Monday was back at the books, and while choir practice became more relaxed after the performance, the focus changed to Glee Club and preparation for their performance at the end of quarter before final exams, and then there was a Christmas performance of the combined choirs on the last day of class before Christmas break.
When I asked if he’d sorted out the early Greek position on the role and position of women, he said, “Well, it’s complicated! One thing I’ve figured out is that I’m reading about them because I don’t know how to read or understand Greek, so the best I can do is this translation or that translation, and then read different people’s opinions. The first part of the paper is about the Greek view of women, in general, then the second is the role of women in Greek society. So, dealing with the first part begins with Socrates, then follows with Plato, who was his student, and then finally with Aristotle, who was Plato’s student. They’re the main philosophers and writers, so they’re the guys you go to.”
I told him I did no more philosophy than I had to, so he shouldn’t assume I knew a lot.
“Well, from our point of view, and especially after what I heard you tell Jane about the ERA movement, it’s not a pretty picture. Socrates was solid that all women are inferior to men, even if they share many interests or pursuits. The starting point is always the physical difference and that women bear children and then have to take care of them, but the net is the simple view that they’re inferior. Plato’s main writing on the subject is The Republic, but it’s actually a criticism of the Greek political system that he wants to replace with a more just city. And in it he talks about women even though in Athens only men had citizenship, so they were the only ones who could own land and vote, in other words have power. He views humans differently, that we’re defined by our souls, and the soul is responsible for the mental and physical capabilities, and he gives that to male and female. But…” and he paused.
“Is it a big ‘but,’ it looks like you’re not happy.”
“Well, yeah. He starts out so eloquent and high minded, but then ends up saying that a woman's natural potential for virtue is inferior to a man's, and then goes on to say that women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker than men, but at the same time he’s saying that women should be able to take on the same social roles equally with men in his ideal state. So, that’s kind of confusing. Anyway, then along comes Aristotle who makes clear that women should be limited to their traditional roles in the home, being subservient to men. He doesn’t even see an equality in nature and a physical difference.”
“What makes Plato different then,” I asked?
“Well, he sees men and women of equal nature, but I guess he sees the difference mainly as physical, that they’re weaker. Not for Aristotle though, he sees the difference as biological and that’s that – men are superior, and women are inferior.”
I grabbed him and pulled him in for a hug. “Well, we know one thing for sure then. Because of those guys there was no Equal Rights Amendment in classical Greece.”
At Wednesday’s discussion group, instead of talking about the stages of faith, I just threw it open for questions or comments about the whole subject, the different stages, the process itself and it turned into an open but positive give and take, with any number of insightful questions, and I was pleased that most of them appeared to at least be giving serious thought to it. Most of them acknowledged that while they liked the concept and it made sense, they were still working on what it meant in their own lives. One of the questions was what to do next, and my answer came out kind of like an assignment for the following week. “When we started, you each did an Identity chart after we’d discussed it in the Mythology class and then discussed it further here. That was six weeks ago, and since then we’ve talked about the faith and its development, and those of you in Prof. Higgins’ class have had more content on identity as part of mythology. During the coming week, why don’t you all pull out that identity chart and see if anything has changed in light of what you’ve learned about yourself in the last six weeks. It will be the basis for a discussion, no obligation to share the chart, or any content in it that you don’t want to share with the group.”
We found out that Kevin wouldn’t call Will during the week, and with weekends at the monastery, he was essentially gone for three weeks. Jackson talked to Will by phone two or three times a week, but he was under plenty of pressure too with the last weeks of the quarter getting underway.
Through some stroke of luck Will called late afternoon on the Sunday of the third weekend, and Kevin answered the phone. His mom was grocery shopping, and his dad was working on the car in the garage. Will later told us that Kevin sounded distant, but he pleaded with him to be merciful and meet in person. Kevin resisted, and Will said he finally had to say something like “Christian charity requires that you meet me face to face.” They agreed to meet the next day. Will drove up from Eugene after class and they met at a restaurant. Will told Jackson he was shocked, that Kevin was cold and distant and wouldn’t allow any physical contact.
“He said he tried to get him to understand that this is tearing his guts out, that he loves him, and he can’t understand what is going on or why. And then, Kevin makes things worse by almost saying he loves him, but he can’t bring himself to. And, when Will presses him, he finally said, ‘what we did was a mortal sin. I’ve gone to confession, been given penance, taken communion, restored my state of grace. To even have homosexual thoughts is a mortal sin, let alone to act on it in any way. I can’t be with you. I can’t be around you. I can’t see you.’ Will said he lost it then. He said to Kevin ‘Don’t you understand that are cutting yourself off from a loving relationship here for a kind of hopeful ideal! You told me that you loved me. If you did then, why can’t you now?’ Don’t you understand that you’re throwing away something good and beautiful?”
He said Kevin just looked at him, almost expressionless. “That’s where they left it. As in nowhere! God, what happens now?”
I told Jackson I wished I had an answer.
Will called Friday night, a little upbeat because Kevin had called him in the afternoon from campus. He said he told him he was sorry for the pain he was causing and just had to hear his voice. When Jackson asked him what was next, he said he didn’t know.
Monday of the week before Thanksgiving, Will called to let us know that Kevin had called him again. He told Jackson it started as a pretty mechanical call, but then finally Kevin started to open up and talk to him.
“He said he told Kevin how much he loves him and wants to be with him, to at least see him, to hold him, and that he can’t believe Kevin doesn’t feel the same way. Eventually Kevin began sounding like he felt the same way, but suddenly switched to the opposite position of ‘I can’t see you’ and alternating that with ‘I love you.” I guess he finally acknowledged that he doesn’t know if he can balance the two any longer. He told Will that he was in pain too, that the penance was killing him too, that he wanted to be with him, but his father confessor told him he has to be strong and stay away from the temptation. He told Kevin that if he doesn’t see Will it will get easier, that he’d have fewer thoughts, that he’d be back on the pure path. Can you believe that?”
I rolled my eyes. “That father confessor may know his doctrine, but he certainly doesn’t know or understand human nature.”
