Category: Coming Out

Blood in the time of COVID-19

In the first few weeks of March, as the country was just beginning to understand the corona virus and our daily lives still seemed normal, the virus made its way around our family, infecting first Patrick, then me, then Isabella and most likely Jordan. 

Patrick caught it from one of his medical providers who, although completely asymptomatic at the time of the appointment, started to have symptoms the next day, tested positive two days later and just like that Patrick was in quarantine. 

When Patrick’s symptoms started just a few days later, he decided to isolate himself in our bedroom, hoping to spare the rest of us.  He picked up trays of food we left for him outside the bedroom door while I furiously disinfected every surface of the house multiple times a day and harangued the kids to scrub their hands raw.

A week later, as Patrick was just starting to feel better, we switched places.  I didn’t leave the bedroom for two weeks. The third week I could join the family for meals but was still fatigued and worn out.  It was a full month before I felt like myself again. 

Right around the time that I started with symptoms, Isabella lost her sense of taste and smell.  An article in the New York Times tipped us off that these were symptoms of the virus.  Too young and otherwise healthy to qualify for a test, she struggled through about a week of feeling tired and achy.  Jordan never had symptoms at all, but it is hard to imagine that he could have made it through unscathed. 

In the scheme of things, we had it easy.  Patrick experienced some shortness of breath and still has a bit of a lingering cough.  I had a fever, chills and night sweats for the first week, but the fatigue was the most irritating symptom and I thought it would never end. None of us required hospitalization, oxygen, or ventilators.  Aside from Patrick’s cough, we all seem to have made a full recovery.

Patrick and I were lucky enough to get tested—exceptionally rare at the time—and the positive results led to phone calls from the Washington State Department of Health with a battery of questions about our symptoms, places of work and efforts to isolate and quarantine. 

By the time we were well on the road to fine, letters had arrived from the Centers of Disease Control indicating that we may have valuable blood:

“If you have fully recovered from COVID-19, you may be able to help patients currently fighting the infection by donating your plasma. Because you fought the infection, your plasma now contains COVID-19 antibodies. These antibodies provided one way for your immune system to fight the virus when you were sick, so your plasma may be able to be used to help others fight off the disease.”

Almost immediately, Patrick and I completed donation applications through Bloodworks Northwest, our regional blood collection center.  After answering some clarifying follow-up questions, I received this email reply:

“We are bound to evaluate donor eligibility by the standards defined by the FDA, and unfortunately gay men are still prohibited by a temporary deferral. As a note: currently that deferral period is 12 months from last sexual contact, but earlier this year the FDA announced that they would reduce that to a three-month deferral. (That change has not been implemented yet, but it will be a part of our criteria ASAP.) However, while that deferral is diminishing, it is nonetheless still an obstacle for many.”

Yes, a three-month deferral is an obstacle.  We all need to make sacrifices during this time, but c’mon. This FDA policy is outrageous. 

Andy Cohen, the famous gay celebrity, host of Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, new dad and recovering corona patient, summed it up this way:

“The FDA says there is an urgent need for plasma from survivors. All donated blood is screened for HIV, and a rapid HIV test can be done in 20 minutes or less, so why the three-month rule? Why are members from my community being excluded from helping out, when so many people are sick and dying? Maybe because we’re valuing stigma over science — I don’t know. My blood could save a life, but instead it’s over here boiling.”

Our blood is boiling too.  The folks at Bloodworks NW have been understanding and sympathetic.  Their website indicates that they oppose the FDA policy and have advocated for it to be rescinded.  At least twenty state attorneys general agree.  In a letter sent at the end of April to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they called on the FDA to rescind its regulations, citing an overall shortage of blood donations in the wake of the current health crisis. 

“The discriminatory restrictions against blood donations by healthy gay and bisexual Americans have persisted for far too long; the steps you have taken acknowledge current rules are informed more strongly by bias than science,” the letter read. 

My contact at Bloodworks NW indicated that our blood “may be eligible for donations that will be used for research instead of transfusions.” So, it seems that gay blood can be of some use. We are waiting patiently to hear back from the research specialist.  It’s been more than two weeks, and still no word. 

