“We are all living with AIDS.” — Actress Judith Light
Letters from my mother were often like postcards from the edge. They were filled with updates about family and friends, full of hugs and kisses, and littered with countless inquiries about my life. They were stories that traveled long distances and often received no reply.
I am not fond of writing letters, so I’ll write a story instead. This story is my letter to the universe. It does not require a reply, but I do hope you take a few minutes to read it.
Why? Because my story could very easily be the story of your son, daughter, grandchild, sister or brother. This story could be about your best friend, a colleague at work, the kid who delivers your newspaper or the athlete you cheer for every weekend.
For many years, I purposely lived outside the perimeter of my family’s existence. I distanced myself from my parents, siblings, friends and a small Iowa town named after a movie star. In reality, my hometown was named after the American poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney and not the award-winning actress Sigourney Weaver. That, however, did not stop me from dreaming of the day Ms. Weaver would appear in the annual July 4 parade and claim her crown as the namesake of my small childhood town. It certainly was a fanciful thought, especially for a young gay man growing up in rural Iowa. For those who know me well, it should come as no surprise. “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea is, after all, one of my favorite songs.
I lived in the fast lane and moved from city to city: Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and (in later years) Los Angeles. I was an Iowa boy who wanted, and in some ways needed, to get far from the place he first called home. I was loved by my parents, sisters, friends and neighbors in a community that embraces each child as one of its own. The best and worst thing about growing up in a small town is that everyone knows everyone. It’s a strange thing when you’re young and don’t really even know yourself.
Distance — in geographical terms — was a beautiful thing. I discovered myself. I began to celebrate, rather than hide from, my identity as a gay man. I built life long friendships in my adopted cities, particularly Atlanta. I fell in love. I flourished personally and professionally.
I lived my life openly with my friends and colleagues at work. I was gay and happy, but not yet free of secrets. In the process of "coming out" and living out loud, I remained silent with the most important part of me: my family.
I loved my family but, looking back, I believe that somehow I didn’t trust them. Today, through the eyes of a much wiser man, it seems very foolish and even unkind.
In my defense, it’s important to understand why I didn’t trust those closest to me, even myself. It was nothing my family said or did. It was, however, part of the ritual of growing up young and gay in middle America.
It was the 1980s. "Gay" was everywhere: Boy George & Culture Club, Elton John, Dynasty and of course, Freddy Mercury and Queen. "Gay" was fun and entertaining, but it wasn’t something anyone should actually be.
It wasn’t normal. It was criminal. It was a sin. I knew the message very well. I heard it from God himself. Well, not literally. I heard it from his "spokesperson" on a regular basis. It was hate disguised as tolerance. What confused and scared me more than the words of a preacher was the response of people around me. I sat there week after week surrounded by family and friends who responded…with silence. Never questioned what was said. Had they heard what he said? Did they agree? Did they know I was gay? And what about "those gay people" dying from that new disease AIDS? Were they being punished? Why would God punish them? Or me?
My disillusionment with religion has never been about God. My relationship with a higher power is deeply personal, spiritual and filled with awe and reverence. There was, however, a paradox between the love of family and friends and what was taught and (seemingly) accepted in the church. I decided to remove myself from the paradox. I completely separated from the church and, in the process, created a state of separation from my family.
So, I continued to receive letters from home — those postcards from the edge of my life. I occasionally replied, but rarely with anything of substance other than tales of my global travels with work, pictures of my appearance in the Opening Ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympic Games, or (generic) details of adventures with friends.
AND THEN THE LETTER ARRIVED.
This letter was different. It wasn’t a postcard from the edge of my life. It was a request to be in my life, to once again be part of my life.
For nearly three months, after my last visit home, my mother had been living with concern, sadness and a sense of helplessness after she discovered the truth about her only son. She had found my "cocktail" — the mix of medication required to treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
This was no ordinary letter and, as such, deserved much more than an ordinary response. So, in true Southern style (I lived in Atlanta at the time), I made myself a Lynchburg Lemonade, sat on the back porch and began to read the letter that would set me free:
July 28, 1998
I have been wanting to write for weeks. Wanting you to know how much I love you. How much I care and how very much concerned I am. So much is lost when we don’t communicate and I fear this is making everything harder for you.
So, I’m going to ask you to be 100% honest with me.
Tell me when I say something wrong, something that upsets you or just plain bugs you! Tell me when you think I don’t ‘have a clue’ (I may not). BUT, I will if you tell me. Sometimes, I may even have more of a clue than you think, but you’ll never know until you say something to me.
Ryan, I know that Mike was pushing you to come out to us when we visited you in Atlanta. I thought you were going to tell us. I had hoped you would. We all hoped you would. I’m sure you’re not surprised that we know you’re gay. I hope you know that nothing will ever change our love for you.
We love you. Period.
Ryan, I also know that you are HIV Positive. I came across your medicine last time you were home. I am devastated. I can’t imagine how you must feel. I worry about the life threatening risks of this disease as well as the stigma that goes along with it. I sense, somehow, that you have found strength. That doesn’t surprise me.
I’ve also been doing research and am thankful for and encouraged by the strides that have been made in treatment and toward a cure. Already I feel a gathering of strength within myself — a strength I could never find before.
I have decided not to say anything to your dad or sisters. I didn’t know what to do, so I talked to your brother (in-law). Of course, he hates this for you and wants to support you in any way possible. He agrees that everyone will be less upset and concerned if they learn this from you. I want YOU to have control. This is your news to share. I hope you choose to share it…when you are ready. We all love you and want to be there for you.
I know when everything is in the open, the bond between all of us will grow to the strength of 500 intertwined railroad ties and will never be broken. But first we have to trust each other, dare to be vulnerable and even be willing to hurt each other’s feelings. Just get it out. Show our weaknesses and learn to talk to each other. Then, we can shoo that ‘elephant’ out of our lives and never again have to tip toe around it.
So, that’s that.
Hope to hear from you. I know everyone’s mind is on you. Everyone asks “Have you heard from Ryan? How’s Ryan doing?” I hope you will come for a visit soon. I want to hug you.
I was 28 years old. In one letter, my mother’s courage changed my life. Her ‘voice’ gave me the courage to find mine.
To many, it may seem that AIDS is a distant disease, impacting people very different than you and in places far away. Unfortunately, HIV and AIDS is still here. We all are, in fact, living with this disease.
I believe the day will come when I am able to say, “I used to have HIV.”
Until then? I remain positive.