“For sure. Will said Kevin told him that he can’t help himself, that he thinks about him. Get this, he said that when he gets in his car, he thinks about Will being in the front seat next to him, like when they were making out that time in Eugene. He said he can almost feel Will’s arms around his shoulders and his lips on his. How can people be that disconnected? I just don’t get it?”
I held Jackson’s hand. “Sadly, to me it doesn’t sound disconnected. It almost sounds schizophrenic.”
“Well, it’s crazy, that’s for sure, and I don’t know what to do? I mean, what can I do? I’m in Portland, Kevin’s in Salem…or maybe on another planet. Will’s in Eugene. Fucking A!”
“I know, it’s really frustrating.”
“Well, Will said that at least Kevin told him that there are times when he wants to walk away from all the church stuff and be with him, but he can’t. He says he’s been too deep in it for too long. It would kill his family if he did. That he didn’t know if he could live with it if he did. Geez. And, get this, he told Will his salvation’s at risk and that his father confessor is a really nice person, what would it do to him?”
“He’s highly conflicted, that’s for sure, and other than some serious psychological therapy, I don’t even know what to think.
“Well, at least Will told Kevin to think for a minute about what he was saying was doing to him? As in, ‘You think it’s killing you? I’m dying over here. I love you. I can’t stand not seeing you, not holding you. It drives me crazy that all this belief stuff is between us. How can two people loving each other not be good. Don’t you feel good when you’re with me? I feel good. I feel happy. I’ve never felt better or happier.’ He said it was quiet after that, and Kevin didn’t really say anything and they kind of left it that they’d talk over Thanksgiving break.
The next day I heard from the minister at Metropolitan Community Church, and he told me the reception about my ordination transfer was positive, the best pathway was Ministry Outside the Local Congregation, but it would be loosely affiliated with his church, and he was putting a form in the mail for me to complete and send on to the church with a copy of my seminary transcript and degree.
Will called us from home in Newberg Wednesday evening manly to say ‘Hi.’ He promised to call as soon as he heard anything, and told us to say hello to Susan and Ellen who were joining us for Thanksgiving. I went shopping Wednesday afternoon, and they arrived from Newberg early in the evening. That gave us plenty of time to settle them in the guest room, enjoy a glass of wine, and have Susan quiz Jackson in all manner of ways about choir, the recent performance, and all things related to it. Ellen and I retreated to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
Thanksgiving Day was pleasant. We all slept in, relatively speaking, and had a comfortable morning that included a walk down to the river and along the trails at Oak Bottom Park. The Willamette here was very different than back in Newberg, and they really appreciated the urban setting, and especially the trails that allowed such close proximity to the river. On the way back Susan asked about Will, and that began the process of telling them the whole story, which drew expected concern and dismay from both of them. It also made me realize just what an impact living through it was having on us, even though we really hadn’t been aware of much of it as the scenario unfolded.
We prepared a pretty traditional Thanksgiving dinner, everyone chipping in and doing their part in the preparation and ate in the early afternoon. Gary and Lois were with her parents, and it was a joy having our closest friends with us. That evening we listened to music and had pleasant conversation, that included the upcoming Glee Club program. Susan was quite interested in the O Fortuna arrangement that worked for a smaller chorale and didn’t require an orchestra, and was wondering out loud if she could pull it off with the high school choir.
Friday late morning, they headed back to Newberg, and Jackson called Will. He said he’d tried to call Kevin that morning, but there was no answer. They both agreed that with the Thanksgiving holiday and lots of family obligations, that was perfectly understandable. Will said he’d had a good Thanksgiving at home, ate too much, but would try calling Kevin later or Saturday and let us know what was happening. I heard Jackson trying to be upbeat, encouraging Will to hang in there, that love would prevail.
Mid-day Saturday Will called to say he still hadn’t reached Kevin, but he’d agreed to help his Dad work on a car in the afternoon, and would try again in the evening. He called about 8:30 that evening, totally distraught. He’d only just hung up the phone from talking to Kevin’s mom. When he’d called, she’d answered the phone and when he asked for Kevin, he was told he wasn’t there. When he’d asked when he’d be back, he heard Kevin’s mom choke back tears and say, “Never.” When he asked what she meant, she yelled at him saying that they just got back from the hospital and that Kevin had gone to be with the Lord. When he pressed her about what happened, she finally broke down and yelled at him, telling him that Kevin had taken his own life.”
Will said he was speechless. Then Kevin’s mother lit into him, saying, “I never want to hear from you again. My son didn’t deserve what happened to him. You’re not a true believer and I knew there would be trouble the first time I met you.”
I was standing next to Jackson and he moved the phone away from his ear so I could hear what was being said. “Jackson, what do I do? My god, he killed himself. I loved him. He said he loved me. How could this happen?” Will alternated between disbelief and despondency, filling the gap with tears and deep wailing cries.
Jackson tried to talk to him, but it got more and more irrational. He was talking to me as well, with the mouthpiece on the phone covered, and we agreed we’d drive to Newberg in the morning. Jackson finally got that across to him, and told him we’d be there mid-morning.
When he finally hung up the phone, he turned to me, “I don’t fucking believe it. How could this happen? I mean I thought about suicide when everything in my life was shit and I saw no alternatives. Will and Kevin had each other. He had another option. He didn’t have to be sucked under like this. He had a person in his life who loved him, who would have gone to the end of the earth for him. How the fuck can this happen?”
I pulled him into an embrace, “It’s irreconcilable conflict, Jackson, pure and simple. He couldn’t sort it out, he couldn’t break free, he couldn’t resolve it, so he took the easy way out.”
Jackson was crying on my chest. I know he liked Kevin, but he loved Will and was completely losing it for Will’s loss, and what Will would now have to go through. We got to Will’s house mid-morning the next day, to learn from his parents that Will had retreated to his room and wasn’t communicating. He’d told them that Kevin had killed himself, and they were duly chagrinned that his BMX racing buddy had committed suicide. His Dad made a comment about how he must have been a really troubled kid.
I thought to myself, “If you only knew!”