Donating blood and plasma is a simple, easy way for individuals to help out in the midst of this unprecedented global pandemic.  But as gay men, we are faced with options that are limited and ridiculous.  Straight individuals are not asked to abstain from sex for three months before they donate. Allow us to do more.  Give us the opportunity.  Change this policy.

“This pandemic has forced us to adapt in many ways. We’re quarantining, we’re social-distancing, we’re wearing masks,” Cohen said. “Why can’t we adapt when it comes to this rule? It is bad enough that quarantine has us wondering what day it is. I’m sitting here wondering what year it is. We need to think about this and do better.”

Being Invisible

It’s easy to be invisible.  Be an old woman, or an old man (without the debate of which term to use—-elderly,  senior, golden ager), be LGBTQ,  be poor, be black or brown.  So many ways. 

Bob and I are in Florida for a month.  In the communities we have stayed there are a plethora of the old like us.  Here we command some attention.  Mostly from young clerks who want to sell us more weeks in these gated communities of the almost infirm.  We are still up and walking about; most of us, that is.  Some folks have oxygen tanks and walkers, but they are less visible (see what I mean).

Yesterday we drove the hour or so to South Beach Miami.  There we encountered the lively street scene of a vibrant community.  Lots of salsa music, skimpy outfits. In a club on the beach men donned wigs, outrageous makeup to dance to dollars pushed onto them.  The opposite of being invisible. But were the patrons, fueled by lots of margaritas, jeering them or applauding them? I don’t know.  Maybe the performers didn’t care as they collected crumpled ones and fives. Invisibility is overrated they thought. 

Among the raucous mob of glad partiers a very old woman threaded her way along the sidewalk next to the many cafes filled with patrons eating Cuban sandwiches, drinking tequila. She stopped at an outdoor table every so often.  Mumbled something and continued shuffling on, ignored by all.  And so were we, two elders invisible in the parade of the young: bikini clad women, shirtless men, sun worshipers, shoppers, dancers.

But being invisible did not prevent a mother (me) and son (Christopher) from writing our story.  On December 30th, a crisp cold Buffalo day, about 100 friends and family joined us to celebrate our book.  And even better read it.  Amazing to me.  Often I resisted when Christopher and Patrick told me my story was a big part of our family story.  Christopher’s bravery inspired me. He heard a different story growing up than the story we planned for him.  He heard a different message from the rest of us in the family when we attended Mass, when we watched TV, when we joked with friends.  What he heard was that he was invisible, and even worse, evil.  If he could overcome that and grow into himself then all of us invisibles can too

Harvey Milk, Mayor Pete & Me

The first openly gay elected official in the United States was a man named Harvey Milk.  Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he served less than a year in office. On November 27, 1978, Dan White, another city supervisor, shot and killed mayor George Moscone and then Milk in their offices at City Hall.

At trial, White’s lawyers argued that although White broke the law, he did so because his mental capacity was impaired due to the anguish over infighting among the mayor and the board of supervisors.  This mental turmoil was exacerbated by a massive sugar rush after White, normally a health food junkie, ate too much sugar the night before the murders.  This became infamously known as the Twinkie defense.

On May 21, 1979, White was acquitted of first-degree murder, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and ultimately served five years in prison.  Acting Mayor Diane Feinstein denounced the verdict.  Protesters marched on City Hall and the White Nights riot ensued.

I was 11 years old at the time.  As it turned out, my family was preparing that spring for a road trip we would take in July to California. San Francisco would be one of our stops. I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge and ride a trolley. I knew that a lot of “those men” lived in San Francisco, but I would have been too terrified at that age to admit I was one of them.  The Castro District, the hub of the city’s gay community, was not on our itinerary.

I don’t recall learning about Milk and Moscone’s death at the time.  There’s a chance I heard it reported on the evening news with Walter Cronkite, which my family watched religiously every evening after dinner on the television in our family room.  Through high school and into college, none of the history courses I took mentioned Milk or his murder.  By the time I was in high school, the AIDS plague had started, and news coverage of the LGBTQ community focused on HIV and AIDS and what was being done—or not done—to deal with the disease.

