It was a bit of a lonely, scary and needy time for me after The Michigan Catholic dropped my weekly column because I came out publicly in 1974.
Until I affirmed being gay in an article in The Detroit News about homosexuality and religion, I had been the poster boy for Catholic young adults.
As a result of my stepping down from that pedestal, and being punished by the Church for doing so, my name, face, and voice were on most radio, television, and news outlets for a week or more. I felt estranged from my family and friends even though none of them said they no longer loved me, but nor did they say they still did. Death threats and obscene phone calls were some of the responses I got for being so bold in saying I was gay and Catholic. But, there were some wonderful exceptions, the most treasured I remember came from a friend of my parents.
Bob Taylor was a wealthy, influential corporate executive with whom Mom and Dad often socialized. I was living in a rat and roach-infested apartment, in the inner city, in a big Victorian house we in Dignity, the gay Catholic group, called “The Pink Palace,” owned and run by a sweet, but self-determined little old lady named Gracie. It was there that I stayed during my 24-day hunger fast in reparation for the sinful behavior of my Church against gay people.
When the phone rang after the fast ended, and after I had been fired from my job as a reporter for the Catholic newspaper, I picked it up preparing myself to once again be told that I was going to hell. But, this time, it wasn’t the devil on the other end of the line, but rather an angel named Bob Taylor. He asked me if I’d like to have lunch with him at Topinka’s, a high-end restaurant known for its turtle soup.
Bob was at the table before I arrived, and greeted me with a good handshake and a warm, welcoming smile. He wasn’t a big man, and he spoke in an “aw shucks” kind of way. He encouraged me to order what I wanted, and then asked me questions about how I was doing, how my parents were reacting, and if I was making ends meet. It was then that he slid a folded check for $500 across the table to me. “I thought you might need a little financial support,” he said. Needless to say, I was blown away by his kindness, and very excited about getting the money to pay my rent bill. He repeated this ritual two or three times in the months that followed.
Gracie, my landlady, is also remembered as an angel who was there to help me in my time of need. During my hunger fast, she would sneak in with a vase of colorful tulips from her garden. I never expected a response like that to my well-being. I was actually a little nervous that she would be upset by the number of reporters and camera people who came to the house to continue telling the story of the “John Boy Walton” gay guy who was being so mistreated by his Church.
Ray and I light a candle and cone of incense daily in memory or honor of friends and family, living and dead. This week, we started naming people, such as Bob Taylor and Gracie, who helped us when the skies were the darkest, people who reached out when we most needed, and least expected it. Bob Taylor’s open support of me made it easier for my folks to reconcile all of the unwanted attention drawn to them because of their homosexual son. Another person who made a huge difference in my life when I was in need was Sister Mary Marcella, my mother’s cousin and best friend growing up.
“He’s the same wonderful boy today that he was yesterday,” Sr. Marcella said to Mom as she wrestled with the reality that I was so publicly gay. It made a huge difference to mother that she heard this coming from a Catholic nun in 1974.
We also lit the candle and incense one morning for Ray’s older cousin, Joyce Frei, who was an important source of ongoing support when Ray’s parents disowned him after he told them he was gay, and left the seminary. Joyce and I are now Facebook friends, as I am with many of Ray’s family members who supported him back then.
Everyone has someone in their life who made a huge difference. It needn’t have been as dramatic as friends and family standing with Ray and me when we came out. But, when all of us were in need of help, most likely someone was there. We remember most, I believe, those who brought a candle to our darkest days, or moments of loneliness. And, we’ve done the same for others, often without our knowing how important our e-mail, Facebook post, check, or phone call was in the life of another. And, I bet all of our names come up when people reminisce with others about their past.
This morning, a straight male friend who worked for Merrill Lynch when I was brought to Singapore to speak on LGBTQ issues in the workplace, proudly sent me copies of Twitter posts that announced the country will no longer criminalize same-sex behavior. Roman Matla, a Canadian with a strong Scottish heritage, has been a heterosexual champion for all marginalized people in need for many, many years. Gay and transgender issues have long been a priority of his.
You may not know the significance of this new change in Singaporean law, but when the banks brought me to Singapore a few years ago, I was advised at the time not to tell the people at Customs specifically what issue I was addressing. If I did, they worried, I would not be allowed out of the airport, and they’d put me on the next plane home. The change in attitude came as a result of a lot of hard work by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, but also by our straight, and cis-gender allies who never expected a “thank you,” or to have their support remembered.
Tomorrow’s candle and incense will be lit in honor of Roman. A Roman candle, if you will, for a friend, indeed.
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.