We spent a couple of hours with Will, trying to get him to talk about it, and all he could say was “We loved each other; how could he do this, he said he loved me?”
His mom came up with turkey sandwiches somewhere around mid-day, and after that we convinced him he needed to get out, so we loaded him in the car and drove to the County park above Susan and Ellen’s house where we could walk the trails for an hour or two in a placid setting. We finally got to the discussion about the fact that in spite of tragedies that happen, life goes on and people have to go on too. By the time we got back to his parent’s home he seemed more lucid. Pained and hurting, yes, but more rational and communicating. He planned on doing laundry the next day, then heading back to campus to get to work on the study assignments he had over the Thanksgiving break.
The drive home was a study in being totally depressed. We could only hope that Will would somehow be able to reconcile himself to the fact that it had been Kevin’s decision, that he hadn’t consulted Will, and that Will was now bearing the consequences. Jackson called him on Sunday after he was back in the dorm, and said he sounded neutral, but that was an improvement, and was able to talk about the assignments he had to complete and the classes ahead of him the coming week. Jackson called him each evening, and generally had the sense that he was maintaining, getting back into the rhythm of school and assignments, and making progress. Usually an unknown voice answered the phone in the hall and shouted for Will or went to get him.
On Monday I called the Salem Police Department and introduced myself as Reverend Ayers, and finally got connected to the investigating officer. I explained that I was calling about the self-inflicted death of Kevin Finnerty, and that I was trying to determine what had occurred in as much as I was the pastor of the victim’s best friend and was trying to help him and his family deal with their loss. It took a little discussion, but I was able to learn that Kevin had hung himself in the garage and his father found him. For a parent, it probably doesn’t get any worse than that.
I’d received and mailed off the application forms to transfer to the Metropolitan church, and was in my office preparing for Wednesday’s discussion group when Jackson came in. I heard his footsteps on the stairs and was already smiling as he walked into my office. “Hi, Love, how was your day?” His response was a smile in spite of the woes we’d been dealing with.
“It was pretty good, as long as I stayed focus on class and didn’t think about Will and Kevin. I still can’t believe he killed himself. It’s so extreme.”
I walked around the desk and put my arms around his shoulders, and I felt him sobbing as his face nestled in my neck. “I know, it’s extreme and tragic, and we’ve got to hope for the best for Will.” I hugged him close, and heard Mona’s steps on the stairs.
She walked into the doorway, and stopped suddenly, saying, “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know Jackson was here.” Jackson stepped back and looked at her, and said softly, “It’s Okay, Mona. You don’t need to apologize for anything.”
The concern swept over her face. “Jackson, are you Okay? What’s wrong? Can I help, or is it private?”
“It’s kind of private, but probably won’t be for long. My best friend is bi, and his boyfriend committed suicide last weekend.”
“Oh, my god! That’s tragic. Is there anything I can do to help? In any way?”
Jackson wiped his eyes and said, “I don’t know. He’s back at school in Eugene, but he’s totally depressed. He’s there, we’re here. It sucks.”
He took a deep breath and looked at me and then her, and said softly, “What I wanted to ask is if you think it would be over the top to tell the kids in the discussion group tonight. I mean it sure shows what hate and intolerance and religious bigotry can do.”
I wasn’t prepared for that question, and Mona was slow to answer. “You know my story, Jackson, I was very lucky to meet my husband and escape the Nazi hate, and if it hadn’t happened my whole family would probably have been killed. That makes me biased, but people need to understand that these kinds of views have consequences. That’s why I was so happy when there was a change here at the Center and Pastor Dave was hired. If no one knows your friend, it wouldn’t violate any confidences would it?”
He looked at me, and I shook my head. “No, and we already know that one of our regular students is gay, and he comes from an intolerant religious background too. Maybe it’s for the best. How about I approach it talking about how religious intolerance forms, and you can use what happened as an example if it feels right? Does that sound Okay?”
He nodded and smiled weakly, and Mona took him into a big hug. “You have to believe it will all work out. It’s hard to think positive thoughts sometimes, but you have to try.”
Jackson had to get to Glee Club, so they walked downstairs together, and I told him we’d eat on the way home.
When we began the discussion group, I asked what thoughts or comment anyone had on the identity chart exercise, specifically if they’d observed any changes in themselves that they’d correspondingly make on their chart. Most of them shook their head, and I didn’t press, understanding that unless you’d really worked at it, or gone through something major in life as Jackson and I had, there probably hadn’t been major changes. I pointed that out and cited the example about the death of my parents resolving the son with distant parents description that I once had. Jackson volunteered that as he’d shared earlier, the removal of his stepfather meant he got his life back and could say he was no longer a loner. Ron finally spoke up and said, “I want to tell you all something that isn’t public yet, but I was so impressed with how honest Jackson is about himself, and we’re all close and supporting in this group that it only seems fair. I’m struggling to sort out my sexual identity, but I know I’m gay, most of you probably do too, and I can’t run around denying it anymore.”
Pretty much everyone told him he was brave too and encouraged him for being honest. I then talked a little about how important an exercise like this can be, even one that may appear so basic and simple. And, more importantly, that it is tied to a much more important thing, knowing yourself and being able to take control of your own identity and change those elements you don’t like or were imposed on you, in order to be able to form your own independent identity.
“I know this sounds like a lot of theory, but like we’ve said before, the challenge with subjects like this is that we assume we’ve got it under control, or that we don’t have to worry about it, but then along comes something in life and we find out that’s not the case. “Sadly, that something can be more than just a surprise, it can be tragic.”
They looked at me expectantly, and that’s when Jackson said, “That just happened to my best friend. He’s bi and got his first boyfriend, a guy that grew up in a really religious family…like they wanted him to be a priest. Anyway, he couldn’t deal with the conflict and resolve the guilt, and he committed suicide last weekend. So, there’s an example of what can happen when you don’t or can’t control your own identity, and also what the consequences of religious bigotry can be.”