It wasn’t until after I came out in the mid-1990s that I read about Milk and Moscone and White.  My friend Colette, who lived for many years in San Francisco, was the one who initially clued me in.  She loves history and knows a thing or two about civil rights issues, including the LGBTQ+ movement. She took it upon herself to fill in some of the gaps of my gay education.

“Okay, the term ‘friend of Dorothy’ is a reference to Judy Garland who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and is like a gay icon,” she patiently explained.

“Oh. I never saw the full movie.  When I was young, my brother got scared of the flying monkeys and we had to shut it off.”

“Um, you need to go rent it. Right now.  Go!”

There were several conversations like this.

Milk was brought to the attention of the wider community in the U.S. when Sean Penn played him in the 2008 biopic and won an Academy Award in the process.

I was thinking about Milk last month when Pete Buttigieg announced that he is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

Buttigieg is also an openly gay politician and the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  He’s married, a military veteran, and apparently super smart.  His parents were both professors at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, my dad and brother’s alma mater.  He came out during his mayoral re-election campaign in 2015 and won the election with 80% of the vote.

Many have noted that being an openly gay mayor of a small rust belt city in the heart of Trump country is a strange phenomenon.  And Mayor Pete is in many ways low-key about the fact that he’s gay. In an interview with Kate Bolduan of CNN in February, Buttigieg said “Being gay is part of who I am and I’m aware of what it represents to be that kind of first elected official to try to do this who’s out.”

“At the same time, ultimately, I want to be evaluated based on the ideas that I bring to the table. It’s kind of like being mayor. If I’m plowing the snow and filling in potholes then I’m a good mayor and if we fail to do that, I’m not. And it’s got almost nothing to do with whether when I come home it’s to a husband or to a wife.”

Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from who he is, but he’s able to articulate why it doesn’t matter.   It’s this kind of thoughtful practical rhetoric that endears him not only to my family but to Democrats nation-wide.  A recent national poll has him polling third, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

As I write that, I can’t believe that what I’m saying.  Because although he may be projecting the idea that his presence in this race is the most common thing in the world, I’m astounded.

When I was growing up, I never thought that I would one day be married to a man.  I never imagined I would have kids.  I never guessed that I would be a teacher who has students reading books with gay characters in them. And never, never, never in a million years would I have dreamt, even after coming out in the mid-1990s, getting married in the early aughts and adopting kids, that an openly gay man would be a viable candidate for President of the United States.

Hell, I didn’t dream it up until the moment Buttigieg declared his candidacy.

For all of the LGBTQ+ community’s gains in the past few years—marriage equality, the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, increased visibility in the media to name a few—we are still a nation imbued with a good deal of homophobia, transphobia, outdated stereotypes, hiding and fear.

I see that all the time at the high school where I teach.  Just outside of the liberal bastion of Seattle, I watch as students struggle to hide their sexual orientation from religious parents or make poor personal decisions because they are in the closet or lament another day of inappropriate and hurtful comments about their gender.

We see it in the hate spewed already at Mayor Pete.  He was denounced by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, on Twitter. He was heckled recently by homophobic protesters at a rally in Texas.  In one of the stranger events, a protester dressed as Buttigieg whipped another dressed as Jesus, while a third, dressed as the devil, yelled “Yeah, beat your savior, beat him. Yeah, I hate this guy. Yes, more blood, Peter. Every vote is a lash on the back of Christ.”

We will surely be treated to more of this as Buttigieg’s campaign continues.  Buttigieg himself is certainly capable of dealing with it. After being repeatedly heckled in Texas, Buttigieg reminded the audience that he served in the military in part to “defend that man’s right to free speech.”    Last month he went on the defense, calling Vice President Mike Pence a “cheerleader for the porn-star presidency.” In the February interview with CNN, he said that if he were to receive the Democratic nomination, the prospect of facing Trump in the general election didn’t faze him. “I’m a gay man from Indiana, I know how to deal with a bully.”

