s funeral and sitting in a sea of gay brothers, I felt my fear fade and I felt my heart ache with a pain that split me wide open. My years of anger and hatred for gay folks were melting away, my hatred for myself and my homophobia was being transformed. I was gay and I was proud of that moment. Had I been afraid I would never have met Buzz. I would never have come to terms with my life, my sexuality and who I was meant to be.

Many years have passed and much has been learned about AIDS. We still have no cure. AIDS has taken far too many, far to soon; for me it took my self-respect. It took me to a place that I have wondered if I would ever be forgiven for my personal pain and hatred. It took my honesty and clarity, but mostly it took me too look into the eyes of AIDS to understand the pain, not only in my heart, but also in the helplessness of those struggling with its grip.

As AIDS turns 30 and I head towards 50, I feel blessed to be writing this testimony. It is a testament to live, it is a message to forgive, and it is my message to give us a break. I learned much in 30 years, it would be impossible to sum it up to a word or two, but as I have learned in my life, the word that makes most sense is Peace.