No one said anything. He looked at Ron. “That’s why what you just did, telling everyone you’re gay, is so important. Until a person can do that, they don’t own it, it isn’t really them. That’s not to say it solves all the problems, but you know what I mean, right. Owning your identity begins with accepting who you are. Like the saying, to thine own self be true. The problem with my friend’s boyfriend is that he could never do that.”
He stopped and smiled at Ron. I tried to assure everyone that this was an unusual circumstance, but that it did illustrate the points that Jackson made, and it was also a classic example of how a religious doctrine has consequences that are so deeply personal that they create so much guilt and conflict that they can’t easily be resolved.
I reminded everyone that we only had one more Wednesday before finals week and we wouldn’t have a session that week, so we’d make next week an open session to discuss anything that was on anyone’s mind. As we broke up, everyone made sure that Jackson knew how sorry they felt. Ruth looked crestfallen, and I put my arm around her shoulder, and she said, “This is just the kind of stuff my Dad and I have argued about. He just talks about sin and sinners and doesn’t even seem to understand or care that people are getting hurt.”
We got through a quiet weekend, Jackson having quite a bit of reading to get caught up on, and needing to finalize his term paper and type a final version. During the next discussion group we covered a wide range of subject from identity to tribalism and faith development, and I had the distinct impression that Jackson’s relating what had happened to Kevin brought this all home as really important, and not just another theory you learn about in college.
On the drive home, Jackson said Glee Club practice had been intense, but they were on top of the material, so it was the last push in the final practice before their performance, and that made it fine. I asked if they were ready, and his reply was that I’d probably be impressed. He grinned at me.
Shortly after we got home, Jackson tried to call Will, and his roommate answered the phone. Jackson quizzed him, only to learn that the situation wasn’t good. In his opinion Will was getting more depressed, and was having trouble getting going each morning. His mind didn’t seem to be on school. Jackson got the roommate to take down our phone number and promise to call if things got worse. And they did. He called early the next week, and said things had gotten bad and were starting to look bleak. Will had stopped going to class. He wasn’t studying, he was only leaving the room for the bathroom, he was barely eating at all. They talked and his roommate said he’d try to do what he could, and would call each day. He was making Will go with him to the cafeteria for breakfast and dinner, but he still wasn’t going to class.
“Jackson, this is not good. Tomorrow’s Pearl Harbor day, not that that matters, but there’s only seven more days of class. The quarter is over on the 15th. Will hasn’t gone to class for over two weeks. He hasn’t been studying. He’s not doing homework. He’s only eating when I haul his ass to the cafeteria. He’s going to fail the quarter, and that’s not the worst of it. Somethings got to happen. I like him, and want to do what I can, but I can’t be responsible if this keeps getting worse. He needs someone to take care of him. Where’s his family. Jackson, you’ve got to do something here.”
Jackson reminded him that he had school too, and that I had a campus position but asked him to hang in there and help for another couple of days. He promised we’d do something, and after he hung up. he turned to me and said, “What are we going to do?”
I’d been listening to Jackson’s side of the conversation and had pretty well gotten the drift. I said, “Tomorrow I call Spencer, Friday night you’ve got the Glee Club concert, and then Saturday we drive back to Newberg for a meeting with Will’s parents. They’re the responsible party here, and they have got to understand what’s happening and take some action.”
I was able to reach Spencer the next morning, and brief him on what had happened over the past month, including Kevin’s suicide, and how poorly Will was taking it. “David, this is the kid you told me about who said he was so scared his world would end if it became public that he was gay, right?”
I replied, “Yeah, it is. The fact is that he’s bi, not gay, but in the present circumstances the distinction doesn’t matter. The impact and the result are the same.”
“It’s unbelievable. He works through all of that and then this happens to him. And his parents are essentially in denial?”
“I don’t want to be judgmental, but they appear to not even hardly appreciate the impact of what has happened on their son. They don’t know he’s bi and that Kevin was his boyfriend. They think they’re BMX racing friends. That’s fine, but even so, you don’t have a close friend kill himself without major impact, and they’re not even tuned into that. We’re coming down Saturday to try and meet with them and talk realities. Would you be willing to be involved?”
Spencer, good man that he always was, said of course, and offered to call Will’s parents and set a time, hoping that his involvement would convey the seriousness of the situation. He called back later and said we were set for 11:00 am, and we planned to meet him at a restaurant nearby at 10:30 to be clear on the details. Will would be home for the weekend, and we agreed we needed to address three things, the impact of the suicide of a close friend, Will’s being bisexual even if it meant we were outing him, and the practical impact of all of this on his academic career.
That took the immediate pressure off, and let us focus on the Friday’s major event, the Glee Club concert. It was a holiday themed performance, and though a smaller male chorus than the Capella Chorale, it was still performed in the chapel because the acoustics were so good. I dropped Jackson off in advance for warm up, and then parked across the street from campus at the Center. It was a night with high clouds and no rain, the moon light occasionally breaking through and illuminating the landscape in its silvery light. I couldn’t help but hope we had at least the same level of illumination when we got to Newberg the next morning. Mona and her husband were already in the lobby, along with Ruth and Ron, and we greeted each other and then headed for our seats. The program promised an interesting mix of male chorus singing with a fun mix of popular holiday songs and carols.
Glee Club Holiday Concert 1978
Sing We and Chant It; composed by Thomas Morley
The Holly and the Ivy; Anonymous, Traditional Arrangement
Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella; Old French Carol, Traditional Arrangement
Lo, How A Rose Ere Blooming; Arranged by Michael Praetorius
In The Bleak Mid-Winter; Composed by Christina Rosetti, Arranged by Gustav Holst
Go Down Moses; traditional Negro Spiritual
Feliz Navidad; Composed by Jose Feliciano
Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah; Original arrangement by Kopyt, Achron, and Stutschewsky
Little Drummer Boy; composed Katherine Kennicott Davis
Jackson said Atkins had purposefully selected the Morley piece to open because although it wasn’t specifically for Christmas, the refrain “fa-la-la-la-la-la” lent that feeling. It was also sung quickly with an upbeat pace, and the chorus performed it well and it was a good opener.