As of today, there are 22 candidates for the Democratic nomination that will be decided in an agonizing 14 months from now.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and then.  Perhaps the Mayor Pete craze will die down, the Democratic party will find a way to forgive Joe Biden for the Anita Hill hearings, or we will end up cheering a haggard and grizzled Bernie Sanders who will proudly proclaim that he could have taken on Trump and the Russians single-handedly in 2016 and looks forward to eating them for breakfast in the general.  Maybe Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris will be able to pick up Hillary Clinton’s mantle and convince Democrats to nominate another woman.

I don’t expect Mayor Pete to become President Pete.  Then again, I remember thinking that there was no way in hell we were going to elect Obama, and we did.  Twice.  Are we ready as a country for an openly gay president? I honestly don’t know.

I imagine the thrill and wonder if he does get nominated.  I imagine the tears I would cry if he was ever elected.  It seems like such a dream.  It is fleeting.  I imagine attending the inauguration.  Cheering a sight I never thought I would ever see.  It all seems so possible and yet so impossible.

Even if it doesn’t happen for Buttigieg, or doesn’t happen this time around, there is much to cheer.

For starters there is the visibility of what it means to be gay in America.  In an article in Time magazine, Buttigieg’s husband Chasten says “Being gay was not culturally acceptable where I grew up, mostly for a lack of understanding. And so my family and I were just at a crossroads, and we didn’t really know how to talk to one another.”

The article goes on to explain how, after coming out to his family when he was a senior in high school, “tensions at home forced him to spend months crashing on friends’ couches and sleeping in his car. His parents ultimately changed their minds, welcomed him back home and now fully support their son and his marriage.”

In the same article, Buttigieg discusses the gay insults he heard while in the U.S. Naval Reserves, which he joined in 2009 before the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was reversed. Buttigieg came out during his re-election campaign, it was in an op-ed in the South Bend Tribune.  According to the article, “Some of Buttigieg’s fellow officers who had used gay as an epithet in his presence reached out to express their support. ‘I bet some of them still go back and tell gay jokes because that’s their habit, you know?’ he says. ‘Bad habits and bad instincts is not the same as people being bad people.’ ”

There he goes again, being thoughtful and articulate. Forgiving even.  In this time of ugly politics and disgusting rhetoric, Buttigieg finds a way to rise above, seek out the best in others, speak positively.  His language reminds me of a recent president, but certainly not the current one.

When Buttigieg announced his candidacy, there on stage with him was his husband, Chasten.  Announcement complete, they did it, that most common and accepted of acts: they kissed.

Common and accepted for straight politicians, that is.  For a gay couple, it’s radical. Unheard of.

Even Tim Miller, a Republican communications strategist who is also gay, noted the importance of this act in an essay for The Bulwark.

The kiss, he said, “to borrow a phrase from one of Pete’s prospective primary opponents, was a “big fucking deal. It might not seem like much. I don’t know this to be the case seeing as I have no personal experience, but my assumption is that for many straight people kissing their spouse isn’t even really something that garners much thought. Beyond risking some gentle teasing about PDA, there never was much of a reason to think about it. That’s not a luxury that gays have.”

Seeing a photo of the kiss took me back to when Patrick and I stood in front of our families and friends at our commitment ceremony and kissed. It was August of 2001. Looking back, I wonder how many of our family members and friends had seen two men kiss before? Some in our families refused to come; I’m sure it was because they didn’t want to see two men kiss.  Some of those gathered had made comments and jokes about gay people that were demeaning.  I don’t judge them; I had made derogatory comments myself.

There we were. We kissed.

One of Mom’s lifelong friends said that Patrick and I had taught her something about love.

What do Pete and Chasten teach our country about love? What does their intellect and grace and humanity tell those who do not know anyone about what it means to be gay?  What inspiration does it provide to a young gay person struggling to find a place in the world? That they do not need to live in a world without hope? That they do not need to struggle the way Pete himself did, fearful that honesty about his sexual orientation would derail his military service to his country and his political ambitions?

We never see examples of our family.  Not even my kids expect to see that.  It’s nice to see Pete and Chasten kissing.  It’s nice to have a gay in the race. No matter what ultimately happens, there is much to celebrate.