Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace: Stigma by Carolyn Bolton
We were Valentines ten years ago.
It was 1991 when we met at a gala event in Portland. I attended alone, dressed to the nines and feeling like a million bucks. He caught my eye immediately—great hair, stunning smile, black tux with black-sequined lapel and cumberbund. From our first hello, we were fast friends. Doug adorned everything he touched. He was a floral artist. No, NOT a florist—but a sculptor of breathtaking floral art. And those sequins on his tuxedo? He’d hand-sewn every one in place himself.
There was one particularly memorable day when we met for coffee, and he quietly informed me he had something to say that would end our friendship. His eyes nervously focused on tense, kneading fingers. “Carolyn—I’m gay.” He barely breathed awaiting my response. In equally hushed tones I said “I know.” He looked me dead in the eyes, “Why didn’t you ever SAY anything?” A smile started to coax the corners of his mouth. “Well—why didn’t you ever tell ME you knew I was straight?” We both laughed out loud.
In 1993, we made a pact to be each other’s Valentine—to send flowers to the other’s workplace, a very public display of authentic affection that we hoped might serve as a talisman to bring the loving, committed relationship that each of us so deeply desired in our life. Doug hiked to the tree line of Mount Hood to gather fresh curly willow, drove to Oregon’s high desert to cut sacred sage, and used those natural textures as the backdrop for his living sculpture. His choice of flowers, the Asian lines of the arrangement, brought ripples of awe throughout my work world. I’m sure I will never see so mesmerizing a floral arrangement again as long as I live. I sent Doug a huge bouquet of vivid wildflowers. Inside my card I tucked a pocket-size volume of “The Velveteen Rabbit”, which talks about how being truly loved enables us to become real. He wept when he read the book and carried it in his pocket every day for the rest of his life.
Doug soon found the loving relationship he’d yearned for. He reminded me often how he felt he HAD become real, because the love in his life was so strong. I believe in the lessons of “The Velveteen Rabbit”. And Doug had become a convert as well.
It was a late night in November, 1996 when Doug’s partner called. His voice halting and strange. Doug was dead. Suicide. He’d tested positive for HIV. After weeks of advancing depression, he’d decided he could not endure the impending stigma. He’d been disowned by his mother when he admitted he was gay. Now he felt he faced the terror of being separate in gay culture too. What’s more, he knew the face of death by AIDS all too well. One night he wrote a brief note of apology to his partner, downed a deadly cocktail of pills and alcohol, and slipped into sleep that sent his spirit silently beyond. My 1993 Valentine. This precious man.
According to estimates from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and World Health Organization, 38.6 million adults and 3.2 million children were living with HIV at the end of 2002 —50% higher than 1991 projections. During 2002 alone, 5 million people became infected with HIV and 3.1 million people died worldwide from HIV/AIDS. This global total was higher than in any year since the beginning of the epidemic, despite anti-retroviral therapy that reduced the advance of AIDS and AIDS deaths in the wealthier countries.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has shown itself capable of triggering responses of compassion, solidarity and support, bringing out the best in people, their families and communities. But the far more isolating social responses of fear, denial, stigma, discrimination and judgment—in the name of an angry God or merely in the name of homophobic “morality”—are widely seen, fueling prejudice and ugliness toward those living with the disease. Large groups of our society assert blame and condemnation, relieving themselves from any responsibility of caring for and contributing to those stricken with HIV/AIDS.
Literature abounds that tells us the fear of stigma—or, in many cases, the reality of being stigmatized—can be as detrimental as the AIDS virus itself for those who are stricken. I already knew that. Doug taught me that lesson. Fear of stigma killed him; the disease never had a chance.
“Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken —and comfort them and offer our help.” ~ Mechtild of Magdeburg
Carolyn Bolton’s vocational activities are centered around mediation, training, public policy and organizational development. An ordained nondenominational minister, she finds her bliss in the practices of writing, music and theater. You may write Carolyn at [email protected].