The Holly and the Ivy, as well as Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella were both older Christmas carols that set the holiday tone, and also set the stage for the Gustav Holst arrangement of In The Bleak Mid-Winter, the composition by Christina Rosetti. The execution was to begin very quietly, and increase the volume verse by verse. You almost felt you had to lean forward to hear at the beginning, then toward the end, you were back in your seat, and singing along in a very festive fashion.
Go Down Moseschanged the dynamic completely, with its Negro spiritual rhythm. It was loud and punchy, and I thought to myself a lot of folks in the audience would be wondering what it had to do with Christmas, unless they understood Christmas was about the birth of a savior to save people from slavery. Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad changed the dynamic again, and incorporated a contemporary counterpoint to all the older and traditional songs so far. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah expanded the holiday offering to include the Jewish faith, a welcome action in a city with three synagogues and sons and daughters on campus.
The closing number was a well know one everyone thought they knew and could sing along with. But, while they found they recognized the melody, the arrangement was different with an antiphonal singing of the refrains. The singing in all male voices contrasted nicely with the opening percussion, and the piano accompaniment. Two minutes from the end it moved into a counterpoint between the singing of the refrains with underlying percussion, then in came the piano with a grand sweep to carry it to the finale, which built majestically, was suddenly upon us, and then silence!
Mona was thrilled with the performance, particularly that there was a Hanukkah song, and that one of “her students” had been part, and we walked down to congratulate Jackson and introduce him to her husband. Robert Atkins was obviously happy and pleased, and we let him know how good it sounded. Ruth and Ron were all over Jackson with praise about how good it all was, and the cool mix of music styles. We saw Carter and Marcia across the lobby, and were introduced to a few other chorus members that Jackson had gotten to know, and then begged off to head home knowing we had a drive to Newberg in the morning.
We talked about the performance on the drive home, and Jackson was happy with it and wasn’t criticizing his own singing like he had with the Cappella Choir performance. “They’re less technical, and they’re fun to sing. Was it as much fun out there in the audience, hearing it, as it was on stage singing it?” I concurred, especially for Go Down Moses and Little Drummer Boy, which had a lot of punch. He was grinning and happy as we pulled in the driveway.
Will’s parents were serious when we arrived, and we all sat in the living room. Will was in his bedroom and wouldn’t come down. Jackson and I exchanged glances, and I knew where he believed he needed to me. No one had any objection to Jackson being with Will, and I got the impression that Will’s parents thought this would be better if it was an adult conversation. Spencer set the tone that we wouldn’t all be here if this wasn’t a very serious situation, and that as Will’s parents there were some facts they needed to be aware of if they were going to be in a position to be responsible and caring parents. Then he turned it over to me.
I knew them well enough I could talk to them, after all I’d been their pastor for a year, and started by saying. “I have to tell you two things that are likely to come as very great surprises to you, and you may be shocked by them, but you need to hear what I’m saying and try to understand the implications of what I’m saying to you. First, I’m gay, and so is Jackson, who’s Will’s best friend. Beyond that, Will is bisexual, and has struggled mightily with that for the last year. He came to me about it last year when I was the pastor in your church. You may not understand it, you may not accept it, but you have to acknowledge it as a reality.”
They sat on the couch like sphinxes. We spent the next ten minutes dealing with their shock, outrage, denial, and finally after Spence stepped in and read them the riot act, then and only then, their begrudging acceptance. He summed up by saying, “Listen, you may not agree or approve but you have to accept the fact because we’re dealing with a crisis here.”
I went on from there to explain that Kevin wasn’t just Will’s BMX racing friend, but that a relationship had developed between them. “What I’m asking you to try and understand is that this was Will’s first love, and on top of that, it happened after he accepted his own sexuality. The fact that the relationship didn’t work out would have been bad enough, but to have Kevin commit suicide is beyond tragic. Try to think of it if the relationship had been with a young lady. The impact is the same.”
We discussed that for quite a few minutes, and they seemed to connect on the idea that the impact would have been the same if it had been a girl. I went on. “So, where we are is that Will is deeply traumatized, he’s been unable to process the tragedy that’s happened in his life. The result is that besides being deeply depressed and living in his room, he stopped going to classes over two weeks ago. He’s stopped studying. He’s only eating when his roommate makes him go to the cafeteria with him. He almost certainly won’t take his final exams, and if he does, he’ll fail them. That means he’s going to fail the quarter. He’ll damage his college career. So, this is very serious on the emotional and the academic level.”
We talked about that for a few minutes, and his parents, finally seemed to move from disbelief to grudging acquiescence. I figured that we were pretty close to information and sensory overload for both of them. I told them that we were staying with Gary and Lois tonight and we’d come back to talk more about this tomorrow, and discuss what actions should be taken. I asked them to think about all of it overnight. I encouraged them to pray about it and made clear we were begging them to understand what their son is going through. “Try to see it from his side. You have some decisions to make, and we’ll be here with you to help. Will has shut down. He isn’t communicating, he can’t understand what happened or why. Something needs to happen, something significant, and it can’t happen until you decide what’s most important, how important your son is, because he’s a minor. There are some decisions in front of us that you have to make as his parents.”
Jackson and I took Lois and Gary out to dinner, and it wasn’t a very fun evening under the circumstances. They were both shocked and incredibly concerned. We all had breakfast the next morning, and then as agreed we met Spencer back at Will’s home at noon.
They were cordial, but distraught and resistant when the conversation began. It seemed to me that it all centered on their inability to accept Will’s sexual orientation. I walked them through a short summary of the problem with Christianity’s view of sexuality and homosexuality, and made clear that I understood that they came from a place that didn’t understand and probably wouldn’t accept that. However, as Spencer reminded them, homosexuals now had civil rights in Oregon for a reason, because science had demonstrated that its genetic. Whether they accepted it or not, it was a legal fact.
I tried to appeal to them emotionally. “You have to understand that emotionally he’s shattered. He’s bisexual and this is the first boy he’s gotten close to and this happens. You may not understand bisexuality or even accept it in your son, but the emotional damage and psychological challenges would be the same if the person who committed suicide was a girl. He can’t understand why someone who told him they loved him could kill themselves.”
