Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.
Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.
The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar.
“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”
We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.
The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy.
I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.
“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”
I did mind.
My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.
We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.
Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him.
Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it.
Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side.
I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.