It was apparent to me that his parents weren’t inclined to budge on their position. I said, “You need to understand something else. Kevin was raised in an extremely pious Catholic family. Church all the time, priests in every generation, his parents desire for him was to be a priest. The poor kid lived under a constant cloud of guilt. He had so much to live up to in the way of expectations…expectations that weren’t his, they were imposed on him. I think he just reached a point where he couldn’t cope. He was unable to fulfill the expectations about being morally perfect, he could never reconcile himself to being gay, a condition his church condemned as depraved. He couldn’t deal with the guilt and he couldn’t reconcile the positive feelings he was feeling in his relationship with Will and that overwhelming guilt. Now, you may not relate to a lot of that, but I think you can understand what it would be like to be in that position.”
I looked at them directly, and thought I saw some level of empathy appear in their expressions.
“I know you are people of faith, but you have to try and understand this. I know you haven’t raised Will to live under a cloud of guilt, but when he finally came to grips with being bisexual, he was scared to death. Like we told you yesterday, he told me he thought his world would end. He doesn’t want to disappoint you, but he needs to be true to himself. On top of that, there’s the situation he’s in right now. He’s completely despondent, he’s heading into a deeper depression. God only knows where that will go. You need to understand that kids contemplate suicide, for a range of reasons. When it was the worst for Jackson before Bud was caught and arrested, he sat in his room listening to really dark heavy metal music and thinking the only way out was to kill himself.”
Will’s parents were shocked to hear that. They quizzed me about it, and both Spencer and I could tell them it was true. “You need to try and understand what it’s like to be boxed into a position where you come to believe there’s no way out. That’s where Jackson was, and fortunately for him it was resolved when Bud went too far, was arrested and then jailed. Suddenly the dead end opened up. Kevin never had that happen. We’re here to tell you that you have to be equally concerned about Will.”
They turned to Spencer who confirmed how serious the situation was. He began by sharing again what he’d learned months before about a kid in church struggling with his sexual identity, who was afraid his world would end. “That tore my heart out, and at the time I didn’t know it was Will. Now I do. The point is simply that homosexuality exists, bisexuality exists. The laws wouldn’t have changed to make it legal in Oregon if that wasn’t a fact. It may go against our religious beliefs, but the facts are the facts, and we’ve got a person to worry about here, your son. According to Kinsey, as many as 5% of the population are gay, probably more. One young man has already died. We’ve all got to do the right thing to deal with this tragedy. I’m not saying I have the answers or the way forward, but I know we have to do something.”
The parents were silent, but they were nodding, and it seemed like we’d turned a corner. Spencer turned to me and asked, “David, until recently you were this family’s pastor. What do you suggest?”
I told them I’d thought long and hard about it and said, “The first thing to do is Monday one or both of you go to U of O and withdraw him for medical reasons. Explain that a racing friend committed suicide, he’s taking it very hard, he’s in a depression and has stopped attending class, he’s likely to fail, he needs therapy. Then he doesn’t flunk out and it’s not on his academic record. Bring him home. Maybe that will help, at least it’s a start. You’ll be with him. You can comfort him and watch him. We’ll talk to him every day. Maybe that’ll do it. But, here’s the hard question. Can you accept him as he is? Can you accept he’s bisexual even if you don’t completely understand it and you were raised believing it is wrong? You have to be able to answer that question. Then you have to be able to tell him that you accept him. If you can do that, then we’ve got a major start.”
They clearly didn’t like what I’d said and how I’d put it, but when they looked at Spencer for a second opinion, he only nodded and said, “I agree, you have to take him out of school and bring him home, and you have to be able to accept him for who he is.
We left with the agreement that both parents would go to U of O the next day and withdraw him, pick up his belongings from his dorm room, and move him home.
Jackson had studied diligently during the quarter, and even though the weekend trip to Newberg was emotionally disruptive, he settled down to studying when we got home. The following week was intense, alternating between taking an exam and seriously hitting the books for the next one. There was no choir or Glee Club practice, to clear the time for exam studying but all the students in choir and both glee clubs knew there was one more performance. He called Will every evening, but some nights his parents weren’t able to get him out of his room to take the phone call.
On Thursday, I received my acceptance credentials into the Metropolitan Community Church, and sent a letter of resignation to the Presbytery. I didn’t even want to have a conversation with their Minister Advocate. Jackson came to the Center after his last exam, and he filled me in on how positive his finals had gone, and we had a light supper before the celebratory Christmas concert.
At least, this evening’s performance held the promise of a festive experience for everyone at college completing the quarter, and it was a feeling we desperately needed. It has been conceived as a festive way to celebrate both the end of the quarter and the pending Christmas holiday. We walked over to the chapel, and Jackson slipped off to join the other singers from the Capella Chorale and both the Men’s and Women’s Glee Club, who were all singing together as a massed choir. Mona and her husband along with Carter and Marcia were already in the lobby when I came in, and we took seats together. The chapel was almost full, and a quick read through the program certainly made it feel upbeat.
Combined Choir Christmas Concert Program – Christmas Hymns From Many Nations
Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is Born), arranged by Giovanni Palestrina
Command Thine Angel, That He Come arranged by Dietrich Buxtehude
In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Jubilation) arranged by Michael Praetorius
A voz y bajo al nacimiento de nuestro Senor Jesucristo (Quechua-Spanish Colonial American hymn)
A cantar un villancio (Spanish Colonial American hymn)
The Huron Carolby St. John de Brebeuf S.J. (Canada)
Today The Virgin Cometh to the Cave, traditional Orthodox hymn
Christ Is Born, Glorify Him, traditional Orthodox hymn
O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion – from The Messiah by George Frederich Handel
For unto Us a Child Is Born – from The Messiah by George Frederich Handel
All the students from the three choral groups entered the stage to applause and took their places on the risers, then Robert entered, waved his arm pointing out all the singers, and they all received a round of applause.
Robert turned to the audience and said, “Welcome to our traditional Christmas Concert. As you know, this is our last choir performance of the quarter, and coming at the end of finals we hope it helps you all recover.”
He paused, and there was a round of laughter. “We also hope it helps set the stage for a festive Christmas season. Our goal this year was quite simple: to give you an experience of a variety of Nativity hymns from different times and places, to convey the wide range of musical expression that comprises the Christmas celebration. We hope you enjoy the hymns and appreciate all the work these students have put into preparing it for you.”
I tried to get with the spirit of the program, but found myself constantly struggling to stay focused, my thought regularly drifting to worry about Will, wondering how he was this evening alone in his room, very concerned that he was getting more and more despondent.
The first set of hymns was a mix of Baroque or Baroque-influenced hymns, many which would have been sung in Catholic mass at the time. The one that jumped out at me was the Quechua him from Spanish Colonial America, something I had no familiarity with, but immediately came to love.
The two Spanish Colonial hymns changed my attitude, simply because of the novelty they held. That continued with the Huron Carol, written by a Catholic priest in Canada, again one I’d never heard before. Robert then continued his tour of hymns from many nations with two lovely Eastern Orthodox arrangements that described the Nativity scene.
The performance closed with two rousing favorites by Handel, so now seemed to be choir director’s go-to composer for closing music at performances for Christmas or Easter.
Friday was technically the last day of class, but finals were over and typically it would have been a day of celebration. It tended to be pretty much a wrap up day on campus, but we called Will’s parents. They admitted that Will wasn’t getting better, in fact in the past two days things had gotten worse. Will wasn’t coming out of his room, he seemed constantly depressed, trying to talk to him just ended up with him crying and hiding his face. They admitted that he was barely eating, and they didn’t know what to do, and were now really worried. I told them we would be there in the morning, and then I called Spencer and he agreed to join us. So much for celebrating the end of finals and Jackson’s first quarter in college.
When we got to Will’s house, Spencer was already there, and Jackson went to be with Will in his room. We sat in the living room and they all looked to me to take the lead. There was no point in beating around the bush. Having him home wasn’t working, and I simply said so. Both parents looked at me with a “now what” expression, and I glanced at Spencer. He was smiling softly, apparently waiting for me to propose the next steps.
“Look, we’ve got to be one hundred percent honest and candid about what’s happened, where we are and where this is headed. We have a serious situation on our hands, and I hope as his parents you’ve given serious thought to the point I made last weekend: can you accept him as he is, even if you don’t approve, and will you tell him that you accept him? I absolutely believe that is important here, and I’ll give you an example of why.”
I looked at them directly, and they didn’t seem happy, but I wasn’t letting this go. “I’m going to tell you something deeply personal about me and about Jackson. I only include Jackson because I know for a fact that if he was here, he’d agree because of what’s at stake. His best friend. Here’s the point. When I met Jackson, he was struggling with acknowledging he was gay in the family situation he was in. I have a good friend who’s both a minister and a psychologist and I spoke to him quite a few times, and the single most important thing he told me was that the worst thing that can happen to a young person in this position is to be judged and rejected and humiliated. Jackson knew that’s what would happen if his parents found out. Fortunately for him, Bud was arrested and put in jail, and that broke the cycle of Lilly’s enabling. Will is dealing with two major problems. The first is his own sexuality. He may not have said anything to you about his fears, but he knows your religious beliefs and I know he doesn’t believe you can or will accept him. He needs to know that you can and will if that problem is going to be addressed. On top of that is the fact that his first boyfriend just killed himself. How can he possibly deal with that, in fact, what’s the point of dealing with that, if his own parents won’t or can’t accept him. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
They were clearly struggling, and I knew it wasn’t easy for them. I also knew that at heart they were good and caring people.
I went on, “I think we’ve got an opportunity to intervene, maybe to turn this around. We’ve got to help him put it in perspective. Jackson and I have talked with him about Kevin and the problems he had over the last few months. He knows most of it intellectually. What we have to do is get him to emotionally understand that he didn’t deserve it. Those two boys in the room down the hall are best friends. If they can’t help each other, then nothing short of psychiatric care can. I’m suggesting two things, and I haven’t discussed this with Spencer, so I want you to hear his opinion as an objective observer who knows Will and really cares about him too. You let us take Will home with us for a time. You’ve got to understand Will and Jackson are not just friends, it’s almost like they’re blood brothers. They trust each other completely. They’ve been there for each other. They were in the same band together. They have a sexual orientation bond on top of that. You may not like the idea, but what has happened here is tied to his sexuality just like it was tied to Kevin’s. The inability of Kevin’s family and church to accept it and him, instead, to condemn him, is what drove this. You both have to decide what comes first, your son and his health, or your religious beliefs and self-esteem. If you agree that he comes to stay with us, he’ll be with us and we’ll watch him and be with him. We’re both gay, he knows there’s no judgment, that he’s one hundred percent accepted. Maybe with that we can start talking and he’ll open up and we can get at the underlying problems.”
I looked at Spencer, hoping for the best. He cleared his throat and looked at Will’s parents. “I hope you understand the severity of the situation we’ve got on our hands, as evidenced by the deeply personal information David was willing to share with you. We’ve tried the past week at home with his family and it hasn’t worked. The way I see it, he’s started in a downward spiral, and if bringing him home where he’s loved, didn’t start changing the trajectory, then I think you’re not far away from professional intervention or admitting him somewhere for his own protection. I agree with David that your accepting him and telling him that is vitally important. I also think it’s a really important part of getting him well, But it’s not the only one. We’ve already had one young man commit suicide. You have to understand the data on suicide. I’ve spoken to a couple of other attorneys over the last week and here are some of the facts. We may not know about them because we live a relatively well off and kind of insulated life. I say that about myself, and that’s why learning about this is important to me and I hope you both of you too.”
Will’s parents looked pained, but they nodded and were seriously listening to Spencer. “Okay, to start with, teen suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between ages 15 and 24 in this country. Did you know that? It happens for a lot of reasons that include family problems, parental separation, depression, drug and alcohol addiction. Like I said, all kinds of reasons. Keep in mind, that a lot of those things can cause depression. On top of that is another fact I was completely unaware of, and it is that kids struggling with their sexuality are far more likely to commit suicide than straight kids. I know this is new to many adults and anything other than heterosexuality is treated like a sin. But the fact is that in Oregon, as in most states, homosexuality is no longer illegal, and gay people have civil rights. The problem is that many, perhaps most, are still treated as though it’s illegal and they not only don’t have civil rights but are sinners. So, whether we’re talking about gay or lesbian or bisexual kids, the suicide rate is three to five times higher than straight kids.”
Will’s parents looked stunned, and Spencer was trying to be kind and firm. “Almost all the studies are now showing that a young person’s sexual orientation has almost nothing to do with the way they’re raised, with the environment, rather that it’s genetic. Most kids are born this way. The problems come when they’re not accepted, or they have to deal with guilt and fear and bullying and being ostracized. That leads to hopelessness and that leads to depression and alcohol and drug use, and for too many of them, to seeing suicide as the only way out.”
Spencer paused, and then asked, “I’m sorry for being so blunt, but are you hearing what I saying to you?”
Both parents nodded, and Will’s mother said in a pained voice, “I had no idea that the numbers were so high. Why didn’t he talk to us?”
“Because he didn’t feel he could. A young person’s sexuality is probably the hardest thing to talk about especially in a society like ours that isn’t just oriented to white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but also structured about heterosexuality being normal and homosexuality being depraved. I’m a member of Session in our church, and I’m saying this to you as someone who’s only come to realize the reality in the past nine months. On top of the societal pressures are the religious ones. I’m not condemning you. I’m a member of the same church. But, deep down Will knows your religious views and believes you think he is a depraved sinner and will never accept him. Can you imagine living with that belief about your parents?”
I was impressed. Spencer was using the theological term to make his point.
“I don’t want to go on and on here. The fact is that often what prompts a suicide attempt is a triggering event. There’s no doubt we’ve had one here, and that was a suicide. Will’s very close friend, whether you want to think of him as a boyfriend or not, killed himself. He hung himself at home. Events like this can work like triggers. I’ll say it again: Kevin killed himself. If nothing else, Will is despondent and depressed. Here’s another fact: in Will’s head is the idea that suicide can solve a problem. We’ve got to change that. If he’s with David and Jackson, maybe they can help get inside there and figure it out. Worst case he’s with two other people that love him, will watch him, can talk to him in absolutely candid terms that I can’t, that, with all due respect, even you can’t. If it doesn’t work, then we have to seriously look at professional intervention or admitting him somewhere. Because there’s been one suicide that he’s related to, we have to be serious about this in order to prevent another one. We can’t just assume it’s going to get better by itself.”
We’d made the offer, but Spencer made the case. I’d know Will’s parents as their minister, but never developed a friendship and didn’t really know them anymore than they were Will’s parents. I did have to give them a lot of credit that day for their love and their courage. His mom took his dad’s hand and simply said, “We have to do this. He’s our son. We love him, no matter what. We can’t be cold hearted. His life and his health is at risk. He’s our son, our flesh and blood.”
Will’s dad was quiet, obviously in torment, and then slowly he started sobbing, and finally said, “I know, and we do, and we will. I can’t believe it’s come to this.” He looked at Spencer and me and went on, “the fact that one young man is dead is bad enough, but if half of what both of you have told us last weekend and today is true, then we’re partially responsible. That will end today.”
He leaned over and hugged and then kissed his wife. They pleadingly looked at us, and his Mom asked in almost a whisper, “What do we do? How do we do this?”
I glanced at Spencer and he nodded, so I walked over to Will’s parents and knelt down in front of them and took one of their hands in each of mine. “I think the best thing is if he feels you reach out to him. That means both of you go down to his room and talk to him. He may not say anything, he may be non-responsive, but he’ll hear you. Tell him how much you love him. Tell him you accept him even if you don’t understand it. Tell him you’ll always be there for him and he’s always welcome here. Then tell him he’s coming to stay with Jackson and me for a while. That’s all you need to do. If Kevin’s parents had done half of that he’d still be alive, and we wouldn’t have this crisis on our hands.”
They looked at each other and nodded and we all stood up. I walked them down the hall to Will’s room and reminded them not to be upset if he didn’t respond. “Your job right now is to deliver a simple message: we love you; we accept you, we’re here for you. He’ll hear you even if he says nothing. Jackson and Spencer and I will be in the living room waiting. If it takes five minutes or half an hour, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he hears it.”
I opened the door and they went in and I waved at Jackson to join me. Spencer and I briefed him when we got back to the living room. He was surprised and somewhat amazed, but happy, and thrilled Will was coming home with us. Within fifteen minutes Will’s parents were back, with tear-stained faces, but smiling. As they sat down, I suggested Jackson go help will pack some things for a stay with us.
“He wasn’t silent, he responded, and we talked a little bit, but it was mainly about his pain and how he can’t understand why it happened. We don’t know if he heard us for certain, but we told him that we love him no matter what, that we accept him even if he thinks we don’t approve. That we’ll work on understanding what this means, and then we told him again that we love him. We didn’t know what else to do.”
Spencer said to them, “You did the single most important thing, and I can assure you of one personal lesson I’m taking away from this in terms of my own children. I will never assume anything, and I will tell them that I love them every single day of the rest of their lives, and that they can talk to me about anything with no judgment. If he knows you love him and accept him, then he knows he has a chance. That’s where we have to start.”
I told them I had no idea if he’d be with us a few days or a few weeks, but I’d call regularly and brief them on how it was going, and that they were welcome to come to Portland and visit any time. That they shouldn’t think for a minute that their son was being sent somewhere. Rather, he was going to stay with close friends to attempt to recover from a tragic event in his life.
In a few minutes Jackson and Will came down the hall with a couple of duffle bags. We all walked out to the BMW and loaded them in the trunk. Will was kind of on auto-pilot and I put my arm around his shoulder and said, “Why don’t you say goodbye to your parents? They love you a lot, you know?”
He turned and smiled at them, and both hugged and kissed him, and he came home with us.